Cozumel is Mexico’s largest island and the second port of call on our cruise to the Western Caribbean, but when our ship docked, we had no intention of exploring the island. At least, not this year.
In fact, we didn’t even walk to the end of the pier.
Just on the other side of our cruise ship, two Ultra Mar ferries were anchored to the pier with thick ropes. A line of people gathered in front of each one, with an excursion representative holding up a sign with the name of the excursions the ferries were taking people to. I spotted the sign that read “Mystic Coba” and checked with the representative to make sure we were in line for the right ferry. After boarding the ferry, we settled in and waited for the 45 minute ride across the Cozumel Channel to begin.
Our interest in Coba was piqued last year on this same cruise. In 2015, we had our minds set on visiting Tulum and while at the excursion desk booking that tour, we learned that Coba was the only Mayan Temple tourists are allowed to climb. That year, we visited Tulum and tucked away the information about Coba for our next trip.
Now here we were, crossing the Cozumel Channel on a seven hour excursion to visit Mayan ruins tucked away in the jungle of Mexico. The waves rocked the ferry back and forth with the swells as it plowed through the blue water to the mainland. This year the weather was not bad, though the constant rocking did get the better of some folks. If you take an excursion like this that transports you to mainland Mexico, I’ll mention a few tips. The Ultra Mar ferries have two seating options – the top deck above, where you will sit out in the open or down below in an enclosed structure with seats comparable to what you would find on a charter bus. We always take the bottom deck that is enclosed with the nicer seats. If the waves really bother you, some say to sit in the very back and close your eyes. I’ve never experienced sea-sickness riding the ferry, but it’s worth a try if you’re feeling nauseous. My advice would be to eat an early breakfast so your food has time to digest before you leave on the ferry.
When the ferry docked in Playa de Carmen, we met our tour guide on the pier. We were given stickers with our tour group number on it and basic instructions before walking to our transportation. The tour comprised of approximately thirteen people, with a smaller group, we all clamored into a large passenger van. During our ride to the site, our tour guide, Lilly, shared about the history of Mexico and answered questions from our group.
Coba is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula, at 138 feet, it is like a 12 story building. In ancient times, Coba was one of the most important cities of the kingdom – like our modern Manhattan. If you were to walk around it, you would be walking for at least two days. The people who lived around the ruins were godlike – they were intellectuals that controlled economy, politics, religion, knowledge, everything. Lilly showed us a picture of a Mayan with two of their front teeth replaced with obsidian. Some say they made themselves like this because they were not supposed to be or look like a regular human being. She also showed us an illustration of a Mayan King who had a flat forehead. When Kings and Queens were born, boards were put on the front and back of the babies head (maybe at 4-5 days old) to make this shape. This practice was forbidden after the Spanish Conquest. However, if you were standing at the base of Coba when the King walked out of the temple at the top, that’s what he would look like.
The Mayans were the leading astronomers and mathematicians of their time; they built their pyramids to watch the sky. Because the land in that area was flat, the only way to see the sky was to build an elevation that penetrated through the height of the trees. They were obsessed with time and created very advanced calendars and numbering system; the pyramids helped aid that pursuit. Why would they be so concerned what day it was? Well, being situated so close to the Equator, they did not have changing seasons that told them when it was time to plant. As Lilly said, “We only have two seasons – hot and hotter.” With no spring and fall, they had to know exactly when to begin planting and the calendars they made achieved that purpose.
Yet, if you look at the sun for too long you will damage your eyes. How did the Mayans do it?
The answer is obsidian. Obsidian is volcanic glass. On topo of Coba, they found discs of polished obsidian that were used as lens through which they looked at the sun. This raises another question, “Where did the volcanic glass come from if the land was flat and had no mountains or volcanos?” At Coba, they found 40 Mayan roads. One of those roads stretched for 62 miles. A Mayan road would have been almost as wide as a highway today, perfectly flat, elevated and painted white on top. Trading was the top economic activity the Mayans had – the obsidian arrived from Guatemala.
When we arrived, everyone piled out of the van and listened as Lily explained that she would first secure our tickets. As we waited, we could use the banos or look in the shops. Several ladies made their way to the restroom. I hesitated. It could be a long time before we come back, I thought, and there are no bathrooms past the gates. I fell in line behind the ladies. Standing outside the banos were two men, unrolling toilet paper from the roll and ripping it into strips. As we passed them, they held it out and named their price. Of course we all smiled and shook our heads no. (That was before the realization that there was no toilet paper in the bathrooms…LOL) Both men, simultaneously, grinned real big and giggled, “Ohhhhh!”
Lilly distributed the tickets among our group and we passed through the turn-styles. Coba was quite the sprawling community in its day, so it wasn’t possible for everyone to walk to each spot on the tour. Ahead, we came to the place where we had the choice of riding a bike or a tricycle. Everyone in our group chose the tricycle – 1) you had a driver and 2) with a driver you could take pictures as you ride. While we were in the van, Lilly explained that the guys driving the tricycles were Mayan descendants and spoke little English.
