Maya Train: Environmental Concerns Surround Controversial Tourist Railway in Mexico


In the heart of Mexico’s Riviera Maya lies a subterranean wonder—a cave sculpted by nature into a landscape of breathtaking beauty. However, this delicate ecosystem now faces a threat from an ambitious infrastructure project: the Maya Train. Thick steel columns supporting this controversial tourist railway have intruded into the Yucatan Peninsula’s estimated 2,400 caverns and sinkholes, known as cenotes. These cenotes are major attractions for tourists who swim and snorkel in their crystal-clear waters.

Environmental campaigners express deep concern about the impact of the Maya Train on this unique geological system. Outgoing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador champions the project as a means to bring prosperity to one of Mexico’s poorest regions. However, critics argue that the railway’s construction lacks proper environmental impact studies and has already caused irreversible damage.

Biologist and speleologist Roberto Rojo, surveying the damage, describes the situation as their “worst nightmare.” His group, Selvame del Tren (Save Me From the Train), documented a massive drill piercing a cavern to support a railway viaduct. Rojo estimates that the Maya Train, partially operational since December, will require up to 17,000 columns along its 1,500-kilometer loop around southeastern Mexico.

Despite a court-ordered suspension pending environmental studies, work on the project continues. Originally planned to run alongside a major highway, the railway was shifted into the jungle to avoid conflicts with hoteliers concerned about traffic delays during construction. Critics accuse Lopez Obrador of rushing to complete the railway before leaving office in October.

The environmental impact is significant. The project has razed 8.7 million trees and damaged the underground ecosystem. Concrete leakage from steel columns has contaminated cenote water, including a well that serves as a source of human consumption. This water eventually reaches the offshore Mesoamerican Reef, the world’s second-largest reef system.

Lopez Obrador dismisses critics as “pseudo-environmentalists” profiting from the “alleged defense of nature.” The construction work, deemed of “national security” importance, enjoys protection from the National Guard.

Reaching affected cenotes requires navigating kilometers from Playa del Carmen, followed by a challenging journey on foot. Inside the caves, thousands of stalactites and stalagmites adorn the cavern walls, some ancient and several meters high.

While Lopez Obrador promises cleanup, environmentalists report ongoing leaks and rust. Drills continue to bore holes into the fragile ground. The newspaper El Universal recently documented five spillages linked to railway construction.

The government claims a balance: for every five completed sections of the train, nine protected natural areas have been created, totaling 1.34 million hectares. Most of this corresponds to the Bajos del Norte National Park, an underwater reserve in the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, a protected area in the state of Campeche aims to become the world’s second-largest rainforest reserve after the Brazilian Amazon.

Tourists arriving at modern Maya Train stations remain blissfully unaware of the environmental concerns. For them, the project represents both an effect and a benefit—a delicate balance between progress and preservation.

Source: France 24