So then, another day, another fabulous Mayan City to explore. Uxmal is (was) located a hundred miles or so south of Merida, so we hopped on the local bus and headed down to see what we could find.
Uxmal (Yucatec Maya: Óoxmáal) is an ancient Maya city of the classical period in present-day Mexico. It is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, along with Chichen Itza in Mexico (tick!); Caracol and Xunantunich in Belize (oh, really? bummer), and Tikal in Guatemala (tick coming soon!).
Uxmal is located in the Puuc region and is considered one of the Maya cities most representative of the region’s dominant architectural style. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its significance.
Uxmal is located 62 km south of Mérida, capital of Yucatán state in Mexico. Its buildings are noted for their size and decoration. Ancient roads called sacbes connect the buildings, and also were built to other cities in the area such as Chichén Itzá, Caracol and Xunantunich in modern-day Belize, and Tikal in modern-day Guatemala.
Its buildings are typical of the Riley Kand Puuc style, with smooth low walls that open on ornate friezes based on representations of typical Maya huts. These are represented by columns (representing the reeds used for the walls of the huts) and trapezoidal shapes (representing the thatched roofs). Entwined snakes and, in many cases two-headed snakes are used for masks of the rain god, Chaac; its big noses represent the rays of the storms. Feathered serpents with open fangs are shown leaving from the same human beings. Also seen in some cities are the influences of the Nahua, who followed the cult of Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc. These were integrated with the original elements of the Puuc tradition.
The buildings take advantage of the terrain to gain height and acquire important volumes, including the Pyramid of the Magician, with five levels, and the Governor’s Palace, which covers an area of more than 1,200 m2 (12,917 sq ft).
The present name seems to derive from Oxmal, meaning “three times built”. This seems to refer to the site’s antiquity and the times it had to rebuild. The etymology is disputed; another possibility is Uchmal which means “what is to come, the future.” By tradition, this was supposed to be an “invisible city,” built in one night by the magic of the dwarf king.
Maya chronicles say that Uxmal was founded about 500 A.D. by Hun Uitzil Chac Tutul Xiu. For generations Uxmal was ruled over by the Xiu family. It was the most powerful site in western Yucatán, and for a while, in alliance with Chichen Itza, dominated all of the northern Maya area. Sometime after about 1200, no new major construction seems to have been made at Uxmal, possibly related to the fall of Uxmal’s ally Chichen Itza and the shift of power in Yucatán to Mayapan. The Xiu moved their capital to Maní, and the population of Uxmal declined.
Uxmal was dominant from 875 to 900 CE. The site appears to have been the capital of a regional state in the Puuc region from 850-950 CE. The Maya dynasty expanded their dominion over their neighbors. This prominence did not last long, as the population dispersed around 1000 CE.
After the Spanish conquest of Yucatán (in which the Xiu allied with the Spanish), early colonial documents suggest that Uxmal was still an inhabited place of some importance into the 1550s. As the Spanish did not build a town here, Uxmal was soon after largely abandoned.
Even before the restoration work, Uxmal was in better condition than many other Maya sites. Much was built with well-cut stones set into a core of concrete not relying on plaster to hold the building together. The Maya architecture here is considered matched only by that of Palenque in elegance and beauty. The Puuc style of Maya architecture predominates. Thanks to its good state of preservation, it is one of the few Maya cities where the casual visitor can get a good idea of how the entire ceremonial centre looked in ancient times.
The Adivino (a.k.a. the Pyramid of the Magician or the Pyramid of the Dwarf), is a stepped pyramid structure, unusual among Maya structures in that its layers’ outlines are oval or elliptical in shape, instead of the more common rectilinear plan. It was a common practice in Mesoamerica to build new temple pyramids atop older ones, but here a newer pyramid was built centered slightly to the east of the older pyramid, so that on the west side the temple atop the old pyramid is preserved, with the newer temple above it. In addition, the western staircase of the pyramid is situated so that it faces the setting sun on the summer solstice.
The structure is featured in one of the best-known tales of Yucatec Maya folklore, “el enano del Uxmal” (the dwarf of Uxmal), which is also the basis for the structure’s common name. Multiple versions of this tale are recorded. It was popularised after one of these was recounted by John Lloyd Stephens in his influential 1841 book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. According to Stephens’ version, the pyramid was magically built overnight during a series of challenges issued to a dwarf by the gobernador (ruler or king) of Uxmal. The dwarf’s mother (a bruja, or witch) arranged the trial of strength and magic to compete against the king.
