archaeological tourism

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.

Working Hard or Hardly Working? That is the question.

“Fully employed unemployed is a common problem, and it would be good to have a post about your work.”

Reply to my message from Matt Law when I asked about writing about my situation.

A bit about me

First a little about myself. This post is not supposed to be my curriculum vitae, it just shows all kinds of jobs and occupations an archaeologist must be ready to take in order to have some income.

I graduated from University of Turku, Finland in 2012 from archaeology and in 2014 from folkloristics. My MA-thesis in archaeology was about the Swedish-Russo War of 1741-1743 and conflict archaeological theory. After this I did another Master of Arts degree, because the folkloristics in Turku started it’s own archive studies line. In my second thesis I studied triangulation between folkloristics and archaeology. I studied as an example regular stones in inhumations, using folk archives to find explanations for the stones.

After two Master of Arts degrees I find myself most of the time unemployed. I graduated from folkloristics in May 2014, and I’ve had several short employments after that. Luckily I worked during my studies and paid my membership fees to Museum trade union, so after I graduated I was entitled to daily benefits – after two months of bureaucracy.

The work for archaeologists is scattered and most archaeologists in the profession face unemployment sometimes. Many times. During winter the ground is frozen, so that puts a halt to excavations. Last year (2014) I spent a total of 10 weeks as a digger after my graduation in May. I also wrote articles and held lectures at community colleges (Kansalaisopisto). I’ve tried to get funding to do independent research, but with no success. Year 2015 mostly repeats last year.

Here are a few photos of my fully-employed days in 2014:

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Excavations in Harjavalta at the end of Summer 2014. Heavy rain and an improvised tent.

During the excavations in 2014 in Harjavalta the road to construction site and excavations was blocked with gravel and stones during the weekends to prevent thefts. One Friday the workers forgot that the archaeologists were still working.

During the excavations in 2014 in Harjavalta the road to construction site and excavations was blocked with gravel and stones during the weekends to prevent thefts. One Friday the construction site workers forgot that the archaeologists were still working.

Never try to disrupt the movements of archaeologists equipped with shovels. Archaeologists breaking free in Harjavalta during excavations 2014.

Never try to disrupt the movements of archaeologists equipped with shovels. Archaeologists breaking free in Harjavalta during excavations 2014.

Year 2015 for archaeologist

Like I wrote, year 2015 seems to repeat last year. I worked as a digger in Museovirasto (NBA, National Board of Antiquities) most of April. We circled around Pirkanmaa (Tampere region) and for an archaeologist specialized in conflict archaeology these trips were wonderful, although the excavation sites were “normal digs”. Most sites were located near battlefields of the Finnish Civil War (1918), and I spotted several bullet or shrapnel holes in buildings nearby. I was fascinated with shrapnel tears in the attic of an old house. The master of the house gave me a few pieces of shrapnel as a memento, which were picked from the floor of the attic.

A shrapnel's spilnetrs tore the floor of this attic in Messukylä, Tampere during the Cibil War of 1918.

Shrapnel splinters tore the floor of this attic in Messukylä, Tampere during the Civil War of 1918. I was thrilled to see these!

The shrapnel tears, soon 100 years old, compared to my hand.

The shrapnel tears, soon 100 years old, compared to my hand.

Shrapnel splinters from the battle of Messukylä, 1918.

Shrapnel splinters from the battle of Messukylä, 1918.

It’s moments and discoveries like these that make this profession worth the effort.

Sometimes archaeology is full of sh*t. Especially when you have to dig in a horse pasture. Two horses and one pony were observing kneenly, as two brave diggers crossed the fence and started looking for signs of iron age.

Sometimes archaeology is full of sh*t. Especially when you have to dig in a horse pasture. Two horses and one pony were observing keenly, as two brave diggers crossed the fence and started looking for signs of iron age. Sastamala, Finland in April 2015.

Before this one month job I wrote articles to local news paper Turun Sanomat about the foreign volunteers in Winter War (1939 – 1940). The fee for these writings is small but every little bit helps in my situation. I also had lectures in community colleges. One was about the conflict archaeology of Late Iron Age Finland with title “Lännen pitkä miekka iskee idän sapeliin? Nuoremman rautakauden konfliktiarkeologiaa” (The long sword of west strikes the eastern scimitar? Conflict archaeology of Late Iron Age). I also held five lectures in other college about the history of guerrilla warfare, the radio intelligence in Finland before and during WWII (things I learned during making this lecture made the movie Imitation Game look rather ridiculous, by the way), War of Åland (Crimean war in Finland 1854 – 1855), the Lapland War (1944 – 45, Finns against Germans in Northern Finland) and Foreign volunteers in Finnish wars of 1939 – 1944.

Jobs like these keep me interested in things – with a deadline. It’s important to have a set date, before which I have to read all the books necessary and produce a popular representation of the subject. These jobs are also an outstanding alternative to full-time alcoholism.

As a new profession I was a guide in four days trip to Carelian Isthmus (in Russia) in the beginning of May. We visited battlefields of WWII and I provided the speaks and representations. The preparations to visit Russia were thorough. I made very large maps with cardboards, contact paper and glue, which worked fine. Usually the guides just give A4-sized maps full of sings and arrows, which are incomprehensible.

Dragon's teeth, tank obstacles in Siiranmäki, Carelian Isthmus.

Dragon’s teeth, tank obstacles in Siiranmäki, Carelian Isthmus.

This new profession was fulfilling. Sites were amazing and the trip to Russia was mostly without difficulties. Some roads were in horrible condition, but we got by. Timing was good, since the sites were clear of vegetation and we got to witness the Victory Day Celebration in Viborg.

Currently: what I’m looking for in 24th of July 2015

The trouble with being a tour guide is the same as with being a professional field archaeologist: you have to move to different sites all the time and employment time is short. I’d like to get employed in Turku, but the chances for that are poor. Second chance is to go to longer excavations to some other part of Finland. Currently the private companies do most of these kind of excavations, and so far I haven’t been contacted. Usually one, two, three month excavations are rare and my only chance to get to those is in the beginning of Summer or Fall, when students are back at university. The economical situation doesn’t help.

There is a program to employ people under the age of 30. However, the program ran out of money a month ago and since I haven’t been on daily benefits for 300 days, I can’t get this support.

This week I managed to get one actual job done. During the year 2012 I interviewed war veterans and collected lot’s of material, and made a web site for the museum which employed me. Yesterday I finished the student version of these sites after many difficulties. Today I’ll do the finishing touches to the site. Designing pages like these is difficult for many reasons: I have little IT-training, the software I’m using is simple – for better or worse – and it’s hard to decide the visual design because I’m partly color blind.

Then there are the funds I’m trying to get from different associations or trusts to write books or to do research. The first notice will come next month, after which I hopefully can once again turn into full-time researcher. For a few months.

And there’s the free stuff: reviews to professional magazines, articles with which I try to score “academic points” in case I begin doctoral studies, helping other researchers by email and of course helping other small scale field studies for which I get payed in free accommodations, travels, food and beer. I suppose stuff like this keeps archaeology running – the free work and the beer.