The ancient Mayan ruins of Coba spread over a vast area on the Yucatan Peninsula, where the major civilization lived for well over a thousand years until the arrival of Spanish explorers in the late 1490’s. The bustling community of up to 50,000 competed with Chichen-Itza for regional dominance until a decline that virtually left a ghost town, used only for ceremonial needs by the time Europeans reached the scene. Today, the unrestored archeological site welcomes visitors every day between 8am – 5pm. For important tips to paying a visit check out a sister post, What I wish I’d known about the ancient Mayan city Coba.
This post brings to life what it’s like to visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Coba, and in particular favorite learnings on a spirited three-hour bike/walk exploration amongst the jungle canopy trees.
Where is Coba? Look for the red dot on this map of the Yucatan Peninsula of Eastern Mexico.
Travel is about connection
Humans have forever wandered the world, searching to connect with something meaningful. In Mayan times, this likely meant survival provisions such as food, spiritual items like gold, or warlike aspirations including land and slaves. Today the softer version might resemble experiences with friends and family, spiritual pillars of love, and the physical joys of nature and animals.
Connection means different things to different people. For example, my friends Joni and Patrick inspired me to visit Coba with their colorful explanation of wanting something more for their Yucatan experience while staying at an all-inclusive hotel with their two young kids. On a whim they rented a car and left the comforts of a pool to visit a variety of ruins in the area, all in one day.
The account of Chichen-Itza was interesting but what caught my heart was a wonderful story of this family venturing to Nohoc-Mul pyramid, after a full day of car travel. Minutes before closing the four gained entry to the site and walked to the pyramid. The parents encouraged their 6 and 8 year olds to join them on the climb, carefully holding onto the rope while making the big steps upward until reaching the top. Talk about meaning and connection — their kids will likely never forget the feeling of the rope and the massive scale of the limestone steps leading up to a sweeping view of the never-ending jungle.
The kids later recalled their favorite parts of the day, “the view [from the top of the pyramid] and walking in a place that a whole community of people used to live!”
Special connections feel right when it, or some form of meaning, happens. Yet finding connection in travel takes effort, can be exhausting and requires trust as well as some version of vulnerability. My own fears and insecurities (such as fear of heights) can compound more intensely when on the road, especially heading into the unknown.
Is the work worth the reward? Ancient astronaut theorists say YES! (That’s a joke for my friends who, like me, enjoy the show Ancient Aliens.)
In the case of the impressive Nohoc-Mul, which at 137 feet high is the focal point of Coba and the tallest Mayan pyramid in the area, the work to find meaning and connect is worth the adventure of ascending to the top. The large stone structure is among the last archeological ruin sites that still allow the experience to climb ancient steps to see the world from a perch well above the jungle canopy — only trees for miles.
How many places are left on the Yucatan Peninsula, let alone the world, where travelers can glimpse into a window of exactly what previous peoples over a thousand years ago saw when peering from the top of a stone temple — only jungle canopy and blue sky? It’s no wonder the people probably believed they could reach God high upon the assembled boulders; the feeling is like looking down on creation.
Taxi to temple in twenty
My day trip to Coba starts uneventfully with Ivan picking me up early from my lodging in Playa del Carmen. He’s a jovial taxi driver I met on a jaunt across town earlier in the week. Soon we’re racing toward this amazing archeological gem, only recently widely discovered in the 1970’s because deep jungle and military activity in the area made exploring inhospitable. Early in the morning it’s an easy 90 minute ride that goes by quickly.
Ivan is eager to help me navigate the entrance but what ensues is a frenetic set of steps buying my ticket and entering the park through the turnstile that scans the bar code on the flimsy piece of paper. Everyone assures me there are maps inside the park but what they actually reference is the one large sign with information, and I snap the photo. There’s a lot happening between the ticket logistics and tour guides lined up to sell their services and I eventually find myself well into the park renting a bike. All that’s felt is connection to mayhem, but movement remains my friend. The urge to escape this frenzy sweeps over me and I just start peddling, internal compass pointing away.
This wasn’t a graceful entry, and I talk about a few helpful things to consider when planning a trip to Coba on a sister post. I love maps, especially to get a feel for the big picture, so peddling away without good information feels very uneasy, as if I’m being tested in a life skills class. I’m only connected to my bike, the dust from the tuk-tuk bicycle taxis ahead of me and years of experience letting my brain take the auto-pilot. The mind doesn’t disappoint, and lo and behold I show up at the base of the pyramid, looking up in wonder.
Nothing about this is slow, or zen, and I continue up the large limestone steps with power until mid-pyramid.
About 50 steps up, amongst some fancy footwork I turn around to survey the landscape and inevitably glance down. A bit of dizziness grapples, and the “what am I doing?” feeling overtakes for a few seconds. The rope serves as a security blanket even though I don’t grab it. And at the same time, the notion of reaching the canopy level puts a huge smile on my face as a more tender internal part of me opens up, effectively pushing all doubt aside; sending my mind on a coffee break. This sensitive, spiritual part of me is nurtured through connecting to an experience and is the reason to keep going in the world.
A bolt of confidence emboldens further climbing and the rise to the top of grand Nohoch-Mul feels swift and energetic, even as deeper breaths swallow jungle air and sweat beads form on my very large not yet ‘sunscreened’ forehead. By the time my hands make contact with the stones on the temple at the top, I’m almost not aware of the other tourists in the area.
Then I turn around. Not even 20 minutes from the car, my heart is racing and the universe seems to open up.
