Cthe Nohuch Mul pyramid in Cobá

Cobá Is More than a Tourist Destination

One of the largest and oldest of the Maya ruins in Quintana Roo, on the Yucatan peninsula, Cobá Ruins is also one of the better-known ones. Thousands of people flock to the site to climb the famous Nohuch Mul and walk around the rest of the ruins.

*January 2024 update: Since it is no longer possible to climb the Nohuch Mul pyramid, we noticed a decrease in visitors.

It's crowded on Nohuch Mul, Cobá
A crowded day on Nohuch Mul, Cobá.

Tour buses crowd the ancient site’s parking lot, and people in large groups follow their tour leaders, trying to listen to what they have to say. Most of the time the site is overrun, so crowded, you can barely walk the wide trail between different ruins.

But this wasn’t always the case.

Coba Nohuch Mul in the early 1990s
My first glimpse of Nohuch Mul, the tallest pyramid of Cobá, in 1995. It was still possible to take a picture of it empty, deserted.

My First Visit to Cobá

When I first set eyes on these ruins, we were part of only a handful of visitors.

Cobá, Looking down from Nohuch Mul in 1995
Looking down from Nohuch Mul in 1995 – no rope to help us climb it … but no crowds either.

At the end of a narrow road, it took a long time to reach the village from the coast, and everyone who made it there had to stay at least one night to explore the ruins.

It was midday when we arrived and the town was quiet. Only a handful of people walked in the street when we pulled up to ask for a room in a hotel.

Cobá in 1995. the entrance road.
At the end of a narrow, deserted road, we reached the small town of Cobá, in 1995.

A Maya Family Owned Restaurant

After a full day visiting the ruins, we went back to the hotel, changed, showered, and went out for dinner. We found a small restaurant on the road to the ruins, a few steps from the gates. I don’t even know if we could call it a restaurant.

We sat on a front porch of a Maya family, with only two tables and sets of chairs. They had no other guests, so we had their undivided attention. The hand-typed menu we tried to decipher had only a few choices, but it didn’t matter. Judging from the smells that came from the kitchen, anything would be great.

We heard kitchen noises while smelling the delicious aroma of home-cooking as we sat and waited for our meal. A small child, no older than three, came out and sat with us, curious about these strangers who looked different and spoke another language than people of his village. He had a shy smile as he looked at us while playing with his dog in the doorway.

We felt like guests in a Maya home. In later years I learned that the Maya always make you feel like family. The man of the house, the owner, came out, got us our drinks and took our order. As it turned out, they only had two choices available, and we ordered one each. The smells from the kitchen were heavenly, and we could hear the sounds of cooking. Everything else was quiet.

As anticipated, the food was delicious. I had my first taste of fish made Yucatecan style.

Sitting there, watching the moon rise over the pyramid, I knew this moment would stay with me forever. I was in love with this sleepy little town in the shade of the ancient metropolis.

Visiting the Town Through the Years

Since then we visited the Yucatan peninsula often, yearly for a while. Cobá was always my favorite stop. Even when we had little time and had to skip sites, I always insisted on stopping here. In the old days, we had to spend at least one night in town, since it took too long to get there from the coast.

I enjoy the ruins. Yes, they are spectacular. But so are the ones in Uxmal, Chichen Itzá, or Calakmul. Cobá is different though. Besides the ancient ruins, there is something special about that little town, on the shore of the lakes.

It attracts me still even though it has changed a lot over the years.

The first time I was there, most homes didn’t even have electricity. I didn’t hear Spanish, everyone only spoke Maya. It was there, in a hotel at Cobá where I tried learning the Mayan language. If I wanted to communicate with the locals, I needed to understand their language, I thought. The hotel staff at the Club Med, the only hotel in town, spoke Spanish and even English. But as soon as we walked off the premises, no one else did. Women and little girls still wore their traditional dresses, the huipils.

The Sleepy Village Changes

Twenty years after our first visit, we were in Cobá again. By then, seven years passed since my last visit, and I noticed the biggest change.

At first sight, the village seemed to have lost its charm during those years.

