Coba ruins: a sacred Maya site in Mexico

Maya ruins in Mexico

Thousands of years ago, in what is now Mexico`s Quintana Roo region, once lay the city of Coba, one of the most important sites of the Maya world. Well-hidden in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula, the ruins of Coba may almost seem like a dream to you.

If you have travelled to Cancun or the Riviera Maya, most likely you have heard of Tulum, or famous Chichen Itza – one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Although these are the most visited sites situated on the Yucatan peninsula, there are other ruins that are equally as fascinating.

Coba is an ancient Maya city located in the middle of jungle. However, due to its remote location the site is not as popular with tourists as other ruins in Mexico. One of our favourite reasons why we visited Coba is that is neither as excavated nor reconstructed as other sites (Chichen Itza or Tulum).

In reality, what you see in Coba isn`t even 5 % of what it once was. Only a small part of Coba has been excavated and many of the structures remain hidden in the jungle, overgrown with jungle vegetation. You will feel like Indiana Jones – wondering through a jungle, with many structures still covered in trees.

Coba Ruins Guide
It is hard to imagine that Coba may have once had one of the largest populations of all the ancient Mayan cities. As we were told by our tour guide, this is similar to the number of people who lived in Chichen Itza at its peak.

RARE FIND

What makes the Coba ruins unique?

Partly it`s the fact that the Coba is not a single site like Chichen Itza or Tulum, but is a large group of sites connected by the “white roads” (sacbe). Another uniqueness of the Coba is that the Nohoch Mul temple pyramid can be still climbed.

INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THE COBA RUINS:

  • In the Maya language Coba means “water stirred by wind”
  • The City of Coba covers an area of around 70 km2
  • The Maya ruins at Coba are unique because only a few of its estimated 6,500 structures have been uncovered (only 5 % have been excavated)
  • You can see many “hills” which are actually unexcavated buildings
  • Nohoch Mul, the largest temple pyramid at Coba, is the tallest ancient Maya structure in the Yucatan peninsula (taller even than the pyramid at Chichen Itza)
  • You can still climb the temple pyramid Nohoch Mul
  • Coba gets fewer visitors than either Chichen Itza or Tulum, giving you more tranquillity that the other sites do not have.

WHY IS COBA FAMOUS?

A lakeside location, important variety of plant life and different species of animals helped Coba to become one of the most prominent ancient Maya sites. Five natural lagoons and numerous cenotes surrounded by jungle are a rare sight in the Yucatan, though they were very important for the need of the Maya community.

HISTORY OF COBA

At the height of its power, Coba dominated the area and was one of the largest Maya cities of the Classic period. Home to as many as 50,000 people, this incredible metropolis jam-packed with towering temples, ball courts and other buildings were deserted at the time the Spanish conquered the Yucatan peninsula.

Abandoned by the Maya civilization, the sacred ruins of Coba were swallowed by the jungle and lost for centuries until being rediscovered.

TOP SIGHTS TO SEE AT COBA

There are endless trails to explore the Coba ruins. Start your Indiana Jones adventure with “the Coba group” attractions. A complex of structures located near the main entrance of the archaeological park is where the fun really begins. Here you can find the Iglesia (the church) as well as a ball court.

LA IGLESIA (THE CHURCH)

Maya ruins in Mexico
La Iglesia, Coba

On any list of the top sight to see in Coba, la Iglesia shouldn`t be far from the top. The second tallest pyramid at Maya ruins of Coba is hidden in the jungle and almost completely overgrown with the vegetation.

Maya ruins, Mexico

A 20 metres tall temple is a place where religious ceremonies were held.

MAYA BALL COURTS (JUEGO DE PELOTA)

The small circular-shaped ring at the top of Maya ball court

Before you reach the famous temple pyramid, you will see a few more unique sights at Coba. Two well-preserved ball courts in the Maya Coba were used for playing the ancient ritualistic ball game “juego de Pelota (Pok-A-Tok in Maya language).

The ball courts remain in relatively good shape, despite their 1,500 years old age. However, they are no way near the court in Chichen Itza in terms of size.

GOOD TO KNOW:

Scoring a point was very difficult because athletes could not use their hands or feet. They could use only their hips to forward the ball. Often this Sacred Ball Game would extend for hours and sometimes days.

According to Maya belief, their Gods enjoyed watching and admired the winners. So at the end of the game, the captain of the winning team was ritually sacrificed. To give the Gods the losers would be an insult.

MAYA CALENDAR STONE

Maya calendar stone
Maya calendar stone

All the rumours about the end of the world in 2012 were based on information from this particular stone. However ancient Maya don`t believe the world is coming to the end. The year 2012 was only the end of calendar cycle.

