The Tren Maya is one of those rare trains that’s hard to love. It’s an upwards of $20 billion project meant to take tourists into the heart of the Mexican rainforest where important, hard-to-reach cultural sites are a big business for some of the poorest places in Mexico. But the construction of this train is actively unveiling, and then destroying, the very sites that already draw tourists from across the globe.
The Washington Post has a deep (and I mean deep) dive on Manuel Pérez Rivas, the state-employed archeologist leading a small team that’s been given an impossible job; advocate for cultural treasures in the face of incredibly rapid development. Pérez faces ostracization from his peers, impossible deadlines from egomaniacal political leaders and constant fights with construction crews while uncovering truly amazing ruins and artifacts from the heyday of Mayan civilization.
His job demands his team scour miles of unexplored jungles and caves in mere weeks and rate any finds on a scale that will a large portion of sites shoveled into the dustbin of history with little or no investigation. From the Post:
The ground began to slant sharply upward. As Pérez approached the top of what appeared to be a small hill, he spotted a chiseled rock — a pale brick carved from limestone. He scanned the ground around him.
It took him a moment to realize: He was standing upon a giant, buried Maya pyramid.
“Dios mio,” he said. “My God.”
Then he noticed other humps of earth rising from the jungle floor. It was more than just one pyramid.
Pérez and his team were at the center of a hidden, previously undiscovered Maya village.
It has come to feel like a perverse reality TV show: Choose which antiquities to eliminate.
“Deconstructed,” an internal government map says next to each monument that doesn’t make the cut. So far, there are more than 25,000 of them.
Archaeologists have also found more than 600,000 fragments of ancient ceramics and 450 human remains. They’ve discovered more than 900 caves and sinkholes, conduits to the Maya underworld that the train will soon barrel past or over.
When completed, the Tren Maya will be a 948-mile train connecting some of the poorest parts of Mexico with some of the major tourism destinations along the Yucatán Peninsula. It’s been a disaster on multiple fronts, not least of which the 217-ton trains, which have a top speed of 90 mph, will be riding over ground swiss-cheesed by caverns, caves and the world’s longest underground river, according to the New York Times. Not exactly a stable spot to build a train. The construction has also destroyed precious rainforests and habitats for some of the most endangered animals in the world, as well as infringed on indigenous peoples’ rights and lands.
This piece is incredibly detailed on everything from a brief history of the Mayan people and their importance in the region to the political mechanicians that make Pérez’s job nearly impossible. The beautiful use of photography through out the story is just a bonus. Find it here.