Mexican archaeologist, MA Managing Archaeological Sites by UCL (researching the issues of the management of archaeological sites within modern urban contexts), and BA in Archaeology by Autonomous University of Yucatan. Former English Heritage and UNESCO intern. In 2016 was the representative of Mexico on an international programme for management of tourism in World Heritage Sites, in Kobe-Kyoto, funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Currently Head of the Technical Unit for Planning and Management of Archaeological Sites, at the Sites Operation Department of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico City. Twitter: @eduescar

The Challenge of Managing Visitors to Archaeological Sites in the Mayan Riviera, Mexico

In the first week of July I went to the Mayan Riviera as part of my duties as the Head of the Unit for Planning and Management of Archaeological Sites in the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). The main objective of this field visit was to carry out an holistic inspection of the current management and operation status of the archaeological sites open to the public on the easter coast of the Yucatan Peninsula (commonly known as the Mayan Riviera). The sites I visited were Muyil, Tulum, Xelhá, Xcaret and Playa del Carmen. These are my preliminary results of this visit (I am still working on the processing of the data – very interesting information!)

First of all, some location information. The sites I visited are located on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, within the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. As some of you dear readers may know, Quintana Roo is one of the main tourisitc destinations of Mexico (and the world I would say), with two main touristic beach hubs, Cancun and Playa del Carmen. On the coast, the Mayan Riviera, several archaeological sites are open for public visits, and this may be the main challenge in this region of Mexico.

Location of the visited Mayan archaeological sites on the eastern coast of Quintana Roo

Muyil

Muyil is managed by the Director of Operations of Tulum, considering is very close to this site. The area open to the public is quite small, but what the regional authorities have been doing is to consolidate the site as a model example of how to maintain the vegetation. This is more important than you may thought. The weather on the region is very humid and the jungle around the sites may be an obstacle for the tourism, for what a proper gardening and maintenance programme is necessary. Muyil is a site with a small amount of visitors per month so the management strategies are focused on guarantee a visitation experience. Something very important about density of visitors will be noticed further on.

Access to the archaeological site.

Interpretative signage in Muyil.

Maintained green areas.

“The castle”, Muyil’s main structure.

Tulum

Tulum is the more visited archaeological site in the Mexican Mayan Region, just ahead of Chichen Itza (there may be months when Chichen Itza is more visited than Tulum, but in general Tulum has more visitors). This is mainly because its location, on the heart of the touristic development of the Mayan Riviera, surrounded by the main cities in the area, modern Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancun. It is common, if you go to one of these resort cities, to have a day trip to Tulum. Also, it is known that Tulum is the favourite beach destination for visitors that want to do both, archaeological tourism and beach (and I have to say, the very turquoise colour of the Caribbean, white sand, rocky cliffs, and pre-Hispanic Mayan buildings behind you, it is actually quite impressive and breath taking).

Visitors on the viewing point of the sea and the main structure, The Castle.

The inspection visit to Tulum was focused on evaluate the conservation of the heritage signage. The weather in the coast is very agressive, and the sunlight may damage the signage fabrics. Although I took the chance of being in the site to take some photographs of the areas where visitors congregate the most. And yes, there may be a problem in the near future (I was very impressed with the amount of visitors on a regular Tuesday. According to the Director of Operations of the site, the day with the major visitors density is Saturday and Sunday, with a “rush hour” – yes, Tulum has rush hours – between 9am and 11am), for what a visitors management programme will be implemented very soon.

Queue to buy the entrance ticket.

Rush hour in Tulum.

The weather could be very agressive. Finding shade is a must!

Tulum is the only archaeological site in Mexico with three opening times. One regular visitation time, between 9am and 5pm, and two special opening times (which require a special ticket, more expensive than the regular access ticket), one in the early morning, and the other one after closing time. I had the opportunity to enter into the site after the last group visited the site. And let me tell you something: Tulum without visitors is MAGICAL. This made me think about the great challenge for us heritage managers to implement visitors management plans considering all elements, mostly the visitors experience and the conservation of the archaeological heritage.

