COBA Quintana Roo (Yucatan), Mexico
Coba is a large and important Mayan archaeological zone located in the eastern portion of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is one of the few sites to retain its original Maya name, Ko’ba a, which translates to ruffled/uneven water. The site is located about 28 miles/47 kms inland from the Caribbean coast. Its early settlement dates to the Pre-Classic (300 B.C. – 200 A.D.), and it reached its height in economic and political power as a regional capital in the Late Classic (600-900 A.D.). Though it started to decline in status after this date, it still was a viable city until at least the 14th century. Its core area is built around four lakes, though the extended site itself is thought to encompass around 10 square miles/26kms sq, containing thousands of structures, mostly residential platforms. The population at its peak has been estimated at 50,000 inhabitants.
There are four main structural groups that comprise the core area, Groups A-D, including one that has the highest pyramid in the northern Yucatan. There are other smaller groups and individual structures scattered throughout the site.
Coba contains numerous stelae (free-standing carved stone slabs), some having legible historical data, with most protected under thatch roof palapas. There are also around 50 sacbeob (white stone roads) that extend within and without the site, the longest being over 62 miles/100 kms that reaches to the western site of Yaxuna. This is the longest sacbe found in the Maya area. Some of the modern paths lead over the raised sacbeob which, though recognizable, are cluttered with trees. Also to be found here are images of the “Diving God” which are seen at the coastal site of Tulum, identified as one of the seaports for Coba.
Coba is reached by traveling south from Cancun on coastal Highway 307, and turning inland onto Highway 109 at the town of Tulum. It is about 26 miles/40 kms to the site from Tulum. The signage is very good. It is highly recommended to rent a bicycle at the visitor kiosk (the site is really large), and to arrive early before the numerous tour buses start to pour in around 10 A.M. Make sure to pick up some water at the snack bar before entering the site proper. There is also a small snack bar by the Nohoch Mul Group.
HOURS: 8 A.M-5 P.M.
ENTRANCE FEE: U.S. 4.25/75 Pesos; Parking $2.75/50 Pesos
GUIDES: Yes, inquire at the visitor kiosk for rates.
SERVICES: Bathrooms, Bicycle rentals, bike taxis, snack bar/gift shop
ON-SITE MUSEUM: No
ACCOMODATIONS: Lodging and food found can be found in Coba village, or for a wider selection check out Tulum.
GPS: 20d 29’29” N 87d 44’09” W
MISC: Bike rental $2.75/50 Pesos; Bike taxis $7/125 Pesos per hour
HISTORY AND EXPLORATIONS
Coba was first settled in the Pre-Classic (300 B.C.-200 A.D) but all that remains are pottery shards to tell the story. It began its development into a local power in the Early Classic (200-600 A.D) and achieved its height as a regional capital during the Late Classic (600-900 A.D) when most of the buildings, sacbeob, and the erection of the numerous stelae took place.
Coba exerted a strong influence over a wide area, and its trade links were extensive. The nearby coastal sites of Xel Ha and Tulum are thought to have been ports for sea borne trade activity for Coba. The Early Classic time period saw a strong affinity with the Peten region in Guatemala. Due to changing political and economic dynamics across the Yucatan Peninsula during the Late Classic, Coba’s focus turned to the northern Yucatan. According to a reading of Panel 9, Coba may have come under the influence of the great Kann/Kannul Kingdom, at that time ruled from the city of Dzibanche. A construction boom from 800-1000 A.D. saw numerous new sacbeob, structures and remodeling. Influences from central Mexico are evidenced by the East Coast style found throughout the site which appeared in the Post Classic. A gradual decline eventually set in yet Coba hung on as a viable city until as late as the 14th century. After that it maintained a small population and became a pilgrimage destination up until to the time of the Spanish Conquest.
Over twenty stelae have been recovered from throughout the site. They shed some light on the city’s dynastic history, though most are, unfortunately, too eroded to give us the all-important details. However, epigraphers and researchers have now been able to identify several of the rulers and their dates of accession.
