IN THE MAYA FOREST, Mexico — Machete in hand, Manuel Pérez Rivas sliced his way through the jungle. He stepped carefully over moss and rock and mud, gaiters to protect his ankles from rattlesnakes.
The ground began to slant sharply upward. As Pérez approached the top of what appeared to be a small hill, he spotted a chiseled rock — a pale brick carved from limestone. He scanned the ground around him.
It took him a moment to realize: He was standing upon a giant, buried Maya pyramid.
“Dios mio,” he said. “My God.”
Then he noticed other humps of earth rising from the jungle floor. It was more than just one pyramid.
Pérez and his team were at the center of a hidden, previously undiscovered Maya village.
It was an archaeologist’s dream: The kind of finding that under ordinary conditions would spark years of investigation. What might be under his feet? The secrets of Maya civilization beckoned.
There was one problem. Pérez’s team — employees of the Mexican government — was here only because the country’s president is building a 950-mile railway through the jungle, over thousands of pre-Hispanic sites like the one on which they were standing.
Could Pérez convince authorities to preserve them?
The Tren Maya — the signature infrastructure project of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — is causing unspeakable destruction to one of the Western Hemisphere’s largest remaining rainforests. Already, workers have sliced a gash the width of a football field through the Maya Forest. By 2024, trains carrying tourists will rumble over hundreds of buried settlements, caves and underground rivers, raising the risk of collapse and contamination.
The archaeologists face a succession of almost impossible decisions. They’ve been directed to scour Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula for undiscovered ruins and to rank them on a scale of one to four — from negligible importance to profound historical value. Anything judged less than a four will almost certainly be bisected by the rail line or destroyed altogether. The losses so far include millennia-old Maya homes and temples.
It has come to feel like a perverse reality TV show: Choose which antiquities to eliminate.
“Deconstructed,” an internal government map says next to each monument that doesn’t make the cut. So far, there are more than 25,000 of them.
Archaeologists have also found more than 600,000 fragments of ancient ceramics and 450 human remains. They’ve discovered more than 900 caves and sinkholes, conduits to the Maya underworld that the train will soon barrel past or over.
The idea behind the Tren Maya is to draw the tourists of Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum to some of the poorest parts of southern Mexico, luring them away from the beach and toward the rest of the Yucatán.
“Development as justice,” López Obrador has called it. “It will bring education, health and housing to the communities where the train passes.”
About half of the country disagrees, according to recent polling. Mexican senators have pleaded with the United Nations to intervene. Activists have laid down in front of bulldozers. National news outlets now report the mounting destruction like a box score, the toll ticking up daily.
“The Tren Maya rattles the underworld,” ran a headline in La Vanguardia.
Around the globe, modern infrastructure has been built atop the ruins of ancient civilizations. Egypt recently finished a highway across the plateau of the Great Pyramids. China dismantled relics of the Qing empire to build a ring road around Beijing. In Colorado, engineers are rerouting the U.S. 550 atop the ancient ruins of the Pueblo tribe.
But it’s difficult to imagine a place outside of the Yucatán with a greater concentration of antiquities, or where the ethics of construction and preservation are more complicated. The peninsula is the likely location of several missing ancient kingdoms — mentioned in hieroglyphic inscriptions, but lost to time.
“It’s so rich in archaeology that the only way to preserve everything would be to construct an upper story for the whole population,” said archaeologist Ivan Šprajc, a scholar of Maya civilization.
When the divers surfaced, breathless after making their discovery, they could hear the screech of bulldozers in the distance.
Even Mexico’s archaeologists can’t agree on how to rank the Tren Maya project against the antiquities it will steamroll. It feels at times like boiling down a philosophical question — the importance of heritage versus the benefits of development — to a crudely practical one, like trying to decide between a cave painting and a supercomputer.
Now here was Pérez, a 55-year-old with floppy hair and eyeglasses, wearing a green vest embroidered with Maya hieroglyphs. He surveyed the jungle from atop the newly discovered pyramid. He knew he was looking out on yet another iteration of that question. What value could he assign to a settlement that had been hidden from view for two millennia?
Was it enough to divert a train that brought with it the promise of material — and not just cultural — wealth?
The irony is rich: to shepherd tourists into the cradle of Maya civilization, engineers are demolishing relics of that very culture.
But there’s another irony. The destruction, Pérez had to admit, has brought with it a remarkable archaeological opportunity.
Before undertaking any public infrastructure project, Mexico’s government is legally obligated to fund an archaeological impact assessment. Given the scale of the Tren Maya, that mission is enormous. The rail line encompasses an area larger than the state of Indiana.
The excavations offer an unprecedented window into areas of the Maya heartland not previously explored. Since the archaeologists began their work in 2020, they’ve made one discovery after the next: a tomb of human remains under a heap of ornate offerings, a cluster of Maya cottages with private gardens, a stone carving of a goddess holding a quetzal bird in her left hand
For Pérez, it’s the smaller, more intimate finds that often inspire the most awe. He hands them to his colleagues — the ring carved from a seashell, the votive figure of a baby — unable to suppress his own awe. “Look at this!”
