Climbing The Coba Ruins

Mar 18

I think it’s safe to say that every human digs ancient Mayan ruins. Yea, I opened this with a lame dad joke, you’re welcome. There is something about crumbling structures, covered in foliage that excites (and spooks) the human mind. We are simply drawn to these places where history and nature have become literally entangled with one another. Which is why I’m incredibly excited to tell you about a place, called Coba, that is a little off the beaten path and less tainted with tourists than the more popular archeological sites on the Yucatán Peninsula.

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Tulum is in a prime location when it comes to exploring ruins. When people visit the area, they typically head to the Tulum ruins or Chichen Itza. You can literally walk or bike to the Tulum ruins from the hotels on Tulum Beach. Tour busses leave for Chichen Itza on the hour all day long, making it incredibly accessible to tourists. While both of these ruins are spectacular, they don’t even compare to the ruins at Coba. Mostly due to the 137 foot tall Nohoch Mul Pyramid, but I’ll get to that.

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Skip the above mentioned archeological areas entirely. They are slammed with people and you can’t even get close to the roped off structures. Beyond that, you don’t get much nature at these locations… just a shit load of that blazing Mexico sun that can scorch your skin clean off in minutes (Ben knows all about this). Coba is a 45 minute drive from Tulum Beach and well worth it. Drive yourself northwest on the 109 out of Tulum via rental car; go either first thing in the morning or at closing to catch the sunset. We left our hotel just after 7am and arrived right before 8am, making us some of the first people there. Both Apple maps and Google maps will pull it up no problem, it is very easy to find. We paid 50 pesos to park right at the entrance, then 150 pesos total for two adults to enter.

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HEADS UP: You are not allowed to fly a drone in the area and they make it blatantly obvious via signage. What they do not make clear at all, is that there are no tripods allowed either. We were asked to put it back in the car with no explanation when we paid our entrance fee. We are not sure if they thought it was a drone or if tripods actually are not allowed. I did not see anyone with a tripod anywhere in the park. If you end up not renting a car and make it all the way to Coba with a tripod attached to your bag, I am not sure what would happen if you had nowhere to leave it, so best leave it at the hotel.

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When you enter the park, you are met with a few options. You can swoop up a guide if you really want to learn about the ruins, you can rent a bicycle (highly suggested), or can set off on foot. We chose to explore on foot, as we were there to take pictures. Had I not been worried about stopping often to shoot, I would have absolutely opted for the bike. There are MILES of the famous white roads—called sacbes—to explore. Coba is home to the largest known network of them in the Mayan world. I know this not only because I read it on the internet, but because we walked them ourselves, and it felt like it took forever. A bike will make it so you can see everything in a timely manner. And let’s be real, it doesn’t get much better than ripping a cruiser through the remnants of what was once a massive Mayan civilization.

The area spreads over a boastful 30 square miles, so you could honestly spend an entire day here if you really love archaeology. A lot of the areas are still un-excavated due to everything being so far apart and spread out. Many of the structures are still completely covered by Mother Nature herself, and entirely inaccessible. But what you can see is nothing short of remarkable. As you make your way down the white roads, you come across areas all types of interesting plants, animals, structures, paths, and more, until you finally make it to the best part.

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As teased earlier, the Coba is the home of the great Nohoch Mul Pyramid. Not only is this the tallest known Mayan pyramid, but it is also the last one on the Yucatan Peninsula that you can still climb on. And by climb on, I mean scale 120 massive, slippery steps on all fours. These steps are no joke, but there is a rope that leads up the middle to hold on to if you are nervous about the climb up. Since going, I have heard horror stories of people nearly dying from falling down the pyramid, which I suspect is the reason they keep threatening to close it off. Please be careful on all fronts. There is no trophy waiting for you at the top, I promise. In fact, take your sweet time because it’s one hell of an experience.

Right about now, you are going to realize that Ben and I did this in Birkenstocks, making us look like a big fat hypocrites after the safety lecture you were just given. First of all, we do literally everything in Birkenstocks and feel very comfortable off roading in them (most of the time). Second, we didn’t fully investigate the intensity of this little pyramid jaunt. Don’t be like Ben and Krissy. Don’t wear sandals.

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It honestly didn’t look as big as I thought it was going to from the bottom (that’s what she said). I start climbing, then the next thing I knew, I am above the tree line. Everything gets really green and I’m not even half way up. I start huffing and puffing, as I’m trying to get ahead of Ben to get shots of him making his way up. I am on all fours and out of breath as I turn around. What I see takes my breath away… miles and miles of lush green jungle. Now that I am looking down, I am realizing just how massive this pyramid really is. I am still not at the top, so I keep climbing. It’s so steep, I can’t see the top anymore. All I can see is sky. Must…keep…going.

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I finally get to the top. I probably could have sat there until the sun set.

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If you look closely, you can see green mounds far off, throughout the jungle in all these photos. Those are those un-excavated pyramids and ruins I mentioned earlier. If I am being honest, we didn’t even notice them while we were up there, as they weren’t what we were looking for. When researching the area later on, I saw other photographers mention them in their own photos. I rushed to my laptop to scan my own photos, and sure enough, they were blatantly everywhere! Archaeologists think there could be hundreds of large structures left to uncover in the area, but due to the location and thickness in of the jungle, it could take decades to uncover more of them.

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We enjoyed ourselves at the top for a while, then things started to get a bit crowded, as they do in the later morning. The climb down was more treacherous than the climb up, but we made it down safely, despite our unconventional trekking footwear. We took our time walking back, as we caught a cool day, a rare thing on the Yucatán. The area did get substantially busier by 10:30am when we were leaving. We realized how lucky we were to have the pyramid pretty much all to ourselves the way we did, all thanks to the willingness to get up early. Coba is a must see when visiting Tulum, in my opinion.

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Photos by Krissy & Ben Harclerode