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Everyone should see Chichén Itzá — that’s the problem

1 July 2007

It’s a cliche of course, but there are no unmixed blessings. This is one of those things where there isn’t any one right answer… everybody SHOULD see Chichén Itzá, but if everybody does, then… what happens?


My translation is from an unattributed article in Saturday’s El Universal, “Chichén Itzá y sus pesadillas“:

Fame is nothing new for Chichén Itzá. Since the 9th century AD, when it was the political and religious center of the Itzáes until today, it has been astonishing visitors from the Spanish soldiers commanded by Franscico de Montejo to today’s hordes of national and foreign tourists.

A few days ago, the most emblematic building, the Pyramid of Kukulcán (also known as “El Castillo”) became – as the result of a market research campaign – on of the new the seven wonders of the world. The new found dreams of glory for Chichén is not free from its headaches.

Excessive and uncontrolled tourism, damage to existing structures, souvenir vendors, new infrastructure, conflict with local landowners, research at the mercy of budgetary whimsy, and growing economic inequality are the seven headaches suffered by the newest of the seven wonders, which was declared part of UNESCO’s Patrimony of Humanity in 1988.

1. Mass tourism

The first alarms about the dangers of mass tourism in the archaeological zone of Chichén Itzá were raised by archeologists Peter J. S. Schmidt and Agustín Rock, at the beginning of 1990s. Presently, Chichén Itzá receives over a million visitors a year, making it the second most visited archaeological zone in the country, after Teotihuacán.

By including Chichén Itzá as one of the “seven wonders”, the tourism sector, having already invested a million dollars in promoting the site, hopes to double the number of visitors, which implies extending the infrastructure needed to handle the visitors.

This will bring a huge number of visitors,” Federica Sodi, of the INAH Yucatan affirms . “The plans call for handling the tourists in a controlled form, but the place is not designed to lodge huge amounts of visitors.”

Until about 18 months ago, tourists could do a quick visit to the site, which included a chance to climb well-known structures like El Castillo and to be photographed seated on the sculpture of Chac Mool.

Damage to the building, not designed for continual visits, forces the INAH authorities to prevent access, just as the New Seven Wonders advertising was coming out on the Web, prominently featuring the pyramid during an event.

All archeological sites in the world are at risk,” complained zone archeologist Peter J.S. Schmidt. “Nothing is forever. It’s too bad we can’t cover El Castillo, as a preventative measure.”

Sodi however, says that “the structures seem very resistant; nevertheless, a restorer friend of mine says that the stone may seem strong, but is, in fact, delicate. We had to avoid damage, and closed the structures.”

3. Vendors

The corridor from the esplanade of El Castillo to the cenotes is a tiangui selling food, crafts and clothing. And, within the zone itself, there are hundreds of salesmen.

Sodi estimates 500; there are some who swear that the number is in the thousands during the high season at at the Spring Equinox. The first big wave dates from 1987 and was somewhat under control. partially was controlled. In 1994, archaeologist Alfredo Barrera Rubio complained that most sales people were not locals, but “non-craftsmen and middlemen” selling products from Puebla, Michoacán and other places, and not from the Yucatan.

Sodi and colleague Tomás Pérez agree that the ambulantaje is a phenomenon created by local people without employment. The solution lies with the INAH, the Secretariats of Tourism and Commerce, as well as the State government.

4. Economic inequality

To designate the Pyramid of Chichén Itzá as a wonder of the modern world required matching funds from a special tourism tax. The hopes of the tourism sector were reflected by Francisco Lopez Mena, president of the Council of Tourist Promotion of Mexico, when he spoke of promoting the zone as a “business” which has required an investment of more than a million dollars. ith respect to which the promotion of the zone has been a “business” in which it has been reversed more of a million dollars.

Also promoting the region is the Presidency of the Republic. Expecting to double the number of visitors within five years, the major beneficiaries are private investors and the INAH, but not the local population. In archeologist Tomás Pérez’ estimation, “Tthe benefit is going to be minimal for the local population, and maximum for the big businesses in Cancún.”

5. Infrastructure deveopment

The tourist infrastructure around and within the zone has grown over the years. In 1982, a first tourist inn was constructed. Five years later another complex was built that included a museum. Already in 1995, researcher Lourdes Guadalupe Rejón Pattern filed legal complaints based on the 1972 Federal Law of Monuments and Archaeological, Artistic and Historical Zones, which restricted development in the zone. She complained that “Powerful companies and foreign capital have achieved concessions to use zones supposedly restricted or central areas”.

In addition to construction within the zone, a freeway tying Mérida with Chichén Itzá and Cancún, was finished in 1993 to handle tourist traffic, as were additional Cancún and Cozumel. Tomás Perez indicates that the town of Tipé is growing every day and threatens to intrude on the perimeter zone.

6. Land ownership

Part of the land in the Chichén Itzá archaeological zone of is pirvately owned, specifically by the Barbachano family, owners of the Mayaland company, one of whose hotels is practically located in the zone.

“One of the priorities is to regularize the land ownership. It’s pure common sense to protect the development in the perimeter zone,” Soldi says.

Sodi adds, though, that he has no problem with the Barbachano family, “The Institute, by law has to defend the cultural patrimony. The only interference has been insitutional, the protection of personal patrimony. He adds that the INAH is negotiating with the family to acquire the land, either through donation or by expropriation.

7. Research funding

In spite of its world-wide fame, the archaeological zone of Chichén Itzá keeps its secrets, partly because of the slow progress made by researchers since 1993. At the low season, at least four archaeologists toil in the zone, according to project leader, archaeologist Eduardo Perez. In 1993, the federal government promised 4,800 million pesos for archaeological investigation in Chichén Itzá.

The 1993 plans called for three seasons of work, to open buildings to the public, restore wood murals, stuccos and other parts in the zone, as well as to open and restore buildings that are peripheral to the main ceremonial center.

Funding has not been delivered, although Sodi says that excavations have not stopped, and resources are still available. Presently, five excavation projects are underway in the zone. 47 hectares are open to the public, and one project at this time is focused on maintaining and conserving buildings, paintings and roadways.

Schmidt, who first sounded the alarm about over-use of the site, works on less well-known areas like old Chichén, which should in the future allow visitors a glimpse of the lives led by the city’s nobility.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 3 April 2008 10:20 am

    It’s hard to imagine a favorite place of mine that I had the opportunity to see back in 1967 has now drastically changed.

    I’m writing an assignment for the Institute of Children’s literature In Connecticut and need information on El Castillo’s inside pyramid and where the location of the statues of the Chacmool and jaguar throne are located?

    It is so devastating to hear that you can no longer climb or go inside the pyramid. Any further update would be greatly appreciated.


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