Some of the most popular activities in Cancun are visits to the sites of ancient Mayan ruins. While many visitors are aware of the world-famous Chichen Itza and plenty of tours visit nearby Tulum, archeologists and those in the know often recommend a forgotten Mayan city. Deep in the Mexican jungle rests the city of Coba, an expansive complex of stone structures and winding roads. Due to its remote location, Coba wasn’t explored by archeologists until the 1920s and remains mostly unexcavated. However, realizing the cultural value of the site, the local government constructed a modern road to the site in the 1970s and tours have grown in popularity ever since.
Though known for its stone pyramids, the area of Coba was populated and used for agricultural purposes as far back as 600 BC. By the 1st century AD, Coba began to show signs of its eventual prominence in the Mayan Kingdom, sustaining a sizable population in a more concentrated area. Much like the other great Mayan cities of Mexico, the majority of development took place between the 6th and 10th centuries – including the construction of the temples and pyramids that can be seen today. It is believed that Coba’s population numbered at least 50,000 during this time – certainly no small number for an ancient city. Following the initial decline of the Mayan civilization, new temples were constructed in Coba as late as the 14th century, with many inhabitants remaining as late as the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.
One of the first things you will notice when you arrive in Coba is the series of ancient stone roads known as sacbeob. In addition to supporting the belief that Coba was a large and influential city during its peak, these roads are the finest example of the Mayan mode of transportation anywhere in Mexico. While most of the stones have since been misplaced, the well-defined paths are unmistakable. Some of these roads lead to the Caribbean coast – approximately 25 miles to the east – while the longest pathway is connected to the smaller Mayan site of Yaxuna over 60 miles to the west. Within the city itself, these same roads connect the temples and other structures within an ancient model of the urban grid system.
The first structure you will notice along the sacbeob is the pyramid known as La Iglesia. Standing over 65 feet, this steep stone temple is the second-tallest structure in Coba. About a mile down the main road, you will encounter one of the Mayan kingdom’s greatest temples. Towering above the jungle at 136 feet, Nohoch Mul is certainly a sight to behold. Once you reach the top of the stone steps, however, you will be granted an even more impressive view of the surrounding jungle and Coba’s nearby lagoons. Another favorite site along Coba’s winding paths is the Conjunto Las Picturas (Temple of the Paintings), a multilevel pyramid once crowned with colorful murals – remnants of which can still be detected.
If you also visit Chichen Itza or Tulum while in Cancun, Coba will stand out for reasons other than its impressive architecture. As Coba has only been accessible by modern roads for 30 years, the city hasn’t received the attention paid to other Mayan sites. As a result, development in and around the site has been kept to a minimum. For the most part, the structures in Coba have been left in their original state, many still uncovered. For the tourist, this means that the site maintains the ancient allure that greeted the first archeologists nearly a century ago. Furthermore, with the Mexican jungle encroaching upon the city from all angles, Coba is bound to feel as exotic as any place you have ever visited.
Most visitors to Coba experience the site as a day trip from the resorts of Cancun. While there are fewer tours to the site than either Chichen Itza or Tulum, it shouldn’t be difficult to find reliable transportation to the ruins through your resort. Buses generally leave for Coba in the early morning, as the site is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm. When you arrive, you can view the site with the help of a tour guide, stroll at your own pace or rent a bicycle and cruise the ancient roads of the city. When you’ve had your share of Coba and the vibrant surrounding jungle, check out the modest gift stalls or grab a snack at one of the rustic cafes.
If you want to explore the remnants of the Mayan kingdom, there are plenty of fascinating sites within a short ride of Cancun. However, you don’t want to forget about the great city of the jungle – the always exotic and captivating Coba.