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A True Guide to the Maya Train, From My Rides Through 5 Cities

What if you could visit any major tourist site in the Yucatan Peninsula without relying on long bus rides or a rental car? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could hop on a train near the Cancun airport and head south to Playa del Carmen? Or the other direction to Chichen Itza, Merida, Campeche, or Palenque? On the new Maya Train in Mexico, it’s all possible right now. 

Maya Train Mexico report by Tim Leffel

Read on for a full report on what this experience is really like. From me you’ll get a first-person report because I rode the Maya Train from Palenque, in the state of Chiapas, all the way to the Cancun airport. I didn’t just ride it though: I spent the night in Palenque, Campeche, Merida, and Valladolid, so I got to experience what it was like getting to and from the stations (which are nowhere near the city centers) and dealing with four ticket purchases, not just one. 

Quick Pros and Cons for the Maya Train in Mexico

How was the train? All the details to answer that will be in the sections below, but if you want the short pros and cons version, here you go: 

– The train rides are smooth, reasonably comfortable, and there’s plenty of room for your luggage. 

– The stations were all half-finished when I rode in late March of 2024, with almost no commercial services, but will be big and beautiful when they’re done. 

– Those stations are all in rural areas a long way from the cities they serve though, so you always have to take more public transportation upon arrival to get to where you’re staying. 

– You can buy tickets online, but only a maximum of a week in advance, making it tough to plan a vacation ahead of time. Otherwise you can buy them at the station or in some cases, at a ticket vendor in the city. 

– The trip from the waiting area to your seat is a long one. The automated machines you find at most modern train stations look to be coming, but none of them were working yet when I rode. So just one or two workers (really National Guard service members) were scanning tickets one by one for 200+ riders.

Tren Maya ticket line

– Each train has a snack bar car that serves food and drink, including alcohol, but it’s small and minimally staffed, so there’s usually a line to wait in. It’s not a dining car with meals you can sit for and eat together. 

– The website advertises Wi-Fi but it’s only available on some routes and is instantly overloaded in those cases so it doesn’t function. Cell coverage is iffy once you get outside the cities. Bring a book or a tablet loaded with movies.

– The government website and most articles based on it say there are electrical outlets, but they’re only on the electric-only trains it seems. So yes from Merida to Cancun, but no from Merida on south.

– Ticket prices in the regular section are reasonable, not too far off from what a bus would cost for long distances, but premium class is roughly 60% more and doesn’t provide many extras in return. More on that below.

– There are no sleeper cars as of yet, even though they’re shown on the official website, but they will probably be added when the full loop of the route is open.

– There has been plenty of controversy about the project, which moved at authoritarian Chinese speed, not with the checks and balances you usually expect in a democracy. The environmental complaints alone in the fragile area have been numerous and ongoing. On the other hand, it’s likely that if the government had to go through as much effort as U.S. states do now to start laying track, especially with five states involved, even just one stretch of it would have taken 20 years to finish—if it ever got completed at all.

You won’t have any trouble finding articles about the Maya Train if you do a search online and if that search is on Google, these days you’ll get lots of ads and links to big media brands you’ve heard of like The Washington Post, Travel + Leisure, or Afar. The problem is, the majority of those articles have information that’s just plain wrong and if you get AI answers they’ll be even less reliable because the bots are trained on those same incorrect or outdated articles. 

As the train started opening up to passengers at the end of 2023 on limited routes, nearly every major travel media outlet jumped on it with an article, usually with a title like, “The Complete Guide to Mexico’s New Maya Train” or “The Definitive Guide to the Tren Maya.” They were neither complete nor definitive though because the person writing it had not actually set foot on the train. The research was all done from behind a desk, the editors just parroting what the government told them was happening even when it wasn’t. 

There are some good articles out there from Yucatan-based bloggers who rode the train from where they lived and reported on it, but Google is waging war on small publishers, so you probably won’t find those anymore unless you use Duck Duck Go or Bing as your search engine instead. There are also a lot of fake websites out there that look official but they’re not. The official one is trenmaya.gob.mx

Tim Leffel working on a review on the Maya Train through the Yucatan Peninsula

I was  working on an article for Westways magazine, so I didn’t want to put this up before that came out, but now it’s live and I’ve been paid so I’m expanding on what’s in there for my own Cheapest Destinations Blog, with original photos and a comprehensive YouTube video. This way I can give you the whole story on Mexico’s train project in the Yucatan Peninsula and actually show you the cars and stations.

