It’s no secret that one of Mexico’s charms is its awe-inspiring Mayan history reflected in the many archeological sites present there, more friendly known as Mayan ruins. And the Coba archeological site is definitely one of the most popular. If you don’t know much about the Coba Archeological Site, this post will do the job. Read on to learn all you need to know about Coba Ruins.
Nestled in a lush tropical jungle just like almost all the Mayan sites in the Yucatan, the old Mayan site of Coba attracts just as many tourists as Chichen Itza and Tulum.
Well, maybe not that much, but it’s almost as popular. In its apogee, it was certainly a good rival of Chichen-Itza and just as glorious. But we will talk about it further on in this post.
Since the location is quite close to Tulum, it’s visited by a large number of people every year as it makes a great day trip from Tulum.
You can explore the ruins walking, on a bike, or using a bici-taxi ride, which makes the trip twice as fun.
The best bit is that you get to explore it thoroughly without having to deal with the big crowds like the ones seen at Chichen Itza.
The majestic Nohoch Mul pyramid sits at the end of your Coba itinerary, and looking at it will make it apparent why the Coba Ruins hold such an important place when it comes to the ancient Mayan sites of the Yucatan.
A trip to it is never a bad idea whether you’re going with family, friends, or solo! And after reading this post I am sure you will want to include it in your Tulum itinerary.
If you check on institutional sites or at the entrance of other sites as well, you will see a message announcing that Coba archeological site is closed until further notice. IT’S NOT TRUE. The problem is that the Mayan site is on a territory that belongs to local communities called Ejidos, while the ruins are managed and preserved by INHA. The two parts recently faced a disagreement so the people from the Ejido is now managing the site and making their own pricing (that’s the reason why it’s more expensive than it used to be). But it is open for visitors.
Where is Coba located
Coba archeological site is located in the small village of Coba right by the Coba lake, 40 km (24mi) from Tulum and 60 km (37mi) from Valladolid.
What does Coba mean?
Some of the hieroglyphic inscriptions found in numerous Coba stelae tell us that Coba is most likely the original name of the Mayan city. And one of the possible meanings is Agua picada” (chopped water) due to the vicinity of 5 bodies of water among lagoons and lakes.
How to visit the Maya ruins
As I said earlier, the Mayan Ruins of Coba can be explored using different ways. The ruins expand on a large piece of land, with temples spread across the dense jungle, so you can take your time with the site and visit the places there via a bike rental, cart, or simply take a memorable walk throughout the jungle and the ruins.
Walking around the ruins of Coba
Walking is one of the top choices when it comes to exploring the city of the ancient Mayan site. Since the temples are scattered around, and all the paths leading to them come under the shades of its trees, you can take pleasant walks and explore all of them at a leisurely pace.
However, it’s a wide area, so you need to have a lot of time on hand to explore the ruins ( and water).
The closing time is 4:30 pm, so getting there early is recommended. Besides, it gets a bit hot and humid here, so keep a lot of water handy and make sure you can tolerate the sun before venturing in, and always bring some water with you.
If not, worry not because there is a little kiosk right before the Nohoch – Mul pyramid (which is not a pyramid) where you can buy your refreshments.
The ruins of Coba have trails good enough for a bike ride across them, and you will easily find bike rentals here for cheap, making it the perfect alternative to walking.
Whether you don’t feel like walking much or don’t have a lot of time left to explore the Coba Ruins, get yourself a bike rental and you will still have just as much fun out of your trip to the ruins. It only costs about 50 MXN!
Visiting Coba on a bici-taxi
Bici-taxis are pretty unique in not only their name but also the kind of experience they offer. The passenger seats are in the front, while the driver sits at the back and pedals you through the ruins of Coba.
It’s a decent option for families with kids, but just keep in mind that the bici-taxis only go from the entrance to the main temple and then back, so if you’re looking to explore the rest of the ruins, you will have to go there on your own.
Nevertheless, these carts only cost around 140 MXN per ride, so they’re great because you arrive at the temple without getting tired by the 2-kilometer walk from the entrance.
Should I hire a guide to visit Coba ruins?
Hiring a guide for your Coba Ruins visit is optional, but I do recommend it if it’s your first time. You can hire one at the entrance to the site.
Exploring the Coba Ruins without a local guide is quite the norm, although I find it much more interesting when you know what you are looking at.
However the below information may help you to figure it out on your own.
A little bit of history
No worries, I am not going to bore you with technical stuff, first of all, because I am not in historian and second of all because much of the information we have about the Mayan civilization is mainly speculations.
