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Cobá, from tiny outpost to the Maya crossroads of commerce

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about the wonders of Mesoamerican antiquity and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we venture off to Cobá to discover how it went from a tiny community of thatched houses to a major player in the world of Mayan power politics.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Cobá is a Maya archaeological site in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, right next to the tiny community of the same name. During the late classical era, the city became an important trading hub, as several roads or sacbé converged in its territory.

The great Nohoch Mul pyramid in Cobá, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The name of the city has been found inscribed on several stelae and reliefs throughout the territory, and is usually translated as “humid place” or “choppy water.” Inscriptions indicate that Cobá was founded in the 2nd century BCE, but archaeological evidence of this early period is sparse as most of the city’s earliest structures were built using perishable materials such as wood and palm. 

Thatched roof covering one of the several stelae at Cobá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

By the 1st century, the city had begun to erect large stone temples and residential complexes. In the following centuries, Cobá started to project its power and influence across the western Yucatán Peninsula, eventually becoming one of the most important players in Mesoamerican politics. 

At its height between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, Cobá had a population of approximately 50,000 and occupied an area of 80 square kilometers, though the territory it controlled was much larger. 

Though Cobá was capable of holding its own militarily, its real power lay in its control of trade routes.

A corbelled archway leads to the main ceremonial center in Cobá, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

By the 6th century, Cobá had established political control over much of the region by developing a virtual monopoly on food production and distribution via land routes. There is also good reason to believe that the city held sway over several maritime routes and important port centers such as Xel-há. Cobá also maintained trade relations with important centers in what today is Guatemala, as well as the powerful metropolis of Teotihuacán in the valley of Mexico. 

Most of what we know about Cobá has been learned from interpreting the hieroglyphics found on stelae. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

By the 7th century, the rise of other powerful city-states such as Chichén Itzá and Uxmal reshaped the political map of the Yucatán Peninsula. By the 10th century and a couple of centuries worth of war with Chichén Itzá, Cobá was defeated and lost control over several of its key vassals such as Yaxuná

Despite its defeat and occupation, the city remained an important trade center until at least the 12th century. During this latter period, the city was transformed to reflect the influence of Chichén Itzá through talud-tablero architecture. Also known as slope-and-panel, this style of architecture was first developed in Teotihuacán, but spread through Mesoamerica along with the influence of peoples from central Mexico such as the Toltec and eventually the Aztec. 

With the exception of a handful of pyramids, the bulk of Cobá’s architecture lay fairly low. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The most famous structure in Cobá is the Nohoch Mul, a 42-meters-tall step pyramid popular with tourists. The name of this structure in Yucatec-Mayan means large hill or mound. Guidebooks and tour guides like to claim that the Nohoch Mul is the tallest pyramid on the Yucatán Peninsula, but this is not the case. How exactly one should measure the height of pyramids remains a contentious topic, but by any metric, the great pyramid of Calakmul is considerably taller, as it is usually said to be 55 meters high.

Unlike most other large pyramids at popular archaeological sites, it is still possible to climb the Nohoch Mul in Cobá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Cobá also features several other restored pyramids, large ceremonial centers such as the Macanxoc group, as well as extensive elite residential areas. 

Pyramid in the Macanxoc group of Cobá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The city also has multiple Mesoamerican ballcourts, but the largest and likely most important can be found near the Nohoch Mul, in an adjacent ceremonial center. 

The main ballcourt in Cobá in Quintana Roo, complete with replica ring-shaped markers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

One of my earliest memories is of visiting Cobá with my father and a group of Swiss tourists when I was about 3. To this day, whenever the topic of Cobá comes up, my father still likes to remind me of the fact that he carried me on his shoulders all day around the site, and even up the Nohoch Mul. 

Back then, the archaeological site was quite hard to get to as it was far away from any major roads. In fact, it was so difficult that several tour groups would opt to fly into the site on small Cessna aircraft, landing on razor-thin runways cleared by hand with machetes. 

Flowering cati within the archaeological site of Cobá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Nowadays, Cobá is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Quintana Roo, and receives plentiful tourism from day-trippers looking for a little adventure. The area is still quite lush and full of wildlife, but long are the days when jaguar sightings were common. On New Year’s Day 1996 I actually saw a jaguar in Cobá from the glassless window of my spartan hotel room. Sadly, I did not have a camera handy.

If you go

Getting to Cobá is easy, with tour packages to the site being sold all over the Riviera Maya, Cancún and Valladolid. If you choose to drive, this too should be easy as the signage in the area is good. I recommend spending the night to get an early start and be ready to enter as soon as the gates open at 8 a.m. This will help you beat the rush of tourists arriving by the hundreds in large buses. 

Map showing the location of Cobá in southern Mexico. Image: Google Maps

If you do decide to stay the night, you would be well served to get up before sunrise and walk around the lagoon near the entrance to the site. You are likely to see a wide variety of birds, as well as howler monkeys. Just watch out for crocodiles along the banks of the water.

The Cobá lagoon or aguada is fantastic for snapping photographs of wildlife. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.
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