Mexico’s new “Tren Maya” (or Maya Train), is set to open its second phase in February 2024. In total, the 1,500-kilometre infrastructure project (932 miles), hailed by Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador as the “greatest construction project in the world” will traverse the southeast of Mexico, connecting the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo.
The forthcoming sections, five through seven to be precise, will include stops at the new Tulum airport and terminate at the city of Escárcega. They follow hot on the heels of the opening of sections one through four, from Palenque to Cancún, inaugurated by the President himself in December 2023.
Obrador’s vision is to boost tourism but also forge “economic opportunities for communities that have until now been marginalized from the benefits of mass tourism”. The train is just one part of that, as Obrador seeks to tap into a notable 2022 surge in tourist visits to sites such as the rare seaside Mayan ruins of Tulum, as well as rocketing arrivals at Yucatán’s Cancún airport (up by close to four million compared to pre-Covid figures), as well as push them further.
As a result, Tulum’s new airport has been built in less than two years by Obrador’s trusted military. It opened in December 2023, with its first three inbound flights. So far it has only seen domestic flyers, but it is about to welcome international flights, from March 2024.
Mayan architecture, waterfalls, caves and splendour
Obrador appears to have predicted the tourists’ appetite correctly. 15,000 people rode the train in just its first two weeks. Part of the intention then is for these tourists to fan out across the region, spreading footfall and prosperity, in journeys ranging in cost from 431.50 pesos (£19.95) to 1,862 pesos (£86.10) depending on the journey’s length and seat class.
Selected regional highlights they might take advantage of, include:
- Palenque’s UNESCO-recognised Mayan architecture and the verdant scenery of Agua Azul waterfalls
- Hacienda La Luz: an old cocoa farm that explains the chocolate production process
- The stunning rock formations and cave paintings of Kolemjáa Cave
- Riverboat rides, fishing and wildlife on the Candelaria
- The charm and faded colonial splendour of Campeche town and its ramparts.
“Megaproject of death”?
Not everyone, however, is happy. Some are concerned about the 28-billion-dollar train’s route and bedding, across infamous sinkholes called “cenotes”. Underground lakes are being filled with concrete, they say. Formerly wild beaches are being turned into resorts and Yucatán’s vulnerable jungle habitat, home to threatened jaguars, birds, and monkeys, is now the site of an ecocidal “megaproject of death” through which a train designed to look like a jaguar will rip.
Others ask if the recent surge in tourists will fall away if the project is too successful for its own good, losing its aura of an “off the beaten track” experience.
Progress, but with respect
Mexico is treading the same difficult and sensitive line as many countries right now, between meeting the economic needs of locals, providing opportunities while protecting their wider well-being, and preserving regional treasures for generations to come.
An activist group Selvame del Tren sums up the problem in a statement: “We are not against progress. On the contrary, we consider development in the Peninsula as a great opportunity for social justice, economic reactivation and infrastructure improvement, but we seek to do it with full respect for the environment.”