A day in ruins

The plan: visit the Mayan ruins of Coba.
The method: roughin’ it. Meaning, don’t do a tour or anything like that, just go.

First off: the pronunciation is “co-BA”, accent on the end, which helps you keep things straight when you talk about Cuba and Coba in the same sentence using your heavy American accent.

Three of us students met up in the morning and boarded the Colectivo. I’ve seen this word written on vans and buses of all shapes and sizes roaming around town, but until today didn’t know how it worked. Apparently it’s as easy as making sure you know the final destination you are aiming for, then you just get on and pay when you get off. We wanted to go to Coba, but were informed the Colectivo would only take us to Tulum.  However, we were advised we should be able to pick up another one in Tulum that would take us to Coba. Fair enough.

The van is not large, and people will pack in much like they might on a Tokyo subway. At least there is air conditioning.

Colectivo 1:

  • type: large van, probably holds 9 comfortably. We fit 12 by my count.
  • Soundtrack: American top-40 interspersed with a few Spanish songs that I assume are the local addition to the pop genre.
  • Added bonus: An air freshener wedged into the vent on the dash spewing sickly-sweet odors that did nothing to cover up the rest of the humanity in the van.

The Colectivos careen down the freeway with a casual disregard for trivial matters like speed limits or lanes.  They stop frequently to drop people off and pick up more people. Some stops are marked, some seem just arbitrarily made up on the side of the road. Regardless, it seems to work just fine. We did stop for gas on the way, which I can’t remember ever doing in public transportation back in the states. But it must happen: cars need gas, right?

Interesting note about gas stations in Mexico: no prices posted. I think this is because the government controls the gas, so you will pay whatever they set as the price and be happy with it.

After 45 minutes we arrived in Tulum. Pretty quickly we were able to pick up another ride. This, however, required a bit of negotiating as the driver wanted more than 3 people in the car if he was to go all the way to Coba. We agreed to pay a bit more instead of waiting around hoping others would show up, but then we acquired around 6-8 more passengers on the way, so we ended up paying the base rate.

Colectivo 2:

  • type: large van.
  • Soundtrack: Driver frequently noisily clearing phlegm from his throat and expectorating out the window.
  • Added bonus: No AC?  Windows down the whole way.

After another 30 minutes or so, we arrived at Coba:

Nothing to see here.
Where do we get in?
Ah, now we are on our way

So, a few things to know about Coba. It is the ruins of an ancient Mayan civilization that experts believe once had over 50,000 inhabitants. They built networks of roads to connect everything. Coba at its heyday covered over 80 square kilometers, and most of the buildings haven’t been found and are still buried in the dense jungle or lost to time. The ruins you get to visit are just a small part (but a very central part) of what Coba used to be.

The first ruins! I must do my tourist duty!
This seems like it was a lot of work, carting around heavy stones. And in this heat!

After the first group of ruins, you come to find out there is much more in store for you, and you’ve got the option to stroll leisurely over the 6 kilometers, or rent bikes. We opted for bikes. Now, I’m quite a bit taller than your average Mexican, so even though I tried to find the largest bike available, it was still a bit of a mismatch.

Objects in picture are smaller than they appear.

I decided to call my bike Charlie. Charlie has seen better days. He passed middle age long ago; his tires are poorly inflated, his paint is peeling, and he squeaks when he runs. He and I were a poor fit to begin with, but over time Charlie exhibited several more behaviors such as an occasional rattle from some indeterminate location that made me wonder if I would break down on the road. However, for all his flaws, he was a faithful and diligent steed.

Check the sweet rides, yo.

Now we were off proper to explore Coba!

The map of Coba. This didn’t help us at all.

While biking around Coba, you will frequently park your bike on the road, then walk around the various ruins.

Exploring. There are many rocks. Stacked on top of each other.
The smooth sides mean this must have been where they rolled stones down on people who ran through. An early game show.
I really REALLY wanted to go inside. I think that’s frowned upon, what with the giant stone slab keeping you from going in and all.
Not a real skull. In case you were concerned.

Sometimes you aren’t sure that you’d seen everything, and you can end up going on some odd little side-paths. For example, we took one such path that quickly diminished to just wilderness:

Secret jungle path! Turns out it lead to a lake.

This ended at a lake, which was cool to see, but since it’s basically in the middle of the jungle none of us were terribly interested in finding out what was IN the lake.  No swimming, moving on.

Eventually you come to the main event: the big pyramid called “Nohoc Mul”. Unlike the more famous pyramid Chichen Itza, you can actually climb up this one, which is one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Coba instead of Chichen.

Time to climb
Action shot.
The view from the top. Rather spectacular
Going down. Slower than going up. The Mayas like steep things, apparently.

After the big pyramid, the other places pale in comparison, so I’d recommend seeing all those things first. However, even if they aren’t so grand and impressive, there’s still just a lot of really beautiful places to explore.

Some very beautiful and tranquil places in Coba

I’ve included a mess more pictures below if you are still interested in seeing more, but that’s the main parts for me. We returned out bikes, walked out of the ruins area, explored the little shops they have set up outside to sell you all the some tourist crap that you’ve seen everywhere else in Mexico, then reversed our travel back to PDC:

Colectivo 3:

  • type: Just a car.  Fit three of us plus driver just fine.
  • Soundtrack: mostly static, interspersed with Spanish guitar.
  • Added bonus: no other passengers joined us.

Colectivo 4:

  • type: large van, again we overstuffed the recommended passenger count.
  • Soundtrack: 80’s butt rock.  Some specific selections: Jump (Van Halen), Made for loving you (Kiss), Can’t live without you (Scorpions), We’re not gonna take it (Twisted Sister), and Whip It (Devo).  How is this a radio station in Mexico?
  • Added bonus: nothing can top the soundtrack.

So, there you have it.  If you are going to Coba, I recommend you ride the colectivo.  It’s cheap, quick, and interesting.  Below are more pictures than you could possibly be interested in.

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