Voices From Yucatan: It’s a Rich Man’s Game


The poet Charles Olson traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula in 1953 to study Mayan hieroglyphs and ended up writing The Mayan Letters to poet Robert Creeley covering a wide range of subjects – mythology, anthropology, language, and cultural history. The key word here is “travel” as opposed to “tourist”— meeting, learning, analyzing, comparing: “Judging from the bizness here now—and adding it to the apparent fact that the Maya depended, for water, upon these accidents of nature, where the upper limestone crust collapsed, and created these huge cenotes, near which they built their cities—I’d guess that this people had a very ancient way of not improving on nature, that is that it is not a question of either intelligence or spirituality, but another thing, something Americans have a hard time getting their minds around, a form or bias of attention which does not include improvements.”

In my own “travel” to Yucatan last week I met up with some indigenous folks who gave me an earful about “improvements.” I first visited Mexico over 40 years ago and have been back many times to witness the changes tourism has wrought. In Yucatan, Cancun has changed from a pueblo to a high-end resort with high-rise hotels and high priced restaurants and nightclubs that have subsumed the locals who provide the services keeping all these businesses afloat.

In Tulum, down the coast from Cancun on what is called the Riviera Maya, the tourist scene tries to distinguish itself from that of Cancun with its hipster proliferation of yoga retreats, cabañas, cafés, bars, and public beaches. Millennials (and old people like me) rent fixie bicycles to get from town to the beach—a couple of miles—to the Tulum ruins, and all the beautiful cenotes Olson describes. But change is coming that may even surprise the hipsters.

I met three local men who were more than willing to discuss the acceleration of this change that they see as the death knell of whatever is left of local autonomy: Hugo in town; Manuel at the beach; and Jorge at the cenote.

Hugo makes his living renting bikes and snorkeling gear to tourists in a small shop near the house where I stayed. His family moved to the US when he was four years old, and he stayed until he ran into trouble as a juvenile and was sent back to Mexico. His mother still lives in Texas. If I had to choose one word to describe Hugo it would be jaded. He hates the tourists who haggle with him over rental fees. He hates the developers who are buying up all the vacant properties within and around the town. When we follow his directions on a short cut to the beach we cycle by the poor people who’ve already been pushed out of town into shanties that will themselves be destroyed for new hotels needed to accommodate—or entice—the growing number of tourists. He hates the government that enables—and is in the pockets of—the developers: he describes their mansions and cars and leer jets. He hates the police who don’t make enough of a salary to prevent them from engaging in the corruption that enables the government. When we ask him if he wants to go back to the states (after a discussion about Trump) he says, “No, I don’t want to go back there, I don’t want to stay here, I just want to go off to some island and be by myself.”

Riviera Maya Playa

At the public beach on the playa we rented a little cabaña for a few hours that was run by Manuel, whose waiters bring you drinks and tacos from the restaurant that serves the area. Manuel and his family also live in the town of Tulum, where he rents instead of owns because house prices are beyond the salaries of hotel and restaurant workers. Rents continue to rise and he’s worried he won’t be able to afford even that. Developers are buying up more of the beach property, reducing the number of public beaches that are supposed to be protected by the government but where access fees are being charged. When locals organized a march up the beach to protest the fees and closures the police arrested them all. In one of our conversations, as he became more animated he reverted to Spanish to complain that the tourists in the houses that line the beach from the playa north to Akumal (between Cancun and Tulum) seem more arrogant (Americans, Europeans, Canadians, all of them), less caring of the beautiful seafront properties they have the privilege to rent. Areas in Akumal have been closed off to try to protect the endangered green sea turtle. From an article in the Mexico News Daily:  “The combination of blue waters, amazing sea turtles, monumental coral reefs, soft white sandy beaches and tranquility has for years defined the tourism product for Akumal. In fact, ‘Akumal’ means ‘place of the turtle’ in Maya. However, the hotels along Akumal Bay, like most of the development in the Riviera Maya, are the result of an outdated economic model that does not take into account the maintenance of the natural resources that define this once bucolic Caribbean destination or the resulting population growth, not to mention the well-being of the workers who make up the Akumal community or ‘pueblo.’” Manuel also told me the developers, with government support, are also pushing the still isolated community that borders the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to replace a subsistence economy with a tourist one.

Cenote Escondido

Jorge is employed as a tour guide in Tulum. He came up to us at the Cenote Cristal and started up a conversation in his excellent English. When I remarked on his language skills, he told us it is “obligatory” in all Mexican schools to learn English. The reason so many local people don’t speak English is because they are too poor to attend school: “There are two kinds of people in Mexico,” he said, in his gentle voice, “the rich and the poor. There is no middle class.” He told us he is paid $30 a day to take French tourists around Tulum; he bought a house for $40,000 with a 30-year mortgage and he has nothing left over. He shrugged his shoulders when we asked if he thought new elections might bring about a more progressive government (all the buses we rode had signs flashing across the front that said “Tu vota es tu voz”): “I’m not political. My vote doesn’t count. The decisions are already made by the politicians.” We talked a little about Trump and he said, “If I could have voted there I would have voted for Clinton. Maybe a woman would do better.”

All three men mentioned greed at some point in the conversations. If you Google “Quotes about greed” the first one that pops up is Eric Fromm’s: “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” Another one that is particularly apt when applied to the situation on the Riviera Maya is by Montaigne: “It is not the want but rather the abundance that creates avarice.” In the Mexico News Daily article the author says: “The question arises: how can there be so much poverty in the local community of workers when there is so much revenue being generated in Akumal? A new economic structure must be put into place, one that gives the local people stewardship of the sea turtles and marine ecosystem while allowing for regulated use.” As long as the Mexican government, as so many governments across the globe, allow unfettered capitalism to create the abundance that creates avarice, you can bet that the next time you visit Tulum you may not even get to the beach. You may still like to think of yourself as a traveler, but in reality, I’m afraid, we’re pretty much all tourists on this consumer capitalist stage.

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