Each year, more vacationers venture beyond Cancun's mega-resorts to explore Mexico's Mayan Riviera and the ancient and colonial cities of the Yucatan peninsula, especially Tulum, a once-quiet, coastal Mexico town that has since made a worldwide splash as influencers flock to its luxury hotels and natural beauty that mark its white sand coastline.
But until now, making the 80-mile trip from Cancun's airport to Tulum has required either renting a car, hopping on a bus, or paying through the nose for a taxi. However, construction has just started on a new project that will change how people travel throughout the Yucatan.
Scheduled to be completed in 2023, the Maya Train is a massive project that will connect some of Mexico's most popular coastal destinations—Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum—to inland attractions like the ruins Chichen-Itza and the historic colonial cities of Valladolid, Merida, Campeche, and Palenque, in the state of Chiapas. In addition to making it easier for tourists to travel throughout the peninsula, the project’s main ambition is to connect rural communities to large tourism destinations, further spurring the region's development.
As Mexico’s most famous and successful tourism corridor, the Mayan Riviera has been in development since the 1970s, and the Mayan Train is expected to accelerate the region’s growth. It’s not the only big project planned for the next few years, though, as the government looks to open a new international airport in Tulum by 2023. Development in the Yucatan is expanding almost as quickly as the Mayan Riviera’s worldwide renown thanks to Mexico’s relatively relaxed entry rules during the pandemic and, of course, its proximity to the U.S.
While the Maya Train will provide residents and tourists with an eco-friendly way to get around the region, its development is less celebrated by some as it could prove harmful to local communities and the region's diverse ecosystem.
The multi-billion-dollar project, led by Mexico’s National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism (FONATUR), was officially approved in 2018, but it still faces many environmental challenges, including a potentially negative impact on the region's archeological sites. Despite the peninsula’s flat geography, many remnants of ancient Mayan civilization are still undiscovered beneath the jungle's dense canopy. In just the first few months of construction, thousands of ancient artifacts have been discovered. In addition to the disturbance of uncovered ruins and the risk of destroying cultural artifacts in the process; opposition to the project is concerned that the rail will displace indigenous communities across three Mexican states and divide important wildlife corridors.
Although construction has officially begun, it is only on Section Four, which is the route that will connect Cancun to the inland city of Izamal. With more than 1000 miles of the railway still needing to be laid, construction will be completed in seven sections, with Section Five being the one that will connect Cancun International Airport to Tulum. There is still much time until the route is complete, and the controversial construction will seemingly face many challenges to keep the government’s promises of environmental and cultural preservation and sustainability.
Open Edition Journals. "The Costa Maya: Evolution of a Touristic Landscape." December 2009