Coba, a primordial center of commerce

Testimonial: Coba: City of the Overseas Pyramids

Like most other Mayan centers, Coba was originally only a small settlement, developing in a few centuries into a minor city-state. However, its rulers were characterized by irrepressible ambition and did not want to accept the status quo, much less remain in the background among the other political centers of the Mayan confederation. And then began their meteoric rise, which no other state formation on the territory of Mesoamerica had ever seen. And as if even in order to consolidate the image of immortal greatness and glory in the memory of distant descendants, they began to build truly grand and monumental buildings, which really was difficult to surpass, and no one in the entire region has ever been able to do so. However, if one delves into history and looks in detail at Koba’s path to prosperity, it is very reminiscent of the slippery slope that Nazi Germany chose 1,500 years later.

But at the initial stage of its development and transformation into a superpower of the time, by Mayan standards of course, whose state formations were not large, with very few exceptions, Koba moved in a non-violent way. Its akhaves (kings) appreciated the city’s extremely favorable geographic location, and squeezed everything they could out of it. Already in ancient times, Mesoamerica was crossed by a network of advanced trade routes, originating on the east coast, where goods from all over the Caribbean accumulated and were redirected to the valley of Mexico City, and further across Central America to the Pacific coast. Coba was at the intersection of these routes, and soon took advantage of it to control trade throughout the region. And it is huge even by today’s standards – the city is located in the southeastern part of the Yucatan peninsula, which now belongs to Mexico, in the state of Quintana Roo.

The history of Koba: the greats are buried by the elements

Coba was one of the earliest Mayan centers in southeastern Yucatan, which did not begin to be actively inhabited until the early postclassic period. Although this region always remained the center and cradle of Maya civilization, in the Preclassic period, all political, religious and cultural life was concentrated to the south, in what is now Guatemala, where powerful city-states such as Tikal, Copan, Caminalhue, Isapa, and several other hegemons were flourishing at that time. Within the Maya confederation, they held a leading position until the end of the Classic period, while supremacy passed to the Yucatan cities, such as Chichen Itza and Mayapan, only at the beginning of the Postclassic period. But Coba became the hegemon of the peninsula, long before their founding.

This ancient center itself was founded in the first years of our era, as mentioned above, as a small agricultural settlement. And it remained so for at least the first two centuries of its existence, although it was constantly growing and expanding, but until the beginning of the classical period there was not a single stone building in it. To no small extent, it helped it to overcome this psychological barrier, again, due to its location. Coba was surrounded by four lakes and many cenotes, which on the predominantly arid Yucatan was a distinct advantage – the overabundance of agricultural production was an impetus for the establishment of trade relations. From the middle of the third century, the commercial and economic hegemony of Coba in the Yucatan began, and in the V-VI centuries also the political one, when the peaceful policy of its ahawas was replaced by an aggressive one.


During this period, the Ahabs of Coba conquered all of eastern Yucatan, and the rulers in the center and south, recognized their supremacy. As a result, around 575, during the reign of Shukuub Chan Yopaat, the kingdom of Ikhaabho was formed, under the ahab of Ish Caviel, who took the title of kaloomte (emperor), reaching the peak of power. During this period, and the capital of the state formation experienced its greatest prosperity, its area increased to 80 km2, and its population exceeded 50 000 people. But after the death of the first emperor in 682, decline began after a series of unsuccessful wars. However, in the late eighth and late tenth centuries Ikhaabho regained its dominant position on the Yucatan, which lasted until the rise of Chichen Itza, after which it gave up again. The new rise began in the twelfth century, and lasted until the Spanish colonization, when it left the political scene forever.

