The Pyramids of Cobá

by Habeeb Salloum
Special to

Cancún, Mexico -- Cancún, Mexico’s number one resort town, was barely beginning to awake when we began our journey to the ruins of Cobá. Once deemed a vital Mayan city, the brooding urban centre was at the epitome of its glory and power from 622 to 800 A.D. Then things changed. Coba slowly faded in importance until just before the Conquistadors arrived to view a deserted city.

Now as our mini-bus drove southward into the heart of the jungle, I became progressively excited, thinking of those renowned ruins we were set to explore. We turned on a narrow road to drive the last 40 km (25 mi) to Cobá where the tops of the half-submerged strangled ruins appeared. Built on the shores of three shallow lakes in a rainforest, the ruins held a haunting beauty of its former self which now resembled a mirage of its rich past Mayan civilization.

Once a great trading city, Coba was the Mayans sole lakefront city which sadly sank back into the jungle and almost disappeared after the Mayans abandoned it. The humid, damp climate together with uncontrollable tree roots and vines choked the limestone rocks and like the other Mayan cities, the buildings eroded. Yet its remains tell the story of a past majesty.

The remnants of 16 sacbés (white roads) of the 50 that once existed still can be seen. Built in a raised fashion above ground through the jungle then plastered and polished, the straight roads attest to Cobá’s importance as a trading hub and were direct links to religious centres throughout the Yucatán.

Strangely humans only used the sacbés. In spite of their progress in many areas, the highly advanced Mayans never invented metal, employed beasts of burden or discovered the wheel. On the other hand, some historians assert that the Mayans did develop the wheel but because it was associated with a religious significance it could not be used by humans.

We walked into the ruins under the shade of a canopy formed by interlocking trees overhead. Clearly visible, edging both sides of the pathway were uncovered mounds of structures. Of Cobá’s 70 sq km (27 sq mi) of ruins only 12% has been excavated, but what has been uncovered is an impressive testimony to the greatness of the Mayan builders.

Suddenly, the very impressive 24 m (79 ft) high La Iglesia (Church Pyramid), crowned with a temple, loomed before us. We did not tarry long at this imposing structure which is the oldest in the city for our goal was the Nohoch Mul Pyramid - the loftiest of the Mayan structures in the northern Yucatán.

The partially excavated Juego de Pelota (Ball Court) was our next stop. However, after one has seen the huge Ball Court in Chichén Itzá, this one in Cobá appeared unimpressive. The ball game, very important in Mayan culture, was played with about a nine pound rubber ball which was propelled only with the hips to shoot it through a ring jutting from the side of the court. It is said, but not proven, that the winning team's captain was sacrificed so that his better-than-average blood would feed the ground and, hence, it would grow better crops.

The guide deciphered some of the over 30 uncovered stelaes in the city. Some were dated and etched with figures and hieroglyphics and stood in their original sites. A number of them commemorated important events such as accessions, alliances, births, death and marriage; others depicted great triumphs with the victorious king standing on his captives. However, all those we saw were so weatherworn we relied on the guide’s interpretation. I asked the guide, “Why aren’t these treasures better protected from the elements?” He replied, “Who is going put out the money? We have millions of Mayan artifacts.”

Moving forward in sweltering heat, we surveyed a small rounded building, called the Wind Pyramid. According to our guide, the Mayans rarely built rounded structures and there are only 10 to 20 of this type of building in the entire Yucatán.

Past a preserved section of a raised sacbé, part of Yaxuná, there appeared before us the 45 m (148 ft) high Nohoch Mul Pyramid. Soaring 12 stories above the jungle, it honors the Descending God and must have been a majestic sight in the days when it was still the home of Mayan priests.

Exhausted from the searing heat during the 1.5 km walk, I sat down on the pyramid steps. Yet, even though it was midday, I still wanted to climb this renowned structure. Wearily and with great effort, I climbed three quarters and paused for a glance. From my vantage point, a panoramic view of the surrounding deep-green jungle appeared.

Amid the few excavated buildings there were countless unexcavated tree covered pyramidal structures poking up through the thick jungle. It was quite apparent that the archaeologists had much work to do if Cobá is to show its true charms. However, I was elated for I had witnessed the grand pyramid of Cobá in its former glory.

That night, I smiled to myself, thinking of the guide’s words after I told him my age of more than four score years and trying to climb the pyramid in the scorching midday sun. “God is great. He protects his children, drunks, idiots and mad men like you.”


photo: Habeeb Salloum

If you go:

How to Get There The best way to see Cobá is to join a tour group in Cancún - Cancún All Tours and Magic Tours are two good excursion companies who organize tours. If one wants to drive, the highways are good, Facts About Cobá and the Yucatán

1) A small car rents for about $60. U.S. per day but less if you bargain or are not fussy about the auto.

3) When travelling to Cobá or any of the other Mayan ruins - wear a hat and comfortable shoes and take sun block lotion.

4) Beware! It is a criminal offence to take artifacts or souvenirs from the sites or out of the country.

5) The official Mexican currency is the peso currently trading at around - 10.5 pesos to a US dollar - 9 pesos to a CDN dollar.

6) The usual tips for baggage handlers and bellboys is $1.00 per suitcase; maids $1.00 per day and 50 cents for washroom attendants.

7) When you leave Mexico there is a ‘Departure Tax’ of about $18.00 US per person but this tax is usually included in your airline ticket.

For Further Information, Contact

In Canada contact the Mexican Tourism Board - 2 Bloor St. West, Suite 1502, Toronto, Ontario M4W 3E2. Tel: (416) 925 0704. Fax: (416) 925 6061. E-mail:
Also Toll free number: 1-800-44 MEXICO. Web: Visit Mexico or E-mail:

In the U.S.A. 375 Park Avenue, Floor 19, Suite 1905, New York, NY 10152, USA. Tel: (212) 308 2110. Fax: (212) 308 9060. E-mail:

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