Feature Article

Yucatan Buys Chichen Itza for $220M


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By Evan J. Albright


After 500 years of private ownership, Chichen Itza is now the property of the state of Yucatan. What took so long?


With the quick sweep of a pen, Mexico's state of Yucatan purchased 200 acres constituting the central archaeological zone of Chichen Itza, a UNESCO heritage site and Wonder of the World.

Unknown to the millions of tourists around the world who visit the site each year, Chichen Itza has been privately owned for the past 500 years. On March 29, 2010, Hans Jurgen Thies Barbachano, owner of 200 acres upon which some of the world's most recognizable monuments rest -- El Castillo, the Great Ball Court, the Caracol, the Temple of Warriors -- agreed to sell his property to the state of Yucatan for $220 million Mexican ($17.6 million US).

The transaction ends more than a decade of controversy between the property's owners, the state and federal governments, and various stakeholder groups, all of which have been vying for control of the restored ancient city.

Private property since the Conquest

Chichen Itza was Yucatan's first capital. During the Spanish Conquest, Montejo the Younger, whose father had received a patent for the region, captured the city in 1532, renamed it Ciudad Real, and declared it capital of the Yucatan Peninsula. Several months later the Maya rose up and drove Montejo and his conquistadors not only out of the city, but entirely out of Yucatan. When the conquest resumed several years later, the Montejo family instead took the more amenable Maya city of T'ho, renamed it Merida, and from there subdued the rest of the peninsula.

Chichen Itza became part of a Spanish land grant, and by the 1580s was a cattle ranch. The ruins, for the most part, were ignored, both by the Spanish government and by the owners of the property, except as a source of stone for the hacienda buildings and as a place for cattle to forage.

In 1841 the explorer John Lloyd Stephens visited the ancient city and the account of his visit, published as Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan (1843), brought Chichen Itza to the attention of the world. Yucatan was unable to capitalize on the attention for four years later the Maya rebelled and Chichen Itza became occupied territory. The owner at the time was slain, the hacienda destroyed, and was abandoned except for occasional visits by explorers. The uprising, known today as the War of the Castes, lasted more than 50 years.

In 1894, an American, Edward Herbert Thompson, purchased rights to the Hacienda Chichen. Thompson already had conducted several explorations of ancient Maya sites in Yucatan on behalf of the sponsors behind the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Museum of Natural History in New York City, and others. Thompson restored the hacienda and turned the site of Chichen Itza into his personal archaeological laboratory.

From 1904 to 1910, he dredged the Cenote Sagrado (the Sacred Well), one of two giant sinkholes at Chichen Itza. During ancient times the Maya sacrificed objects of gold, carved jade, pottery, and other treasures into the well, as well as human beings. Thompson removed thousands of objects from the cenote and shipped them to the United States, where they were eventually donated or sold to Harvard's Peabody Museum.

In 1926, Mexican federal authorities charged Thompson with theft of artifacts, and seized Chichen Itza. In 1944 the case reached the Mexican Supreme Court, which ruled that Thompson had broken no laws, and the property reverted to Thompson's heirs, who in turn sold the Hacienda Chichen to tourism entrepreneur Fernando Barbachano Peon.

Barbachano Peon already had built a hotel, the Mayaland, on five acres of Thompson's property, just a few hundred meters from the monuments of El Castillo, the Caracol, and the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza. He now owned everything.

Delicate Balance Between Owning and Possessing

During much of the tenure of Barbachano ownership, the relationship between the owners and the government was, if not cordial, at least stable. The federal government's agency that oversees archaeological zones, the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia y Historia (INAH), managed the site and conducted archaeological investigations. The Barbachano family was permitted to operate the Mayaland and the Hacienda Chichen as profit-making tourist enterprises.

Barbachano Peon died in 1964, and his property went to his two children, Fernando Barbachano Gomez Rul and Carmen Barbachano y Gomez Rul. Eventually Fernando came to own the land that contains the most famous monuments of the archaeological zone.

According to Barbachano Gomez Rul in interviews conducted in 2005 and 2006, he received a portion of ticket receipts generated by tourists entering the archaeological zone. The family also had its own entrance to the park on the east side, next to the Mayaland Resort and opposite from the main tourist entrance in the west. The Yucatan state agency, Patronato Cultur, also received a portion of ticket revenues and eventually took over managing the ticket selling process.

Discord broke out some time after the turn of the century when, according to Barbachano Gomez Rul, state militia prevented him at gunpoint from bringing guests into the archaeological zone. By that time relations between the state and don Fernando had already degraded as Barbachano was criticizing in the press the governor, Patricio Patron Laviada.

