Saturday, 15 September 2018

The Mayan Ruins of Coba: Pyramids in Mexico

Nohoch Mul Coba
We are in Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo, and it is HOT! What is it about the most interesting places in the world - they are either unbearably hot or freezing cold. Well into our second week of exploring the pyramids and ruins left on the Yucatan Peninsula by Mexico's Mayan Civilisation I am over the heat - which is partly why I nominate Coba as my favourite Mayan ruin. Coba is in the jungle (more of a forest really), nestled unpretentiously amongst a cool umbrella of trees with its pyramids and temples connected along timeworn shaded pathways.

Coba - a bit of history

Coba was first settled around 100 BC. Like Chichen Itza and Mayapan, Coba was much more than a collection of pyramids and religious buildings. With more than 50,000 inhabitants (possibly twice that number) during its peak from 600-800 AD Coba was a powerful city state controlling much of the northeastern portion of the Yucatan Peninsula.  Over 6,000 structures were spread across 50 square kilometres (31 square miles). In the mid 800s AD Coba's inhabitants fought and lost a long war with the people of Chichen Itza, after which Coba was all but deserted. Although it had a brief renaissance in the 12th Century, by the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, Coba had been abandoned.

Coba's shaded pathways were lovely after the unrelenting heat we endured at other Mayan ruins.

Visiting Coba

Coba is relatively crowd free. We arrived around 11.30 am. While we didn't exactly have the place to ourselves it didn't feel at all crowded. The only place we saw more than a few other tourists was at the main pyramid of Nohoch Mul. 

Me at Coba.

Getting to Coba - where is it?

Coba is 47 kms (29 miles) north-west of Tulum  and 60 kms (37 miles) south-east of Valladolid along a good sealed road. We visited Coba during a day trip from Valladolid then continued on to take in the ruins at Tulum before returning to Valladolid. With a couple of hours spent exploring both Coba and Tulum we had plenty of time. There isn't a lot to see in between.

Ball court Coba
One of the ball courts at Coba. It is difficult to imagine how anyone ever scored.

What is there to see at Coba?

The Coba Group - There are four groups of ruins at Coba separated by paths through the jungle. The Coba Group is just past the entrance, directly opposite the bicycle hire stand. You will find La Iglesia (the Church), Coba's second highest pyramid, here along with a ball court and a ruin with the highly original name of 'Structure No.4'.

La Iglesia Coba
La Iglesia

The Nohoch Mul Group - At 42 metres (138 feet) high Nohoch Mul pyramid (Big Mound in the Mayan language) is the second tallest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula. You may have read it is the tallest - and it was for quite a while - until someone got their tape measure out and discovered that Calakmul in Campeche was 10 metres higher. Even so, at the equivalent of a 12 storey building Nohoch Mul is an impressive sight, all the more so because you are allowed to climb it.

David and I briefly considered and then abandoned the idea of climbing. The view from the top across the jungle is said to be impressive but there is no shade, the pyramid is steep (there is a rope down the centre of the stairs to cling too) and this was the one place where there were quite a few other tourists. More to the point, as regular readers may know by now, I have a heart condition which gives me a great excuse to chicken out of anything which looks a bit strenuous.

Note: I have read that visitors will no longer be allowed to climb Coba from January 2018. We were there in March 2018 and people were still being allowed to climb.

Coba's pyramid

The Paintings Group - This group of temples gets its name from paintings which decorated the buildings. Sadly, the once vivid colours are now almost indistinguishable.

The Macanxoc Group - The Macanox Group is significant for its stelae. Mayan stelae are carved stone monuments which look like stone tablets or pillars. Stela 1 has a reference to 21 December 2012, the completion date of the first Great Cycle in the Mayan Calendar. Does anyone else remember how the Mayans were said to have predicted the world would end on this date? Apparently this was a total furphy, made up by someone looking for a good story - in any event, almost six years later we are all still here.

Stela Coba
A stela at Coba as it is now and as it once was.

The Sacbeob - A sacbe (whose plural form is sacbeob) is a white stone road raised above the ground. Sacbeob are found throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. A typical sacbe was 1-2 metres (3.3-6.6 feet) high and 4.5 metres (15 feet) wide. The sacbe which begins from the base of Coba's main pyramid extends for 100 kilometres (62 miles). Don't make the mistake which we did at first, thinking all the paths through Coba are sacbeob. There are two sets of paths - the 'caminos para visitantes' (visitors' paths) and the sacbeob. Most of the walking and cycling paths are visitors' paths. However they intersect with the sacbeob from time to time.

Coba sign
The sacbeob are the dotted liness and the purples lines are the tourist paths.

How best to get around Coba: walk, cycle or bicycle taxi? 

You can easily travel a kilometre or more between each set of ruins so only walk if you have plenty of time. Although David and I do a lot of cycling when we travel (click the link to see our favourite cycle paths around the world) we chose to take a bicycle taxi at Coba. It was lots of fun, cost very little over the price of bike hire and our taxi driver knew where to go. Finding our way around Coba was far from intuitive. Our driver also provided a commentary as we rode along. 

The bicycle rental and taxi stand is on the left along the path just after you enter. You can't miss it.

Bicycle taxi Coba
Our bicycle taxi and driver.

How much does Coba cost?

Entrance tickets cost us 70 pesos each in addition to a small parking charge in the car park.

My other blog posts on Mexico

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  1. I love this place, everything about it. I even put up with the heat and humidity to spend time there.

    1. I can relate to that. There is something magical about Coba.

  2. I always find the history of these ruins so fascinating and wonder what the world would have been like if they hadn't succumbed to diseases brought by the Europeans. I mean, seems they were quite powerful then with a lot of people! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!

    1. I could be wrong but I think there are lots of Mayans still around today. They have just become 21st Century Mayans rather than ancient ones.

  3. Coba sounds much more interesting than Chichen Itza not only because it is cooler but it looks like the ruins are unadulterated, untouched. They really should prohibit climbing so it can be preserved!

    1. I agree with you about prohibiting climbing, although lots of people still seem to want to do it. While we were there I took a photo of a young woman who had climbed over a rope barrier onto a part of the ruins you weren't supposed to walk on while a guy took her photo. That is the sort of thing while really annoys me because it leads to people being kept right back and be watched by guards or tour guides all the time.

  4. What a beautiful site, I've never seen a ball court on an angle, lol - it looks challenging! Thanks for the beautiful tour

    1. I still can't figure out how they actually got the balls through these hoops. I have read they hit the balls with their hips. It sounds way too difficult to me.

  5. Coba looks like a special place. I can see how you appreciated the shade of the beautiful trees in that kind of tropical climate.

  6. I'd never heard of these Mayan ruins at Coba - this is quite a discovery and may have to make it on my next trip to Mexico. I don't think I'll try to climb up those stays, though... :-)

    1. Not climbing is a smart idea. It looked unbelievable steep and not at all safe.

  7. I visited Coba in 2012, the year the Mayan Calendar ended and there was all the mystery and hoopla surrounding that event. I loved Coba and found your descriptions interesting to refresh my memory. I also did not climb to the top, just took photos of those who did!

    1. Wow being there for a Mayan significant date would have been lots of fun. Lucky the world didn't end though.

  8. I've done pyramids in Egypt and Cambodia but not S America yet - looks cool there! #TheWeeklyPostcard