I want to tell you about a trip we did during our seven-week sojourn in Mexico to a Mayan ruin site, a site that for all its magnificence you’ve probably never even heard of even though you may well have heard of some of the big-name sites, places such as Palenque, or Chichén Itzá.
We had reached the easternmost point of our trip, the Costa Maya, or the Maya Riviera, if you like. In terms of archaeological sites, that generally means one thing: Tulum. Another of the big-name sites, unusually for a Maya ruin site Tulum is right on the sea, which means it gets plenty of attention above and beyond the usual amount of interest those sites get. Having been to six separate Mayan archaeological sites by that stage, and with top dog Chichén Itzá still to come, we thought we’d better pace ourselves, not to mention avoid the crowds, and since the next leg of our road trip was going to take us northwest to the town of Valladolid, well away from the coast, we decided to forsake Tulum for a lesser known place we’d scouted out called Cobá.
Now, most roads in the Yucatan take you past one site or another, but Cobá looked more appealing than most. For one, it had the tallest Mayan ‘skyscraper’ in the whole of the Yucatán, a 42-metre high pyramid called Nohoch Mul, which despite its name is not Scottish. In the pictures we’d seen, Nohoch Mul abruptly breaks the surface of the jungle, as seen from above, like a dorsal fin scything through the ocean of history. It’s the main draw at the site. What’s more, Cobá looked like a large site, which meant we’d get a decent bit of exercise that morning.
Archaeologists generally recognise two broad categories of Mayan ruins: ones which take you ages to walk around in which case you’re better off renting a bike unless you feel like spending most of your time dodging the other people who sensibly have rented a bike, and ones which don’t. This city, host, in its day, which was during the Classic Period, which is the period from about 300 to 900 AD, of up to fifty-thousand souls, falls into the former category, so we hired bikes as soon as we arrived, whereupon we made good our route, while the site was still relatively quiet, to Nohoch Mul.
Hitherto available to the public for their ascending pleasure, we had read online that come the new year one would not be allowed to climb its 120 steps. We were used to such restrictions: Palenque’s Temple of the Inscriptions was similarly roped off. The same for the main buildings at Edzná and Uxmal. These pyramids are dangerous! People – modern people! – have died falling down the steps, which, let us remember, were built so steep to make sure that when a body fell, it kept falling.
In the event, having pedalled the length of this extended site, past couples walking, tour groups ambling, and triciclos ferrying the lazy and the lame, we pulled in and parked our bikes at the plaza fronting the Grupo Noloch Mul and turned around, whereupon – lo! Punters on the pyramid! One had been misinformed. Once could indeed still ascend to the heavens!
Like all the best sites we’d been to, going up this massive, wonky pyramid was a happy, communal experience. People talked to each other, egged each other on. Some were nervous climbers, and went up on all fours; some slunk down, seated. Atop, wowed, people talked. German girls did the corny old one-leg-tucked-up-hands-clasped-together-yoga pose, usually falling over before their friends could even get a photo off. Some young gringos took our family photo.
Naturally, the rest of the site was fascinating, and we pulled our bikes in at a well-preserved ball court (we’d recently seen a reenactment of the ancient ball game in Mérida, so we had a fair idea how hard it would have been to get a heavy rubber ball through the hoop using your hip), groups of smallish, pyramidal buildings sufficiently reclaimed from the jungle to show their form but left in enough disrepair to suggest their appearance when the first serious discoveries began to be made in this area, less than two-hundred years ago. On this fine Sunday morning we spent over two hours cycling around this city, one said to have started growing a couple of centuries before Christ.
From well above the jungle, to well below it. As a reward for our travails we cooled off in a cenote, one of the hundreds – nay, thousands! – of underground caves full of fresh water that dot the peninsula. We would end up swimming in four of these flooded sinkholes – two covered, like this one, and two open – during our Mexican trip. Not nearly as cold as the shower you are asked to take beforehand in the ticket office/car park area, it was nonetheless a relief to be in water, and it was interesting to think of oneself as being situated in a liquid network subterraneously linking all of the Yucatán, about as far below the surface as the node within the network of cities we’d been in an hour or two earlier.