The view from the top was absolutely breathtaking, reaching for miles and miles over the top of the lush, green forest of trees, complemented only by the bright azure skyline. It was a view that could easily make you forget about the commotion of daily living. The climb was indeed worth it, and at only 120 steps it is not like one of the many mountains we have ventured up over the past few years – it was all but a small mount in the middle of a flat plain. Or was it?
For thousands of years this has been a site sacred to the Mayan population and although now, on the surface it resembles a city lost to the wilds of the landscape this is in-fact an area still inhabited by about 1000 people. Ok, so they are not setting up camp next to the great temple but at the same time they live on the outskirts of this once very grand, trading post.
At one time, Coba would have been the main thoroughfare for many travellers as they made their way across the country. One road, at over 101km long, was considered a highway of its time. Each one of these roads would have been created with great love and attention; no animals would have been used to transport the goods required and, as a civilisation, the Mayan opted not to use the wheel, therefore making this creation a true burden of love. Add to this the fact that conch shell powder was added to the limestone in order to reflect both the sun and the moon and you would need serious dedication in order to complete more than 42 roads around the village.
Can you imagine therefore, the time and effort it took to create the largest temple at the heart of this now, world-renowned archaeological village.
Standing at 42m (139ft) this is the largest temple found not only at Coba but across the Yucatan Peninsula. By comparison, the more touristy site of Chichen Itza stands at just over 24m and has 91 steps.
Although, to some Nohoch Mul would be classed as a pyramid, it is in fact a Temple. Pyramids normally have four equal sides, whereas Nohoch Mul has just one side that you can ascend on, the back of the temple is completely flat. It is also completely solid unlike many pyramids that have been built to honour and house something of greatness.
Whilst there is still much unknown about this site what we do know is that the temple was probably dedicated to the god, Venus. In honour of this god, only the Ruler and the Highest Priest would be able to ascend the steep, high steps to the top and provide an offering.
Standing in the shadow of this great monument, you can imagine the hard work and commitment of not just one group of individuals but generations of families that were required in order to create this masterpiece. According to carbon testing the first layer was completed around 400-500AD with the top layer taking until 900AD.
At 9:30 in the morning the sun is already fierce and the thought of climbing this lofty structure imposes on my mind. Up close, the once unintimidating temple, now looks anything but. Allowing one group the freedom to descend, we wait in the cooling shade of the forest gleaning further insights from our guide about the history of this fascinating civilisation.
Then the time came; the great ascent.
Whilst others attacked the high boulder-like steps with great zealous I opted for the slow and steady approach. The first few steps were significantly higher and simply taking a step up was not going to suffice – this was going to involve some very unladylike climbing movements if I was ever to reach the top.
Half way up, and whilst taking a short breather I started to notice the changing view – from this point I could see straight into the forest canopy; into the collection of various shades of deep green that had protected us from the sun’s rays only moments ago. We often forget to look up when wandering through such a location and at that point I realised just what I was missing, how beautiful nature was.
By the time I reached the summit of this historical gem the sun was beating down on top of me and the crowd had all but made it to the top. No peaceful moment for me to wonder at the reasoning for creating such a work of art; no opportunity to stare out at the horizon without another soul in sight. Up here people are scraping around to capture the coveted selfie with the treetops in the background before scrambling back down and moving on.
Waiting for others to start the descent back down didn’t help either; it would appear that as one group left two more were arriving.
We had been told that Coba got busy, extremely busy in fact and I can appreciate that many people want to visit this site. The area, where during the classical period, thousands of Mayan decided to settle. It is also, for the moment, one of the few remaining archaeological sites that allows you to climb its main monument. So for many, they travel to Coba to be able to say that they were one of the many to make the climb up the temple – something that at the height of this civilisation was a privilege that only two people could undertake.
A note of warning to anyone that is considering the climb; if you think that the ascent is going to be a problem, wait until you have to come back down. My advice, take your time and don’t be ashamed if you have to come down on your bum. The steps are worn and well polished due to the high number of visitors so you need to watch where you are going. Staying closer to the rope that runs up the middle is good safety advice that most guides will give but just be mindful that this is also where the steps are most worn.
With my feet firmly returning to solid ground I was once again able to marvel at the extraordinary ability of the Mayan civilisation. Would anything created now, with all our technology, still be standing the test of time in a thousand years or so?
Although most will visit Coba to admire the Nohoch Mul temple, there is much more to this site. At around 30 square miles you need to allow more than just an hour to explore. At the height of this town’s success it was believed that over 6,500 temples were constructed here to support a population of around 50,000.
What else should you see whilst there?
If nothing else, take the time to explore the ball courts and try to understand what would have taken place there.
A sport played by many Mayan, which resembles nothing like we play today. Without using feet or hands you had to aim a small ball made of rubber, cotton and animal gut into a wheel-shaped hoop several metres off the ground.
This was a sport of sacrifice, in some civilisations this would be a blood offering, in others such a Chichen Itza it would lead to a full decapitation. As a civilisation that believed that the underworld was of significant importance, with 9 gods that still needed to be acknowledged, this was a game where, it is believed, the winner would honour the sacrifice. Those chosen to play were, therefore, of great influence in the community.
Standing at just 24m in height this is believed to be the first structure created symbolising the beginning of the city at around 200-100 BC. Made in a similar style to Nohoch Mul, this was used as a platform for both the Ruler and High Priest to address their nation.
During this period, whilst the Ruler would also address his congregation it was actually the High Priest who was in control; the person that held the knowledge. He would know when an eclipse was due for example, and would use this to his advantage. Telling the community that they were not pleasing the gods and that if they did not improve their offerings something bad would happen, already knowing that an eclipse was due. Once the eclipse had taken place, people would assume that this was due to that lack of commitment and therefore offer even more to the gods moving forward.
In some ways you can begin to understand why, when the Spanish arrived, they banned all Mayan activity, believing that it was a form of devil worship.
There is so much to see in Coba, make sure you allow enough time to really explore the site. Not only that, if given the opportunity, go out into the local community left there today, witness how they survive and how talented they are – it will be a real eye-opener.
Our Tips for Coba:
- Get there early – the site opens at 8am and by 9:30 it really begins to see an influx of tourists.
- Wear suitable footwear – flip-flops are not going to help you here.
- If you don’t want to walk the site take the offer of a guided tour on bike. Many are from the village down the road so know a great deal about the site.
- Water. If you are planning on climbing Nohoch Mul this is a must and try to climb either early in the morning , or later in the afternoon – climbing up it at midday would just be a battle with the mid-day sun.
- If you are only in the area for one day, make the 44km trip up to Tulum, another great site with beautiful beaches well worthy of everyone’s attention.
We spent the day exploring with Coba Mayan Village tours and would highly recommend them to anyone who wants to visit this area.