Birding Coba from atop the Ruins

Scanning for Keel-Billed Toucan and Collared Aracari from atop Coba’s pyramid

Maya Ruins, a Toucan, and Great Memories

One aspect of birding blogs that I greatly appreciate are trip reports. I love the virtual tourism and learning about unfamiliar birds, and especially value the tips and suggestions as I plan my own trips. So I’m going to return the favor and use this blog to write up reports myself. 

Our most recent family trip was a 10-day stay in the Yucatan in December 2019 – January 2020. We flew into Cancun, stayed the night at an airport hotel, and then went straight to Cozumel for some snorkeling. After a couple of days on Cozumel, we rented a car in Playa del Carmen and drove to Tulum, where we stayed in a condo for 5 days. A couple of nights and a great day at Chichén Itzá followed, and that was that. Along the way, we visited incredible cenotes (sinkholes filled with crystal clear water, some of them in caves) and Maya ruins, ate yummy food, and practiced our Spanish. And everywhere we went, I always brought my binoculars.

This report covers a day trip I took with my 13-year old son to Cobá Archaeological Zone (a 45-minute drive from Tulum). Cobá is a large site consisting of several groups of ruins . We arrived at 8:00am (opening), parked in the relatively empty lot at the entrance, bought our cheap admission tickets, and headed directly to the site’s premier feature – the pyramid/castle. The site is huge – it’s just over a mile to the pyramid from the gate, and there are miles of wide trails to walk or bike.

One of the main attractions of Cobá is the ability to walk up the stairs to the top of the site’s tallest structure – the Nohoch Mul pyramid. The pyramid is 137 feet tall. The route is steep, and the steps are large and irregular. There’s a rope down the middle of the staircase to help you up and down (note that the stairs have been smoothed by use in the middle and it is actually much easier to go both up and down the further away from the rope you are).

A young birder ascends the steps to birding glory

The birding at Cobá is great (eBirders have recorded over 300 species at the site). Atop the pyramid (go straight there for a less crowded experience), we sat before the carving of the Descending God, snacked, and enjoyed the view. We saw lots of Vaux’s Swifts, a Collared Aracari was calling repeatedly from the jungle and gave us a quick fly by, but the highlight was a distant Keel-billed Toucan. The big yellow throat stood out amongst the vast green jungle, and the swooping approach of the big bird to trees was cool to watch. The backside of the pyramid is not cleared of vegetation (like much of the site), is blocked by a fence, and there were plenty of noises coming from back there that we couldn’t identify. 

Hanging out at the top of an ancient civilization’s pyramid with my son was the highlight of the day. He has a keen eye for movement, a love of adventure, and a quick wit. He’s also 13, and not as thrilled to go birding with his Dad as he was when he was younger, so I treasure these shared moments whenever I get them. That we spotted a lifer toucan from there was almost too good to be true.

Keel-billed Toucan at Coba Ruins

The Far Away Keel-billed Toucan

As the crowd slowly built at the top, we headed down to explore the rest of the site. There are lots of wide trails to follow. Plenty of movement and lots of strange sounds came from the jungle, and we found that getting off the main trails just 10 feet got us more looks at birds. A loud drumming taunted us for 10 minutes until we finally spotted a pair of Lineated Woodpeckers at a nest hole through the foliage. We also saw Green-backed Sparrows rustling on the jungle floor, Red-throated Ant Tanagers that wouldn’t sit still for a photo, a couple of Yellow-billed Caciques, an Olivaceous Woodcreeper, and a Barred Antshrike, plus others. It was the kind of birding that hurts to leave, because you know there are lifers in every direction. But we couldn’t stay all day, and left at 11:00am.

Lineated Woodpecker at Coba Ruins

Pair of Lineated Woodpeckers at a big nest hole

There are also two lagoons/ponds at the site, which added to the diversity of the birdlife we saw. Walking around Lake Coba (which is actually outside the archaeological site), we added a Limpkin, a couple Northern Jacanas, and an Anhinga to our trip list.  If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend a few hours wandering Cobá. The birder won’t be able to put the binoculars down, and the ruins and bike rentals give non-birders plenty to do, 


Anhinga at Lake Coba

Anhinga flying around Lake Coba



Northern Jacana on the shore of Lake Coba