by Carl Franz
What Is It?
I was chatting with a friend about Mexico the other day when I happened to mention that we were planning to include something in the Travel Letter about our recent trips along La Ruta Maya.
The Ruta Maya? he asked. Whats that?
I have to admit that I was taken aback. My friend not only knows Mexico very well, he even owns a couple of small hotels there. How could he possibly not have heard all the commotion about the Ruta Maya? The Mayan Route has not only been publicized by National Geographic and other magazines for the several years, but it is a hot item in Sunday newspaper travel sections. Several Ruta Maya guidebooks have recently appeared and tourist agencies are cranking out a minor avalanche of slick brochures and Ruta Maya promotional material.
On the other hand, my friends focus has always been on northern Mexico. The so-called Mayan Route takes in the southernmost portion of Mexico and a sizable chunk of Central America.
After giving him a quick, 25-words-or-less Ruta Maya lecture, I realized that Id fallen into an all-too-common trap: assuming that what is common knowledge south of the border is also known to the north, in gringolandia.
In writing the original Peoples Guide To Mexico, our main editorial guideline had been: Never underestimate the American publics ignorance of Mexico!, a somewhat mellower version of P.T. Barnums cynical maxim, Nobody ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the American people.
First and most important, The Ruta Maya or Mayan Route is not a single route or itinerary. Like the so-called Gringo Trail you wont find the Ruta Maya on your Mexican road map or in the index of a geography book. Thats because the Ruta Maya isnt really a place it is a concept.
As first proposed by William Garrett, former editor of National Geographic Magazine, the Ruta Maya was to be an entirely new approach to international cooperation: a carefully groomed tourist route connecting important Mayan archaeological sites and nature preserves scattered throughout southern Mexico and three Central American countries. In a closer view, the Mayan route would encompass the Mexican states of Chiapas, Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo, all of Belize and Guatemala and a portion of Honduras.
This huge territory is undoubtedly one of the hemispheres most exciting and picturesque regions. The boundaries of the proposed Ruta Maya embrace several million contemporary Mayans, thousands of greater and lesser archaeological sites and untold acres of relatively pristine jungles, forests, wetlands and wildlife habitat. As an additional attraction, the Ruta Maya includes several international airports and is surprisingly easy and inexpensive to reach.
The human element was an important part of the original Ruta Maya concept. A portion of tourism profits would be used to purchase wildlife habitat and sensitive natural areas, but money would also be channeled into projects to protect and nurture Mayan culture.
In keeping with the plans pragmatic, free-enterprise approach, local people could expect immediate benefits in terms of jobs. Steady employment would be created in construction, ecosystem protection and traditional tourism-related businesses such as hotels, restaurants, shops, arts and crafts, entertainment, transportation, etc. The Mayan campesinos who are forced by hardship to slash-and-burn the rain forest to plant corn would become nature guides, cab drivers, waitresses and forest guardians. In the long term, there would inevitably be dramatic improvements in health care, schools and other much-needed services.
The overall details of Garretts plan, as well as the first Ruta Maya map, can be found in the Oct 1989 issue of National Geographic.
Today, some of the excitement about the original Ruta Maya proposal has been dampened by a large dose of local reality. As just one example, until the notoriously lousy dust-mud-and-gravel highway from the Flores area to the Belizean border is graded (or even paved!), National Geographics idea of a system of elevated cable cars swinging through the jungle at Tikal will continue to read more like Alice-In-Mayaland than a realistic development plan.
For better or worse, most of the Ruta Maya is still at the daydreaming stage. From a eco-travellers standpoint, red tape at borders hasnt been noticeably eased, logging and ranching continue to chew up great tracts of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve and political maneuvers make chaos of careful long-range planning.
The good news is that even without so-called improvements, the land of the Maya remains one of the most interesting, exciting and challenging regions of the world for the curious traveller. When visited in Peoples Guide style, I think youll find the Ruta Maya to be everything you hoped and expected it to be and probably a lot more.