Chichen Itza Master Plan
Plugging Yucatán into the Tourism Circuit
If Governor Ivonne Ortega Pacheco has her way, the State of Yucatan will become a series of interlocking circuits of activities for any tourist on any budget, according to a new master plan announced a few weeks ago.
At a banquet held for officials and the press, the Gobernadora’s office unveiled plans not only for Chichen Itza but also for Yucatan State's future tourism, cultural, economic, and educational development, with special emphasis on Merida, Progreso, Izamal, Yaxcaba, and Kaua. The governor and her staff unveiled an ambitious and sweeping vision for a circuit of activities for tourists and locals, including the building of large new attractions, improving the State’s infrastructure to help tourists get between key points, with all activities interwoven with the stated goal of preservation of the Maya language and culture. The plans took a significant step forward with the official announcement of the Plan Maestro Chichén Itzá (Master Plan: "Chichen Itza").
The gathering featured representatives from the federal government, from CULTUR (Patronato de las Unidades de Servicios Culturales y Turísticos) and OMPRI (Organizacion de Mujeres de PRI), as well as representative members from the archaeological, academic, and artistic communities.
Jorge Esma Bazán, Presidente of CULTUR, told the audience in his keynote speech that Yucatan’s tourism projects are part of an integrated plan. Plan Maestro Chichen Itza envisions whisking tourists between the key archaeological sites of Uxmal and Chichen Itza, then off to the two new planned Maya museums: Museo del Mundo Maya (Museum of the Maya World, in Merida), and the Palacio de la Civilización Maya (Palace of the Maya Civilization), near Chichen Itza in Yaxcaba). Finally, tourists would be given the opportunity to explore the redesigned esplanade under construction in the port city of Progreso, the historic city centers of Izamal and Valladolid, and the natural splendors of Rio Lagartos.
As envisioned, the tourism infrastructure of Yucatan would consist of a series of circuits dedicated to the four inherent features of the peninsula:
- Archaeology circuit: Ek Balam, Chichén Itzá, Mayapan, Xcambo, Dzibulchaltun.
- Colonial circuit: Tizimin, Valladolid, Izamal, Mérida, and the haciendas and convents in the area.
- Ecological circuit: Dzitnup, X’Keken, Saci, Balancanche, Cuzama, Ikil, X-canche, and the cenotes around Yaxcaba.
- Coastal circuit: Rio Lagartos, El Cuyo, San Felipe, Telchac Puerto, Dzilam de Bravo, and Progreso.
These circuits have been conceived around the three concepts of profitability, viability and comparability. Profitability would be attempted, but only while at the same time improving the economic and social well-being of the population. Viability signals the intention of assuring that each region benefits from the projects without negatively affecting the environment, culture, society or by draining other resources. Comparability is the final watchword, signaling the planners' intentions to ensure that the benefits and detriments are measurable and that they are measured for consistency over time and geography.
To support these circuits, the vision includes the construction of a series of new tourist attractions, as well as the expansion, promotion and improvement of the existing ones. The project would also improve the infrastructure supporting the tourist attractions in order to easily and quickly move tourists to and from all of Yucatan's current and future attractions. In addition, the state is also proposing creating a series of institutions that will benefit the people of Yucatán culturally, including a University of Maya Language.
New Yucatan Attractions
Palacio de la Civilización Maya in Yaxcaba. This museum is proposed for construction in Yaxcaba, a small village located about ten kilometers from Chichén Itzá. Yaxcaba also happens to be one of the poorest communities in the state. The Palacio will take advantage of existing features of the community, at one end anchored by the town’s cenote, a large freshwater sinkhole that has provided water for the community for centuries. In the plan, a 110-meter white path (sacbe in Maya) will be the architectural element that ties the museum facility together, connecting an entrance plaza with three individual structures. The entrance plaza will be built in a stairstep fashion to evoke the “fragmented structure” of El Castillo, the dominant pyramid at Chichén Itzá. The entrance plaza will house a box office and a reception area for groups. Inside will be a 300-seat IMAX theater and requisite gift shop, as well as a courtyard, an outdoor amphitheater, and a museum section dedicated to the origins of the Maya world. One of the exhibitions will be called “The Treasures of Chichen,” and will exhibit the gold, jade, and other artifacts that have been extracted from Sacred Well.
Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida. The state began construction on a “Museum of the Maya World” in Mérida near the Siglo XXI convention center on December 21, a date whose significance comes from the Maya calendar, which ends on that day in 2012. The museum will exhibit objects of the ancient Maya, including 600-800 artifacts already on exhibit or in storage at the Museo de Antropologia in Merida. There will also be exhibits devoted to other cultures, similar to what is found in the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. The museum will be 22,000 square meters (237,000 square feet) and will include exhibition halls, gardens, cafe, a gift shop, and an IMAX theater. Funding for the project is coming from a Proyectos de Prestadores de Servicios (PPS), a private/public partnership. This museum will be the first of its kind in the state of Yucatan.
Tourist Complex in Rio Largartos. The governor’s office released no details regarding this part of the plan, although the Xcaret group, which owns resorts in Quintana Roo, recently announced plans to construct three hotels in Valladolid with the idea of building a series of tours that would include visits to Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam.
Expansion of evening programs at Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Every night at Chichen Itza, tourists enter the archaeological zone to see a light show projected on the monuments. A similar program had been held at Uxmal, but it was recently stopped due to mechanical issues. Two years ago the state of Yucatan expanded the offerings at Chichen Itza by hosting what has become a series of high-profile concerts of international stars, performing in front of El Castillo. Artists have included Placido Domingo, Sara Brightman, Elton John and, next year will add Paul McCartney to this distinguished list.
A “tourist intelligence” information system. The state provided no details of this part of the plan, but mentioned the idea in a number of speeches. We are unsure if this is an information system to assist tourists or to track them for the benefit of Yucatan tourism.
Promotion of national and international tourism to Yucatán. The state announced plans to launch a “Yucatán 2012” marketing and advertising campaign to take advantage of 2012, the date of the end of the Maya calendar. Again, the state provided no details of this part of the plan, but mentioned it in various speeches.
Purchase of Chichén Itzá. This master plan has been three years in the making. Even before she won election as governor of Yucatan, Ivonne Ortega Pacheco called for a Plan Integral de Chichén Itzá (Chichen Itza Integrated Plan). At World Tourism Day in 2008, she issued a plea to the federal government to help Yucatan build a sustainable tourism industry the same way it built the Cancun resort area from a sparsely populated sand spit in the 1970s.
One area in particular that required “decisive action” from the federal government was Chichen Itza, according to Ortega. “Help us so that the Wonder of the World does not continue to see its environs deforested, it’s water table polluted, and quality of urban development eroded,” she said. As it turned out, the governor did not wait for the federal government, which during her administration has been hamstrung by a weak world economy and more pressing political priorities such as the escalating War on Drugs. Yucatan took matters into its own hands and effected the acquisition of Chichen Itza.
Since the Spanish Conquest, Chichen Itza had been private property. For centuries Hacienda Chichen, which included the ruins of Chichen Itza, was a cattle ranch. In 1894 an American archaeologist, Edward H. Thompson, purchased the hacienda. Thompson explored the ruins of this plantation, which included dredging the giant sinkhole, now known as the Cenote Sagrado, from which he recovered thousands of gold, jade, ceramic, wood and bone artifacts. These were shipped to the United States, to the Carnegie Institute. In 1926, the Mexican government seized Chichen Itza, charging Thompson with theft.
