Destinations / Chichen Itza Master Plan

Chichen Itza Master Plan

Chichen Itza Master Plan

5 January 2011 Destinations 35

Plugging Yucatán into the Tourism Circuit

If Governor Ivonne Ortega Pacheco has her way, the State of Yucatan will become a series of interlocking circuits of activities for any tourist on any budget, according to a new master plan announced a few weeks ago.

At a banquet held for officials and the press, the Gobernadora’s office unveiled plans not only for Chichen Itza but also for Yucatan State's future tourism, cultural, economic, and educational development, with special emphasis on Merida, Progreso, Izamal, Yaxcaba, and Kaua. The governor and her staff unveiled an ambitious and sweeping vision for a circuit of activities for tourists and locals, including the building of large new attractions, improving the State’s infrastructure to help tourists get between key points, with all activities interwoven with the stated goal of preservation of the Maya language and culture. The plans took a significant step forward with the official announcement of the Plan Maestro Chichén Itzá (Master Plan: "Chichen Itza").

The gathering featured representatives from the federal government, from CULTUR (Patronato de las Unidades de Servicios Culturales y Turísticos) and OMPRI (Organizacion de Mujeres de PRI), as well as representative members from the archaeological, academic, and artistic communities.

Jorge Esma Bazán, Presidente of CULTUR, told the audience in his keynote speech that Yucatan’s tourism projects are part of an integrated plan. Plan Maestro Chichen Itza envisions whisking tourists between the key archaeological sites of Uxmal and Chichen Itza, then off to the two new planned Maya museums: Museo del Mundo Maya (Museum of the Maya World, in Merida), and the Palacio de la Civilización Maya (Palace of the Maya Civilization), near Chichen Itza in Yaxcaba). Finally, tourists would be given the opportunity to explore the redesigned esplanade under construction in the port city of Progreso, the historic city centers of Izamal and Valladolid, and the natural splendors of Rio Lagartos.

As envisioned, the tourism infrastructure of Yucatan would consist of a series of circuits dedicated to the four inherent features of the peninsula:

  • Archaeology circuit: Ek Balam, Chichén Itzá, Mayapan, Xcambo, Dzibulchaltun.
  • Colonial circuit: Tizimin, Valladolid, Izamal, Mérida, and the haciendas and convents in the area.
  • Ecological circuit: Dzitnup, X’Keken, Saci, Balancanche, Cuzama, Ikil, X-canche, and the cenotes around Yaxcaba.
  • Coastal circuit: Rio Lagartos, El Cuyo, San Felipe, Telchac Puerto, Dzilam de Bravo, and Progreso.

These circuits have been conceived around the three concepts of profitability, viability and comparability. Profitability would be attempted, but only while at the same time improving the economic and social well-being of the population. Viability signals the intention of assuring that each region benefits from the projects without negatively affecting the environment, culture, society or by draining other resources. Comparability is the final watchword, signaling the planners' intentions to ensure that the benefits and detriments are measurable and that they are measured for consistency over time and geography.

To support these circuits, the vision includes the construction of a series of new tourist attractions, as well as the expansion, promotion and improvement of the existing ones. The project would also improve the infrastructure supporting the tourist attractions in order to easily and quickly move tourists to and from all of Yucatan's current and future attractions. In addition, the state is also proposing creating a series of institutions that will benefit the people of Yucatán culturally, including a University of Maya Language.

