Surprising revelation of the day; a ball game which results in a beheading. This was the unfortunate fate which awaited some competitors in an ancient sport played at the Mayan site in Quintana Roo, Mexico. The archeological site sited around two lagoons is reached in less than a one hour drive from Riviera Maya.
Taking a bike tour around the ancient site is a convenient, pleasant and time-saving way to get around. They only cost $2 but it’s wise to first make sure that the brakes work before setting off. The tracks are wide and easy to negotiate, weaving between tree roots, pedi-taxis and pedestrians is an enjoyable way to get around. Monday appears a sensible day to visit as it provides the best opportunity to avoid large crowds.
Our group had the services of a knowledgeable guide named Juan, who provided an interesting narrative throughout the tour. Explaining the history and some of the culture of the ancient people who lived here and relating it to the lives of modern-day Mayans. As well as descriptions about the various pyramids and hieroglyphic texts he pointed out termite and Mayan honey bee nests along the way. His informative anecdotes provided an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.
The pyramids are not colossal but the tops still reach high above the treetops of the surrounding woods and remain impressive structures. Surrounded by trees, initially concealed from view but as the forest thins the stepped, stone cones are revealed like monumental beehives filling the entire field of vision.
It was not possible to climb most of the ruins but the 120 steps of Nohoch Mul pyramid are accessible. These steps are uneven and climbing them works up a nice sweat during the short, sharp lung-busting ascent. The views at the top are worth the effort though, a vast sea of green foliage with the tops of the other pyramids poking above the canopy. Almost without exception every summiter records their achievement digitally, the snap of shutters and imperceptible buzz of video is constant.
It is very congenial, the models politely wait their turn to pose at the edge allowing their photographer to compose the perfect image and record the moment for posterity. I sensed a spirit of camaraderie, fellow adventurers assisting each other taking photographs avoiding getting in the way and generally concerned for each others safety.
It was a clear day but it is easy to imagine how it must appear on a day of low cloud. Mist clinging stubbornly to the ground and adding to the mystique of the site; standing on top of an ancient pyramid surveying a landscape shrouded in cloud.
Eventually the time to carefully leave the summit arrives. Descending is not as tiring as climbing up but most people seem more concerned about it, the uneven steps need an extra degree of caution.
I know you’re only still reading because you’re waiting to learn more about the decapitations, so morbid patience is about to be rewarded.
The ancient game as described by our guide involved two identical parallel ramps with a stone ring at the top of each. The aim was to keep a ball from hitting the ground between the ramps and presumably to get it through the opponents ring. The Mayans were a religious society and the game involved a number of rituals, the most dramatic of which was the beheading of a competitor. Whilst it seems reasonable to us that it was a loser that literally lost their head, there are some that believe it may have actually have been the winning team captain! It begs the question were they ever tempted to ‘throw’ a game.
However the competitors were probably chosen and groomed from childhood to participate in the games. It seems likely that in a highly religious society like the Mayans, they were the sports stars of their age. Competitors were probably treated like royalty and it would have been a great honour to take part and even to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Fortunately after a quick head count at the exit we confirmed the group had made it round without losing their heads.
Before departing there was time to visit a number of the gift shops just outside which sell handcrafted products much of which is still produced in the traditional way. They are worth a browse, there’s something to suit every taste, from quality Mayan jewellery and fabrics to tacky souvenirs.
I’m glad we took the trip from our resort at Riviera Maya to Cobá. It is not the most well-known of Mexico’s archeological sites but it still provides a fascinating insight to one of the earliest known ‘developed’ civilisations.