May 23, 2024

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In Mexico, the Maya Train Will Get You to All of Yucatán’s Best Spots. But Not Yet.

9 min read

I stepped off the platform at the gleaming new Maxcanú train station, eager to see the magnificent Maya archaeological site of Uxmal. All I needed was a taxi to take me there, a trip of about 30 miles away.

There are no taxis, said the stationmaster, as we stood on the polished limestone floors of the high-ceilinged station, which was cool and breezy despite the brilliant late-morning sun outside. And I was the third person in two weeks to get off at Maxcanú expecting to reach Uxmal, he said.

I was midway through a five-day trip to explore the brand-new Maya Train and several of its destinations in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Designed to run 965 miles (1,554 kilometers) around a loop of 34 stations when completed, the train will whisk passengers in cool comfort through colonial cities, archaeological sites, splashy resorts and tropical forests.

Now I was stunned. Wrangling a taxi has never been a problem in Mexico. But the drivers gathered in the main square of Maxcanú offered only beat-up vans that hopscotch through small towns, where I might or might not find a taxi to Uxmal. The next van was leaving in 45 minutes.

Yucatán’s layers of history have long held me spellbound. During earlier car trips, I have clambered up deserted Maya temples and palaces, stepped into the cool naves of massive 16th-century churches and visited restored haciendas, testaments of the ostentation — and hardship — of the peninsula’s 19th-century plantation economy. Traveling by train, I thought, would allow me to steep myself in more of that history.

But as I found in Maxcanú, a train won’t necessarily get you to where you want to go.

During my February trip, I traveled on the only route then available, an east-west leg that opened in December and runs from Cancún to Mérida, and then south through the port city of Campeche to the Maya site of Palenque (a short route between Cancún and Playa del Carmen opened last month, with three trains a day). I encountered scheduling confusion, unfinished stations and a dearth of trains — just two operating daily each way between Cancún and Campeche, and only one to Palenque. Overnight sleepers and special dining trains seem years away.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador considers the Maya Train his showcase development project, and wants to inaugurate the rest of the train before he leaves office on October 1. Based on my experience, that goal seems elusive.

I started my journey in Cancún, where in the pre-dawn gloom the station hovered like a glowing spaceship. An attendant scanned the ticket I had bought online and a half-dozen more pointed me toward my tourist-class car, which was about a quarter full. I planned to go to Campeche, about 300 miles away, stopping once each day. At 120 kilometers (about 75 miles) an hour, the train covers the route in about six hours, the same as a car. (When construction is complete, the train’s speed should increase to 160 kilometers an hour.)

The car’s wide windows looked out at a wall of low jungle. The blue-green seats were comfortable and there was ample space between the rows. I bought a very good cappuccino at the snack bar, but declined the plastic-wrapped sandwiches. The rest of the merchandise was fruit cups, milk boxes and junk food.

The train will ultimately cost much more than the $29 billion budgeted so far, and it’s not the first time ambitious planners have alighted on the region. Cancún was once a tiny fishing village, selected half a century ago as a tourist hub. Last year 10 million international tourists flew into its airport, more than the airports of Mexico City, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta combined.

But uncontrolled growth has stressed the Caribbean coast’s fragile environment. The Maya Train, scientists warn, will push those problems south, threatening the area’s water supply, its unique system of underground limestone caves and its vast nature reserves.

Mr. López Obrador has charged ahead, handing the train over to the military, and arguing that it will spread Cancún’s wealth and attract new visitors. Mexico received more than 42 million overseas tourists last year and they spent almost $31 billion.

Local governments see an opportunity. “The train will allow people to disperse throughout the peninsula,” said Michelle Fridman, the tourism secretary for Yucatán state, which promotes dozens of attractions far beyond highlights like Mérida and Chichén Itzá.

Now that the train is operating, transport companies will begin to connect stations with lesser-known sites nearby, she said.

It’s fair to ask whether the train is the most effective way to develop the peninsula’s tourism. Tour companies already run trips to many sites from major cities, which are well served by buses. Driving a rental car through most of the area is considered safe, according to U.S. State Department travel guidance.

It took two hours (and one time-zone change) to reach Valladolid, a colonial city of handsome streets and ancient churches, where I bought the rest of my tickets at the station. A tourist-class ticket from Cancún to Valladolid costs 472 pesos (around $28) for foreigners and 355 pesos (around $21) for Mexicans. First class, with wider seats, costs 755.50 pesos and 566.50 pesos, and discounts are available for older travelers and residents of the five states along the train’s route. (A first-class bus from downtown Cancún to Valladolid costs between 222 and 344 pesos, depending on the time of day, and takes half an hour longer.)

It was impossible to run the new Maya Train tracks into dense city centers and the Valladolid station, like the rest, was outside the urban core. A waiting bus took disembarking passengers downtown, a 15-minute ride for 35 pesos.

