Situated 42 km northwest of Tulum, Cobá, known for its towering pyramids, was once the prominent city-state of the eastern Yucatán Peninsula. And today, visiting the Cobá ruins is a must for those basing themselves in the Tulum area.
To learn more about reaching the ruins, you can learn more below. But first, a bit of history:
The city was first established in the Early Classic Period (250-600 AD). And despite its northern location, Cobá was built in the style of the Petén region of Guatemala. Accordingly, you’ll find large stone stelae erected all over the site in a similar manner to Tikal.
The city reached its zenith in the Late Classic period (600-900 AD), becoming the capital of its own empire which may have covered up to 70 square km. And the various cities were connected via an elaborate network of elevated stone roads known as sacbeob (the plural form of the Mayan word sacbe).
Cobá was eventually conquered by the Itzá people around 1000 AD, who would use it as a ceremonial site, building numerous shrines around the main pyramids. Even after the fall of Chichén Itzá, Cobá would remain an important pilgrimage center for the remainder of Mayan history.
The Cobá ruins were first discovered and sketched by foreign archaeologists in the late 19th century. At the time, there were no roads in the area, so all visitors needed to make a difficult trek through thick and dense jungle.
Excavation didn’t take place until the 1920s, with serious restoration efforts only beginning in the 1970s. While the site looks great today, it still has yet to be entirely excavated.
Visiting the Cobá Ruins
Cobá is unique for being set amidst a series of small lakes in a region with so few of them. And as you approach the site, you’ll pass by Lake Cobá on your right-hand side.
Additionally, this part of the Yucatán Peninsula has slightly higher rainfall. But like other Mayan cities, Cobá is situated near several cenotes, or natural sinkholes, as well. Following your visit to the ruins, you can rent a bicycle from a shop in town near the entrance, which you can use to visit the region’s three nearby cenotes.
Entrance to the Cobá ruins costs 100 pesos. And while the site used to open at 8:00, they began opening from 9:00 in 2022 (prices and times change frequently in Mexico).
Just past the entrance, you’ll have the option to rent a bicycle to take you through the site, as the three main groups are far apart. At the time of my visit, rentals cost 60 pesos.
I decided to get around on foot, which I found easy enough, especially considering that all the paths are well-shaded. Taking my time, I spent around 2.5 hours at the site in total.
The Cobá Group
Just to the right of the entrance is the Cobá Group, which features the largest concentration of buildings at the site. In total, it comprises of no less than 43 structures.
The main structure here is the Cobá Pyramid, a nine-stepped pyramid with rounded corners. While not the largest pyramid at Cobá, it stands at an impressive 24 meters tall.
Known locally the ‘Iglesia’ (Church), it once would’ve been covered in stucco decorations. It was built over the course of multiple construction stages, ranging from the Early Classic (300-600 AD) to the Post Classic (1000-1450) periods.
It’s also at this group that you’ll find the first of many stelae that were discovered throughout the Cobá ruins. But the carvings are largely faded and difficult to make out.
Other structures around here include a mysterious vaulted hallway beneath a large set of stairs, and a ball court next to the pyramid – one of two you’ll find at the ruins.
Moving on, turn right onto the forested pathway. And before long, you’ll have the choice to make a left toward the Nohoch Mul group, or straight toward the Macanxoc group. I began by turning left.
Before continuing onto the Nohoch Mul group, you can stop at Las Pinturas, or the Temple of the Pictures, which is situated near the central pathway. It was named after its murals discovered at the upper-most structure, though these aren’t visible from the ground.
Law Pinturas was likely one of the last structures built at Cobá, likely dating to the Post-Classic period (1100-1450) when nearby Tulum was dominant. Accordingly, the large temple more closely resembles the Mayan ‘East Coast’ architectural style than that of Petén.
Surrounding the structure, you’ll find the remains of several smaller colonnaded temples.
