The Maya Train is the greatest infrastructure project to have been launched in Mexico in years. Traveling on a loop around the Yucatan Peninsula and as far southwest as Palenque, it has greatly improved connectivity between some of the country's top tourist sites since its launch last December.
These include Cancun, the bustling resort zone on the Caribbean coast, party capital and archaeological zone, all-in-one Tulum, and even charming lesser-known spots like Bacalar, best known for its multicolored lake, and Merida, a hugely historical city with preserved colonial architecture.
Unfortunately, not all of the Maya Train's planned lines are up and running, and some tourists have been noticeably disappointed when landing in Cancun, hoping to catch a scenic train down to the nearest beach town, only to find out some stations are not open yet.
The project is only expected to be finished this upcoming March at the earliest – knowing Mexico, there will probably be additional delays – so if you're flying to the Mexican Caribbean this winter and you're keen on testing out this brand new railway, where exactly can you go?
Tulum, Playa Del Carmen, and much of the Riviera Maya are not available as Maya Train destinations right now, but you can still travel to these five incredible spots (in this exact order):
Officially the most visited tourist attraction in all of Mexico, Chichen Itza is now more accessible than ever, hosting its very own Maya Train station.
This means it is no longer necessary for tourists to book expensive day tours or pay exorbitant transfer fees when visiting the archaeological complex.
That's great news already, but if you're not familiar with the historical site, you may be wondering what it is about Chichen Itza that makes it so special: to put it simply, it stands among the best-preserved and most impressive ancient cities known to mankind.
With a towering step pyramid, richly-decorated temples depicting unique carvings, and a number of sacred cenotes – sinkholes filled with the bluest of waters previously used as sacrificial chambers – it is one of 7 New Wonders of the World, and a surviving symbol of the erstwhile Mayan civilization.
Competing for the title of most Instagrammable small town in Mexico, if not the entire world, Izamal is a charming cobbled settlement a stone's throw away from the larger city of Merida, easily distinguished by its endless rows of bright-yellow-painted houses.
The Maya Train also calls here, and if you do choose to hop off for the day, some of the main sights that may interest you other than the picturesque streets include the lesser-known Mayan pyramid of Kinich Kak Moo and the massive Convent of San Antonio de Padua.
This yellow-washed gem – in line with the city's overall theme – was one of the first built by the Spanish in the New World, at a time when most of Mexico was still a colony, and its central Atrium is second in size only to the Vatican's.
Next on the Maya Train line, you'll find Merida, the capital of the state of Yucatan (named after the peninsula), and possibly one of the prettiest cities in the country, famous for its stunning Spanish-era architecture and multicultural heritage.
It is a city of two conflicting cultures, Mayan and Spanish, with many of the historical buildings you see standing today being, in fact, built out of disassembled, far older pre-Columbian structures, including the imposing cathedral and colonial palaces that dominate the skyline.
Additionally, Merida has been dubbed the safest major state capital in Mexico due to its low rates of pickpocketing and other forms of petty crime: based on the U.S. State Department's own definition, safety levels are on a par with European countries like Iceland, Finland and Norway.
The first stop on the Merida-Campeche line, Maxcanu is a quaint, laid-back pueblo that has largely thwarted the poisonous overdevelopment plaguing most of Yucatan: prices still reflect living standards in Mexico, restaurants are typically family-owned, and gentrification is not a common concern.
It's hard to know whether it will stay this way for long with the arrival of the train, and thus more tourists, but if you're looking for a chance to experience ‘deep Mexico', away from the luxurious resorts and Americanized coast, this may be a good time to visit Maxcanu while it's still a ‘secret'.
On top of its unspoiled Mexicanness, it has a number of Mayan ruins in its vicinity, such as Oxkintok, where a one-of-a-kind Mayan labyrinth has been unearthed, the ruined Chunchucmil, and the otherwordly Calcehtok caves.
The last entry on this list and the last stop on the Merida-Campeche line, San Francisco de Campeche, is yet another gorgeous colonial treasure built atop a conquered Mayan city, though unlike Merida, very few traces of the previous settlement remain.
Campeche is special for having most of its Spanish-built city walls intact: it is one of two cities in North America, alongside Quebec City in Canada, to have retained them, and its historical value is truly impossible to measure.
While Spaniards lived within the walls, the native Mayans were pushed out to the outskirts, and this heart-wrenching, yet inherently fascinating History is everywhere to be seen today, be it in native-dominated barrios with a distinctly Mayan character, or 500-year-old, ornate colonial churches.
Find out more about the Maya Train and all the incredible places you will be able to visit once it fully launches here.
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