The ancient Mayan city of Cobá in Mexico is understandably on many travellers’ bucket lists. It provides the unique opportunity to climb an ancient Mayan pyramid – the 42 metres high Nohoch Mul. Located in the midst of the thick jungle, a visit to Cobá is also excellent for spotting local wildlife and seeing what the crumbled ruins look like before they’ve been restored. Here are some handy tips to make the most of your adventure to this historical site.
1. Get there early and start with the pyramid
Photo: Most people that visit Cobá are there for this pyramid that is one of very few ancient pyramids that you are still allowed to climb.
Cobá is far from crowded compared to Chichen Itzá and Tulum. However, most of the people that come here are going to climb the pyramid Nohoch Mul. Thus, the pyramid can get very busy during the middle of the day.
If you’re planning on climbing the pyramid, make sure you get to Cobá as early as possible (at 8.30-9 am at the latest). Skip the group of ruins by the entrance – you’ll see them before exiting – and head straight for the pyramid.
Once you’ve seen the pyramid you can see the rest of the site enjoying the tranquillity, progressing from one end to the other.
For more tips on how to climb Nohoch Mul check out my previous blog post about the subject here.
2. Consider renting a bike or taking a bicycle-taxi
Photo: To save energy you can either rent a bike or hop on a bicycle-taxi.
The area is enormous, so you’ll be doing a lot of walking. Add the heat and the humidity and it can get physically exhausting. This is why renting a bike or taking a bicycle-taxi is something many people choose to do.
Many travellers who have rented bikes have been raving about it – it does seem to make exploring the site a lot of fun and it certainly is easier and faster. However, one of the highlights of visiting Cobá is exploring the jungle paths and listening to the wildlife. Swishing past on a bike you’ll miss out on this part of the experience.
If you want to save some energy, but don’t want to commit to a bike for the whole visit, another option is to get a bicycle-taxi to drive to one part and then you can walk about freely after. I recommend starting with this and letting the driver take you to Nohoch Mul (this cost 75 pesos). This way you’ll get there as early as possible, save some energy and then be free to walk about as you please.
Photo: I forgot the name of this excellent bicycle-taxi driver, but he took us from the entrance to Nohoch Mul for 75 pesos and in no more than a few minutes.
3. Bring water and snacks
Photo: Make sure you stay hydrated, especially if you’re planning on climbing Nohoch Mul. Enjoy the beautiful views from the top of the pyramid while having a quick snack and a sip (or two) of your water.
Contrary to for example the ruins in Tulum, you’ll get to experience Cobá in the shade of the jungle vegetation – for the most parts at least. However, it does still get hot and sweaty on a warm day. There aren’t any vendors once you enter the site (with the exception of water being sold by the entrance where the bicycles are located).
As the site is enormous, those who plan on seeing everything might be looking at up to 2-4 hours of exploring! In other words, make sure you bring plenty of water to stay hydrated, as well as some snacks to help you get through the adventure. Just make sure to dispose of any garbage in a proper way (no littering!).
4. Dress smart – Comfortable shoes are key
Photo: Climbing Nohoch Mul in high heels and a short skirt is not recommended. Choose a comfortable and sturdy pair of shoes, preferably ones designed for hiking.
If you’re planning on seeing the whole archaeological site you will be doing a lot of walking. We’re talking about several kilometres. The distance from the entrance to Nohoch Mul is already two kilometres (by the end of this adventure the pedometer showed 18 000 steps).
Visiting Cobá in high heels, flip-flops or any similar type of footwear is not smart. You should be wearing sturdy trainers or hiking shoes that you feel comfortable walking in for several hours.
Good footwear is especially important if you’re planning on climbing the pyramid. You need a pair of shoes that you can rely on. Leave the short skirt or dress at home as well.
Although a lot of Cobá can be explored in the cool comfort of the jungle shade you might still want to cover your head. A hat or cap will protect you from the powerful sun in the areas where there isn’t shade (for example climbing the pyramid).
5. Snap a picture of the map
Are you exploring the site independently without a guide? Since the area is enormous, you might have a hard time knowing what’s where once you’re inside exploring.
There are no maps handed out as you enter, once inside you’re on your own.
That’s why snapping a picture of the map, located right by the main entrance, is a good idea. When you’re unsure, you can check the map on your phone.
6. Don’t forget there’s more to Cobá than Nohoch Mul
Photo: The ancient Mayan ball court located fairly close to the pyramid Nohoch Mul is smaller than the one in Chichen Itzá, but you might get to enjoy this without the crowds.
Although it’s hard to rival the exhilarating pyramid climbing, Cobá does have many other interesting structures to see. They’re not as beautifully restored as the ones in for example Chichen Itzá, but on the other hand, you’ll get to admire them without the impossible crowds.
There are two equally intriguing ball courts. A smaller one by Grupo Cobá – some guides will tell you this was a practice court (however, this is just one theory). The other one is near Nohoch Mul. This one has an unusually well preserved human skull carved into stone at the centre of the court. There’s also a stelae with the Mayan calendar.
At Grupo Macanxoc you’ll find several stelae, most of which were carved during the 7th century. These portray an unusually large number of women as well as the oldest date found in the Maya Long Count calendar.
Don’t miss Iglesia by the Grupo Cobá cluster by the entrance. This high structure can be seen from the top of Nohoch Mul. According to some sources, this structure was used for Maya ceremonies for a long time after the city was abandoned. There are some narrow passageways you can walk through, but crouch down if you’re tall – you’ll notice the ancient Mayans were a bit smaller than many of us humans today.
Photo: Eagles sitting on top of the Iglesia structure.
Photo: The ancient Mayans weren’t very tall people as you’ll notice if you try to walk through this passageway by Iglesia.
7. Stop by the villages on your way back
Photo: Stopping by the road on our way home we met locals and learned how tortillas are made. This was one of the highlights of our adventure to Cobá.
If you’re driving, make sure to stop by the villages by the road on your way back home. You can buy cold coconut drinks or other refreshments or check out how tortillas are made.
It’s also a great opportunity to get to know some local people (it helps if you know some basic Spanish though).