This Is Why So Many Maya Ruins In Mexico Are Unreachable

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While the vast majority of Mexico’s most visited Mayan ruins, including Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, are in little danger of closing, this can not be said for all archaeological sites in the region. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Organized crime, land conflicts, construction, and restoration projects all contribute to the closure of several archaeological sites across Mexico’s Maya region.

The majestic archaeological site of Yaxchilán on the Usumacinta River has been closed for more than half a year. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Mexico is officially home to 187 Prehispanic archaeological sites, including 67 in the historically Maya land of the southeast. 

Aside from the 187 Prehispanic archeological sites officially open to the public, thousands of others are on private property, fields, and deep in the jungle. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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. 

Organized crime

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. 

The stelae of Yaxchilán provide epigraphers and archaeologists with a wealth of information about life in the ancient great city. Pictured, Stelae 35 of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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. 

A local tour guide and his son brave the Usumacinta River, straddling the increasingly tense Mexico-Guatemala border on the way to Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.

A fresco in Bonampak depicts Mighty lord Chan Muhan II holding court and deciding the fate of war captives. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Land disputes

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.

Land disputes in 2021 and 2020 kept Dziblichatún closed for nearly a year. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One of the highest profile and longest-running site closures in Yucatán took place at Dzibilchaltún as the result of conflicts between landowners and the federal government

Protestors who kept Dzibilchaltún closed argued that the federal government had no right to administer the site as they were the true proprietors. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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. 

Mayapán’s astronomical observatory, which remains inaccessible. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

At sites like Dzibanché and Kinichná, access requires payment at a makeshift tollbooth controlled by community members.

An aerial view of the main ceremonial center at the ancient Maya city of Dzibanché was taken before anti-drone regulations came into effect. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.

Xcaret’s pyramid is open to people wishing to climb it and is a popular location for photos. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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. 

The majestic ruins of Poxilá, Yucatán, are virtually unknown to almost all visitors and residents of Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.

Despite supposedly being open, the ruins of Yagul often remain closed due to budget shortfalls. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Examples can be seen at Mexica sites like Tenayucá II and the Zapotec site known as Yagul

Yagul II is an archaeological site roughly half a mile from Yagul and is home to the remains of several ancient elite residences. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.”

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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