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By Zdenko Kahlina
Mayan Ruins of Coba: archaeological park in Quintana Roo state, on Yucatan peninsula, in Mexico.
Cobá was an ancient sacred Mayan city and a major trading center between the years 500 to 900 AD. The city connected the trading between Chichen Itza and the Caribbean Mayan communities in that period. Some archeologists think the city rise up to 50,000 inhabitants but after 900 AD the city just collapsed (as the Mayan culture as well) and today we just have some ruins to remember its golden ages.
The Great Pyramid (Nohoc Mul) at Coba
Cobá is about a 2 hour drive trip south of Cancun (and about a 30minute drive deep into the Mayan Jungle from Tulum in the Riviera Maya). You can plan to visit Cobá and Tulum ruins in the same day.
Souvenir shops along the jungle road
Mexican corner store along the jungle road
We drove there from Playa del Carmen in our rental on Mexico’s federal highway 307 that follows the shore line down south, towards Tulum and all the way to Belize.
Once you get to Tulum (it’s only 25 minutes drive from Playa), there is only one place (busy intersection with traffic lights) where you make a right turn onto a local highway 109 that goes straight into the Yucatan jungle (away from the beach). From that point it is about a 30 minute drive to the ruins deep into the jungle.
Bargaining for local souvenirs…
There are two interesting towns along the way selling arts and crafts, and a few rustic restaurants on the road as well. This road is in great condition, but as always in Mexico, pay attention to “Topas” (speed bumps) in every small village on your way. The tope will slow you down to a stop, as some of them are in really bad shape. Take this drive through the small Mexican villages as an opportunity to look around and maybe purchase some local crafts that are sold by the road. Food and lodging can be found near the ruins.
In the middle of the jungle you’ll run into a traffic circle which doesn’t have proper marking, so be careful not to choose the wrong exit, as you can easily end up on the road to Valladolid. To get to Cobá, you have to go around the circle to make almost a full loop. From here it is only a few kilometers before you reach a village of Cobá.
Less visited than neighboring Tulum 50 km away, Coba archeological site almost feels undiscovered. Although this is one of the largest cities from the Mayan age, the majority of it is still lies largely unexcavated, and like other Mayan history – questions and mystery still surround this area.
Coba was thought to be an important trade center between Chichen Itza and the Caribbean (near modern-day Guatemala) in ancient times. From deep inside the dense jungle, towering pyramids and archaeological structures poke out through the trees and undergrowth.
Cobá is an extremely spread out site, with a fair bit of hiking to the major attractions. Grupo Coba is a big pyramid and you’ll see it as you enter the site. Once you get on site, there is a huge parking lot with a couple of restaurants and a ticket boot. Soon you’ll be surrounded by locals who are trying to rent you bikes, and guided tours. Another good advice would be to try to get there before 10:30 AM when massive amounts of tour busses start to fill the place up.
Trikes in action on the sacbe - Mayan ceremonial road, at Coba.
Renting a trike (bike on three wheels) with a guide looked tempting, but we enjoy the exercise, so we decided to walk. I would recommend renting a bike for the older people, because walking all the distance in the heat looks to be not fun at all for them. It’s about 15-20 minutes walk thru the jungle before you reach first ruins.
Renting bikes is very popular for tourists
If you decide to walk there is always something to look at…
No, you won’t NEED a guide. But a good guide will bring the site to life much better than a book or plaque on the ground. This will assure that your visit is memorable and a great experience, more so than saying, 20 years down the line, yeah I saw some Mayan ruins and I saved 30 dollars!!
The site is a maze of ancient roads and walkways. Some lead through the main areas of the site — others shoot off the side and into the jungle. It’s not difficult to lose your bearings in here, so keep an eye on where you’re going at all times!
Vera in the tunnel
The Oval Temple at Coba
Great Pyramid of Coba
Nohoc Mul is the Great Pyramid of Coba. It measures over 138 feet (42 m) in height, making it the tallest Mayan pyramid in Mexico’s southeastern peninsula. Climb to the top to get a panoramic view of the site, with its structures sticking out from the jungle below. If you’re going to climb this pyramid, be sure you’re wearing good shoes fit for the purpose.