Coba is first mentioned by John Lloyd Stephens in the 1840’s, but it was too remote to mount an expedition there. The first to explore Coba was J. Peon Contreres who visited the site and produced several sketches copies of which exist. Teobert Maler visited the site in the 1890’s taking the first photos of the site. Thomas Gann followed in 1926 and compiled the first written report on the site.
Serious investigations were not undertaken until the late 1920’s-30’s carried out by the Carnegie Institution of Washington including Harry Pollock, Eric Thompson and Jean Charlot. They later collectively authored a major publication on Coba. Later researchers included Alfonso Villa Rojas, E. W. Andrews IV, and Michael Coe among others. In 1974 INAH began a multiyear project which included consolidations, excavations and various research investigations. These were led by Piedad Peniche, and Antonio Benavides C, among others. INAH’s involvement in additional projects and studies has been ongoing.
The Nohoch Group is the farthest group from the entrance. It is mentioned here first as this is the group that contains the highest pyramid at Coba, Ixmoja, at about 138 feet/42 meters in height. It is a dizzying 112 steps (some say 130) to the top, and is the highest pyramid in the northern Yucatan. The temple at the top, which faces south-east, has images of the Diving God over a single entryway. Take a bike (it’s a long, hot hike) and get there early before the tour busses. From its summit one has an unlimited and peaceful view of the surrounding jungle. The sound of parrots and other birds come from below you with only the cool breeze blowing across your face.
The Ixmoja pyramid is set upon a small rise of about 19 feet/6 meters, and faces south onto a large plaza. It has rounded and inset corners and is composed of seven tiers. A secondary stairway to the west of the main stairway leads up to the third tier of the pyramid and to a temple structure. The temple contains a single chamber exhibiting three entrances. A stela, Stela 30, is located within the chamber. The placement of this temple is quite unusual as far as the Maya architectural concept of symmetry is concerned. Further research may provide some clues to this mystery, though it is possibly from a later construction period. On the east side of the stairway are found a number of vaulted rooms on the ground and second level. The east side of the pyramid has the remains of some structures at ground level.
To the west, and slightly behind the Ixmoja pyramid is a huge platform, Structure C-7, about 55 feet/17 meters in height. It is 408 feet/125 meters wide, and 375 feet/115 meters deep. A single stairway leads up to a terrace about 33 feet/10 meters deep. A single structure about 71 feet/22 meters across extends along the north side. Foundation platforms are located on the east and west sides. This arrangement is very similar to the large platforms seen at the megalithic site of El Naranjal about 27 miles/43 kms to the northeast, and may indicate a Pre-Classic construction date. On the south side of the structure are three mounds and a circular ring of dressed stone, the latter being similar to a stone basin located in a courtyard at the large, jungle covered site of Kucican, about 9miles/15 kms to the southwest.
Situated around the south side of the Ixmoja Plaza are Structures C-10 and C-12 (also known as D-1 and D-2). They are low platforms and each contain a stela, with Stela 20 being among the best-preserved stela found at the site. The stela records an accession date of the last known ruler of Coba, Ruler D, on 220.127.116.11.5 -January 17, 773, and a period ending date of 18.104.22.168.0- November 30, 783. The period ending date is the latest date found at the site.
The first group seen when entering the site is the Coba Group situated between Lakes Coba and Macanxoc. This group is situated around a plaza, and is the oldest group at the site. The main complex is the Acropolis which is composed of over forty structures incorporating numerous courtyards, vaulted rooms, and stelae. A number of the structures show multiple construction phases, a common Maya building practice.
The Acropolis is on the east side of a plaza and is constructed atop a very large platform base. Only the structures that line the plaza are open to the public. A broad stairway runs the entire length along the plaza side, about 327 feet/100 meters. Six sacbeob branch out from the plaza to additional internal groups and distant sites. Other structures that ring the plaza are in a ruined condition. The south side of the Acropolis faces Lake Macanxoc. The most important of the structures excavated and consolidated in the Acropolis is La Iglesia/The Church.
