Yucatan Roads


Written by John M. Grimsrud

In the course of human events that shaped the cultural evolution of the Yucatan peninsula the sacbe road network erected by the ancient Maya laid the groundwork for transportation systems that continue in use to this very day.

“Sacbe” in the Mayan language literally means white road and was so named because of the fact that the Mayan road builders finished their sacbe road surfaces with a smooth plaster finish that was a white. Using a fired heavily calcified sahcab earthen deposit found in Yucatan it made relatively soft cement. The cement produced required huge amounts of firewood that accelerated the deforestation of the peninsula.

When the first sacbe roads were constructed remains a mystery. Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the Mayan people managed to build over countless centuries an extensive network of roads that were remarkably straight and level without any machinery. Because the ancient Maya used no wheeled vehicles these sacbe road surfaces were very serviceable but when the Spanish arrived and pressed these same roadways into service with horses and horse carts they became rough and rocky.

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This painting of an early Yucatan public transport vehicle bouncing along a well worn rocky sacbe road dating from the era before the age of rail used to hang in the lobby of a Izamal hotel and is long gone.

Until the advent of the industrial revolution and its huge demand for rope fiber for shipping to transport manufactured products world wide, the Yucatan roads had not seen any upgrades for three centuries.

Machinery along with agriculture and a suitable climate coupled with hacienda mentality well practiced in the extrapolation of labor from the indigenous Maya were all the right ingredients for the explosive expansion of Yucatan’s transportation system.

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This map of the early rail system is from the Allen Morrison collection and web-site where you will find extensive research and factual information on this subject.

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This was the first type of rail system to be used in Yucatan and was called Decauville, the name of a town in Belgium where the rail was imported from. The rail was fastened to steel ties and came in sections that only needed bolting together. This rail system was laid on the old Mayan sacbe roads that were conveniently placed and interconnected the haciendas. By the late 1800s more than 4,500 kilometers of this one foot 7½ inch wide track had been laid across the Yucatan peninsula for horse drawn carriages similar to this one above.

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The green line depicts the routes of the narrow gauge railway system in existence and operational in the 1980s. (The first steam train from Mérida to Progreso was in 1881.)

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The above photo is of one several of the original Baldwin steam locomotives manufactured in the US that spent its long audacious life fueled by leña or firewood hauling freight and passengers from Mérida to Peto or Tizimin and all points in between. This engine is on display at the railway museum in Mérida located at the corner of 43 and 50 in the city center along with many other historical rail related memorabilia.

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This glorious relic of
Merida’s wealthier and more prosperous years gone by is the central railway station located on calle 55 in the city center.
This photo was taken in 1985 when the station was fully functional and my wife Jane and I made many memorable train trips aboard the narrow gauge trains that were always a high-point of our visiting friend’s trips to

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Yucatan became the wealthiest state in Mexico driven by world demand for henequen fiber produced here to such an extent that its total take over of agriculture denuded the forests, displaced the milpa farmers and actually altered the climatic conditions making northwestern Yucatan into a semiarid tropical environment. Ninety percent of the nearly one thousand henequen haciendas were controlled by thirty families.
The above plaque is from one of the narrow gauge steam trains that consumed an astronomical quantity of wood over its lifetime to fire its boilers further denuding the peninsula of its forests. (There was no rail service into the
Yucatan peninsula until 1950 and no paved roads until 1960. Ship service linked Mérida to Veracruz, Havana and the US at that time.)

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Jane boards the packed to capacity narrow gauge train to Peto with its 1890s vintage wooden coaches that were still rolling in 1985. The toilet was a hole in the floor.

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Rolling south out of Mérida to Peto, this was the view from the train at one of the many scheduled stops. Venders flocked to the train windows with home made food items plus soft drinks and beer. The train’s arrival was a major event all along the route attracting eager vendors and economy travelers known as “eccentric peso pinchers”. Many of the passengers were headed to market in Mérida with their locally produced garden products.

The colorful venders aboard the train sold native folk remedies and hand crafted home made trinkets. Entertainment was provided by singing guitarists who only solicited tips (propinas).

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This official train timetable for the narrow gauge train lists several scheduled stops where there wasn’t a paved road to the landing, only a jungle path. Jane and I traveled to all of the above destinations on the narrow gauge and later the upgraded wide track train.