As usual, we arrived close to midday. Tour buses and cars filled the four-lane road, tourists walked the sidewalks, kids sat on the side of the road, texting on their smartphones. Spanish and English seemed the predominant language spoken. Tourist shops and new restaurants lined the road to the ancient Maya ruins where we had our first meal in the yard of the local family.

On the surface, the place became a huge tourist trap. But we knew that the buses would leave at the end of the day. After all, the old Club Med went out of business, which meant that few people stayed overnight.

A New Family Run Hotel

“May I show you some rooms?”, the young kid, about my son’s age, asked.

He insisted on showing us each type of room they offered in the small hotel. It was midday, hot and sticky, and all the rooms were sunny and warm. When he saw us still hesitant, he took us next door, to another hotel, where he talked to someone who we supposed was the owner.

Hotel Sac-Be, Cobá, QR
We found a hotel, owned by a local Maya family

I couldn’t contain my smile when I realized that they were talking in Mayan! Not that I understand a word, but it made me so happy to hear it, to know they still use their ancient language every day. Things didn’t change as much as I thought.

We found a room in the shaded part of the building, and as soon as we unpacked, we left to explore the ruins. We only had about an hour left until closing time.

A Short Stroll through the Familiar Site

We’ve been here many times over the past twenty years, and it felt like home. Since we didn’t have much time to visit, we went to the farthest part of the ancient Maya site, to the group Macanxoc, where all the stelae are.

Stela at Cobá
Stela at Cobá

These writings in stone always captivated me. I am a linguist, after all. Years ago, I learned to read some of the glyphs, and I used to enjoy sitting in front of these rocks, filled with ancient Maya writing, trying to decipher the history written on them.

Ancient Maya writing on the side of Stela 1 in Cobá
Ancient Maya writing on the side of Stela 1 in Cobá

Being back, alone with the old structures, in the farthest parts of the site, felt great. In the shade, it was becoming comfortable, and we enjoyed sitting in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by ancient stones.

Alone with the ancient structures in Cobá
Alone with the ancient structures in Cobá

We only left when one guide on his bicycle came looking for us, telling us it was closing time.

Walking Back through the Town

On our way back, we didn’t see any tourists. The buses left before closing time, they had other programs in Tulum. The town was now as peaceful as I remembered it.

The road to the ruins of Cobá
After the tour buses left, the road to the ruins was almost deserted.

Children in uniforms took their time to walk home after school, lingering by the lake. One of the younger children was throwing a stick at a small crocodile, to see it poke its head out of the water.

We stopped to watch him.

“You want to see the crocodile?” he asked. “Watch.”

He showed us what he was doing and offered to keep the creature’s head out of the water long enough for us to take a picture. But by this point, the baby croc got bored with the game and went farther in the lake before we could snap that photo.

We walked into a small store on the corner and asked for coconut water. The young shopkeeper was proud to show his skill of cutting the ice-cold coconut with his machete until it had a hole big enough for a straw. It was by far the most refreshing drink on a hot day in Yucatan.

“I sell it for half that price”

We got back to our hotel with coconuts in hand. Our host eyed us for a moment trying to decide if he should say something. Finally, he asked us how much we paid for them. Thirty pesos, we told him. He shook his head as if to say, “you are loco gringos”.

“You paid too much. I sell it for half that price. Fifteen pesos,” he said.

“Great,” my husband answered. “We’ll have two more.”

The ones he brought us already had the hole cut in the middle. We decided that we paid double earlier for the show, and the proximity to the ruins, but it was worth it.

A Stroll through the Town

We took a walk through Cobá village, like we used to.

On the roads of Cobá
On the roads of Cobá at sunset, after the tourists leave. The dogs feel safe hanging out in the middle of the street.

The roads were quiet, the dogs of the town were out in the middle of the street, watching us.

The homes have always been open, and that didn’t change. Locals were sitting on their porch and greeted us as we passed by. Teenagers sat on the porch, texting on their cell phones, just like our teens in the States.

The younger kids were playing in the middle of the street, greeting us and giggling when we answered and smiled at them. I had the same overwhelming feeling of love for this place, as years ago.

