Beyond the Tourist Veil in Mayan Mexico

Environmental issues in mexicoby Dawn Paley

From my perch in front of a small coffee shop in the town of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, I watched a steady flow of visitors walk from the bus station to the hotel district, in search of a place to lay down their heads – and their packs.They arrived in ones, twos and threes, metre-high backpacks hoisted up on their shoulders, extra hiking boots dangling from the sides.

As each of the travelers came trudging up the road, I wondered if they had arrived because of a rumour, or if it was for something else. After all, Palenque has long been an important stop on the tourist trail through southern Mexico and Guatemala, known for the stone ruins of the ancient Mayan city that lay seven kilometres outside of town.

But over the last year, according to Marcelo Hernandez, director of the Palenque National Park, the number of visitors to the archeological site has jumped from around 400,000 a year to upwards of 500,000.

Hérnandez thinks a large part of the jump in tourism stems from  what he calls “curiosity” about the fact that the last annotation in the Mayan calendar is on December 22, 2012. “All that is a myth,” he said, hesitating for a moment while choosing his words. “A kind of found opinion.”

Even so, Hernandez, like many Mayans and archeologists, didn’t dismiss the idea that the prognostications of the people who inhabited the ancient city of Palenque, and other Mayan cities, were important. “I think that we can better explain it as being about changes,” he said. “Changes in our environment, in factors like climate change and other phenomenon that are occurring.”

Although said calendar inscriptions aren’t found at Palenque, it hasn’t slowed the flow of visitors eager to get close to the massive historic site before the end of 2012. Every month, Palenque plays host to tens of thousands of Mexican tourists and foreign backpackers, many of whom have a special space in their towering packs reserved for a brick-sized Lonely Planet travel guide.

The town of Palenque is described in travel guides as a hum-drum place that is essentially just a “jumping off point” for tourists to visit the ruins. It only takes a short walk through the city centre to realize that it is actually a remarkably vibrant and lively place, where the sprawling local market thrives, despite the arrival of Walmart’s local subsidiary and other chain stores. There is a distinct feeling that the tourists going through town contribute something to the economy, but that life for locals goes on, and isn’t built around catering to foreigners. The tourist district features a well-conserved swath of jungle, replete with birds, bugs, lizards, and larger creatures like howler monkeys and Central American Agoutis, locally known as Tepezquintles.

On the sides of the roads in and out of town, pro-Zapatista graffiti graces road signs, a reminder that Palenque sits in the same jungle area made famous during the Indigenous uprisings of the l990s. Conflicts linked to highway expansion and national park creation have erupted repeatedly between Zapatista supporters, paramilitaries and state forces in the area.

Six years ago, Subcommandante Marcos visited Palenque with a Zapatista entourage.

“The big rich capitalists only use [the archeological site] to come visit as if it were from a culture that is already dead, as if the indigenous Mayas, some Zapatistas and some not, no longer existed or had died out with the triumph of neoliberalism in the world,” he said during a speech in Palenque’s central park. That said, apart from postcards featuring masked fighters for sale at the tourist shops, there’s little evidence of the Zapatista movement in Palenque today.


“Ruinas, Ruinas, Ruinas,” calls out a man with a beckoning voice standing beside a line of kombis, or mini-vans. As the vans fill, they shuttle from Palenque town to the edge of the Mayan city nearby.

We arrived early to visit the ruins, as the spring sun is unbearable by mid-day. As we stepped out onto the grounds, a tour group stood back from the imposing Skull Temple, listening to their guide, while other workers chatted under the shade of a broad leafed tree, the sound of lawnmowers audible in the background.

Many of the buildings in Palenque, which reached its splendour between 600 and 750 AD, are as spectacular as anything on display in Rome. The palace was built over a span of 400 years, its massive columns and steep staircases leading to rooms where ancient murals are still visible. Other rooms feature carvings of nobility from nearby empires, and high walls include glyphs telling the history of the Palenque dynasty, which covered much of the present day Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco.

In all, the ancient site is just over two square kilometres in size. According to the National Institute of Archeology and History,  it was home to 8,000 people at its peak, making it one of the most dense cities in Meso-america.

Palenque is located in one of the rainiest areas in modern Mexico, receiving an average of 10 feet of rain during the six month rainy season. Among the ruins are aqueducts, as well as the first known pressurized water system in the Americas. Not far from Palenque is the powerful Usumacinta River.

Only a tenth of the stone structures at Palenque have been cleared out of the dense rainforest. I meet two workers, using their machetes to clear new vines and growth overtaking the rock slab steps up to the cool, dark chamber that once held the remains of nobles. As they swished their machetes, they spoke to each other softly in Tzeltal, one of two Mayan languages still spoken in the area.