The Nunnery Quadrangle (a nickname given to it by the Spanish; it was a government palace) is the finest of Uxmal’s several fine quadrangles of long buildings. It has elaborately carved façades on both the inside and outside faces.
A large Ballcourt for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. Its inscription says that it was dedicated in 901 by the ruler Chan Chak K’ak’nal Ajaw, also known as Lord Chac (before the decipherment of his corresponding name glyphs).
A number of other temple-pyramids, quadrangles, and other monuments, some of significant size, and in varying states of preservation, are also at Uxmal. These include North Long Building, House of the Birds, House of the Turtles, Grand Pyramid, House of the Doves, and South Temple.
Uxmal has attracted many visitors since the time of Mexico’s independence. The first detailed account of the ruins was published by Jean Frederic Waldeck in 1838. John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood made two extended visits to Uxmal in the early 1840s, with architect/draftsman Catherwood reportedly making so many plans and drawings that they could be used to construct a duplicate of the ancient city (unfortunately most of the drawings are lost).) Désiré Charnay took a series of photographs of Uxmal in 1860. Some three years later Empress Carlota of Mexico visited Uxmal; in preparation for her visit local authorities had some statues and architectural elements depicting phallic themes removed from the ancient façades.
Sylvanus G. Morley made a map of the site in 1909 which included some previously overlooked buildings. The Mexican government’s first project to protect some of the structures from risk of collapse or further decay came in 1927. In 1930 Frans Blom led a Tulane University expedition to the site. They made plaster casts of the façades of the “Nunnery Quadrangle”; using these casts, a replica of the Quadrangle was constructed and displayed at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. The plaster replicas of the architecture were destroyed following the fair, but some of the plaster casts of Uxmal’s monuments are still kept at Tulane’s Middle American Research Institute. In 1936 a Mexican government repair and consolidation program was begun under José Erosa Peniche.
Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom visited on 27 February 1975 for the inauguration of the site’s sound & light show. When the presentation reached the point where the sound system played the Maya prayer to Chaac (the Maya rain deity), a sudden torrential downpour occurred. Gathered dignitaries included Gaspar Antonio Xiu, a descendant of noble Maya lineage, the Xiu).
We left the site in the late afternoon, waited at the roadside for what seemed like an age before a bus came along and picked us up. We got back to Merida at sunset.
Then it was food>face>shovel time and after grabbing our things from the hotel, it was back to the bus station to jump on the overnight coach to our next awesome Mayan destination… PALENQUE!!
It was dark before we hit Merida. We found ourselves a rustic little backpackers located in an old pension, but without effective fans the night was sweltering. I was rudely awoken in the morning, not by the dustmen, but by an earthquake. Bits of paint fell from the high ceiling. It measured 7.2 on the Richter Scale. Case slept right through it.
We decided to have a day off from gallivanting around Mayan ruins and instead go gallivanting around the town of Merida. I’m glad we did – the place is wonderful. I found us a new gaff to stay for the night, a nice little hotel on the north end of town, and I even splurged out on AC and a telly that we would probably not even use.
We went for lunch and ordered too much food.
The road adjacent to the main square was closed off and bleachers were being set up – some event going on that evening.
Being Good Friday, I kinda expected it to be a Catholic thing, so imagine my surprise and delight to find that no, we had just found ourselves ringside for THE COOLEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN.
You don’t believe me, do you?
CHECK THIS OUT:
Yeah, YEAH… NOW YOU BELIEVE ME!!!
Aside from the Fire Hockey, there were traditional Mayan ball games…
And even a wedding!
You’d think it was just good timing, but I swear stuff like this always happens when you’re on the road!
After all the fun of the Mayan games (seriously going to write to the IOC and ask for Fire Hockey to be included in the next Olympic Games), Case and I grabbed some ice-cream…
Checked these beautiful old churches…
And ended up in this pub that had some incredible décor.
Another early morning and our third helping of Mayan awesomeness in three days. You may have heard of this place…
Chichén Itzá, from Yucatec Maya Chi’ch’èen Ìitsha’ means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza”. It was a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya people of the Terminal Classic. The archaeological site is located in the municipality of Tinum, in the Mexican state of Yucatán.
Chichen Itza was a major focal point in the Northern Maya Lowlands from the Late Classic (c. AD 600–900) through the Terminal Classic (c. AD 800–900) and into the early portion of the Postclassic period (c. AD 900–1200). The site exhibits a multitude of architectural styles, reminiscent of styles seen in central Mexico and of the Puuc and Chenes styles of the Northern Maya lowlands.