We felt like the only gringos in town

We had dinner at our hotel where we were the only customers. In fact, we felt like the only gringos in town.

Sitting down to dinner at Hotel Sac-Be, Cobá
At dinner we were the only customers.

One of the owner’s older sons, who was eager to practice his English, was our server for dinner. He asked us lots of questions, mainly about how to say certain things in English. In return we were learning Maya words from him, making him laugh at our awkward pronunciations.

After dinner, the two youngest girls came by our room to ask us if we needed anything. We didn’t, but chatted with them a little. They introduced us to the family dog and showed us a huge iguana in the yard.

Iguana in Cobá
The girls showed us an iguana in Cobá

A Sunset Stroll

Sunset in Cobá
Sunset in Cobá. On the walkway by Lake Cobá. Even the dog looked like he was contemplating the quiet life.

After dark, we went out again. We have always done this, after dark, when the air was cooler. I remembered the first time we walked through town; it was pitch dark, there wasn’t even electricity in the homes, except in the stores that had their own generator. This time the lights were on in every house, and television sets were blaring in each. But the new walkway on the shore of Lake Cobá was quiet.

Exploring the Ruins

The next morning, after having the most amazing breakfast of tropical fruit, we set off for the ruins again. We rushed off after breakfast and got there before the buses arrived.

One of the village dogs followed us. He ended up coming into the site and even climbing the big pyramid, Nohuch Mul, with us.

Followed by a village dog in Cobá
We were being followed by a village dog.

La Iglesia

The first structure we saw upon entering the site was the Iglesia, the pyramid visible from the entrance and from the village. Its stairway is too eroded to climb it. It is closed off now, but even when they allowed visitors to climb it, I never made it to the top. I went up halfway, but after that, I needed to crawl through jungle vegetation and rubble. The top was far from me when I turned around, unable to climb any more.

La Iglesia Cobá
The pyramid they call La Iglesia – the Temple

We used to enjoy going inside the rooms at the base of this pyramid. It was the first place our kids encountered bats and enjoyed the experience.

Room inside the Iglesia, we used to be able to visit.
The room inside the Iglesia that we used to be able to visit. It was filled with bats.

Since we couldn’t even get close to the room now, we left the Iglesias after a quick glimpse and took off on the main trail.

The Ball Court

We stopped at the reconstructed ball court and admired it now when we could see it all. Much smaller than the famous one at Chichen Itza, it is still spectacular, with its carved ball court markers. But we didn’t linger, we knew we would stop again on the way back. We rushed through the jungle to get to Nohuch Mul before the crowds descended upon it.

The Big Ball Court at Cobá
The Big Ball Court at Cobá reconstructed.

Nohuch Mul, The Tallest Pyramid on the Peninsula

The tallest pyramid excavated so far on the peninsula, Nohuch Mul is also the only one we can climb. Though a long climb on narrow stairs, we rushed to the top, to enjoy the breeze and some quiet time alone.

Nohuch Mul pyramid in Cobá
We were one of the first visitors to the site, early enough to beat the crowds trying to climb Nohuch Mul, the Big Pyramid in Cobá

As usual, the climb to the top was well worth it, not only to see the temple on top but also for the view of the surrounding area.

View from the top of Nohuch Mul, Cobá
View from the top of Nohuch Mul, Cobá

When the first tour bus crowd showed up, we made our way down. We knew where to go to get away from the bus tours. Once again, we set off for the stelae, though we stopped at the small pyramid with paintings for a short time.

Conjuncto Las Pinturas

We stopped at the Conjunto Las Pinturas for a few minutes. I remember when we sat on top and entered the small temple with the colored paintings on its walls. Now we could only look at the small pyramid from outside. Since we knew where to look, and the sun was angled right, we caught a glimpse of the paintings.

Conjunto de las Pinturas, Cobá
Conjunto de las Pinturas, Cobá

Grupo Macanxoc, and the Stelae

We continued to the Group Macanxoc, known for the stelae scattered through it. Most of them are standing, and the carved images and writing is visible on them. We couldn’t touch them but got close enough to have a clear view of the images.

