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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Sacbé, the small ancient town in the middle of the action

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Uxmal is the largest of the ancient cities of the Puuc region, but it is far from the only one, as hundreds of cities and settlements dot the region’s landscape. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In the Yucatec-Maya language, Sacbé translates as “white road,” and apart from being the name given to the sophisticated road network which crisscrossed the Maya world, Sacbé is also the name of a rarely visited Puuc site between Uxmal and Kabah.

The famous explorer and Mayanist John Lloyd Stephens was the first person to document Sacbé’s existence, noting the presence of a particularly large Mayan road roughly eight feet wide and 10 inches tall. This is presumably how the site earned its modern name, though the name given to the site by the Maya of old has been lost to time.

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood were among the first explorers to methodically document the ruins of the Maya civilization during the first half of the 19th century. Photo: Courtesy

At the time of Stephens’ discovery, Sacbé’s were not unknown, but just how large and interconnected they were was still a mystery that continues to unfold to this day with new discoveries.

Stephens reported correctly that this particular Sacbé ran between Uxmal and Kabah. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Like many unrestored sites in the low-lying brush of the Yucatán, Sacbé is surrounded by corn fields belonging to collective farms, so it’s important to be mindful, though I have never heard of anyone being denied access.

Apiculture is a common economic activity in the area, and active and abandoned bee hives can be found all over. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

When turning south on the road between Uxmal and Kabah towards Sacbé, we see a handful of reconstructed structures by the side of the road. It is unclear if these structures belong to Sacbé proper or another nearby settlement, though during antiquity, they all probably answered to the same regional governor.

These structures in the vicinity of Sacbé appear to be residential as they contain multiple chambers and apart to have likely been covered with a thatch roof. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

After continuing south along winding dirt roads, it becomes impossible to continue by car without having the surrounding vegetation severely scratch it up.

Exploring many of the more out-of-the-way sites can be a bit challenging, but it is always worth the effort. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

After a leisurely hike, the ruins of Sacbé will start to become visible through the thick vegetation.

There is nothing quite like stumbling across the remains of ancient architecture in a setting as beautiful as Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The most impressive construction found at the site is a remarkably preserved south-facing three-room structure known as Structure 1.

Though the roof of the third chamber has collapsed under the weight of its corbel arch, the rest of the structure is in remarkable, almost incredible condition. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In typical Puuc fashion, the lower section of the facade is bare, especially when contrasted with the intricate designs found above.

Two stacked masks depicting the rain god Chaac sit above the doorway of the center room. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though there are no real surprises to be had at Sacbé, its secluded environment combined with the grace of its buildings is a site to behold, and in many ways, resembles Xlapac to the south.

On either side of the masks is a row of sculpted stones engraved with the X-shaped flower design, squared spirals, and short decorative columns, all emblematic of the region. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

When entering the structure, it’s difficult not to feel enthralled with romantic notions of exploration and discovery. Our guide Abel certainly seemed to feel that way.

Yucatán is very safe for exploring, but still, having a local guide is a good idea, especially if you intend on wandering deep into the jungle. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Structure 2 closely resembles the residential complex but has not received any restoration.

The ruins of Sacbé’s Structure 2 fit the mold for an elite residential unit, especially given the stone kitchen tools found in its proximity. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Structures 3 and 4 are extremely damaged, though the remains of their once-sturdy walls are still visible.

Given its location on the road between Uxmal and Kabah, its likely Sacbé was primarily a farming community politically dependent on its Tutul Xiu lords. Google Map

As the Puuc region is known for not having much in the way of cenotes, multiple artificial cisterns known as chultunes can be found in the area. That being said, the Maya of the Puuc were still very reliant on predictable rain, thus their particular adoration of Lord Chaac.

Though chultunes often look quite small at the surface level, underneath, they are cavernous and capable of storing large amounts of water. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

While the Puuc valley is home to several archaeological sites open to the public, including Kabah, Labna, Sayil and Oxkintok, ⁠the mysterious site of Sacbé lay virtually forgotten by all but the most enthusiastic explorers.

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