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Know Cobá?

News from Cobá, and why it should be on any past-lover’s travel bucket list.

Most visitors to Maya ruins visit Copán, Palenque, Tikal, or Uxmal ­­– the world-famous sites. But once you can travel again, Past Worlds recommends you go off the beaten track to visit one of the most important yet lesser-known Maya cities in the Yucatán Peninsula: Cobá.

Located within a day trip from Merida, Cobá means “Chopped Water” in Mayan. The first settlement appeared between 100 BC and AD 300, a series of small villages built around local lakes. The city reached its apogee between AD 600 and 1000, when it expanded over 70 square kilometres and boasted of an extensive network of raised roads with white surfaces. The longest spanned 100 kilometres and ended at Yaxuná, a city close to Chichén Itzá. Over 50,000 people are said to have lived in the city and its hinterland. Fourteen rulers presided over Cobá as it expanded, the most important being a female ruler, Ixik…Yopaat (her full name is indecipherable.) She ruled for 40 years. Eventually, the city’s lords became involved in a power struggle with Chichén Itzá, which ended with Cobá’s decline. It was abandoned during the sixteenth century.

The first excavations came during the twentieth century, but much of the site is still unexcavated. The major structures lie close to Lake Cobá, the oldest section comprising over 50 structures and inscribed stelae. No fewer than six roads terminate at this complex and the central plaza. A nine-tier pyramid, known locally as The Church, rises over 24 metres high, with a temple on the summit. There is an imposing ballcourt here, one of two at the site, which depicts prisoners on the walls of the parallel buildings on either side. To the north of this complex lies more ruins, dominated by the 40-meter high Nochoch Mul pyramid (“Great Mound”), with seven tiers. The temple atop it has images of a god portrayed upside down.

Much of Cobá is still unexplored and a lot of walking is needed to explore it thoroughly. Fortunately, there is plenty of shade. This is independent archaeological tourism at its best.

Image: The Church pyramid at Cobá. Credit: Gautier Poupeau

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