The Yucatan Peninsula

History, Mystery and Natural Wonders

map of the Yucatan

Map of Yucatan Peninsula

One Peninsula. Three States. There are three states on the Yucatan Peninsula: Quintana Roo, Yucatan and Campeche.

Quintana Roo has its capital in the southern city of Chetumal and includes the world famous resort areas of Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, and the popular island destinations Cozumel and Isla de Mujeres.

The State of Yucatan lies to the west of Quintana Roo. Its capital is Merida and Valladolid, 100 miles to the east, are two of the peninsula's three colonial gems. On the road to Valladolid, about half way between Cancun and Merida lies the important Mayan archeological site, Chichen Itsa, one of the seven wonders of the world.

In the southwest corner of the peninsula, bordering the state of Tabasco, is Campeche. This was the place of first contact by the Spanish in 1517. The state capital, also called Campeche, is another colonial gem that was once captured and occupied by pirates in the 17th century.

Geography.  The Yucatan Peninsula is a 76,300 square mile limestone shelf that separates the Caribbean to the east from from the Gulf of Mexico. Ringed with white sand beaches and teeming with wildlife this region has played an enormously important role in the history of Mexico.

Topography.  Most of the Yucatan was originally seabed, and other than the southern highlands which run into the Yucatan peninsula from neighboring Chiapas, is entirely flat. There are few rivers in the the central and northern areas, but the region is fed by numerous cenotes or sink-holes filled with sparkling fresh water. In its limestone composition and extensive underground aquifer, the geography of the Yucatan closely resembles that of Florida.

History.  Before the onset of the Spanish Conquest, initiated by explorer and slave-trader Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba in 1517, the Yucatan peninsula was the home of a group of Mayan tribes spread out across the southern highlands and the southern and northern lowlands.

Evidence of this once flourishing culture may be seen in the more than 100 archeological sites scattered across the region. These include Chichen Itza, voted in 2008 as one of the "new seven wonders of the world," Mayapan and Uxmal near Merida, and Tulum, a last post-classic seaside complex set on a dramatic promontory overlooking the Caribbean two hours south of Cancun.

Traveling through the Yucatan you are immediately struck by the presence of the past as three ages--Pre-Conquest, Colonial and Modern--merge into one. Today three million or so Mayas continue to live in their ancestral homeland with a third of that number still speaking their native language. Although nearly all the great ceremonial and political centers were abandoned prior to the arrival of the Spanish, their culture lives on--if somewhat precariously--in villages and towns throughout the region. No trip to the Yucatan would be complete without at least one visit to a local market to purchase Mayan artisenias (hand crafts). Here you will find woven fabrics still made on a traditional back strap loom and colored with brilliant natural dyes. And don't leave before savoring the world-famous Yucatecan honey and the distinctive regional cuisine. Your tourist dollars help keep these traditional occupations alive.

The Colonial culture which extended from the political consolidation of the region by the Spanish overlords in 1546 until the Mexican Revolution of 1910, is still apparent in Campeche, Merida, and Valladolid. Stroll through the cobblestone streets of Campeche where the real pirates of the Caribbean once ruled, stay in a boutique hotel in a restored hacienda, or visit the museum and working craft exhibitions at Hacienda Ochil near Merida, and the history comes alive.

Natural Wonders.  The Yucatan Peninsula is the perfect destination for nature lovers who can explore its twenty plus bio-reserves. Sian Ka'an, in Quintana Roo, at more than 1.3 million acres, is the largest nature reserve in the Mexican Caribbean and includes 23 known archeological sites, 103 mammal species and 336 bird species. Along the western coastline, a short drive from Merida is Celestun, home to countless migrating flamingos. To the east, along the Caribbean coastline from Belize to Isla Contoy in the extreme north, lies the second largest barrier reef in the world (after Australia's Great Barrier Reef). The reef offers some of the world's best snorkeling and scuba diving and along its course it rises to form the tropical island paradises of Cozumel and Isla de Mujeres.

Weather.  They don't call it paradise for nothing. For much of the year the climate, especially in Cancun, can only be called "perfect:" hot sunny days with a cooling onshore breeze, and cool nights with a warming breeze. What's not to like?

There are a few things to be aware of, however.

First of all, the Yucatan is hot for most of the year and the cities of the interior become sweltering from April through November, although the dog days are somewhat relieved by downpours in the afternoon.

Also, don't forget that November and December is the hurricane season. If you plan to travel to the Yucatan at this time of year (to take advantage of the cool weather, smaller crowds and lower prices), be prepared to head off to safer areas on short notice.

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