Keep in mind it’s not all open yet. When finished, the project will cover a 1,554 km-long (966-mile) distance that looks like a squared-off “Q.” Right now though, if you travel the whole route it’s Playa del Carmen – Cancun Airport (almost) – Merida – Campeche – Palenque with a lot of stops in between those where you can get off. 

If you’re the type that prefers video over text, you can go straight to my YouTube video. Get a drink and settle in though as this is one of the longest I’ve ever posted. It’s a complicated journey. 

The Maya Train Route, Now and in the Future

To say this was an ambitious project is putting it lightly. Many locals I talked to on the train ride and in the cities I visited were surprised that the project is running at all, never mind that it started operations just five years after the president took office and announced it. They’re used to grand government announcements that fizzle out or take a decade longer than promised. 

I was pleasantly surprised too and how quickly the project got finished and how well-done the actual infrastructure is. These are all-new tracks, so the train is relatively fast (not Spain-fast or bullet train Japan-fast, but much faster than you normally get in the USA or Canada.) They built overpasses over the tracks and so far there are no freight trains on the routes, so the trains only stop when approaching a station. 

The routes have opened in phases and the stations are mostly still under construction, even the ones that are boarding passengers. The section to Playa del Carmen was the last one to open, with tickets coming on line just as I was finishing up in March. Later that line will reach all the way to Chetumal and Lake Bacalar near Belize via Tulum, then another line will cut across the Yucatan Peninsula to complete the loop from close to Tulum. 

The Maya Train completion date is up in the air because Mexico just had a major election and there’s a new president coming into office. She (yes a she!) is from the same party as the old one though, so she’ll surely continue the project and see it to the finish line since it was his big legacy accomplishment. I’m guessing we’ll see new sections added bit by bit before the year is open and the whole thing will be complete in 2025. 

Maya Train Tickets and Prices

Campeche rail station

Tickets for this train are priced by distance, so it doesn’t really matter where you’re headed or how many times you stop off and restart the trip. The further you ride, the higher the price.

So the short trip from Cancun to Playa del Carmen, for instance, won’t cost you very much. If you ride from Cancun all the way to Palenque, however, it’s a different story. 

Here are some sample prices to give you an idea, in foreign tourist class and foreign premier class. (Mexican nationals pay less, residents of the states the train is in pay less again. After all, their tax dollars are paying for it.) These prices are calculated at 17 pesos to the dollar, so they will go up or down in dollar terms depending on the exchange rate. 

Cancun to Playa del Carmen – $12 and $19

Cancun to Valladolid – 

Cancun to Merida – $43 or $69

Merida to Campeche – $34 or $54

Campeche to Palenque – $75 or $120

Palenque to Playa del Carmen – $178 or $285

That last one is as far as you can go as I write this in June of 2024, so that’s the most you could possibly pay. Once the rest of the routes are finished, the long route between Bacalar and Palenque would be the most expensive if you did a big upside-down U instead of going across the peninsula. 

Is Premier Class Worth the Upgrade? 

I talk about this in the video since I rode in the regular Turista class and the Premier class. I love a good upgrade as much as the next guy and I’ll gladly pay more to be on ETN or ADO buses with three seats across rather than ones with four. The thing is, the premium in cost on those is not so much and you get more legroom to stretch out. 

Based on my experience, Premier Class on the Maya Train is not much different than the regular class and isn’t worth the extra money unless you really don’t want to sit next to someone else. Since it only has three seats across, it’s possible to book a single seat with only the aisle next to it. 

So far though, that’s the only difference I found apart from an attendant that came around one time in two hours and asked me if I wanted anything. I had him fetch me breakfast so I didn’t have to get up and wait in line in the snack car. I guess the seats must be slightly wider, but they weren’t any more comfortable and didn’t seem to have any extra legroom. 

premium class car

Is it worth a 60% premium to get a single seat, a slightly wider seat, and maybe have waiter service? Up to you, but I won’t be repeating that purchase unless they add more perks. If I had an especially wide body though, different story. 

Tren Maya Schedules and Logistics

For the first few months this rail line was running, it was a big mess to say the least. The trains started moving before the booking system was even set up and the schedules were changing on a weekly basis. When I tried to book a Saturday trip online to start my journey, the system said there was no train on Saturday. When I asked about that at the station, the ticket window person said, “The system is not very reliable.” She then turned around her screen to show me that it was completely down. 

