The Maya built many intriguing cities in the Yucatán, but few as grand as Cobá ("water stirred by wind"). Much of the 67-sq.-km (26-sq.-mile) site remains unexcavated. Scholars believe Cobá was an important trade link between the Caribbean coast and inland cities. A 100km (62-mile) sacbé (raised road) through the jungle linked it to Yaxuná, once an important Maya center 50km (31 miles) south of Chichén Itzá. This is the Maya's longest-known sacbé, and at least 50 shorter ones lead from here. An important city-state, Cobá flourished from A.D. 632 (the oldest carved date found here) until after the rise of Chichén Itzá, around 800. Then Cobá faded in importance and population until it was finally abandoned.
Once at the site, keep your bearings -- you can get turned around in the maze of dirt roads in the jungle. Branching off from every labeled path, you'll see unofficial narrow paths into the jungle, used as shortcuts by locals. These are good for birding, but be careful to remember the way back.
The Grupo Cobá holds an impressive pyramid, La Iglesia (the Church). Take the path bearing right after the entrance. Resist the urge to climb the temple; the view is better from El Castillo in the Nohoch Mul group farther back.
Return to the main path and turn right, passing a sign pointing to the restored juego de pelota (ball court). Continuing for 5 to 10 minutes, you'll come to a fork in the road, where you'll notice jungle-covered, unexcavated pyramids to the left and right. At one point, a raised portion of the sacbé to Yaxuná is visible as it crosses the pathway. Throughout the area, carved stelae stand by pathways or lie forlornly in the underbrush. Although protected by crude thatched roofs, most are weatherworn enough to be indiscernible.
The left fork leads to the Nohoch Mul Group, which contains El Castillo. Except for Structure 2 in Calakmul, this is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatán, outreaching El Castillo at Chichén Itzá and the Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal. From the top, you can see unexcavated, jungle-cloaked pyramids poking through the forest canopy all around. Climbing the Castillo was forbidden for a short time as archaeologists determined that all the traffic wasn't disturbing the pyramid's inner temples. Climbing had resumed in late 2009.
The right fork (more or less straight on) goes to the Conjunto Las Pinturas, whose main attraction is the Pyramid of the Painted Lintel, a small structure with traces of its original bright colors above the door. You can climb up for a close look.
Admission is 59 pesos, free for children younger than 12. Parking is 50 pesos. Open daily 8am to 5pm. Note: Visit Cobá in the morning or after the heat of the day has passed. Mosquito repellent, drinking water, and comfortable shoes are imperative. Bicycles are available for rent for $3 per hour at a stand just past the entrance. You can also hire a triciclo with driver to carry you around the site; rates start at $10. Clever triciclo drivers also park at Nohuch Mul to carry hot, tired passengers back to the entrance.
In the tropical forest near Cobá, a village of 27 families exists much as their long-ago ancestors did, living in round thatch huts with no electricity, indoor plumbing, or paved roads, gathering plants in the jungle for medicinal and other uses on their way to dip into a hidden cenote, appealing to the gods for successful crops. And every day, the people of Pac Chen open their homes to as many as 80 tourists who want to know what Maya village life is in the 21st century.
The only way to visit Pac Chen is on trips with Alltournative (www.alltournative.com; tel. 877/437-4990 in the U.S., or 984/803-9999), an ecotour company that works with villagers to help them become self-sustaining. Farming continues, but tourism income allows them to survive without burning their land to squeeze out the last remaining nutrients.
The arrangement is a boon to tourists, too. On your own, it would be pretty well impossible to walk into a Maya village and be ushered through the jungle and lowered into a cenote or to glide through the forest canopy on a zip line, kayak a lagoon full of birds, eat lunch cooked by village women and receive a copal-incense blessing from a village elder for a safe trip home. The Maya Encounter tour costs $139 for adults and $109 for children
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.