On New Year’s Day in 1994, a group of masked, armed men entered San Cristóbal de las Casas, the capital of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, and seized control of the city. Similar attacks followed in other nearby towns, plunging Chiapas into chaos. Initially caught off guard, the Mexican army eventually pushed the rebels back into the countryside from which they’d come. A shaky ceasefire arrived 12 days later, but the rebellion didn’t end there.

The guerrillas styled themselves the Ejército Zapatista Liberación Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army; EZLN), taking their name from a now-iconic rebel leader of the early 20th century who had fought to improve the lot of peasant workers. The Zapatistas had chosen the first day of 1994 for a reason: it was the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, threatening the Mexican ejidal system of communal landholding that gave poor labourers the right to occupy and farm the land for their own reward. In Chiapas, these poor labourers were mostly indigenous people, many of them Maya. They chose to fight back.

Despite the efforts of the Zapatistas and their balaclava-clad, pipe-puffing spokesman Subcomandante Marcos (pictured at the top of this post under a Creative Commons licence), who became a global icon among a certain type of bookish leftist who’d spent the previous 30 years looking for the new Che Guevara, the rebellion never became a revolution. Over the course of several years, the government made various promises to the Maya rebels, but few were kept and the movement’s momentum eventually dissipated. The EZLN limps on, but its visibility is now mostly limited to guerrilla-chic merchandise sold in San Cristóbal gift shops and sporadic roadblocks on the road to Palenque. For all the initial promise of 1994’s insurgency, Chiapas’s rural Maya population remains a world apart from mainstream Mexico.



The Maya are a large reason why this region – Chiapas, the Yucatán Peninsula and northern Guatemala – has become a tourist magnet. However, the attraction has nothing to do with the Maya Zapatistas and plenty to do with their ancestors.

The ancient Maya empire was the most advanced of the early American civilisations, reaching its peak between around AD 250 and 900 – the so-called ‘Classic’ period. Along with numerous languages (still spoken today) and an early form of writing, the Maya left behind several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and numerous other coach-party favourites. Often spectacular in scale yet frequently shrouded in atmospheric jungle (most have yet to be fully excavated, and more are still being discovered), the ruins have an immediate visual appeal.

In such contexts, the Maya are discussed purely in the past tense: they lived here, worked there, built this, grew that. It’s a little too easy for tourists to forget, if they knew in the first place, that the Maya still exist. The descendants of the empire-builders at Chichén Itzá, Palenque and the other dazzling Maya heritage sites still work the southern Mexico land.



The Mexican class hierarchy, such as it exists, dates back to the years of Spanish colonial occupation. At the top, of course, were the Spanish; peninsulares, as they were known. Below them were the criollos, direct descendants of the Spanish. Next came the mestizos, Mexicans of mixed ancestry. And at the bottom of the social and economic ladder were the indígenas (indigenous peoples). The Spanish have long since gone, of course, but the gap between the mestizos, the vast majority of the population, and the indígenas, who now amount to about 12% of the country, remains pronounced.

As they were more than a thousand years ago, today’s Mexican Maya are a disparate bunch. (There was not one Maya empire but many, and the various city-states regularly fought each other.) Some have chosen to integrate into mainstream Mexican society; or, at least, to try. Others keep one foot in modern Mexico and one in Maya tradition. And others still, including many in Chiapas, retain a fierce independence. They may not even have learned Spanish, preferring to communicate in one of the 60 indigenous languages still spoken around the country.

Over lunch one day last week, we found ourselves in conversation with a Maya man at an otherwise deserted roadhouse about 25km south of Tulum, a latter-day tourist favourite for its spectacular Maya ruins overlooking a screensaver beach (pictured above). Fifteen years earlier, we wouldn’t have stood a chance: the man didn’t learn Spanish until the early 2000s, adding English five years ago. His late-flowering language skills were driven by professional interest: he works as a tour guide, showing visitors around the biosphere reserve close to the Maya settlement, in the state of Quintana Roo, where he’s built his home.

