sacbe yucatan peninsula google earth.
chac ne chamber steve mellard
roller 1934 expedition alfonso villa
restored portion of sacbe 2016 steve mellard
stelae located on sacbe alfonso villa
sacbe side wall
sacbe platform from ground level 2016 steve mellard
sacbe as private road 2016 steve mellard
platform 1934 expedition alfonso villa
stucco/plaster residue on side walls 1934 alfonso villa .
chac ne pyramid steve mellard
stelae located on sacbe 1934 alfonso villa
platform side view from sacbe 2016 steve mellard
locating stela/marker 6
Explorations of, and Observations on,
the Coba-Yaxuna Sacbe
The Coba-Yaxuna Sacbe is the longest known ancient, raised stone road in the Maya World. It stretches about 62 miles/100kms across the Yucatan Peninsula on an east/west axis between the two sites, and is thought to date from the Late Classic (600-850 CE). While this sacbe and others have been reported on, the engineering involved in its construction, and the reasoning behind it, has received scant attention from modern researchers.
This sacbe is by no means a winding footpath through the forest. The roadway, when on level ground, appears to be raised a minimum of 16-18 inches/40-45 cm in height over varying terrain, and is about 32 feet/10 meters wide. This width is about the same as a typical two-lane modern road. When the sacbe crosses wide, deep ditches, and other severely uneven areas, the roadway is raised, sometimes as high as 8 feet/2.5 meters. The sacbe has long stretches of straight sections with occasional angular adjustments. These dimensions are not unique to this particular sacbe, but appear to follow the general plan of other sacbeob (plural) throughout the Yucatan. It should be noted though that recent LiDAR images show the sacbe is not as straight as originally thought.
To get an idea on the huge amount of labor necessary to construct this roadway through the heart of the Yucatan forest, I consulted with local surveyor, T.L. Riggs PLS PSM, surveyor of record for the ancient Native American Indian site in Miami known as the Miami Circle. His calculations depict a level of operation on a massive scale. It would take 1,000 laborers working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, nearly two years to construct this project.
This would include leveling the forest; digging out limestone slabs from numerous nearby quarries to create the minimum 18 inch/45 cm high sidewalls (the depth of which has not been measured); transporting the slabs to the roadway; and then filling in the approximate 32 foot/10 meter wide space in between. Also included would be the gathering and preparation of food and water to supply this immense workforce in the remote forest.
Other smaller sacbeob have been identified by researchers as being surfaced with a smooth stucco. The surface of the sections of the Coba-Yaxuna Sacbe explored, while level, is broken up into small rock due to centuries of forest cover. An analysis has not been made to determine if any of the surface rubble includes small pieces of stucco. However, if this was also the case of the Coba-Yaxuna Sacbe it would have entailed an additional, and significant amount of manpower and resources to produce and apply. The figures given also do not reflect the workforce needed to maintain the road year-round in a tropical environment. Interesting questions for researchers.
There are north-south modern roads that cross the ancient sacbe about every 6-13 miles or so. The sacbe today is in an overgrown and forgotten state, in a generally uninhabited area, though it is likely to be mostly intact.
I was able to penetrate the forest on three occasions with the aid of local guides and explore sections of the sacbe. The first exploration was in 2016, and we hiked the sacbe for about 3 miles/4.8 km eastward from the heavily overgrown site of Yaxuna before the way became impenetrable.
We turned back and tried to re-enter it from the Tekom road that crosses the sacbe about 6 miles/10 km from Yaxuna and to complete that stretch of the sacbe back towards Yaxuna. We were only able to cut our way in maybe 1 mile/1.6 km before it too became impassible.
An attempt was made to make our way the other direction eastward towards Coba, but after a relatively short stretch we were turned back by the sharp eye of my guide when he noticed an Africanized killer bee nest in the middle of the sacbe. He refused to proceed any further, and I had no objection. These nests, of which I came across another one at the seldom visited site of Kuluba, are to be avoided at all costs.
I tried to locate another section of the sacbe south of the town of Chankom, but no one there had any idea of its existence. After a diligent search along the sides of the road out of town I could not locate the whereabouts of the sacbe. I decided that I would need to do more extensive research if I were to proceed further, and left any additional exploration for a future return.
