Visiting the Ancient Mayan Ruins of Coba – A Complete Guide

Climbing the Mayan pyramid Nohoch Mul in Coba

There are several ancient Mayan sites to choose from on the Yucatán peninsula and you might have a hard time deciding which ones to visit. Cobá is an excellent choice for those looking for the perfect combination of history and adventure. Not only does this ancient city provide the unique opportunity to climb an ancient Mayan pyramid, Cobá is also very different to many of the other historical sites. For example it’s enormous, not overly crowded and as it’s located in the midst of the thick jungle it provides an exciting wildlife experience. Entrance fee, how to get there, interesting facts and useful travel tips – this blog post includes all you need to know for planning your visit.

Cobá is the Ultimate Jungle Experience

Visiting Cobá comes with the added bonus of a Mexican jungle experience

Photo: Among many other animals Cobá is home to crocodiles, foxes, butterflies and several different species of birds.

Tweet, tweet, chirp. Tweet, tweet, chirp. Although hidden by the thick vegetation, the rhythmic sound carpet reveals a myriad of birds frequent this area. A giant blue morpho butterfly flutters past, disappearing into the dense green jungle. A splash in the water startles the wandering visitors. It’s a reminder that straying too far from the path is not recommended as crocodiles lurk in the murky waters. Suddenly a grey fox, the size of a small cat, shoots by. He has better things to do, than to stop and pose for pictures.

While the amount of wildlife might suggest some sort of a safari experience, the main attraction in Cobá is still the historical Mayan ruins. The wildlife is just an added bonus for the patient and quiet visitor. It is also one of the many things that make Cobá unique as an ancient Mayan site.

Giant Blue Morpho Butterfly in ancient Mayan city of Coba in Mexico

Photo: The giant Blue Morpho butterfly is a common sight in Cobá.

Feel Like Indiana Jones Touring Cobá

Visiting Cobá comes with the added bonus of a Mexican jungle experience

Photo: Just a small portion of ancient Cobá has been restored. Walking around the site you’ll see hundreds of crumbled piles of ruins. There’s estimated to be around 6 500 structures in ancient Cobá.

Today, Cobá draws visitors from all over the world. Yet, the vast enormousness of the site – ancient Cobá actually covers an area of over 70 square kilometres – absorbs the crowds quite well. Contrary to for example the Tulum ruins, you’ll probably get to have some corners of this place all to yourself.

Read more: Visiting Tulum Ruins – the Ultimate Travel Guide

Walking around this huge site on your own you’ll start feeling like Indiana Jones. Only around five percent of ancient Cobá is excavated and restored. Everywhere you look you’ll see crumbled heaps of old ruins with trees and roots jutting out of them.

Peering into the dense jungle one can only imagine what this great city must have been like during its peak, over thousand years ago. What treasures might there still be buried underneath these piles? Who knows – one day we might even discover some new clues that will help us understand why the Mayan civilization suddenly started to collapse after around 900 AD (the collapse was a slow and gradual process that started around 900 AD and progressed until the arrival of the Spanish during the 16th century).

History Part 1 – a Politically Important Metropolis During its Zenith

The oldest structures found in Cobá are estimated to have been built at around 50-100 AD. The city grew steadily from 100 AD and reached its peak at around 800 AD. Most of the larger structures in Cobá were built around this time. During its height Cobá is believed to have had as many as 55 000 inhabitants, possibly even more.

In comparison, here are the populations of some other ancient Mayan cities during their peaks:

  • Chichen Itzá around 50 000 inhabitants.
  • Tulum around 1 600.
  • Tikal in Guatemala around 100 000.

Situated in the middle of the jungle, Cobá was central in many aspects. Cobá has the largest network of sacbeobs – elevated ancient Mayan roads – that we know of today. Many of these roads connected different groups of structures to each other, but some led to other cities. One of the longest roads stretches on for over 100 kilometres towards the ancient city of Yaxuna, located close to Chichen Itzá.

Although we don’t know for sure, evidence points to Cobá being a very powerful city during its zenith around 800 AD. Not only did it have a large population, Cobá seems to have had control over a large geographic area as well, including many important trading routes. It has even been suggested Cobá might have been one of the biggest and most powerful cities in the northern Yucatán during its peak.

After around 1000 AD Cobá is believed to have started to lose some of its political power. That’s when several coastal cities, like Tulum, Xcaret, Tankah and El Rey began to grow more important.

