Friday, June 21, 2024

What’s it like to ride the Maya Train?

“The train is delayed,” the official told us. How long? “We don’t know, sorry.”

Why was it delayed? “We don’t know that either.”

The last line was delivered with a shrug, a laugh and the implication that the gringo tourist shouldn’t take it all too seriously.

We settled in to wait, and our patience was rewarded when the train finally did arrive: smooth, fast and spotless, the Maya Train is a gleaming slice of transport delight. It is perhaps the best train system in the Americas, far outpacing for example, anything offered by Amtrak in the United States. 

My trip from Mérida to Campeche revealed a train system that, despite having some kinks to work out, shows the potential to be a viable option for travel in the region, with great comfort, aesthetics and a cheerful workforce.

The Maya Train opened on Dec. 15, but has yet to shed the controversy that has been endemic to the project since its inception. On one hand, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his supporters have argued that the train represents a step into the future for a long-neglected region of Mexico. On the other, the project has raised lasting objections from groups across the political spectrum, with some claiming the train is a vanity project that will have negative environmental and social impacts.

Map of the Maya Train route
The Maya Train railroad crosses five Mexican states. (guiadeltrenmaya.com)

The Mérida-Teya station is located about a 30-minutes drive from the city center, and upon arrival, the station aces its first impression: a beautiful structure with high ceilings and plenty of natural light. The dazzling first impression was clouded, however, when I attempted  to determine the steps required to board the train, as the station lacks screens with departure and arrival information or a staffed information desk. Instead, travelers were left floundering, trying to find an official or merely trusting what they’d heard from fellow passengers. 

In fact, there was no information in any language other than Spanish, highlighting a problem for international travelers, a group the train is supposed to serve in great numbers. Case in point: as I stood in line, an American approached me and asked if I spoke Spanish and could help him. When I asked him about his Maya Train experience so far, he told me he’d run into problems trying to purchase his tickets on the website, as he read no Spanish, and was confused by the basics of the website interface. Still, he was impressed by the station and excited to try the train.

We waited out the delay by heading over to the twin markets located in the station, a tiny Oxxo and a Go-mart, side by side, offering the expected fare: junk food, water, soda and beer. The prices were the same as a typical convenience store in Yucatán — authorities appeared to have refrained from the price inflation so often seen in transport hubs.

I asked the two Oxxo employees present if they received any special discount on the train. They said no, but they did get a standard discount for being Yucatán residents. That seemed fair enough, until I considered their likely minimum wage salary of 249 pesos per day would put a 688-peso one-way ride to Campeche out of reach. Though both had been working at the station since its opening, neither had taken a trip on the train yet. 

Our train was announced, so we passed security and headed to the gleaming white platform — which was pretty but lacked seating — for what turned out to be another 30-minute delay. Shade was at a premium as well, so we passengers did a bovine-like huddle under the awning beneath the fierce Yucatán sun. I approached a man wearing an identification badge for Renfe, the national train system of Spain. 

He turned out to be a Renfe employee in Mexico in a consulting role, here to help iron out the kinks of the Maya Train’s daily service. The train has some growing pains to work out, he said, “like this delay we are experiencing now.” 

When I asked if he could put a letter grade on the train’s debut he simply said “aprobado” — “pass.” In his two months here, he told me, he was seeing gradual improvement. It was going “about as well as could be expected,” the train employees “seemed quite content,” and he was “optimistic about the train’s future and potential to add service.”

The train arrived and we boarded the brand new car. Every surface shone, not a stitch was out of place and there wasn’t a trace of graffiti or other sign of wear. A train attendant gave a brief speech in Spanish about the location of the bathrooms. There were also two uniformed army personnel — women in their twenties with pistols at their sides — who wandered the aisles and chatted with the passengers: practicing English with the gringos, fawning over babies and asking people about the books they were reading.

In geological terms, the Yucatán Peninsula is an “unconfined, flat-lying karst landscape,” which means the scenery for most of the train ride is limited to the immediate, dry jungle next to the tracks and the distant, green line of the horizon. Without much outside the window to capture interest, if you want to stretch your legs you can move freely between train cars and there’s a small dining car with a very limited selection of snacks and drinks. The prices were steep: a beer was 70 pesos, or about double the usual price off-train.

Surprisingly, the premier-class car shows little difference from the tourist-class car. The only tangible improvement was the seating and legroom, and those differences were trivial. The seats in tourist class are comfortable enough, with sufficient legroom for my perpetually cramped, 6’4 frame. In premier class, there are three larger seats to a row, while in tourist class there are four. Beyond the extra space, there were no other discernible perks. 

We arrived in Campeche after a journey that was pleasant and without incident, but the San Francisco Campeche station, like Mérida-Teya, suffered from a lack of signage and general information. There were no taxis outside, but a waiting bus I took to downtown Campeche for 50 pesos.

Overall, the experience on the Maya Train was a positive one for this traveler, as I rode in comfort and speed across the Yucatán plain from Mérida to Campeche.

Sure, there were delays, information confusion and an ad-hoc feeling to certain procedures, but it was all counterbalanced by the excitement of hurtling along the tracks of a new Mexican future.

Adding to the buoyant feeling was a workforce that was cheerful and spoke optimistically about the peninsula’s future. Worries about environmental destruction would wait for another day.

For now, as you so commonly hear in Mexico — “todo bien.” 

Stewart Merritt is a university professor and writer from the U.S. who is based in Mérida.

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