Nohoch Mul pyramid, Cobá – Image courtesy of Ken Thomas/Wikimedia Commons
The ancient Maya city of Cobá flourished from around 632 AD (the oldest carved date found here) until about 1000 AD, after which the city steadily declined until it was finally finally abandoned about the time the Spanish conquered the peninsula around 1550.
Older than much of Chichén Itzá and larger than Tulum, Cobá offers 6700ha of scenic ruins scattered around five lakes and crowded with thick forest.
It boasts the tallest pyramid of the Yucatan Peninsula, the Nohoch Mul.
The ruins are divided into three separate groups: the Cobá Group, whose pyramids are clustered around a sunken patio and include a 24m-high temple dedicated to the rain god, Chaac; the Chumuc Mul Group, mainly unexcavated except for the principle pyramid, which is covered with the remains of brightly painted stucco motifs; and the Nohoch Mul Group, which features the Nohoch Mul pyramid – the tallest in Cobá. Beyond the Nohoch Mul Group, sits El Castillo and the remains of a ball court.
For panoramic views over this ancient Mayan site, climb the 120 stone steps to the summit of the weather worn 42m-high El Castillo pyramid, which forms part of the Nohoch Mul Group.
Come early in the morning when the site is less crowded, listen to the shriek of spider monkeys and watch colonies of army ants parading down ancient pathways before disappearing into the dense forest.
Given the size of the site it’s best to hire a guide. Consider also hiring a bicycle, available for rent for $3 per hour at a stand just past the entrance. You can also hire a triciclo with driver to carry you around the site for around $8.
Located in the forest near Cobá sits the village of Pac Chen, where more than 120 people exist much as their ancestors did, living in round thatch huts with no electricity, indoor plumbing or paved roads.
The villagers primarily make their living farming pineapple, beans and plantains, and still pray to the gods for good crops.
The only way to visit Pac Chen is to sign up for a tour with Alltournative (www.alltournative.com), an ecotour company based in Playa del Carmen. The company shares the profits and works with villagers to help them become self-sustaining, and has given them an alternative to hunting and logging. No more than 80 tourists are allowed to visit on any given day.
The half-day tour also includes a trek through the jungle, where you can zip-line through the forest canopy, rappel down the cavelike sides of a cenote into a cool underground lagoon, kayak across a lagoon full of wild birds and eat Mayan dishes such as grilled achiote (annatto seed) chicken, fresh tortillas, beans and watermelon.
Location: 168km southwest of Cancún, 90km east of Chichen Itza and 44km northwest of Tulum
Admission: Entrance US$4.5, taxi-bike US$8; bike rental US$3; Pac Chen Maya Encounter Tour US$129
Hours: Daily 8am-5pm