Alfaro Yam Canul motioned forward toward a stretch of dirt heading east from his hometown to a bay on the Caribbean Sea.
“It’s ugly,” he said, referring not to the scenery—the outskirts of the Sian Ka’an nature reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site where dense jungle gives way to turquoise canals and habitats for big cats and rare birds—but to the road itself, which is marked by potholes and patches of mud that slow the rare car crossing it to a crawl.
Just 25 miles separate Felipe Carillo Puerto, a Mayan city with a pivotal role in the people’s history, and the beach on the edge of the reserve, though the condition of the road creates a nearly five-hour journey that’s hardly ever taken.
That means the city is choked off from the lucrative coastline, located at the tail end of the Mayan Riviera and just south of Tulum, where seaside ruins draw international crowds to one of Mexico’s most popular vacation spots.
In the spring, Yam Canul, a stout man with a serious face and a rebel’s red-starred cap, took his frustration as high as it goes in Mexico, in an encounter with the country’s president that was broadcast on national television.
“We realize that we have a great history, that we are always used as an example, and that people make a lot of money from our name. But that money isn’t seen by the indigenous communities in the state,” he told President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The solution Yam Canul proposed — to open up the Sian Ka’an reserve for development by the region’s Mayans — exposes a complicated history of the tourism hotspot, where indigenous rights, commercial interests, and environmental stewardship have vied for prioritization over decades.
Before 1986, when the federal government, amid a wave of conservation in the country, designated the area a protected biosphere and walled it off from most outsiders, Sian Ka’an, Mayan for “the place where the sky is born,” was a source of livelihood for the native population.
“The idea is to generate a circular economy where people can work in their community and receive a decent economic benefit,” said Román Caamal, the general director of a Maya group.
Since government programs in the 1970s began transforming the jungles of Quintana Roo, tourism has dominated the region’s economy, with foreign developers building big complexes along the white sand beaches. The state’s tourist zone—stretching from the tip of the peninsula down the coast, through Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and ending at Tulum—is home to 90 percent of its wages.
For a worker living in the state’s Mayan communities to the south, the commute to a service job in the Mayan Riviera can easily top an hour each way.
Source: Diario de Quintana Roo