SACBE (“WHITE ROADS”)

Sacbe
Sacbe

Another interesting feature of this site is the hub of a system of roads called sacbes (sacbeoh). An ancient “white roads” made with limestone, which reflected the moonlight, made it easy to see people approaching even at night. Over fifty stone highways have been discovered out of which 16 is open to the public.

The main sacbe goes almost 100 km to the west, almost to Chichen Itza. This road was built before Chichen Itza existed. Their purpose is mysterious as this civilization had no wheeled transport, but they may have been built for religious processions.

STELAE

Along with other artefacts, Coba is home to a numerous Stelae. A collection of large flat stones with detailed drawings and writing representing important moments from the ancient life in Coba is nowadays preserved and protected.

XAIBE (THE CROSSROADS)

reasons why you need to visit Maya ruins
Xaibe, the Crossroads Pyramid at Coba

Next, the pyramid shaped Xaibe is a large semi-circular building that was used as a watch tower. It stands at the intersection of four major sacbe.

NOHOCH MUL PYRAMID (IXMOJA)

Coba Ruins
Ixmoja temple pyramid, a part of Nohoch Mul group in Coba, was only restored on one side

No trip to the Coba ruins is complete without a visit of “Ixmoja” temple pyramid. Towering above the jungle, the ruins of Coba are home to one of the tallest ancient Mayan structures in the Yucatan peninsula.

On first glance, the pyramid is practically invisible until you are right in front of it. The 42 metres high (137 feet), mostly unexcavated structure is a constant reminder that the sacred city was once swallowed by the jungle vegetation.

The views from the top of the pyramid are simply incredible.

Of the ancient Maya pyramids only the pyramid at Tikal (in Guatemala) and Calakmul are taller than temple pyramid Nocho Mul, however visitors are not allowed to climb the pyramid at Tikal. By comparison, touristy Chichen Itza is only 24 m high and it is also not allowed to climb it.

Ixmoja temple pyramid, a part of the complex known as “the Nohoch Mul”, is still much unknown, but the temple was probably dedicated to the god Venus.

CLIMBING THE COBA`S PYRAMID

climbing the coba pyramid
The 120 stone steps are much steeper than they look

There are not many places where you can climb a Maya pyramid anymore. Because Coba does not see as many tourists as places like Chichen Itza or Tulum, you can actually still climb some of the structures for a unique perspective.

Climbing the uneven 120 stairs to the top of the main pyramid is well worth the effort. It`s a manageable challenge; an unexcavated temple mounds peeking above the trees and the landscape of the jungle canopy are more than enough to keep you thrilled. And the views are incredible.

Ancient Maya Ruins

Climbing down the pyramid is more difficult than going up, hence be careful!

GOOD TO KNOW:

Due to the roughness of the stones a thick rope runs from the ground level of the temple pyramid up to the top. Climbing the steeps steps up to the top of the pyramid temple can be a challenge, hence wear non-slip shoes.

CENOTES NEAR COBA RUINS

In addition to visiting the Coba ruins, consider visiting one of nearby cenotes. The refreshing limestone sinkholes are ideal way to cool off after the cycle ride through the ruins.

Three cenotes can be found just a 10 minute drive away from the Coba ruins:

  • Choo-Ha
  • Tamcach-Ha
  • Multun-Ha.

GOOD TO KNOW:

Cenotes can be usually found on a privately owned land. As a result, expect to pay the entrance fee to each cenote; it is about MXN 55 ($3 or £2).

WHERE ARE THE COBA RUINS LOCATED?

The Maya Ruins of Coba lie in the heart of Mexico`s Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo. Located just 44 km (28 miles) northwest of Tulum, the ruins of Coba can also be easily visited from Playa del Carmen or Cancun.

GOOD TO KNOW:

Coba`s Address: Carretera Federal 307 Cancún-Chetumal, 77793 Cobá, Quintana Roo, Mexico

The geographical coordinates of Coba: North 19° 29.6′ and West 87° 43.7′

Zona Arqueológica de Coba is situated about 173 km (108 mi) south of Cancun, 105 km (66 mi) from Playa del Carmen and 70 km (44 mi) from Akumal.

HOW TO GET TO COBA RUINS

  • RENT A CAR

Those who love the freedom and don`t want to worry about the bus schedules can rent a car. The most comfortable way of transport allows the visitors an opportunity to beat the crowds and explore the ruins at their own pace. Additionally, renting a car gives a chance to visit the nearby cenotes which would not be possible with a public transport.