The presence of central Mexican styles was once thought to have been representative of direct migration or even conquest from central Mexico, but most contemporary interpretations view the presence of these non-Maya styles more as the result of cultural diffusion.
Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities and it was likely to have been one of the mythical great cities, or Tollans, referred to in later Mesoamerican literature. The city may have had the most diverse population in the Maya world, a factor that could have contributed to the variety of architectural styles at the site.
Evidence in the Chilam Balam books indicates another, earlier name for this city prior to the arrival of the Itza hegemony in northern Yucatán. While most sources agree the first word means seven, there is considerable debate as to the correct translation of the rest. This earlier name is difficult to define because of the absence of a single standard of orthography, but it is represented variously as Uuc Yabnal (“Seven Great House”), Uuc Hab Nal (“Seven Bushy Places”), Uucyabnal (“Seven Great Rulers”) or Uc Abnal (“Seven Lines of Abnal”). This name, dating to the Late Classic Period, is recorded both in the book of Chilam Balam de Chumayel and in hieroglyphic texts in the ruins.
Chichen Itza is located in the eastern portion of Yucatán state in Mexico. The northern Yucatán Peninsula is arid, and the rivers in the interior all run underground. There are two large, natural sink holes, called cenotes, that could have provided plentiful water year round at Chichen, making it attractive for settlement. Of the two cenotes, the “Cenote Sagrado” or Sacred Cenote (also variously known as the Sacred Well or Well of Sacrifice), is the most famous.
According to post-Conquest sources (Maya and Spanish), pre-Columbian Maya sacrificed objects and human beings into the cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac. Edward Herbert Thompson dredged the Cenote Sagrado from 1904 to 1910, and recovered artifacts of gold, jade, pottery and incense, as well as human remains. A study of human remains taken from the Cenote Sagrado found that they had wounds consistent with human sacrifice.
The core layout of the Chichen Itza site developed during its earlier phase of occupation, between 750 and 900 AD. Its final layout was developed after 900 AD, and the 10th century saw the rise of the city as a regional capital controlling the area from central Yucatán to the north coast, with its power extending down the east and west coasts of the peninsula. The earliest hieroglyphic date discovered at Chichen Itza is equivalent to 832 AD, while the last known date was recorded in the Osario temple in 998.
The Late Classic city was centered upon the area to the southwest of the Xtoloc cenote, with the main architecture represented by the substructures now underlying the Las Monjas and Observatorio and the basal platform upon which they were built.
Chichen Itza rose to regional prominence towards the end of the Early Classic period (roughly 600 AD). It was, however, towards the end of the Late Classic and into the early part of the Terminal Classic that the site became a major regional capital, centralizing and dominating political, sociocultural, economic, and ideological life in the northern Maya lowlands. The ascension of Chichen Itza roughly correlates with the decline and fragmentation of the major centers of the southern Maya lowlands.
According to Maya chronicles (e.g., the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel), Hunac Ceel, ruler of Mayapan, conquered Chichen Itza in the 13th century. Hunac Ceel supposedly prophesied his own rise to power. According to custom at the time, individuals thrown into the Cenote Sagrado were believed to have the power of prophecy if they survived. During one such ceremony, the chronicles state, there were no survivors, so Hunac Ceel leaped into the Cenote Sagrado, and when removed, prophesied his own ascension.
While there is some archaeological evidence that indicates Chichén Itzá was at one time looted and sacked, there appears to be greater evidence that it could not have been by Mayapan, at least not when Chichén Itzá was an active urban center. Archaeological data now indicates that Chichen Itza declined as a regional center by 1250 CE, before the rise of Mayapan. Ongoing research at the site of Mayapan may help resolve this chronological conundrum.
While Chichén Itzá “collapsed” or fell (meaning elite activities ceased) it may not have been abandoned. When the Spanish arrived, they found a thriving local population, although it is not clear from Spanish sources if Maya were living in Chichen Itza or nearby. The relatively high density of population in the region was one of the factors behind the conquistadors’ decision to locate a capital there. According to post-Conquest sources, both Spanish and Maya, the Cenote Sagrado remained a place of pilgrimage.
