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Chichén Viejo, an ancient Mayan citadel surrounded by private land

The site south of Chichén Itzá will be inaugurated by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López amid controversy

Uno de los edificios de Chichén Viejo.
A building in Chichén Viejo, Mexico.INAH
Elisa Villa Román

Located about a mile from the main Chichén Itzá site, Chichén Viejo is an archaeological area with several ancient Mayan structures known as the Initial Series Group. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is set to open the site to the public on September 2. However, visitors need to cross private land to access the area, which is not sitting well with the property owners.

During the government’s morning briefing on August 21, Diego Prieto Hernández, the director of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), confirmed that Chichén Viejo must be accessed through private land. However, he gave his assurance that an alternate route would be offered to avoid trespassing on private property. The original trail to Chichén Viejo would have crossed private land near the structures known as ‘El Caracol’ and ‘Monjas.’

Mexico’s Reforma newspaper reported that on August 14, members of the Barbachano family (the property owners) denied entry to restoration workers, and placed private property signs around the area threatening trespassers with prosecution. In a rush to inaugurate Chichén Viejo on September 2, authorities opted to open a short access road that bypasses private property.

máquina del Ejército mexicano trabaja en abrir el camino alterno a Chichén Viejo
A Mexican Army earth mover builds a new access road to Chichén Viejo.

Archaeologists and security guards working in the area are now raising concerns about the new road, claiming that proper protocol wasn’t followed to identify and retrieve any archaeological remains from the road construction site. Photographs published by Reforma and Yucatán Ahora show heavy equipment laying the base material for the road.

In August, the INAH director announced the discovery of a 3-foot tall stone figure on the original trail to Chichén Viejo. This figure was likely used to support a ceremonial table and was adorned with jade beads, long earrings and carved stone bracelets. Prieto said that although these artifacts were found on private property, they belong to the nation and not the landowners according to Mexico’s law governing archaeological, artistic and historical monuments and sites.

escultura de un atlante en Chichén Viejo
Stone figure unearthed near the original trail to Chichén Viejo.INAH

The main Chichén Itzá Archaeological Zone will be closed to the public when the president inaugurates Chichén Viejo on September 2, and reopen the next day as usual. So far, no special activities or tours have been announced for the first tourists to Chichén Viejo.

Chichén Viejo housed the Mayan elites of Chichén Itzá and consists of living spaces, small buildings and various temples, including the Snail, Monkey, Phallus and Moon temples. The Initial Series Group has remained off-limits to visitors to Chichén Itzá, the legendary Mayan city declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, and one of the “New 7 Wonders of the World” in 2007. Chichén Itzá, which means, “At the mouth of the well of the Itza,” covers almost 10 square miles (25 square kilometers) and was the most powerful center of civilization in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

Chichén Viejo is part of a sweeping archaeological zone improvement program (PROMEZA) that complements the Mayan Train initiative. So far, 54,232 Mayan sites, including building ruins, pre-Hispanic plinths, cisterns, and 646 human graves have been identified along the Mayan Train routes.

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