Cobá: Into the Mayan Jungle

Outdoor enthusiasts love the Mayan city of Cobá—so do tropical birds, monkeys and alligators.

The Mayan ruins at Tulum, on cliffs overlooking the turquoise Caribbean, are breathtaking—but what if they don’t satisfy your appetite for archaeological adventure? Take a short trip inland to the ruins of Cobá and see if that doesn’t make you feel like Indiana Jones. Many of its structures are still covered by the jungle, and wandering the paths in the leafy green-filtered light makes me feel like I am in a wild place—not an architectural tourist park.

Jungle Stillness Near the Coast

A short 26-mile drive from Tulum, Cobá is easiest to reach in a taxi or rental car. If you ask your taxi to wait for you while you visit the ruins, the cost can run about $10 per person for the round trip, depending how long you stay. Some hotels along Mexico’s Riviera Maya coast also offer tours to the archaeological site as a packaged day trip with other destinations, like Tulum. Average trip prices run about $80 per person. As you get closer to Cobá, notice the thick forest on both sides of the road. It’s believed that the handful of shallow lagoons in the area gave Cobá its name—“water stirred by wind.”

The forest and wetlands are ideal for bird watching in the morning, before the heat of the day. If you’re quiet, you might spy toucans, parrots, motmots or herons. Spider and howler monkeys also frequent the area near the ruins.

The Mayan City of Cobá

Cobá flourished from A.D. 600 to 900, and was home to an estimated 50,000 people. As with many Mayan cities, the exact cause of the collapse of Cobá is unknown. Temples were built as late as the 14th century, and the site was never discovered by the Spanish. Archaeologists have since found more than 6,000 structures over 31 square miles of forest. But not all those structures have been excavated. Wandering through the ruins, you’ll see plenty of “hills” of unearthed mystery that spark the imagination.

The site itself is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily (entrance fee is $4). The collection of ruins spreads out over a few miles, so if you’re not keen on walking too much—rent a bike or take a bicycle taxi at the entrance. Bike rental for the day costs about $2.50, and bicycle taxis are about $7.25. Even though most of the area is forested, bring sunscreen to guard against the hot, tropical sun. Water and mosquito repellant are also essential items to have with you.

Trekking through the forested pathways, you’ll see collections of ruins. The Cobá Group is closest to the entrance, and includes a Mayan ball court and a 79-foot high pyramid. The Macanxoc Group hosts a collection of stelae—carved, upright stones. The Las Pinturas (paintings) Group structures were once, you guessed it, painted.

Notable among the ruins is the Nohoch Mul pyramid, which rises 138 feet above the forest floor. Climbing to the top is worth it—where it peaks above the jungle and allows a view of lush, green blanket for miles around. Get there in the early morning, and you can have the perch to yourself, along with flocks of tropical birds. Two carvings on the temple at the top of the pyramid show the “diving god,” also referred to as the “bee god,” which can also be found in the ruins at Tulum. Some theories associate these carvings with the planet Venus. The climb is steep (I noticed it more on the descent), and a rope runs down the middle of the stairs to assist you. Very young children, or those who might choose their own path on the pyramid against your instructions, should take a pass.

Cobá is especially known for its sacbeob—a collection of raised walkways made of stone. Mayans constructed these paths to connect to other cities, and Coba has more than any other Mayan city. The longest sacbé runs straight from the Nohoch Mul pyramid to a town more than 62 miles away.

Post-Adventure Refreshments

Before you rush off, take a careful look at the Laguna Cobá just outside the archaeological site to see if you can spy one of its resident alligators. I was far less brave than the local kids, who got close enough to some of the toothy reptiles to toss them strips of chicken.

If the forest voyage has you looking for a cool break, there are safer choices than swimming in the lagoon. Next to Laguna Cobá, Restaurante La Pyrámide serves meals, snacks and beverages (prices range from $5-$15), and is a nice spot to meet your taxi or tour bus for the ride back to the crowds on the beach. Another option is the restaurant at the Club Med Villas Cobá (lunch prices average $10), just a short walk along the lagoon.

Destinations: Mexico, Riviera Maya, Cobá

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Bird Watching

User Comments

Answers to questions I stayed in Cobá for a couple of days, at the Club Med Villas Cobá. So I spent plenty of time at the ruins, especially in the earlier morning and late afternoon. It’s still a very reasonable trip if you stay in Tulum or elsewhere in the Riviera Maya, however staying in Cobá is definitely an option. As for babysitting, the hotels mentioned in the “Top 4 Riviera Maya Resorts for Families” article have full or mini-clubs for kids, so if you want to make Cobá a trip for adults only, it’s entirely possible to do so. It’s fine to bring the kids along to Cobá, but you’ll just want to exercise caution with climbing things such as the Nohoch Mul pyramid.

Details, details How many hours(?) did you stay? Do you recommend staying in Tulum or is there a closer place? Do excursions have babysitting programs or something for the kids to dow hile adults explore the more dangerous areas? Definitely sounds like a good excursion for couples...