Coba. the Pyramid Ixmoja in the Nohuch Mul group

Cobá Ruins: A Complete Guide

The remains of the ancient Maya city of Cobá are one of my favoriteMaya ruins in Quintana Roo, on the Yucatan Peninsula. Surrounded by the jungle, the ancient structures evoke a sense of mystery. Despite the growing crowd, I can still find peaceful areas to be alone with the ancient stones.

Cobá ruins comprise several groups of buildings connected by long trails through the jungle. In fact, the whole site of Cobá spreads over 30 square miles.

My favorite spots in this Maya archaeological site are not the most spectacular ones by most tourist standards. Which also means that, once I reach them, I can still find the quiet I still associate with Cobá Ruins. At least compared to Chichen Itza, and Uxmal, the other two major, easy-to-visit sites on the peninsula.

Farthest from the entrance, it is the Macanxoc Group where I like to spend most of my time in Cobá. Filled with ancient stelae, it is the spot where you can still read the ancient Maya history written in stone.

But before getting there, I will lead you through the whole site, starting at the entrance. Join me as I revisit Cobá, the archaeological site in a town that feels like my family’s home in Mexico.

The Archaeological Site of Cobá

Among the ruins in Cobá
Among the ruins in Cobá

One of the largest and oldest of theMaya ruinsin Quintana Roo, on theYucatan peninsula, Cobá owes its notoriety to being home one of the tallest pyramids on the peninsula, Ixmoja in the Nohuch Mul group.

However, the famous pyramid is only one of the hundreds of ancient structures on the site. And, besides the pyramids and other structures, Coba is also home to the largest network of sacbe (ancient stone roads) of the region.

Cobá means “waters stirred by the wind,” a fitting name considering the site’s location, near two large lagoons, Lake Cobá, and Lake Macanxoc.

You’ll walk by Lake Cobá as you make your way to the ruins from town. You can even zipline above it. Looking down from the boardwalk, you might see turtles and crocodiles poking their heads out of the water.

On the other hand, Lake Macanxoc is much harder to spot. Entirely within the archaeological site, it is hidden from view by the surrounding jungle.

The jungle surrounding Cobá Ruins
he surrounding jungle hides Lake Macanxoc and thousands of structures

The archaeological site is in a modern-day Maya town, and a short drive from three underground cenotes nearby. And if that wasn’t enough to make the site popular, Cobá is also an easy day-trip from Tulum, only 28 miles inland from the coast.

However, the main draw of Cobá for tourists was the possibility to climb the tallest pyramid of the peninsula. Since this is no longer possible, I wonder if the town may become less visited.

About Cobá Ruins: A Bit of History

Archaeologists believe that Cobá was one of the most important city-states on the Yucatan Peninsula.

Though first settled in the Pre-Classic period (300 BC – 200 AD) of the Maya civilization, not much evidence survived those times. The earliest structures we see at the site date from the Early Classic era (200 – 600 AD). But it wasn’t until the Late Classic period (600 – 900 AD) when Cobá became a serious power.

During this time, it was the regional capital of the area, and built most of its structures we admire today. Home to about 50,000 people, it held a strong cultural and political influence over the surrounding region. It also had ties or with the coastal port cities of Xel-Ha and Tulum. It also seems to have maintained powerful alliances with city states further south, like Calakmul, Dzibanche, and Tikal.

Chichen Itzaemerging as a rival power ended the authority of Cobá and started its decline. However, even after loosing its political power around 1000 AD, Cobá remained and inhabited city until the 14th century. It had a small population until the Spanish conquest. During its latest phases, people from nearby sites used as a pilgrimage destination.

How to Visit the Cobá Ruins

Visiting just the ruins of Cobá can take you anywhere from a few hours to a whole day. We like to spend an entire day at the ruins, as we make our way through the different groups. Since distances are large, we take the time to walk through the jungle path.

The main trail leading to Nohuch Mul
On the main trail towards Nohuch Mul

Most people generally count on spending two to four hours visiting the Cobá ruins. While I would feel rushed if I did that, it is possible.

Soon after you enter the site, you’ll find a place to rent bicycles or hire a “Maya taxi”, a modified bicycle with a two-person seat attached to the front, where you can sit while a local drives you. Personally, I always walk through the site. However, we rented bikes for our kids once, when they were little, to make the visit more exciting for them. My husband also rented one when he only had a limited time to visit the sites before its closing.

I prefer walking because I love the trail shaded by the mature trees, and enjoy stopping along the way. I also found that walking gives me an opportunity to see wildlife. We’ve seen wild turkeys several times, besides iguanas and other small creatures. I also enjoy stopping to enjoy some of the older trees along the trail. Trees are as much part of the site as the ancient structures.

Regardless of walking, riding or being driven, you can explore a few different groups of structures.

