Climbing Yucatan's Great Pyramid

Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

It's like climbing up the inclined wall of a 12-story building, 120 stone steps to the top of the great Nohoch Mul pyramid.

This least-known wonder of the Maya classic age soars to 140 feet at the end of a jungle trail out of Mexico's newest and potentially largest archeological dig on the Yucatan Peninsula. It's in the state of Quintana Roo, close to the Caribbean coast first touched each morning by the rising sun.

During the coming years, this dig is expected to produce one the great historic treasures of the hemisphere, as well as a tourism destination of increasing importance.

And this is only one of the many attractions of Quintana Roo (pronounced Row), which didn't become a federal state until 1974.

By comparison to the 140-foot height of Nohoch Mul, the world-famous pyramid Temple of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza rises to 75 feet.

The climb up the face of Nohoch Mul, one careful step after another on stones from the era of AD 600 to 900, is a challenge accepted by every visitor who feels fit enough to do so after the walk of about a mile and a half through the steaming jungle from Lake Coba where we left our rental car.

The problem for some visitors comes with the descent. During the climb upward, looking at the stone steps ahead and above you, there is no awareness of height until you pause to enjoy the magnificent view.

Steep Descent

But the descent is like looking down a steeply inclined 12-story building and can be a concern to anyone troubled by heights. About midway up we passed a middle-aged woman making the descent. She was facing the steps so she wouldn't have to look down, descending on her hands and knees and feet, one step at a time.

When I asked if she wanted a helping hand in making the descent, she smiled and shook her head. No, this was her pilgrimage to a shrine of antiquity and she was going to do it on her own.

Shapes like shells were carved on some of the steps. At the top was a temple with stone niches on which were etched figures of the gods coming down from heaven. The view reached across a green sea of jungle, tinted with the glow of Macanxoc Lake and Lake Coba. Three smaller lakes were tucked away in the trees. The Caribbean Sea was beyond the horizon, 30 miles east.

Historic Treasures

Pyramid mounds tipped above the jungle, still awaiting archeological exploration. It is estimated that more than 6,500 Mayan structures will emerge to become historic treasures. Excavations of this site were begun by the Mexican government in 1973.

Seven groups of temples and dwelling places have been uncovered, many rich with the story of an ancient civilization told in bas-relief carvings, stone paintings and in hieroglyphic writings still to be completely deciphered.

For the digging at Coba, a paved road was laid from the Caribbean coast at Tulum, itself an archeological wonder of the Maya post-classic age, beginning about AD 700 to 1000, the great period of commercial trade along the coast.

The building of the road, which provides easy access to Coba by tour buses, taxis and rental cars, helped with the discovery of more than 50 Mayan roads, once smooth with limestone over a rock base but reduced to remnants by centuries of jungle growth.

Coba (pronounced with the accent on the last letter) is believed to have had a population of around 40,000 as a center of overland commerce. When the political empire and its trading dynasty collapsed, the people drifted away to live in small clusters and the jungle took over. The Spaniards never found Coba and it was forgotten for centuries.

A Fantasy Retreat

Now travelers are beginning to find it, and they also find a fantasy retreat in Hotel Villa Arqueologica, with its comfortable rooms and fine restaurant set in courtyard gardens of tropical flowers and trees. You can limber up in the pool and on the tennis court for your pyramid climb. The library has archeological studies in several languages. A room for two is under $30.

Discoveries in Quintana Roo began for us soon after we landed from Los Angeles at the international airport of Cancun, the planned resort community that opened in 1974. Cancun was our point of departure for the drive south to explore the lagoons, submerged coral reefs and Maya ruins along the coast.

Every inlet and lagoon is a temptation to stop, especially for snorkelers and scuba divers. Puerto Morelos, 22 miles south of Cancun, beckons with a long expanse of sandy beach and coral reefs just offshore. With a touch of Old Mexico in its cabins on the beach, La Ceiba Hotel, sister hotel to one of the same name on the island of Cozumel, is a diving and snorkeling resort. A glass-bottom boat takes off from beside the excellent restaurant. Doubles are about $40.

About 15 miles on down the road, Punta Bete and its four miles of palm-shaded beaches are served by campgrounds as well as three small hotels. It is a popular spot for bird watchers.

Playa del Carmen, an hour south of Cancun, is the port of departure for passenger and car ferries crossing the dozen miles of Caribbean channel to Cozumel. The 25 rooms of Hotel Balam-Ha have terraces overlooking the beach beside the pier.

An American Enclave

At Playa del Carmen we came upon Mexico's newest residential and resort development, known as Playacar. Beach-front homes are already occupied by Americans, and construction begins on the new beach villas this weekend.

Access roads wind around trees and carefully skirt Maya ruins. Coming up next are a hotel addition and a golf and tennis complex. Weekly rentals for two-bedroom beachfront villas start at about $725.

We came to expect a discovery at almost every cove and lagoon along this coast of the rising sun. At Xcaret we could swim into caves of clear spring water and the caves led to Maya shrines.

We lunched under a thatched roof beside a lagoon at Xel-Ha where we could photograph fish just by walking a stone path above waters so clear that a faceplate or underwater camera weren't necessary.

Eight miles farther come the dramatic ruins of Tulum, virtually a complete ancient city along a cliff 40 feet above the Caribbean beaches.

If you return from the 30-mile inland detour to Coba instead of looping back toward Cancun, discoveries will continue to unfold along the final 155 miles of this main highway to Chetumal, capital city of Quintana Roo.

Janet, the tropical hurricane of 1955 that caused so much destruction throughout Quintana Roo, devastated much of Chetumal. The ancient Maya port city has been rebuilt with attractive wide boulevards.

Nine miles from Chetumal you can change from swimming in the Caribbean to the turquoise fresh waters of Laguna Milagros, also a sanctuary for tropical birds. Laguna Bacalar, about 20 miles from Chetumal, has an 18th-Century fortress built by the Spaniards for defense against British pirates. About 45 minutes from Chetumal are the ruins of Kohunlich with its Pyramid of the Masks, portraying the Maya Sun God. You may stay in Chetumal at the first-class and moderately priced Hotel El Presidente.

To re-create and experience the many moods of Quintana Roo from mythological to modern times, we are carrying with us and reading aloud from the Papeles, a series of 14 leaflets of high literary quality. Available at tourist offices and bookstores, they give perspective to the story of this ancient land and new federal state by quoting often from the sacred book of the Mayans, Popol Vuh:

"Like the mist, like a cloud, and like a cloud of dust was the creation, when the mountains appeared from the water. . . ."

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