Mexico: Climbing Coba’s Mayan Pyramids

Mexico: Climbing Coba’s Mayan Pyramids
By Heidi Ruby Miller

Author Heidi Ruby Miller finds that climbing up was easy compared to the vertigo of descending Nohoch Mul. photos by Jason Miller.
Author Heidi Ruby Miller finds that climbing up was easy compared to the vertigo of descending Nohoch Mul. photos by Jason Miller.

Hundreds of butterflies make up a continuously parting curtain in front of us during our drive on Highway 307 to the ancient Mayan city of Coba in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Through the alternating thick vegetation and spots of scrub brush, the dirty windows of our Suburban offer glimpses of the Maya as they are today and insight into how they were in the past.

Before reaching the dirt road entrance to the ruins of Coba, whose name means ruffled waters because its eighty square miles houses five shallow lakes, we pass chicleros cutting X’s into sopadilla trees in order to gather the chicle, or gum, which is the main ingredient in – you guessed it!–chewing gum.

Living in the Past

No fancy, modern complex awaits visitors at Coba as at more popular sites like Chichen Itza and Tulum. Instead, we emerge from our transport seemingly surrounded by jungle. The only sign of civilization are several small, open-aired huts complete with thatched roofs that serve as a market for the Maya co-op’s handmade goods and a structure housing basic facilities, which has a small usage fee.

As we pay our $4 per person entrance fee, we are met by several Mayan boys in straw cowboy hats offering to hand-paint our birthdates on agave paper in the Mayan longcount, a series of hieroglyphics which shows how many days have passed since the beginning of the Mayan calendar on August 13, 3114 B.C., to any date after or yet to come. Fascinated by the glyphs, we nevertheless are anxious to commence our hike through what was once the largest Mayan city in the northern Yucatan Peninsula, and so offer a más tarde (later) to our new friends.

Depending on which structures a visitor wants to see at Coba, a jaunt in any direction can lead to discovery. Some rudimentary paths are worn to the limestone around the most impressive and often visited ruins, while there are no distinguishable paths to other areas. The best solution is to either hire a guide, whether through a tour agency like those listed below or one of the site’s official guides who are waiting at the entrance with their tour guide badges affixed to their shirts, or simply have a go at it yourself.

What Once Was

If you’ve done a little reading about the ruins ahead of time, then you’ll know to see the highlights, specific structures like the many stone monoliths, called stelae, that are covered with hieroglyphic writing or the 40 sacbeob, elevated limestone roads. Among the many fascinating structural groupings, three stand out: the Temple of the Paintings, Nohoch Mul Pyramid, and La Iglesia Pyramid.

The Temple of the Paintings, Conjunto las Pinturas, is actually a collection of ruined structures that is only about a fifteen to twenty minute walk from the entrance, depending on how much time you spend looking for howler monkeys in the tree branches above. Several stone pillars stand in a line at the base of the main pyramid which houses the actual temple on its top.

Though we were not allowed to climb the pyramid to actually peek inside the temple, our guide tells us that some original paint remains on the walls that once held very colorful murals. At this grouping, as well as all over Coba, we find many of the structures have little thatched coverings to help prevent the acid rain from ruining their features before they can be studied.

La Iglesia Pyramid with its thatch-covered stela standing sentinel at the bottom.
La Iglesia Pyramid with its thatch-covered stela standing sentinel at the bottom.

Nohoch Mul, the largest pyramid at 42 meters high, is a good 3 kilometers from the entrance, so remember good walking shoes. Here we are permitted to climb, all the way to the top if we dare. Though a little daunting with its narrow steps and unrestored façade, the view from top is worth the climb. We can see kilometers of jungle with an occasional grey stone pyramid breaking through the green expanse, or on a good day we‘re told, all the way to Chichen Itza. We realize as we begin our descent that climbing up wasn’t the hard part.

La Inglesia Pyramid

The second tallest of these Classic Period structures (meaning that they were occupied around 600 – 900 A.D.) is La Iglesia Pyramid. The 22 meter tall stone ruin has been dubbed the church because of all the offerings of flowers and copal incense that are still left on its steps today. The pyramid itself is partially restored, so no climbing here either, but we did get a close view of Stela 11 which stands in front of La Iglesia. Its thatched palapa serves as a weather guard and protects the intricately carved head and torso of a forgotten Mayan warrior or lord.

We round out our tour with the nearby ballcourt. This long dirt lane, reminiscent of a bocce court, except with walls on two sides that angle outwards, is smaller than the Ceremonial Ballcourt that we saw at Chichen Itza.

Because of its diminutive size, some archaeologists believe that Coba’s ballcourt was used on a regular basis, not just for special ceremonies. Also, here, unlike at Chichen Itza, there was no indication that losing ball players were decapitated. Perhaps that’s why the Coba players were willing to play more often.

Having already spent the day seeing just the highlights of this enormous site, we wish that we had at least two more to explore the countless other treasures of Coba, including those ruffled lakes, especially since freshwater in the Yucatan is a rarity. But, it’s five o’clock, and the site closes for the day, leaving us to reflect on its beauty while we make our way back to Cancun.

Heidi Ruby Miller

is a frequent visitor to Mexico, as each visit brings new beauty and inspiration from the land and its people. Besides freelance travel writing, Heidi also writes short stories and science fiction novels. Visit her website

The staircase of Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan, makes some climbers think twice before ascending.
The staircase of Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan, makes some climbers think twice before ascending.

Hotels near Coba:
El Bocadito

Hotels in the Playa del Carmen area:
Mosquito Blue
Hotels in the Riviera Maya area:
Ceiba del Mar
Ikal del Mar
Royal Hideaway

Tour companies:
Alltournative Expeditions
MayaSites Travel Services
Cancun Vista Tours

Note: If you’re not traveling with a tour company, you can rent a car or take a bus from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum.


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