Tulum without visitors. So quiet! You can even hear the sea.

Xelhá

You might heared before this name, Xelhá. This is because Xelhá is actually two places: the most known Xelhá is the resort-beach park in the coast, famous for snorkeling activities and eco-tourism; the other place less known is the archaeological site, which gave the name to the resort-beach park.

The site have been in moderate abandonment, but currently the regional offices of INAH in Quintana Roo have being implementing a major programme in order to diversify the visitation offers outside Tulum. I have been closely involved on this kind of programmes in Mexico, developing archaeological routes using major archaeological sites as a focus point in order to communicate to the public the opportunity they have to visit other archaeological sites, some of them bigger and more impressive than the most visited ones (not always, though). This measures are very important in the Mayan Riviera, around Tulum. As the pictures above may tell you, Tulum may have in the near future some difficulties with the carrying capacity of the site and public areas.

Main entrance to the site.

Updated introduction sign, with a site plan.

Detail of the site plan updated sign.

Paths of the site are being renovated.

The visit route in Xelhá, tracked with a GPS. This is actually the route available for visitors.

Xelhá, then, is being attended with this consideration. The visitor services infrastructure is being attended, with a general programme of conservation and update of signage being carried out. Xelhá is a very impressive archaeological site, with some archaeological features unique in the region: it has a pre-Hispanic artificially made road known in Mayan language as “Sacbé” (which means “white road”). This road connects the center of the site with a resiential and ceremonial archaeolgical group known as “The Jaguar Group”, which is located next to a natural water source known as “cenote”. One problem in this site, though: MOSQUITOS. Oh my god…

Sacbé (white road).

The sacbé (white road) connects the center of the site with the Jaguar Group. Notice the artificial elevation of the road above the bedrock.

The Jaguar Group.

The cenote, a natural water source common in the Yucatan Peninsula.

About Xcaret and Playa del Carmen: those sites are very interesting cases of management of archaeological heritage in the region. The archaeological buildings of Xcaret are scatered within a resort-park named also Xcaret, and Playa del Carmen (originally known in Mayan language as Xamanhá) is a site scatered within a residential area and hotels. But that would be for another post. I am still working on the data. Stay tuned!

Note: All the management data collected on the field is being desk-processed in Mexico City.

Living and managing archaeological sites in a historic urban landscape: Mexico City

“Let’s start from a statement speaking about the city of the ancient Mexicans: Mexico-Tenochtitlán has been and still is the root of all that has happened in this enormous metropolis, it is the substratum of the nation’s capital.”

“Vamos a partir de una afirmación al hablar de la ciudad de los antiguos mexicanos: México-Tenochtitlán ha sido y es la raíz de todo lo que ha acontecido en esta enorme metrópolis, es el sustrato de la capital del país.”

– Miguel León Portilla (2001).

Museo Nacional de Antropología

Sacred Square of Tenochtitlan, at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

 

Mexico City is the capital of the United Mexican States (official name of Mexico) and the fourth most populated city in the world with 21 million inhabitants, according to the recent United Nations revision on World Urbanization Prospects (UN 2014), just after Tokyo, Delhi, and Shanghai. Its historical background is vast and currently visible as an expression of continuity of human occupation through time and accumulation of cultural layers by landscape transformation, where its World Heritage value lies.

Founded in AD 1325, taken and afterwards destroyed by the Spanish army during the conquest in AD 1521, the pre-Hispanic city (‘cities’) of Mexico-Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco located in central Mexico was once the capital of the Mexica Empire. Today, for those who live in or visit Mexico City it is difficult to imagine, or be aware, that below the streets and colonial buildings of the Historic Centre, a city on an island, in the middle of a lake, connected to the mainland and surrounding settlements by straight causeways, existed just a few centuries ago. Since the foundation of Mexico-Tenochtitlan until modern Mexico City today, the human occupation in the urban area has been permanent and constantly growing.

Diego Rivera's mural of the everyday life in Tenochtitlán-Tlatelolco (National Palace).

Diego Rivera’s mural of the everyday life in Tenochtitlán-Tlatelolco (National Palace).

