International Tourists Not Aboard with Tren Maya

The Tren Maya has now been operating for nearly two months, but demand from international travelers has been far from impressive. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Since the Tren Maya project was first announced in 2018, one of its primary justifications was that it would bolster tourism across the region.

The thrust of the idea was that the train would help get folks out of the “Cancún bubble” by making destinations such as Valladolid, Izamal, Mérida, and Palenque more accessible. 

But as it turns out, this has not been the case. Those who have been able to ride the Mayan Train have likely noticed just a handful of international tourists aboard. This is even true of the Tren Maya route departing from Cancún, which hosts millions of international tourists annually.

Cancún International is Mexico’s second-busiest airport and averages 500 arrivals daily. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The entire Tren Maya rail network is yet to be completed, with popular destinations like Tulum and far-off Calakmul still unreachable. 

So what exactly has been the problem? We interviewed travelers from the United States, Canada, and Europe to get their views on the Tren Maya and asked if they would incorporate travel by rail into their stay.

Answers were varied, but the most common reasons included price, the low frequency of departures, concerns over safety and the role of the military, and “What is the Maya Train”?

Cost of tickets

The fact that tourists may find the Maya Train expensive is not precisely shocking. After all, a round trip between Cancun and Palenque on tourist class comes to US$340 — which is likely more than what many tourists pay to get to Mexico in the first place. 

“It cost us just over 250 Canadian dollars to get from Toronto to Cancún, and since we are already here, we may as well enjoy what is right here, ” said Ted Powell from Ajax, Ontario. 

With only a few exceptions, most operational Tren Maya stations are far from complete, as is the case with the station at Cancún. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Another reality is that many tourists traveling to Cancún have already purchased stays at all-inclusive resorts, so leaving for even a couple of days to explore another part of the country would be tantamount to wasting money.  

Too Few Departures

The Maya Train operates only twice daily from the Cancún Airport, making it difficult for travelers to arrange their travel plans around catching a train. What is more, the Cancún Airport Tren Maya station, which serves the entire resort city, is a handful of miles away from any of the terminals, which means folks wanting to get to the station must take a shuttle to make their connection. 

Several people interviewed wrongly assumed that since the Tren Maya terminal is called “Aeropuerto,” it would be directly connected to the airport. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“It would be ideal to get to Chichén Itzá by train, but since the station is so far away from the hotel zone and you have to take a bus to get there, you may as well just take a bus from the hotel and be done with it,” said Hellena Wynne, of Hamburg, Germany.

The shuttle between the Cancún Airport and the Tren Maya station is free, but for the visitors we talked about, the need to connect to yet another vehicle seemed daunting, especially for those with little to no Spanish. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

There is also the fact that even once you arrive at the Chichén Itzá station, another shuttle is needed to get to the archaeological site itself. That ends up being two shuttles and a train ride instead of just one bus ride. 

Concerns over safety and the environment

Whether it is deserved or not, the Tren Maya has gotten plenty of negative press worldwide over the past few years. For starters, the widely reported fact that the rail project is being built and administered by Mexico’s armed forces has proven to be a turn-off for weary travelers not used to seeing men and women in full tactical gear and automatic weapons aboard their trains.

The military can be seen everywhere in México’s busiest airports and even aboard the Tren Maya. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“We are not used to seeing armed cops, let alone men with large rifles; it’s quite unnerving,” said Michelle LeBlanc, from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Several also expressed concerns about the environmental damage caused by the Mayan Train, though they admitted to not fully understanding its scope.

Many admitted they had no actual knowledge of the Tren Maya, which suggests that there is still much work to be done to promote its advantages — of which it certainly has many. 

The international tourists we approached aboard the Tren Maya said they were impressed by the project and the onboard service. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

It is too early to argue whether or not the Tren Maya will be able to live up to its promise, but as things stand now, it is evident that it still has a long way to go.

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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