Today, there are only a few places left in the world where you are still allowed to climb historical ruins. And when it comes to ancient Mayan pyramids, it’s definitely slim pickings. One of the only climbable Mayan pyramids left is Nohoch Mul in the ancient Mayan city of Cobá. At 42 metres, this extremely steep pyramid is understandably on many Mexico-travellers’ bucket lists. Climbing to the top and admiring the amazing view – thick jungle stretching out like a green carpet as far as you can see – is truly exhilarating and unforgettable. Here are a few tips to help you make the most of your climb to the top.
1. Get there early – very crowded between 10 am and 2 pm
Photo: If you’re hoping to get a picture with just you and the beautiful view in the background don’t get here between 10 am and 2 pm when most people arrive. Beat the crowds by heading here early.
Although Cobá as a historical site doesn’t draw the same kind of masses as Chichen Itzá and Tulum, you shouldn’t assume you’d be the only one here. The more crowded it is climbing the pyramid, the more uncomfortable it’ll be. It’s not tiny, but it’s small enough to make a hundred people feel like rush hour in New York.
The steeper and harder the climb, as is the case with Nohoch Mul, the more personal space you might feel you need. Let’s face it. Nothing is scarier than seeing that 30 metre-drop below and looking up to see a person above you looking like they’re about to loose their balance and come falling down dragging you along with them. Fair enough, as far as I know this has never happened in Cobá. But still, you’d rather be able to climb and descend with some room around you – at least for your own peace of mind.
This is why the most important tip is to get to the ruins and the pyramid as early as possible (or alternatively very late). The site opens at 8 am, ideally you should be here no later than 8:30 am, 9 am at the latest.
Today, there’s also the option of seeing the pyramid at sunset for a larger entrance fee (if I remember correctly this was something around 250 pesos, compared to the 70 pesos the normal entrance fee is). This is a great opportunity for those who can afford it and are interested in only the pyramid (I personally don’t think there’s enough time to do both the ruins and the pyramid during the time slot for this ticket, it gets pretty dark fast after sunset, but perhaps if you’re fast).
2. Avoid Sundays unless you’re a Mexican citizen
On Sundays people of Mexican nationality can visit archaeological sites for free. Although this doesn’t affect Cobá as much as some of the other more crowded sites it might still be a smart choice to avoid this day if possible.
3. Start with the pyramid – consider taking a bicycle-taxi from the entrance
Photo: I forgot the name of our excellent bicycle taxi driver, but the ride from the entrance to Nohoch Mul was 75 pesos and it didn’t take more than a few minutes thanks to this guys swift pedalling.
Contrary to for example Tulum (for more about Tulum ruins read my blog post here), Cobá is enormous. The ancient Mayan city actually covers an area of over 70 square kilometres.
If you’re planning on seeing more than just the pyramid you will be doing a lot of walking. Getting to the pyramids alone is already around two kilometres from the main entrance.
Make sure you start your tour of Cobá with the pyramid, at least if you got here early to beat the crowds. To get to the pyramid as fast as possible consider taking a bicycle-taxi from the entrance to the pyramid. It costs 75 pesos and will save you a lot of time and energy. You’ll be doing enough walking later while touring the rest of the site, believe me!
4. Very steep – especially if you suffer from vertigo
Photo: The Mayan pyramid Nohoch Mul is not just tall. The 42-metre high pyramid is also very steep.
The pyramid of Nohoch Mul is not just 42 metres high. It’s extremely steep. Looking up at the 120 steps rising straight towards the sky above, the structure appears almost wall-like. This is not just about walking up some steps, it’s literally climbing.
However, I feel it does appear even more ominous in pictures than in real life. I suffer from vertigo myself and I was able to climb and descend in an upright position (more on descending further down this post).
With that said, it’s important to consider the fact that it can get very hot. There’s no shade and climbing for a while the heat along with the physical activity might leave you feeling dizzy. If you suffer from dizziness caused by vertigo on top of that, the combination might be pretty daunting.
5. Reserve enough time
Photo: The views from Nohoch Mul are amazing! Make sure you plan enough time to just sit back and relax once you’ve reached the top of the pyramid.
Don’t just hurry up and down: this part of your visit to Cobá should not be rushed!
There’s something truly magical about standing on top of the pyramid gazing out over the uninterrupted horizon, watching birds fly and listening to the jungle sounds.
If you came here early to beat the crowds you’ll have the luxury of enjoying the views with just a few fellow spectators. Although there’s no shade while climbing, there’s several spots with shade at the top.
Stay hydrated and have a drink before heading down.
6. Bring water and a snack
Speaking of staying hydrated, make sure you pack enough water for your visit to Cobá. The Mexican heat and humidity are a lot to take, especially climbing the pyramid under the scorching sun.
I strongly recommend bringing both water and other beverages as well as some light snacks to get you through the visit to Cobá and climbing Nohoch Mul. Just remember to always dispose of any garbage in a proper way – in other words no littering!
7. How to get down
Photo: Walk, crawl or slide – the choice is yours! No matter how you choose to do it, descending the pyramid is harder than climbing.
Once here, you’ll see that getting up isn’t the hardest part. Getting down is the trickiest. You’ll also notice that there are almost as many styles of descending as there are people here.
Some will just walk normally down the steps in an upright position. Others will go down the steps sitting down, moving their butts down one step at a time. Others will crawl down on all fours in a backwards way clinging to the steps for dear life. Pick your own style!
There’s a rope to help the dizziest – grab it for support if you feel you need to.
8. Dress smart
It should be common sense, but since we saw some questionable fashion choices it seems important to mention.
Pick your shoes carefully! Don’t attempt to climb in flip-flops or high heels. Opt for trainers or some other type of stable and reliable footwear.
Wearing a really short skirt or dress isn’t smart either, since the steps are steep (unless you don’t mind everyone seeing up your skirt).
Wear a hat or a cap or something else to cover your head with if you need it. The sun gets pretty intense and there’s no shade while climbing.
9. Be careful – safety first
Photo: Climbing the pyramid in Cobá isn’t dangerous – if you do it right. Don’t forget that 42 metres is pretty high and be careful close to the edge.
We saw some people who seemed very unaware of their own safety. While taking a great picture is important for many of us, it’s important to bear in mind what 42 metres actually means.
The pyramid is extremely steep. If you fall you’ll probably fall all the way to the ground. The ruins are restored, but they are still ruins. It’s important to remember that they are not as stable and safe as modern-day constructions.
Standing on the outermost stone you’re always taking a risk. Leave some space between yourself and the edge. We saw many people standing right on the edge, as far out as possible while posing for pictures. A sudden loss of balance or an accidental step backwards would most certainly have proved fatal.
Today, as society seems to be much more protected, with signs, railings and fenced off areas, we sometimes forget common sense. There is no safety net at Nohoch Mul. Staying safe is really just your own responsibility.
With that said if all this is just basic common sense to you, there shouldn’t be any problem. Do this right and it’s perfectly safe – the climb isn’t that hard.
Remember to be extra cautious if there’s been a lot of rain. The combination of mud from the terrain and the worn-out stones can be very slippery.
10. Go before it’s too late
Quoting an old advertising slogan a travel agency once had: go before it’s too late. Who knows how long it will be possible to climb this pyramid?
I’m certain that it’s only a matter of time before this will be fenced off as most of the other high Mayan structures.
Right now you can still climb, so what are you waiting for?
Photo: Who knows for how long you’ll still be able to climb this pyramid in Cobá in Mexico? Better to climb now, before it’s too late.