Cobá still seems to have managed to maintain some religious importance and continued to be inhabited for several centuries. There are structures in Cobá that have been built as late as 1200-1500 AD (for example, the temple on top of the pyramid Nohoch Mul was added 1200 AD). By the time the Spaniards reached Mexico, however, Cobá had been abandoned.

History Part 2 – Female Rulers and Obsession with Time

For a long time we thought mainly men ruled the ancient Mayan civilization. However, as archaeological work progresses this theory has been challenged. Experts now believe that powerful female rulers weren’t uncommon in the ancient Mayan world.

In Cobá, several stelae (stones with hieroglyphs and pictures) have been found. These seem to portray an unusually large number of women, which has led experts to believe Cobá may have been one of the Mayan cities that had some female leaders.

The passage of time was something the ancient Mayans in general seem to have been almost obsessed with (not much unlike us modern-day humans) and the calendars were very important. The ancient Mayan calendar consisted of larger cycles each split into smaller periods of time. The smaller periods were called baktuns.

Cobá was no exception. In addition to Mayan calendars found here, an interesting discovery in Cobá is a reference to the oldest recorded date (that we know of today) in the Maya Long Count calendar. To be exact, a date 28 285 978 483 664 581 446 157 328 238 631 years ago!

Climbing the Mayan Pyramid Nohoch Mul

Climb this Mayan pyramid in Coba before it's too late

Photo: Descending the steep pyramid, you’ll see a lot of different techniques.

Although the wildlife and the Indiana Jones experience are already great reasons to visit the ancient Mayan city of Cobá, those aren’t the main attractions.

The reason Cobá is increasingly popular is the fact that it can boast with one of the highest Mayan structures constructed! The pyramid Nohoch Mul towers over the jungle, measuring 42 metres. Not only is it one of the highest Mayan structures on the Yucatán peninsula – it’s also one of very few pyramids left you are still allowed to climb.

Climbing up the 120 steps is such a unique experience many will visit Cobá just to do this. The view over the jungle – spreading out like a thick green carpet at your feet – is amazing! More on how to climb Nohoch Mul in my previous blog post (link below).

Read more: Climbing a Mayan pyramid – Ten tips for visiting the ancient Nohoch Mul in Cobá

Other Highlights of Visiting Cobá

Ball court near Nohoch Mul in Cobá

Photo: There are two ball courts in Cobá, significantly smaller than the one in Chichen Itzá, but still interesting. This one is located near the pyramid Nohoch Mul.

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.

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.

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 (see section History part 2 for more on these two subjects).

How to Visit Cobá – Guided Tour or Independently

Eagles on top of Iglesia in Coba

Photo: Eagles (I assume, not one hundred percent sure though) on top of Iglesia in Cobá.

There are three ways to see Cobá. You can either opt for one of the guided tours with all included or do it independently. You can also choose to get to the site independently and then get a guide by the ruins.

Wherever you’re staying – be it Tulum, Cancún or Playa del Carmen – you’ll most certainly be offered tours to Cobá. Many of the larger hotels organise their own tours for guests. Although these do have the convenience that comes with these kinds of package deals, like transportation, they can be very pricy. Considering the entrance fee is only 70 pesos (around 3 euros), paying 60-80 dollars for this feels extravagant (in my opinion).

Seeing Cobá independently is definitely a good choice, at least if you’re up for a little adventure! Getting here driving is easy (more on how to get here further down) and there’s parking right by the entrance. This will certainly save you a few bucks, at least if you’re not travelling solo and there are more people to split the cost of renting a car and driving.

In case driving isn’t an option, but you’d still like to do Cobá independently, you can take the ADO bus from Playa del Carmen or Tulum for around 5-10 euros per direction. However, the schedule isn’t ideal, at least not at the moment. You’ll get to Cobá after 10 am when most of the big groups get there.

A fourth, albeit expensive, alternative is taking a taxi and ask the driver to wait for you while you visit the site.

Do you need a guide or not?

Personally, I don’t think you do, provided you’ve done your research. Although I should probably mention I majored in history and am a real history geek. I spent days reading up about Mayan history before our visit.

But even if you’re not a history geek and haven’t researched ancient Mayan history, you might find the informations boards on site sufficient. There are plenty of information boards throughout the site by different structures providing snippets of interesting information. There are also a lot of great guidebooks available about the Yucatán peninsula in general, so if you’re carrying one with you, you might find it to be enough.