New Yucatan Attractions

Palacio de la Civilización Maya in Yaxcaba. This museum is proposed for construction in Yaxcaba, a small village located about ten kilometers from Chichén Itzá. Yaxcaba also happens to be one of the poorest communities in the state. The Palacio will take advantage of existing features of the community, at one end anchored by the town’s cenote, a large freshwater sinkhole that has provided water for the community for centuries. In the plan, a 110-meter white path (sacbe in Maya) will be the architectural element that ties the museum facility together, connecting an entrance plaza with three individual structures. The entrance plaza will be built in a stairstep fashion to evoke the “fragmented structure” of El Castillo, the dominant pyramid at Chichén Itzá. The entrance plaza will house a box office and a reception area for groups. Inside will be a 300-seat IMAX theater and requisite gift shop, as well as a courtyard, an outdoor amphitheater, and a museum section dedicated to the origins of the Maya world. One of the exhibitions will be called “The Treasures of Chichen,” and will exhibit the gold, jade, and other artifacts that have been extracted from Sacred Well.

Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida. The state began construction on a “Museum of the Maya World” in Mérida near the Siglo XXI convention center on December 21, a date whose significance comes from the Maya calendar, which ends on that day in 2012. The museum will exhibit objects of the ancient Maya, including 600-800 artifacts already on exhibit or in storage at the Museo de Antropologia in Merida. There will also be exhibits devoted to other cultures, similar to what is found in the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. The museum will be 22,000 square meters (237,000 square feet) and will include exhibition halls, gardens, cafe, a gift shop, and an IMAX theater. Funding for the project is coming from a Proyectos de Prestadores de Servicios (PPS), a private/public partnership. This museum will be the first of its kind in the state of Yucatan.

Tourist Complex in Rio Largartos. The governor’s office released no details regarding this part of the plan, although the Xcaret group, which owns resorts in Quintana Roo, recently announced plans to construct three hotels in Valladolid with the idea of building a series of tours that would include visits to Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam.

Expansion of evening programs at Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Every night at Chichen Itza, tourists enter the archaeological zone to see a light show projected on the monuments. A similar program had been held at Uxmal, but it was recently stopped due to mechanical issues. Two years ago the state of Yucatan expanded the offerings at Chichen Itza by hosting what has become a series of high-profile concerts of international stars, performing in front of El Castillo. Artists have included Placido Domingo, Sara Brightman, Elton John and, next year will add Paul McCartney to this distinguished list.

A “tourist intelligence” information system.  The state provided no details of this part of the plan, but mentioned the idea in a number of speeches. We are unsure if this is an information system to assist tourists or to track them for the benefit of Yucatan tourism.

Promotion of national and international tourism to Yucatán. The state announced plans to launch a “Yucatán 2012” marketing and advertising campaign to take advantage of 2012, the date of the end of the Maya calendar. Again, the state provided no details of this part of the plan, but mentioned it in various speeches.

Purchase of Chichén Itzá. This master plan has been three years in the making. Even before she won election as governor of Yucatan, Ivonne Ortega Pacheco called for a Plan Integral de Chichén Itzá (Chichen Itza Integrated Plan). At World Tourism Day in 2008, she issued a plea to the federal government to help Yucatan build a sustainable tourism industry the same way it built the Cancun resort area from a sparsely populated sand spit in the 1970s.

One area in particular that required “decisive action” from the federal government was Chichen Itza, according to Ortega. “Help us so that the Wonder of the World does not continue to see its environs deforested, it’s water table polluted, and quality of urban development eroded,” she said. As it turned out, the governor did not wait for the federal government, which during her administration has been hamstrung by a weak world economy and more pressing political priorities such as the escalating War on Drugs. Yucatan took matters into its own hands and effected the acquisition of Chichen Itza.

Since the Spanish Conquest, Chichen Itza had been private property. For centuries Hacienda Chichen, which included the ruins of Chichen Itza, was a cattle ranch. In 1894 an American archaeologist, Edward H. Thompson, purchased the hacienda. Thompson explored the ruins of this plantation, which included dredging the giant sinkhole, now known as the Cenote Sagrado, from which he recovered thousands of gold, jade, ceramic, wood and bone artifacts. These were shipped to the United States, to the Carnegie Institute. In 1926, the Mexican government seized Chichen Itza, charging Thompson with theft.

