Traveling to a new place during a global pandemic presents challenges. On the plus side, there are far fewer people to contend with, prices are generally lower, and even outdoor spaces are scrupulously cleaned. However, there are quite a few drawbacks. When we first arrived in Playa del Carmen, all of Mexico’s archaeological sites were closed. We were thrilled a week in when the Covid transmission threat level decreased, and they were able to open to reduced crowds. As we researched our options, Coba stood out as the coolest option for our family of adventurers.
Coba is about a 90 minute drive southwest of Playa del Carmen. We rented a car, and highly recommend others do the same to explore the Yucatan peninsula. The roads are safe and easily navigable. While there are innumerable tours that visit the sights, you are unable to control the itinerary and pace. We were grateful that we weren’t locked into someone else’s schedule as we saw tour groups rushed through locales or sitting around in midday sun waiting for the next stop.
Like most tourist attractions, it pays to be at the gates right as they open. We were one of a handful of cars in the parking lot, and had the grounds to ourselves. We bypassed hiring a guide, and headed straight into the jungle. Coba is spread out over 80 km2 so while you can hike it on foot, it’s smarter to rent a bike or hire a pedicab. We walked straight up the path, past the ruins we started to see and made a beeline for the bike rental. It costs a few dollars to rent a bike. You pay at the small booth and then have your pick of dozens of bicycles. We found it was difficult to adjust the seats, so we had to try a few out before we found bikes that would work for us. Once our biker gang was formed, we raced to be the first at the pyramid, following signs for Nohoch Mul.
Our main reason for choosing Coba is its spread out jungle setting and because it is one of the only Mayan ruin sites where you can still climb the pyramid. It is 137 ft. tall with a stunning view over the treetops. Well, it looked stunning in pictures. We raced past other ruins, determined to have the pyramid to ourselves, and were sorely disappointed to find that climbing was restricted due to Covid. The site is almost 2000 years old, so the safest way to descend is to hold onto a central rope that is usually connected to the side of the pyramid. It would be nearly impossible to keep that rope sanitized and maintain social distance, so to keep people safe, it was removed and climbing was prohibited.
Despite our initial disappointment, we soon found many things to love about Coba. We felt a little like archaeologists as we came upon groups of ruins nestled into the jungle. Coba is notable for its stone walkways connecting buildings and its many intact steles, where you can still clearly see engraved images. Coba was once home to 50,000 people and rivaled the better known Chichen Itza both in size and importance. For hundreds of years these two cities competed, with Chichen Itza eventually rising to greater power. If you really like to know the history of a site such as this, I highly recommend hiring a guide or buying a guide book in one of the small gift shops near the entrance. The explanatory panels were few and far between and didn’t give us the type of interesting details that bring a historic place to life. Our teenagers were thrilled to get the short version and spend time instead climbing over smaller structures and marvelling at the wildlife around us.
The animal life was an unexpected bonus of this location. We watched millions of army ants work their way across the forest floor, caught adorable toads, and admired butterflies as they floated through the dappled light. I’m a little obsessed with the Seek app, by iNaturalist, which helps you identify plants and animals using your phone camera, and found several new species on this outing.
Coba was neat, but it was HOT. As the sun climbed higher in the sky and the tour groups arrived on site, we decided to get some lunch at one of the nearby restaurants, El Cocodrilo, and then cool off in a cenote. Cenotes, fresh water sinkholes that are sacred to the Mayan, are one of the major highlights of the Yucatan, and we were impressed by the marked differences in each one we visited.
About a ten minute drive away are a group of three cenotes, all completely underground. Cenotes Tamcach-Ha, Choo-Ha and Multum-Ha are on the same property, but you pay depending on how many you wish to visit. We have found that we can spend hours just hanging out and exploring a single cenote, so we decided to visit just two: Tamcach-Ha and Choo-Ha.
Tamcach-Ha was an instant family favorite. Our kids love launching themselves from high cliffs into water and this cenote has two platforms; one at 5 meters (~15 ft) and the other at 10 meters (~30 ft). You enter the cenote by descending a steep spiral staircase which ends on a large rock submerged in about a foot of frigid water. There were only a few ledges for towels or bags, so don’t count on having a dry or warm spot. Because this cenote is completely underground, the water does not get heated by the sun. Also, since the only opening is a hole in the ceiling, we found it was a little challenging to breathe, like when we’ve been at high altitude. We all took the plunge from the lower platform, and the boys showed off their daredevil skills jumping from the high one. As they went up the stairs for more thrills, Jeff and I swam off to explore the perimeter of the cavern. Soon after Ryan donned his snorkeling gear and practiced free diving, a skill that came in handy when one of the locals jumped from a platform and dropped his phone. He and his friends jumped in again and again, the phone appearing deceptively close in the crystal clear water, but they just couldn’t reach it. Ryan offered to help and after a few attempts was able to recover the phone. We were oblivious to all of this occurring until we heard chants of “Ryan, Ryan, Ryan” echoing off the cavern walls. Confused, we swam right over. The crowd was quick to hail Ryan as a hero and they told us how much they loved our son. It’s always fun to make a local connection. We decided to leave Tamcach-Ha on that high note, soak up some of the sun’s warmth, and head to the second cenote.
Choo-Ha is also accessed by a staircase descending into a hole in the earth, but though this one is shorter, we still needed to be careful, walking slowly and holding onto the rails. You have to shower before entering a cenote, and the stairs underground are always wet. The combination is a slippery one. We witnessed a woman fall again and again as she climbed down in front of us. Choo-Ha was completely different from Tamcach-Ha. The ceilings are much lower and there are many rocks, little passageways, and nooks to swim in and around. Our family became intrepid explorers disappearing into crevices and ducking around stalactites. Where other cenotes were perfect for ziplining, cliff jumping, or incredible snorkeling, this one was a playground. Some of our most lasting memories on this vacation were made in this cenote, showing each other new finds and laughing. There were only a few other people sharing the water with us and after about fifteen minutes we had the place to ourselves. We have been so well trained in our visits to caves and caverns not to touch the stalactites or stalagmites, but here, you can’t avoid them.
An hour here was enough to leave us all a little cold and we were worn out from our full day exploring. One of our favorite things to do when we travel is sample local treats, so on the way home we stopped at a small roadside shop to buy some snacks and drinks to give us energy for the trip home. A day spent exploring the Mayan world made us excited to check out other archaeological sites and start deciding on which cenote we should visit next.