Santa Elena is a town of approximately 5,000 inhabitants; it is located on the main highway between the archaeological sites of Uxmal and Kabah. It is close to other destinations of the Puuc region and about 100 Kms. from Mérida . The landscape is attractive, with some rolling hills and abundant foliage. As one drives into town, a colonial church atop a hill is visible from the road, and there are many typical thatch-roofed homes. As there are no cenotes or other surface water sources, deep wells must be dug to access water. A noria or water wheel from the colonial period is a decorative feature in the main plaza. The town also has a small museum that houses pre-Columbian and colonial artifacts that were found nearby.

For such a small place, the tourism infrastructure is good; there are several B&B establishments, small hostels and a 22-room hotel is planned. There are good restaurants. A new medical clinic is being built. There are elementary and junior high schools in town and a technical high school is located nearby. Internet and telephone communication is in place and there is regular, dependable public transportation to and from the state capital, Mérida .


As is the case in many rural communities of Yucatán, in Santa Elena, there is very little employment, especially for young people. Traditionally, many of the young men immigrate illegally to the U.S.A. to work in the agro-industry there. This common practice had been in place for a couple of generations; once the harvest was over, the men would return to Santa Elena and re-establish their family contacts; the money they earned in el norte was an important contribution to the family economy. The following spring, during the northern planting season, the men would return to the U.S.A. and this cycle would repeat for years on end.

With tighter security on the U.S.A. – Mexico border, increased hostility towards illegal immigration, and the economic recession, those who want to cross the border experience great hardships getting into the U.S.A. In fact, a number of them die trying. Understandably, once they have managed the perilous crossing, they are too frightened to repeat the journey and so they don’t return to their homes once the growing season is over. They stay in the U.S.A. and eke out an existence until the next spring. This has created social problems on both sides of the border. Some of the young men get into gang-related activities, become addicted to drugs, and don’t have money to send to their families. Additionally, the families in Santa Elena are left without father figures, contributing to a social breakdown within the society. Wives, children and parents suffer the absence of the men; fields lie fallow without the winter planting and those who are left behind have few options, other than the very limited government-sponsored social assistance programs. Self-esteem is very low.

To complicate the situation, the current financial crisis in the U.S.A. is forcing the workers to return to Mexico because there are not enough jobs there. An estimated 3,000,000 have been repatriated this year. These people also need employment.


A small-scale sustainable economic development project is in the planning stages and a group of supporters is being formed to assist the residents of Santa Elena to develop it. The residents have determined that at this point, the project will be tourism-based and they feel it should be initiated with two focuses:
o Handcrafts
o Bicycle, hiking, birding and nature-interpretive tours


The residents of Santa Elena are not used to self-initiated work. They need to have help in order to grasp this concept, to be consistent in their efforts, cooperative with one another and self-regulated. Profits need to be shared fairly. There needs to be an understanding that the project must be open to all members of the community. This is a challenge as a new mindset is necessary; and yet, the needs of the residents are so urgent, they seem to be open to the concept. One of them said to me, “No one in Santa Elena will die of the virus… but there is the possibility that we’ll starve to death!”


There are a number of individuals who are interested in expanding their natural abilities into a meaningful means of support for their families:

1. Embroidery and jewelry making

The embroidery and jewelry making women need a teacher to help them with the design and finishing of their products. They need a donation of materials (fabric, threads, closures, zippers, beads, wire, fasteners, etc.)

2. Pottery and decorative metal work

The potters have the necessary skill, wheels, a kiln etc. They need a teacher to assist them with the design and finishing of products that would be marketable to tourists. They also need materials (clay, glazes, etc.)

The decorative metal workers have the same needs as the potters. They need to develop “easy-to-carry-home” products that can be purchased by tourists. The donation of materials will also be necessary.

Action Items

– The instructors must be identified and workshops need to be scheduled
– Materials must be procured
– Inventory of product must be accumulated
– Pricing and profit management must addressed
– Sales outlets must be found
– Out-of-country sales venues should be explored
– Internet sales are also a possibility

Interpretive Tours:

Visitors to Yucatan often comment there is no place to go hiking. In Santa Elena, two locations have been identified that would be ideal for this activity. The trails could be marked with kilometer signs, and maps and basic support services could be provided. The tourists could travel the trails on foot or on bicycles.

– The Santa Elena residents could be trained as guides and lead the hikers and bikers along the trails
– They could rent bikes to the tourists
– The residents could also sell refreshments and handcrafts at the trail entrances

Action Items

– Interested residents must be identified and trained
– The municipal and ejido authorities must be informed of the project and their authorization must be obtained
– The trails must be assessed for environmental impact and safety
– The trails must be mapped and signs put up
– The washroom issue must be resolved


Once the details of the project are worked out, the most important task will be “getting the word out”. Possibilities are:

– A website
– Flyers to be distributed in Mérida hotels, B&Bs and hostels
– Publicity in Yucatan Today
– Travel agencies and tour guides

Another challenge will be procuring funds to help establish the project. Options are:

– A benefit dinner
– Solicitation of private donations
– Talks at service clubs and at Merida English Language Library

In the Future?

If the project is successful, it would be desirable to also develop English language, Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts and Computer skills training to Santa Elena’s young people so that they will be better prepared to carry on the project.

For further information on how you can get involved, contact Joanna Rosado at [email protected]

A small-scale sustainable economic development project is in the planning stages and a group of supporters is being formed to assist the residents of Santa Elena to develop it.

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