This grand Mayan site lies less than two hours from Playa del Carmen, and is different from the other big sites in the Yucatan. First of all, it's situated by four natural lakes, which is a rare sight in the Yucatan. These lakes are believed to have given the city its name, which means "Waters stirred by wind". Furthermore, it is not as excavated nor reconstructed as Chichen Itza or Tulum. Coba still has a number of big structures covered with the growth of the jungle, making it a wild place that truly triggers your imagination. It doesn't see nearly as many visitors as Chichen Itza or Tulum and if you're early you might be all by yourself with only birds, monkeys and the dense jungle to accompany you at these mystical ruins.
Coba dates from the Classic Period, 600 to 900 AD, after which it was abandoned for unknown reasons. At its height Coba supported up to 45,000 inhabitants. The city is thought to have been an important trading post and a commercial link between the cities on the coast and those inland. Coba was never found by the Spanish, thus being left covered by jungle until the 1890s, when it was rediscovered. Excavations started in the 1970s and many of the buildings are left pretty much as they were found. This site of 50 square km/80 square miles is in almost pristine condition. Coba is believed to contain up to 6,500 structures, of which only a small fraction have been restored. To see the complete site, you probably need about a week, but of course most of it is in deep jungle.
Just because there are only a few restored buildings in Coba, don't think it's not an interesting ruin. In fact, it's a real favorite. Ruins share space with tropical hardwood, vines and jungle vegetation. Birds and butterflies inhabit the canopy. A number of elaborately carved stelae (vertical stone tablets) have been found on the site, and are still there for the visitor of today. Most of them are found at the Grupo Macanxob, one kilometer after the entrance. It's a beautiful walk, but many of the stelae are in bad shape, so if you need to save your strength, climbing the pyramid should be your priority.
One of the most fantasy invoking features of Coba is the many Sacbe that have been found on the site. Sacbe means White Road, and is just that; a stone paved road. The Maya built a network of roads, connecting major cities. These roads are a marvel of engineering. They go through the dense jungle in perfectly straight lines, they are wide and built up with walled sides. How the Maya could build these perfectly straight roads, with hardly any elevation points to make it possible to get your bearings, is one of many Mayan Mysteries. And why did they make them so wide, sometimes up to 10 meters, when they didn´t have any pack animals or wagons? The best guess is that they were made that way for ceremonial purposes. At Coba there are about 40 sacbes, some local, some heading deep into the jungle. The longest sacbe is 100 km, connecting Coba with Yaxuna, close to Chichen Itza in the state of Yucatan. But we suggest you use the highway.
As far as tall buildings go, Coba definitely has the ability to fill you with awe. In fact, the Mayan structure in northern Yucatan is in Coba - Nohoch Mul, which means "big mound". This 42 meter/138-foot high pyramid rises even higher than the more famous El Castillo in Chichen Itza. Nohoch Mul can be climbed without too much hassle and those who makes it all the way up, will be rewarded by a stunning view. The otherwise unbroken green landscape of dense jungle is only interrupted by ruins and unexcavated structures. The shimmering lakes makes this an unusual Yucatecan jungle view. Only one side of the pyramid has been cleared of vegetation, adding to the wildness.
Coba has at least two very pretty ball courts, one of which has been partially excavated only recently. The ball game played an important roll in Mayan society and most cities had a ball court, which is basically a corridor of two stoned walls. The game was played between two teams, using only their hips and elbows to get a rubber ball through a hoop. At some sites, like Coba, the sides of the ball court are slanted, which makes it possible to get close to the hoop. In other places, like Chichen Itza, the hoops are situated high up on almost vertical walls, seemingly making it impossible to score (unless you don't subscribe to the law of gravity, which would give us the explanation to many other Mayan mysteries…) Inscriptions and other pieces of art show that human sacrifice was a part of the game. There are different theories as to who actually got sacrificed - the captain or the whole team? Did the losing have to pay with their lives or did the winning team willingly and proudly go to live with their gods? You will hear different stories on this one. It's also possible that traditions changed during the thousands of years the Mayan civilization was around.
Coba is a great ruin to wander around by yourself and let your imagination roam free. There are tunnels under temples and huge trees spurting out of stairs. You walk on old roads built by the Maya over 1200 years ago. The canopy forms a green tunnel over your head and you pass amazing trees. Big fluorescent blue morpho butterflies share space with woodpeckers and termite nests. Coba is best enjoyed by those who embrace the overall experience and appreciate the different architectural building styles in different sites.
It's not difficult to find your way around in Coba, as there are signs pointing you in the right direction. It'll take you about 1 1/2 hours to see the groups of buildings that are open for visitors. There are bikes for rent inside the site, for those who don't want to walk it all. They charge 25 pesos for the day or 75 pesos for a chofer-driven tricycle for two.
Local guides offer their services at the entrance. There are guides speaking English, Italian, German and of course Spanish. Most of them are Mayan Indians with knowledge of the flora and fauna in the area, as well as the ruins themselves. The price varies depending on language. An English speaking guide is 250 pesos for 45 minutes and 350 for 1 1/2 hours. The site is open between 7am and 6pm every day, 365 days a year. There's parking right by the entrance for 10 pesos. The entrance fee is 38 pesos (3 dollars). Children under 13 years enter free. Don't forget to wear a hat and comfortable shoes, nor to bring bug repellent, binoculars and water.
Starting early is crucial. You'll be the first ones there, which adds to the adventure. You are more likely to see animals or birds early in the morning. You avoid the hottest hours of the day and you'll have time to do something else that day.
We suggest you combine it with a visit to Grand Cenote, which is on the road between Tulum and Coba (only about 8-10 minutes from Tulum). There's a big sign, so you won't miss it. Read more about cenotes. Grand Cenote is a nice example of a cenote, with plenty of stalactites and stalagmites. Entrance fee is 80 pesos, about 8 dollars. Bring mask and snorkel.
You could also visit the ruins of Tulum in the afternoon, since Tulum is a small site. However, if you're not a complete ruin buff, it might be a bit too much culture for one day. If you have the time, we suggest Tulum and Coba on two different days.
There are many tour companies in Playa del Carmen that offer trips to Coba. It's also easy to rent a car and go there yourself. It's an easy drive of about 100 kilometers. To get there you just get on the highway down south, towards Tulum. 60 kilometers south of Playa you get to Tulum Archaeological Zone and a gas station (Pemex). If you need gas, drinks or snacks, this is the place to get it. A little further down the road after the Pemex, there's a crossing with a traffic light and a sign to Coba. Turn right. This is a narrow road and it can have some potholes after the rainy season. Four kilometers after the crossing you pass Grand Cenote on your right hand side, an excellent place to stop on your way back for an enchanting swim. About 20 kilometers after the crossing there are a couple of villages where you can stop and buy some handicrafts. Before and after these villages there are plenty of topes, speed bumps. They are small and sometimes unmarked, so please keep your eyes open. Seriously, they sneak up on you! Keep going on the same road till you get to a crossing. There's a sign to Coba, so hang left for another two kilometers. It's real easy to find. Once you get to the village, follow the paved road and you're there! The ride from Playa del Carmen takes about 1 hour 45 minutes with car. After your visit to the ruins, may we suggest eating at one of the restaurants by the lake. They serve excellent traditional food and it's good to support these little off-the-beaten-track places.