Mysteries of the Maya
Exploring the pyramids of the ancient civilization is a must for many visitors to the Yucatán. At Cobá, you may have the ruins nearly to yourself.
We climbed the final few steps in the heat of the late morning sun, letting go of the rope to step onto a stone platform. From the peak of the pyramid, a blanket of green jungle stretched out in front of us to the horizon. For miles around, everything we could see once belonged to the Mayan empire.
“Cobá is older than Chichén Itzá,” explained Fernando Cobos, our expert Mexican guide, as we caught the breeze at the top of Nohoch Mul, the highest Mayan pyramid in the Yucatán, at the heart of the Cobá complex. “But like Chichén Itzá, it was an important city and ceremonial center for the Mayans.”
There are Mayan ruins across the Yucatán peninsula, the remains of a civilization that at its peak (250 to 900 A.D.) spread across Mexico and parts of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Iconic Chichén Itzá and the coastal ruins at Tulum are both remarkable, but unless you arrive very early, they’re also overloaded with tourists. Travel deeper into the jungle, though, to places like Cobá, Uxmal, or even remote Calakmul, and you can experience Mayan ruins in an atmosphere that’s far more peaceful and timeless.
We had set out early from the Riviera Maya, driving in darkness along the coast and cutting inland to reach a lake just outside the Cobá complex. Most people head straight into the ruins, but we took a walk to see some of the colorful nesting and migratory birds around the still silvery lake. As is often the case, the early start paid off. “It’s always better to be here in the morning, when the birds are feeding,” our nature guide Carolina Cepeda informed us, as we watched limpkins wading through the shallows and snail kites soaring over the calm water. Thanks to Cepeda’s trained eye, we were able to observe hooded orioles, Yucatán jays, and gold-throated woodpeckers, the latter notable for their scruffy red hairdos.
Honing in on distinctive calls, we found a pair of Montezuma oropendolas. “They say the male has to make several nests, until the female decides that one is good enough,” Cepeda laughed. “They’re very demanding.”
At last we made our way into Cobá. In addition to being less busy than Chichén Itzá, the site hasn’t been cleared of as much jungly overgrowth, lending the ruins an enigmatic feel. Strolling through cool shade, we spotted red and green toucans in the branches high above and found crumbled structures with trees from their mossy gray stone.
Cobos showed us tall pieces of stone, like surfboards, with ancient markings still visible on them. “What’s interesting at Cobá is you have these stelae, carvings with dates and lots of information,” Cobos explained. “Because of these inscriptions, we know more of Cobá’s story. We know Cobá had links with Tikal in Guatemala.”
Walking on, we checked out a well-preserved ballcourt, used for a Mayan game, whose victors may have been “honored” with being killed in a ritual sacrifice. Around the complex, there were unexcavated mounds and white stone pyramids.
But Nohoch Mul was the highlight. At the Yucatán’s busier ruins, climbing the pyramids is banned. But it’s still possible to climb the 120 steep steps of Nohoch Mul. Using the thick safety rope, we made our way cautiously up to the summit of the 138-foot pyramid. The breeze wasn’t the only reward. It was quite a feeling to stand high on an ancient pyramid, taking in the sprawling view, as the Mayans once did.
From Cobá, we drove on to visit some of the nearby cenotes, natural pools found at the surface and below ground across this region of Mexico. “There are around 8,000 cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula,” Cepeda told us. “The Yucatán is limestone—it’s like Swiss cheese.”
Inside the underground cave of Tamcach-ha, we swam in cooling clear water, as bats moved silently among hanging stalactites. Back at the surface, hummingbirds hovered among the trees and a shy gray fox eyed us curiously from the undergrowth.
“Multan-ha is one of the Yucatán’s most beautiful cenotes. The water is so clear,” said Cepeda later, as we made our way down dimly lit wooden stairs for another adventurous swim. Apart from a few tiny fish, we had the vast cave’s bright blue pool all to ourselves.
A short drive away, Punta Laguna Monkey Reserve was our final stop. We picked up a leafy trail that led through the lakeside jungle. Trees vibrated with the sounds of insects and birds. Above the ambient noise, Cepeda singled out the movement of spider monkeys. We quickened our pace and found a troop of eight slender monkeys traveling in a procession through the canopy, infants copying adults’ moves to leap expertly from branch to branch. The forest crackled as the cluster of monkeys tore apart plants known as elephant ears, ate the seeds inside and dropped the inedible part through the branches to the ground. It was a timeless scene, the monkeys feeding, just as they have done for centuries in their little corner of the ancient Mayan world.
Zona Arqueologica de Cobá, Carretera Federal Tulum 307; +52 984 206 7166
Cenote Tamcach-Ha, Calle de Chan Chen; +52 985 104 0472