What I would do is read this and then hire a guide and see if the information match, and if not ask questions 🙂
Here is what I have found out from my quick research (sources at the bottom).
The ancient Mayan city of Coba used to cover a territory of over 70km2 (43 mi2) – huge right? well, fear not, because only 1% has been brought to light, so the territory that you will be visiting is relatively small after all.
The original city was organized into 5 groups – you will read more about them in the itinerary section below.
- Coba group (the part you will find at the beginning of your Coba itinerary)
- Macanxhuc group – close to the homonymous lake (that you will not be able to see), It’s the lesser visited place and yet the most important. Here you can see the Stele 1, the only one in the Mayan area –until now– that has four dates inscribed, one of which refers to December 21, 2012, a day interpreted as the “end of time” or the beginning of a new Mayan era.
- Grupo de las pinturas – Here you will find a ball game, the Xaibé (picture below) or astronomical observatory and the Temple of the Frescoes. It’s style is similar to Tulum’s which was developed during Coba decline.
- Nohoch mol group where the highest homonymous temple is located with. Its style is similar to the structures of Chichen-Itza and Uxmal.
The four groups are connected by an incredible network of sacbeoob (paths made of white gravels of which only 50 have been discovered aligned with the 4 cardinal points).
The most important sacbeoob used to connect Coba with the town of Yaxuná at only 100 km from Chichen-Itza, the worse rival of Coba at the time.
Keep in mind that although Chichen-Itza is the most popular Mayan ruin right now, it’s not necessarily the most important among the Mayan civilizations at the time.
In fact, Coba was probably even more glorious than Chichèn-Itza at least between 600 and 800 AD when Coba reached its apogee to decline around 1000 AD.
Researchers and archaeologists who have been studying the Mayan civilization have discovered that in Coba the population was particularly interested in refining their knowledge in astronomy, mathematics, and cultural activities in general as you can see from their 34 carved stelae that were found.
You can find representations of their most important achievements and live events among which, births, weddings, funerals, conquests, and ascents to power.
Also, during its decline period around the year 1000 AD, Coba became was most of all a center of pilgrimage and by the time the Spanish conqueror arrived, they found the city completely uninhabited.
During its apogee though, the city of Coba was the center of commerce for the entire Yucatan Peninsula.
In fact, it was the distributions center of the goods coming from the nearby countries, such as Belize, Panama, to the “Mexican” Caribbean coast which would be gathered in Coba and then redistributed throughout the main cities in the Yucatan peninsula via the sacbeoob (white trails)
Another important anecdote that has been discovered is that the government was living in the Coba Group from where they used their astronomical and scientific discoveries to manipulate and control the rest of the population (oh well that is one thing that hasn’t changed over the years, right?)
For example, when they learned to forecast solar eclipses they were warning the population that a monster was about to eat the sun but they would have the power to prevent it.
When Coba starts its decline around 1100 AD, Tulum started to become a powerful city. It appears that some influence of the Tulum architecture ( the so-called Oriental style) can be seen in the “estructuras de las pinturas”
- Coba’s network of sacbeoob ( streets) was the largest in all mesoamerica
- Coba temple Nohoch mol is the highest in the Yucatan peninsula and the population could see up to 75 km far and control the area
- According to the interpretations of the hieroglyphics of one of the stelae, one of coba governor was a woman called the Queen of Coba.
- About 34 Coba stelae were found whose carvings offered important hints to understand the Mayan culture.
Coba ruins itinerary
The old city of Coba used to cover a territory of 70 km2 which only 1% have been explored and brought to light.
In fact, from the entrance to the last structure, which is the main temple of Nohoch Mul (meaning gran monticulo = big mound) there is 1 km distance.
There are not many temples to visit, but they are all scattered around so you may want to consider at least a couple of hours to walk around the entire complex.
At the entrance, you will find a map to show you where each building is located and a suggested itinerary.
Here below I will share a bit of explanation to the structures that you are going to see in Coba, very useful in case you don’t want to hire a guide. It starts from the first group to the last in progressive order.
What to see in the ruins of Coba
It goes without saying that the main pyramid of the Coba Ruins is a must-see. Nohoch Mul pyramid is huge and towers over the green jungle it’s situated in.
It was also one of the few temples that you could climb but it’s not possible now because of the pandemic. Hopefully, this will change soon.
The climb is 137 feet and it gets a bit tiring, so do keep that in mind if you do decide to surmount the pyramid.