In 1944 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Thompson had violated no laws and returned the property to his heirs (Thompson had died in 1935). His children sold the hacienda to Yucatan tourism pioneer Fernando Barbachano Peon, who more than a decade earlier had built a small hotel, the Mayaland, on property leased from Thompson. The Barbachano family has owned Chichen Itza, including the Mayaland and Hacienda Chichen hotels, ever since.

One of the pieces to Yucatan’s tourism puzzle was ending the private ownership of Chichen Itza land (the monuments already belonged to the federal government). When Yucatan Gov. Ortega Pacheco issued her plea for federal assistance, the Mexican government had already explored taking the Chichen Itza property by expropriation. That tactic had failed, so the governor’s administration took matters into its own hands and this past spring announced that it had reached an agreement with Hans Jurgen Thies Barbachano to purchase the central archaeological zone for $220 million Mexican Pesos. Now, the land and the monuments are owned by the government, and plans for development can go forward.

Infrastructure in the Mayan World

Improvements and remodeling of Chichen Itza International Airport in Kaua. The airport at Kuau, 17 kilometers from Chichen Itza, had been a pet project of the current governor’s uncle, the late Víctor Cervera Pacheco, when he was governor. Governor Ivonne Ortega Pacheco promises to make this small airport in the center of the Yucatan Peninsula a key element in her transportation strategy and has spent a considerable sum of state funds to improve the airport.

Redesign and renovation of the Malecon in Progreso. Yucatan, despite its extensive coastline, has only one major port, Progreso. While several cruise ship lines already visit the port, the state of Yucatan is looking to increase that traffic and has begun creating a beautiful and elaborate esplanade via massive reconstruction of the Maleconwalkway and the frontage road that runs along the coastline north from the terminal.

Redesign and rebuild roadways to support all parts of the “tourist circuit.” Numerous road projects have been announced and several were recently financed by the Mexican Congress. Other projects, such as infrastructure improvements in the historic city centers of Izamal and Valladolid, were mentioned, but no details were released.

Construction of cross-peninsular trenes rapidos (fast trains). One of the first proposals of the new Ortega Pacheco administration was construction of a “bullet train” across the Yucatán Peninsula, from Mérida to Chichén Itzá and Valladolid, and eventually onto the Maya Riviera in the state of Quintana Roo. Skeptics have dismissed the proposal, and the Mexican Congress has not chosen to finance the dream, but the governor has warned the state legislature that she will be seeking funds to construct the first phase of the train next year. While it will not be a bullet train, such as those in Japan or France, it will be the first regular passenger service train in Yucatán in decades. 

Cultural Projects
Several cultural projects were listed, but no details were released. Among the cultural projects mentioned are:

  • Create a Casa de la Cultura del Mundo Maya (House of Culture of the Maya World)
  • Promote the foundation of a University of Maya Language
  • Impel an alliance between the rural population and the inhabitants of the city of Merida.

    How It All Comes Together

    The state secretaries of Tourism, Economics, and Education gave addresses on their individual departmental visions of how Plan Maestro Chichen Itza could grow the Yucatan economy, while preserving Yucatan's rich cultural heritage. They proposed ways that their areas of interest would be stimulated and supported by the growth of tourism, driven by extensive Government spending at key sites across Yucatan state. These proposals and visions were well received by the roughly 600 invited guests from the private and government sectors.

    Governor Ortega described her views on the future of Yucatan: "Aspiramos a que Chichén Itzá deje de ser sitio de paso para los visitantes y se convierta en el punto de partida de una nueva dinámica turística y también de una nueva lógica productiva en la entidad...”  ("We are working towards and hoping for a Chichén Itzá that stops being just a point for visitors to pass through, that becomes the departure point for new tourist dynamics and a new starting point of productivity and profit for the (Yucatan).")

    In summary, the Governor articulated her plans for dramatic developments in Yucatan that would rival the investments in Cancun and the Riviera Maya. She envisions that just as it was historically, Chichen Itza would again be the axle and hub of prosperity for the entire Yucatan Peninsula. Her visions include the foundation of a University of the Maya Language to protect and promote Maya culture, a Peninsular bullet train and modernized highway projects linking Chichen Itza with Merida, Progreso, Cancun and the new Palace of the Maya Civilization and the Maya Museum developments. Her proposals were met with hearty applause.

    Master Plan: big on ideas, short on details

    Governor Ortega and her departmental secretaries certainly provided sweeping projections of what could be built and what could be gained, which leaves unresolved the difficult details of how these grand designs can be funded, how the still-encumbered lands might be acquired, and the construction of vast complexes.

    And, of course, the big question is still unanswered: If they build it, will you come?


  • CasiYucateco 10 years ago

    1) EJ Albright knows what he has talking about. There are not many living people who have researched the 20th Century history of Chichen Itza as thoroughly as he has and almost zero outside academia.

    2) for Casa Pepem - the Progreso harbor is hardly in need of dredging. A channel is kept clear 6 km offshore at the end of the world's longest pier. Container vessels, tanker ships and cruise ships much larger than the shuttle ferry arrive many times per week. It's not the harbor preventing the ferry, but a solvent operator with steady business demand. The great majority of travelers prefer to arrive within a few hours, rather than 3-4 days. Not sure that will change.

    Lastly, I certainly hope efforts to encourage and preserve the Mayan language is successful. It's true that a majority of the youth shun Maya in favor of English or Spanglish to be "cool," but we've met some who just delight in knowing a secret way to communicate. And met a few who said, "It sounds ugly" when questioned why they don't want to speak like their parents and grandparents who know the language. So, it's a mixed bag. We're all in favor of any efforts that can be done to preserve the language in this mass media, race to the bottom, common denominator world. Cultural differences make the world more interesting!

  • Dr. Steven M. Fry 10 years ago

    Jose A. Herrera,
    I think the huge majority of evidence shows that by sheer count, the largest number of artifacts removed from Chichen Itza and other Yucatecan Maya sites have been moved to Mexico City, and sit in INAH repositories. Historically, there was a period when several US universities and institutes (like Harvard and Carnegie) also removed artifacts under the Mexican Govt. auspices and permits. There are also many Mayan artifacts, stelae, carvings, etc kept in private homes in Mexico, that are recorded and registered with INAH. Sir, do you somehow accuse your own government of plundering Maya sites? I think not. It would be very nice to be able to see the all the artifacts in or near their original positions, but INAH and the Mexican government have chosen to not do this, and instead they have chosen to move the large majority into safe storage in Distrito Federal. I personally have witnessed many many beautiful pieces that have been consolidated by INAH personnel, and moved by the crateload and truckload to Mexico City, and I expect that they are well cared for, and hope that they will be available for public display in the future. Still, because many of the pieces are painted and tinted with relatively fragile colored dyes, most pieces may never be suitable for public display, since public displays tend to permanently damage the fragile colors. I hope that high-quality reproductions can be created and placed in public view in efforts like those our Gobernadora has proposed in her Plan Maestro Chichen Itza.
    Dr. Steven M. Fry

  • Jeremy Brett 10 years ago

    These sound like exciting plans, and I hope they are as determined to balance progress with preservation as they claim to be. I'm particularly interested in hearing more about this University of Maya Language that was mentioned. It would be particularly awesome if they were to offer a blend of distance learning with on-site classes. I'd absolutely enroll in something that allowed me to study at home in the US then travel to Yucatan for a week or two of on-site intensive classes.

  • EJ Albright 10 years ago

    @Jose A. Herrera:

    Not sure what you mean. How, exactly, have the Barbachanos “plundered” Chichén Itzá or Uxmal? The answer is, not at all. Apparently you are not aware that all but a dozen or so archaeological sites in Mexico are in private ownership. The monuments, of course, are patrimonio of the Mexican people.

