What goes up must come down and when it comes to scaling the tallest Mayan pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula, climbing up is definitely the easy part.
As I stood on the top of the Nohoch Mul ruin in the archaeological zone of Cobá in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, I realized just how dizzyingly tall this massive pyramid is.
Rumour has it that on a clear day you can see Chichen Itza, which is almost 90 km away.
And even though that sounded impossible, I strained my eyes trying to see if there was any truth to the tales.
Unfortunately, I had forgotten to ask our guide in which direction I should be looking and I wasn’t about to climb back down the 120 steep narrow steps of the ruin to find the answer.
Cobá is one of the best archeological sites in the Yucatan Peninsula for visitors to experience.
Its close proximity to the popular resort areas of Cancun and Riviera Maya make the site an easy day trip for many visitors to this region of Mexico, but the thing that really sets the site apart is the fact that you can still climb on the Nohoch Mul pyramid, the second tallest pyramid in the Mayan world.
Tulum and Chichen Itza, the two other major archeological sites in the region, are more fully excavated than Cobá, but the ruins are roped off and visitors are no longer allowed to climb the pyramids.
A visit to Cobá is also an opportunity to see archeologists in action, because the site is still being actively excavated.
First settled between 100 BC and 100 AD, by about 900 AD the city had approximately 50,000 residents and more than 6,ß500 temples.
There are hundreds of mounds visible as you look out from the top of Nohoch Mul and each one is a Mayan structure waiting to be uncovered.
It was not until the 1970s that the Cobá site excavation began and with an area of over 80 square km, it will be likely be many years before the entire site is unearthed.
As part of a tourist initiative, the Mexican government cleared the jungle and built a road to make Cobá more accessible. This has helped to make Cobá one of the most popular archeological sites in the Yucatan.
After purchasing our tickets, we made our way along a footpath to the edge of the first excavated ruin, a large pyramid known as Grupo Coba.
We then walked through a Mayan ball court and found ourselves at a bike rental operation where we rented bicycles to peddle through the ruins on our own.
All the bikes were a bit rickety, but I felt I had really scored when I managed to nab one with a basket and a bell. My family did not share my enthusiasm for them.
It is nearly three km from the entrance to the Nohoch Mul pyramid and along the way we passed a number of pyramids, elaborately carves stone tablets and other artifacts.
We also saw the remains of many ancient Mayan roads, or sacbes, that the Mayans used to transport goods.
The ruins share their space with vines and jungle vegetation and we saw birds, butterflies, monkeys and Mayan stingless bees as we peddled along the road.
When we reached Nohoch Mul, our guide gave us the option of climbing to the top or relaxing.
While he took it easy, the rest of us grabbed the heavy rope that goes up the middle of the steps and climbed the 120 steep uneven steps to reach the top.
The panoramic view was worth the effort and it was somewhat surreal to know we were standing in the same spot where Mayan priests performed rituals 1,500 years earlier.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the ancient Mayan priests were ever nervous about getting back down those steps.
If you go:
• Cobá is offered as a day tour from the resort areas of Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Riviera Maya, and most hotels and resorts have a tour desk where you can purchase a group tour to the archaeological site starting at about $75 per adult, including lunch. Most tours take about 10 hours from start to finish. Wear good walking shoes, sunscreen and hats, and bring water bottles.
• Rather than take a group tour offered through our resort, we arranged a private guided tour with a Cancun company called Make Your Own Tour (www.makeyourowntour.com). Our full-day private tour included transportation to and from our resort, a bicycle tour of the Mayan ruins of Coba, swimming at the Tamcach-Ha cenote, a Mayan lunch, a Mayan village visit, and a tour of a nature reserve. Prices vary depending on the number of tour participants and the attractions you are visiting, but for our group of four it was $100 per person. We highly recommend our tour guide Carlos Aleman. He spoke excellent English and was passionate about archeology and Mayan culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 01-52-998-845-3759. You may also contact the company at email@example.com.
• There are plenty of great resorts in this region of Mexico. We stayed at the Sandos Playacar Beach Resort and Spa, which is on a large white sand beach in the Playacar area of Riviera Maya, within walking distance of Playa del Carmen, a bustling beach town with a wide variety of restaurants, shopping, bars, and nightclubs. Rates start at $210 per night for two people all-inclusive and package rates that include air and transfers are available with several tour operators. More info can be found at www.sandos.com.
• For more information about visiting this region of Mexico, check out the official tourism website at www.rivieramaya.com.
Riviera Maya’s top three archeological sites
• Tulum (1200-1520 AD): Of all the ruined cities that remain to tell the tale of the Mayan civilization, Tulum is one of the most fascinating. Located 130 km south of Cancun, it is the only Mayan site that overlooks the Caribbean Sea, the only walled city in the Mayan Empire, and one of the few Mayan cities known to be inhabited when the conquistadors arrived in 1518. You can visit these ruins on a tour or on your own using bus transportation. Admission is about $5 and it will cost about $25 more if you want to hire a private guide. It will take about two hours to see the ruins. Be sure to bring swim wear and towels (there is a very nice beach at the base of the ruins).
• Cobá (400 – 1000 AD): Located 150 km from Cancun and 45 km from Tulum, the highlight of these ruins is the Nohoch Mul Pyramid, the tallest Mayan Pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula.
• Chichen Itza (300-900AD, 1000-1250 AD): This is one of Mexico’s most important archeological sites and was for centuries the political, religious and military centre of the Mayans. The city thrived from about 300 to 900 AD, was abandoned, and then was re-established under Toltec rule. The Castillo is the best-known structure at the site. Located 195 km west of Cancun, it’s best to visit this ruin as part of a tour.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.