Out Of The Archives:
Cobá: Water Stirred By The Wind


The bus from Tulum dropped me off at a cafe in the middle of Cobá, a town with more of a beginning and an end, and not much of a middle. Asking the young man sitting at the bus ticket table in which direction I should walk to get to the ruins, he pointed straight ahead to the far end of town. So, I followed his finger and that’s the way I went.

To find my way to the ruins, I first found Lake Cobá, the waters stirred by the wind that gives the city its name, then followed the signs that led me into the jungle. Once inside the archaeological site the first thing I saw was a large area of bicycles for rent. After I finished my day of hiking through Cobá, along its long, wide, and flat paths, I thought that seeing Cobá the next time with a bicycle might just be a good idea.

But this time I wanted to walk, and I by the end of it all, I was glad I did. Cobá is a beautiful, rustic, site that has barely begun its restoration. Many of its buildings remain as a heap of rocks covered in vegetation and trees. The groups of buildings that have been restored are sometimes more than a kilometer apart, connected by sacbes, or white roads. Built out of raised limestone, these roads and pathways were usually one to three meters above ground and anywhere from three to twenty meters wide. The Maya did not take advantage of the wheel the way other cultures of the world did, so their roads were made mainly for walking and for ceremonial uses. So far, about forty of these roads have been discovered, connecting different sections of Cobá and also connecting Cobá with other Maya cities. Walking them gave me a sense of walking in a purposefully planned urban area.

I had no plan. Walking randomly through the site, people on bicycles and bicycle taxis slowly passed me by. Most were following the signs to Nohoch Mul, The Great Pyramid. On that path I met a beautiful Maya man who drove a bicycle taxi. He was leaning against a wall under the shade of a tree, the taxi parked beside him. In a ploy to get me to hire him as my taxi driver, he flashed a wide brilliant white smile at me and said that I would never find Nohoch Mul if I walked alone through the forest. When I insisted on walking, he then insisted that I couldn’t leave until I could pronounce the words Nohoch Mul correctly. My first lesson in the Mayan language commenced.

Nohoch means big, large, old, which is derived from the Maya word noh which means large and -Vch (och) which works as an intensifier, like very large or largest. Mul means mound or hill, specifically a man-made one.

When he was satisfied that my language and inflection skills had significantly improved, I was ‘permitted’ to continue on my way, to walk the paths of Coba.

Through the jungle and down the wide paths I walked. Iguanas and little lizards sunned themselves as I took photographs of the stones. Birds could be heard through the forest. The trees provided some shade from the heat, even though it was a kind of lightly overcast day. Walking down the paths, buildings made themselves known as they appeared through the trees. Complete clearings were not to be found.

I found Conjunto Las Pinturas, The Paintings Group, called so because of the remnants of murals found inside the temple. The collection of stelae in The Macanxoc Group, which were surrounded by the mounds of unexcavated buildings covered in trees and jungle vegetation, were beautiful with their worn, but still barely visible, sculpted pictorial scenes and descriptions. Exploring The Cobá Group came last, which included the very high La Iglesia and The Ball Court.

Later, towards the end of my walk through the ruins, I saw my first true Maya nose on an actual live person. I couldn’t help myself, I had to stop and watch the man’s profile for awhile as he was having a conversation with someone else. How rude I must have seemed. Hopefully they didn’t even notice me. Up until this point in my travels in the Yucatan, I had always thought that the facial feature of the Maya nose, the ones depicted in the carvings on the walls and in drawings, were an exaggeration, going along with the exaggerated musculature of the Maya body depicted in paintings. But no, there one stood, in perfect profile, directly in front of me. The man’s profile was quite beautiful and extraordinary.

Unfortunately though, the bike-taxi driver was right. I never did find Nohoch Mul that day, with my meandering going off course down every little path, and my fascination with everything else I found along the way. But missing it gives me the opportunity to go back another day, to walk the paths and listen to the forest, to climb The Great Pyramid, and maybe get another lesson in Maya.

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