Sidestep from Relaxation – Coba & Tulum Day Trip

It may be the last night of our Mexican getaway, but is it too early to start reminiscing about the trip? I didn’t think so! And since my legs are still feeling the thousands of steps I walked on yesterday’s day trip, now seems like a good time to recap it.

First up is Coba, which is an ancient Mayan site, though perhaps not quite as old you might think, as it dates back to 600-900 AD. I mean, that’s still pretty old, right? The key place to visit there is Nohoch Mul, a 137-foot tall pyramid…in the jungle. And while trekking through the jungle to get to it isn’t as harrowing or dramatic as it may sound, you’ll definitely be in for a lot of walking (or bike-riding) if you want to see it (it wasn’t actually open as a tourist site until 1973 because the surrounding jungle was too thick for people to walk through to reach it). The second-tallest Mayan pyramid in the world, Nohoch Mul has 120 steps, which are open to the public to climb. At the top is a small temple dedicated to Ah-Muzen-Cab, the Mayan god of bees and honey. Since Mexico has no native sugarcane (the ground here is very rocky once you get more than a few inches under the ground), Mayans wanted to make offerings to this god so they could get honey from Mayan honey bees. Really fascinating stuff!

Before we got to climb those 120 steps, we had to actually reach the pyramid. Coba isn’t too far from our hotel and, like many day trips, we traveled via bus. I think we had been driving for a little over an hour by the time we reached the edge of the jungle (we made a 20-minute souvenir/restroom break stop, so I’m not sure exactly what the drive time was), which we then walked through to reach the pyramid. Note that you can rent bikes (to ride yourself) or tricycles (which hold two people and are driven by locals) to get there more quickly, but we didn’t do that. We actually walked directly there, with only one brief stop, as our guide wanted to get us there as quickly as possible, both to avoid bigger crowds and to avoid a little of the heat. Despite the fact that we had a mile-long walk through the jungle, it was actually fairly pleasant. It was very shaded the entire way and there were literally no bugs, both of which I had been worried about! Your mileage may vary obviously, but I’m here to say the walk doesn’t have to be a terrible one. To make it as smooth as possible though, come prepared with good shoes, sunblock, bug spray, and some spare cash if you want to rent a bike or tricycle. You’ll be glad you did!

Arriving at the pyramid, you realize you have quite the task ahead of you if you want to get to the top. To be fair, 120 steps isn’t that terrible when compared to some of the other famous buildings I’ve climbed, like Belfort in Bruges and Notre Dame in Paris (both are over 350 steps), but this is 120 TALL steps, outdoors, pretty steep, with lots of other people walking up on either side of you, and nothing but a single rope “bannister” to assist you. It’s SO worth the climb though! While there isn’t much to see in the temple at the top, you get some breathtaking views all the way around the jungle. Be sure to wear good footwear for the climb (remember how I mentioned that earlier?) and be really careful at the top as there is zero protection around the edges (no railing, no signs, nothing). I saw WAY too many people wearing flips-flops and getting uncomfortably close to the edge at the top. Just be safe, people!

First batch of photos below. Enjoy!

On the bus with our guide, Antonio.

Masks outside the souvenir shop we stopped at.

We made one brief stop shortly after entering the jungle, but otherwise it was straight ahead to the pyramid.

Walking through the jungle.

A stele near the pyramid.

You pretty quickly realize what kind of climb you’re in for as soon as you lay eyes on Nohoch Mul.


In case you want to know a little more about the pyramid, here’s the sign in front of it.

Getting ready to start the walk up.

Up, up, and away!

At the top. As you can see, there’s zero protection from the edge.

An image of the god (he’s upside-down) from the top of the temple.

I made it to the top – woooo!

Me sitting at the top, swinging my feet over 120 steps.

Unusually, you also get to see this shot from behind, courtesy of my friend Melissa.

Oh fine, I’ll take a selfie, too.

You can see how most people go down on their butts, using the rope in the middle as a guide. It’s harder to go down because you have to be really careful not to slip and fall forward.

My friends Melissa and Steve followed the trend of going down on their butts.

After the walk through the jungle, the walk up the pyramid, and the walk back down, we got to walk some more – back to where we started! This walk was a little more scenic though as Antonio stopped us a few times to tell us about some of the other ruins and points of interest we had seen on our first walkthrough, as well as to share some of the rich history of the Mayans. Although I’ve traveled to a number of places and seen several ancient sites, I can’t think of another experience quite like this one, where I’ve been able to walk through a small area and see ruins pop up so frequently. It really was cool!

By the time we reached the edge of the jungle, we were more than ready to rest our feet and get some food, which is exactly what we did, at local restaurant Ki-Hanal. We enjoyed a tasty buffet of local food, including rice, beans, pork, chicken, and beef. And the meal (though not the beverages) were included as part of the price of the day drip, so that was nice. This restaurant is owned by people from the local Mayan community and it’s nice to know we’re able to provide some support back to them as we traipse through their land and visit places important to their history.

Speaking of local Mayans, we had one more stop to make before moving on to Tulum and that was at a local Mayan home. This was the one part of the trip that felt a little bit…weird. Weird in the sense that it felt like we were invading their space to some extent, though hopefully this is something they’re getting some benefit from. We got to see a traditional welcome dance, learn about their daily life, eat food from their kitchen, and see a colony of Mayan bees they maintain. I was happy to have the chance to share a tip with them as we left and I hope others do the same when they visit.

