When we started planning our trip to Mexico, the top thing I wanted to do was see the Mayan pyramids. I’ve never seen pyramids in person, Mayan or Egyptian, and I love learning the history and cultural significance behind ancient archaeological sites.
Lucky for me, we saw not one but two over our week in the Riviera Maya! All four of these are within a few hours’ drive of Cancun or Playa del Carmen. Here’s my thoughts on why you should visit Coba and Chichen Itza, plus a few essential tips for planning your visit.
Coba is an ancient Mayan city, and it’s most noted for being one of the few Mayan pyramids that’s still open to the public to climb. The ruins are pretty extensive: there’s several pyramid structures, tunnels, ballgame fields, and other buildings. Private tour guides are available everywhere, but there’s also a few signs indicating the purposes of each building.
The “main” pyramid (AKA the one you can climb, the tallest one, don’t skip this) is about 1.5 km from the entrance, but you don’t have to walk. There are pedicabs/rickshaws available, or you can rent a bike to get around. We opted to walk – near-daily buffets meant we looked for every chance to get some exercise (but who’s counting calories on vacation, right?!) and the walk isn’t too long.
A bonus of walking was WE SAW MONKEYS!!!! Unfortunately I couldn’t get a good shot of them through the jungle, but three or four monkeys scampered through the treetops parallel to our path for a few minutes. It was adorable, and the whole family got excited as little kids. We also saw iguanas less than ten feet away – a more unsurprising sight, but still cool.
Climbing Coba is no small task. Standing at 137 feet high, it’s the tallest of the main four pyramids in the Mayan Riviera. The climb can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes, depending on your speed (and the speed of those in front of you). But don’t rush up it: look around as you go! If you dare, that is: there’s no safety measures other than a rope bolted along the center of the steps.
The tree line ends about halfway up, so when you reach the top it feels much higher than 137 feet. You can see some of the other ruins, lakes, and jungle as far as the eye can see. There’s not much at the top: a small building, potentially some kind of altar, and a platform big enough for those brave enough to make the climb to crowd around each other taking photos of the fantastic views.
Making our way down the 120 massive stone steps takes a lot longer, but once you get to the bottom, look back up at what you just climbed! It’s pretty crazy that Coba is still open for tourists to climb, so if you’re in the area, climbing Coba is a must!
We came across a guided tour of Chichen Itza that allowed us to enter the park right after it closed. For two hours, we got to wander the ruins nearly by ourselves in the light of a truly gorgeous sunset. It was such a different experience than it would’ve been in during the tourist-choked daytime, and gave us a sense of the majesty and scale without the hubbub of crowds and hawkers pressing against us at every turn. I cannot recommend this enough! Go at twilight if you can – it’s 100% worth it.
Chichen Itza, one of the largest cities in the area from the 600’s-900’s AD and is one of the most recognized symbols of Mayan culture. It’s one of the seven wonders of the modern world, which brings my count on that list up to three! I’ve also been to the Colosseum and Great Wall of China. But honestly, who makes these lists? The more I look into it, the more lists I find. They’re fun, but who decides these things? Anyway, tangent over.
Two sides of the famous pyramid have been restored to its original structure, and two have been left as is. Our guide told us that the pyramid would’ve been brightly colored as well, not the regal gray of ancient as we see it now. That reminded me of how so many European cathedrals have been restored but not repainted, creating a more somber effect than its original inhabitants would’ve experienced.
After taking the majesty of the pyramid, we explored the surrounding ruins. Several temples surround the area, including one with hundreds of columns. These used to support a roof, but now they stand as silent sentries to the ruins. Hundreds of carvings cover the walls and columns, telling stories and celebrating the gods worshipped at these temples.
If you want to experience the grandeur of a Mayan pyramid, go to Chichen Itza.
The ruins of Tulum are more fortress than most: the city had walls on all sides not facing the ocean. Tulum is probably the most popular of the ruins because it’s the closest one to Cancun and Playa del Carmen. It’s also right along the coast, making the views stunning. However, we skipped this one in favor of Coba and Chichen Itza because it’s the most tourist-choked and the others offered unique opportunities.
Ek Balam‘s architecture looks somewhat more preserved than other Mayan pyramids. It’s distinctive angular shape stands out, especially when compared to the more recognized Mayan pyramids of Coba and Tulum. Ek Balaam is not far from Chichen Itza – only about 15 minutes out of the way driving from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. If we hadn’t done a pre-arranged trip, we’d have stopped on our way to explore. Guess we’ll have to check it out next time!
I loved exploring Mayan pyramids! If you’re planning a trip to the Mayan Riviera, which pyramids are you going to see??
Opinions are my own & I didn’t receive compensation for my writing. The links above contain affiliate links, which means I get a few cents (at no extra cost to you) if you book or buy something via that link. This helps me keep costs down & posts up! All images copyright Teaspoon of Nose.