Quintana Roo

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.