In 1944 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Thompson had violated no laws and returned the property to his heirs (Thompson had died in 1935). His children sold the hacienda to Yucatan tourism pioneer Fernando Barbachano Peon, who more than a decade earlier had built a small hotel, the Mayaland, on property leased from Thompson. The Barbachano family has owned Chichen Itza, including the Mayaland and Hacienda Chichen hotels, ever since.
One of the pieces to Yucatan’s tourism puzzle was ending the private ownership of Chichen Itza land (the monuments already belonged to the federal government). When Yucatan Gov. Ortega Pacheco issued her plea for federal assistance, the Mexican government had already explored taking the Chichen Itza property by expropriation. That tactic had failed, so the governor’s administration took matters into its own hands and this past spring announced that it had reached an agreement with Hans Jurgen Thies Barbachano to purchase the central archaeological zone for $220 million Mexican Pesos. Now, the land and the monuments are owned by the government, and plans for development can go forward.
Infrastructure in the Mayan World
Improvements and remodeling of Chichen Itza International Airport in Kaua. The airport at Kuau, 17 kilometers from Chichen Itza, had been a pet project of the current governor’s uncle, the late Víctor Cervera Pacheco, when he was governor. Governor Ivonne Ortega Pacheco promises to make this small airport in the center of the Yucatan Peninsula a key element in her transportation strategy and has spent a considerable sum of state funds to improve the airport.
Redesign and renovation of the Malecon in Progreso. Yucatan, despite its extensive coastline, has only one major port, Progreso. While several cruise ship lines already visit the port, the state of Yucatan is looking to increase that traffic and has begun creating a beautiful and elaborate esplanade via massive reconstruction of the Maleconwalkway and the frontage road that runs along the coastline north from the terminal.
Redesign and rebuild roadways to support all parts of the “tourist circuit.” Numerous road projects have been announced and several were recently financed by the Mexican Congress. Other projects, such as infrastructure improvements in the historic city centers of Izamal and Valladolid, were mentioned, but no details were released.
Construction of cross-peninsular trenes rapidos (fast trains). One of the first proposals of the new Ortega Pacheco administration was construction of a “bullet train” across the Yucatán Peninsula, from Mérida to Chichén Itzá and Valladolid, and eventually onto the Maya Riviera in the state of Quintana Roo. Skeptics have dismissed the proposal, and the Mexican Congress has not chosen to finance the dream, but the governor has warned the state legislature that she will be seeking funds to construct the first phase of the train next year. While it will not be a bullet train, such as those in Japan or France, it will be the first regular passenger service train in Yucatán in decades.
Several cultural projects were listed, but no details were released. Among the cultural projects mentioned are:
- Create a Casa de la Cultura del Mundo Maya (House of Culture of the Maya World)
- Promote the foundation of a University of Maya Language
- Impel an alliance between the rural population and the inhabitants of the city of Merida.
How It All Comes Together
The state secretaries of Tourism, Economics, and Education gave addresses on their individual departmental visions of how Plan Maestro Chichen Itza could grow the Yucatan economy, while preserving Yucatan's rich cultural heritage. They proposed ways that their areas of interest would be stimulated and supported by the growth of tourism, driven by extensive Government spending at key sites across Yucatan state. These proposals and visions were well received by the roughly 600 invited guests from the private and government sectors.
Governor Ortega described her views on the future of Yucatan: "Aspiramos a que Chichén Itzá deje de ser sitio de paso para los visitantes y se convierta en el punto de partida de una nueva dinámica turística y también de una nueva lógica productiva en la entidad...” ("We are working towards and hoping for a Chichén Itzá that stops being just a point for visitors to pass through, that becomes the departure point for new tourist dynamics and a new starting point of productivity and profit for the (Yucatan).")
In summary, the Governor articulated her plans for dramatic developments in Yucatan that would rival the investments in Cancun and the Riviera Maya. She envisions that just as it was historically, Chichen Itza would again be the axle and hub of prosperity for the entire Yucatan Peninsula. Her visions include the foundation of a University of the Maya Language to protect and promote Maya culture, a Peninsular bullet train and modernized highway projects linking Chichen Itza with Merida, Progreso, Cancun and the new Palace of the Maya Civilization and the Maya Museum developments. Her proposals were met with hearty applause.