The Ball Court – Our first stop was at a place where they played the “Ball Game.” To me, the structure looked like an ancient version of a limestone half-pipe. There we learned that the Kings would watch the ball game at the top of the structure under a thatched canopy. Below, the player would try to hit a rubber ball so it would pass through a ring at the top of the “half-pipe.” The ball would be made of solid rubber and could weigh as much as 9 pounds! Traditionally, the players would strike the ball with their hips. After the game, a player would be selected for human sacrifice (which took place at the top of the pyramid we climbed). Some say that the one sacrificed was the winner of the game, because it would be insulting to offer the god the loser – no, you would offer a god the best. Our tour guide mentioned how there are other theories and we could decide for ourselves what we thought happened. After all, who would try and win a game if they knew it meant death?
The Road – Just around the corner from where the “Ball Game” was played we stopped to see the remaining part of the Mayan road. Of course, it was not impressive to look at in itself; but when you consider that it was 1,000 years old and ancient people must have walked on that very limestone, it became important to me, if nothing else.
Nohoch Mul – As we neared the sight of Nohoch Mul, bikes and tricycles were parked in an area designated “parking.” The other tricycles in our group began slowing down and stopping in different spots to park. Our driver pointed us in the direction of two trees and peddled right towards them. I looked at my sister. There is no way we’re fitting through there! I thought. Yet, our cart expertly fit between the trees and then we heard a quick “thud” as the umbrella ends caught on the tree bark, then broke free. I had to suppress a giggle. It was obvious our driver had done that a few times…
We followed Lilly to a spot quite a ways from the pyramid where we gathered in a half-circle to hear a few more historical details before we climbed. Lilly explained that the pyramid, like many of our modern buildings today, went under renovations during different periods. They had built the original pyramid and then built on to it as time went on. Nohoch Mul itself went through seven renovations for it to look the way it does today. Obviously, not all of the building has been preserved, so Lilly showed us an illustration of what they believed it looked like in the height of its glory.
Once we were dismissed, we snagged a quick photo of the “Coba” sign and took a selfie at the pyramids base. Then we began our ascent. From the bottom, the climb looked rather easy. After all, it was just ancient stairs, right? Well…from far away that’s what it seemed. The first step was so high it came up to my knees, maybe higher. Immediately, my pride was humbled and the people who were crawling up the center clinging to the rope no longer looked so ridiculous. I too, used my hands to steady myself while stepping up one steep slab of stone to another. Each step was worn, uneven and slippery in places. It took about ten to fifteen minutes to reach the top. About half-way up, I wondered if I would make it. My personal philosophy has always been it’s more difficult to keep going if you stop half-way through. Give your muscles a chance to rest and they just might not want to finish! At that point, I didn’t care to prove myself right. I kept on until I reached the last rock and then leaned up against a stone, panting for breath.
The view was worth it.
Below, people looked the size of ants and the trees so tiny. Did I really go that high in such a short period of time? With the trees far below, one could see what seemed like forever. In the distance, other ruins peeped out of the tree tops, obviously not as tall as Nohoch Mul, but still high enough to break the tree-line. To think that only two types of people in the ancient world saw this view – kings and their sacrifices. In the middle of the platform sat the stone that people were beheaded on. As I looked on, random people were sitting on it or using it set their backpack on. I wonder what the ancient kings would think of that? Eventually, I snapped a photo of the stone. Looking out over the lush green trees, it was hard to think of this as Mexico. I had always thought of this country as desert, much like our own western frontier down by Arizona and New Mexico. This visit to the jungle of Coba has given me a new appreciation of the diversity of Mexico, much like the variety of landscape in the U.S. I took a lot of photos then made the descent on the opposite side I climbed up on. Going down is always easy, right? I planted myself by the center rope and didn’t let go. The angle was steep going down and I was in no hurry. Each step was taken with care.
At the bottom, we made our way back to the “parking lot” and located where our driver was. Climbing aboard, he cycled us back to the gate, which was a five to ten minute ride. Other ruins whizzed past us as our cart clattered down the path. Our driver enjoyed passing the other carts and peddled as fast as he could. Back at the gate, we had a few minutes to look around in the shops before piling back in the van and heading to the cruise ship.
Conclusion: There are several benefits to booking a shore excursion on a cruise. First, if there is a delay, the ship cannot leave without you. When you book at the excursion desk on your ship, they take the responsibility of getting you to the ship before it leaves port and if there is a hold-up, the ship must wait for you before it can depart. Secondly, I’ve heard passengers say, “We’re not getting off in this port, it’s too dangerous.” I’ve been on four cruises so far and have never felt in danger at any of the ports I’ve visited, but if this is a concern, a shore excursion is a great option for you. Your safety is the responsibility of the tour/ship and you are guaranteed to be in places that are tourist friendly and safe. This year (2016), the Carnival Paradise had quite a few excursions located on the mainland. After visiting the Mayan Ruins of Tulum in 2015, we definitely wanted to visit more on our second cruise to Cozumel. Our interest in Coba took us to the mainland again and as you can tell from the tale above, we enjoyed Coba immensely. I would recommend this excursion to anyone – even if you’re not able to climb to the top! Our tour host was very knowledgeable, had a wonderful personality and a great overview of the Mexican’s history, from ancient times up to present day. If you go on this excursion and have the option, request Lilly as your guide. I know you would enjoy her!
For information on Carnival cruises with this itinerary, click here —-> cruise the Caribbean!