The Colonial Mexico Experience Begins in the Yucatan

The history of colonial Mexico began in the Yucatan in 1517 with the early coastal explorations of adventurers Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba and Juan de Grijalva (1518).

Ranging along the shoreline of what is present day Campeche and Cancun, the Spanish encountered a Maya indigenous culture still occupying sites such as Tulum and many smaller communities throughout the Yucatan, Belize and Guatamala.

The subjugation of the Mayan peoples was a long process and did not end finally until the fall of Tayasal in Guatamala in 1697. The colonial era was firmly established, however, with the establishment of the towns of Campeche in 1540 and Merida in 1542. (For a scholarly Wikipedia article on the conquistadors, click on the image above.)

As a political system, the colonial experience ended in 1810 with the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence from Spain.

But in colonial cities in the Yucatan and throughout the country you can still find yourself eveloped by the spirit of this bygone age.

As you walk along a cobblestone street or wander through the ruins of a hacienda, you may find yourself romanticizing the past. It's probably better not to: the colonial era was a time of cultural confusion and social inequity. The Spanish ruthlessly superimposed their European feudal system on the pre-existing (equally fuedal) Maya society. The "spiritual conquest," led primarily by the Franciscan friars, changed both native traditions and Catholicism forever.

The result was, and is today, what some call a "hodgepodge." In his magnificent work, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz mourns this absence of a unified Mexican identity which he describes as lost between native and Spanish cultures.

That said, there are charms aplenty; the pathos of a troubled history adding poignancy to the experience of any sensitive modern traveler.

Must see locations on the Yucatan's colonial trail include:

  • Merida, the capitol of the modern state of Yucatan
  • Campeche, capitol of the state of the same name,
  • and
  • Valladolid, a quiet, less-visited oasis on the road from Cancun to Chichen Itza and Merida.

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