However, if you’re not at all familiar with Mayan history or if you prefer hearing someone else tell you facts instead of reading yourself I’d say go for a guide. This might also be a good alternative if you’re the kind of person who likes to ask questions.

You can get a guide by the entrance.

How to Get to Cobá by Car

Watch out for speed bumps while driving in Mexico

Photo: Watch out for topes (speed bumps) along the way.

Personally, I highly recommend renting a car and driving to Cobá. The drive is fairly short and easy, especially if you’re located in Tulum. It’s less than 50 kilometres from Tulum to Cobá and it takes about 45 minutes. There are signs for Cobá along the way, making it easy to find your way without a map.

From Cancún you’re looking at a little over 130 kilometres and over 2 hours. From Playa del Carmen the drive is around 110 kilometres and around 1,5 hours.

There’s parking right outside for 50 pesos.

If you’re considering renting a car, make sure you read my blog post about driving in Mexico (link below).

Read more: What you need to know before renting a car and driving in Mexico – a complete guide

Top Tips for Visiting Cobá

Allow time to admire the views once you've climbed the Mayan pyramid Nohoch Mul

Photo: Sitting at the top of Nohoch Mul, looking out over the jungle the mind starts to wander. Most ancient Mayan ruins are still buried under dense vegetation. Who knows what we’ll find in the future?

Here are some of my best tips for visiting Cobá. For even more tips check out my blog post with seven useful travel tips for visiting Cobá (link below).

Read more: Seven useful travel tips for visiting the ancient Mayan city of Cobá 

Start with the pyramid

Cobá is far from crowded compared to Chichen Itzá and Tulum. However, most of the people that do come here are going to climb the pyramid. 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.

Consider renting a bike or taking a bicycle-taxi

At Cobá you can rent bikes to explore the ancient Mayan city

Renting a bike or taking a bicycle-taxi is something many people chose to do. It’s been pointed out a few times already, but the area is enormous. Add the heat and the humidity and it can get physically exhausting.

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 a bit of 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.

Bring water and snacks

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 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!).

Dress smart – comfortable shoes are key

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) and by the end of this trip the step counter 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 in walking the whole day. 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, if you’re climbing the pyramid.

Although a lot of Cobá can be explored in the cool comfort of 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).

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.

When to Visit Cobá

The hurricane season in Mexico lasts from June to November, so if possible you might want to steer clear of this period. The rainier the weather, the muddier the site.

If possible, avoid visiting on a Sunday. On Sundays people of Mexican nationality get to visit archaeological sites for free. Although this isn’t as notable as in some of the more crowded sites, it might still be worth picking another day if you can.

As with many other popular sites, get there early (or very late). Try to get to Cobá by 8.30-9.30 am at the latest.

Visiting Cobá in a Nutshell

  • Open daily from 8 am to 6 pm.
  • Entrance fee is 70 pesos (around 3 euros).
  • Arrive early (before 10 am) to beat the crowds.
  • Parking fee is 50 pesos.
  • Toilets by the main entrance before you enter. No toilets once inside.
  • No vendors on site (except a small stall selling water).
  • Small souvenir and convenience store outside the main entrance selling water and snacks.
  • Reserve at least a couple of hours, preferably more for exploring the site.
  • Make sure to stop and listen to the jungle sounds and spot wildlife: for example foxes, butterflies and a myriad of birds can be sighted.
  • Highlights also include climbing the 42 metres high pyramid Nohoch Mul.
  • If you’re planning on climbing Nohoch Mul dress smartly.
  • Provides a unique chance to really get close to history as you’re still allowed to touch and climb many structures.

Fast Facts About Ancient Cobá

  • Cobá means “water stirred by wind” in Mayan. A fitting name since it’s located right by two lakes.
  • A rough estimate is that there are 6 500 structures in Cobá.
  • Only a small percentage of the structures have been restored.
  • Ancient Cobá was at its peak around 800 AD.
  • At this time it estimated to have had around 55 000 inhabitants.
  • Cobá has the largest network of Mayan sacbe-roads (that we know of today).
  • The area is enormous: it covers over 70 square kilometres.
  • Because of an unusually large number of stelae portraying women found here, Cobá is believed to have had female rulers.
  • Cobá is home to a stelae with the oldest date recorded in the Mayan Long Count calendar (that we know of today). It’s a reference to a date 28 285 978 483 664 581 446 157 328 238 631 years ago!

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