“Dama Blanca”, the Cenote showcasing the Damages caused by Tren Maya in Tulum
The construction works of Section 5 of the Tren Maya, which will run from Cancun to Playa del Carmen in Quintana Roo, have caused a sinkhole in the Akumal area. Additionally, a cenote has been uncovered, now known as the “Train’s Fall.” The ongoing developments in this region confirm the concerns raised by environmental activists for the past two years: this area is unsuitable for such a megaproject.
From the project’s inception, the National Tourism Promotion Fund (Fonatur) assured that 70 percent of Section 5 of the Tren Maya would be built on an elevated viaduct to avoid damaging the cenotes. However, the construction process involves drilling into the ground and inserting steel-reinforced piles into these water wells. Experts warn that one of the consequences is water contamination.
“The injection of these enormous steel-clad piles, reaching depths of up to 25 meters, will penetrate the water systems. In a way, these holes, these columns supporting the train, are piercing through the aquifer and disrupting two types of ecosystems—one existing in the freshwater above the sinkhole and the other in the saltwater beneath it,” cautions Octavio del Río, a specialist in underwater archaeology and spelunking.
Due to these actions, the water supply for a significant portion of the Yucatan Peninsula is now at risk, along with the ecosystems that support the region’s endemic species.
“Once you disturb it with these oxidants, the water’s ionization will change its taste and color, along with the entire microclimate that has fostered life for organisms. Eventually, the altered water will permeate into the ocean and reach the reef. They are already raising the train tracks, injecting these columns, and it’s a story that will end badly and affect us all. The columns will erode and rust,” warns Octavio del Río.
The cenote known as the “Train’s Fall” was discovered in March 2022 after the vegetation was cleared for construction. At that time, it was barely visible, concealed beneath some stones. However, the machinery’s work led to a collapse of over five meters, exposing the cenote.
“We still don’t know what they will do; there is no flow of information. Everything is highly classified, particularly the work being done in the different sections. Naturally, they won’t announce if they have discovered a new cenote or if a part collapsed; they will keep it from the public,” points out Elías Siebenborn, an activist and member of Cenotes Urbanos and Vive Cenotes.
Cenote Dama Blanca at risk
The cenote known as Dama Blanca derives its name from the fish species that inhabit its waters. The recent installation of supports for the Tren Maya has resulted in visible perforations near the sinkhole of this formation. The sound of rushing water can be heard beneath these holes.
Presently, public access to the cenote is prohibited, although it used to be a popular spot for people seeking refreshment. The secrecy surrounding the ongoing work has raised concerns among environmental advocates.
Jaguar’s Claw: endangered caves, cenotes and mayan ruins
Nestled deep within the Akumal Jungle lies the Jaguar’s Claw, a system of underground caves that house cenotes and Mayan ruins. This site serves as a refuge for various species still inhabiting the area, while above ground, the construction of the Tren Maya is underway.
Inside these caves, one can witness natural formations that have evolved over thousands of years. The stalactites and stalagmites bear witness to the passage of time. Additionally, Mayan vestiges provide insights into the lives of the ancient Mayans. Some of these artifacts have already been marked by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). The depth of Jaguar’s Claw and its connections to other cenotes remain unknown. However, spelunkers and environmental activists who have explored the site warn that the heavy machinery used in the construction could trigger a collapse.
“These studies and authorizations have been treated as mere bureaucratic formalities that support the project, but in reality, we know they are extremely delicate matters. Moreover, there are pumas, jaguars, and deer present,” expresses the activist.
During the construction of the Tren Maya, Mayan structures were discovered. Octavio del Río highlights that these structures constitute a ceremonial center dedicated to the underworld or fertility.
“There are other platforms behind it, and everything is part of the archaeological context. Preserving the cenote while trying to avoid the destruction of the remaining ruins is crucial. Demolishing these vestiges would sever a vital part of our history and identity. It is, in a way, disrespectful, a sacrilege to tread upon these once-revered places of the ancient Mayans,” expresses the spelunker.
Alteration of the Tren Maya’s route
In February of this year, the government, led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, unveiled a new design for Section 5 of the Tren Maya. During a press conference, Javier May, the director of Fonatur, explained that out of the 67 kilometers comprising the southern section connecting Playa del Carmen and Tulum, 42 kilometers would be elevated.
“More than 60 percent of the route will be an elevated viaduct to protect the karstic soil, cenotes, underground rivers, and caves in the area,” stated May, accompanied by representatives from the construction companies.
This represents a drastic change from the plan presented in June 2022, for which the environmental impacts were approved. Consequently, there are currently no studies available regarding the effects that the new construction will have on this delicate geological area.
Section 5 has been a source of headaches for López Obrador’s administration since the beginning. In the original plan, the northern section, originating from Cancún, was also supposed to be elevated, with the tracks passing above the city of Playa del Carmen, as presented in March 2021. However, in January 2022, after two months of construction and with part of the boulevard already built, May announced the cancellation of this idea due to the technical and economic difficulties involved.
“The Tren Maya will be at ground level; there will be no elevations, and it will not pass through the urban area. This decision ensures that the project will be completed on time,” declared the head of Fonatur when announcing the changes.
A month later, the route of the Tren Maya took another turn. It would no longer run parallel to the highway but would venture approximately seven kilometers into the jungle. After negotiations with the hotel association and the felling of 20,000 trees, the administration yielded to enter the second largest forest reserve in Latin America, home to numerous protected cenotes and caves.
However, in April 2022, a federal judge halted construction due to the absence of an environmental impact statement. Despite the suspension, López Obrador ordered the project to proceed.