Master Plan: big on ideas, short on details
Governor Ortega and her departmental secretaries certainly provided sweeping projections of what could be built and what could be gained, which leaves unresolved the difficult details of how these grand designs can be funded, how the still-encumbered lands might be acquired, and the construction of vast complexes.
And, of course, the big question is still unanswered: If they build it, will you come?
geoffrey aronson 12 years ago
I have many students in my classes who are bilingual, having mastered at an early age both Maya and English. The range in reaction is large to my queries. For some there is only slight embarrassment when admitting they speak the language; for others there is strong pride. I get asked by friends on the street and community if I speak Maya because they would love to speak to me in their first native language. I have had people teach me a word here and there in Maya without my asking.
Among non speakers and decidedly less indigenuous in ancestral background, there is a market discomfort. I have asked entire classes if anyone speaks Maya and there is a general antipathy toward the question among the fairer skinned.
Anthony Ansola 12 years ago
I have heard what you have written below also. We would be very interested in learning more about what plans if any are in the works. We have several large corporations who would be willing to work with us as SPONSORS of a project at the Yucatan/Chichin Itza area.
Please contact us as soon as possible. We are eager to move forward with this.
"Promotion of national and international tourism to YucatÃ¡n. The state announced plans to launch a â€œYucatÃ¡n 2012â€ marketing and advertising campaign to take advantage of 2012, the date of the end of the Maya calendar. Again, the state provided no details of this part of the plan, but mentioned it in various speeches."
Jane Custer 12 years ago
Some great discussion going on. I learned a lot just reading the responses. My husband and I attended the Maya Academy on calle 64A across from La Ermita. (here's the link to the Maya Academies in Merida) http://www.yucatanliving.com/culture/merida-cultural-centers.htm
These classes are taught in Spanish and the cost was $50 pesos for 10 weeks! We were the only ; the others were all from MÃ©rida and either were married to someone who had Mayan roots and wanted to learn their spouse's native language, or wanted to learn the language of their grandparents etc. (The instructor had everyone share why they wanted to learn Maya) All the beginning classes were full. It was a wonderful experience and showed that the local population does have an interest in keeping the language alive.
We worked for the World Heritage Alliance-part of the United Nations Foundation- to educate local populations (in Spanish) in the Yucatan Peninsula about the importance of the five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Yucatan and ways to support the local populations. It was an admirable idea but the WHA dissolved and there has been no real follow-through. But the Barbachano family offered to donate land for a Maya Cultural Center to be used by the Mayan community however they deemed best. My experience with the Barbachanos has been extremely positive. With as many as 10,000 tourists a day visiting ChichÃ©n ItzÃ¡-the last thing the site needs is more tourists. Machu Picchu, limits the number of visitors be day and is still in peril of being placed on the endangered list. I believe ChichÃ©n Itza should also limit the number of daily visitors.
Also, did anyone attend the Philharmonic Concert at Uxmal last March? You may have noticed that outside the entrance there are open air stands where local Mayan sell handicrafts, purses, shawls, guayaberas, etc. We spoke to these vendors and found that although they had been born in the villages all around Uxmal, most had only managed to enter the archaeological site once, if ever. The oldest woman there told us she had only been inside once and couldn't get the free tickets because by the time she managed to take a bus to MÃ©rida to get the tickets, they were gone. My husband went inside and asked who had leftover tickets. He gathered ten and offered them to the vendors. They were too shy or to embarrassed to accept them, except the "matriarch" who said she would only enter on my husband's arm. He escorted her in and the organizers gave her a seat in the front for the concert. She was beaming! If you speak Spanish, and live in MÃ©rida at least parttime, see how you can help the local communities have a voice. The populations born around the sites often have no access to the cities built by their ancestors. This need to change.
