Tag Archives: tulum ruins

Ruta Maya 6 – Operation Cobá

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.

“And somebody just shot the horse!”

The next day, bright and early, we walked to the Mayan ruins of Coba.

And it rained!

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.

Pyramid Coba Mexico
I won’t argue with that.

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.

Pyramid Coba Mexico
Or is it this one that’s the tallest?

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.

Mayan in Latin script… lots of apostrophes.

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.

A female. Ruling.

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.

Poor Coba!

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.

Well, until all the tourists rucked up…

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.

No Ball Games, then.

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.

Ahh… inscriptions!

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).

Coba does involve a LOT of walking about.

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.

Coba, Mexico

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.

The bus stop. Probably.

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.

The rest of the site? Pwned by trees.

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.

Graham Hughes at Coba, Mexico
It’s my pyramid, I saw it first.

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…

Hi Luis!!!

An Idiot Abroad. Now with added GINGER.


Ruta Maya 5 – Day of the Iguana

After saying goodbye to our generous and wonderful host Lance, Case and I hotfooted it onto the bus to Belize’s northern border. It took us a while to fill out all the forms and get all the right stamps, but eventually we were set free to wander the Mexican wonderland that is Mexico.


In one week Casey had been to more countries than she’d been to in her lifetime. What can I say? This is what happens when you hang out with Graham Hughes for too long. Eh? Eh? Amirite??!


SO THEN onto Tulum, which is the name of both the Mayan ruins and also the town near the ruins. We arrived just before dark, found a nice backpackers to hang our hats for the night and went for a mooch.

Main Street, Tulum
Why did I expect everything to be sepia?

The town revolved around the main road, a sandy old stretch flanked with a parade of shops either side. A bit of a tourist trap, but they had an awesome ice-cream place so we weren’t complaining.

Ice cream shop, Tulum, Mexico
Ice cream is always good.

The next day we explored the town and took the opportunity to walk to the ruins (a little further than we had estimated) without actually going in to see them. We then checked out the adjacent beach. Being gingers, we didn’t hang around on the beach for long before grabbing a taxi back to town. Watching far too many episodes of House of Cards had led us to a inexplicable desire for ribs, and we found some, but they weren’t great.

Unlike us, we’re pretty great. For gingers.

What was great was the TOTAL LUNAR ECLIPSE that night (April 14/15, 2014). Casey and I stayed up late, filming it with our cameras, taking pics and generally enjoying the show.

Total Lunar Eclipse April 15 2014
A DRAGON HAS EATEN THE MOOOOOON!! Give it back! Naughty dragon.

The next morning we had to be up with the lark (a lazy lark) in order to get over to Tulum Ruins before the crowds arrived. We didn’t do such a Stirling job of that, but what we did find was that most of the Mexican families headed straight for the bit of private beach that lies beneath the ancient acropolis – so we had the place pretty much to ourselves. Well, us and the insane number of iguanas standing guard over the old town.

Iguana standing guard at Tulum, Mexico
The Silent Sentinel

Tulum (Yucatec: Tulu’um) is the site of a Pre-Columbian Maya walled city serving as a major port for Cobá. The ruins are situated on 12-meter (39 ft) tall cliffs, along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Tulum, Mexico - Overlooking the sea
Nice view eh?

Tulum was one of the last cities inhabited and built by the Mayas; it was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and managed to survive about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico. Old World diseases brought by the Spanish settlers appear to have been the cause of its demise. One of the best-preserved coastal Maya sites, Tulum is today a popular site for tourists.

Tulum, Mexico
Although my camera helpfully deletes them for me

The Maya site may formerly have been known by the name Zama, meaning City of Dawn, because it faces the sunrise. Tulum stands on a bluff facing east towards the Caribbean Sea. Tulúm is also the Yucatan Mayan word for fence, wall or trench, and the walls surrounding the site allowed the Tulum fort to be defended against invasions.

Tulum Ruins, Mexico
Walls always help.

Tulum had access to both land and sea trade routes, making it an important trade hub, especially for obsidian. From numerous depictions in murals and other works around the site, Tulum appears to have been an important site for the worship of the Diving or Descending god. Tulum had an estimated population of 1,000 to 1,600 inhabitants.