Earlier on my initial recon of the sacbe, I had passed a crossing of it just south of the town of Tixcacalcupul. The sacbe was identified by a crude hand-written sign. I stopped to inspect it and it seemed to penetrate in towards the west for a fair distance being used as a private roadway. The portion to the east ran about 20 feet/6 meters and abruptly ended in dense forest. Both sides of the road had barbed wire fences and “no trespassing” signs.
An interesting observation that I made while exploring the short distance of the sacbe is that at approximate 1.5 mile/2.4 km intervals, raised platforms on both sides of the sacbe and with what may be the remains of low walls are to be found. What these platforms were used for has not been reported on. It is possible that they could have been a sort of way station for either rest, trade or religious purposes.
Another, and more intriguing proposal could be that they were also runner relay stations to carry messages or small parcels between the two sites. After speaking with amateur runners it is estimated that a message could be transported between Coba and Yaxuna through the heart of the Yucatan, a distance of 62 miles, in less than 5 hours!
My next visits along the sacbe occurred in February/March 2023 starting from the opposite end of the sacbe in Coba Village, where I enlisted the services of a guide and machetero. We were able to hike in a few miles/km on each visit. The sacbe here is used by hunters and farmers, so as opposed to the Yaxuna trek there is a semblance of a trail, though at times severely overgrown and blocked by fallen trees. My guide pointed out poisonous plants and alerted us when to detour off the sacbe due to hanging wasp nests. The height of the sacbe here was often around 4 feet/1.3 meters, and sometimes higher. The stonework was impressive.
There are numerous small mounds seen throughout this area. One site of interest is known as Chac Ne (red tail), supposedly named after a species of poisonous snakes that inhabit the area. It is located at about km 2.5. This site straddles the sacbe on both its north and south sides, but offset by around 98 feet/30 meters. Each section is similar in design being set on a platform raised to the level of the sacbe, and measuring about 61 feet/20 meters square. A small pyramid mound of around 10 feet/3 meters is set on one side of the platform with a long, low mound on the opposite end. There is an intact corbel vaulted chamber visible through an opening on the south platform pyramid. We found what may have been a fallen stela. The dimensions seemed correct, and the top was rounded, though we did not try to uncover it. Other small groups of mounds were encountered that were located very close to the sacbe, but not attached. Every so often a low, ruined wall extended across the sacbe, its purpose unclear, but according to a report mentioned below was most likely a later construction.
The second March hike picked up where we left off by entering the sacbe from a lengthy side trail. Again, numerous mounds were seen close to, but not attached to the sacbe. An impressive pyramid of some 16 feet/5 meters in height was encountered that sits right upon the sacbe. Its length extends about 65 feet/20 meters down the sacbe. A climb to the summit did not reveal any traces of a temple structure. Parts of the pyramid base still retains some nice finished walls. A second, attached structure extends out to the south.
Further along the sacbe at around km 6 we came to an area of several mounds, those on the north side forming a rectangular, sunken plaza against the sacbe. The site has been identified as Oxkindzonot. The area was severely overgrown and we were unable to locate the remains of standing architecture that had once been reported on. We continued onward for another kilometer or two before turning back.
The highlight of the hike was the finding of one of the glyphic stelae/markers that are spaced at intervals along this end of the sacbe. It was found lying face up to the elements on top of the sacbe. Unfortunately, it has been knocked over and broken in half, with the glyphs now entirely eroded. A return visit to hike the sacbe out to the sites of Hay-Dzonot and Multul are being planned.
In 2018 I came across an informative report by Alfonso Villa R., who had explored the entire length of the sacbe back in 1934. It took him 22 days, with 12 machete wielding laborers, to hack his way across. He includes a finding by J. Eric Thompson that determined the top fill to be a mixture of fine sascab, which is a soft limestone conglomerate, and a lime plaster. An underlying layer of coarse sascab appears to have been compressed by a large stone roller which Villa discovered on top of the sacbe. This roller has recently been moved to a museum. Villa reports traces of a coating of lime plaster on the side walls as well. He also reported on a number of small stelae containing glyphs imbedded in the sacbe which were, unfortunately, to eroded to decipher. A newly released report by the renowned epigrapher David Stuart, however, has deciphered a glyph at position A2 on each marker that reads “SAK-BIH-hi”, a Ch’olan form of the Yucatek word sakbeh (sacbe). Numerals have been previously identified as well.
