Picked out by a computer program for its incredible white-sand beaches, coral reefs, crystal-clear turquoise waters, and proximity to ancient Maya pyramids, Cancun was founded as a planned resort city in 1974. As predicted, it grew to be one of the most visited tourist destinations not only in Mexico but all over the world.
By the time Cancun was born, the ancient city of Coba was virtually unknown. Overgrown by the jungle, the ruins of its grand structures were hard to reach. First settled around 300 B.C., Coba was once one of the most important city-states of the ancient Maya civilization in the area. It was at its powerful and influential between A.D. 600 and 900, but it was abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived on the Yucatán Peninsula in the 16th century.
This all changed when Cancun put the Yucatan Peninsula and the state of Quintana Roo on the map. Today, you can get from Cancun to the ancient capital of the region in a few hours, on wide, paved roads. So while you are vacationing in Cancun, taking a trip to Coba is one of the easiest things to do. And it’s absolutely worth it.
My family and I have been visiting the ruins of Coba for about three decades, and during this time we picked up some tips on the best way to visit the archaeological site and the modern Maya town surrounding it.
1. Rent A Car In Cancun And Drive To Coba
Though you can find plenty of organized tours from Cancun to Coba, and you can even take a bus, I found you will have the best experience if you visit the ruins yourself.
You can rent a car at the Cancun airport and drive about 2 and a half hours to reach Coba. To get there, we usually take Highway 307 to the crossroads in Tulum, turn right onto Highway 109, and take the third exit at the roundabout to Coba. We like this route because it gives us plenty of opportunities to stop.
You can also take the faster, more direct toll road if you are in a rush.
2. Plan On Spending A Night In Coba
As easy as it is to visit Coba as a day trip from Cancun, it is worth spending at least one night in town to explore everything it offers. The size of the ancient city of Coba alone is worth a longer visit.
You can see the main attractions of the archaeological site in a few hours. However, spending time in the jungle, surrounded by ancient structures, offers a better understanding of its history. It also gives you an opportunity to find time away from the crowds. The distances between the structures are significant, and if you walk at a leisurely pace, you get to understand the tropical jungle, the trees that grow here, and you might even see wildlife.
For inspiration, here is Tripadvisor’s list of the top Coba hotels.
3. Rent A Bicycle If You Only Have A Limited Time At The Site
If you don’t have enough time to spend at least half a day inside the archaeological site, rent a bicycle. This will ensure that you can get through all the structures before you need to leave. You can visit the whole site in about 3 hours this way.
Bicycle rentals are available inside the archaeological site as soon as you walk through the gate. Alternatively, you can hire a “Maya Taxi,” a bicycle fitted with a passenger seat where locals drive you around.
4. Hire A Local Maya Guide To Learn Most About The Site
If it is your first time visiting Coba, it’s worth hiring a local guide. You’ll find them at the gate, and most of them speak English.
Just make sure you choose locals, not someone working for a tour company. You will help the local economy, and you might hear stories about the site and about the flora and fauna of the surrounding jungle only someone who lives there would know.
5. Spend Enough Time At Each Structure Group
The archaeological site of Coba contains several groups, or clusters, of structures. Many visitors rush through them, but they are each worth a longer stop.
The Coba Group
The first group you reach as you enter the site is the Coba group. It includes a towering pyramid, called La Iglesia, one of the two ball courts at the site, and several stelae (stones with inscriptions).
Though you can’t climb the 74-foot-tall pyramid, you can still appreciate it and its surroundings. I found the best way to enjoy this group was to walk around it and sit on the bench across from the Iglesia pyramid. This way, you can enjoy the large structure from the shade of mature trees.
Walking through the reconstructed ball court, look at the elaborate carvings on its sides, and stop at the enclosed stela near it.
The Grupo De Las Pinturas (The Paintings Complex)
Following the jungle path after leaving the Coba Group, you’ll reach the Grupo de Las Pinturas, or the Paintings group, named for the colorful paintings found on the lintel of the small pyramid in this area.
Though you can’t climb it, if you know where the paintings are, you can see them from a distance. A local guide can show you where to stand to see them.
Xaibe (The Observatory)
In the center of several crossroads, Xaibe, or the Observatory, is a small pyramid of four levels with a semicircular base. A staircase of 20 steps, believed to represent the days of the month in the Maya calendar, leads to the top.
The Nohoch Mul Group
The most famous and most visited group in Coba, the Nohoch Mul group, is home to the tallest pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula, called Ixmoja.
Rising 137 feet above the surrounding jungle canopy, the seven-layer, rounded pyramid became synonymous with the name of the group, so people refer to the pyramid as Nohoch Mul, meaning “large mound.”
Climbing all 120 steps of this structure was the main reason people used to visit Coba before 2020. Although closed to climbing now, the pyramid is an impressive sight, worth the trek through the jungle to reach it. Besides this prominent structure, you’ll find several stelae in this group.
The Macanxoc Group
The group farthest from the entrance, the Macanxoc group, is my favorite group at the archaeological site of Coba. Closed to bicycle traffic and filled with standing stelae, it is the quietest area of the site.
Stelae, large pieces of limestone carved with images and glyphs, might not be as spectacular as the imposing pyramids, but historically they are even more important. Carved with hieroglyphic texts, numbers, and images, they represent ancient Maya history written in stone, offering scholars opportunities to learn about this fascinating civilization.
6. Learn About Modern Maya Culture
Besides visiting the ancient Maya city, Coba also offers opportunities to learn about the modern Maya people. You can do this right in town if you stay overnight and take a walk through the neighborhoods. People will greet you and talk to you if you stop.
Or, for a more close-up view of traditional Maya culture, visit the Pac-Chen eco village, where you can interact with the community and take part in their traditions.
7. Visit The Nearby Cenotes
Cenotes were sacred to the ancient Maya, so a visit to Coba would not be complete without a side trip to at least one. You’ll find three of them — Tankach-Ha, Choo-Ha, and Multum-Ha — close enough to the ruins for a short visit.
Cenotes are natural pools in deep limestone sinkholes. They are all underground, offering a pleasant way to cool down after trekking through the jungle on a hot day. The most popular is Tankach-Ha, deep enough for people to jump in from a platform. My favorite, however, is Choo-Ha, in a gorgeous cavern filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and different rock formations.
Tips To Get The Most Out Of Your Visit
One of the most popular Maya ruins on the peninsula, Coba can get busy. Try to get there early, as close to opening time as possible. This is easiest if you stay overnight in town and leave for the ruins as soon as you finish your breakfast.
Since the structures are far apart, make sure you wear comfortable clothes and hiking shoes, sunscreen, and carry water and a snack. However, you can find drinks and snacks at the Coba group and the Nohuch Mul group if you forget.
You’ll find that most locals speak at least some English, but they appreciate it if you try to speak a few words of Spanish.
Why It’s Not Coba Mayan Ruins
And finally, a linguistics lesson: Why Maya ruins and not Mayan? Scholars only use the word Mayan when referring to the family of Mayan languages (except Yucatec Maya), but use Maya for everything else, even as an adjective. That’s why we talk about Maya ruins and Maya archaeology, but the Mayan languages.