Friday three of us were near Santa Elena, Yucatán, searching for a little-visited ruin known by a variety of names, but commonly referred to as Sacbe (Sok-BAY), which in Maya means "white road."
This was not a simple task. Maybe the several names were part of the problem. The fact that major Mayan highways connecting pre-Colombian cities also were called sacbe because they were paved in white limestone also could confuse things. And persons giving us directions were mostly elder speakers of the Mayan language, and that certainly didn't make communicating easier.
Valerie at The Pickled Onion, where we were staying, gave us simple directions to Sacbe and it sounded easy enough. But just to be sure, after we turned off the main highway as directed I stopped and rolled down the window to ask advice from a group of men on bicycles. They were coming from the parcelas, or farm plots, which was where we were headed. Immediately our little saga began.
Although I told them we were looking for the ruins of Sacbe, the first man apparently did not hear a word I said and assumed all foreigners wanted to go to the same place. He told us, "Kabah is back on the main highway. This is the wrong road."
When I said we'd been to Kabah and repeated that we were looking for the ruined Maya city called Sacbe, which was supposed to be down this road, another chimed in, "Hotel Sacbe is back on the main highway. You passed it. Better turn around."
After another minute or two of getting answers to questions I hadn't asked, I decided to cut my losses and said "gracias." I said that I would turn around as soon as I found a wide spot. With that, we continued straight on down the dusty road past forest, occasional milpas and piles of irrigation pipe.
After a wrong turn that resulted in a hike down a long path to a bunch of bee hives, we finally thought we were on the right track. We'd driven past a whitewashed chapel and then an open gate as described by Valerie. After the gate, we were looking for a road off to the right.
We tried two roads on the right, parking each time to hike and scout the territory, all the time looking for odd piles of rock, worked stones or structures in the trees that might signal ruins. We even hiked a distance down one road on the left, just in case. We found more bee colonies and several times paused to watch birds, including Chel (Yucatan Jay), Ixchel (Green Jay), Yuyum (Altamira Oriole), Xtakay (Great Kiskadee) and Toh (Turquiose-Browed Motmot).
We drove on and finally saw an old man wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sitting in the shade of an irrigation pump house. When we asked about Sacbe he nodded and described just the ruins we'd been told about, and then said that we had come too far.
We climbed back into the car and followed his directions, backtracking and turning off on yet another dirt road, where we found a field full of grazing cattle he'd described. We passed through the gate, refastened it and began walking in the direction he'd indicated would take us finally to Sacbe. Almost immediately, however, a small herd of cattle, including one large, dark bull, began making its way very deliberately in our direction. Seeing this, we needed little convincing to change our minds about the idea, and trotted back to the gate, which we slid through and refastened securely behind us. As if to compensate us for this disappointment, in the area we observed a large, brown snake, noted wild orchids in the trees and found iridescent green wild turkey feathers.
I had been trying to call Valerie to clear up our confusion, but we had been out of cell phone range. Suddenly I noticed that here there was a signal, so I called. According to Valerie (who'd been to the ruins), way back at the pump house where the helpful man had advised us to turn around, we ought to have turned right. So we backtracked again and, waving at the man in passing, took the right turn.
We continued on for awhile, and the red clay cancab road suddenly became white and hard like a true sacbe. We joked that this must be a good sign. However, ultimately we turned around after talking to a man named Tomás who we found spraying his corn field where the road became too rough to continue in the car. Tomás had once worked a season assisting a team of archaeologists. He told us about many interesting ruins in the area, including a place where a trick of the full moon makes the ancient, abandoned buildings appear to be illuminated from within and another where at night voices can be heard whispering in a strange tongue. He offered to guide us to these mysterious places on another occasion, but did not know about Sacbe.
We were a little hot, tired and hungry at this point, and concluded that Sacbe was indeed best located with the help of a local who knows the area. So we promised to contact Tomás soon, and headed back to The Pickled Onion for a much-needed lunch and cool drinks.
Once again, as I often find, the original goal of the day was not met, but the unexpected adventure was well worth the effort. We saw interesting things. We'd found a sacbe, but not the ruins of Sacbe this time. We will return another day to continue the adventure.