Water is Still a Big Issue on Yucatan Peninsula

Cenote at Chichen Itza

Puerto Aventuras   Visiting Tulum in Quintana Roo is a breathtaking experience not so much because of the ruins, which pale compared to Chichen Itza and Uxmal, elsewhere on the Yucatan Peninsula, but because of the sweep of the blue-green ocean and the bright blue sky that surrounds what seems almost a fortress at waterside. Tulum by the books was one of the latest pyramid developments of the Mayans in the 15th century, lasting only 80 years or so after the Spanish arrival. One plaque at Tulum invited the visitor to imagine they were in the shoes of the cacique there and looking out towards the water and seeing the Spanish ships arrive for the first time. The equivalent would be somewhat like a scene from the movie, “Arrival,” as visitors from another planet suddenly were hovering over a dozen different locations on the globe.

Historians and scholars still debate exactly what caused some of the other Mayan cities to suddenly depopulate. Chichen Itza had been a major urban center of more than 90,000, so the available footprint a visitor sees now is simply a ceremonial front yard, so to speak, to what would have been a vast enterprise.

Of course I don’t know with any authority, but projecting backwards from today, access to water has to have been a huge factor. The cenotes in Chichen Itza were underground springs, easily accessed for water and ceremonial purposes, but the limestone subsurface is better at filtering water than storing mass quantities to support growing civilizations. The Yucatan Peninsula, despite the beauty of the ocean and its long coastline of beaches, high humidity, and wet rainy season is water poor.

Watchtower at Tulum on the coast

Staying in private homes in Merida and Cancun in our own stab at semi-sustainable tourism, we were given a short course in the challenges of the current water delivery system as well. In Merida, we woke to the first morning without any water. The pump had not been turned on so it was “one and done” for the first in the shower, until we could puzzle out the problem. In Cancun,  we received more instruction. There the water came from the street, provided at a cost from the city, like all public water systems, but filled a ground level cistern of sorts and had to be pumped up to the roof where a black plastic tank, ubiquitous throughout the Yucatan, held 1500 liters of water. If drained and not refilled automatically, we were shown where to restart the pump. The general level plain of the peninsula, described everywhere inaccurately as “flat as a tortilla,” meant that to access sufficient gravity for the water to be used below the roof, it had to be gotten there in the first place. It also means that the responsibility for water ends at the street curb. When a pump goes out, it has to be replaced. When a hurricane hits and there’s no power, then there’s also a crisis in the availability of potable water.

A quick look at the internet turns up reports from twenty years ago up to recently that point out the emerging water crisis on the Yucatan as population has exploded since the advent of industrial tourism and its supporting service worker population. Add to that problem, according to the United Nations, uncontested by Mexico, 70% of the underground water in the country is polluted in one way or another, and the issue intensifies. In Puerto Aventuras, we have been about the only representatives from Gringolandia over our week here and while walking we passed the water treatment facility in this town of 6000 people or so, the second largest in the Solidaridad Municipality of the state of Quintana Roo, yet we were of course warned by our host, unnecessarily, not to drink the water.

It’s a safe bet that the early Mayans knew the value of water, perhaps more preciously even than the modern inhabitants of this beautiful area, but water continues to be the delimiting and irreplaceable resource, even if little seems to be done about its conservation and protection, where it’s water, water everywhere, but increasingly coming to the point where there’s not a drop to drink.

Water tank system in Puerto Aventuras

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Hawking Chichen Itza to the Tourists is a Bummer

the horde coming through the ticket book

Cancun  I’ve read about the great Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo for decades, and Chichen Itza has always been fabled as one of the most extraordinary. When travelers once spoke of the Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza was often on the list. I still cherish my copies of John Lloyd Stephens great two-volume classic, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan illustrated by Frederick Catherwood published in 1841 after his journeys. “Raiders of the Lost Arc” always paled in comparison to their story, and the vivid illustrations that made me feel like I was there, plunging through the jungle undergrowth to see what few non-Mayans had ever seen.

We had spent Christmas Day at the Uxlan ruins in one of the more amazing days in a legendary list for our family. We weren’t alone, but it didn’t matter, the power of the place was incredible. We were prepared for Chichen Itza being a different experience in some ways. The books indicated that the site gets more than a million visitors annually. We knew to be early. Chichen Itza in Mayan means something along the lines of “mouth of the well of the Itza people.” When we finished wending out way up the narrow road into the site, and parked with amazing ease for barely a buck and change, we saw a horde of people near the ticket booths and walked up to them in order to find the end of the line to get ours. It turned out that Chichen Itza now means “mouth at the well of the hawker people.” We walked through one hawker’s stand after another, until reaching the end. The falling expressions on hundreds of faces was shocking, but in a little more than a half-hour we had our tickets in hand and were ready to see the ruins and leave the hawkers behind.

the line snaking through the hawkers’ stalls

Leaders of ACORN’s hawkers’ union in India always asks me if there are hawkers in the United States, and I say, no not many, but they would be impressed at the way all of these tourists were being channeled through the stalls to the booths. I was too, until we passed the ticket booth and found that we were still walking a gauntlet of hawkers and booths. They weren’t selling hats and yelling, “Five dollars, cheaper than Walmart,” once we got into the archeological park, but they were literally everywhere we walked, often heralded by the sound of jaguar cries they were trying to sell. Often we could tell we were on the right path to see the Observatory or the cenote if it was lined by hawkers’ booths on both sides. Wherever there was shade away from the monuments, there were hawkers. It was impressive and amazing in its own right.

Google Chichen Itza and hawkers, and one Trip Advisor report after another from Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand says almost the same thing: Chichen Itza is Awesome, but What’s with the Hawkers!

the Grand Pyramid

If this is supposed to be a community benefit to the local population, it fails there mainly because so few are making any sales. We walked three miles according to my son’s counter. Who would want to lug souvenirs through 90 degree heat? My daughter looked at fans she had priced in Centro Merida and they were 200 pesos or $10 dollars more expensive at Chichen Itza. How does this help the local community?

What is the government thinking? As at Uxmal, the federal and state government both separately collect money for tickets and stamp the tickets as you enter. Is there no coordination or is this an issue of there being no trust between the state and federal government? The government is probably right to believe that people like me and my family would weather any storm to see Chichen Itza in all its majesty, but why not leave millions in wonder and awe, rather with a funny, nagging taste in their mouths after the experience.

the Observatory

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