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Mexican cenotes threatened by construction of tourist train

Disturbing news comes from Mexico, where the idea of building a tourist railway in the heart of the Mayan empire has emerged. It turns out that incumbent President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has surprising plans for the Yucatán peninsula. He wants to build a tourist railway to improve communications between Cancun and smaller towns and
Published: February 11, 2022 - 09:00
Updated: July 23, 2023 - 00:02
Mexican cenotes threatened by construction of tourist train

Disturbing news comes from Mexico, where the idea of building a tourist railway in the heart of the Mayan empire has emerged.

It turns out that incumbent President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has surprising plans for the Yucatán peninsula. He wants to build a tourist railway to improve communications between Cancun and smaller towns and villages. All under the banner of developing tourism and promoting the Mayan legacy and archaeological sites in the region.

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Mexican cenotes threatened by construction of tourist train
Cenota Nochoch Nah Chich Fot. Sławek Paćko

The Mexican government believes that the creation of a tourist railway will make Mayan villages into tourist destinations. It will thus inject cash and create jobs in the region. The latter argument is, of course, correct, because we are talking about one of the poorest regions in Mexico. However, can we afford to pay this price?

I used the term ‘us’ not by accident. For the whole situation extends far beyond the borders of the region, Mexico or even the continent. The construction of the tourist train carries serious risks that could affect world heritage. Therefore, this is not just a local issue, but a global one that concerns us all.

Mexican cenotes threatened by construction of tourist train
Map showing the route of the tourist train in Mexico
1500 km of rail track

According to the information available, the Mexican authorities are planning to lay 1525 km of railway track. All in a region of dense jungle, pristine beaches and Mayan villages. Both dry caves and flooded cenotes are at risk, as well as ancient ruins, archaeological sites and animal populations living in the local forests.

The opponents of the idea put forward by the Mexican authorities are not opposed to the construction of the tourist train itself. However, they are keen to ensure that everything is carried out with care. Public consultations and studies are needed. All of this takes time, and the plans presented by the President assume that the project will be completed by the end of his term in 2024. A spectacular project could be a great weapon in subsequent campaigns. But at what price?

Mexican cenotes threatened by construction of tourist train
Cenote of Chichen Itza in Mexico

As a scientist who works in the field of landscape architecture and who has studied Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, I agree that the construction of a tourist train could bring significant benefits to the region. However, the train must be designed to respect the delicate ecological balance, indigenous history and social fabric of the region wrote Gabriel Diaz Montemayor on The Conversation website.

Endangered caves

At the moment we know that the architects have moved the route of the tourist railway to the west, away from the coast. Previously it ran along the coastal highway, affecting very few caves. But now it will cross some of the largest cave systems in Mexico. These include the Sistema Garra de Jaguar, which is 46.4km long. The new route runs right along the edge of the system’s largest entrance and over an 80m-wide chamber.

This is, of course, just one example of the caves that are on the new railway route. More cave systems are under threat, including Sac Aktun and Ox Bel Ha, for which the Yucatan is famous. What the diving community has come to love Mexico for may soon be history. The fragile karst formations are exposed to impacts of a scale that is difficult to predict. One thing is certain, however – these changes will be irreversible.

It seems that the only thing we can do at the moment is sign the petition and express our opposition to the President’s plans.

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About author

Julia
My love for scuba diving started as a 12-year-old in the Canary Islands, at which time I took my first Open Water Diver course. This love for the blue turned into a huge passion that accompanies me to this day. Although blue is hard to come by in the Baltic, no conditions are terrible for me. In this sport, I find peace, patience, courage, focus, and balance. I have recently started to engage in underwater modeling and I am fulfilled with this.
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