Ancient Images in Stone. Stela at Cobá
Ancient Images in Stone. Stela at Cobá

The stelae we saw constitute history written in stone.

History Written in Stone

The Maya, just like any other advanced civilization, had a written history. The Spanish priests burned their codices since they considered them “work of the Devil”. Three of them survived, thanks to Mayans, who risked their lives to protect them.

The Maya might have known codices couldn’t last forever because they also carved their history in stone. They created stelae. Lucky for them, but not for us, much of the peninsula is limestone, easy to carve, but also easy to erode.

History Written in Stone - Mayan stela in Cobá
History Written in Stone – Maya stela in Cobá, this one badly eroded.

They were humans, and their leaders had big egos. They erected stelae to celebrate events, important for specific rulers. The more stelae a ruler could erect, the more powerful he felt. They had scribes and artists who carved images of them and their entourage during significant moments in their history. The pictures were not enough, they also spelled out the historical moments with glyphs.

Each stela starts with a date. The birth of a ruler was very important, so they carved this date his birth date on his stelae first, then the date of when he became the ruler, and sometimes other important historical dates, like the date he conquered another city-state if he did. Last, the date of his death, or his descent into the Underworld, would also be on his stela.

There are many stelae in Cobá, some eroded, others in decent condition. One of the most important stelae in all of Yucatan is here, called Stelae 1. It contains the longest known hieroglyphic text carved on it. 313 glyphs on the front, back and sides, and it records dates from A.D. 653 to 672. In comparison, most of the other stelae in Cobá are carved only on one side.

A New Structure at the End of the Trail

At the end of the trail through the Macanxoc we found a new structure there that is just being excavated, still behind a gate so visitors can’t go in. That was so exciting for us!

A peak behind a gate revealed a new structure partially excavated.
A peek behind a gate revealed a new structure partially excavated.

Over the years we have experienced similar things in Ek Balam, and other sites, where we have seen the work of archaeologists and seen the ruins before and after some major excavations.

Walking through Ancient Roads

We walked on ancient roads around the ruins, called sacbeob (plural for sacbe). Translated, sacbe means “a white road”. Since they made them of limestone, they used to be white, when clean. Most of them eroded now, covered with dirt and vegetation, but the white limestone is still visible underneath.

There are at least 45 sacbeob in Cobá, more than in any other Mayan site on the peninsula. They connect different parts of the site and buildings within a group. Some even seem to go through parts of a lake. Others go well beyond Cobá, to more distant sites. The most impressive one goes West about 62 miles and connects Cobá to the site of Yaxuna.

Built of sandstone, these roads sit elevated from the surface of the surrounding area. Their walls are rough stone, the bed comprises boulders topped with smaller stones and laid in something like cement. They used to have a layer of stucco on top to make them smooth.

As I stumbled through them, I wished they were as smooth as they were built in ancient days. But we didn’t leave until closing time once again.

Back at the Hotel

Back at the hotel, our host asked about our day.

“You were there the whole day?” he asked when we told him how we spent our time.

“Yes,” we smiled at him.

The look he gave made me feel like we gained his respect with this feat.

“You are smart,” he said. “Most people come, walk through the whole site in two hours, then leave. Two hours is not enough to see anything.”

We agreed.

His family rewarded us with one of the most delicious pok chuc and cochinita pibil (traditional Mayan dishes) for dinner I could imagine and another lesson in the Mayan language.

Later that day a minivan stopped to ask about rooms. Hesitant, then looked up to the balcony where they saw us, English-speaking gringos enjoying a meal, and maybe that helped them make up their minds (at least I like to think so). We were as happy as the owner when the group of birdwatchers stayed. All the rooms were full now! It doesn’t happen often, he said, so when it does, it is a reason to celebrate.

We left the next day to be closer to the airport since we were returning home.

Before leaving, we sat down once more for fresh coconut water. The owner sat with us, we chatted about business, life in Cobá, his kids, and ours. When we left, we departed with warm hugs and the promise to return next time we visit the peninsula.

