Home Up Background Sacbes Lagoon Edge Canal Trade Summary


  The natural watercourse

            To an ancient or modern traveler by boat along the Caribbean east coast of Quintana Roo, Boca Paila is one of the infrequent openings in the outer sand banks that are found running many kilometers southward from Tulum (Map 1). (North of Tulum, the karstic shelf meets the water's edge; south of Tulum, the karstic shelf runs farther inland [Photograph 1].) After passing through a break in the coral reef, which in total length is second only to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, one enters a semicircular bay — one of many that give the east coast a scalloped appearance.

            The opening through the sand bank is a narrow channel (100-200 m wide), now spanned by a vehicular bridge, with sandy shores along both sides. The water is shallow, and the turning of the tide results in an inflow during high tide, and an outflow during low tide. One may easily cross the channel at Boca Paila by swimming or with a small boat.

            Behind the coastal sand banks is a large open area of apparently still, brackish water, and numerous confusing openings, cul de sacs, and false channels among the mangroves. The mangroves, 2-3 m high, preclude any vista of the surrounding country, which is also mangrove. With guidance, one may pass through this area and come to the entrance to Cayo Venado about 5 km north of Boca Paila. A first-time visitor can recognize the change of color of the water, and the appearance of a current flowing eastward from Cayo Venado into the brackish lagoons.

            Cayo Venado is a steadily narrowing channel about 8 km long. As one moves generally westward from the coast, through its meander channels, one's view is constrained to the channel itself. The narrow view, made short by the increasing frequency of turns in the meander channel, is focused ahead to the next turn. Mangroves and orchids are within reach on both sides of the boat and no soil is visible. Nearer to Chunyaxche lagoon, the vegetation is lower and mangrove frequently gives way to grasses growing on the limestone mud. The vista opens — one may see across the grasslands and notice several petenes, islands of trees and taller vegetation. One rounds a bend in the channel and suddenly is within 15 m of the north side of the westward-facing temple named Vigía del Lago by Mason and Spinden. One immediately thereafter arrives at the northeast shore of the Chunyaxche lagoon.

            The Chunyaxche lagoon stretches nearly 10 km. It runs northeast-southwest, and satellite imagery gives the impression that the lagoon contains at least two large cenote areas, one at each end, from which fresh water is welling up. The lagoon is part of the fracture zone dotted by freshwater lagoons and cenotes along a northeast-southwest line. The zone includes the Muyil lagoon, the Nopalitos lagoon, and cenotes Chunkopo, la Union, and Tulum. We were not able to explore the coast line of the Chunyaxche lagoon, but a local inhabitant's stories led me to believe that there may be three other small ruins along the southwest shoreline. By traveling due west, across the upper reach of the Chunyaxche lagoon, one reaches the opening of the Muyil canal.

            The Muyil canal is a nearly straight, 550-m long channel approximately 2-3 m wide. It runs northwest and crosses seasonally-flooded grasslands that are only a few centimeters higher than the water in the canal. A steady current flows seaward. At the western end, the canal connects to the Muyil lagoon in an extremely shallow area. Several times we had to walk our small boat across these shallows to avoid damage to the outboard motor. The bottom of the lagoon here, on the east side, is dotted with small to medium (35-cm diameter) holes in the karst from which fresh water flows. Many form domes on the water surface called ojos de agua, springs.

            From any point on the Muyil lagoon, including the mouth of the canal, one may see the trees growing among and hiding the structures of Muyil. The western side of the lagoon, where the 8‑m‑high edge of the karstic shelf is situated, is covered with tall trees. The elevation change is dramatic when viewed from the lagoon. When one approaches the site by boat today, only two of the ancient structures are visible. With good eyes, one may pick out the very tip of the Castillo. Also, if one approaches the site somewhat to the north of the modern road and docks, Structure 12H-1, the easternmost temple, may be seen in the grasslands. We suspect that Muyil, when inhabited, was well-cleared of large trees. Arriving traders and visitors would likely have seen most of the Castillo, and possibly the tops of other structures such as Temple 8 and pyramids in the Entrance Plaza Group.

            Arriving at Muyil from the sea is dramatic and stimulating today. To ancient Maya travelers, the first view of the Castillo and its masks of the gods standing above the edge of the karstic shelf, must have been equally dramatic. Their arrival could have been detected more than two hours in advance, and the friendly (or unfriendly!) welcoming party would have been fully prepared to receive them.


The Maya infrastructure

            To the natural watercourse described above, the Maya of Muyil added a roadway and numerous temple pyramids. This additional construction served to heighten the importance and the usefulness of the water route. There are three major components to this Maya infrastructure connected to the natural water course: the temple at Vigía del Lago, the sacbe system (consisting of five end-to-end segments, and the structures situated along the sacbe system.

            The isolated temple at Vigía del Lago was well-described by Mason (see Chapter 1 and Photographs 4 and 5.) It is a Postclassic two-room structure in the East Coast style, with a floor plan and other architectural elements similar to those of Structure 9K-1-2d, the interior Temple 8. Mason did not describe the molded stucco panels in the upper molding other than to call them "interesting carvings." (Mason 1927:152-161) We observed, however, that one of the panels had a feathered serpent motif, and that others had a lattice-work or woven mat motif. The temple is situated on the eastern edge of the Chunyaxche lagoon at the entrance to Cayo Venado.

            One helpful way to visualize the sacbes and the structures along them is to imagine a walk from west to east, from the modern highway to the lagoon. The sacbe system at Muyil consists of five segments (Map 5), numbered, from west (site center) to east (lagoon edge) as Sacbes 2, 3, 1, 5, and 6. As one walks from west to east, the sacbes originate in a group of three pyramids just north of (and perhaps associated with) the Entrance Plaza Group. After 45-50 m, the sacbe widens and meets a twin structure on a raised platform. From this platform, traveling east, one steps down onto Sacbe 3 and walks to the front stairway of the Castillo. At the Castillo, one passes around the north side of the pyramid, and proceeds along Sacbe 1. At the east end of Sacbe 1, one reaches the front steps to Structure 10H-1, which is situated at the very edge of the karstic shelf. A few meters down the slope of the shelf, one reaches Sacbe 5, travels to Structure 11H-1, a small pyramid, and from there along Sacbe 6 to Structure 12H-1, a masonry temple on a truncated pyramid in the grasslands near the lagoon edge.


The questions raised by the route to the sea

            The curiosity of the archaeological crew rivaled that of its predecessors. The longer research continued at Muyil, the more questions the waterway stimulated, and the greater grew our interest in it. We asked such questions as: Is the sea route the reason we have early settlement documented for Muyil? Is Muyil an inland seaport? Is the sacbe system a part of the sea route? For the sacbes, do different construction techniques mean different construction eras? Did the lagoon edge move, and were sacbes extended as a result? Was Muyil important to Coba as a link in trade routes? Was all this effort simply in support of a fishing industry or subsistence fishing? Did the Chichen Itza ceramics we found arrive by sea? Was the Castillo part of a seaward-looking defense system at Muyil? Are the anomalous earthen mounds related to it? What was the purpose of the temple at Vigía del Lago? Was the canal connecting the Muyil lagoon with the Chunyaxche lagoon man-made?

            The following four sections attempt to answer these questions. First, I discuss the sacbe system and investigations along it. Next, there is a discussion of the shoreline, and whether it might have changed while Muyil was occupied. Third, there is a discussion of the nature of the Muyil canal. Last, I deal with several questions of dating and trade by reviewing the ceramic evidence. In the final section, the findings are summarized.  

© Copyright 2000-2005 Walter R. T. Witschey   Page last updated Wednesday, April 02, 2008