To Tulum

Hollywood’s new take on the last years of Maya rule in central America has attracted controversy for its bloodthirstiness. For once, though, Mel Gibson might not have been too far off the mark in his look back at history.

Apocalypto tells the story of a young man who has been chosen as a human sacrifice – and here in Cobá, on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, I’m told that bloodletting was the order of the day after a game on the ball court. It is believed that the prize for the rather unfortunate winner was to give up his life, to get one step closer to the gods and bring honour to his family.

One of the largest Mayan cities, Cobá was home to as many as 50,000 people at one time in an area covering nearly 50 square kilometers. They built the 42m-high Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid on the peninsula, and prayed at Templo de las Iglesias. But it’s at the nearby pelota court where all the action took place.

Archaeologists still aren’t sure exactly how the game was played, whether it involved hitting the ball with the hip or knee, or with a stick, but from what they do know, the game called for a lot more skill than a kick-about with a football today. For starters, the ball, made from resin from a rubber tree, weighed a whopping 5kg, and it took a huge amount of strength to bounce it around the slopes of the court and through the ring to score. Since the ancient city was first discovered in 1842, only 5% of the land has been excavated so far. It’s painstakingly slow work, but in years to come archaeologists might yet uncover the reason why it fell into decline – as well as the rules of the game.

It’s a steep climb up the 120 steps to the top of Nohoch Mul, but it is well worth it for the incredible views. Two gods are carved into the stone of the temple, a great vantage-point over the surrounding land. The green of the jungle spreads out as far as the eye can see, broken only by the occasional ruins of a pyramid built by the Maya to get nearer to their gods.

Source: Angela Dewar