The Cobá Group

The first group you see as you enter is the Coba Group. It includes several structures, the most prominent being the Iglesia.

La Iglesia

La Iglesia pyramid in the Coba Group
Th pyramid known as Iglesia is deserted…

The first pyramid you notice, even before you enter the site, towers high above the surrounding jungle canopy. La Iglesia (the Church) sits only a few feet from the entrance to the archaeological site, dominating the area. Surrounded by jungle canopy, it stands at 74 feet tall, and it’s the second largest pyramid at the site.

Built in nine tiers over hundreds of years, it dates from the Late Classic Period of the Maya civilization (around 550-900AD), though the temple on top (eroded, you can’t see it) was added later, in the Post-classic era.

You can’t climb this pyramid, since it’s too eroded to do so safely. Years ago (over twenty) it wasn’t blocked off, and I remember climbing it – halfway. It was too dangerous even then with the eroded stairs to go any further. Now, it is blocked off, so you can’t attempt to climb.

However, you can walk up close to it, and stand on its platform base, where you’ll find a stela protected by a palapa roof.

Other Structures in this Group

Now that I can’t climb it, I like to sit in front of the Iglesia pyramid on a bench in the shade of mature trees to take it all in. In the past years I found this to be a perfect spot for people watching.

In the plaza of the Coba Group,
… very busy in front of Iglesia…

However, since you’re a the site to see ruins, walk farther to the right on the path, away from the busy area. Here, you’ll find another, smaller structure, with a stairway and a passageway under it.

passageway under the staircase in the Coba group
You can walk in a tunnel under a stairway…

No other structures are open to the public in this area, so you have no choice but to return to the busy plaza, where you can start exploring the site.

But before getting on the long trail through the jungle, you’ll walk through a ball court.

The Ball Court in the Cobá Group

One of the two ball courts in Coba; this one part of the Coba group near the entrance.
… walk through a ball court…

The reconstructed ball court is much smaller than the ones in Chichen Itza, but its elaborate markers make up for the size. Just passed the ball court, you’ll see a large stela laying encased, so no one can touch it. This

The Conjunto de Pinturas

The Pyramid of the Painted Lintel in the Conjunto de Pinturas group
Try to see the pained lintels on the temple on top of this pyramid – if the sun hits it just right, you can.

The main structure in this group is the Pyramid of the Painted Lintel. A small pyramid, its value lies in the gorgeous paintings on the lintel of its temple on top. Years ago. when we first visited the area, it was possible to climb it. Since it was always the pyramid with the least visitors (after all, it’s just a small structureone), we used to sit on its stairs, in front of the temple, enjoying the paintings and the view of the surrounding jungle. You didn’t see the top of the canopy, but you were level with the lower branches of the trees.

No longer possible to climb it, if you look at the pyramid from a certain angle, you can see the paintings inside the temple from the ground.

Visiting the Nohuch Mul Group

The tallest pyramid on the Yucatan peninsula, Ixmoja in the Nohuch Mul group in Coba Ruins, Quinana Roo
You can no longer climb Ixmoja in the Nohuch Mul group, but it’s still worth a look

Standing about 138 feet (42 meters) above its surroundings, Ixmoja, is one of the tallest known pyramid on he Yucatan Peninsula. The pyramid is the main structure of the Nohuch Mul group. The seven-layer, rounded pyramid became synonymous with the name of the group, so now people refer to the pyramid, as Nohuch Mul, meaning “large mound”. Climbing all 120 steps of this pyramid was the main reason people visited the archaeological site of Cobá.

And, while I normally recommend walking to the Nohuch Mul group first to beat the crowds, I am not sure this is necessary any longer. Since 2020, they closed the pyramid for climbing. Originally they did it because of CoVid, but they still didn’t open it, and they most likely never will.

Crowds Made It Unsafe to Climb the Ixmoja Pyramid at Cobá Ruins

When we visited in 2018, so many people climbed it all at once, it looked unsafe. Climbing the steep and often eroded stairs is already challenging, and doing it while weaving through crowds was not my idea of fun.

Besides, I’ve climbed this pyramid plenty of times over the three decades we’ve been visiting it. For the first time since I’ve seen it, I opted not to climb it. As I watched my daughters and my husband weave their way through the crowded stairway, surrounded by people who looked like they had no business climbing even a short flight of stairs, I knew I made the right decision.

The pyramid at Nohuch Mul in Coba was extremely crowded in the spring of 2018...
It got very crowded and therefore dangerous to climb the highest pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula… but it took CoVid to close it

I have memories on standing on top of that pyramid with only my family, ocassionally joined by another visitor or two. Those were the days when if you met someone else on top of the pyramid, you talked to them, and got to know them.

You knew that if they were on top of that pyramid, they weren’t tourists. So you always wondered why they were there, what made them interested in the ancient Maya civilization. If you spoke different languages, you said hello and smiled, and communicated with gestures.

