Guide to the Coba ruins in Mexico

Visiting the Mayan ruins was high on my list of things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Ancient civilizations have always fascinated me. Experiencing the – very worthwhile! – Palenque ruins in Chiapas wasn’t enough for me and I wanted to see another site, a bit closer to the Mayan Riviera. We chose Coba ruins and were not disappointed. These are definitely some of the best Mayan ruins to visit with kids!

FlipFlopGlobetrotters -  exploring Coba ruins Mexico by bike

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With the entrance fee of both Chichen Itza and Ek Balam recently almost doubled (to respectively 480 and 413 pesos as of February 2019), both were a bit outside of our budget. If you’re planning to stay there the whole day paying almost $25 per person may be worth it, but I knew our little boy wouldn’t last that long. And even though I would have liked to see these famous and impressive ruins, massive tourist attractions are usually not our idea of fun.

FlipFlopGlobetrotters - family selfie at Coba ruins Yucatan
Family selfie in front of the Nohoch Mull pyramid at Cobá ruins

Budget-friendly alternative to Chichen Itza

We thought of visiting Tulum ruins but online reviews made us reconsider. The location is beautiful, but with easy accessibility from the Mayan Riviera it also attracts tons of tourists. While researching some more budget-friendly Maya ruins, we came across Coba, Mexico. The Coba Mayan ruins are less well known, but they have a very interesting history. Located in the jungle the site is quite spread out and the recommended way to see the Coba ruins in Mexico is by renting a bike. Now, doesn’t that sound like fun? It’s definitely different and more active. And what’s more, the Coba ruins admission price is A LOT less than Chichen Itza and Ek Balam (we paid 75 pesos per person in April 2019).

Coba vs Chichen Itza vs Tulum vs Ek Balam

Now, we haven’t been to any of the other large ruins apart from Palenque and Coba, but let me try to recap what I’ve found online about the differences between these sites. There are many Mayan ruins in Yucatan peninsula, with Chichen Itza being the most promoted, as well as the most restored.

Chichen Itza ruins

Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and claimed as the ‘eighth Wonder of the World’. The Kukulcan pyramid is said to be very impressive (although the Nohoch Mul Pyramid at Coba is higher) and the site is large and of high historical importance. Unfortunately you can’t climb the Chichen Itza pyramid anymore. The climbing of El Castillo (or Castillo de Kukalcan) was prohibited after a fatal accident in 2005. Of all the archaeological sites in Yucatan Chichen Itza is definitely the most visited, with an estimated 2.1 million visitors in 2017. Reports say the crowds and vendors can be annoying and overwhelming and someone even said it feels like ‘Mayan Disneyland’, but the site is very impressive.

Tulum ruins

The Tulum Mayan ruins are becoming increasingly popular and visitor numbers have said to equal those of Chichen Itza. Although the site is of lesser historical significance and much smaller, its location is very convenient for the many tourists visiting Cancun or staying in the Riviera Maya area. The coastal scenery is said to be beautiful, but some people described the site itself as being ‘museum-like’ with many roped off areas. A major plus is that you can combine a visit to Tulum with a swim in the ocean. There’s a steep wooden staircase leading down to the beach so bring your swimsuit! If you go, make sure you go early both because it’s less busy in the morning but also because there’s little to no shade.

Ek Balam ruins

We would have gone to the Ek Balam ruins if they hadn’t doubled the entrance fee two months before our Mexico trip. Ek Balam is a more compact site, with well preserved Mayan carvings. Unlike at Chichen Itza and Tulum Ek Balam still has structures you can climb. The view from the Acropolis pyramid is said to be amazing. On a clear day you’re supposed to be able to see the Ixmoja temple at Coba and El Castillo at Chichen Itza. Although increasingly popular, The Ek Balam Mayan ruins get less visitors than Chichen Itza and Tulum. You can combine a visit to the Mayan ruins at Ek Balam with a visit to nearby cenote X’Canche.

Coba ruins

The ruins at Coba are more spread out than the other Mayan ruins mentioned. Scattered around the jungle, a large area of the site hasn’t been excavated yet and many of the buildings and carving are either less well preserved or less restored. You can still climb the Coba pyramid at the time of writing. It’s unsure how long this will last as it’s becoming increasingly more dangerous. What we liked most about Coba was the experience of riding our bikes through the jungle while seeing the Mayan structures around us, made us feel a bit like adventurous jungle explorers. We feel these are the best Mayan ruins to visit with kids as with the biking and the climbing the experience is quite interactive. A mere 10 minute drive away is a group of three cenotes (Tamcach-Ha, Choo-Ha and Multum-Ha).

FlipFlopGlobetrotters - Coba Mayan ruins - discoveries in the jungle
We felt a bit like Indiana Jones, going on an adventure!

