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All aboard the new train route exploring Mexico’s Mayan heartlands

The highly anticipated Tren Maya railway launches this month, offering intrepid travellers the chance to go beyond the confines of tourist-trap Cancun and discover jungles, pyramids and lesser-known towns. Laura Sanders checks out the route for exciting new Mexican adventure

Thursday 14 December 2023 14:38 GMT
A sunlit church in Santa Elena, a Mayan village six miles from the Uxmal ruins
A sunlit church in Santa Elena, a Mayan village six miles from the Uxmal ruins (Getty/iStock)

Ask any local about Cancun and they’ll tell you it’s not the real Mexico. It’s a metropolis of foreign-owned, all-inclusive high-rises available on package holidays – somewhere designed as an easy fly-and-flop escape, where you linger on its white sugar beaches with a mojito in hand and don’t need to look up for a week. But this is a missed opportunity to explore the Mayan heartland on its doorstep – and now there’s a train to take you there.

From this month, Tren Maya – which spans 900 miles and five states in southeast Mexico – will enable visitors to take the road (or rather, the rails) less travelled and deep dive into the Mayan culture of past and present. It seamlessly connects Cancun, the usual point of entry for Brits, to the region’s Unesco World Heritage archaeological sites, exuberant biospheres and historic towns.

Key points of interest such as Chichén Itzá and Tulum will become quicker and easier to reach by rail and complimentary bus shuttle transfers. Lesser-known Mayan ruins, such as Uxmal, the vibrant city of San Francisco de Campeche, and Calakmul Bioreserve, Mexico’s largest forest reserve, will also be easier to access on this mega train route.

Once fully up and running, it’s hoped there will be high-speed services every two hours from most stations, as well as dining and sleeper services.

The Tren Maya route

The Tren Maya route opens up swathes of Mexico that could otherwise be missed by travellers
The Tren Maya route opens up swathes of Mexico that could otherwise be missed by travellers (Tren Maya)

The railroad has been three years in the making and comprises seven sections, which will open to the public in stages over the next few months, starting on 16 December with an inaugural run from San Francisco in Campeche (section two) to Cancun in Quintana Roo (section four) via Yucatán (sections three and four). This will be a non-stop round trip, but as the network opens up, passengers will be able to hop on and off and purchase tickets locally at stations as well as online.

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It was originally hoped that all of sections one to four could open on 16 December, but some hiccups with the track between San Francisco and Palenque means they won’t be operational until New Year’s Eve.

Section five, which covers 74 miles between Cancun and Tulum, is pencilled in for opening in January – but this date has already been pushed back twice. The landscape there is particularly fragile, with lots of underwater cenotes (freshwater springs) to protect. To get around this, 60 per cent of the track in this section is built on viaduct, which is an added bonus to passengers, who’ll get stunning aerial views from their seat.

Off the rails

More than 900 miles are covered by this new railway connection
More than 900 miles are covered by this new railway connection (Tren Maya)

Tren Maya’s mission statement is to boost tourism in the lesser-known destinations of the region, and it delivers. Whether you’re a foodie, nature enthusiast, beach bum or history buff, there’s lots to discover en route.

Chiapas and Tabasco

The four stops between Chiapas and Tabasco at the bottleneck of the Yucatán peninsula form section one of the railroad. Here, you can explore Mayan pyramids and the surrounding jungles away from the throngs of Chichén Itzá, either in Palenque in Chiapas or Moral Reforma in Tabasco (or both? It is a high-speed train after all).


If you want to know what the likes of Chichén Itzá and Tulum looked like before excavation, head to Campeche where hundreds, if not thousands, of Mayan temples have been reclaimed by the jungle. Calakmul is Mexico’s largest forest reserve, comprising 723,185 hectares of now Unesco-protected land.

Untamed nature has grown up around many Mayan ruins
Untamed nature has grown up around many Mayan ruins (Gettys/iStock)

Contrasting Campeche’s long stretches of untamed jungle and wildlife-rich mangroves is the bustling state capital of San Francisco, notable for its baroque architecture. From there, visit Edzná, which draws many similarities to Chichén Itzá but is less crowded.


The state capital of Mérida, considered Mexico’s safest city, is an essential stop for foodies. Follow your nose down Calle 47 for authentic Mayan dishes such as sopa de lima (a chicken and lime soup), Yucatán’s signature dish. If you’re in search of a hammock or p’ook (a traditional hat), head to the Mayan market for local artisanal produce.

Check into one of Mérida’s bohemian boutique hotels, like Diez Diez, or press on to Valladolid, a great base for exploring Chichén Itzá, or the yellow city of Izamal, where Mayan pyramids poke out between the city’s Hispanic architecture. Both are “Pueblos Magicos“ (Magical Towns), recognised by the Mexican government for their historic, cultural or natural offerings.

Merida is a place to feast on authentic Mayan cuisine
Merida is a place to feast on authentic Mayan cuisine (Getty/iStock)

Quintana Roo

Known for tourist-trap Cancun and the seafront Mayan ruins of Tulum, the well-trodden west coast state of Quintana Roo still has some hidden gems up its sleeve.

On Tren Maya, you’ll be able to stop by the small town of Nuevo Xcan, home to a Mayan pyramid and the enchanting Xibalba cenote, which ancient Mayans believed was a gateway to the underworld.

Puerto Morelos offers excellent scuba diving spots in the Morelos Reef National Park and more small-town charm than Cancun or Tulum.

Down south is the state capital of Chetumal, another typical Latin American city with vibrant colonial buildings. Head to the Museum of Mayan Culture to learn more about the region’s indigenous history, before paying a visit to the ruins at Kohunlich, Dzibanché or Kinichná. Or plump for the manatee sanctuary, home to one of the world’s largest wild manatee populations.

Tren Maya tickets can be purchased at

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