Similar to other experiences climbing mountains, like this story The Sun, the notion to take pictures of myself at the top wanes and a selfie really escapes my mind… Until a pang of pressure to document this moment for the external world nags me because, after all, I have a mission to communicate about the connection travel provides and photos seem to be the absolute proof of something. A few minutes of time are taken to attempt, miserably, until that tender place from inside nudges me, gently saying, “what are you doing worrying about a freaking selfie, just look out there!”
As I catch my breath a sense of calm comes over me, a feeling of purpose finally starts to take hold. Learning even more about myself — body, mind and spirit working together in mysterious ways to achieve a space of wonder not possible to capture in a photo.
The mind jumps back at attention and a phrase my dear friend Suzi once shared overtakes it, “It’s optional to go up but mandatory to climb back down.”
This time my mind is working in harmony with both body and spirit and stepping down is calmer. I chat with the other visitors and take their photos, as if hosting a party on the steps of an ancient site. The feeling of rush is subdued. Footing is sure. A smile graces my face all the way down to the dusty leaf-covered jungle floor.
Connection comes organically and often takes time.
Mysteries and information begin to open for me as I slow down and move with intention on the bike/hike hybrid tour of the archeological site. But it doesn’t all come at once. Layers are added along the way, as if I’m on a treasure hunt seeking clues. Temples and impressively legible stele (large tablets) reveal themselves to me along the way. Still without a decent map, internal compass says to peel away from the hustle of other tourists and delve deeper into a parallel world of ancient spirit, seeming to take me to direct relationship with the rocks and trees and Mayan whispers.
It’s likely Coba settled in this particular area because of the large freshwater lakes nearby the established camp. An expansive road system spans for hundreds of miles on white limestone including one that almost reaches Chichen-Itza, 110 kilometers away. The Mayans traveled and transported goods at nighttime to avoid the intense heat and the white from the limestone illuminated at night to guide. Experts seem to agree that while the civilization was advanced enough to understand the concept of the wheel, most transport involved walking.
The roads are called Sacbé and they seem to originate in what’s now known as the Cobá Group of ruins, which are the oldest in the settlement. A few of these are available for walking and I find the only one (Sacbé 9) accessible via bicycle. Sacbé 9 leads me to the Macanxoc Group of ruins, noted as one of the most important because of the collection of simple altars and 8 Stele glyphs dating from the 7th century. A humorous guide in Tulum mentioned that these large stone templates served as newspapers or Mayan “Facebook Wall” pages, highlighting the key information of the day, erected every ten years to commemorate an event.
Over an hour into my exploration, bike gliding down the white dusty stone of Sacbé 9, I feel at peace as the roadway winds through jungle, birds chirping and the canopy swaying to the song of the wind rushing through the leaves. Although my glyph reading is not super proficient, the power of the collection of stones encased perfectly into a cozy jungle enclave opens up imagination to run free, and I choose to avoid dwelling on the heavy tones of capturing prisoners described in the information. Stele 1 is the only glyph in the area that mentions December 21, 2012, which is the Mayan “end of time” date. Wonder sets in why the civilization arrived at this specific calculation.
The spirit of Indiana Jones sets in as stairways lead abruptly to jungle trees, roots intertwined between the altar rocks like talons. So much of this site is still uncovered, so what hides behind the dense forest could eventually reveal more secrets of a people eradicated, mostly by disease, with the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. I try to imagine what the conquistadors thought upon arriving to such intricate development — a sophisticated society with calendars, infrastructure and sporting arenas.
The Ball Court near the bike rental station is one of two excellently preserved arenas, and the spirits of the athletes competing live on with the sight of the two stone rings on either side of the diagonally slanted court. The jocks of 650 AD threw rubber balls through these same hoops, which feels amazing. Imagination runs wild envisioning a world where the winning team sacrificed their captain — considered an honor in order to move into a higher placement in the next life.
By now, the intrepid sun is rising almost directly overhead and although the lush green vegetation partners to provide abundant shade, the experience feels almost complete. A stroll through a tunnel driving underneath The Church, one of the oldest buildings in the settlement, begets more questions about the physical nature of the Mayans — the clearance is low, indicating shorter people, but the steps to the pyramids are more suitable for someone of my six foot height.
Bike returned, sun beating down, and larger tour bus crowds forming, it’s now time to exit this amazing gem of a site and tend to my basic human needs. My chest feels puffed up with the spirit and power derived from a special attachment forged through physical, mental and spiritual connection to this mystical shrine of a bygone era. I hardly notice the chaos of souvenir peddlers, taxis and tour busses as I knock on the window of the Nissan Sentra, waking up a passed-out Ivan, who’s loyally waiting for me in order to continue our day of exploration.
Each component of the Coba experience adds layers of meaningful connection:
- Nohoc-Mul: blend of mind, body and spirit.
- Sacbé 9: partnership with nature, steeped in the jungle flora and fauna.
- Macanxoc Group: connection to the spirit of the altars, Stele and the power of jungle life.
- Ball Court: mindfulness about human nature to compete and look for meaning in winning.
- The Church: honor of the people who built this society and watched it decay.
And yes, there were a few authentic selfies along the way that seemed to naturally flow when I was at my deepest, allowing the tender part of me to smile. May you experience these same special connections in your time visiting Coba or anywhere else on the planet.
Disclaimer: there is no intentional “selfie-shaming” in earlier comments, more the point that this experience opened my eyes to my own perspective to stay in the moment rather than creating a disruption that can come with setting up the perfect shot.