More about the Coba ruins

Due to its remote jungle location and the Caste War of Yucatan in the late 1800’s, Cobá wasn’t opened to the public until 1973. A large part of the site, which is said to cover over 80m2 and 6.500 structures, still remains unexcavated. To this day, many of the buildings are covered by dense jungle. You can only imagine the archeological secrets of ancient mayan civilizations still buried below! And you do feel a bit like an explorer when you’re walking around these jungle ruins. There are three main areas to discover: Nohoch Mul (with the large Ixmoja pyramid), Conjunto Pinturas (spiritual area) and Macanxoc, all groups of buildings and structures connected by elevated causeways. These sacbeob (singular: sacbe) or white roads are a unique feature of Cobá ruins. There are over 50 of these elevated white roads, of which 16 are open to the public.

FlipFlopGlobetrotters - coba ruins, bike riding on the white roads
No one knows how the Mayans transported their goods on these white roads. They knew about the wheel but appartently didn’t use it. The sacbeob are great for biking though

Climbing the Ixmoja Coba pyramid

Climbing the Ixmoja temple, part of the Nohoch Mull pyramid complex, is no small feat. The Ixmoja pyramid is the highest in Quintana Roo and the second highest in Yucatan (only the Great Pyramid in Calakmul is higher). It’s very steep and the 120 steps have become very smooth and slippery. Fortunately, there’s a rope! Now, we did it with our 5 y/o so you can definitely do it, but you really have to take care and wear shoes or sandals with slip-proof soles. Mau was wearing flip flops and decided to go barefoot for better grip. Don’t forget to bring plenty of water! We saw some guys showing off by running up, definitely not a good idea. El Castillo in Chichen Itzá was closed down after someone fell down and died, just saying… We were very very careful and – although not very elegant – scooting down on your butt definitely is the easiest way down.

FlipFlopGlobetrotters - climbing Coba pyramid
As you can see the Ixmoja temple pyramid at Cobá is reaaaallly high

The history and structures of Cobá

Unlike Tulum which mostly had a ceremonial purpose, Coba was an actual settlement. Unfortunately, the stelae (or ancestral stones) discovered in Coba so far are in poor condition, so not much is know about its history. It’s believed the history of Coba goes back to 50BC, making it much older than the other three Mayan sites mentioned above. Historical evidence suggests that at its peak in the eighth century over 50.000 people inhabited Coba. Coba was once one of the most powerful Mayan city states on the Yucatan peninsula and dominated a vast area. It had the advantage of having two large freshwater lakes nearby, but its downfall came with the rise of Chichen Itza and the resulting war. There are various large pyramids at Coba, the largest being Ixmoja temple (138ft or 42 meter high, 120 steps), part of the Nohoch Mull temple pyramids group. The second highest temple structure is that of the Temple of the Church. There are also two ball courts, an astronomical observatory and an ancient gallery of stelae.

FlipFlopGlobetrotters - ruins coba mexico stelae
The stelae are heavily damaged but you can still see some of the images on them.

Getting around the Mayan ruins in Cobá

Unless you really want a guide, once you get to the main entrance, just get going until you reach the bike rental area. There are three options to explore the ruins. You can walk around (bring plenty of water and remember it’s quite a large site!), have sometime bike you around in a ricksha type bicycle taxi or rent bikes and drive around by yourself. We did the latter. They have standard sized bikes that aren’t the most comfortable but good enough to get around. And it’s quite cheap, about 60 pesos ($3) per bike. The pedicabs or bike taxis seemed like a comfortable way to get around, and if you’re lucky your driver speaks English and has some knowledge about the site as well. But they only take two people per taxi so that wasn’t an option for us.

FlipFlopGlobetrotters - Mayan ruins Coba, getting around by pedicab / bicycle taxi
If you’re not used to riding a bike, not comfortable with the heat or less mobile, these bikecabs are a great alternative

Where is Coba and where are the Mayan ruins?

Coba is an ancient Mayan city that is now an archaeological site. It’s also the name of the nearby little town in Quintana Roo state. Coba and the Coba Ruins are located approximately 45km northwest of Tulum, on the road between Valladolid and Tulum. Coba, which in Mayan means ‘waters stirred by the wind’ is situated between two lakes, Lago Coba and Lago Macanxoc. There are a handful of hotels and one spa in Coba town near the ruins, as well as a number of small restaurants. Near the ruins there is also some restaurants and shops with local crafts. The walk from the town center to the ruin entrance is about 5 minutes.

Coba ruins tour or self-drive?

Of course you can visit Coba ruins as part of a tour. From what we’ve heard Coba ruins tours usually not only visit the ruins but also some of the nearby cenotes, or they combine visiting Tulum and Cobá or Cobá and Chichen Itzá. This can be a great option if you don’t have a lot of time. When it was just the two of us we always either took tours or organized our transport by bus. Now that we travel with our son however, we afforded ourselves the luxury of renting a car and driving ourselves. This gave us the freedom to set our own schedule and not having the rush.

As Coba is on the road from Tulum to Valladolid you can also take the ADO bus from Tulum to Coba. This is obviously less expensive and takes about 45 minutes. If you’re staying in Playa del Carmen, you can also take the ADO bus directly from Playa. The bus ride from Playa del Carmen to Coba takes approximately 2 hours. If you’re lucky and get to Coba early you can have the site almost to yourself as most tours tend to visit the cenotes first. Coba is a lot less busy than Chichen Itza, Ek Balam or Tulum but it still gets around 700.000 visitors each year.