Tulum Ruins, Mexico
And this was their local Wal-Mart

Tulum was first mentioned by Juan Díaz, a member of Juan de Grijalva’s Spanish expedition of 1518, the first Europeans to spot Tulum. The first detailed description of the ruins was published by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in 1843 in the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. As they arrived from the sea, Stephens and Catherwood first saw a tall building that impressed them greatly, most likely the great Castillo of the site. They made accurate maps of the site’s walls, and Catherwood made sketches of the Castillo and several other buildings. Stephens and Catherwood also reported an early classic stele at the site, with an inscribed date of AD 564 (now in the British Museum’s collection), which is interpreted to mean that it was most likely built elsewhere and brought to Tulum to be reused.

Temple Detail, Tulum, Mexico
Courtesy of the British Museum. Probably.

Work conducted at Tulum continued with that of Sylvanus Morley and George P. Howe, beginning in 1913. They worked to restore and open the public beaches.

Beach at Tulum, Mexico
Good job!

The work was continued by the Carnegie Institution from 1916 to 1922, Samuel Lothrop in 1924 who also mapped the site, Miguel Ángel Fernández in the late 1930s and early 1940s, William Sanders in 1956, and then later in the 1970s by Arthur G. Miller. Through these investigations done by Sanders and Miller it has been determined that Tulum was occupied during the late Postclassic period around AD 1200. The site continued to be occupied until contact with the Spanish was made in the early 16th century. By the end of the 16th century the site was abandoned completely.

Iguana overlooking the beach at Tulum, Mexico
Well, not completely.

Tulum has architecture typical of Maya sites on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. This architecture is recognized by a step running around the base of the building which sits on a low substructure. Doorways of this type are usually narrow with columns used as support if the building is big enough. As the walls flare out there are usually two sets of molding near the top. The room usually contains one or two small windows with an altar at the back wall, roofed by either a beam-and-rubble ceiling or being vaulted. This type of architecture resembles what can be found in the nearby Chichen Itza, just on a much smaller scale.

Tulum Ruins, Mexico
Probs too busy chillin’ out at the beach to go full Chichén.

Tulum was protected on one side by steep sea cliffs and on the landward side by a wall that averaged about three to 5 meters (16 ft) in height. The wall also was about 8 m (26 ft) thick and 400 m (1,300 ft) long on the side parallel to the sea. The part of the wall that ran the width of the site was slightly shorter and only about 170 meters (560 ft) on both sides. Constructing this massive wall would have taken an enormous amount of energy and time, which shows how important defence was to the Maya when they chose this site. On the southwest and northwest corners there are small structures that have been identified as watch towers, showing again how well defended the city was. There are five narrow gateways in the wall with two each on the north and south sides and one on the west. Near the northern side of the wall a small cenote provided the city with fresh water. It is this impressive wall that makes Tulum one of the most well-known fortified sites of the Maya.

Tulum watchtower and sea, Mexico
Try getting up them rocks with a thousand angry Mayans bearing down on you from above.

There are three major structures of interest at the Tulum site. El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God are the three most famous buildings. Among the more spectacular buildings here is the Temple of the Frescoes that included a lower gallery and a smaller second story gallery. The Temple of the Frescoes was used as an observatory for tracking the movements of the sun. Niched figurines of the Maya “diving god” or Venus deity decorate the facade of the temple. This “diving god” is also depicted in the Temple of the Diving God in the central precinct of the site. Above the entrance in the western wall a stucco figure of the “diving god” is still preserved, giving the temple its name. A mural can still be seen on the eastern wall that resembles that of a style that originated in highland Mexico, called the Mixteca-Puebla style, though visitors are no longer permitted to enter.

Mayan art example, Tulum, Mexico
Probs looked a bit like this…

Also in the central precinct is the Castillo, which is 7.5 m (25 ft) tall. The Castillo was built on a previous building that was colonnaded and had a beam and mortar roof. The lintels in the upper rooms have serpent motifs carved into them. The construction of the Castillo appears to have taken place in stages. A small shrine appears to have been used as a beacon for incoming canoes. This shrine marks a break in the barrier reef that is opposite the site. Here there is a cove and landing beach in a break in the sea cliffs that would have been perfect for trading canoes coming in. This characteristic of the site may be one of the reasons the Maya founded the city of Tulum exactly here, as Tulum later became a prominent trading port during the late Postclassic.

Castillo, Tulum, Mexico
The Castillo

Both coastal and land routes converged at Tulum which is apparent by the number of artifacts found in or near the site that show contacts with areas all over Central Mexico and Central America. Copper artifacts from the Mexican highlands have been found near the site, as have flint artifacts, ceramics, incense burners, and gold objects from all over the Yucatán.

We’re just here for the gold.

After a long hot day with no water (seriously Tulum GET A CONCESSION STAND) we headed back to the town to pick up our bags. It was time for the next stage of our Ruta Maya – Coba.