Organized crime, land conflicts, construction, and restoration projects all contribute to the closure of several archaeological sites across Mexico’s Maya region.
Mexico is officially home to 187 Prehispanic archaeological sites, including 67 in the historically Maya land of the southeast.
While a handful of Maya archaeological sites, like El Meco just to the north of Cancún and Dzibilchaltún on the outskirts of Mérida, are temporarily closed due to efforts to improve their infrastructure, several others have closed their gates for more complicated reasons.
The archaeological sites of Yaxilán and Bonampak have been closed to the public for nearly half a year.
These massive archeological sites, famous for their Classical-era architecture, stelae, and frescoes, are not “officially” closed. But accessing them has become virtually impossible due to the presence of organized crime in the region.
Even the Mexican government has been forced to advise people to stay away as these two sites straddling the Guatemalan border have been taken over by armed drug gangs yielding high-caliber weapons.
As their livelihood depends on tourism, a handful of guides have attempted to enter Yaxilán and Bonampak. Though some have managed to get through, the worsening of the situation means both these sites are now effectively off limits.
Aside from the inability to access the site, INAH has expressed concern that the presence of these armed gangs may result in the looting of artifacts for later sale on the black market.
Over the past several years, land disputes in several regions of Mexico, including the Maya Southeast, have led to the closure of several archaeological sites.
Though the dispute at Dzibilchaltún was an isolated incident and was resolved in 2022 — the “caving in” of the federal and state governments for an undisclosed amount of money set a dangerous precedent that continues to echo through the region.
Now, sites like Mayapán in Yucatán, Cobá in Quintana Roo, and Toniná in Chiapas are all in similar situations and face long-term and sporadic closures, which ultimately hurt both the tourism industry and their local communities.
At sites like Dzibanché and Kinichná, access requires payment at a makeshift tollbooth controlled by community members.
These toll collectors and members of the community argue that they have the right to benefit from tourism. That is true but charging illegal tolls is not the way to do it, especially when they appear intimidating to tourists.
Ruins on Private Property
There are a handful of archaeological sites, especially in Quintana Roo, that are open to the public, but charge excessively to access.
For example, the archaeological site of Xcaret on the Riviera Maya is nearly 3,000 pesos, which is more than enough to dissuade almost all visitors only interested in the “eco park’s” archaeology. In theory, it is possible to visit with an official INAH tour guide at a much lower cost, this requires booking in advance, and even then, the request is usually denied — despite official statements.
Then there are cases like the Hacienda Poxilá near Umán in the state of Yucatán, which has closed off an impressive Maya Acropolis within its walls and reserved it only for guests at events such as weddings and quinceañeras, a practice that, while illegal, has been tolerated for years.
Lack of Budget
Though not as big an issue in Mexico’s southeast due to the large influx of tourists, several sites across the country remain closed or only open sporadically.
When planning to visit these or any other archaeological sites, especially those slightly off the grid, it is a good idea to do a little research beforehand to avoid making trips in vain or endangering oneself. A good way to do this is to sort reviews on Google Maps by “recent.”