It is very interesting that none of the historical and architectural monuments of Koba has been restored, but, despite this, they are in excellent condition and retain their original form, and for many visitors it is important. But the sculptural monuments, represented by steles, carved panels and altars, unfortunately, the same cannot be said about them, their condition leaves much to be desired. All these priceless constructions are divided into four groups:

The Koba group is the first, encountered along the way, which includes 2 structures. The first, the Huego de Pelota ball field, is very similar to a similar structure located in Chichen Itza, and built, apparently, under its influence, but only as a miniature copy – it is incomparably smaller. The second, the Temple of La Iglesia, is a huge stepped pyramid reminiscent of the monumental structures at Calakmul. The pyramid is built on a massive platform, consists of five high levels, and has a steep staircase of 80 steps that takes up almost the entire width of the front, reaching a height of 28 meters.

The Las Pinturas group includes just one small pyramid of lightweight construction. It consists of three tiers, the lowest of which, being the highest and most massive, takes all the load, acting as a base, because it has no platform or foundation. At the top there is a small temple, covered inside with frescoes faded by time. The Makanshok group is a ceremonial sanctuary where most of Koba’s sculptural monuments are concentrated. They are placed on a huge multi-level platform, more than 300 m wide, with eight memorial steles with bas-reliefs and several altars.

The Nohoch Mul group, like Las Pinturas, consists of only one structure, but what a structure. This is the Great Pyramid of Coba, standing on a base, more like a lower tier, but it is a deceptive impression, because they cannot be an even number, according to Mayan traditions, and counting together with the base it turns out 10 tiers. The lack of a vast platform, which is typical for such huge buildings, is compensated by a sloping and protracted staircase, to a large extent accepting the load of the building on itself. The steps of the staircase are narrow and steep; there are 120 of them in total. But the height of the pyramid is impressive – 42 meters make it the highest on the Yucatan.

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The Mayan city of Coba in Mexico: first discovery

A tree on the ruins of the Mayan structures in Kobe

The ancient Mayan city of Coba in Mexico … the first deeply impressed me of the local archaeological wonders. Assuming after Tulum that it would take a long time to find the “present” where you can really feel the spirit of the ancient Mayans, and even accepting it as inevitable… I suddenly felt this “present”, this ancient presence faster than I thought.

Koba was the second Mayan city we went to. And we were not expecting much – it was interesting just to continue to get acquainted with the world of the ancient Maya, to seek contact with this land, with this history… What is the hurry? And there, however, a lot was suddenly revealed.

But let us begin, as always, with the formalities, important to get there and spend quality time.

The ancient city of Coba in Mexico: location, conditions for visiting

Coba: location, visiting conditions

The ruins, more precisely, the excavated part of the city of Coba in Mexico is located away from the coast; you can get there either from the main highway Cancun-Chetumal turning right after Tulum or from the toll road Cancun-Merida. The toll road started near our house in Playa del Carmen, so we decided to test it.

I must say I liked it very much – good pavement, very few cars, almost no problems with overtaking, no traffic jams and large trailers slowing everything down. We got there with a bang

The cost of this stretch is 97 pesos (about $5), I decided it was well worth it.

Finding Koba by turning off the highway is easy enough, it is on the map with all the coordinates and there are signs along the way, with quite a few to remember. Entrance to the parking lot is 50 pesos ($2.50).

Kobe has a daytime visitation mode of 09:00-17:00 and a sunset mode of 17:00-19:00. The daytime ticket is 65 pesos (about $3), the sunset ticket is 220, the same as in Tulum.

El Castillo: the central pyramid of Coba

We naively believed that by buying a ticket for the daytime session, we would honestly earn the right to hang out there until sunset inclusive. Maybe it would have been, had it not been for our decision to climb the central pyramid at sunset.

And here – the guards are right down at the pyramid. And he says that the day time of visiting is finished, and the evening time has not started yet and “show the ticket”. And we have – a ticket for the ballet, no ticket for the streetcar. Well, the guard said that the only option – quickly buy a ticket to the sunset and hasten back.

Koba: steps to the temple

As they say, a fairy tale is told soon, but it is not soon that things are done. For from the pyramid to the entrance – 2 kilometers. Distances there in general are good – from one group to another can be 1-2 km. Groups of buildings are excavated five. Accordingly, at the same time it would be not bad to imagine a scale of how much you should “wind” there if you want to see everything.