I live in Mexico City, more specifically in the Historic Centre, which was declared Historical Monuments Zone by the federal government in 1980, and inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1987, alongside with the southern lakeside colonial town of Xochimilco, as one of the world’s outstanding urban landscapes, which illustrates the historic transformation of the environment and the great periods in the history of the Mexican capital. The actual boundaries of the World Heritage Property follows the boundaries of the Historical Monuments Zones, according to the limits of the city in the 19th century (perimeter A), and a buffer zone (perimeter B, where I actually live).

Wider perspective to see the dimension of the urban area of Mexico City with the Historic Centre boundaries.

Wider perspective to see the dimension of the urban area of Mexico City with the Historic Centre boundaries.

Mexico City's Historic Centre boundaries. Perimeter A (red) and Perimeter B (blue). The main archaeological sites are indicated.

Mexico City’s Historic Centre boundaries. Perimeter A (red) and Perimeter B (blue). The main archaeological sites are indicated.

Not only I live in the historic centre, but also I work in the area, in the back of the Metropolitan Cathedral (the biggest in America), next to the Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone. I’m currently working at the Sites Operation Department of the National Coordination of Archaeology, within the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which is the government body responsible of the preservation, conservation, communication and research of the cultural heritage in Mexico. On this matter, it is important to clarify that the cultural heritage in Mexico is regulated by federal law, and this means also the conceptual definition of that heritage, which is identified as artistic (20th century), historical (1521 until 19th century), and archaeological (before 1521, the year of the fallen of the pre-Hispanic city of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, by the Spanish army).

Bearing in mind those cultural heritage specifications, on my daily basis at the Sites Operation Department as the planning and management in chief, alongside with my colleagues, I look forward to the management of the archaeological heritage, specifically of the 187 archaeological sites officially opened to the public in the country. This is a really impressive number, if we consider that the INAH is the only institution responsible of the archaeology in the whole country, and that in total there’s an estimate of about 45,000 registered archaeological sites. But, my job is not only directed to these 187 sites, also to the 130 archaeological sites with some kind of visit, even though they are not officially opened to the public. The Sites Operation Department have the responsibility to look for the management, protection, regulation, infrastructure development, and operation and logistics of the sites organisation of personal and resources. It is the archaeological heritage, before 1521, the cultural resource that my department is responsible of.

The pre-Hispanic archaeological remains of Mexico-Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco have been identified and excavated in particular areas within the Historic Centre of Mexico City, from the first findings in 1790 of the ‘Coatlicue’ and ‘Piedra del Sol’ monoliths during reformation works of the city’s main plaza (known as “Zócalo”), to the discovery of the ‘Coyolxauhqui’ monolith in 1978, from where the research and excavations of the Templo Mayor next to the Metropolitan Cathedral begun, consolidating the INAH’s Urban Archaeology Project (PAU), until today.

Coatlicue (left) and the Piedra del Sol or "Aztec Calendar" (right). Both monoliths were found in 1790 in the main square.

Coatlicue (left) and the Piedra del Sol or “Aztec Calendar” (right). Both monoliths were found in 1790 in the main square.

 

Coyoulxauqui monolith (1978).

Coyoulxauqui monolith (1978).

Archaeological research within urban contexts was a new approach in the first half of the 20th century, when the Mexican administration was keen on the research directed to the study and reconstruction of the most prominent and monumental archaeological sites around the country (e.g. Teotihuacan and Chichén Itzá). The constantly growing development and urbanization of Mexican cities brought a new concern with archaeological practice, reflected in the increasing implementation of archaeological strategies to rescue and preserve the archaeological heritage under threat of damage or destruction by the new urban developments, which was (and still is) more evident in Mexico City and the metropolitan area.

Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone, north of the Historic Centre's boundaries.

Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone, north of the Historic Centre’s boundaries.

Cuicuilco Archaeological Zone, in the southern part of the city, all surrounded by urban areas.

Cuicuilco Archaeological Zone, in the southern part of the city, all surrounded by urban areas.

