Coba is an ancient Maya city on the Yucatán Peninsula, located in what is now northeastern Quintana Roo, Mexico. The site is the nexus of the largest network of stone causeways of the ancient Mayan world, and it contains many engraved and sculpted stelae that document ceremonial life and important events of the Late Classic Period (AD 600-900) of Mesoamerican civilization. The adjacent modern village bearing the same name, reported a population of 1,278 inhabitants in the 2010 Mexican federal census.
Coba means ‘waters stirred by the wind’, an appropriate Mayan name as this settlement is surrounded by two large lagoons. For many years Coba was an ignored piece of Mayan history due to its location. Located between Tulum in the state of Quintana Roo, and Valladolidin the state of Yucatan, archeologists first learned about the site in the mid 1800′s, but dense jungle, the Caste War and lack of funds made this site a difficult area to penetrate. This Mayan site is still largely unexcavated making it a true wonder in the Yucatan. Visitors can enjoy shaded walkways that are the original sacbe (white roads), three settlements that show the architecture and vast area of this once large city, 2 ball courts and climb the highest Mayan pyramid in the Yucatan, Nohoch Mul. Cobá was finally opened to the public as an archeological site in 1973. Archeologists have estimated that 6,000 structures exist, but only three settlements are for public viewing. what makes this site different from Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, or even Tulum is that Coba is not a single site but a large group of sites connected to the central pyramid, connected by over 16 Mayan ceremonial “white roads” (sacbéob). The three main areas that can be viewed in the Coba Ruins are the Nohoch Mul structures (main pyramid), Conjunto Pinturas (spiritual area) and Macanxoc structures (close to the lagoon that bears the same name). Your day at Coba can last up to 2.5 hours if you walk the site, 1.5 hours if you take advantage of the Coba bicycle rentals or in an hour if you opt for the Mayan limo, a chauffeured tricycle where you just sit and take in the sights. Both bicycle options are inexpensive and super fun!
Fast facts about the Coba Ruins
- Coba means ‘waters stirred by wind’ or ‘ruffled waters’ as the Mayan city is located on two lagoons; the Coba Lagoon which can be seen as you drive up to the ruins entrance and Macamxoc Lagoon which can be viewed once you enter the ruin site.
- The longest sacbe (white road) runs over 100 kilometers (62 mi) westwards to the site of Yaxuna near Chichen Itza
- The Coba settlement was occupied by a sizable agricultural population by the 1st century and grew to 50,000 inhabitants at the height of its productivity between 600 AD and 900 AD.
- Coba traded extensively with other Mayan communities as far away as Honduras and as close as Tulum, Xcaret, Xel Ha and Muyil.
- Coba’s rapid growth was due to control of farmland, trade routes and most importantly, water from the two lagoons.
- Coba structures show influences from Teotihuacan architecture, evidence that inhabitants had contact with Central Mexico.
- 120 steps lead up to the top of the Nohoch Mul pyramid, and reaches 137 feet in height. This is the tallest temple pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula. Chichen Itza has 91 steps leading up to the top of the Kulkulkan Pyramid.
- The entire site spreads over more than 30 square miles or 80 square kilometers.
- More than 50 sacbes (white roads) have been discovered within the Coba settlement with 16 open to the public. All roads originate at the main pyramid and stretch out in the four cardinal directions; east, west, north and south.
- At about 900 or 1000 AD, Coba began a lengthy power struggle with Chichén Itzá, with Chichen Itza winning in this dispute and becoming the power of the Yucatan.
- It is believed that the Coba settlement was finally abandoned when the Spanish conquered the Peninsula around 1550.
- Coba was not studied nor visited until the 1920′s as archeologists could not access the site due to dense jungle and the Caste War.
- Today, visitors can explore nearby cenotes, Choo Ha and Tamchaha that are a short 10 minute drive from the ruins main entrance. The cenotes are located to the west of Coba village where contemporary Maya live year round.
- Sacbe – The importance of the white road
- Cobá was an urban hub of many settlements that were joined by roads called sacbes, a very unique feature to this Mayan city. As you walk through Coba, you will be traveling on the same roads of the Maya centuries before. These roads, ranging in width from 10 feet to 30 feet, were constructed by the Maya for commerce. About fifty sacbes have been discovered within the grounds of Coba; with one sacbe reaching 62kms/100km. The effort required to build these wide and long paths exceeded that of stone buildings and temples. The transportation of goods along the sacbes was done by people carrying parcels during the cooler temperatures at night. The white limestone would illuminate from the moonlight and essentially provide “lights” for travelers to see. Archeologists are stumped by how the Mayans transported their goods, which was on foot, not by wheeled vehicles. Historians have documented that the Maya did not use the wheel or wheeled vehicles to transport their goods on these roads, though they were aware that the wheel existed.