The Nohoch Mul Group
Moving on, you’ll soon reach yet another Mayan ball court. Just as you’ll find theaters at all Greco-Roman ruins, nearly all Mesoamerican cities contained ball courts. But while the game involved two teams competing against each other using a rubber ball, it was more ritual than sport.
Notice the stone rings above either slope which have been preserved intact. Players would try to get the ball through this hoop, resulting in an instant victory. But they weren’t allowed to use their hands, instead striking the ball with their hips and elbows.
Some scholars believe that the losers of the match would be ritually sacrificed. While this may or may not be true, the game surely had symbolic significance as well.
The moving ball likely represented the cycles of the cosmos, whole the two teams represented the struggle between light and darkness.
Take note of the interesting carvings on the ground, one of which is of a skull and the other a disc which may have served as a court marker. And just across the court is a covered stele, laid on its side, entirely carved in detailed glyphs.
The next landmark of the Nohoch Mul group is the Xaibé Pyramid. Like the other pyramids of Cobá, it has rounded edges – but so round that the structure is nearly circular. It’s a rather unique building in the Mayan world.
Situated at the intersection of four major sacbeob, it was likely used as a watchtower. Xaibé, in fact, is the local word for ‘crossroads.’
And speaking of sacbe, you’ll see numerous remnants of these ancient roads as you make your way around the Cobá ruins. Cobá was famous in its day for having some of the longest sacbeob of the Mayan world.
One even extended as much as 100 km west to the city of Yaxuná, currently a small archaeological site south of Chichén Itzá!
Finally, you’ll reach the main pyramid, the Nohoch Mul (‘Big Mound’) Pyramid, after which the group was named. This massive seven-tiered pyramid reaches up to 42 meters high.
It much more closely resembles the pyramids in Guatemala than those of this part of the Yucatán. But it too is topped with a small Tulum-style temple which was added much later.
For years, Cobá’s main selling point was that visitors were allowed to climb to the very top of this pyramid, long after those of Chichén Itzá and other sites became off-limits.
At the time of my visit, however, the pyramid was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic (which makes no sense if you think about it – ‘preservation of the monument’ would be a much more satisfactory explanation).
On the bright side, the pyramid can now easily be photographed without other tourists in the shot.
Also around the pyramid is the well-preserved Stele 30, which features a similar scene to that of the Macanxoc Group’s Stele 1 (learn more below).
The Macanxoc Group
About a kilometer north of the Cobá Group, the Macanxoc Group consists of eight ancient stelae discovered right in this area. This area was also home to numerous temples which have yet to be reconstructed.
Among the most famous stele discovered at Cobá is Stele 1, which you’ll find under its own platform beneath a thatched roof. It depicts a man in a ritual headdress carrying a large staff while standing over two bound captives, with two more lying on the ground.
Sculpted on all four sides, it contains no less than 313 hieroglyphs. As mentioned above, it’s a similar scene to that of Stele 30 by the Nohoch Mul Pyramid, among others in the same area.
The Mayans typically used stelae to commemorate significant events. And they commonly wrote the dates on them, which we can now decipher thanks to modern knowledge of both the Mayan calendar system and their complex hieroglyphs.
The earliest stele found at Cobá dates to 623 AD, right after the end of what archaeologists call the Early Classic period.
Interestingly, according to local legend, Cobá’s stelae were carved by a group of dwarves who were said to be the area’s first inhabitants – just one of many Mayan tales involving dwarves.
In short, yes. Visiting the Cobá ruins is indeed worth it for anyone with an interest in the ancient Maya. But while I enjoyed my visit to Cobá, it can’t quite compare to other ruins around the Yucatán Peninsula, such as Chichén Itzá, Ek Balam and Uxmal, all in Yucatán state.
Therefore, those only in the region for a short time should focus on those other sites instead. As mentioned above, the large pyramid of Cobá – for years the site’s main drawing point – is currently no longer accessible.