Before learning about Tulum, why not look at some more photos?

Antonio standing on the site of the old Mayan road that led straight to Chichen Itza, 62 miles away.

A photo of the court where Mayans played their ball game, the rules of which aren’t known today.

A carving from the ball court.

This smaller building is the Conjunto Pinturas (Paintings Complex).

The dark section is part of the original stucco that would have covered at least part of this pyramid.

More information about this ruin.

The restaurant where we had our lunch.

Watching the welcome dance outside the Mayan house.

Antonio with the head of the household, who also welcomed us in his native language.

In the kitchen (the building in the picture above), two Mayan women made corn tortillas for small tacos they offered us.

The tacos were filled with a smear of squash seeds and were really tasty.

Learning about the bees.

These stingless Mayan honeybees create honeycombs that are different from what we see from honeybees in the US.

So, what a fun day, right? That wasn’t the end of it! Although everything described above took the majority of the day, we still had Tulum to see, so it was back in the bus for us. Tulum, the site of a Mayan walled city, is only about a half-hour from Coba, so we weren’t in the bus for too long (but definitely long enough for some people to doze off). Everyone was understandably tired, so I think that made our time in Tulum a little less exciting, but we still enjoyed it.

Since I didn’t plan this trip, I didn’t go into it with a ton of knowledge of what we would be seeing. With Tulum, I was thinking we were just going to see one main site/ruin, like we had with Coba, but it’s a whole (former) city of ruins. As a bonus, these ruins are right next to the ocean, so there were some great views to see (beyond the actual ruins). Walking into the archaeological site where the ruins are means walking from the bus through what almost felt like a small amusement park in terms of the random shops, restaurants, and other touristy attractions (including a ride, Tulum Tower), which was actually helpful because we wanted to buy a few little trinkets (Scott and I try to get a magnet from each city we visit, so I picked up a couple). Note that the vendors were a little more aggressive here, in terms of trying to get a sale out of you. As you may have noticed in some of the photos, I was wearing a t-shirt with the Batman logo on it, so they kept saying things like “¡Hola Batman!” to me before offering to sell me a hat or some other random souvenir. I mean, they’re easily ignored (especially if you’re wearing sunglasses – then they can’t make eye contact!), but something to be aware of nonetheless, especially if you’re susceptible to people asking you to buy things.

Once we got to the ruins, our experience was a little different than it had been in the jungle, in that we separated from the main group. We didn’t intend to do that, but Antonio (guide) stepped to the side while everyone was given their tickets and never told us to stop and wait, so we kept going. That wasn’t a problem in this case as he had told us on the bus that we didn’t have to stay together and could all meet back at the bus at the designated time. As we were kind of worn out by this point anyway, the three of us were happy to go at our own pace (meaning, much faster than the rest of the group would have). We did end up crossing paths with the group anyway, but it was after we had seen most of the ruins, so we continued doing our own thing. We finished in plenty of time to wander back through the shops before getting back to the bus with a few minutes to spare. Huzzah!

So how were the ruins? Since we weren’t with the main group, we didn’t get all the details on the history of the old city and, to be honest, weren’t really in the mood to stop and read every sign (though I took pictures of several of them!), so we didn’t get the full understanding of everything, but the buildings were still really interesting. And there are so many to look at! We did get hit with a few sprinkles as well, so that put a bit of a damper on things, but didn’t kill the fun, especially since they didn’t last long. And the views of the ocean were great! So definitely worth spending a couple hours there!

Okay, time for the last round of photos.

The sign near the entrance to the ruins.

Looking towards the ruin on the clifftop.

The sign said these three buildings were mini-temples.

You can see how the clouds started to gather in the sky by this time, but it was still mostly sunny around us.

View of the beach. We saw lots of people in swimsuits, so there was some path to the beach to go swimming.

Some of the ruins are pretty large!

These are the ruins of El Castillo (castle).

Another shot of the beach.

One last photo before heading out.

We were definitely ready to go back to the resort by the time we got back to the bus! This tour originated in Cancun, so some folks had a longer bus ride back (about an hour), but since our resort was the last pick-up spot, we were the first ones to be dropped off, so we only had a 20-25 minute ride back. The timing worked out perfectly and we got back about 35 minutes earlier than we thought we would, giving us more time to relax and get ready for dinner.

Overall, this trip was WELL worth the money. According to our booking, it was “valued” at $175, but we only paid the “service fee” of $43.75. Although that $175 price may have been somewhat inflated to make it look like the price we actually paid was a better deal, it was definitely worth more than what we paid either way. I tried to find the same itinerary online so I could link to it, but I only found a general mention of it on the resort’s website and some similar tours through other companies. Regardless of how you book it, both Coba and Tulum are well worth visiting!

It’s now the morning of our flight and we’ve got a couple of hours left before we have to head to the airport. After a nice breakfast and a walk on the beach, we’ve been packing up and relaxing (and blogging, obviously). This has been a great trip! I think I’ve still got another post or two to write about it though, so check back for those (including a review of the resort) soon.

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About thejeffelston

Based in St. Paul, MN and love to blog about travel. Comment, follow, and join me on my journey!