Current research strategies to approach the archaeological heritage within urban areas in the last 25 years in Mexico City and other Mexican cities around the country have been determined by pressure of the constant use of spaces within the city. The archaeological activity is restricted in time and space, and precise and holistic strategies are needed and have to be improved, which sometimes are influenced by the political context.

Going to the office, I walk by every day next to archaeological remains integrated to the colonial buildings or modern urban spaces, which are the visible witnesses of the pre-Hispanic layer of the city, and are mostly un-recognized and misunderstood. Some examples of archaeological remains within the historic centre are the pre-Hispanic stone in Madero Avenue with an Aztec design called “Chalchihuitl”, a military shield; the snake head in a colonial building corner where the City Museum currently is; the temple of the god of wind, also known as the “Temple of Ehécatl” within one of the most crowded metro stations, Pino Suárez (discovered in 1968 during its construction); the Templo Mayor archaeological zone, and even Tlatelolco archaeological zone, further north the Historic Centre’s boundaries but part of the pre-Hispanic cultural landscape of the island-city of Tenochtitlán.

A stone with an Aztec design in a colonial building facade (Madero Avenue).

A stone with an Aztec design in a colonial building facade (Madero Avenue).

Snake head integrated to a colonial building corner (City Museum).

Snake head integrated to a colonial building corner (City Museum).

The temple of the god of wind, within Pino Suárez metro station.

The temple of the god of wind, within Pino Suárez metro station.

Because of this panorama my MA dissertation in UCL was related with the interpretation of the wider context, the historic urban landscape, in order to communicate to the public the relevance of understanding all these remains as part of a single environment, and not as isolated sites without cultural context. At my working department, we look for the development of a management system that considers this current context on the cultural heritage management in the city, trying to take advantage of the Historic Centre boundaries and work in a planning process in all management levels, world heritage, federal declaration, archaeological sites, the public, conservation, interpretation and communication. It is such a challenge, not only alongside the country, but also because the complexity of the city’s cultural layers. Working in the management plans of Templo Mayor and Tlatelolco, we can link both sites not only in a management level, which is regulated by the Institute (which is an advantage in the sense of coordination of resources, processes, and information), but also in the wider interpretation level, looking forward to a better preservation and understanding of the sites within a common cultural landscape.

Diego Rivera's mural of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco. Tenochtitlán on the right, Tlatelolco on the left.

Diego Rivera’s mural of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco. Tenochtitlán on the right, Tlatelolco on the left.

Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone (Tenochtitlán).

Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone (Tenochtitlán).

A model of Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone, where is possible to appreciate the context of the site within the main buildings of the Historic Centre (Templo Mayor Museum).

A model of Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone, where is possible to appreciate the context of the site within the main buildings of the Historic Centre (Templo Mayor Museum).

Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone (also known as "The Three Cultures Square")

Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone (also known as “The Three Cultures Square”)

Another perspective of Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone.

Another perspective of Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone.

Following the UNESCO’s historic urban landscape statement, the key to understanding and managing any historic urban environment is the recognition that the city is not a static monument or group of buildings, but subject to dynamic forces in the economic, social and cultural spheres that shaped it and keep shaping it. The archaeological heritage in Mexico City’s Historic Centre could be sources of social cohesion, awareness of the pre-Hispanic past, factors of diversity and drivers of creativity, innovation and urban regeneration.

Mexico City's main square, also known as "Zócalo", with the colosal flag, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the National Palace.

Mexico City’s main square, also known as “Zócalo”, with the colosal flag, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the National Palace.

Madero Avenue, which connect the main square with the west of the Historic Centre. The Latin American Tower in the background.

Madero Avenue, which connect the main square with the west of the Historic Centre. The Latin American Tower in the background.

Mexico City's skyline, with the volcanos Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl in the background.

Mexico City’s skyline, with the volcanos Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl in the background.

And, finally, I would like to share my personal project looking for a wider and friendly communication of the archaeological heritage in Mexico City, the country, and international context. I created CONARQUEmx, an outreach communication initiative which includes articles, photography, academic perspectives, and guided tours to the unknown and untold pre-Hispanic Mexico City.