In 1526 Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo (a veteran of the Grijalva and Cortés expeditions) successfully petitioned the King of Spain for a charter to conquer Yucatán. His first campaign in 1527, which covered much of the Yucatán peninsula, decimated his forces but ended with the establishment of a small fort at Xaman Ha’, south of what is today Cancún. Montejo returned to Yucatán in 1531 with reinforcements and established his main base at Campeche on the west coast. He sent his son, Francisco Montejo The Younger, in late 1532 to conquer the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula from the north. The objective from the beginning was to go to Chichén Itzá and establish a capital.
Montejo the Younger eventually arrived at Chichen Itza, which he renamed Ciudad Real. At first he encountered no resistance, and set about dividing the lands around the city and awarding them to his soldiers. The Maya became more hostile over time, and eventually they laid siege to the Spanish, cutting off their supply line to the coast, and forcing them to barricade themselves among the ruins of the ancient city. Months passed, but no reinforcements arrived. Montejo the Younger attempted an all out assault against the Maya and lost 150 of his remaining troops. He was forced to abandon Chichén Itzá in 1534 under cover of darkness. By 1535, all Spanish had been driven from the Yucatán Peninsula.
Montejo eventually returned to Yucatán and, by recruiting Maya from Campeche and Champoton, built a large Indio-Spanish army and conquered the peninsula. The Spanish crown later issued a land grant that included Chichen Itza and by 1588 it was a working cattle ranch.
Chichen Itza entered the popular imagination in 1843 with the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens (with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood). The book recounted Stephens’ visit to Yucatán and his tour of Maya cities, including Chichén Itzá. The book prompted other explorations of the city. In 1860, Desire Charnay surveyed Chichén Itzá and took numerous photographs that he published in Cités et ruines américaines (1863).
In 1875, Augustus Le Plongeon and his wife Alice Dixon Le Plongeon visited Chichén, and excavated a statue of a figure on its back, knees drawn up, upper torso raised on its elbows with a plate on its stomach. Augustus Le Plongeon called it “Chaacmol” (later renamed “Chac Mool”, which has been the term to describe all types of this statuary found in Mesoamerica). Teobert Maler and Alfred Maudslay explored Chichén in the 1880s and both spent several weeks at the site and took extensive photographs. Maudslay published the first long-form description of Chichen Itza in his book, Biologia Centrali-Americana.
In 1894 the United States Consul to Yucatán, Edward Herbert Thompson purchased the Hacienda Chichén, which included the ruins of Chichen Itza. For 30 years, Thompson explored the ancient city. His discoveries included the earliest dated carving upon a lintel in the Temple of the Initial Series and the excavation of several graves in the Osario (High Priest’s Temple). Thompson is most famous for dredging the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) from 1904 to 1910, where he recovered artifacts of gold, copper and carved jade, as well as the first-ever examples of what were believed to be pre-Columbian Maya cloth and wooden weapons. Thompson shipped the bulk of the artifacts to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
In 1913, the Carnegie Institution accepted the proposal of archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley and committed to conduct long-term archaeological research at Chichen Itza. The Mexican Revolution and the following government instability, as well as World War I, delayed the project by a decade.
In 1923, the Mexican government awarded the Carnegie Institution a 10-year permit (later extended another 10 years) to allow U.S. archaeologists to conduct extensive excavation and restoration of Chichen Itza. Carnegie researchers excavated and restored the Temple of Warriors and the Caracol, among other major buildings. At the same time, the Mexican government excavated and restored El Castillo and the Great Ball Court.
In 1926, the Mexican government charged Edward Thompson with theft, claiming he stole the artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado and smuggled them out of the country. The government seized the Hacienda Chichén. Thompson, who was in the United States at the time, never returned to Yucatán. He wrote about his research and investigations of the Maya culture in a book People of the Serpent published in 1932. He died in New Jersey in 1935. In 1944 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Thompson had broken no laws and returned Chichen Itza to his heirs. The Thompsons sold the hacienda to tourism pioneer Fernando Barbachano Peon.
There have been two later expeditions to recover artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado, in 1961 and 1967. The first was sponsored by the National Geographic, and the second by private interests. Both projects were supervised by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). INAH has conducted an ongoing effort to excavate and restore other monuments in the archaeological zone, including the Osario, Akab D’zib, and several buildings in Chichén Viejo (Old Chichen).
In 2009, to investigate construction that predated El Castillo, Yucatec archaeologists began excavations adjacent to El Castillo under the direction of Rafael (Rach) Cobos.
Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities, with the relatively densely clustered architecture of the site core covering an area of at least 5 square kilometres (1.9 sq mi). Smaller scale residential architecture extends for an unknown distance beyond this. The city was built upon broken terrain, which was artificially levelled in order to build the major architectural groups, with the greatest effort being expended in the levelling of the areas for the Castillo pyramid, and the Las Monjas, Osario and Main Southwest groups. The site contains many fine stone buildings in various states of preservation, and many have been restored. The buildings were connected by a dense network of paved causeways, called sacbeob. Archaeologists have identified over 80 sacbeob criss-crossing the site, and extending in all directions from the city.
The architecture encompasses a number of styles, including the Puuc and Chenes styles of the northern Yucatán Peninsula. The buildings of Chichen Itza are grouped in a series of architectonic sets, and each set was at one time separated from the other by a series of low walls. The three best known of these complexes are the Great North Platform, which includes the monuments of El Castillo, Temple of Warriors and the Great Ball Court; The Osario Group, which includes the pyramid of the same name as well as the Temple of Xtoloc; and the Central Group, which includes the Caracol, Las Monjas, and Akab Dzib.
South of Las Monjas, in an area known as Chichén Viejo (Old Chichén) and only open to archaeologists, are several other complexes, such as the Group of the Initial Series, Group of the Lintels, and Group of the Old Castle.
Dominating the North Platform of Chichen Itza is the Temple of Kukulkan (a Maya feathered serpent deity similar to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl), usually referred to as El Castillo (“the castle”).
This step pyramid stands about 30 metres (98 ft) high and consists of a series of nine square terraces, each approximately 2.57 metres (8.4 ft) high, with a 6-metre (20 ft) high temple upon the summit. The sides of the pyramid are approximately 55.3 metres (181 ft) at the base and rise at an angle of 53°, although that varies slightly for each side. The four faces of the pyramid have protruding stairways that rise at an angle of 45°. The talud walls of each terrace slant at an angle of between 72° and 74°. At the base of the balustrades of the northeastern staircase are carved heads of a serpent.
Mesoamerican cultures periodically superimposed larger structures over older ones, and El Castillo is one such example. In the mid-1930s, the Mexican government sponsored an excavation of El Castillo. After several false starts, they discovered a staircase under the north side of the pyramid. By digging from the top, they found another temple buried below the current one. Inside the temple chamber was a Chac Mool statue and a throne in the shape of Jaguar, painted red and with spots made of inlaid jade. The Mexican government excavated a tunnel from the base of the north staircase, up the earlier pyramid’s stairway to the hidden temple, and opened it to tourists. In 2006, INAH closed the throne room to the public.
On the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, in the late afternoon, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the western balustrade on the north side that evokes the appearance of a serpent wriggling down the staircase, which some scholars have suggested is a representation of the feathered-serpent god Kukulkan.
Archaeologists have identified thirteen ballcourts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame in Chichen Itza, but the Great Ball Court about 150 metres (490 ft) to the north-west of the Castillo is by far the most impressive. It is the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. It measures 168 by 70 metres (551 by 230 ft).
The parallel platforms flanking the main playing area are each 95 metres (312 ft) long. The walls of these platforms stand 8 metres (26 ft) high; set high up in the centre of each of these walls are rings carved with intertwined feathered serpents.
At the base of the high interior walls are slanted benches with sculpted panels of teams of ball players. In one panel, one of the players has been decapitated; the wound emits streams of blood in the form of wriggling snakes.
At one end of the Great Ball Court is the North Temple, also known as the Temple of the Bearded Man (Templo del Hombre Barbado). This small masonry building has detailed bas relief carving on the inner walls, including a center figure that has carving under his chin that resembles facial hair. At the south end is another, much bigger temple, but in ruins.
Built into the east wall are the Temples of the Jaguar. The Upper Temple of the Jaguar overlooks the ball court and has an entrance guarded by two, large columns carved in the familiar feathered serpent motif. Inside there is a large mural, much destroyed, which depicts a battle scene.
The Temple of the Warriors complex consists of a large stepped pyramid fronted and flanked by rows of carved columns depicting warriors. This complex is analogous to Temple B at the Toltec capital of Tula, and indicates some form of cultural contact between the two regions.
The one at Chichen Itza, however, was constructed on a larger scale. At the top of the stairway on the pyramid’s summit (and leading towards the entrance of the pyramid’s temple) is a Chac Mool. This temple encases or entombs a former structure called The Temple of the Chac Mool. The archeological expedition and restoration of this building was done by the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1925 to 1928. A key member of this restoration was Earl H. Morris who published the work from this expedition in two volumes entitled Temple of the Warriors.