24 thoughts on “Cobá Is More than a Tourist Destination”

  1. The ruins are impressive and I love that you were the only Gringos at times! That family run restaurant really sounds like a gem! Interesting to know that there are still people speaking Mayan! Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Yes, I love being the only Gringos in a Mayan town. A lot of people speak Mayan still, a few different dialects. We’ve been in other places, smaller villages, where they didn’t even speak Spanish. We communicated with smiles and hand signals. Mayans are everywhere on the peninsula, they just don’t believe in building pyramids anymore 😉

  2. We spent two weeks in the Yucatan Peninsula earlier this year. Of all the Mayan ruins we explored (and there were lots of them) Coba was by far my favourite. Its jungle setting set it apart from the other big ruins and gave it a slightly mysterious feel which I loved.

    1. I know what you mean, Cobá has always been my favorite on the peninsula. I’m sure you had a great time exploring the ruins – glad you went to the lesser known ones like Mayapan.

  3. We are heading to this area of Mexico in October, so this is a well timed post. Seeing ruins is obviously high on our agenda, so it’s great to read more about other places I may not have heard about. Thanks for sharing. Pinned. #feetdotravel

    1. Glad this might be helpful for you, Angie. Before you go, check out my other Mayan Ruins posts, we know that area like home. If you have any questions, please ask, I’ll be happy to help. I know you’re so busy right now, I appreciate you stopping by. 🙂

  4. I loved visiting the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula, but never heard of the ones in Cobá. I’m surprised to see they let you climb the Nohuch Mul pyramid. I’ve heard they don’t allow that anymore at Chichen Itza. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Hi, Anda, Cobá is becoming very well known and busy and I wouldn’t be surprised if they would shut down the Nohuch Mul for climbing soon. For now, it’s the only one close to the coast where you can still do it. I think they let you because the site was less-known, they were getting fewer visitors, up until very recently. Chichen Itza is a circus now; if they didn’t close down the Kukulcan it would be ruined even more. Not to mention the accidents.

    1. Hi, Agness, thanks for reading. A day trip to Cobá is a good idea if you are staying in or around Tulum. Some people do it from Cancun, but that would be rushing way too much, I don’t think it’s worth it. Let me know when you go to that part of the world, and I can help you with planning 🙂

  5. I loved this article so much. Refreshing to read from the perspective of somebody who stayed a little longer and actually spent the time to understand what the place was about. We are looking at planning our trip around the area at the moment and will definitely be using this as a guide. Thanks for sharing! #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this. I think no matter where you travel, it’s important to try to get the feel for the place, understand what it’s all about. You’ll enjoy the Yucatan, I’m sure. As you plan, let me know if you have any questions, I’ll be happy to help. You can also look through my other articles, check Mayan Ruins and Mexico in Destinations. Have a great time when you go.

  6. These are impressive ruins. It’s interesting that they aren’t very crowded. I would definitely want to climb the big pyramid! I’m amazed that you’ve been here several times!

    1. Actually, they are very crowded during the day; but the tour buses leave about an hour before closing time, and get there a few hours after opening, so during those times we only encounter a handful of people. Also, the big pyramid is at the far side, a good walk, which gives you even more time before the tours show up if you go there first. Thanks for reading, Sharon.

  7. The view from the top of Nohuch Mul looks stunning and I´d love to have the same local dining experience with the Mayan family! It always tends to be the best food: never tried fish made Yucatecan style! #FeetDoTravel

  8. Emese, I so enjoyed reading your story of Coba over the years. I visited in 1999 from a cruise ship. A boat met us and then ferried us to awaiting buses. Not many people on our cruise choose this trip because it wasn’t as well known back then. We had the long ride through the trees to get there and I will never for get the view from the top of the great pyramid and the view of the lake.We had a guide that took us to the sites but unfortunately did not know a whole lot about the history of the area. Anyways your post brought back fond memories of my trip.

    1. I’m so glad you got to visit when it was still quiet! You are right, Coba wasn’t a popular destination back then, sounds like taking that trip was the right choice for you, you made great memories. 🙂 I’m happy I reminded you of them; Coba is truly a magical site.

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