Climbing Mexico’s Tallest Mayan Pyramid at Coba

Looking up the Steps of Something That Isn't the Tallest Pyramid

Looking up the Steps of Something That Isn’t the Tallest Pyramid

Chichen Itza may be the most famous ancient Mayan city in the Yucatan Pennisula. It may have garnered all the big titles, like New World Wonder, but that doesn’t change the fact that the older Mayan site of Coba, the region’s capital before Chichen Itza, boasts Mexico’s most monstrous pyramid.

The Ancient Pyramid stands at the far end of dirt paths cutting through dense jungle and between dilapidated structures over 1000 years old. And, unlike the pristine Temple of Kukulkan (aka El Castillo) at Chichen Itza, this pyramid still offers up its 120-step ascent for those willing to climb.

Standing at the foot, it seemed…really tall. Definitely dangerous.

Climbing the Ancient Pyramid

The steps were worrisome, eroded in some places, appropriately crumbling for a ruin site. Running up the middle of the staircase, someone had had the good sense to install a massive rope to assist some of the less carefree climbers. Whatever the case, about mid-way, most of us were stopping for a breather, and my legs were performing that weird muscle twitching thing you get after a long run.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The Coba ruins are UNESCO World Heritage site, full of ancient structures to explore, surrounded by lush jungle, and home of the tallest Mayan pyramid in Mexico.
  • Coba still offers a more hands on (or foots on) experience of a Maya ruin site, where visitors can clamber and explore what’s there.
  • Great for history buffs, families, people missing their stationery stair-climbers, and those seeking ruins near Quintana Roo, but with a little less crowd than Chichen Itza.
Stopping for a Breather & a Photo Mid-Way Up

Stopping for a Breather & a Photo Mid-Way Up

Turning around, I discovered a lush, endless expanse of jungle treetops. Also, to my dismay, a storm that had been threatening to soak us was growing nearer and sending bolts of lightning flashing down. I went back to climbing, hoping to reach the top, catch my breath, and descend before the bottom of those ominous clouds fell out. I did not want to go down rocky smooth, uneven, ancient steps in the rain, with mega-watts of electricity flashing around.

By the time I’d taken on all 120 steps and stood atop the pyramid, my legs were pulsing inside and out. I walked gingerly around the platform, checking out the jungle on all sides, and willing myself to basically turn right around. I did not want to get caught by that storm. Many others felt that way: My daring, rope-free descent had me tiptoeing by people terrified of slipping, who’d turned themselves around and were going down by sitting on each step. I thought it was a bit much, too cautious, until another guy doing what I was doing lost his footing and cascaded down five or so stairs. My steps became a little more cautious.

An Afternoon at the Races

The Mayan Limousine

The Mayan Limousine

The drops began shortly after I reached the bottom. One of the great features of Coba is that at the beginning of the trail touts offer wicked fun, either renting a bike to zip along the paths or hiring a “Mayan limousine”, a pedal-powered tuk-tuk. My wife and I had rented bicycles, and her father had gone with the Mayan limousine. All of the site seen, it was time to get back before this storm made for a wet ride home. So, we did what any responsible, respectable adult sightseers would do: Raced.

Weaving through trail traffic, everyone thinking with same stay-dry mindset, we got to see the ruins of Coba one last time in a swift blur through teary-eyed laughter. My legs were still killing me from climbing that pyramid. Still, I highly recommend finishing with a race.


  • We visited Coba on a joint tour with Tulum, a beautiful coastal site with ruins set on a cliff above the Caribbean. It’s easy enough to book a tour, but cheapest to find an agency away from the main drags. Hotels also charge much more.
  • If you’ve been to other Mayan sites, this one is pretty similar, except that you get to climb the pyramid. If that doesn’t interest you, then maybe a bike race will.
  • While not nearly the crowd-drawer that Chichen Itza is, Coba is still a ruin site near Cancun, so lots of tour groups are still around, just not quite as many. Don’t expect complete isolation.

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