Maya Train

Mexico's controversial 'Maya Train' receives $42bn federal grant for archaeological research and preservation

With more than 14,000 artefacts discovered in the project's path, protestors say pre-Hispanic heritage sites could be destroyed by the construction

The Pirámide Kinich Kakmó in Izamal Ted McGrath

The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has received a $42bn grant from the Mexican government to research archaeological sites that could be impacted by the construction of the controversial “Maya Train” project, a high-speed train line envisioned to stretch across 1,500 kilometres connecting several Mayan archaeological zones in the Yucatán Peninsula, from Palenque in Chiapas to Cancún in Quintana Roo.

A team of around 80 archeologists have already collected nearly 14,000 artefacts since the train line broke ground in 2018, using laser topographic scanning equipment that can reach depths ranging from 3,000 ft to 16,000 ft. However, the development has progressed without alterations to the route, sparking protests from preservationists that pre-Hispanic heritage sites could be subject to destruction and looting.

The grant was announced this month by the Mexican secretary of culture, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, who said INAH will use the money to boost efforts to research unearthed archaeological sites along the train line route. The funds will also help the agency conserve existing sites and renovate facilities and museums, as well as open spaces previously inaccessible to the public.

The announcement follows years of protests and legal injunctions against the project from local communities, more than 50% of which are Indigenous Mayans. Locals claim that the organisations overseeing the project—the INAH and the National Fund for Tourism Development (Fonatur)—are not disclosing their findings, process and impact, and allege that some who worked on construction sites suspect that looting is taking place. The organisations could not be reached for comment at the time of this publication.

The project is estimated to cost between $6.5bn and $7.3bn, which the Mexican government is funding with a tourism tax levied from the Yucatán region and funds from diverted programmes, as well as a colossal 650% budget increase for the tourism department in 2021, of which 95% will be allocated to the train line. The Maya Train is due to make 30 stops, including at 19 newly built stations, with the first section of the project due to be completed by 2023.

None of the archaeological findings have been disclosed but the INAH confirms that the highest concentration of artefacts—spanning more than 6,000 pieces—were discovered between Calkini and Izamal, home to ancient sites like the Pirámide de Itzamatul and the Pirámide de Kinich Kakmó. Another 3,000 pieces were found between Izamal and Cancún.