  • BOOK A TOUR

If renting a car isn`t an option for you, consider booking an organized guided tour to the site. Tours to Coba can be book through most hotels or tour agencies and are available departing from Cancun, Playa del Carmen and other cities. Along with a visit of Coba ruins, tours include a visit to the Tulum ruins, the cenotes or other guided activities.

TIP:  Booking an organized tour is a great option for those who find traveling independently confusing or those staying in distant Cancun (160 km away from Coba). Taking an organized tour might save you energy and money, but at the same time you might find the ruins more crowded.

  • ADO BUS

Alternatively, the budged minded travellers can get to Coba via ADO Buses from Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum. If you take Colectivos (public taxi vans) or ADO buses, you will have to change vans in Tulum.

  • TAXI

Last but not least, those who like more comfortable way of travel and don`t mind spending more money can take a taxi from Tulum to Coba. The most expensive transport is worth to use when travelling in a group of four. The price is about MXN 450 ($24 or £18).

Regardless of your group size, don`t forget to negotiate the price!

GETTING AROUND COBA RUINS

getting around Coba
The budget-friendly cycling is an amazing experience through the peaceful environment of the surrounding jungle.

There is no shortage of possibilities how to explore the Coba ruins. You can walk, rent a bicycle, or hire “a bici taxi”.

Exploring the Coba ruins by foot is certainly not dull; however the archaeological park is a pretty large site and walking in the heat can be exhausting. The main pyramid temple can be found about 2 km from the entrance and the other sights are even further.

Cycling is the best way to get around the Coba ruins. Bikes let you get to the further reaches of the site and away from where the tour bus crowds go.

Alternatively, there is other way to explore the ruins along these roads. You take “the Maya taxi”, however the bici taxi cannot take you everywhere.  

TIPS FRO VISITING COBA RUINS:

  • Arrive at the ruins in the morning. If you want to view the surroundings peacefully, without tons of tour groups crowding the area, you have to arrive close to their opening time.
  • Use the toilets before entering the ruins, as there are none once you get inside the site
  • Opt for the bike rental or take the “Maya Taxi” (a pedicab) in Coba: Coba is a huge archaeological site and having the bicycle will speed up the journey and allow you to see more in a shorter amount of time
  • Take a bottle of water and snack (aside from a few small shops around the parking lot, there are no amenities within the park)
  • Pack a mosquito repellent with 50%  DEET for better protection
  • Wear hat, sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Comfortable walking shoes are a must
  • Rucksack – make sure you do not take a handbag, otherwise you are going to struggle riding your bike
  • Don`t forget to bring enough cash – we could not see any ATMs at the ruins site or in the village of Coba
  • Swimsuit and a towel for a dip in one of the nearby cenotes
  • Hire local English or Spanish speaking guide to explain the history at the entrance.

We hired a local English speaking guide at the entrance as there are not many story boards describing what you can see. Our tour guide was outstanding and provided us a lot of little facts and insight that we never would have gotten if we had toured alone. He made the tour so much more enriching. Hiring a guide also give jobs to the local people and it helps to keep the Maya history and culture alive.

ESSENTIAL INFORMATION ABOUT COBA

OPENING TIMES: open daily from 8 am to 5 pm

The Coba ruins need to be entered before 4.30 PM, otherwise you won`t have time to exit the ruins at closing time.

PARKING COST: MXN 50 per car

ADMISSION: The entrance fee is MXN 75 (as of 2019).

Entrance to the Coba ruins and other Mexican sights is free for residents with ID and nationals on Sundays.

Bicycle rentals are MXN 50 and tricycle taxis are MXN 125 to rent a bici taxi.

GUIDED TOURS:  

Prices for guides are not set, but they are usually between MXN 300 – 700 for a group. It also depends on a group size, your negotiation ability and how busy the site is. Many official tour guides speak several languages, including Maya language.

VISITING TIME REQUIRED: 2, 5 hours up to ½ day

The village of Coba has a small cheap hotel, several simple restaurants and a luxury Club Med hotel. As tourism is the only income of locals, we decided to support one of the Maya restaurant and we tried local Maya specialities.

Going to Coba is one of those moments that you will never forget.

Discovering the sacred ruins of Coba and its surreal landscape feels almost as though you`ve travelled back to ancient Maya times. The ruins of Coba are perfect for a fantasy-inspired getaway with jaw-dropping stunning temples and views to die for. Once you set eyes on it, you will understand why the ancient Maya did fall in love with this place.

Have you been to the Coba ruins in Mexico? What did you think? What are your favourite ruins to visit? We would love to hear from you in the comment box below.

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