Hop a flight from St. Louis to Cancún to experience the new Tren Maya

The new Tren Maya in the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico connects sites across five states, including Cancún International Airport. (Yes, St. Louis Lambert International Airport offers nonstop flights to Cancún.) El Tren Maya partially opened in December, and the complete 966-mile loop with 34 stops is expected to open this June. While the train will ease travel from Cancún to Tulum or to the Palenque ruins in Chiapas, it also has the potential of bringing thousands of visitors to sites that aren’t accustomed to accommodating such crowds. (Its construction was met with pushback from environmentalists and indigenous leaders.) Given the fragile ecosystems and Mayan archaeological sites across the region, travelers should be mindful of the communities and sites. Here are some highlights along the train’s route, as well as tips about being good stewards of this sacred land. 

Archaeological Sites 

Chichén Itzá is one of Mexico’s most famous archaeological sites, one of the new 7 Wonders of the World and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Temple of Kukulcán is the most recognized structure, but as one of the largest former Mayan cities, there are 5 square kilometers of architectural sites to explore.

Alhough smaller than Chichén Itzá, Palenque, in the state of Chiapas, is recognized for its detailed carvings. It’s also estimated that only 10 percent of the former city is exposed, leaving thousands of structures still covered by the jungle terrain.

The state of Campeche has so many archeological sites that you’d need an entire trip to visit all of them. You can climb to the top of the pyramids in Calakmul to take in the surrounding jungle. Nearby, the Edzna Archaeological Zone has the Temple of Five Stories, another impressive structure that stands 100 feet tall. 

Pro Tips:

  • If you want to understand the historical significance of the archaeological sites, it’s best to hire a guide, which can be done in advance or on site.
  • There is little shade at these sites, so wear sunscreen and hats. 
  • If you can, try to visit in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is less intense.
  • To minimize trash, bring your own bottles of water. 
  • Observe signage to help preserve these ancient sites.

Pueblos Mágicos (Magical Towns)

In 2001, Mexico created the distinction Pueblos Mágicos to recognize towns that have preserved their architecture, culture, folklore, and history. There are 177 Pueblos Mágicos in Mexico, 23 of which are along the Tren Maya route. 

Beginning in Quintana Roo, Cozumel is perhaps best known for its seven reefs, which attract divers from across the globe. Visitors also shouldn’t miss San Miguel’s city center, where you can find street murals, art galleries, and plenty of restaurants. Inland, Bacalar, with its crystal-clear lagoon waters, is perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and relaxing.

Of the seven Pueblos Mágicos in Yucatán, each with its take on Mayan culture and gastronomy, Valladolid is one that you don’t want to miss. Given its proximity to Chichén Itzá, it makes for an easy overnight stay. The Spanish colonial architecture, the San Servacio Church, and the Convent of San Bernardino of Siena can be explored by foot or via an organized tour.

If picturesque mountain towns are more your thing, look no further than San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. With cobblestone streets and a colonial center, San Cris is steeped in history and charm. It also offers plenty of opportunities to explore the surrounding mountains. And don’t miss the opportunity to take a boat tour of Cañón del Sumidero.

Pro Tips:

  • Support the communities you visit by staying at hotels, shopping at stores, and eating at restaurants that are locally owned.
  • Learn a few Spanish phrases, or download Google translate to help facilitate better communication. 

Sustainable Hotels

Set in lush gardens, Hotel Makaabá Eco-Boutique in Bacalar prioritizes wellness and local ecosystems. The hotel uses clean energy, composts, and prioritizes buying locally. The rooms are in a natural color palette and include a pool view or a balcony. Guests can book a sailboat tour, yoga, massages, and even a mezcal tasting.

In San Cristóbal de las Casas, Casa Lum is set in a 19th-century home. The eight bedrooms are unique in design and offer a mix of colonial and contemporary style. The hotel uses textiles made by local artisans and is recognized as a leader in sustainability for its efforts in economic development, environmental awareness, and social justice. The hotel restaurant uses fresh produce from its gardens to create contemporary Mexican dishes.

Ahau Tulum’s beachfront cabanas and palapas are made from eco-conscious materials and have outdoor patios or decks with views of the water or tropical gardens. The property has a private beach and a spacious pool. Guests can participate in daily yoga or sunrise meditations. There are three onsite restaurants, including Raw Love Cafe, a popular vegan spot.

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