You’d think a large prosperous North American country like Mexico would be a train-traveller’s dream, but sadly those days are long gone. Mexico was once criss-crossed with passenger trains from el Golfo to el Pacífico , and from the US border to the jungles of the Yucatán. But with the sustained lack of investment, the failure to coordinate the various state-owned railways and, most significantly, the increasing dependency on roads, buses and cheap air routes, all but put an end to rail travel in Mexico. By the 90’s the government privatised what was left of the railroads and train travel effectively ground to a halt.
There are two last ‘destination’ train journeys left in Mexico – there’s the Copper Canyon’s El Chepe that travels over 9 hours and more than 350ks from the northern state of Sinaloa to Chihuahua and passing through the Copper Canyons. https://chepe.mx/en/
Then there’s Jalisco’s Tequila Train, the Jose Cuervo Express (naturally) with its ‘all-you-can-drink’ 11-hour journey from Guadalajara to the actual town of Tequila. https://www.mundocuervo.com/eng/jose-cuervo-express
It’s been a long time coming for the rejuvenation of Mexico’s national train network and, I would imagine, some bold political vision and ‘cojones’. But the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO/Amlo as he’s referred to here) had a dream legacy: to construct a passenger and freight train network across the vastness of the Yucatán Peninsula. This mega infrastructure project will take in 1,550ks of railway across five states – Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo – 21 stations, 14 stops and a budget of almost US$10 billion! Amlo wants the train opened by December 2023 as his defining legacy ( good luck with that!) along with, a’hem, Mexico City’s newly opened International Airport (that no one wants and no one is using).
Since we’ve been here in Mérida the news has been full of Tren Maya. There’s an increasingly loud activist movement, largely Mayan communities that are fighting hard against this project, with many court injunctions in play to halt works. It’s hugely contentious and faces many environmental hurdles, not least the Maya who have of course endured so much for so long.
“When you destroy territory, you destroy a way of thinking, a way of seeing, a way of life, a way of explaining the reality that is part of our identity as Mayan peoples.”
But Amlo (living modestly but with billionaire offspring) is determined to push this project through to completion.
You can imagine how much the tourism sector here wants the Tren Maya – linking the main attractions of Cancún, Tulum, the Riviera Maya and Chichén Itzá with Mérida, Uxmal and even, wait for it, the extremely remote ancient Mayan city of Palenque, buried even to this day deep in the Yucatán jungle. Currently, travellers to Palenque have a 7-hour bus ride from Mérida, which just adds to the mystery of this ancient place – so the idea of a train connecting the tourist flesh pots of Cancún and the Riviera Maya with these remote ancient sites is, I have to say… terrifying!
Even today, without the Tren Maya, Chichén Itzá has over 2 million visitors per year, mostly day-trippers from Cancún. The Tren Maya could potentially have devastating and far-reaching consequences for the Yucatán Peninsula – not least, the millions and millions of additional tourists tramping over these ancient sites.
The proposed Tren Maya railway station in Mérida is not far from where we are. Today, it’s a largely abandoned (partly reclaimed as an Art College) vestige of a building, a ghostly shell of its boom days of the early 1900’s when henequen was shipped to the coastal town of Sisal and on to the world.
It’s a bitter pill though. The Tren Maya would certainly transform dusty downtown Mérida but at what cost, I wonder, not just to this gorgeous non-touristy town, but to the surrounding area and its ancient Mayan culture.