So, two kilometers, even if running back and forth, we would not have had time to get to the top before sunset. We had to “tear up the claws”, namely – to hire a bicycle rickshaw. What would not have occurred to us without such a rush, because part of the buzz in walking around the ancient Mayan cities, and especially the city of Coba in Mexico is the opportunity to walk through the jungle. Walking, looking at the trees, the birds, and occasionally even spotting monkeys. But now we had to make sure we could get there and back for the ticket.

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In Kobe, by the way, there is still a bicycle rental, but it is only at the entrance. But at the ancient buildings are “on duty” bicycle rickshaws (by the way, I doubt they are called rickshaws, but the idea – is that, whether there is a special word for it in Mexico – I do not know), in the hope to “pick up” a tired customer. One way – 75-100 pesos, depending on time.

The ruins of the ancient city of Coba, Mexico

While we were driving – the people from the pyramid all dispersed. That is, literally – all. And along with the guards “We should have just hid in the bushes” – said my wife. Perhaps it was necessary, of course, not in the money, but rather in a hurry and nerves – will or will not have time? But we made it, and it did not matter how exactly. About the pyramid I will tell a little later.

Another thing to remember when visiting Koba is dehydration. I’m dead serious. It is stronger in the jungle than even in the desert. Literally after an hour of walking through the stuffy forest, you will inevitably begin to feel an attack of severe thirst, even if you went in, having previously drunk enough. And there are no stalls at every turn, which is generally correct.

Ruins of a ball field, ancient Mayan, Coba

We took a liter bottle of water with us and drank it literally in an hour. Then we were left to wonder what would happen next – would we still be able to climb without water, or…. . In the end the water stall which all the same was at a pyramid, the only one on all area of excavation solved everything. Well and the return to the entrance would have saved us if there was no water stall.

Anyway, now we usually walk around with two liters, and it’s barely enough. The food in Kobe is also tight, the stall only has chips and some chemical muffin buns. It’s not very healthy, so if it’s important to eat something, take it with you. Especially if you want to see all the digs and don’t like to rush. You are likely to spend the whole day there.

Ancient Maya and the experience

Ancient Maya and feeling

Specifically Coba in Mexico, from what we had time to see, didn’t seem like much of a visit to me. At least on that day. There were still people on the paths during the day, but we walked part of the way completely alone, and we looked at some of the excavated objects all by ourselves.

And this is where I think I began to feel what I wanted to feel. To one of the groups of buildings we walked just two kilometers from the entrance, and the last part of the path was completely deserted – no one caught us, only once people rode there on bikes, and back in a rickshaw.

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Mayan ruins in Coba

We were alone in the group of excavated buildings themselves. I wandered between these partially preserved buildings and began to get a sense of what it was like to live here. It was a very different world from what I had been used to in recent years – the open spaces of the desert, the majesty of the mountains, the endless smoothness of the sea.

However, I had a similar experience – the Philippine jungle, where we were also carried in some inaccessible places, where there was mystery, mystery and … stuffiness. For the first moment, it was the stuffiness of this life that came over me. Inside the dense wall of the forest, among the intertwined lianas, the stiff bushes, the tangled plants and trees, it was difficult to find space, “air.

Mayan Soccer to Kobe

For a while there was a persistent desire to get out, to escape. And then I realized what this reminds me of-attempts to make contact with my unconscious. Sometimes you want to escape from it, too; the feelings you encounter there can be painful, “suffocating,” but at some point you inevitably realize that it is in contact with them, not in escape, that the inner space opens up, huge and breathing….

Walks in Kobe

The world of living in the jungle is a world of mystery, of mystery, a world of “inner,” a world inside out. The world of appearances – in the jungle, there are always many things that are not what they seem. Many things seem and disappear. Many things play hide-and-seek with you.