Along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors are a series of what are today exposed columns, although when the city was inhabited these would have supported an extensive roof system. The columns are in three distinct sections: a west group, that extends the lines of the front of the Temple of Warriors; a north group, which runs along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors and contains pillars with carvings of soldiers in bas-relief; and a northeast group, which apparently formed a small temple at the southeast corner of the Temple of Warriors, which contains a rectangular decorated with carvings of people or gods, as well as animals and serpents. The northeast column temple also covers a small marvel of engineering, a channel that funnels all the rainwater from the complex some 40 metres (130 ft) away to a rejollada, a former cenote.
To the south of the Group of a Thousand Columns is a group of three, smaller, interconnected buildings. The Temple of the Carved Columns is a small elegant building that consists of a front gallery with an inner corridor that leads to an altar with a Chac Mool. There are also numerous columns with rich, bas-relief carvings of some 40 personages. A section of the upper façade with a motif of x’s and o’s is displayed in front of the structure. The Temple of the Small Tables which is an unrestored mound. And the Thompson’s Temple (referred to in some sources as Palace of Ahau Balam Kauil ), a small building with two levels that has friezes depicting Jaguars (balam in Maya) as well as glyphs of the Maya god Kahuil.
The Osario itself, like El Castillo, is a step-pyramid temple dominating its platform, only on a smaller scale. Like its larger neighbor, it has four sides with staircases on each side. There is a temple on top, but unlike El Castillo, at the center is an opening into the pyramid which leads to a natural cave 12 metres (39 ft) below. Edward H. Thompson excavated this cave in the late 19th century, and because he found several skeletons and artifacts such as jade beads, he named the structure The High Priests’ Temple. Archaeologists today believe the structure was neither a tomb nor that the personages buried in it were priests.
The Temple of Xtoloc is a recently restored temple outside the Osario Platform is. It overlooks the other large cenote at Chichen Itza, named after the Maya word for iguana, “Xtoloc.” The temple contains a series of pilasters carved with images of people, as well as representations of plants, birds and mythological scenes.
Phew! We were there all day, and still didn’t get to see everything. The observatory would have to wait until next time. We were actually the last to leave, which enabled me to (somewhat cheekily) get this last shot of El Castillo before we were escorted out by security.
Outside we ran into some Mayan warriors who were desperate to get a picture with a famed adventurer such as I.
Back in Piste, Case and I grabbed something to eat and then hopped on the bus to our next destination on the Ruta Maya: the city of Merida!
We arrived in the small town of Coba after nightfall. The town comprised of a boring old road and a rather splendid lake situated to the right of it. After a quick walking tour of the three available hotels, we settled in for the night.
The next day, bright and early, we walked to the Mayan ruins of Coba.
Coba (Cobá in the Spanish language) is a large ruined city of the Pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. It is located about 90 kilometres (56 mi) east of the Maya site of Chichen Itza and 44 kilometres (27 mi) northwest of the site of Tulum.
Coba is located around two lagoons. A series of elevated stone and plaster roads radiate from the central site to various smaller sites near and far. These are known by the Maya term sacbe (plural sacbeob). Some of these causeways go east, and the longest runs over 100 kilometres (62 mi) westwards to the site of Yaxuna. The site contains several large temple pyramids, the tallest, in what is known as the Nohoch Mul group of structures, being some 42 metres (138 ft) in height. Ixmoja is the tallest pyramid on the Yucatán peninsula.
Coba is estimated to have had some 50,000 inhabitants (and possibly significantly more) at its peak of civilization, and the built up area extends over some 80 km². The site was occupied by a sizable agricultural population by the 1st century. The bulk of Coba’s major construction seems to have been made in the middle and late Classic period, about 500 to 900, with most of the dated hieroglyphic inscriptions from the 7th century. However Coba remained an important site in the Post-Classic era and new temples were built and old ones kept in repair until at least the 14th century, possibly as late as the arrival of the Spanish.
Archaeological evidence indicates that Cobá was first settled between 100 BC and 100 AD. At that time, there was a town with buildings of wood and palm fronts and flat platforms. The only archeological evidence of the time are fragments of pottery. After 100 AD, the area around Coba evidenced strong population growth, and with it an increase in its social and political status among Maya city states which would ultimately make Coba one of the biggest and most powerful city states in the northern Yucatán area. Between 200 and 600 AD, Coba must have dominated a vast area, including the north of the state of Quintana Roo and areas in the east of the state of Yucatán.
