Yucatán Peninsula

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.

Collaborative Archaeology in the Yucatán

I am the Program Director for a cultural heritage initiative, InHerit, based at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. My job involves many different tasks, some only tangentially related to my training as an archaeologist, including general program management, grant writing and fundraising, and public outreach.

On this Day of Archaeology, for the third year in a row, I am part of a collaborative archaeology project on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Our project is entitled Proyecto Arqeologíco Colaborativo del Oriente de Yucatán (Collaborative Archaeology Project of Eastern Yucatan), or PACOY for short. The project is a partnership between archaeologists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and from the Universidad del Oriente de Yucataán (UNO), and the community of Tahcabo. The archaeology project is trying to locate the residential structures of the Maya people who lived in the town immediately preceding and following the arrival of the Spanish. We know from early historical documents that this location was occupied prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The presence of temple mounds and house mounds dotting the surface of the landscape further testifies to this occupation. A colonial church, built in the early 17th Century at the latest, was one of the earlier churches to be built in the region. In both the prehispanic and colonial periods, villagers were obligated to produce quantities of woven textiles and honey. The name, Tahcabo, may be derived from the prodigious quantities of honey produced there.

Postclassic mound adjacent to the colonial church.

Postclassic mound adjacent to the colonial church.


Remains of the old colonial church.



Thus far the archaeological project has focused on mapping and survey work. Our survey has recovered artifacts that suggest a nearly constant habitation of this area from the Pre-Classic period through the modern days. The draw of the landscape is clear: numerous rejolladas (soil-filled cenotes) provide fertile soil for agriculture; several cenotes provide a year-round source of water; and numerous caves not only provided a safe refuge during times of trouble, but also had spiritual significance for the Maya.

In addition to this archaeological work we are also partnering with the community to strategize priories for the investigation of their heritage and to address other quality-of-life issues that the community has identified. Community members are interested in archive work that will document the early history of their community. Parents are interested in developing additional Maya language resources for their children to ensure that they are literate in Maya as well as Spanish. To that end we have plans to work with community members to record local stories and histories in Spanish and Maya that can be bound together for distribution within the village.

Community meeting to discuss the project.

Community meeting to discuss the project.

Students participating in a photo-voice project.

Students participating in a photo-voice project.

One of our project members, UNC graduate student Maia Dedrick, conducted a photo-voice project with a group of secondary school students to identify the good things about living in Tahcabo and the problems that they face as well. The community has formed an incipient heritage committee who we meet with on a regular basis to discuss what we are finding, what the community needs and interests are, and how we can address those with our project or other resources that we might bring to bear. An outstanding UNO student, Lourdes Chan Camaal, speaks Maya and lived in the village for several weeks before the start of archaeological investigations this summer. The relationships she formed have been essential in fomenting the collaborative goals of this project.

July 11, The Day of Archaeology, was the last day of our field season this year. I spent the morning with project members passing out bilingual (Spanish and Yucatec Maya) coloring book to the primary school students and leading the children in a number of games. The passion of these children, and their desire to learn more about their community’s history, is one of the more rewarding parts of my job.

Playing games.

Playing games.

School girls reading the coloring book.

School girls reading the coloring book.










That evening, we signed an agreement between the State Archives of the Yucatán (AGEY) and our nonprofit arm, The Alliance for Heritage Conservation, to work together to tell the stories of some of the earliest towns in this region. This agreement will open a number of opportunities for PACOY as the project moves forward and we continue our work in Tahcabo and the region.

PACOY directors Ivan Batun and Patricia McAnany signing the agreement between AGEY and The Alliance.

PACOY directors Ivan Batun and Patricia McAnany signing the agreement between AGEY and The Alliance.