It blows out” all of the usual external supports: “I am so and so, I go there, I want so and so, I live there, I am defined by so and so…”. This disappears here. You stop feeling all the external “supports” and are forced to stay with what’s inside.

Mayan ruins of Coba, Mexico

Your external knowledge of this world, of civilization, is irrelevant here. What matters here is whether you can tell a liana from a snake or not step on a poisonous spider. No, don’t be frightened, we didn’t see any in Kobe. The question is what was even important in life back then, when there simply was no other and there was nowhere to go out of the jungle? And what was going on with and in the minds of people?

The building on top of the El Castillo pyramid in Kobe

The Mayan world from the point of view of a civilized person is very strange. The ritual human sacrifices, which they love to talk about so much, were not an invention of the Maya. They were characteristic of the entire ancient world. And this is not a consequence of a particular “darkness” of the Maya, but rather a consequence of the entire historical period, the general vector of human development …

But naturally, each civilization had its own nuance. And it seems to me that Maya were somehow closer to consciousness of their own instincts and that very unconscious than many other civilizations of that period.

A pyramid in Kobe, Mexico

I can talk about this for a long time, now I will only note one thing – since the visit to Koba the process of realization of some things about my own life went faster. And I really felt it. And I remember exactly the moment when I realized, standing among the Mayan ruins and surrounded on all sides by dense vegetation, what and for what reason I could not and did not want to resist anymore. I had to see it in myself, and I did.

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There is nowhere to run from myself. And if you just be open to that state, don’t resist or run away, such an artifact in itself, with all its surroundings, can be a very powerful catalyst. I was definitely unlucky with the Egyptian pyramids-it was, apparently, out of place and out of time: I was a student at the height of my denial of everything that could be denied. I got nothing but a headache, but I felt clearly what it was about: the inability to look deep inside myself.

Now there was no pain, no protest. Apparently, I had better luck with the Mayan pyramids.

Koba: the Pyramid

Climbing a pyramid in Kobe

Actually, when we came to the pyramid before our jerk for the ticket we saw that some people were descending from it actually on their asses, holding on to the rope stretched exactly in the middle of the steps. These people were afraid to stand on their feet, and there were more than half of them. But this did not bother us. At first

The stairs were uneven, apparently, because of time, dampness, destruction caused by roots of trees, the steps were quite skewed. It was not difficult to climb them (at least, for a person in normal physical shape), but the steepness was impressive.

Monkey in Kobe

Those who are definitely afraid of heights may have some problems, I suppose. They put a rope for this purpose, so that those who are unaccustomed to standing on the precipice “without anything” would have something to hold on to

The pyramid height is 42 meters; it is one of the highest pyramids of Maya. For comparison, the height of the Kukulcan pyramid in Chichen Itza is 24 meters, the acropolis pyramid in Ek Balam – 29 meters, Ushmal – 38 meters.

In general, to climb it is approximately like climbing a fourteen-story house on an open staircase. Luckily there was no hellish wind.

Sunset on top of a pyramid in Kobe

A little later three more couples followed us up, but they quickly went back down. But we decided to wait and feel the sunset… And for good reason. Something crunched in the branches and we saw a monkey staring at us with curiosity. Alas, I managed to take only one photo…

On top of a pyramid, Coba, Mexico

And then… Words can’t describe everything that can happen to people who pay attention to themselves and their surroundings when they are alone on the top of the Mayan pyramid at sunset…. And it is there that one can let go of those sensations, that flip side of the unconscious that comes with being in a cramped forest. To let go by digesting. Once you understand what you have to live with next and what path to take in the near future – to give those feelings to the space.

I’m sure they built the pyramids for a reason. I’ll tell you more about Mayan astronomy, beliefs, etc., but I’m sure the pyramids had many meanings. And one of them, not accessible and understandable to everybody, is the necessity to “pull one’s bottom up”.

And then – to lower my top down again.

Back we also returned alone, almost in complete darkness, and ahead of us loomed a guard on a bicycle, which necessarily had to escort the last persistent visitors out of the forest …

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