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Cobá: Our Final Maya Site

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Found forty minutes inland from Tulum, the Maya city of Cobá has become a popular destination for tours out of Cancún, and upon arriving, we were disheartened by the number of buses we saw in the lot. But the ruins are spread out across such a wide swath of jungle that the crowds never became overwhelming. This was the final archaeological zone we would be visiting during our 91 days in the Yucatán, and we greeted the milestone with sadness and a little relief.

Coba Maya Ruins

Cobá was established around AD 100, and reached its zenith seven hundred years later, becoming one of the most powerful kingdoms in the northern Yucatán. The city is centered around two large lagoons and occupies a vast area, only a fraction of which is open to tourists today. Cobá has only recently been linked to the highway, and for most of modern history, was inaccessible to all but the most intrepid visitors.

Cobá is split up into three main clusters of ruins connected by sacbeob, or Maya white roads. Bicycles can be rented to get around between the groups, but we decided to walk. This was a mistake. The sets of ruins are about a kilometer apart from one another, and a bike would have made our visit much quicker and easier.

Coba Maya Ruins

The first group of ruins had some buildings and a small ball court, and the second group had a few stelae (ceremonial columns carved with hieroglyphics), but neither were all that compelling. So far, we were rather disappointed. We had been hiking for a long time through the jungle, and were hot and miserable, but finally we arrived at the third set of ruins and laid our eyes upon the pyramid of Ixmoja. Cobá was about to be worth the effort, after all.

At 42 meters in height, this is the tallest pyramid on the entire peninsula, higher than Chichén Itzá’s or that of Ek Balam. The climb to the top was difficult, but the view was breathtaking, encompassing not just the jungle, but the lagoons around which Cobá is situated.

During our time in the Yucatán, we visited nearly twenty Maya archaeological zones. Each had something different to offer, and it would be difficult to pick a favorite. But climbing Cobá’s pyramid and looking out over the lush green jungles of the Yucatán felt like the perfect way to close our journey into the world of the ancient Maya.

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Coba Maya Ruins
Coba Maya Ruins
Coba Maya Ruins
Coba Maya Ruins
Coba Maya Ruins
Coba Maya Ruins
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Coba Maya Ruins
Coba Maya Ruins
Coba Maya Ruins
Coba Maya Ruins
Coba Maya Ruins
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February 9, 2014 at 5:01 pm Comments (3)

The Howler Monkeys of Punta Laguna

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Found twenty minutes from Cobá, down a horrific road pockmarked with crater-sized pot holes, we found the natural reserve of Punta Laguna. This protected national park receives few visitors, despite its beauty and the irresistible lure of howler and spider monkeys.

Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna

After pulling into the park entrance, we agreed to a reasonably-priced tour of Punta Laguna. The primary focus of our two-hour walk through the woods would be tracking and finding monkeys. We followed our guide, Julio, into the jungle, tracing his steps through a bewildering network of paths that almost seemed designed to confuse. You can visit Punta Laguna without a guide, but I would caution against this — the jungle quickly becomes disorienting, and it’s unlikely we could have made it back to the starting point on our own.

Before long, we heard a rustling high in the trees overhead. A monkey-like rustling. “There,” whispered Julio. “Howlers.” A big group had appeared directly above us, eating fruits and leaping from one tree to another. Julio recognized the pack; it was a family who had recently welcomed a new addition. We spotted the mother as she was moving down to a lower branch, with her baby, just a week old, clutching on for dear life. She stayed on the lower branch for awhile, giving us a great look at the infant, who had crawled up and around onto her head.

We hiked to the lake which gives Punta Laguna its name, where you can camp and rent canoe boats. Humans rarely reach the jungle on the far side, so this is where the jaguars tend to stay. We visited a cave where a pack of spider monkeys congregates every evening, but it was too early and nobody was home.

So, we didn’t see any spider monkeys, but couldn’t complain much. With the sighting of the baby howler, the excursion had already been an unqualified success. Although it was fun to have the whole place to ourselves, we hope that word about Punta Laguna spreads. The more people who visit this amazing reserve in the middle of the jungle, the better.

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Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
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February 8, 2014 at 4:10 pm Comments (0)

The Forgotten Ruins of Oxkintok

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Okay, so the ancient Maya site of Oxkintok is not “forgotten” in any true sense of the word. It appears on maps and in guidebooks, and there are people waiting at the entrance to collect your fee. But once you’re inside, wandering about ruins half-reclaimed by the jungle, so distant from the next town, Oxkintok feels forgotten. And you’re allowed to feel like the intrepid adventurer who discovered it.

We’ve learned that, in terms of quality, the place you’re visiting and the experience of visiting it are often completely distinct. I mean, Rome is essential, but visiting it can be excruciating. It’s tiring, dirty, crowded, overwhelming. In contrast, the tiny town of Sandpoint, Idaho has nothing specific to recommend it, but it’s so beautiful, peaceful and remote, that it’s hard to imagine anyone not falling in love with it. But if someone came to me and said, “I can spend a week in either Rome or Sandpoint, which should it be?” Obviously, the answer is Rome. There’s no doubt. But really, you’d probably enjoy yourself more in Sandpoint.

This is what I was thinking about while picking my way among the ruins of Oxkintok, found in the southeastern corner of Yucatán State. We were visiting soon after our trip to Chichén Itzá, and the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. To reach Oxkintok, we had embarked on a long trico ride along unpaved and increasingly bumpy roads from Maxcanú. Although the ruins here weren’t anywhere near as glorious as those we’ve seen elsewhere, they were far from unimpressive.

Oxkintok looks just like the crumbling Maya cities of my imagination. We were the only tourists here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn we were the first in a very long time. The place just feels abandoned, and I mean that in the very best sense of the word. We had a blast hiking from temple to temple, free to climb around many of them, occasionally spotting strange sculptures or statues sticking out of the jungle, often spooked by a loud rustle from some bit of undergrowth near our feet.

Unlike our visits to other Maya sites, I largely disregarded the information which was posted in front of the most important buildings. Here, I didn’t really care whether this was Structure B8 or A3, or in what year it was built. I simply enjoyed the sensation of adventure and discovery, unconcerned about committing dates and facts to memory. We appreciated Oxkintok not for what it used to be, but for what it’s become: the most atmospheric ruins we saw during our time in the Yucatán.

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February 3, 2014 at 11:17 pm Comments (0)
Cob: Our Final Maya Site Found forty minutes inland from Tulum, the Maya city of Cobá has become a popular destination for tours out of Cancún, and upon arriving, we were disheartened by the number of buses we saw in the lot. But the ruins are spread out across such a wide swath of jungle that the crowds never became overwhelming. This was the final archaeological zone we would be visiting during our 91 days in the Yucatán, and we greeted the milestone with sadness and a little relief.
For 91 Days