Exploring The Mayan Ruins At Coba


Why do I type it like that? Check out the view from the top of the Nohoch Mul temple.

Sabrina atop Nohoch Mul at Coba

Nohoch Mul is the tallest temple at Coba, Mayan ruins found 44km from the Carribean Sea and 40km from the more famous Tulum ruins. While Tulum has its spectacular beach front property and well excavated grounds (though by no means complete), much of Coba remains buried. Some of the ball courts near the entrance have been renovated and a few choice buildings, but on the whole, the town is beheld by the encompassing jungle.

This becomes evident after a short bike ride to the far end of the complex to climb Nohoch Mul. Along the muddied path through thick jungle, there are numerous mounds of rubble. Each mound is an unreconstructed house or community building or storage building. Who knows. There simply are too many mounds and not not enough money to restore them all. Trees quickly take root in the smallest bit of moss between the cracks in walls and start their process of forcing apart that which once stood tall. Breaking, covering, dis-forming, until it appears, to the untrained eye, as if the city is a bunch of overgrown anthills.

My daughter Sabrina and I are in a rickshaw like bike, complete with umbrella for the rains, as our guide from the Riviera Maya Tourist Board, Lizabeth, peddles along side. Ten minutes later, we have reached the far end of the Coba complex.

Climbing Nohoch Mul gives a better glimpse into the extent of the Mayan ruins still waiting to see the light of day. If you get a chance to climb this 42m limestone pyramid, take the opportunity by the horns, or better, by the fat climbing rope anchored to the main staircase. The way up can be a slog with the Caribbean sun beating down on your back and the moisture soaked air providing no relief even as sweat pours forth to attempt to cool your skin. It’s hot and muggy and you will be taking steps one at a time, each approximately two to two and a half feet high.

Half way up the treeline starts to drop away. A breeze might even be felt. No relief yet, you still have 20m to go. The crowd of people shuttling up and down will give you chance to pause as you are all using the same rope. And the limestone? Yes, it gets slippery if a rain storm rolls by.

The end of the rope finds you just below the temple platform, once used for ritual sacrifice, typically of animals. But also of food offerings to the Mayan gods. There is a small temple building at the top, all roped off to clumsy tourists. This side of the temple walls faces North, towards Chichen Itza, its far more glamorous cousin ruin beyond the horizon. That set of ruins received a better cleaning and shines in the tropical sun. I even have a guest photographer’s picture of it here.

But Coba is still covered. Three walls of the temple lay shrouded in trees and I stepped beyond “clumsy tourist” ropes (surely I am not one?) to take a look. Barely any stone is visible on those sides, the jungle’s reclamation project having had at least four centuries to work since the arrival of the Spanish. Looking out the fourth side of the temple, I was a bit stunned by the sheer flatness of the Yucatan Peninsula. I read about its creation and how it was covered by the sea, washed over many times through the millenniums, but until I gazed down on it from 140′ above ground level, the magnitude was lot on me.

That first photo on this post shows the view well. Can you see any little bumps in the jungle canopy? Each one of those is a ruin of some type, waiting to be uncovered. Or maybe not. The Mexican government doesn’t have the funds to uncover and reconstruct all of the ruins. The view does show the extent of the city of Coba, which is reported to have supported over 50,000 inhabitants in the larger complex of raised roads and waterways.

Lizabeth takes a picture of Sabrina and I overlooking the peninsula and then it was time to head down. The clouds were growing gray and thunder booms the impending arrival of rain. Half way down, it starts to rain, a nice respite from the broiling heat. We park under a canopy near the base and listen to the rain leak through the thatch roof. Nearby stood a crumbling stone with an ancient mural painted on it, the colors almost lost to time. So much to explore. So much left covered and waiting.

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3 Replies to “Exploring The Mayan Ruins At Coba”

  1. anca a

    Looking at your pictures and reading your article makes me sigh again – I saw some of the Mayan sites in Yucatan Mexico two years ago and I can still “taste” the extraordinary feelings I had climbing the ancient steps and looking around from the top of pyramids or miradores at the forest all around. I’m preparing my pictures and material now but I’ll start writing about that soon.
    The view from the top of Nohoch Mul reminds me of the view form the top of the Pyramid of the Magician of Uxmal.

    • Peter West Carey Post author

      I’m glad the photos brought back some pleasant memories for you! I will have to check out the Pyramid of the Magician of Uxmal if I have a chance on my next visit to Mexico.

  2. Tim Briley

    Exellent photo’s, I first went to Coba in the early 90’s and was rewarded with a private tour by a local mayan whose father had been instramental in the site being recovered. I’ve been going to the Yucatan since the mid 70’s traveling with some of my professors, a husband-wife team, one a zoologist the other a botanist. We were collecting both animal and plant specimens for the museum at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant , Oklahoma. We drove a VW microbus all the way from Oklahoma to Cancun, camping out each night. I recall askinig about the small hills often seen when driving across the penisula when visibilty through the trees was good and my professor stating that they were mayan ruins and not to be disturbed. That comment set my curiousity on fire and over the years I’ve traveled throughout the mayan realm visiting as many sites as possible.
    Coba, a late classical replica of Tikal in my opinion is one of the most fascinating and beautiful. The Eco-tourism and vacation mecca of Cancun have brought both prosperity and ruin to the States of Quintana Roo and Yucatan. The local extant mayan’s have joined the 21st century, something I don’t think they were quite ready for. The transittion of living in remote isolated forest villages as their ancestors have for thousands of years to the shanty towns along the highways saddens my heart. Seeing this happen in a timespan of 35 years is as astounding as Cortez’s landing at Veracruz, a drastic change of life. Thanks for sharing your photography and your documentary, excellent!


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