Mexico’s jungle airport in Tulum

Two weeks after its opening, construction continues on the tourist port of entry, which is projected to receive 700,000 travelers in 2024

Aeropuerto de Tulum
Felipe Carrillo Puerto International Airport in Tulum was inaugurated on December 1, 2023; Quintana Roo, Mexico.Mónica González Islas
Beatriz Guillén

The surrounding jungle stretches as far as the eye can see from the departure lounge. Vines, chechén trees (black poisonwood), and chicopazote (zapodilla) trees line the access road, creating a lush green blanket underneath the planes taking off and landing. The Tulum airport, aptly named “the jungle airport,” sparked controversy from its inception because it was designed and built by the Defense Ministry. Despite ongoing construction, the airport has been operating since December 1 with two airlines and approximately six daily flights. Passengers and staff share the space with the electricians and excavators working feverishly to complete the airport near one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations.

The Felipe Carrillo Puerto International Airport is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) inland from Tulum (Quintana Roo state). For years, tourists have flocked to this part of southeastern Mexico, where business is conducted in dollars, the waiters speak English and most of the beaches are privately owned. Yet 43% of the region’s population lives in poverty. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saw the uncontrolled growth of Tulum — a Riviera Maya jewel with 46,000 residents and two million annual tourists — and decided it needed an airport.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto International Airport in Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
Felipe Carrillo Puerto International Airport in Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico.Mónica González Islas

As part of his legacy of public works, the president announced the Tulum project in October 2020 as a solution to alleviate congestion at Cancún airport — the country’s second-busiest hub — long overwhelmed by European and American tourists. It was an important complement to his flagship project — the Maya Train. The railway, a third of which was recently inaugurated and will be completed by the end of February, includes a stop at the Tulum airport. With these megaprojects, López Obrador aims to provide a holistic experience for the estimated 700,000 visitors expected at Tulum airport in 2024.

López Obrador forged ahead with the project, ignoring all the protests by environmental groups, communities of the Sian Kaʼan Biosphere Reserve (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and communal landowners. Two months ago, protesters blocked access to the airport in opposition to the destructive construction methods. The president promptly ordered his Defense Minister to handle the problem. A partially obscured plaque at the airport entrance summarizes how the habitat of jaguars and tapirs vital to Mexico’s ecosystem was transformed into an airport, highway, railway, gas station, fuel depot, housing units and military air base. The project, hidden behind the mask of national security, has incurred a cost of $944 million to date.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto International Airport in Tulum was inaugurated on December 1, 2023.
Felipe Carrillo Puerto International Airport in Tulum was inaugurated on December 1, 2023.Mónica González Islas

Following the president’s typical modus operandi, the airport was opened on December 1 before it was fully finished. Two weeks later, some restrooms are still under construction and no commercial spaces are available yet. “There are a lot of unfinished things at the airport,” said a rental car company employee, “but we’re just getting started.”

On the ground floor, service providers operate in temporary booths. The ADO bus company offers five daily trips to and from Tulum ($9), two to Playa del Carmen, and one to Chetumal. Taxis are available for $12-$60, depending on whether you prefer a shared or private vehicle. A few car rental companies also have booths in the airport. While there are no restaurants yet, an organic food company sells sandwiches and potato chips. The upstairs area is decorated with plastic plants and faux bamboo ceilings. Several retailers have put up signs announcing upcoming store openings.

Ticketing and check-in area of the Felipe Carrillo Puerto International Airport in Tulum.
Ticketing and check-in area of the Felipe Carrillo Puerto International Airport in Tulum.Mónica González Islas

Despite the hasty opening, planes are landing and taking off. Currently, Viva Aerobús and Aeroméxico are the only airlines offering trips to Mexico City (Felipe Ángeles Airport), Monterrey, Guadalajara and Tijuana. On March 28, 2024, foreign carriers like United, Delta, American and Spirit will also begin service to Tulum. JetBlue recently announced a daily flight to New York starting in June. The airport in Mexico is projected to have a useful life of 30 years, with an average of 7.2 million passengers per year through 2033; 9.8 million through 2043; and 12.1 million through 2053. The Cancún airport has similar prices and serves over 27 million passengers annually.

Most of the travelers waiting for flights when we visited in mid-December had been vacationing in Tulum and chose the new airport because it was so conveniently located. Melissa Restagno, an American tourist, said the airport was “clean and very pretty.” David Orduño from Spain found it more convenient than going all the way to Cancún, and said the trip from the Tulum bus station to the airport was quick and easy. Edwin Hernández is a Mexican tourist who was also very happy with the airport. When asked about all the jungle destruction during construction, he said resignedly, “I hope they put all the wood to good use.” According to the Defense Ministry’s pre-construction studies, the 1.3 million trees that were cleared would be used for construction, fuel, firewood, handicrafts and medicinal purposes. Hernández flew back to Mexico City on a plane that was only one-third full. “It’s not cool about the jungle, but the airport is worth it.” Beneath that statement lies the deep-rooted polarization of an entire nation.

Wildlife crossing sign at the main entrance of Tulum's new airport.
Wildlife crossing sign at the main entrance of Tulum's new airport.Mónica González Islas

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