There is also the possibility of vertigo, but you can use the ropes for support. All things considered, the climb is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I wouldn’t miss out on it if I were you!
If you find a guide to show you around, these will probably be covered in the guided tour, but it’s helpful if you don’t have one. Also if you get a guide check if the information match, if not ask them and see what they say.
The Coba Group is the first you will find at the entrance of the site. Among the Coba Group, you may want to check out the following structures.
The ball court
It played an important role in the religious ceremonies of the Mayan civilizations. In fact, the ball game represents the fight between good and bad, day and night.
The players had the final goal to send the heavy ball made of rubber through the ring with the only use of the hips. and the one who wins is the one who dies. Yes, you read that right. They were honored to sacrifice themselves for their divinities.
Normally the players were purified in a Temazcal ceremony before playing.
The other important building in the Coba group is the one called The Church, the second-highest structure in Coba, 24 m (72ft) and facing the Cobá lagoon.
The first body of the building cannot be seen, only a part of the second can be seen. Above it there are two vaulted rooms and a staircase that leads to both sides.
Inside the temple, some offerings were found: ceramic vessels, beads, a jade figurine, sgraffito snail plates, pearls, and shell pectorals.
Previously it was known as “El Castillo”. It is likely that its current name is due to the fact that the stela located at its feet (Stela 11) is still venerated.
Stela 11 is located at the foot of the church and it’s surrounded by a small circular altar in front. Although it’s not possible to read the carving of the stela and you can only see a few glyphs, the inhabitants used to see a virgin in it which they called Colebi.
It used to be a regular practice to worship the virgin by lighting candles in her honor and requesting good harvesting and luck in their hunting.
Named after the Macanxoc lake, which you can’t see, the Macanxoc group is one of the most interesting.
To get to the Macanxoc group make sure you follow a secondary path on your right (sacbeoob) before the Conjunto de las Pinturas (group D).
In this group, we can find many structures of considerable volume and height as well as 8 stelae and 18 associated altars. Apparently, it was a strictly ceremonial center as no structures have been found that indicate its residential use.
Fun fact – Oral tradition indicates that the stelae are ancient kings who are turned to stone during the day and come to life at night.
If you hire a guide make sure you ask him whether this group is included in the tour so that you can learn more about the stelae and their message.
Conjunto de las pinturas (Group D)
Located right before the Nohoch Mul group, group D is made of different structures all scattered around while a series of buildings are arranged in squares and a ball court.
Some constructions from the Classic period have elements added from the Postclassic, which is the last occupational period of Cobá.
That means that there is been an influence from the nearby cities, such as Tulum.
Of this extensive group, only a few structures have been explored and can be visited: The Painting Ensemble, the Ball Court, and the Xaibé.
Conjunto de las Pinturas (The Painting Ensemble)
The conjunto de las pictures are formed by 5 structures and 13 altars, a group of ceremonial buildings two of which still preserve the remains of mural painting.
In the architectural style, we can clearly observe the combination of two occupational periods, the Classic and the Postclassic.
The clearest of the structures is the Estructura 1 also called Templo de los Fresco. It’s the highest of all 5 and it is where we can clearly see the images represented alluding to agricultural rituals linked to the request for rain.
Both the interior and exterior of the upper temple were once well decorated with visual elements, but today only the decoration of the frieze is partially preserved.
The ball game
Both from the Classic period, this ball game is similar to the one of the Cobá Group.
Some unique details are the symbol of Venus engraved on the rings evoking death, sacrifice, and war, and two markers, a central one with the stone representation of a human skull and at one of the ends, a disk with a headless jaguar, sitting in profile with its tail sticking up.
Xaibé means “cruce de caminos” (=crossroads), and that’s referring to the sacbeoob that converges near the building.
The Xaibé (pictures below) is a semicircular structure 14 meters high and four levels, each one could be representing the seasons of the year. In the central part, there is a stairway with 20 steps associated with the days of the Mayan calendar.
The building belongs to the Classic period, it has an unusual shape in Mayan architecture, with blocks with rounded corners ending with a cornice.
During the Postclassic, a fragment of Stela 31, delimited by two small walls, was placed at the foot of the stairway.
Although there is a tendency to assign all round buildings an astronomical observatory character, in this case, there is no evidence to support this theory and their function has not been clarified either.
A quick note on the Saacbeoo
One of the historical elements of the Maya ruins most often missed by visitors is the paved limestone roads that you will find yourself walking on. These aren’t a recent addition to accommodate the tourists, they actually date back to the Mayan times when trade required traveling between different settlements.
