The Imminent Destruction of Mexico’s Best Dive Sites – One Track at a Time
An apocalyptic nightmare is threatening dive sites in Tulum. The project, known as the ‘Tren Maya’ in Spanish, is an ill-conceived, poorly planned project to create a train corridor along the paradisiacal Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. It has already grossly disrupted tourism and resulted in the expropriation of local lands. Vast swaths of the jungle will be clear cut and the longest flooded cave systems on the planet will be collapsed, disrupting the vital flow of fresh groundwater onto coastal reefs of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System.
Vision vs. reality
At first, I thought the Tren Maya was a great idea. I envisioned an ultramodern bullet train raised above the forest. It would zip tourists from the Cancun airport south to Tulum and offer tourists stunning views of turquoise waters. It would run westward to Merida, showcasing the dense fecund jungle. What a wonderful way to see the Yucatan!
The Tren Maya will provide none of that. The first Caribbean leg of the project will run merely from Playa del Carmen to Tulum. Tourists can already take a cab, car, or public transport between the two cities. The highway is spacious and uncrowded, and the trip takes about forty minutes. The ground-level train will offer zero views. Shockingly, it will be composed of ancient, repurposed diesel box cars that rumours claim the government recently purchased from…Kenya.
The pandemic temporarily derailed the Tren Maya project, but there is now a desperate rush to complete the president’s pet project before the end of his term. It is being pushed forward with depressingly little planning or forethought.
The planned path of the train has changed locations too many times to count in the last year. In 2021 the plan was to run it along the highway. Sacred Ceiba trees lining the entrance to Playa del Carmen were uprooted. The streetlights were removed, leaving the highway dark and especially dangerous with no center divider between four lanes of traffic. Bridge construction at the North entrance to Playa del Carmen commenced. This resulted in hours of gridlock entering the city and a noticeable increase in accidents.
The expropriation of highway-side lands began, with the government bulldozing along the highway with merely months’ notice. Throughout the fall of 2021, I was notified my highway-side dive shop would be bulldozed in a matter of days, then told it would not be knocked down after all, then told again that it would be destroyed. The plans changed every week.
The geological reality of the fragile limestone landscape finally caught up with the project. No full studies of the route had been completed before the project began. The construction started at one end, and they tested as they went. We stand on the largest underground flooded cave systems on the planet; many of them are thousands of miles/kilometres long, hundreds of yards/metres wide, and tens of yards/metres tall. Stadium-sized caverns can be found only a few yards/metres below the limestone bedrock. These caves collapse when people attempt to construct on top of them. Even the original construction of the highway faced difficulties. The preparatory work for the train started to collapse caves along the planned route, many of them uncharted and undiscovered up to this point.
The government has now abandoned the highway plan, leaving a partially-constructed bridge on the north side of Playa del Carmen, scars of clearcut jungle, and a dark highway with deep, open ditches down the middle. When there’s no ditch, you might drive into oncoming traffic in the dark because the streetlights were removed.
The new plan is to run the train 2.5 miles (4km) back in the jungle where there are equal numbers of caves. According to a prominent cave explorer with decades of experience and who founded a prominent karst and caves environmental assessment agency in the US, the train should run 7-8 miles (11-12km) back from the coast to minimize the number of caves collapsed. Historically, there have been trains elsewhere in the peninsula, but never along the Caribbean coast. There’s no precedent suggesting the newest route 2.5 miles (4km) inland is viable without careful studies.
With the 2023 completion deadline rapidly approaching, sources on the project say there will be no more excuses and no more delays. They will plow through jungle, caves, and local lands without hesitation, still without a big-picture plan beforehand. Without question, they will discover unstable ground, and mitigation costs will likely be prohibitive due to the sheer number of caves that the train must cross. My guess is the destruction will occur, that this route will also be abandoned, and the train will be moved yet again.
Cave collapse is not conjecture; sections of the highway have opened up over the years. Two years ago, the highway collapsed into a huge sinkhole 550 yards (500m) from my shop when the government attempted to expand the road. There’s been a 55-yard (50m) diameter hole in the road for the last two years, with a traffic diversion around it. Construction crews have been attempting to correct this for 24 months, and they have achieved almost nothing. We recently had an overnight collapse in a popular cave diving site up the road from my house, completely blocking a well-known tunnel. It suspiciously coincided with a night that dynamite was set off about a mile (1.2km) away. Even dirt roads cause visible collapses and blockages in the caves when relatively light machinery passes overhead. Imagine what a train will do.
Cavern and cave diving is one of the main dive-related tourist industries in the area, and, as of the writing of this article, the train route is planned to go directly through the most famous site of all: the Dos Ojos Eco Park. It will pass within 330 yards (300m) of another famous dive site, called Dreamgate. This has the potential to collapse a portion of the longest flooded cave system in the world, Sac Aktun.
Even if these dive sites somehow manage to stay open, swimmers and divers will be treated to vibrating, shaking ground as the train runs past. I have been cave diving when someone merely jack-hammered a mile (1.2km) away, and the vibrations caused a horrifying full-body numbing effect. By the time I was out of the water, I had a blinding headache and could barely walk straight.
Beyond diving, the collapsing of the caves fundamentally and irreversibly disrupts the aquifer. Once it’s done, it’s done. There are no above-ground streams or rivers in our region, and the underground river caves are our only source of fresh water.
The freshwater runs from the vast jungle, through cave systems, and out to the reef, a flow that is essential for the health and livelihood of the coastal oceans. The groundwater flush through the coastal estuaries creates critical habitat for juvenile fish. Disturbing this flow can destroy habitats, likely leading to plummeting fish populations, which in turn leads to dying coral, which in turn leads to unhealthy oceans and dead reefs. It’s all connected.
The jungle and the caves are both homes to endangered and protected species. We still see jaguars, monkeys, wild boars, and deer. Underground, we see protected and/or endemic species, such as remipedes and cave blind fish. Habitat destruction is real; running a train in a straight line across the jungle will restrict the movement of creatures and be especially destructive to animals like jaguars that roam over large habitat ranges.
As a cave diving professional, I have a great interest in the protection of Mexico’s flooded caves, forests, and reefs. However, tourists of all kinds will be affected by the Tren Maya: recreational ocean and cavern divers, snorkellers on the reef and in the cenotes, sport fishermen, and even those who simply enjoy resting on the beach and gazing at the bright blue water – water that is kept healthy by the thriving ecosystem. Impacts include threats to the livelihood of locals whose lands are seized and the destruction of their businesses. Those working in transportation – or who just need to use the coastal highway – can no longer travel swiftly or easily on the now partially-destroyed road. The tren affects unique endemic species. As this article is being written, landowners are being convinced to accept a pittance of the true value of their land. They can either sell willingly or it will be expropriated.
I have seen massive hotels take over the beaches and the highway expand and collapse caves over the last 15 years as a resident here. It’s not the place it once was. We should learn from past development mistakes, and not make things worse. This project brings the reef, the jungle, and the community one step closer to mediocrity, all for the fever dream of an out-of-touch politician: a train that is literally going to run itself into a hole in the ground.
What can I do to help?
1: Sign and share the petition – every name helps. https://www.change.org/p/lopezobrador-no-al-tren-maya-sobre-los-cenotes-y-cuevas-de-quintana-roo
2: Share this article on social media for greater international recognition of dangers we face.
3. Show your support for local dive stores and operators.
4. Voice your concerns to government officials.
Natalie Gibb is a full cave instructor, explorer, and researcher based in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. She is a published author, international speaker, and cave conservationist.
For more visit:
Under the Jungle
Carretera Federal Tulum Playa KM 264
Cuidad Chemuyil, Tulum, Mexico 77750
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