The archaeologists hold the objects gently, forgetting briefly about the project that has brought them here. Spending time with Pérez’s team is to watch the way that archaeology, in this application, marries wonder with destruction.
The deadline is impossibly tight; López Obrador wants to complete the train project by the time he leaves office in 2024. Along one stretch of construction, officials from the government tourism development agency gave the archaeologists 18 days to assess and excavate 37 miles of jungle, and threatened to begin construction if they didn’t finish on time.
The archaeologists laughed at the assignment, even as they tried frantically to complete it. Done correctly, they said, that research would take at least two years to finish.
“They’re trying to do it overnight,” said Antonio Benavides, an archaeologist who oversees the assessment in the state of Campeche. “There’s been no planning.”
Elsewhere, the path of the train was diverted away from a section of hotels and highway between Cancún and Tulum, where there was little heritage left to destroy, and into a tract of virgin jungle blanketing a trove of antiquities.
“The takeaway for us was clear,” said a member of Pérez’s team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared being fired. “The government would rather destroy the jungle than upset a few powerful hotel owners.”
When activists filed a lawsuit this year to suspend construction on that section until an environmental impact study could be completed, the government declared the project a matter of national security and continued building.
Mexican law gives archaeologists the ability to halt construction if they identify a site in need of excavation. But that authority isn’t always recognized. Along one stretch of railway, a construction crew bulldozed a Maya ruin that was still being excavated.
Archaeologists shouted at the crew: We’re still working here! They called Pérez.
He was used to it. His phone buzzes almost constantly with new discoveries, or with disputes between archaeologists and construction workers.
In one text message: Evidence of another buried village.
In a late-night phone call: News of a cave with Maya murals.
In a panicked email: Word that an unsanctioned team of cave divers, dubious of Pérez’s work, claimed to have beaten him to an 8,000-year-old human skeleton, found deep in a submerged cave. The divers later shared a video of the skeleton with The Washington Post.
Then there are the other calls from Pérez’s colleagues — branding him a traitor to his discipline, a leading sellout of Mexico’s cultural heritage. One of those colleagues, Juan Manuel Sandoval, an anthropologist in Pérez’s department, wrote a 75-page memo enumerating the importance of what will be destroyed by the train. He eviscerated those who are facilitating the train line’s construction, and called out Pérez by name.
“Accomplices of destruction, looting and the vandalism of national assets,” he wrote.
In a letter to his team late last year, Pérez tried to buoy morale, likening the archaeologists to the Mayas, drifting through the Americas.
“Many times, we’ve been questioned and judged by peers and outsiders,” he wrote. “We are not exempt from mistakes and setbacks, but we carry onward.”
Did the Maya know they were building their empire atop the relics of an ancient Paleoamerican settlement, thousands of years older than they were?
They buried their dead in underground tombs. Their ancestors’ ancestors were buried even deeper. They honed — and sometimes pillaged — the work of their predecessors.
LEFT: An illustration of a Mayan pyramid in Chichen Itza in the Yucatán Peninsula. (Courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University)
RIGHT: An illustration of a Mayan archaeological site, Xpuhil, in Mexico’s Campeche state. (Tatiana Proskouriakoff/Courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University)
By the 900s, the Maya had transformed the Yucatán into an intricate network of population centers, surrounded by suburban hamlets. At its peak, the empire stretched from what is now southern Mexico through Belize and Guatemala to Honduras and El Salvador.
Like many Mexicans, Pérez can trace his own roots to the Maya. Studying the relics of the empire, he sometimes wonders whether he’s deciding the fate of buildings his own ancestors constructed. This kind of work can sometimes feel like dismantling your grandparents’ home to build your own.
By the 12th century, most of Maya civilization had collapsed. Even the most impressive cities were abandoned for reasons that remain the subject of academic debate. The result of commercial or military competition? Corrupt rulers or social strife? An ecological or public health catastrophe?
The less we know about the Maya, the easier it is to project signs of our own decline onto theirs.
Pérez watched as the lidar readings came in. He had relocated from Mexico City to the southern city of Campeche, leaving his wife and children in the capital, to oversee the Tren Maya assessment. He now lives in a half-empty apartment complex across the street from the Gulf of Mexico, hiking gear, machetes and maps strewn across his tile floor.
It was a job almost no one else wanted. Even Pérez’s closest colleagues aren’t sure why he accepted it. They watched as the quiet academic, known for a treatise on the pre-Hispanic nobility, was thrust into Mexico’s political spotlight.
“He chose the horse,” Benavides said. “Now he has to ride it.”
Pérez hoped for the most monumental discoveries, a shock of new knowledge about how the Maya lived and — even less understood — how they died. But there was a tension: The more he found, the more he would have to watch be destroyed.
After the lidar flights, Pérez dispatched the archaeologists to the field. With compasses and machetes, they began hacking through the brush.
Sometimes they hit a monument the first few hundred yards, flagging their discovery by tying a red ribbon around a nearby tree trunk. Sometimes they chop their way through the jungle for a kilometer or two, find nothing and return to their rented apartments to check themselves for ticks.
When they find something promising — a chiseled stone, a piece of ceramic, a human bone — the excavation begins.
