slumbering gods of coba

After several days of lounging in the sunshine, reading books and enjoying good food and good company, on our last day in Cancun we were ready for an adventure.

Coba is a Mayan village about a 2-hour road trip from our hotel. We boarded a van a little before lunch, and quickly got acquainted with the others in our tour – one other American couple, a Spanish couple, a pair of hilarious Mexican women who came prepared with a handbag full of Bud Light and Cheetos, and a polite young Brazilian traveling by himself with a bag full of camera equipment. Our tour guide, Jose, immediately spoke to us in Mayan, and then translated – he was originally from Coba – a small village still exists near the ruins of the Mayan city. He explained that Coba was a crossroads of sorts for ancient Mayans, and the stelae, or stone slabs that would be engraved with various bits of information, drawings, etc, had dates around 780 AD in some places.

The weather was very hot and humid, and the area of Coba is fairly sprawling. The tour companies keep a fleet of battered bicycles which we used to cycle to the different areas.

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The tallest pyramid is in a grouping called the Nohoch Mul, and is the last Mayan pyramid in the Yucatan that tourists are permitted to climb. This will change at the end of this year, when climbing is banned. I understand why and honestly can’t believe that climbing is still permitted – it seems odd to think that they would allow so many streams of tourists access to an archaeological site of such significance. Our guide explained that the decision was also safety related, and once we started climbing, I understood that aspect, too. The high stone steps were shiny and slick with wear, with a rope to help climbers get up and down. B & I set out with our tour group in the blazing sun, and although the height in many places bothered me, with B’s coaxing and help, I made it to the top.

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It was a very strange feeling to be standing on a structure of that age and spiritual significance. The limestone was cool and very smooth even in the sun, and seemed to absorb the light. Jose was adamant that the pyramids were never used for human sacrifice, that the Mayans were a peaceful and non-aggressive people. If there was sacrifice, he said, it was done in other places, places not associated with prayer. He also told us that the limestone was carved with tools made of volcanic rock, which had to be brought to the Yucatan peninsula from Central America by foot; he said the limestone reflects the moonlight beautifully, and the pyramids served to guide the travelers who came to Coba to trade. At the top were two inscriptions of the descending or diving god. Not much is known about it except that it may be associated with the Mayan bee god, bees being symbols of the connection to the spiritual world.

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diving or descending god at the top of the nohoch mul pyramid.

We also toured the Mayan ball court, where Jose explained the critical role that the death game played in Mayan culture. There were stelae at the ball court, as well as two round engravings set into the dirt between the walls of the ball court. One depicted a very recognizable human skull, and the other, Jose explained, was an image of a decapitated jaguar holding its own head.

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jose explaining the mayan ball game; the stone slab depicts the mayan calendar, and under the center pillar you can see the round stone through which players had to direct the ball.

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The trip was fascinating and profound. As B said, these pyramids were standing during so many historic events; for Americans, whose historical landmarks are relatively young, it is amazing to put your hands on a stone that was carved in 780 AD, or before, in many cases. Despite the tourists riding bikes or being pedaled around in “tricycles”, it was unearthly quiet, and I couldn’t help but feel the shivery stillness of slumbering old gods everywhere in the trees and stones.

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That night, we were given dinner in the top floor of an open-air restaurant as the sun set over a lagoon across the street. The cinder block houses of the Coba village were open to the stifling air and occupants watched us without much interest. Dogs wandered here and there, enervated by the heat. Up in that airless place, we ate huge plates of marinated chicken, rice and beans, and then a group of villagers put on an amazing show. They were painted and costumed as Mayan gods, the god of death depicted as an owl, and players on a Mayan ball court with jaguar masks, headdresses, and as skeletons with skull masks. A tiny girl, younger than L, was costumed elaborately and stood impassive among the whirling suppressed violence of the dance. They drummed and chanted and it was a deadly serious performance that left the dim night thrumming with intensity and a strange, tense, fascinating energy. At the end, one of the performers, glistening with sweat and streaked paint, told us in Mayan, then Spanish, then English that what we had seen was ritual, a legacy from the beginning of Mayan time that was passed from father to son and so on. It represented, he said, the pinnacle of the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual world of the Mayans.

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Our guide explained that the ball game at Coba was played with members of the upper class stationed at the top of the ball courts, and members of the lower class on the ground. They passed the ball without using hands or feet, and the team that was able to manipulate the ball through a stone ring at the top of  the court would win. The lower class members of the winning team would then be taken to a different site, and sacrificed. Jose said many times during our tour that the Mayans did not sacrifice at the pyramids, that they were only for prayer, and, he reiterated again that the ball game was entirely voluntary and the sacrifice was an honor. Mayans, he said, believed that a person had to progress through nine layers of the underworld, and then thirteen levels of heaven. I trust Jose’s knowledge of his own culture, and the culture of his ancestors, yet I would be interested to know more about the role of human sacrifice in Mayan religion. I fully intend to do more reading on the topic, and our guide also recommended the movie “Apocalypto” – he said that while Mel Gibson didn’t get everything right (mixing up aspects of the separate Toltec and Mayan cultures and even mixing up elements from different time periods) the movie is excellent and the language absolutely authentic. He said he could understand every bit of the Mayan dialogue.

I loved this part of the trip the most – I would highly recommend a trip to Coba, or Tulum or Chichen Itza (two other nearby Mayan archaeological sites) if you are ever in the Yucatan peninsula. Our tour guide was amazing, as was the site, the food, and especially the performers from Coba.

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