My Very Own Mayan Pyramid — And How to Find Yours


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What’s better than sharing the top of a Mayan pyramid with 50 other travelers? Showing up again the next morning at opening time and having it all to yourself.

The Coba archaeological site lies just a short 1 hour bus ride away from Tulum, Mexico and is billed by Lonely Planet as being set deep in the jungle and feeling “like an Indiana Jones flick”. While I think that’s overstating it quite a bit –the jungle is more like a park– it is certainly worth a visit.

The prime location is both a blessing and a curse: easily reached from both Tulum, Cancun and Playa Del Carmen, it is a popular stop with the tour buses. The park opens at 8am but the earliest bus from Tulum leaves at 10am, so the crowds are kind of hard to escape unless you have your own transportation or opt to spend the night in Coba village, which is what I did.

$11 bought me a night in a fairly dark and dusty room at Hotel Bocadito (Note: there are some higher-end digs available if that’s how you roll, Sissypants). After dropping my bags off in my room, I was loose in the park by noon.

My Very Own Mayan Pyramid in Coba, MexicoAs were hundreds of others, bunched up in groups of 20 or 30 and listening to tour guides who shouted over each other to be heard. Photography was impossible (though the light was shot by that time anyway, to be honest) and every stela, carving or feature of interest was surrounded by a crowd.

The ball court was swarming with Italians, a Japanese group was surrounding what I think was an entrance to a tomb and the English-speaking guide (and drama student, apparently) was passionately explaining the Mayan calendar to a huge crowd. Good stuff.

The high point of any visit is Nohoch Mul, the Great Pyramid which –at over 140 feet– is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan. And best of all it can be climbed, if you don’t mind a little company.

My Very Own Mayan Pyramid in Coba, MexicoIt’s a steep scramble up narrow, worn steps and I’m out of shape and lazy — not a good combination. I made it to the top but my legs were rubbery, doing some kind of off-tempo Charleston dance by the end. I found a spot in the shade and quietly wheezed myself back to full consciousness while an endless parade of people tramped up the steps, took their photos and headed back down.

It had all the charm and ambiance of a busy bus station.

My Very Own Mayan Pyramid in Coba, Mexico

And because at least half of them spoke English, I caught a lot of the commentary. It reminded me of my first adventure overseas — I’d been traveling through Italy with a friend for weeks when we decided to visit Malta. We didn’t know it then but this was a favorite destination for the English retiree crowd and I remember being stunned one evening at a cafe when I suddenly realized I could understand everything people were saying.

I remember then being disappointed that it was all such mundane stuff: Mildred’s bunions were acting up again and Harold had been constipated for three days now. Somehow, hearing the background chatter in Italian had been much more romantic — it was so easy to imagine that they were talking about philosophy or quoting poetry. The truth is their bunions were probably acting up too.

I headed down, which is much trickier than climbing up, and made my way home on tired legs.

At 8:00 the next morning, I was waiting at the ticket office and inside the park two minutes later, one of only two visitors. The other was a friendly German woman — it was her first visit so she stopped along the way as I charged on. Heading straight for the pyramid, I had some time to work the stiffness out of my legs — it’s a good 2-3 kilometers from the entrance.

My Very Own Mayan Pyramid in Coba, Mexico

I made it there without seeing another human being. Convinced there was a marauding horde of tourists right behind me, I climbed as fast as my legs would allow (the Charleston made an appearance again) and soon found myself at the top of a 500 year old pyramid. All alone.

Endless green jungle stretched to the horizon and I could see the nearby crocodile-infested lake I had passed on the way to the site. Birds chirped and tittered in the woods below and the morning sun blazed down.

My Very Own Mayan Pyramid in Coba, Mexico

After taking a bunch of photos and then horsing around –skipping backwards like Curly of the Three Stooges and hooting like a monkey– I realized that there really isn’t much to do on a pyramid. At least, if you’re not into that whole human sacrifice thing. (Which, for the record, I am not).

So for the next half hour, I just sat and relaxed, enjoying the breeze and the sounds and soaking it all in. Every now and then, I would fondly pat the rough-hewn rocks beneath me. Mine.

All good things must come to an end — hearing loud laughter, boisterous conversation and occasional yelling wafting up from the jungle cover, I decided my time was up and headed down before this incoming tour group showed up. Reaching the bottom, I found not a tour group but four Italians emerging from the trees.

I’m pretty sure they were discussing philosophy.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Theodora January 5, 2012 at 10:11 am

I loved Coba. It was really quiet when we went, but that was almost a decade ago. Christ, I’m getting old.


Andi of My Beautiful Adventures January 5, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Wow, I have goosebumps thinking about having a Mayan pyramid all to myself!!! Awesome pics!


DKR January 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Great stuff!


Woody January 5, 2012 at 5:34 pm

Reminds me of my trip to Yellowstone last summer. The huge crowds at ever corner really changed that feeling of being in the great outdoors to more of a theme park vibe. Thanks to a little rain cloud, that vibe quickly changed and separated the tourists from the adventurists.


wes January 9, 2012 at 9:53 am

Heh, rain will do that won’t it?


Jarmo @ Arctic Nomad January 6, 2012 at 10:43 am

Yep, the pyramid looks much better without all the people. Last year I went to Tikal ridiculously early and had an amazing view of the morning mist with just two other people; but the view was worth waking up way too early.


wes January 9, 2012 at 9:54 am

Yeah, I’m planning on staying at on-site hotel at Tikal for just that reason — get into the park for sunrise and sunset…


DTravelsRound January 12, 2012 at 5:40 pm

I hate stairs, but am pretty sure I’d love to experience this!


Bama April 2, 2012 at 10:47 pm

I always do the same thing. Wake up as early as I can (by far I always wake up the earliest in every hostel where I have stayed at), go to the place that I want to visit, and enjoy the place for myself before everyone else comes.


Ginger Zoe April 21, 2012 at 1:47 am

I had a vertigo attack on the way down and had to shuffle down on my arse. The Italians thought this was hilarious. But, it still stands out as one of the coolest things we did in the Yucatan.


wes April 21, 2012 at 8:09 am

Awww… That’s a valid method of descent. In some places you practically have to. Glad you had the experience, though — cool place, huh?


Suitcase Stories - Nicole February 17, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Perfect timing for this post – We are going there in 2 weeks! An early wake up will be totally worth it to get a shot like that!


Sarah May 1, 2014 at 5:28 am

Coba is amazing, there is something about being surrounded by all that history and ancient ruins. The view from the top is unforgettable, make you wonder how many more undiscovered ruins there are out there. Chichen is another of my fav places to visit


wes May 3, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Chichen is one I missed! I may have to go back :)