heritage 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 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 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.


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.

The Tourist

“Hey man, slow down, slow down
Idiot, slow down, slow down”

—Radiohead, “The Tourist”

Paisley Abbey, Paisley, Scotland.

Today’s Day of Archaeology post is neither about video game archaeology (archaeogaming) nor Punk Archaeology, as I’ve largely written about for DoA for the past five years. Instead, on July 28, 2017, I was a tourist and traveler who opted to spend his discretionary pre-flight time in the town of Paisley (near the Glasgow Airport). I had come to Scotland at the invitation of the Merchant City Festival to talk about the Atari excavation and to moderate a panel on Punk Archaeology featuring four people who were in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Paisley in the late 1970s and early 1980s as musicians, as a record shop owner, as a record label “executive”. But seeing as these events were at night, I had my days to myself. So what did I do? I became a heritage tourist, visiting Dumbarton Rock, the Kelvingrove Museum, the Riverside Museum of transportation, the Govan Stones, the Necropolis.

On my last day, the Day of Archaeology 2017, I went to Paisley Abbey, a £3.50 train ride from Glasgow. I exited the railway station at Gilmour Street and immediately took a wrong turn, enabling the psychogeography of Paisley in which I generally spiral out from my point of disembarking to see things no other tourist will see. In this case, urban Paisley. I ultimately found myself in front of the old observatory (which was shut), and then wound my way back down into town along the main road, searching for signage pointing the way to one of Scotland’s most storied abbeys.

Paisley paving stones in Paisley.

Coming back into the town’s center, I found a large kind of macro-mosaic of a giant paisley pattern. As it happens, this town created the pattern which bears its name, and there is a textile museum (which I did not have time to visit) that features the story of Paisley and eponymous design. The town celebrates its heritage in subtle ways like this one, and as I crossed the river, familiar signage (posts with labeled metal arrows) pointed the way to things to see. But there was the Abbey, not 400 yards from the rail station, which I had missed by turning left instead of right.

Paisley Abbey was founded in 1163 by Walter Fitzalan, Scotland’s first High Steward. The Abbey is very much a living building, having seen several expansions, a fire, one major roof collapse, the addition of the central tower, the relocation of graves for the “new” edition of the north transept in the 19th century. I used my phone for photography only. There is no WiFi here. I did not burn my data on hunting for pocket monsters, either. I was drawn to the place on a recommendation from a friend, and needed no digital lure. I opted against the audioguide (which I’ve been told is quite good), instead choosing to speak to one of the volunteers inside the Abbey proper.

Heading in, one is not confronted with advertisements or any kind of gimmick. The shop (and cafe and toilet) is modestly marked and is behind a door that’s kept shut. The way in to the center of the Abbey is well marked and inviting, and I turned the iron ring to unlatch the door, and then gave a sizable push to dislodge the door. I was greeted warmly by two older gentlemen who immediately wanted to know where I was from, and invited me to leave my backpack in one of the pews so I could enjoy the space unencumbered. They seemed genuinely honored that I had chosen Paisley as my last stop. One of the men brought over a 3-ring binder containing historic drawings, maps, and photos of the Abbey over time to walk me through the history of the building, something he said he hadn’t done in quite a while. There was a photo of Queen Victoria’s visit to commemorate the historic Abbey, and we enjoyed finding her amongst the hundreds of people pressed together for such a unique visit.

The docent then gave me a laminated plan of the Abbey, annotated with snippets of information about various elements such as the “Wallace Window” at the back (William Wallace was educated at the Abbey in the 13th century), the tomb chest of Marjory Bruce, and the massive pipe organ installed in 1872, which still plays and is tuned by placing dents in the metal pipes. There is even a plaque of John Witherspoon, native of Paisley, who moved to Princeton, New Jersey (very near my house) and signed the Declaration of Independence. When the docent told me that, he added that he wished Scotland would become independent, too.

As I explored, I read everything on the walls, ancient and modern plaques, plus a wall of laser-printed pictures and signage that gave a running history of the Abbey and its royal guests. The interior space of the Abbey, the coolness of its stones, and the muted light entering its stained glass windows (including a modern one from the 1980s, which reminded me of Tiffany glass), required me to take my time to look and to explore. Paving stones inside the Abbey held names of notable people interred within (and without) the space. A “wee museum” in the sacristy held old stones and newer silver patens. There is a giant stone cross in the back of the Abbey said to have been found near the first construction site, where people of the 11th and 12th centuries would gather before a church was built.

I was admiring the pipe organ when the docent approached me again. He had an atlas, and it was open to a map of the United States. He said he didn’t realize how close New Jersey was to New York City and to Philadelphia. I pointed to where I lived, and he wanted to know if I’d been to Philly, if I’d seen Rocky. I had, and I told him that the film was very much a part of that city’s heritage, that there is a statue of Stallone’s character, and that there are even footprints at the top of the stairs of the art museum. He then said that Scotland has its own “Rocky” story, a 1955 film called Wee Geordie, in which an undersized Scottish lad refuses to give up on his dream to be a world-class hammer-thrower, and refuses to exchange his kilt for other attire when representing the UK in the Commonwealth Games.

At the end of my visit, I realized I had spent an hour here, typically longer than I spend when visiting historic churches, because I was fully engaged with the structure, with how its history had been organized, but more so because of the person I met who was willing to take the time to tell me things if I had the time to listen. I’d noticed this earlier with other Scots I’d met, both friends and strangers. Everyone seems willing to take the time to talk, to slow down, to enjoy a conversation, to learn about something or someone. I have missed that kind of connection in the urbanized East Coast of the US, but recall similar experiences when exploring the High Plains or the American West.

Even though I had a plane to catch, I did not feel rushed, and I learned a lot. There was nothing digital about the place at all (not even an introductory video), and that allowed me to engage with the space itself, and the people within it. My only regret is not remembering the docent’s name.

It felt good to be a tourist, and to slow down. Paisley Abbey reminded me how.

—Andrew Reinhard

PS: I want to extend a very special thank-you to Lorna Richardson and the rest of the DoA collective for allowing me to be a part of the team these past six years.