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This is the old narrow gauge diesel locomotive operated by our good friend and engineer, Melchor Castro. I was privileged to ride in the engine along with our visiting friends.

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This is the rail station at Izamal on the line from Mérida to Tizimin in 1984.

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At the Izamal RR station this was the only type taxi service in town at that time..

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The train arrival time nears and commotion builds as last minute arrivals unload passengers and freight bound for the afternoon train to Mérida.

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Three hundred and fifty pound bales of locally produced henequen arrive by horse cart to be loaded for transport to Mérida by train for processing.

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On the Mérida to Tizimin train this is the end of the line where hungry scavengers pick every last kernel of corn from the boxcars on the siding behind the terminal. With keen eyes this little boy uses a stick to extract every last bit of corn leaving not a trace of the former cargo.

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Mama and sister go home with two full sacks of otherwise discarded corn.

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When henequen became a principal cash crop in Yucatan in the mid-1800s the demand quickly built to the point that a rail transport system became imperative. To move the product to market Decauville rails networked the peninsula connecting with the narrow gauge steam train system conveniently built upon the old Mayan sacbe roads. The first steam train was to Progresso in 1881, Izamal 1890, Campeche 1904, Peto 1912 and Valladolid in 1913.
Above photo is the main lobby of Cordamex, the state run henequen processing plant in the 1980s. This is where the products they produced were on display. Rope, twine, fiber, mats, and woven yard goods were manufactured at this facility. Also in the photo is one of the mature henequen plants that this fiber is derived from.

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Stockpiled henequen leaves or pencas at the Cordamex plant on the north side of Mérida are aboard the conveyer and ready to be processed.

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With state of the art processing equipment conveying the leaves through the crusher that was the first step in this procedure Cordamex was in a good position to economically compete in the international marketplace. Synthetic manmade fibers were blamed for the collapse of this
Yucatan industry but mismanagement coupled with extravagantly high executive pay packages were rumored to have been a contributing factor.

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Cordamex went from private to federal ownership and ultimately
Yucatan State became the proprietor. Each change of hands seemed to see a larger and larger amount of wealthy benefactors bailing out until external and internal forces brought the peninsulas henequen business to near extension.

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This old narrow gauge steam train that proudly pulled the products that made Yucatan the richest state in Mexico around the time of the First World War now quietly rusts away on a rail siding in downtown Mérida unnoticed by speeding highway traffic.

Not all was lost from those glorious days of
Yucatan’s steam train travel.
Back in the early 1970s Walt Disney came to Mérida and purchased the last serviceable narrow gauge steam locomotives and transported them to his new
Florida amusement park. Four of these engines were restored to a state of better than new and two were used for replacement parts in a special machine shop designed exclusively for that purpose.

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Disney World with one of its painted and polished
Baldwin locomotives that spent a very hard life hauling cargo and passengers through the jungles of Yucatan. Jane and I had an enjoyable time at the Florida amusement park conversing with the crew that kept the rail equipment rolling, especially after we had a real comparison to make in Mexico.

It is ironic looking back at all the history that is recorded from the ancient Mayan who built the first sacbe roads across the Yucatan peninsula to the Spanish conquistadors. The Spanish began with their cattle and corn and followed by sugar cane and then a henequen industry that legislated away vast tracts of Mayan land and helped ferment the 60 year long Caste War.

International Harvester and the giant American banks are suspected of having a heavy hand in deposing populist political figures after the Mexican Revolutionary War.

The Yucatan is still full of many relics of those bygone years from the ancient Maya and the conquistador Spanish that include sacbe roads, pyramids and haciendas.

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Pictured in this recent photo above is a well worn wooden cargo cart with its tire treaded wheels, wooden saddle and henequen harnesses that will keep on pulling when this world runs out of gas.


2 Responses to “Yucatan Roads”

  1. Yucatan Roads « Bicycleyucatan’s Weblog Says:

    […] some of his old photos and written a story reminiscing about the roads of Yucatan.  Click here to view his story of the roads from the Mayan sacbe to the railroads. Possibly related posts: […]

  2. The Merida Railway Museum « Gorbman.com Says:

    […] born of the need to transport henequen from the haciendas in the 1800s. Originally, according to John Grimsrud in his very excellent article about the Yucatecan transport system, the rails were built to fit onto existing sacbes, the ancient […]

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