Coba: “Waters stirred by Wind”

Just can’t get enough o’ those Mayan ruins … poor Ty. Yet another visit to yet another big pile of rocks, this time Coba, in central Yucatan south west of Playa del Carmen. The weather is still not that good here – a gigantic cloud seems to be hanging around over top of us here, generating cloudy skies and thunderstorms. We do get some sunny times, mostly in the morning, and then it clouds over mid-afternoon and, often, rains in the early evening. And, while usually the water current in the ocean here flows south along the coast, the past couple of days it seems to have reversed and is now running quickly and strongly north, creating quite big waves. Although it’s not really rainy season here yet, the weather has been strangely wetter than usual – maybe hurricane season is coming early this year. On the satellite map the Gulf of Mexico looks like a gigantic pot of boiling water. Yesterday again the waves were very high, almost like the ones in Puerto Vallarta, and we had a bit of difficulty getting out of the water without being dashed against the shoreline rocks in the middle of Playa’s beach.

Anyway, on Wednesday the day dawned dry with a glimmer of sun shining through the cloud cover so we decided to visit Coba, a large Mayan ruin site located in the jungle. From the Playa bus station two ADO buses a day run to Coba; we took the 9 am, which stopped at Tulum ruins and Tulum pueblo, before heading inland to Coba and arriving after a pleasant two hour airconditioned ride at the archeological site. From the research I’d done I expected a fairly undeveloped situation at Coba but there were still the usual souvenir stalls and small Yucatecan restaurants outside the grounds, none of which was doing much business as far as I could tell.

Entering the site we walked along a tree-lined path leading to the first set of buildings, next to which are bike and bike taxi rentals. Since Coba is big, and would have taken all day to walk around, we decided to go for the bike taxi, basically a trike with a small padded seat for passengers (I stress the “small”; it barely had room for both of us. We saw two big guys being driven on one, each of whom had one cheek hanging off either side of the seat). Our driver headed off down the shady path, passing walkers and other trikes heading back to the ranch.

There are several different groups of structures open for visiting and with the trike, we were able to see all of them in two hours without having to rush. All of the buildings are situated in a treed jungle area (although “jungle” suggests deep, dark, dense bush, the jungle here consists of small birch-like trees and large banyan-like ones, all of which are small enough to allow lots of light to enter. The paths between the building groups likely follow the old Maya sacbe (white roads). At Coba there are about 40 sacbes, some local, some heading deep into the jungle. The longest sacbe is 100 km, connecting Coba with Yaxuna, close to Chichen Itza. “Coba” means “waters stirred by wind”, an homage to the four lakes along which it’s situated. Unlike Tulum, it is not manicured and reconstructed; a number of large stone jungle-covered mounds can been seen, along with those that can be visited.

Coba dates from the Classic Period, 600 to 900 AD, after which it was abandoned for unknown reasons. At its height Coba supported up to 45,000 inhabitants. The city is thought to have been an important trading post and a commercial link between the cities on the coast and those inland. Coba was never found by the Spanish, thus being left covered by jungle until the 1890s, when it was rediscovered. Excavations started in the 1970s and many of the buildings are left pretty much as they were found. This site of 80 square km/50 square miles is in almost pristine condition. Coba is believed to contain up to 6,500 structures, of which only a small fraction have been restored. (

We saw the observatory, a four or five level beehive-like structure, many stele with almost impossible-to-decipher carvings and palapa-roofed coverings, quite a few domestic houses, the “paintings complex” (below),

two stone ball courts, and a grand pyramid, the Nohoch Mul, meaning “big mound”. And big it is, the tallest Mayan ruin structure in the Yucatan at 138 feet.

Nohoch Mul is one of the few Mayan pyramids still climbable. When we arrived there a few people were climbing it, some of whom were red-faced from the effort.

It is quite steep, with a “staircase” of large and uneven steps and a thick rope to help with the descent. From the top, we had a view out over seemingly the entire Yucatan forest of trees to the horizon, only interrupted by a few unexcavated structures whose tops could be seen above the trees.

While going up was relatively easy (and not by an order of magnitude anywhere near as difficult as the climb to the mountaintop of Krabi’s Tiger Cave Temple), coming down was more difficult and tiring. The next day my thigh muscles were still tingling from the workout. [See my post on our Tiger Cave Temple expedition here]

On the function of the Mayan ball courts, here is one account: Coba has at least two very pretty ball courts, one of which has been partially excavated only recently. The ball game played an important role in Mayan society and most cities had a ball court, which is basically a corridor of two stoned walls. The game was played between two teams, using only their hips and elbows to get a rubber ball through a hoop. At some sites, like Coba, the sides of the ball court are slanted, which makes it possible to get close to the hoop.

In other places, like Chichen Itza, the hoops are situated high up on almost vertical walls, seemingly making it impossible to score (unless you don’t subscribe to the law of gravity, which would give us the explanation to many other Mayan mysteries…) Inscriptions and other pieces of art show that human sacrifice was a part of the game. There are different theories as to who actually got sacrificed – the captain or the whole team? Did the losing have to pay with their lives or did the winning team willingly and proudly go to live with their gods? You will hear different stories on this one. (

After an almost two hour long tricycle ride, we headed back out to the bus which showed up right on time and whisked us back again to Playa. For those of you interested in Mayan ruins, I’d recommend doing this site by bus; there are two ADO departures from Playa every morning at 8 and 9 am and two returns from Coba at 1 and 3 pm. The bus costs 86 pesos per person each way and the entrance fee into Coba is 57 pesos each. We paid 200 pesos for the tricycle tour (170 for the bike and a 30 peso tip) for a total cost of 486 pesos ($35.55), much cheaper than any of the tours we looked at. And Coba, with its jungle canopy covering, is a beautiful and restful experience.

See more pics here.