According to Barbachano Gomez Rul, the state began withholding his percentage of ticket receipts. In retaliation, the owner of Chichen took over operation of two large palapas inside the archaeological zone. For years the families of the men who provided security and maintenance at Chichen Itza, most if not all descended from the indigenous Maya, had operated these palapas, selling snacks and trickets to tourists visiting the site.

Once again, the Maya invaded Chichen Itza.

'Only a Dollar!'

Ten years earlier, hundreds of Maya vendors had invaded Chichen Itza to sell handicrafts and trinkets to tourists. The Mexican Army eventually had to be called in to drive them out and keep them out.

With the palapas at Chichen Itza now run by Barbachano Gomez Rul's organization, the Maya vendors once again invaded the archaeological zone. But this time the president of Mexico was Vincente Fox, the first opposition candidate to win election since the Revolution of 1910. He had won, in part, on his pledge to respect indigenous rights. This time there would be no army to drive the Maya out of Chichen Itza. The vendors were there to stay.

The vendors and their aggressive sales techniques ("Hey lady! Only a dollar!") have become legendary. Their tables and blankets line the major pathways throughout Chichen Itza. If asked, the vendors will tell you that all the items for sale are handmade but table after table, blanket after blanket, offers the same objects.

Last year a group of individuals who claim to be the leaders of the vendors announced they had organized into a union called New Kukulcan (named after the Maya feathered serpent god). They made numerous demands, one of them being the "expropriation" of Chichen Itza.

The newest Barbachano

In 2007 the federal government investigated taking the property using a mechanism called expropriation, the same process that was used to seize the oil industries in Mexico from foreign interests in the 1930s, a move which deterred foreign investment in Mexico until NAFTA.

By law, the federal government in an expropriation can only pay what the property is valued. Chichen Itza is officially listed as "agricultural" land, and valued at $5 million Mexican (approximately $400,000 US).

Don Fernando Barbachano Gomez Rul had said in interviews he was not opposed to selling Chichen Itza. He wanted a fair price, which he estimated at $250 million -- in US dollars, not pesos.

In 2006, the federal government had appropriated $14 million Mexican to enable INAH to purchase land under archaeological sites (the monuments themselves have been owned by the government since 1972). According to the director of INAH at the time, Alfonso Maria y Fields, INAH made a formal offer for Chichen of $8 million Mexican, but received no response.

By the end of 2006 Fernando Barbachano Gomez Rul was dead. He had deeded his Chichen Itza property to his grandson, Han Jurgen Thies Barbachano.

Since the passing of his grandfather, Thies Barbachano has taken several controversial steps to protect his property rights at Chichen Itza. He installed two small trailers at the site to sell snacks to tourists; he began charging the vendors every day to enter the archaeological zone to sell their wares; there were charges that his palapa was discharging septic waste into the Cenote Sagrado, which, if true, was actually a practice that predated his management of them.

As a result of these actions and others, the Barbachano name began appearing on banners hoisted by the vendors to protest what they perceive as oppression. The voices grew louder for expropriation.

The state takes charge

At the same time, the state of Yucatan began to take a more active interest in Chichen Itza. Over the past two years the state has hosted large concerts at the site, bringing Placido Domingo, Sarah Brightman, and most recently, Elton John. Paul McCartney will be performing next year. The current governor of Yucatan, Ivonne Ortega Pacheco, is building a Maya museum nearby and wants to run a high-speed railline between the capital Merida and Chichen Itza. The biggest coup occurred in 2006 when, after spending millions of pesos, the state successfully persuaded enough people around the world to vote to name Chichen Itza one of the seven new Wonders of the World.

The governor has been criticized for what some call the "Disneyfication" of Chichen Itza. But while federal funding has been spotty, she has ponied up real money to the table. And on March 29, 2010, she made the biggest investment of all: She bought Chichen Itza.

The future

Although money has yet to change hands, the principal parties signed a purchase agreement at a press conference. The price was far less than the $250 million US sought by Fernando Barbachano Gomez Rul. His grandson accepted far less, $220 million Mexican or $17.6 million US.

For his part, Thies Barbachano said all the right things at the press conference. "I reiterate my support that every day and the times that come ahead to play a positive and productive role in the future of Chichen," he announced. "The transfer of property does not conclude my responsibility and affirms my desire of continued support."

Jorge Esma Bazan, director of Yucatan's Cultur, outlined a 10-point plan for the future of Chichen Itza, that described close cooperation with INAH, negotiations with the vendors, better opportunities for residents of surrounding communities, and a greater role by the state in the investigation and restoration of Chichen Itza.

For the latest developments on this story, see the American Egypt blog.