I would love to say that all these problems have disappeared, but here’s what happened this morning when I tried to go to the official website:

site error for buying tickets

Yes, my anti-virus program blocked it because apparently the site is infected with a virus. It likely got hacked due to lax security systems and now nobody can see any official information until they fix it. There is an end-around to the reservations page though, which is on a different domain thankfully. Go here: https://reservas.ventaboletostrenmaya.com.mx/

You won’t see a full schedule there but you should be able to see available times for any day up to a week ahead. In short, the train runs once a day in each direct from Palenque to Campeche, then picks up the pace for the rest of the routes. You’ll find multiple options each day on the most popular routes between Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Merida.

There are multiple stops between Merida and Cancun. I got off in Valladolid and spent the night but I could have also stopped off in Izamal or Chichen Itza.

Valladolid convent at night

Heading south from Campeche, there are stops that in theory could get you to Edzna or eventually to Calakmul when the last section opens, but there’s little infrastructure in place to make that happen after you step out of the lonely stations. See this Train Maya article for another perspective from a recent rider trying to visit those archaeological sites. 

Where Should You Stay Along the Route?

La Plancha Park in Merida

Which leads us to where you actually can stay along the route, provided you’re up for taking a shuttle bus once you get to the station. None of these stations are walking distance to anything as far as I can tell. They’re on the outskirts of town, on a lonely new road and surrounded by empty parking lots. 

Thankfully someone did think to set up shuttle arrangements though and in Merida the transfer is eco-friendly and pleasant: you board an electric bus that recharges each night and you get dropped off at a really nice park with a food court (tap rooms even!) near the Paseo de Montejo. If you’re not too loaded down, you could walk from there to different hotels including a Wyndham, Hyatt, NH, Courtyard Marriott, and Fiesta Americana. 

I really love Valladolid and always enjoy my time there, so I stopped off in the city and spent the night. Once again, I had to get on a shuttle bus, but it was only about a 15-minute ride to the center. 

I had never been to Campeche, so I spent two nights there and walked all over the city. I didn’t like it as much as Merida and it’s even hotter, but things do cool off by the water, where there are some fun bars and a good sunset show in the evening. Check the shuttle bus schedule carefully here because the station is waaayyy out of town. 

walled city of Campeche on the Maya Train route

I started the trip in Palenque, which probably has the cheapest accommodations you’ll find on this whole route. I paid a shade over 30 bucks for a really nice apartment near the bus station.

I had to take a bus from Villahermosa in the neighboring state of Tabasco because while Palenque has an airport, it doesn’t seem to have any commercial flights currently. It’s worth visiting though because of its spectacular ruins and a jungle area to explore beyond that. 

If you want to read more about this journey, you can see my article in Westways if you enter a Southern California zip code. Or check out Perceptive Travel where Lydia Carey tried to go deeper than I did on the train route. It didn’t always go as planned… 

Ready to go? Search hotels in Campeche, Merida, Valladolid, or Cancun at Booking.com or Expedia

Story, photos, and video all by Tim Leffel, editor of this blog and author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, now in its fifth edition. 

 

bhargavi

Tuesday 9th of July 2024

I absolutely loved reading about your journey on the Maya Train! Your detailed insights into the five cities you visited really paint a vivid picture of the experience. It’s fascinating to see how the train connects these culturally rich destinations

David

Wednesday 3rd of July 2024

I absolutely loved reading about your journey on the Maya Train! Your detailed insights into the five cities you visited really paint a vivid picture of the experience. It's fascinating to see how the train connects these culturally rich destinations.

Looking forward to more of your travel stories!

jonathan peterson

Thursday 20th of June 2024

Thanks so much for doing this. My wife and I have been working remote for a month in Isla Mujeres outside Cancun the last 3 years and really want to go further afield and do more exploring, but don't have much interest in dealing with rental cars. It's been very frustrating trying to figure out how much of the train is running or how often, but Merida, Valladolid and Campeche are all on the travel wishlist.

Tim Leffel

Thursday 20th of June 2024

You have several trains a day to pick from for those destinations and you can get a bus to the train station from downtown Cancun. 120 pesos.

Sasha

Monday 17th of June 2024

Thanks for the detailed write-up and the video, Tim. I always enjoy a good train ride and we'd like to make the full loop some day once it's finished.

Tim Leffel

Tuesday 18th of June 2024

The Bacalar people are not in any hurry for it to get there, but I have a feeling the whole thing will be finished by the end of the year since the new president is from the same party as the previous one.