They have followed the train’s path as it weaves just a few miles from the Maya capitals Chichén Itzá and Izamal. It cuts through the ancient settlements whose residents likely built those monuments.
It veers even closer to Hoyo Negro, the late Pleistocene-era site where scientists in 2007 identified the oldest complete set of human remains ever found in the Americas. They named her Naia: A teenage girl who plummeted to her death around 10,000 B.C., her bones preserved in the underwater cave for millennia.
“We’re nervous about any number of potential impacts to the site,” said Dominique Rissolo, a University of California San Diego archaeologist who helps oversee the Hoyo Negro research and is working with the Mexican archaeologists on the Tren Maya project.
“These are the places we want to go to answer the big questions about the last Ice Age, and it’s hard to do when a train is going through them.”
The archaeologists chop through the palm trees in the interior of the peninsula, frequently getting lost in the unmapped heart of the jungle.
That’s how they found the Maya settlement next to kilometer 42 of the train’s third leg. Pérez headed there the day after summiting the jungle pyramid.
Pérez sketched out what one element of the site had looked like in its prime, a kind of Maya Arc de Triomphe. What was left, he knew, was neither pristine nor unique. It would not be saved.
In about a dozen cases, when the findings have been important enough to merit a 4 on their scale, Pérez’s team has successfully pleaded with the government to shift the rail line. In one case, he asked that an elevated platform be built, so the train could pass over Paamul II, an ancient city of more than 300 buildings and pyramids.
But if a temple isn’t perfectly intact or a breakthrough discovery, the train will move ahead as planned.
“If we wanted to preserve every artifact in Mexico, we wouldn’t be able to build anything,” Pérez said.
Many of the country’s most important discoveries, he points out, were made during the construction of infrastructure projects.
In 1967, workers building Mexico City’s metro discovered the Pyramid of Ehécatl, a monument to the Aztec wind god. In 1978, electrical workers in the capital discovered the Templo Mayor, a 14th century Aztec temple. Both were preserved.
That’s why Peréz agreed to the job no one else wanted. He saw it in purely practical terms: An opportunity to find the most important artifacts before the bulldozers arrived, and make the strongest possible argument to protect them.
The roofless remnants of a Maya home, such as the one he was staring at now, wouldn’t make the cut. Maybe it would be dismantled and moved to a museum. Or placed along the train line — a blurry photo opportunity for the tourists who speed by. In other cases, he said, archaeologists have made the startling decision to bury their findings under the train line.
What’s the use of preserving a Maya ruin beneath a railway track, befuddled non-archaeologists have asked Pérez.
He has come to think differently about the breadth of human history, he says. One day, centuries from now, the Tren Maya will itself be an artifact to be excavated and documented by a future generation of archaeologists.
“Imagine them,” he exclaimed, smiling. “They’ll discover a 21st century train, and beneath it a 1st century Maya ruin!”
He walked away, carefully skirting the ruin that was weeks away from being destroyed.
The government has published mock-ups of the train stations — modern, light-filled spaces that architects say will “evoke Maya architecture” and “re-illuminate Maya culture.” But their inspiration appears more Scandinavian than Indigenous.
How many tourists will choose Escárcega or Xpujil over Cancún or Tulum? For those who do visit, what monuments will be left?
The archaeologists are contemplating several Tren Maya exhibitions that would display the artifacts discovered in the process of construction. Some have suggested reconstructing dismantled ruins in the airy new train stations.
For now, the most valuable antiquities are filed in an unmarked townhouse in Campeche, across from an auto shop and a taqueria.
The ancient human remains found along the path of the train are kept in cardboard boxes. The broken ceramics — some destroyed centuries ago, others shattered by bulldozers in recent weeks — are glued back together by specialists crouched in front of fans. Rings and votive figures sit atop filing cabinets, like exhibits in an accidental museum.
The train has largely been popular in southern Mexico, despite concerns about the destruction. Archaeology has become a luxury, some argue, an excuse to stop development in Mexico’s poorest region. What does it matter if the Yucatán is rich in antiquities if it’s poor in everything else?
“Until now, the government ignored us,” said Miguel de Leon, who drives a bulldozer on the project. “But with the train, things are changing.”
Pérez likes to imagine the archaeologists who will one day excavate the Tren Maya.
He considers the questions they might ask — about what befell the creators of the train, about why they built one monument atop another.
Across Mexico, plaques to retired leaders adorn the public works projects they built. The government has not yet said where it will place any memorial to López Obrador’s presidency. Or what material such a monument would be made from, or how long they expect it to survive
Pérez has spent much of his career unearthing tributes to long dead leaders. In many cases, even their names are unknown, Maya and Aztec commanders who were once powerful enough to authorize construction, now lost to history.
López Obrador has dismissed the argument that the preservation of cultural artifacts is a reason to block his train.
At a recent news conference this year, he waved off his critics.
“It is no longer the destruction of the environment, but the destruction of archaeological sites,” he said, and smirked. “They’re predictable.”
And maybe that was true, Pérez thought. The only thing older and more predictable than those trying to preserve relics of the past was the effort — in the name of modernity, wealth or ego — to build something new above them.