TULUM, México – In the vibrant turquoise stretch of land combining tourism, jungle, and heat, merely 43 kilometers south of Cancun in Playa del Carmen, workers anticipate the inauguration of the Tren Maya by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in December. However, they hold a certainty that it will be incomplete.
Calculations deem it highly improbable that at least Tramo 5, spanning from Cancun to Tulum via Playa del Carmen, will be finished by then.
“There’s talk that it should be ready by January, but that seems highly unlikely,” estimated a truck driver transporting wood from thousands of felled trees between the communities of Cristo Rey and Nuevo Noh Neb.
Tramo 5 Norte, covering the distance from Cancun to Playa del Carmen, cuts through the jungle like a strip as wide as a football field. In this section, elevated land and round piles over 25 meters long scatter without being properly set. Some machines operated by the military drill holes while guards prevent passage and photography. Additionally, cenotes dot the route, and their waters run the risk of contamination, surrounded by mounds of shredded tree remains.
The environmental collective known as “Selva me del Tren” estimates that approximately 10 million trees have been felled in Tramo 5 alone, putting 114 caves and cenotes in the karstic soil at risk due to the thousands of piles used to raise the track and prevent the brittle ground from collapsing.
“At this point, President López Obrador’s promise that the Tren Maya would not cause environmental damage is an old myth,” commented Guillermo DChristy, an industrial engineer, speleologist, and water quality consultant in Mexico.
Of the seven sections comprising the Tren Maya, with a budget of over 140 billion pesos and a length of 1,554 kilometers, Tramo 5, spanning a mere 111 kilometers, stands as the shortest and most problematic. Notably, all the sections commenced in 2019 without environmental impact studies or financial viability assessments.
Initially, Tramo 5 was planned to be elevated above the Federal Highway 307, which runs through the center of Cancun. However, Fonatur, the responsible authority for the project, argued that it would be too expensive from a technical and financial standpoint. Consequently, the decision was made to construct the section at ground level after pressure from owners of luxury hotels in Cancun due to potential traffic issues. In response, López Obrador accused those pointing out the damages caused by improvisation of being “pseudo-environmentalists.”
Residents of the Cristo Rey community assert that jaguars and monkeys have fled due to the noise from the machines, while cenotes, caves, and underground rivers lie in the train’s path.
The “Dama Blanca,” an ancient cenote named after the blind, endemic fish species dwelling there, sits in the middle of the route, surrounded by strips of plastic and a weathered blue tarp, despite the National Institute of Anthropology and History denying its imminent impact.
“The sinkhole, the depression at the entrance caused by groundwater, is being affected. The track is getting narrower, which is why we insist on having access,” said DChristy, a member of Selvame del Tren, during a phone interview.
Although local residents are the only ones allowed entry with identification, they are still waiting for their lands to be compensated, for streetlights to be installed, and for information on potential connections.
Four kilometers from the maritime terminal, at Finca Yorogana, the starting point of Tramo 5 Sur, extending from Playa del Carmen to Tulum, progress seems to be similar. Except for the bridge beams, the tracks, ballast, electricity, and terrain leveling are all missing.
The significant delays are found in Tramos 5, 6, and 7, spanning from Cancun to Escárcega in Campeche, where the route closes before continuing to Palenque, the president’s estate.
“He may inaugurate the section from Cancun to his ranch, but not the other side—that’s a fact. Here, they are still in the dark. The builders say nothing because they keep collecting advances for the project. Whether it works or not is another story,” concluded DChristy.