The Yucatán Peninsula is located between the Gulf of Mexico, Yucatán Channel and the Caribbean Sea and includes the three Mexican states of Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo and as well as the northern part of Belize and Guatemala’s El Petén. The name Yucatán is said to derive from the Aztec word Yokatlān, which means ‘place of richness’. And that it sure is. Also known as the Mayan Peninsula, since it comprises a significant proportion of the ancient Maya Lowlands, it’s very different from other parts of Mexico in terms of both geography and culture.
The Maya created their first settlements in what is now Guatemala as early as 2400 BC. Over the centuries, the expansion of Maya civilization moved steadily northward, and by AD 550 great Maya city-states were established in southern Yucatán. In the 10th century, with the invasion of the bellicose Toltecs from Central Mexico, the great cities of southern Yucatán slowly dissolved, as attention shifted northward to new power centers like Chichén Itzá.
In 1540, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo the Younger utilized the tensions between the still-feuding Maya sects to conquer the area. He founded Mérida in 1542 and within four years brought most of the Yucatán Peninsula under Spanish rule. The Spaniards divided up the Maya lands into large estates where the natives were put to work as indentured servants.
When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the new Mexican government used the Yucatecan territory to create huge plantations for the cultivation of tobacco, sugarcane and henequén (agave rope fiber).
In 1847, after being oppressed for nearly 300 years by the Spanish and their descendants, the Maya rose up in a massive revolt. This was the beginning of the War of the Castes. