As the owner of a tour company specializing in off-the-beaten-track adventures I have seen, over the last 10-15 years, a notable increase in tourism traffic to places that used to be quiet, beautiful and often magical.
This is unfortunate but natural, given that
- a) we have more people in general so there is going to be more traffic everywhere, not only on the heart-attack-inducingly congested Prolongacion del Paseo de Montejo on weekdays around 1 PM
- b) we have the ubiquitous internet to thank for the massive diffusion of any and all information so now potentially everyone knows where everything is and how to do it or get there
- c) tourism authorities rack their brains to come up with new and exciting promotions to places that are often not ready to receive the influx of tourism that comes from said promotion
- d) politicians not involved in tourism but who are anxious to be patted on the back for their social awareness and for helping the ejidatarios and campesinos in becoming better political clients, throw massive amounts of money in their general direction (with plenty left over for splatter to cousins, compadres and family members who carry out their ambitious projects) in the form of infrastructure and development.
Case Study – Kankirixche Cenote
Located between the towns of Abalá (which in Mayan means not much going on here but we like to spend money on lamp posts) and Mucuyché (we’re a rustic pueblo but our hacienda is fancy) the Kankirixche cenote is a large, mostly open cavernous cenote that was absolutely gorgeous, and difficult to access both in terms of the road and also the actual climbing in and out of the water.
You would drive along an extremely rustic and rough former railway trestle, hoping for no oncoming vehicle since this would mean you had to back up from whence you came, and would park under a tree near the cenote. You might find a pickup truck there with diving tanks and other related paraphernalia, and in the water, lots of bubbles and lights from below as you lower yourself down a rickety ladder strapped – in pieces held together by wire, rope and faith – to the roots of a magnificent alamo tree growing out of the middle.
Aside from the divers and occasionally some local kids who arrived by motorbike, the site was serene and lived fully up to how cenotes are described in glossy tourism promotion materials: magical, mystical places full of history and home to aluxes and the spirits of the ancient Mayans.
Fast forward to 2019.
There is now a giant blue government sign marking the turn-off to get to Kankirixche cenote. The sign has the symbol for the cenote, for a restaurant, etc. All very civilized. The road has been somewhat widened here and there, so there is no more backing up except for perhaps a few short stretches, and that is a good thing because there is now a LOT of traffic going in and out.
When you arrived you are greeted by a handful of constantly changing campesinos from nearby Uayalceh, who claim that this cenote falls within their jurisdiction ejidatariamente speaking and so it is they who are entitled to charge you 60 pesos (gringo price) to enter the cenote. There is a rope that is lowered once you have paid so you and your vehicle can proceed. Your laminated “tickets” you will turn in to yet another individual who is sitting under the dilapidated life jacket structure, where you will pay extra to rent those should you so desire. There, is also the rocky parking lot, which is now usually filled with at least 5 cars and vans (on a good day) and up to 20 vehicles on a holiday or weekend.
That laurel tree growing from inside the cenote? It is now dead, having been blown over by a chubasco, a small whirlwind storm that hit the area some years ago. Its carcass is still lying there, in the trampled brown dirt and dust-covered rocks. The desolate scene is accompanied by the shouts and shrieks emanating from the water inside the cenote, which you can now access via a rickety wooden staircase and which is covered with clothing, sandals, backpacks and more, all of which belong to the hordes in the water, who are screaming and hollering like there is no tomorrow.
Whatever spirits inhabited these caves have long since departed in disgust, as you might also do upon encountering this disturbing scene. There is no magic here, no mysticism. It is a swimming hole, pure and simple and a very commercialized and crappy one at that.
I haven’t gone into the infrastructure details that are a modern feature at Kankirixche. The powers that be, in all their infinite wisdom and benevolence, have provided the campesinos with everything they need (this is at many cenotes throughout the Yucatan by the way) and that means the ladder access, the life jackets, a massive palm thatch roof structure to be used as a restaurant, accompanied by a fully equipped industrial kitchen with refrigeration, giant gas stove, oven, and even an extractor. There are solar panels on the roof for electricity. There are bicycles for rent – stored in chains among the upturned tables and chairs – that have never been moved except when the palapa restaurant floor is swept which happens rarely as the restaurant is NEVER open. There are change rooms, and bathrooms with composting toilets.
The campesinos have been given all this infrastructure in the form of a handout, with no conditions attached either in the form of repayment (insert guffaws of laughter here) or even teaching these people the basics of business to help them become self-sufficient and therefore actually achieve what was the purported goal of the program. And so, the campesinos could care less about making anything to sell, which means the restaurant is always closed and the entire infrastructure WASTED, sitting there like the white elephant it is, a monument to government waste and unrealized social program potential. The campesinos are happy to extend their hand for more money when something breaks and yes, if they vote for the party doing the handing out, they will receive the money.
On the last visit I made to this once beautiful spot, I was greeted by the usual shirtless men who charged me the entry fee, along with the sight of a family’s laundry hanging among the trees in plain sight. Pots, pans and dirty dishes were strewn among the tables in the restaurant, as were more unwashed pots and pans in the kitchen. Women, presumably the wives of the men, lounged in hammocks hanging in the restaurant. When I asked what they had cooked up that the answer was the same as it always is when I ask this same question: “hoy no cocinaron” Today they didn’t cook. Yes, well, there were only 10 cars in the parking lot at that moment and so it probably didn’t make economic sense to USE THE FREE INFRASTRUCTURE TO BRING A GOD DAMN CHICKEN AND SOME TORTILLAS to make some food for the approximately 100-200 people that would be visiting that day. It’s so much easier to just sit there and collect money.
Are you in a tourism destination or a village on laundry day?
looking back at the giant palapa built with a no-repay loan for the ‘poor’ campesinos thereby dooming them to a continuation of paternalistic handouts and no education or self improvement
Speaking of laziness and lack of planning, it is interesting to note that the garbage that is collected in bins at the site is simply dumped in the underbrush a few meters from the parking lot. Stroll into the forest, such as it is, and follow the trail. You will come upon piles of glass and plastic, as well as toilet paper (used) and evidence of human defecation with the charming sounds (huge flies) and smells that accompany an open toilet.
Yes, that’s a pile of human shit at the bottom left. How about we clean this all up before we go to Berlin to the tourism fair?
Kankirixche cenote is a perfect example of human laziness, blind mismanagement, government misspending and how a pretty tourism spot can be completely and utterly ruined by over-promoting it to the point of surpassing its capacity.