Stephen Byfield 12 years ago
Not everything comes easy. If the cartels can be kept out and violence at a minimum all the people of the Yucatan could benefit both directly and indirectly from these plans. I would love to be able to travel the Yucatan comfortably and conveniently. It's so very good to hear of someone who wants to work to make Mexico better and to administer the natural and historical assets it has.
My thoughts and prayers are with Governor Ortega.
Working Gringos 12 years ago
No, you will have no trouble. There are signs and plenty of people at the airport who speak English. Oh but it is on the second level. You check in on ground level and then go upstairs to your gate.
Alex Morrell 12 years ago
Is getting to concourse B at the Merida airport (MID) going to be a challenge for someone who speaks no Spanish? It's not on the second level or a long walk from the check-in/security area is it?
Dr. Steven Fry 12 years ago
It's really good to hear of the interest in Maya language both as a way of maintaining Maya culture and as a way to build bridges between rural communities and Yucatan's big cities. So few Maya who live in Merida speak Maya language, that in the cities, Mayan has been mostly relegated to something that only grandparents know and use, except for a few teens who now think it's a cool secret-language. The allure of Madison Avenue style marketing on TV is quickly homogenizing Mexican culture among her youth, which will likely have the same effect as "mall-culture" in the USA, erasing rich regional cultural differences in just a generation. It saddens me to think of Yucatan as little different from the rest of Mexico, in a future time when being Yucatecan may only mean that you eat the occasional cochinita pibil, salbutes, panuchos, relleno negro, or papadzules. Since cultures die when their language dies, keep practicing your Maya phrases, (see http://www.yucatanliving.com/yucatan-survivor/mayan-language-for-beginners.htm & http://www.yucatanliving.com/culture/mayan-language-for-beginners-2.htm). You'll be amazed at the smiles that erupt from even 20 feet away when you greet someone in Maya.
Florence Puente 12 years ago
Thank you for the detailed information. The governor has very ambitious plans and perhaps within a decade these can come to fruition. I just hope that the Yucatan will not become another Cancun in the process!
Khaki Scott 12 years ago
Don't count the Mayan language out quite yet... From Maya News (April 2010), we learned that 68% of the almost 2 million of Yucatecos speak the Mayan language; however, the number of Maya-speakers who use this language to communicate to each other has been falling.... Of two thousand rural teachers working in 600 schools, only 5% do not speak the Mayan language, the other 95% speak Maya perfectly, which is an advantage for Mayan children and makes their learning easier.... ... In rural schools, it is an obligation that the teachers speak the Mayan language, because most of the children in Valladolid, TizimÃn, ChichimilÃ¡, Peto, Tekax, Ticul, Chemax and others municipalities do not speak Spanish.
CasiYucateco 12 years ago
1) EJ Albright knows what he has talking about. There are not many living people who have researched the 20th Century history of Chichen Itza as thoroughly as he has and almost zero outside academia.
2) for Casa Pepem - the Progreso harbor is hardly in need of dredging. A channel is kept clear 6 km offshore at the end of the world's longest pier. Container vessels, tanker ships and cruise ships much larger than the shuttle ferry arrive many times per week. It's not the harbor preventing the ferry, but a solvent operator with steady business demand. The great majority of travelers prefer to arrive within a few hours, rather than 3-4 days. Not sure that will change.
Lastly, I certainly hope efforts to encourage and preserve the Mayan language is successful. It's true that a majority of the youth shun Maya in favor of English or Spanglish to be "cool," but we've met some who just delight in knowing a secret way to communicate. And met a few who said, "It sounds ugly" when questioned why they don't want to speak like their parents and grandparents who know the language. So, it's a mixed bag. We're all in favor of any efforts that can be done to preserve the language in this mass media, race to the bottom, common denominator world. Cultural differences make the world more interesting!
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