La Iglesia, Structure B-1, is the second tallest pyramid at the site at over 72 feet/24 meters in height, and which was built and added onto over hundreds of years beginning in the Early Classic. It consists of nine tiers crowned by a small, Post Classic temple. It is set at the back of an open, west facing courtyard, Courtyard A, and looks over the plaza towards Lake Coba. Unfortunately, the pyramid is no longer accessible for climbing.
In front of the pyramid stands the upper half of Stela 11 and its accompanying round altar which are protected under a thatched roof. A recent discovery of the lower portion of Stela 11, buried just behind the upper half, has provided epigraphers with new information regarding a previously unknown ruler, Xaman K’awiil. He ascended as king on 22.214.171.124.3., March 13, 632 A.D. A rich offering cache was discovered beneath the lower half. The items recovered included jade ear flares, jade beads, a jade ceremonial axe head, and spondylus shells.
Two partially restored structures, Structures B-2 (north) and B-3 (south), flank courtyard A. Structure B-3 extends along the west stairway in an “L” configuration and terminates at an opening that leads into a semi-private courtyard, Courtyard B. The remains of several structures ring the courtyard.
Next to Courtyard B is a palace structure, Structure B-4, also part of the Acropolis Complex. A flying stairway leads up from the plaza floor to a palapa covered structure. A passageway under the stairway is an interesting architectural design, and gives the name for these types of stairways found mostly at Puuc sites. Adjoining the stairway is a fragment of Stela 12. A final, single structure is located next to the stairway on the southern corner. Its entryway is divided between five square columns. Other structures are seen rising up behind it.
A set of stairs named the Kan Stairway contains incised Kan (day name, snake, and the color yellow in Yucatec Maya) glyph block risers that form a portion of a stairway located of the north side of the Acropolis. Two stucco skulls flank the stairs which lead up to Structure B-2.
Another structure associated with this group is one of the two ball courts found at Coba, Ball Court 1. It is made up of two parallel structures, and its axis is oriented a few degrees east of north. There are two original rings that are imbedded into the sloping walls. Panels depicting prisoners are located at the top of the walls. The south end of the narrow playing field faces the Kan Stairway.
The east structure is the much larger of the two and contained vaulted roofed chambers. A wide, flying stairway on the north side has a passageway underneath. A second grand stairway on the east side leads up to multiple chambers divided by a central wall. It overlooks Plaza F whose southern edge runs along the high platform wall of the Acropolis. A small stairway leads up from the south side of the structure.
The west Ball Court structure has small north and south stairways that lead up to a series of chambers. On the west side is a small enclosure that houses Stelae 9 and 10. They are currently protected under a palapa roof.
Following a path that roughly parallels sacbe 4 leads to Group D. It contains the Paintings Group, a ball court, and the Xia’be Plaza, among other structures. The first structure seen in this group, Structure D-5, is situated along the main pathway. It is a long, low platform with the north side of the platform housing a multi chamber one-story structure. It has a west facing stairway. The south platform has steps on both the east and west sides. A low-walled shrine holds Stela 28 set within the east steps. A side path leads east to Structure D-4. This is a small, three-tiered platform with a small shrine on the south side housing Stela 26. The path then leads further east to the Paintings Group Plaza.
The Paintings Group is a mostly Post Classic (1100-1450 A.D.) group, and features an East Coast Style of architecture such as seen at Tulum, Mayapan and Chichen Itza. It contains several structures grouped around a single plaza of which the Temple of the Paintings, Structure 1, is the largest. It is a pyramidal structure crowned with a small temple containing traces of painted murals, and is on the east side of the plaza. It reaches a height of 26 feet/8 meters. The temple is a single chamber with its main access between two entryways on the west side. Single entryways are also seen on the north and south side.
Structure 2 lies at the base of Structure 1, and is of a later construction built onto Structure 1’s stairway. It is a single-entry vaulted chamber with a bench on its north side. A fragment of Stela 27 is located within the structure.
Structure 3 is a low building with 7 columns which once had a roof of perishable material and is on the north side of the plaza. There are 13 small altars in front of this structure.
To the south of Structure 1 is Structure 6. This is a single-story construction consisting of two or more chambers flanked by low platforms exhibiting square columns.
