Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Straight roads to Cobá

In the mid-1970s the resort destination of Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula was still in its planning stages.  I had seen the diorama set up on the side of the highway at what was to become the intersection with Kukulcan Boulevard.  Its portrayal of a futuristic complex of high-rise hotels seemed a pipe-dream on a grand scale.

Planners knew that vacationers attracted by beautiful beaches and the crystal-clear Caribbean water could be enticed to stay a few more days if there were interesting day-trips to take. Chichen Itzá and Tulum were already well-established archeological destinations, each reachable within a two-hour drive from Cancun.  Yet Cobá, within that radius, featuring the highest Maya building on the Yucatan Penninsula, was virtually inaccessible to modern vehicles.

Mexico’s Secretariat of Communications and Transportation was entrusted with building a road connecting Cobá to Tulum.  Archeologist Victor Segovia was entrusted with opening Cobá to visiting day-trippers.

In its heyday Cobá was the best-connected Maya city and the seat of one of the three powerful kingdoms in the Yucatan Peninsula – the others being the Puuc cities surrounding Uxmal and the Itzá kingdom headquartered in Chichen Itzá.  Cobá is located near two depressions in the limestone shelf -- allowing the underground water table to surface, creating two lagoons with an abundant supply of fresh water.

Instead of clear-cutting the site, Archeologist Segovia chose to only clear the area around selected clusters of Maya buildings and courtyards, leaving the rainforest between clusters untouched.

His first challenge was to map the ancient city.  For this he purchased surveying equipment that was state of the art at the time –- tripod-mounted theodolites, plumb-rules, and metal tape measures.  His plan was to cut paths through the rain forest at 100-meter intervals going both north-south and east-west.  This was a concept similar to the archeologist’s traditional trenches following strings laid out at one-meter intervals, though on a much grander scale.

At the end of the first day of Segovia’s on-site surveying training, Domingo Falcón, the supervisor of the local crew of contemporary-Maya workers, spoke with admiration about the fancy equipment. But he asked Segovia if he would allow the crew to use their own technique for a day.  If it didn’t work, Falcón said they would follow the archeologist’s instructions using the equipment purchased in Mexico City.

Segovia agreed and told Falcón where he wanted the first path.  The following morning a Maya workman stood at the beginning of the path and another stood where it was to end. They started yelling at each other.  Using machetes they both cut through the vegetation towards the sound of the other’s shouts.  Once the perfectly straight path had been cut, Mr. Falcón asked Mr. Segovia how wide he wanted the path to be!

Needless to say the traditional technique won out and who knows how much time was saved in clearing the paths. Segovia mapped every building he found along the paths.  The technique his workers used led him to theorize that ancient Maya road-builders had worked in a similar way.
Mayan roads were characteristically straight. A road was called a sacbé, with the plural being sacbeob. “Sac” means white, “be” means road.  Indeed they were white roads since they were made of limestone.

The longest sacbé in the Yucatan Peninsula runs about 100 kilometers (62 miles) in a straight line from Cobá to Yaxuná, twenty kilometers south of Chichen Itzá. This is where the territory controlled by the three kingdoms converged.

While mapping Cobá, Segovia found a building shaped like a cone.  It had no temple on its top and no stairway to climb.  He theorized its function was to hold a bonfire at night to serve as sighting point during construction of roads and later as a beacon for travelers on the several sacbeob that converge at that point.
Still today, as you travel the roads of the northern Yucatan and Quintana Roo, it’s interesting to see how often the road seems to go straight to a church ahead in the distance.  In your rear view mirror you’ll see the church in the town behind you.  The churches are on top of ancient Maya buildings and the paved road is running on top of an ancient sacbé.

Though hard to detect on the ground, sacbeob radiating out of Cobá are visible from the top of its highest building.  The trees growing on the old roads do not grow as well or as tall as those on soil.  A straight line through the forest is visible from above.

Next time you’re in Cancun, take that day trip to Cobá. Once you’re within five kilometers of Cobá notice the number of places where the highway goes up and over a slight rise.  Each time you do that you’re crossing a sacbé.

Rent a bike and explore Cobá’s extensive network of shady paths.  You’ll see the highest Maya building of the Yucatan peninsula and be at the starting point of the longest Maya road as well as where the largest number of sacbeob converge.

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