Now, there were so many people climbing up and down those stairs, no one even bothered to look at another.

As we watched a visitor roll down the stairs, we knew it wouldn’t be long before they would close it. Fortunately, the guy walked away from the fall on his own feet. For the first time in almost three decades I noticed first responders at Coba. They rushed to the person who fell, helped him to his feet, and checked him, before finally letting him walk away.

He was extremely lucky to walk away from that fall. But watching him, and the crowded pyramid, I knew it was only a matter of time before they would close this pyramid, as well.

It Is Still Worth Visiting the Nohuch Mul Group

Even if you can no longer climb it, the walk or bike ride to the imposing pyramid is worth it. Besides a look at one of the tallest pyramids on the peninsula, you’ll find a few small stelae in the plaza of the Nohuch Mul group. Also, it might become less crowded once people realize they can not climb it.

The Macanxoc Group

Stela in Macanxoc group, Cobá
Carved stela in the Macanxoc group

My favorite area of the Cobá Ruins is past the Nohuch Mul plaza, an area closed to bicycles, called the Macanxoc group. Filled with standing stelae, large pieces of limestone carved with images and glyphs, it has always been the most quiet area of the site. Most people didn’t bother to go back there, especially after climbing the Ixmoja.

The Macanxoc group is all about stelae. 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.

This is the place where you’ll find Stela 1, the most important in the whole Yucatan peninsula, since it has the longest known Maya hieroglyphic text carved on it. If you cared to count, you’d find 313 glyphs on it, carved on the front, back and sides, recording dates from A.D. 653 to 672.

Most of the other stelae are carved only on one side, but you might discern elaborate images on them.

Stelae: Ancient Maya 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 Maya people 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.

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 extremely important, so they carved his birth date on his stelae first. Next came the date 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.

Walking on Sacbe, Ancient Roads of the Maya

Several times along the trail, you’ll walk on ancient roads, built at the time the structures at the site were. The Maya call these ancient roads sacbeob (plural for sacbe), meaning “white road”. Made of limestone, they used to be white, when clean.

Eroded and covered with dirt and vegetation, it’s hard to imagine them white, but occasionally you’ll see the white limestone peaking out from under the dirt.

Cobá has at least 45 sacbeob, more than any other Maya site on the peninsula. They connect different parts of the site and different structures within a group. Some even seem to go through parts of a lake. Others go well beyond Cobá, to more distant sites.

The longest known sacbe on the peninsula starts here, leading west about 62 miles (100 km), connecting Cobá to the site of Yaxuna.

Built of sandstone, these roads sit elevated from the surface of the surrounding area, so you’ll notice when you are walking on one. 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, making them smooth and easier to walk on.

As I stumbled through them, walking through the site, I wished they were as smooth as when they were built.

Practical Tips On Visiting Cobá Ruins

The best was to visit Cobá is to have your own car. You can join a tour from Cancun or from Tulum, you’ll find plenty. But if you want to really experience the site, and possibly spend some time alone in the jungle, rent a car as soon as you land in Cancun (assuming you landed in Cancun). If you olive in Mexico, obviously you have your own car; if your main destination is Merida, you can rent a car there.

Spend a night in the town of Cobá, instead of visiting as a day trip. That way you don’t need to rush through the site. Stay in one of the locally-owned hotels, and eat in different restaurants, owned by local Maya for the best meals.

Make sure you carry enough water when hiking through the site. It isn’t the desert, but it may get hot by mid-day, and it’s always nice to have a refreshing drink while hiking – not to mention you won’t get dehydrated. It also helps to bring a snack, so you won’t be tempted to rush out because you’re hungry. We always carry cliff bars or luna bars when hiking through any of the Maya sites.

Make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes. Even if you can’t climb the Ixmoja, distances are large between the structures, so good shoes are a must. Even if you rent a bike; you’ll stop to explore the structures.

And, even though the trails are shaded in most part, the sun is intense, so a hat and sunscreen are also a must.

And after you explored the ruins, if you stay in town, you have time to go and visit one – or all three – cenotes nearby. They are close enough to ride a bike to them, but it’s more pleasant to take your car. All three are underground, so they offer a great way to cool down after trekking through the jungle.

Maya or Mayan? Which Is Correct?

You see both terms Maya Ruins and Mayan Ruins referring to the ruins of cities built by the Ancient Maya. Though it might seem that the correct form should be Mayan as an adjective, this is not the case.

Scholars only use the adjective formMayanwhen referring to the family of Mayan languages (over 20 still spoken). With one exception, the Yucatec Maya. Locals who speak it, refer to it simply Maya, so it is the accepted term for it.

Other than referring to the languages, the term Mayais the correct form used for everything else, even as an adjective, including Maya civilization, Maya archaeology, and Maya ruins.

About the Author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

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