He’d been brought up, he told us, about 200km further south. Maya communities in the area back then lived in a loose necklace of autonomously run, collectively owned settlements (ejidos), with little connection to each other and less to the outside world. When the coastal highway was built and paved, many Maya moved closer to it and the resources it delivered. Their ejidos, though, remain invisible from the road, which is lined with trees on both sides for several hundred monotonous kilometres. Only small pathways, handwritten signs reading ‘propiedad privada‘ (private property) and, most visibly, isolated bus stops give the game away.

When the man was growing up, the international tourist industry on the Yucatán Peninsula was small. The ruins hadn’t become the world-famous monuments they are today (some hadn’t even been discovered), and the beaches had yet to be blotted out by a carpet of towels. Even 15 years ago, Tulum consisted of one paved road and a couple of thousand residents at most. Its population is now 20,000 and is growing by the day.

Things are better now, he went on. Directly and indirectly, the tourist industry has brought some money to the Maya on the Yucatán Peninsula, itself a much wealthier region than neighbouring Chiapas: jobs in the hotels, work as tour guides, even ownership of the restaurant in which we were then sitting. His children are getting a considerably better education than he ever received.



His is one Maya perspective, just one of many, on the tourist industry that’s been built around his cultural heritage. Another can be found in Earl Shorris’s ‘The Life and Times of Mexico‘, a digressive but fascinating 800-page history through which Will is currently ploughing.

In the book, Shorris (an American) visits the small town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto in the company of three fellow academics and educators. They have come to canvass opinion on the possibility of establishing a university of Maya culture in the town, extending an education to those who may otherwise not receive it. The conversation turns to tourism, and one of their Maya guests isn’t shy to jump in with thoughts a world apart from those voiced by our lunchtime acquaintance.


‘The hotels are lined up along the beach in Cancún… They belong to foreign corporations. All the good jobs go to people from other countries… [The requirement to speak more than two languages] applies to everyone who has contact with the guests, who are all foreigners. So, you see, the hotels are owned by foreigners, who employ foreigners, who cater to foreign guests. The only Mayas who work in these hotels are laundresses, dishwashers, gardeners.

‘The foreigners take everything. They use our name, our culture, the ruins of our cities, everything Maya, to lure tourists to their hotels, and they give us nothing. Maya tours, Mayaland hotels, Maya curios, Maya ruins, Maya food… We have to take back our name.’



Although it’s less than 90 minutes from Tulum, the tour groups don’t bother with Felipe Carrillo Puerto. There are no ruins or beaches near the town, and a ring road means coaches don’t even have to pass through its centre. For cyclists riding a circuit of the Yucatán Peninsula, though, it’s a popular stop thanks to its useful location, a day’s ride north of Bacalar or south of Tulum.

A junction town named for the former governor of Yucatán, a Maya politician who was executed by a firing squad in 1924 by rebels intent on deposing the president (they failed), Felipe Carrillo Puerto is a hub for the Maya communities along the coast and in the nearby countryside. And while there are no History Channel ruins here, the town is home to a building that seems to carry more significance for contemporary Maya than the showcase archaeological sites around it.

In the 19th century, after years of oppression, the Maya of this region finally rebelled against the European latecomers who had come to dominate the region’s life, land and economy. The rebellion, which became known as the Caste War, didn’t go well for the Maya, who found themselves underarmed and underorganised. On the verge of giving up the ghost, they were persuaded to continue fighting by a talking cross, which urged them to keep going.

The encouraging words delivered by the talking cross are now assumed to have been hollered by a man throwing his voice from behind it, but no matter. The fight continued, with some success, and the cross became a sacred symbol of the Maya’s fight for justice in their homeland. More than 150 years later, the Santuario de la Cruz Parlante (the Sanctuary of the Talking Cross) still stands, intact, in a modest chapel down a dead-end street close to the centre of Felipe Carrillo Puerto.

Lonely Planet Mexico describes the Santuario de la Cruz Parlante as ‘one of the oddest tourist attractions in the region’. It’s an insultingly lazy pejorative. The story, after all, is no stranger than the various shrines to weeping Marys, apparational Christs and other improbable Catholic fancies that the same writers wouldn’t dream of disdaining. Still, after centuries of being made to feel unwelcome in their own land, the Maya are probably used to it by now.

from 3km east of Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, Mexico