No matter how luxurious the White Sands resort was, we didn’t cross the Atlantic solely to lie in the Sun and drink tequila. On our previous Mayan Riviera trip we had visited the ancient Mayan sites of Chichen Itsa and Tulum, but just did not have the time to go to Coba. Fortunately Thomson had a trip that took us not only to the ancient Maya city, but also to a real Maya village where we could see how the local people lived.
Now the Maya people who live around here are just starting to feel the benefit of the increasing number of tourists who are arriving to stay at the all-inclusive resorts. Most families have two houses; an airy wood and thatch shack, which is great in the heat of the day and a slightly less scenic breeze-block construction for when hurricane season hits town. Things are fairly basic, clean water comes from a well, supplied by the underground rivers that criss-cross the Yucatan.
While cooking is done over brush fires, there are now solar panels outside the shacks providing power for things like TVs and radios instead of old car batteries.
The Maya keep lots of cats and dogs about their homes,
it isn’t that they like animals so much (which of course they do), but more as a predator early warning system, to warn of any jaguars or mountain lions that may be around and wanting to eat their chickens or their children.
We also met a lovely little wild pig, she’s called Linda.
Linda was taken as a piglet, but not for the table. She has two very important jobs. First she is part of the jaguar alert team, but also when she comes into season she attracts male wild pigs who do end up on the table. She also converts table scraps into useful fertiliser for the main village crops of squash, chili and corn.
We were also introduced to the local Maya holy man who performed a traditional blessing for us.
Now the eagle-eyed will have noted the cross on the banner above the altar. This is not a Christian symbol, in the local religion the cross represents the four cardinal points of the compass. When the Spanish conquered this part of Mexico, they didn’t really spend much time trying to forcibly convert the local people as there wasn’t any gold or silver to be had off them, so a lot of local traditions went unmolested by the Inquisition. I suspect a quick glance said they must be Christians with that cross and all that, before they went off to bully some folks with a bit of precious metal knocking about. The Maya believe that man is made from a mixture of corn flour and the blood of the gods.
We thanked the holy man for his blessing and travelled on to the ancient Pre-Columbian city of Coba.
Coba was first settled around 100 BCE, grew to prominence between 100AD and 600AD before being eclipsed in a local power struggle by the city of Chichen Itza to the east around 1000AD. From then the city went into decline and by the time the Spanish arrived it had been deserted. Although the site was never truely lost, the remoteness of the Yucatan peninsula meant that archeologists never really got around to exploring Coba until the 1920s and 30s and it was only when the Yucatan was opened up to mass tourism from the 1980s onwards that any serious money was spent on opening the site up.
The site itself is huge so we hired a Maya taxi (or rickshaw) to take us to the most important buildings. These buildings are mostly ceremonial as the residential buildings used by the inhabitants would have been built from wood and thatch and haven’t survived.
There are two ball courts where a kind of basket ball was played with rubber balls made from tree sap.
The object of the game was to get your side’s ball through the hoop. The game had religious significance for the Maya and depending on who you believe, the consequences of winning were either mutilation and bloodletting or mutilation and death for the winners and losers alike. The spilt blood fertilising the soil for harvests yet to come. Aside from the ball courts the other significant buildings are the pyramid temples.
The largest temple on the complex is Nohoch Mul, which at 138 feet is the highest pyramid in Yucatan. Unlike the pyramids of Egypt there is nobody buried within the pyramids. People talk a lot of nonsense about pyramids, but it’s worth remembering that pyramids are a pretty basic architectural structure, which is why so many different people separated by distance and time built them. You can climb to the top of Nohoch Mall if you want, but at 53 I thought better of it just enjoyed being there.
I suppose the big question is why did the Maya desert Coba? The consensus of opinion seems to be an ecological collapse as more and more of the surrounding area was deforested and the local population was unable to feed itself.
Holding all the stones of Coba together is the same sticky rubber that was used to make the balls for the ball courts. The Maya also used it as a teeth cleaning gum, but it was a Colonel Adams (who was working for the Mexican army in the late 19th century) who thought the gum might make a substitute for chewing tobacco and Adams Chicklets were born. Then along came Mr Wrigley who added mint to the gum and became a millionaire.
We got to sample some of this gum at our next stop where a local farmer climbed a tree and pretended to hack a well for the sap to emerge from, with his machete.
I can’t say that the freshly collected gum was particularly lovely, but it was quite chewy!