More than a thousand years ago, Mexico’s Caribbean coast was an important point on the Mayan maritime trade route between the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America. It is now Mexico’s top tourist destination, with more than eight million visitors arriving each year to enjoy its beaches, coral reefs and archaeological sites. Yet while many resorts and restaurants have “Maya” in their names, and the coast south of Cancun has been dubbed the “Riviera Maya,” most of the region’s Mayans have barely benefited from the tourism boom.
There are approximately 200,000 Mayans in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, which comprises the country’s Caribbean coast, but most of them live in towns scattered across the peninsula’s forested interior – a world apart from the resorts and beach towns. Whereas the hotels, bars and restaurants near the coastal ruins of Tulum offer WiFi and cable TV, and English is spoken as commonly as Spanish, a short drive inland are Mayan towns where most people still speak Yucateca Maya, the native language, and continue such ancestral traditions as holding ceremonies before planting and harvesting their milpas (mixed farm plots of corn, squash, beans, chiles and other crops).
Beach resorts line the "Riviera Maya" - Mexico's Caribbean Coast south of Cancun
Marcelo Jimenez, who heads Quintana Roo’s Popular Culture Office, observed that while tourists flock to Tulum, Coba, Chichen Itza and other ancient Mayan sites, few of them know or care about the region’s contemporary Mayan culture.
“Nobody wants to talk about the living Mayans, just the dead ones,” Jimenez said. “We remain invisible.”
Most of the coastal resorts belong to foreign companies and the majority of the staff is from other regions of Mexico, but thousands of Mayans work in them as well, often bussing between their villages and the resorts each day. While tourism incomes have boosted village economies, the Mayan people receive only a tiny fraction of the industry’s earnings, and opinions vary about whether tourism’s impact is positive or negative.
“Every year, the government announces billions of dollars of earnings in the tourism zone, as if everyone benefitted from it, but that is just part of a political discourse,” Jimenez said.
While tourism revenues have allowed the state of Quintana Roo to improve roads and infrastructure in Mayan communities, Jimenez observed that the influx of cash from tourism jobs has spawned a consumer culture that has led many to abandon farming and the traditional diet, which has led to high levels of malnutrition in the region.
“Tourism doesn’t solve our problems, it causes more problems,” he said, “The investors take the profits. The only thing that stays here is the garbage and the environmental impact.”
Antonia Poot, a cultural guide in the Mayan town of Tihosuco, has a more positive view of tourism. She explained that the money local people earn at tourism jobs has improved the town’s economy and has helped families to survive years of poor harvests, though she admitted that fewer people are farming than a decade ago. She added that while some of her neighbors work at beach resorts, others make handicrafts that tourists buy, whereas others grow food to sell in the local market.
Poot explained that her brother left Tihosuco as a young man to find work in tourism after a hurricane destroyed the family’s crops and there was nothing to eat. He now lives in Cancun with his wife and two children. Though Cancun is just three hours by road from Tihosuco, she said that her niece and nephew don’t speak Yucateca Maya, though they understand it.
Community Tourism Provides an Alternative
Alberto Cen, from the village of Chumpon, has spent the past decade working as a tour guide, showing visitors the forest, lakes and ancient ruins in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Cen is one of the founders of Community Tours Sian Ka’an, a cooperative enterprise owned and operated by people from the Mayan villages of Chumpon and Muyil.
He and his associates began by running half-day tours of the nearby Chunyaxche archaeological site and two lakes that are connected via a canal that Mayans dug more than 800 years ago to allow boats to travel between Chunyaxche and the coast. The company now offers a variety of tours, since those crystalline lakes and canals offer excellent conditions for swimming, fishing, kayaking and bird watching. They also offer a hiking tour in the rainforest, where tourists learn how chicle – a tree sap that was the original basis for chewing gum – is harvested.
Cen is upbeat about tourism’s potential and is happy that he has been able to earn a decent living close to home for so many years. He said that he enjoys showing tourists the structures that his ancestors built and the lakes and rainforest that have long provided his people with food and medicine. He added that even though he learned English to guide foreigners, he continues to speak Yucateca Maya and practice the ancient ceremonies at home.
Because it lies relatively close to popular beach towns, Muyil is one of the few Mayan communities that receive a significant number of tourists. Most villages lie farther inland and are rarely visited by foreigners. However, Roman Caamal, the manager of Community Tours Sian Ka’an, explained that they recently began taking tourists to several of those communities.
With the help of the local conservation group Amigos de Sian Ka’an and other non-profit organizations, the company developed an overnight tour into the hinterland that combines the Muyil lake excursion and archaeological site with time in traditional Mayan communities. Called the Circuito Ximbal Maya, that two-day tour provides exposure to Mayan history, culture and daily life in the communities or Señor, Tihosuco and Felipe Carrillo Puerto.
“The idea is for people to have work in their community, so they don’t have to leave to earn money,“ Caamal said.
Community Tours Sian Ka’an – Mayan Owned and Managed
Community Tours Sian Ka’an, a Mayan owned and operated company, offers a selection of half-day tours to archaeological sites, lakes and the rainforest near Muyil (15 miles southwest of Tulum and 97 miles south of Cancun). The company recently launched an overnight tour, Circuito Ximbal Maya, that combines the lakes and archaeological sites of Muyil with time in the Mayan communities of Tihosuco, Señor and Felipe Carrillo Puerto, where travelers can experience the local culture and learn about the region’s history.