Continuing back north towards the Nohoch Mul group is another well-preserved ball court, Ball Court 2, Structure D-13. One of the sloping sides has a striking glyph panel containing a long series of hieroglyphic text with the city name of Ko’ba’a referenced multiple times. The panel contains dynastic information including the accession to the throne of the city’s dynastic founder, Juunpiktook in 494 A.D., and the accession of ruler Kak’Ti’Balam in 574 A.D.
There are two ball court markers imbedded in the playing field; one featuring a skull, and the other a decapitated squirrel or jaguar. The upper portion of the twin structures contain numerous chambers. The south structure has a broad stairway on its south side. Two stelae are located in front of the ballcourt along with a glyph panel under a protective palapa structure. To the north of the ballcourt is a partially excavated structure; a low platform with an east facing stairway.
Just beyond the Ball Court is a large plaza, part of the D Group. A number of sacbeob enter into and leave from here. The main structure is known as Xai’be, “crossroads” in Yucatec Maya, and is situated at the east end of the plaza. This is a nicely restored, conical shaped, four-tiered structure exhibiting two medial moldings. There is a stairway on the west side of the structure. In front of the stairway is a covered stela. This structure has been erroneously termed an observatory.
It is from the Xai’be plaza that the 62mile/100km sacbe, Sacbe 1 the longest in the Maya World, leads off from the southwest corner westward to Yaxuna. The sacbe is an engineering marvel. Read more about it in Steve’s informal report on this website.
Returning back to the south-east and along Sacbe 9 is the Macanxoc Group. Here one can find a complex of structures built upon a large, rather overgrown platform terrace, and situated around one or more plazas. This group contains 8 stelae, 5 of which reference a female ruler, Ruler B, who ascended the throne in 640 A.D. and ruled to 682 A.D. The other stelae reference male rulers from the early 7th century. This may have been a complex especially dedicated to ceremonial events. An interesting and rare feature of Stelae 1 and 5 is that they both record a long series of calendrical periods that reaches back to the Maya creation date of 3114 B.C.
A three-level pyramidal structure is on the east side of the plaza with a 6-columned structure in front of it. The north side consists of a low platform. The south side of the plaza has two structures; one being a stepped pyramidal structure, and the other a low structure, each containing a stela. Stela 1 is located on the west side of the plaza upon a small platform, Structure A-9.
A structure containing columns is located in the center of the plaza along with a stela. A number of structures lie just to the west of the main group. Most of the stelae throughout the site feature a similar format of a ruler grasping a ceremonial bar across the chest denoting his/her rulership. He/she stands upon two captives with two additional captives flanking his/her feet. The glyphic inscriptions refer to calendar endings, ascension and other dynastic events, and astronomical information.
There are other groups of structures, individual buildings, altars, and stelae located throughout the site. Some of these are open to visitors while others remain to be excavated and restored.
ball court 2 glyph panel hispalois
macanxoc group steve mellard
coba group structure 4 steve mellard
ballcourt2 marker brunobarbato
macanxoc group steve mellard
ixmoja pyramid o. mustafin
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la iglesia w/stela 11 coba group ken thomas
coba group structure 4 laslovarga
kan stairs acropolis steve melard
structure 3 paintings group steve mellard
structure 4 flying stairway adam jones
ball court 2 group D steve mellard
ball court coba group ken thomas
la iglesia dennis jarvis
ixmoja diving god image wolfgang sauber
coba group la iglesia laslovarga
paintings group str 1 temple o mustafin
ball court 1 flying stairway laslovarga
temple of the paintings o. mustafin
xai'be pyramid regis lachume
ballcourt 2 steve mellard
ballcourt 1 flying stairway luis bugalio sanchez
macanxoc group steve mellard
stela in front of Ballcourt 2 luis bugalio sanchez
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ixmoja pyramid temple wolfgang sauber
ixmoja pyramid lower temple laslovarga
coba site map
stela 1 dennis jarvis
ixmoja pyramid gautier poupeau
sela 11 lower steve mellard.