This all brings me to the main reason for my exploration of this ancient sacbe: Why! What was the purpose of this extraordinary output of resources and labor? Aside from a cenote (natural well) roughly midway between the two sites, no other natural resources have been discovered that flank or connect to either side of the sacbe.
The previously mentioned 1934 report mentions a number of small sites that would explain the angular deviations of the sacbe, but would certainly have been secondary to a main purpose. It has also been suggested that the sacbe was a pilgrimage route. But why a raised causeway and not just a path cut through the forest?
Coba was a major Classic Maya site that controlled a vast region on the east coast of Yucatan. It reached its apogee in the Late Classic (600-850 CE). Sacbeob have been discovered that go out from Coba in a number of directions. A 12 mile/22kms sacbe connects to the small site and cenote of Ixhil in the southwest. Another, and possibly more important sacbe leads towards the southeast in the direction of the significant coastal trade sites of Tulum, Xel Ha and Xcaret 27 miles/43kms away. Others run to the north. All of them though are much shorter than the Coba-Yaxuna Sacbe, and in any event do not appear to have been studied in any detail outside of one or two reports.
What was so important then about Yaxuna? It is a mid-sized inland site with no apparent natural resources of any kind. It is hard to understand the reasoning behind this immense civic project.
There are some possibilities though. Researchers have suggested that Yaxuna could have been a far flung military outpost of Coba. It would have held in check the important rival site of Chichen Itza which is only 12 miles/20 kms away, which could have been seen to have been in their sphere of influence. Indeed, ceramic and other archaeological evidence shows that in the Terminal Classic Period, forces from Chichen Itza had occupied the site and ritually destroyed a number of its structures.
It has also been suggested that the site was an important crossroads trading center that facilitated the exchange of goods from across the peninsula, and beyond. But again, why a raised road?
The site then, may have been a spiritual center of great importance to the rulers of Coba. In Coba the sacbe begins at the major pyramid complex of Nohoch Mul which has the highest pyramid (130 feet/43 meters) in the Yucatan. It terminates at the steps of a temple in the ceremonial complex of Yaxuna.
Investigations in the 1990’s have revealed that Yaxuna was an important Preclassic site (250 BCE-300 CE), the largest in central Yucatan at the time. A number of structures and finds there have been linked to significant early rulership rituals at the site, similar to those found at the Preclassic site of Cerros in Belize. This may have been an attempt then, on the part of the rulers of Coba, to align themselves with an earlier, important dynasty, though more studies would be needed.
There are numerous sacbeob that are found within the Maya realm. Some are relatively short within a specific site linking separate structural groups, while others connect individual cities. Their place in Maya culture has not been fully researched, though the advent of LiDAR has begun to interest researchers as many more sacbeob, some quite long, have now been revealed. As an example, the Inca road system in South America was extensive, covering thousands of miles. Way stations and supply depots were incorporated into the system. Only royalty, warriors, and those with official permission were allowed to use these roads. Tolls and usage fees were collected (that sounds familiar). Could these sacbeob have been similarly restricted royal roads for the Maya, and the fact that these were raised roads have ceremonial or religious/ritual connotations?
It is hoped that these recent observations will lead more researchers to take a closer look at the Coba-Yaxuna Sacbe, and re-evaluate this impressive engineering feat, which could further reveal the importance of this sacbe, as well as others, in binding together the political, religious, and economic ties of their respective polities. It’s an exciting time to be studying the Maya!
Steve Mellard September 2017
Updated April 2023
have machete will travel 2016 steve mellard
stela/marker 6 steve mellard
sacbe start/end point yaxuna google earth
sacbe raised side wall 2016 steve mellard
sacbe-start/end point coba google earth
stelae located on sacbe 1934 alfonso villa
side on view of sacbe 1934 expedition alfonso villa
welcome to the mayan ruins website .
corn field atop sacbe 1934 expedition alfonso villa
will and steve foot of pyramid platform
on the trail 2023 steve mellard
oxkindzonot sunken plaza steve mellard
masonry wall near pyramid summit steve mellard
yaxuna start point 1934 expedition alfonso villa