Coba must have maintained close contacts with the large city states of Guatemala and the south of Campeche like Tikal, Dzibanche or Calakmul. To maintain its influence, Coba must have established military alliances and arranged marriages among their elites. It is quite noteworthy that Coba shows traces of Teotihuacan architecture, like a platform in the Paintings group that was explored in 1999, which would attest of the existence of contacts with the central Mexican cultures and its powerful city of the early Classic epoch. Stelae uncovered at Coba are believed to depict that Coba had many female rulers.
After 600 AD, the emergence of powerful city states of the Puuc culture and the emergence of Chichén Itzá altered the political spectrum in the Yucatán peninsula and began eroding the dominance of Coba. Beginning around 900 or 1000 AD, Coba must have begun a lengthy power struggle with Chichén Itzá, with the latter dominating at the end as it gained control of key cities such as Yaxuná.
After 1000 AD, Coba lost much of its political weight among city states, although it maintained some symbolic and religious importance. This allowed it to maintain or recover some status, which is evidenced by the new buildings dating to the time 1200-1500 AD, now built in the typical Eastern coastal style. However, power centers and trading routes had moved to the coast, forcing cities like Coba into a secondary status, although somewhat more successful than its more ephemeral enemy Chichén Itzá. Coba was abandoned at the time the Spanish conquered the peninsula around 1550.
Knowledge of this expansive site was never completely lost, but it was not examined by scholars until the 1920s. John Lloyd Stephens mentioned hearing reports of the site in 1841, but it was so distant from any known modern road or village that he decided the difficulty in trying to get there was too daunting. For much of the rest of the 19th century the area could not be visited by outsiders due to the Caste War of Yucatán. Teoberto Maler paid Coba a short visit in 1893 and took at least one photograph, but unfortunately did not publish at the time and the site remained unknown to the archeological community.
Amateur explorer Dr. Thomas Gann was brought to the site by some local Maya hunters in February 1926. Gann published the first first-hand description of the ruins later the same year. Gann gave a short description to the archeologists of the Carnegie Institution project at Chichen Itza, which sent out an expedition under J. Eric S. Thompson. Thompson’s initial report of a surprisingly large site with many inscriptions prompted Sylvanus Morley to mount a more thorough examination of the site.
Eric Thompson made a number of return visits to the site through 1932, in which year he published a detailed description. Much of the site, including its road system was mapped in the mid 1970s (Folan). Some residences were excavated in the early 1980s (Benevides and Manzanilla).
The site remained little visited due to its remoteness until the first modern road was opened up to Coba in the early 1970s. As a major resort was planned for Cancún, it was realized that clearing and restoring some of the large site could make it an important tourist attraction.
The Mexican National Institute of Anthropology & History began some archeological excavations in 1972 directed by Carlos Navarrete, and consolidated a couple of buildings. At the start of the 1980s another road to Coba was opened up and paved, and a regular bus service begun.
Coba became a tourist destination shortly thereafter, with many visitors visiting the site on day trips from Cancún and the Riviera Maya. Only a small portion of the site has been cleared from the jungle and restored by archaeologists.
Well I hope you enjoyed your Wikipedia-curated tour of Coba. Is this really lazy of me? Probably. But considering it’s taken me the best part of a year to get these blogs online, it’s the least of my worries.
We left the the sprawling ruins of Coba in the afternoon and took the bus a couple of hours westward to a little place called Piste, next door to the world famous site of Chichén Itzá.
I decided that before going to Chichén Itzá, I wanted some Chicken Pizza. OBVS. However, Piste was a bit of an un-caballo town so we ended up going to the pub instead.
And if you’re going to try and guess who we met in the pub, you should watch this first…
I don’t take over Jinja Island until May 1st, so Casey and I have a spare month to go and explore Central America, one of the areas I rushed through on the Old Odyssey Expedition. The plan is for us to race north and visit at least ten Mayan sites spread out over Belize, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
So after a few days on the island we said our farewells to Ian and Vanessa for the moment and returned to Bocas Town, where we stayed for a week, chilling out in the Mundo Taito backpackers.
Then it was time to hit the road. Panama to Belize overland? Hell yeah! Why am I getting this strange feeling of Deja Vu…?
Casey and I left Bocas Town on April 5 and began our journey by taking the ferry boat over to Almirante and the mainland of Panama (Bocas Town is on an island). Then it was a typically hair-raising minibus ride to the border with Costa Rica.