These men, like the other Mayans working in the archeological zone, were from one of two communities whose traditional lands are today included in the boundaries of a national park, preventing them from leading the land-based lifestyle of their people. Instead of planting corn and beans, tending to animals and using the forest for their own needs, members of these communities have found themselves working in the tourist trade.

On the trail that leads from the Palace to secondary buildings in Palenque, José Pérez sat selling small calendar figures, each depicting a month in the Mayan year. Pérez is from the community of El Naranjo, which is inside the National Park. He said that few of the half million tourists who visit the ruins make it to his community, which numbers about 1,000, and is a three hour walk from the ancient city.


Contrary to popular belief, backpackers tend to be on a tight schedule. The stop off at Palenque is part of a route between Guatemala’s Tikal, the largest of all ancient Maya cities, and the colonial city of San Cristobal in Chiapas. Some might spend a day at the Aguas Azules waterfall. This is another park mired in controversy, as families living inside the park (some, in this case, allied with the Zapatistas) search for ways to survive on lands that are subject to strictly enforced environmental laws forbidding them to plant and harvest. But for many tourists, this region is a two day affair, at most, and it’s entirely possible to leave thinking that nature is being protected, and that modern Mayans exist in an easy harmony with their surroundings.

Anyone who has done a little background reading (other than the Lonely Planet), however, knows that that’s simply not the case. In order to learn more about what is happening in this resource-rich area, I took another route, along the Mexican border road that follows the Usumacinta. It sure didn’t take long to get off the tourist trail.

Just a couple of hours outside Palenque, on a road that leads to three more archeological sites, Piedras Negras, Yaxchilan, and Bonampak, the kombi I was traveling in was searched three times at three separate army checkpoints. At one of the stops, as a soldier barked at passengers demanding our identification, I noticed a crudely made sign indicating that the army was working to protect tourists. More likely, the army was looking for Central American migrants or drug traffickers, either to turn them in or to extort money from them in return for safe passage. After each checkpoint, we would be on our way again, continuing along the country road in sweltering heat, surrounded by dense forests, interrupted now and again by stark clear cuts.

Near the Mexican town of Benemerito Las Americas, I visited a village on the other side of the river, in Guatemala. I was there to meet with Agustin Tebalam, an organizer with the Peten Front in Defense of the Usumacinta Basin. The Frente Petenero, as they’re called locally, formed to prevent the construction of five proposed dams along a river as powerful and rich as BC’s Fraser. A short distance from the shady spot I spoke with Tebelam, families washed their clothes and kids played on a collection of rocks sticking up out of the clear blue water.

“If they succeed in building these dams, there will be nothing left of our communities, they will be completely submerged,” said Tebalam, whose house is a few hundred metres from the river’s edge in the cooperative of Los Laureles in Peten, Guatemala. “The threat is huge.”

The dams would also mean flooding out Piedras Negras, another ancient Mayan city on the edge of the river.

Life along the Usumacinta isn’t easy: every year, the river swells up and spreads outwards by kilometres, flooding local communities. One local priest told me that until the water levels reach above peoples’ knees in the street, life goes on as usual. But according to Tebalam, dams would permanently flood their homes. Locals not only bathe and wash in the river, they use it for drinking water, for fishing, and for sand used in building. Tebalam estimates at least 35,000 people would be displaced by the proposed dams, which, if built, will be operated jointly by Mexico and Guatemala.

Tebalam is one of a group of community leaders planning a referendum to pre-empt the construction of these dams, which will take place at the end of April.

On the gravel roads that connect the village of Los Laureles to other communities on the Guatemalan side of the river, hand painted signs display anti-dam messages. These days activists regularly make the five hour bus ride into Flores, the capital of Peten, as they prepare for the municipal-level vote on new dams in the area.

It’s not just the distances between communities that make organizing here difficult.

 “The army is constantly around, the police control everything, including the movement of each of the communities, what’s happening in our communities,” said Tebalam. “It’s almost the same as before,” he said, referring to what life was like here during Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict, which ended in 1996. Over 200,000 people were killed during the war, and there are over 50,000 disappeared. The United Nations later determined that genocide took place in Guatemala over this period, as the majority of victims were civilians of indigenous descent.

The risks activists take in speaking out in such a militarized region are huge. In February of 2011, Ramiro Chon was shot in the back eight times as he entered a health clinic in the municipality of Sayaxché, in northern Guatemala. Chon was a community organizer, active around community health,  who, according to an obituary, “participated in analysis and discussion of the effects of the depredation of natural resources, the installation of dams, and oil extraction.”

Considering ancient archeological sites in the context of modern day mega projects is certainly outside the scope of tourist publications and travel guides, which tend to emphasize a detailed reading of the past while denominating present day conflicts as “no go” zones for travellers. But only by connecting the past and the present in Mesoamerica will we be able to stand together with those who are defending their land, their history, and their future.


Sponsored by Glass Waters Foundation

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[From WS Summer 2012 issue]

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