Climbing the Great Pyramid
View from the top – descending is not that easy
Descending the Great Pyramid
If afraid of heights, stick to the rope on the way down
My wife and I climbed the highest pyramid (one of the few remaining pyramids that can be climbed). The climb was steep but well worth it as the view from the top was superb. There are 120 steps to the top. Once you reach the top, the view is a nice shot of green tree canopy. While it was fairly easy-going up the pyramid, going down was a different story. The steps are steep and a bit taxing on the knees. You have to try and stick to the rope in the middle if you can. I definitely preferred the ascent.
The site is very interesting even if you can’t climb a pyramid, which to be honest is a workout, hot and a little scary for most people. Other features to discover are ancient ball courts, colorful friezes and the 9 chamber Castillo. There are other buildings on site where you can enter, which makes for more hands on history.
Most kids would also be thrilled at feeding the crocodiles in the lake outside the Coba entrance (just down the road from the main parking lot) – a nearby souvenir stand sells chicken parts for the purpose (I am not making this up!)
Visiting “Cocodrilos” in the village of Cobe
This is not a small Cocodrilo fellas… stay safe.
History of Cobá ruins
Cobá is one of the most important archaeological sites in the area. Built between two lakes during the Classic Period (600-900 A.D.) it was at one time a very large city spread over 80 square kilometers. The main pyramid, Nohoch Mul meaning ‘large hill’, is 42 meters tall (138 feet) and is the highest in the Yucatan peninsula. Another pyramid known as Templo de la Iglesia, ‘Temple of the Church’, is second in height at Cobá and from its summit there is a spectacular view of lake Macanxoc.
The Maya prospered here between 400 to 1100 A.D. In its heyday nearly 50,000 people lived within Cobá confines, but despite its size it is not visited as frequently as some other major Maya sites. It stands isolated and off the coast, between the coastal town of Tulum, and Valladolid in the state of Yucatan. Besides the structures there are mysterious ancient roads through the jungle called Sacbes which radiate out from Cobá. Smaller trails lead to other aspects of the ruins. These ruins were opened to the public in 1973 but only a few of Cobá estimated 6,000 structures are restored or uncovered. Most are still buried under centuries of thick jungle growth. The top of the gigantic Temple of the Church affords a fantastic view of Lake Macanxoc to the east and Lake Cobá to the southwest. You’ll also see many stele, glyphs, and sculptures showing weathered carvings of Gods, actors and complex inscriptions.
The restored structures are in 5 groups connected by shady, well groomed trails under the jungle canopy. You may see or hear monkeys and an incredible variety of jungle birds. Walking can be hot and the air humid so wear comfortable shoes and carry some water if you really want to see all the major areas. The Nohoch Mul Group, Conjunto Pinturas and Macanxoc Group can all be seen in about 2.5 hours at a leisurely pace.
Mayan ball court at Coba
Mayan ball court at Coba
There are a large number of stele at the Coba site with thatched roofs (recent additions) above them – presumably to protect them. The stele are fairly large stone slabs which have drawings and glyphs. One stele is dated November 30, 780 A.D. in Mayan glyphs.
Cobá was the hub of a system of roads called sacbes, constructed by the Maya for commerce and general travel by foot. There were about 50 sacbes which were between 10 and 30ft wide; one was about 100km long. They were built of limestone and it is estimated that the manpower and effort required for their construction exceeded that for the stone buildings and temples. It is interesting that the Maya did not use the wheel to aid transport even though they were familiar with it. Transportation of goods along the sacbes was done by people carrying parcels. Some of the sacbes are long enough to have been seen by astronauts on a shuttle mission.
The nice thing about Coba is that it’s in the jungle and that’s kind of a different look. Chichen Itza is SO overrun with tourists and not a tree anywhere on site. Also there is a little pueblo nearby with a little lake and there are Cenotes to visit on the way. lot less touristy than Chichen Itza. All in all, this is a good day trip. Go for it.