Nowadays, the roads make for delightful pathways into the jungle. They lead you to some of the Coba Ruins’ most atmospheric spots, so take a walk around on them for a mesmerizing experience.
In the old times of the ancient Mayan world, they were called Saacbeoo (stone causeways)
Nohoch Mul group
This group covers an area of 2,400 sq m (2870.376 sq yards) and was built on a natural elevation of the land. It is named after the main structure of the group: Nohoch Mul (“Great Mound”)
Coba temple Nohoch Mul is the highest in the Yucatan peninsula and it was used to check the surrounding territory up to 75 km.
In this structure, you can find Stela 20, the best-preserved stela of the site and the one with the latest date (November 30, 780 AD). It depicts a governor dressed in fine garments holding a large scepter, standing on the backs of two crouching prisoners tied with ropes; two others are also tied and kneeling on each side.
Structure 12 is a small platform facing Structure 10 with sloped walls. Inside he found a small vaulted enclosure, perhaps prepared as a tomb, but no human remains were found. In the second stage of occupation, Stela 21 was placed blocking the main entrance, the sculpted motifs have been faded away and it is only possible to recognize some details in the lower part.
Coba Ruins Practical tips
Coba Ruins opening hours
The Coba Ruins are open from 9 am to 4.30 pm but the last access is at 3.30 pm
The Coba Ruins have an entrance fee of 100 MXN for individuals. You can also rent bikes, take a bici-taxi, and hire a guide for up to 4 people at the entrance at an additional cost.
A guide would charge around 500 MXN, while the bici-taxi is 100 MXN for a ride to, and back from, the main pyramid and the bike rental is 50 MXN.
At the entrance, you can find bathrooms.
Outside and all around Coba village, you will have a great choice of restaurants.
The hot and humid atmosphere of the ruins makes it a very good idea to bring lots of water with you. But if you didn’t do that, or just ran out, you can always get some refreshing drinks from the kiosk right before Nohoch-Mul.
The Coba Ruins are open from 9 in the morning to 4:30 in the evening, so you can get here anytime from the opening to 3 PM. But if you want a better experience, I’d suggest reaching the ruins as early as possible. You will beat the afternoon heat, crowds, and lots of other hassles by doing so and have a more wholesome experience!
If you are wondering which time of the year, there is not really an answer, however, keep in mind that the rainy season is when you get a hotter climate and a better chance of rain.
You can check out my post on the best time to visit Tulum which gives you a more detailed breakdown of each season.
- As I said earlier, bringing lots of water to keep you hydrated in the heat is recommended.
- Speaking of heat, sunscreen is another essential item to bring with you. Just make sure it’s an eco-friendly one.
- The ruins of Coba are huge, so walking around them is better with a good pair of shoes.
- The mayan structures are scattered in a thriving tropical jungle, which means you might have some annoying mosquitos to deal with. Bring an environment-friendly repellent to make that easier.
- Having some healthy snacks with you to munch on while exploring the ruins is always a pleasant idea.
Coba is fairly close to Tulum, so you get a lot of options to choose from when it comes to visiting the ruins from here.
If you have been reading this blog for quite some time you must know by now how I think about rental cars. Renting a car isn’t only a good option when you’re visiting Coba Ruins from Playa del Carmen or Cancun, it’s pretty much always the best choice.
You get to enjoy not only the ruins at your own pace, but also see the many other great places in the surroundings.
Don’t worry if you’re not used to driving in Mexico, reading a few helpful tips and tricks will bring you up to par with the driving norms here, and you can rent a car from so many places.
Considering the other options, a car rental is my top recommendation when it comes to going to Maya ruins of Coba as well.
Find the best Car Rental deals
Browse through international and local car rentals and find the best deal.
There is a bus terminal in Tulum, and many first-class ADO buses and second-class Mayab buses leave from here for Coba. You should take the first Mayab that leaves at around 7:20 in the morning, and costs 50 MXN. This way, you will get there before the day gets hot, and there will be fewer crowds.
Also, taking the early morning bus means you can explore the rest of Coba’s attractions, including its breathtaking cenotes of Coba. Just make sure you know the schedule of the buses because you will be taking one to return to Tulum unless you’re staying the night.
The ADO bus schedule is available on the internet, which makes it very convenient, but for the Mayab buses, you can only get the up-to-date timings from the ticket office.
Usually, the return bus to Tulum is at 3 PM (first-class) and 5 PM (second-class), but make sure to always confirm the time beforehand.