  • Whazzoo 10 years ago

    Common folks, the airlines run a business and they know exactly what the market will bear and they charge accordingly. They are not interested in the benefits to tourism, as they are usually full (Continental) Now that Mexicana has gone under, they can raise prices even more due to the lack of viable competition. The other issue is companies cannot just start a route into a foreign country. The foreign country has to agree to landing rights, which usually is based on a reciprocal arrangement. On the other hand for those of you that like really cheap flights, where do you think the corners are cut to save money? Wages? Maintenance? Counter Staff? I am not sure I want to fly with the lowest paid Pilots and Maintenance Engineers and then try to find someone at the counter when a failure of the system occurs.

  • Casa Pepem 10 years ago

    Dredge the Progreso harbor and bring back services like the shuttle ferry from Tampa. High season flights direct to Merida like Delta had from Atlanta could be a start for any airline listening. In 2007 it was $300.00 round trip. We take the ADO mini van shuttle directly from Cancun airport to the Merida Hilton ADO station then walk to the Centro. It's faster and cheaper and eliminates the Cancun shuffle of getting a cab to the bus station in hope of an available seat during high season. As with all government plans, it's nice to see some thinking about the future but time will tell. You can only have so much private investment without influence. All in all very exciting and encouraging none the less.

  • Jose A Herrera 10 years ago

    I just can not accept nor conceive how the Mexican People in general and the Yucatan Natives in particular tolerated the greedy and avaricious plundering of such legendary and historical archaeology Maya legacy of Chichen-Itza as the "ownership" of private individuals...How much "mordida" did the 1944 Mexican Supreme Court received to make this ruling ??

  • Manny 10 years ago

    Is there not a flight from Cancun to Merida? Also, would it be reasonable to fly (from US) into DF and then fly to Merida?

  • Kathy 10 years ago

    Just a thought...we live in the US and MX. Try going through Southwest Airlines...also Interjet..from Mexico City...
    It is not a direct flight but mucho cheaper.
    We are having a hard time finding even a nice hotel room available in I know the tourists are coming.

  • EJ Albright 10 years ago

    @PennsyAl, I'll be addressing some of those subjects on my blog over the next few days. But to save YucatanLiving readers a few clicks, here are some general comments:

    With regard to the new museums, there are thousands of artifacts currently sitting in warehouses around Merida and in Mexico City, unseen by the public. For example, few of the artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado at Chichen Itza that were removed in the 1961 and 1968 expeditions have seen the light of day. However, these objects are patrimonio of the federal government, so I wonder exactly what agreements have been with by the state government to get them.

    As for plundering new sites, I don't see that as an issue. Once a site is excavated the artifacts must be removed, unless there is a plan to create an in situ museum, such as the Balancanche cave next to Chichen (well worth a visit).

    I know really nothing about the plan to promote the Maya language. It is dying, however, and I'm not certain that even with a Herculean effort it can be saved. The young people, unfortunately, have access to mass media which is in Spanish and English. They are little interested in their aboriginal tongue, in my experience.

    The state knows what property it purchased at Chichen. When Don Fernando Barbachano Gomez Rul, patriarch of the family that formerly owned Chichen Itza, died, his widow made clear which son or grandson received what property. Hans owned the so-called "archaeological zone," which is basically the property that most of the tourists visit. Other parts, such as those occupied by the Mayaland and Hacienda Chichen (including Chichen Viejo, ruins closed to the public south of the archaeological zone) are still owned by members of the Barbachano family. The family owns the lands, but the people of Mexico own the ruins, it should be noted.

    As for the infrastructure issues you raise, many of these have been addressed in my blog, which, if you've a mind to visit, is at


  • Neny & Jay 10 years ago

    We too agree on the need of frequent and affordable flights into Merida, we also fly Merida-Florida and would do it often if we could use Merida's airport at affordable prices... Please keep us posted on any news on this matter!

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