But even if it were, Cobá doesn’t have too much to make it stand out from the other major archaeological sites.
The Cobá ruins are situated about 42 km northwest of Tulum in the village of the same name. The ride takes about 40 minutes from central Tulum.
For those without their own car, it’s possible to take a colectivo bus from the center of town which costs 60-70 pesos. The stop is located near the intersection of Calle Osiris and Avenida Tulum, the main road. It’s just a couple blocks east of the ADO bus station and on the same side of the street.
The colectivos only leave when full, and are said to depart at least once an hour. But during busier times there might be more. Note that these colectivos do not run on Sundays.
There are also regular coach buses that stop in Cobá as well, though the timetable isn’t listed anywhere online. The ADO, Mayab and Oriente bus companies should all make stops by the ruins at some point in the day, but you will need to confirm the times at Tulum’s ADO bus station.
The real difficulty with visiting the Cobá ruins by public transport is finding a way back. On my way out, I asked the staff at the exit about where I should wait for the colectivo, and he said there were none, but that I could probably catch a bus. I was directed to wait at a bench on a corner that had no signage or markings whatsoever.
Without even knowing when the bus was supposed to come (supposedly, there’s one at 15:00, but that was hours away), I decided to walk around.
There is one ADO sign along the main road, but the small station near it was completely abandoned. Asking at a nearby restaurant, they confirmed that no buses stop there, but told me to walk further down the road (away from the ruins).
Finally, some people from Hotel Sacbe told me to wait in front of their place, assuring me that a bus for Tulum would be coming any minute. One eventually did come, but it was only bound for a village about ten minutes away.
As I was actually staying halfway between Cobá and Tulum, I got off at that village and then hopped in a cheap shared to taxi with one of the other passengers from the colectivo.
For those needing to get back to Tulum, there may be a bus, but it’s best to mentally prepare yourself for the idea of having to a taxi all the way back. This would likely cost at least $400 MXN from Cobá. (No ridesharing apps work in this region).
Tulum, along with nearby Playa del Carmen, is fast becoming one of Mexico’s popular (and pricey) tourist destinations. But unlike PDC, where the town and the beach are all in the same area, Tulum’s city center and beach area are two separate districts.
You’ll find plenty of accommodation options in both areas, though they’re all quite expensive by Mexican standards if you want your own room. To get back and forth, regular colectivos run along the main Avenida Tulum for around 30 pesos per ride (also quite pricey for Mexico).
In my case, my main reason for visiting Tulum was to see both the Tulum and Cobá ruins. And being a budget traveler, I found a place that looked perfect for my needs: Hotel Palma Real, situated exactly between Tulum and Cobá in the village of Francisco Uh May.
I had my own private room with a private bathroom for around $385 MXN per night (including VAT) – much cheaper than similar hotels in the city. The problem was, however, that getting around was much more difficult than I anticipated.
I managed to get there easily enough via colectivo from Tulum. But while management had previously assured me via email that there would be plenty of buses driving past the hotel in both directions, I was only able to find them going in the direction of Tulum.
On the morning I wanted to visit Cobá, I waited for nearly two hours by the highway, as the hotel staff had recommended. But no colectivos or coach buses passed by. A friendly local moto (tuk tuk) driver then advised me to wait at the town’s main bus stop instead.
He dropped me off there, and sure enough, I found transport. It wasn’t a bus, but an unofficial shared taxi (i.e., some random guy’s car). There were a few other passengers and he charged us 50 pesos each.
You can read a bit on my experience getting back to the hotel from the ruins in the transport section above. But would I recommend staying at Hotel Palma Real?
It depends. If you’re adventurous, on a budget and speak at least basic survival Spanish, it’s a good way to save money in such a pricey region. Otherwise, I’d recommend looking for somewhere close to Tulum’s main bus station. Of course, if you have a car, then Hotel Palma Real would be an excellent choice.
Staying in Cobá itself is another option.