Colectivos are another local transport option to get to Coba Ruins from Tulum. They’re basically minivans, and most of the locals prefer them. These colectivos leave from the intersection of Tulum Avenue and Calle Osiris and take you to the ruins for 70 MXN.
However, there is one thing to mention about the colectivos. They don’t function on a set schedule, because they only leave once the entire van is occupied with passengers.
Also, you might not find a colectivo for the return drive because of this reason, so keep the bus schedule handy as plan B to get back to Tulum.
Reaching Coba from Playa del Carmen
Getting to Coba Ruins from Playa del Carmen is very much an option. It’s pretty much the same way from Tulum to the ruins, with the only additional step being the 1-hour bus ride from Playa del Carmen to Tulum.
Once there, you can use any of the options I mentioned for Tulum. Although, covering the extra distance on a bus and then making your way to the Coba Ruins from Tulum can be exhausting.
Reaching Coba from Cancun
Just like it is with Playa del Carmen, you can reach Coba Ruins from Cancun as well. The process is similar, all you need to do is to get to Tulum first, and then it’s the same drill. But, unlike Playa del Carmen, Cancun is even farther away from Tulum, so the trip is extra tiring.
My advice is the same in this case as well. Driving to the Coba Ruins from Cancun is a far better choice, and you can easily get a car rental to make that happen. The roads are good and safe, so there’s nothing to be worried about.
Or in case you really don’t feel like driving such a long distance you can always join an organized tour and include multiple sites.
Given the popularity of Coba Ruins, organized tours of the site are definitely a thing. You can join any of the half-and full-day tours that cover the ruins along with the other attractions of the region from wherever you are.
You will also have a guide to show you around if you join a tour, so that’s a plus for the Coba Ruins because there’s a lot of history behind them.
These tours are especially useful if you want to visit Coba Ruins from Playa del Carmen or Cancun. The usual route to get to the ruins from there is quite tiring unless you have a car rental, so a tour is definitely an upgrade.
Here some selected tours with the best reviews
Things to do in the surroundings
While you are in the area you should check out some of the amazing natural wonders of Mexico in the surroundings.
They are spectacular cave cenotes, some of the best in the area, and probably some of the most underrated among the Mexican cenotes, in my opinion.
I talk about them in my detailed guide to the Coba cenotes where you find all the information you need to organize your trip.
Another incredible place you could visit is Punta Laguna, but I will talk about it in a separate post. 🙂
I decided to include a small guide to the hotels in Coba in case you decide to spend a couple of days in Coba village. You won’t regret it. I did it a month before writing this post and I spent 3 days there. I loved it.
Coba is a tranquil village built around Coba lagoon and with cute lodging options for all prices.
It’s really a way to get away from the touristy areas and chill.
Sitting right beside the Coba lagoon is this luxurious and upscale property. If you’re looking for the finest lodging experience, this is definitely the hotel for it.
Check rates and availability on Booking.com
Another great property in Coba is the Aldea Coba hotel. It’s located in a jungle garden on the main road leading to Coba. The hotel is relatively new, so you will find the rooms in flawless condition. They’re spacious and have all the facilities of luxury hotels. On the plus side, you save plenty while having an upscale place to stay in.
Check rates and availability on Booking.com
Hotel Itza Coba is my go-to budget option when it comes to Coba lodgings. Usually, budget hotels don’t offer much in the way of luxuries. But Hotel Itza Coba has a few charms despite being low price. There is a cute little pool in it, the service is amazing, and you are bound to find the room comfy.
Check rates and availability on Booking.com
Coba doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of restaurants and cafes. But the places here have a few remarkable options to choose from. I found some of them during my stay and I will share them with you as well.
If you’re mainly visiting the Coba Ruins, El Cocodrillo is a great place nearby where you can find one of the best local cuisines. The drinks and juices here are also fresh, which is just perfect for the heat and humidity of the ruins.
Chile Picante is a cozy little restaurant on the main street with a terrace. The food here is pretty good, and you can watch the sunset from the terrace if you have a good mosquito repellent. The staff is also really nice.
El Encanto is an adorable cafe in a very atmospheric location of Coba. Great food is served at reasonable prices here, and the owners are very hospitable and make sure you have good memories to bring back with you. Also, the coffee is a must-try!
Remember Coqui Coqui luxury hotel from earlier? It has an on-site restaurant that you can go to for a gourmet dining experience even if you aren’t staying there. The restaurant’s atmosphere is upscale and it has tasty Mexican food on the menu. Considering the overall experience, the prices aren’t very high either.
Here are the sources used to gather information for the historical facts