That day I toured Ek Balam, the site of a ninth-century Maya kingdom that is dominated by a 100-foot palace distinguished by a facade of carvings depicting winged warriors, stylized animal features and geometric patterns bordered by giant fangs. Admission to the site includes entry to the X-Canché cenote, one of thousands of limestone sinkholes that were sacred to the Maya.

Later that afternoon, I was wandering through the Museum of Ethnic Clothing, a private collection of traditional dress, embroidery and hats, when a WhatsApp message from the ticket office blinked on my phone. My train scheduled for the following day was canceled.

I decided to deal with the problem in the morning and enjoy the city. As I wandered past the antique shops and boutique hotels of the elegant Calzada de los Frailes, it was clear that Valladolid’s tourism, and the infrastructure to handle it, was well established. The Maya Train is simply an alternative way to reach a city that tourists discovered years ago.

In the morning, I found that my train had not been canceled, but the station for which I had a ticket, Tixkokob, was closed. I got off instead one stop earlier at Izamal, known for its ocher streets and the giant Franciscan convent of San Antonio de Padua, built atop the ruins of a pyramid.

During the 90-minute ride, I heard widespread enthusiasm among fellow travelers who expressed a willingness to give the train time to work out the kinks. “We’re an experiment,” said Oliva Escobedo Ochoa, 64, who was vacationing from her home in central Mexico.

Leticia Iliassich, 57, who is Mexican, was traveling with her Croatian husband along with relatives from Mexico and Croatia. They had initially been scheduled on an earlier train to Mérida that had been canceled. “We knew that it was a new project,” she said. “We don’t mind.”

The group had already sent a video to friends declaring, “We’re on the Tren Maya!”

At the Izamal station I hitched a 15-minute ride into the town center with a man who had asked me to take his photo alongside the train and his father. From there I negotiated a taxi to Hacienda San Lorenzo Aké, a working hacienda that still turns the fiber from an agave plant called henequén into coarse rope. Global demand for henequén, known as Yucatán’s “green gold,” brought fantastic wealth to the region in the mid-19th century, speckling the peninsula with more than 1,000 haciendas. (Many are now sumptuous hotels.)

It was during my third day that I found myself stuck in Maxcanú, after a 90-minute train ride from Izamal. The stationmaster, an army captain, offered me a ride to Uxmal, just as he had to the stranded tourists before me.

Eying Uxmal’s 4 p.m. final ticket sale, I accepted.

My situation made it clear just how distant the Maya Train’s promises are for tourists seeking to explore more of Yucatán. In time, that will change, said Ms. Fridman, the tourism secretary. “The idea is to have more hotels along the train line,” she said. “That will happen little by little.”

But Uxmal, among the most stunning of the Maya sites, made up for the inconvenience. Uxmal’s grand buildings are faced with intricate decorative masks as well as friezes in which geometry, nature and the divine merge. New plaques at each structure offer detailed information in English and Spanish, part of the government’s investment in improving displays at Maya sites for the train project.

Most tourists either take day trips by car or bus to Uxmal from Mérida or stay at one of three nearby hotels. As I finished dinner at my hotel, the dining room began to fill up: 47 Polish tourists had arrived.

My plan for the day was to go by taxi to Bécal, a town where Panama hats are woven in limestone caves to keep the fibers soft, and then pick up the afternoon train in nearby Calkiní for the port city of Campeche.

But I spent so much time watching the hat-making demonstration and then fitting my new hat and buying gifts that we set off with little time to reach the station. To my chagrin, I missed the train, the last one of the day.

On Calkiní’s central square, I found a van that was leaving for Campeche. Cost: 65 pesos. Time: about 1 hour and 20 minutes, similar to what I would have spent on the train. Of course, I was trapped in a cramped seat and had to listen to the driver’s choice of sentimental ballads, but I was dropped off in downtown Campeche, close to my hotel.

The next day, I toured the Museum of Maya Archaeology, an expertly curated collection that included haunting jade funeral masks, glyphs and delicate ceramic figures.

José Madrigal, 45, an engineer from Fremont, Calif., was trying to make Maya pottery interesting for his twin sons. The boys had just turned 5 and their birthday present had been a ride on the Maya Train. “They love trains,” Mr. Madrigal said. Then the family moved on, keeping up a brisk clip through the museum. They had another train to catch.

Yes, if you are traveling between larger stations. The train also offers a way to get to Palenque, which is harder to reach and has roads with security concerns. Travelers can stow bicycles on board.

To see train times, check the destinations on the website. You cannot buy tickets online more than a week in advance. But when you finally board, the ride is smooth — and the coffee is excellent.

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2024.

Elisabeth Malkin

2024-04-19 09:00:39

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