Crossing the rickety old bridge at the border was as hilarious as ever, but at least we weren’t trundling our suitcases over it this time. From now on it’s backpacks all the waaaaaaay!
On the Costa Rican side of the border a group of backpackers coming the other way recognised me from such medical movies as “Mommy, What’s On That Man’s Face?” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Anymore.” Photos were taken…
..and photos were photobombed.
I thought I had timed our border crossing really well, arriving at 1.55pm for the 2pm bus for San Jose… but I forgot that Costa Rica is an hour behind Panama (Panama, formally part of Colombia, syncs up its timepieces with Bogota) – and so 2pm Costa Rica time wouldn’t be for another hour. Case and I grabbed a dreadful burger from a (tellingly) deserted cafe, but before long we were well on our way to the capital via Puerto Viejo, Puerto Limon and – yes – the Del Monte town of LIVERPOOL, Costa Rica!
We arrived in San Jose around 10pm and headed to a bar that would be open late, near the bus station. The bus up to Guatemala left at 3am. Madness I know. I think it’s something to do with the fact that buses don’t like driving at night.
We got online and went to the Tica bus site to book our tickets for tonight’s bus, but the website don’t wanna let you do that.
So I left Casey in the bar with our backpacks and walked the streets of Costa Rica’s capital, late on a Friday night, to the bus terminal.
One of the most irritating things about travelling around Central America is that each bus company tends to have its own terminal, as opposed to the MUCH BETTER system in South America, in which there is ONE bus terminal and all of the bus companies operate out of it.
I walked for ages, and I just couldn’t find the damn place. Bad map reading skills? Not on your nelly! It’s not 2009 anymore. My memory (and my Lonely Planet guidebook) was out of date. The station had moved to the other side of town. Only, San Jose doesn’t think much of road names either, so finding an address for the new place was nigh on impossible.
I decided to take a cab, hoping he’d know where it was, and luckily he did. I arrived, asked my cabbie to wait outside, queued for half an hour only to be told the 3am bus was sold out.
I returned to the pub to let Casey know what was going on, and then walked the street trying to find somewhere to stay the night. Nearly all the places marked in my 2008 Lonely Planet had either closed down, moved, or didn’t take guests after midnight.
In desperation, I checked us into Pangea Hostel, a former jail that I’ve heard nothing but bad things about. And I can happily say that they didn’t disappoint!
For thirty dollars, we slept in a dorm room (cell) on bunk beds. In the morning we drank our tiny cups of free coffee whilst having pop dance music BLASTED into our eardrums at 120dB. At 10am we had to not just check out but leave the premises entirely… or else stump up another $15 to stay for a few more hours.
To add insult to injury, the staff were surly as hell (except for one guy who was nice but tellingly utterly exasperated by it all) and seemed to have gone to the Basil Fawlty school of hospitality.
Wow. Way NOT to run a hostel guys! Check out the reviews on Trip Advisor…
Luckily, there’s a lovely little bar a few buildings down the same road that’s cheap, cheerful, has wi-fi, the food is grrrrreat and it’s open until 2am.
We stayed all day and late into the night.
At 3am we left the city on our way up though Nicaragua, Honduras and into El Salvador.
Nicaragua not only has some amazing natural treasures, it’s also obsessed with Smurf hats. There’s one on the flag AND on the coins. Don’t believe me? Look closely…
We arrived in San Salvador at around 2am and the connecting bus to Guatemala would be leaving at 5am. We imagined we’d just stay up, but the bus company had thought of that…! They gave us no choice but to stay in their crappy little hotel, so we wound up paying for an entire night even though we were only there for 3 hours.
So then onward to Guatemala City! We arrived around noon and took a taxi to the bus station for Puerto Barrios on the caribbean coast… from whence we could take a boat to Punta Gorda, Belize.
These place names are not meaning much, are they? Would a zoomable map of our journey help? YOUR WISH IS MY COMMAND!
I know, I know, I’m far too good to you.
I managed to do this same journey much quicker on The Odyssey Expedition, but on this trip we didn’t arrive in Puerto Barrios until nightfall – there were no ferryboats until tomorrow morning.
So we checked into a sweet little guesthouse and went out to get ourselves a couple of mountains of yummy grub.
In the morning we paid our ‘exit tax’ and were stamped out of Guatemala. Onto the morning speedboat… next stop… BELIZE!!!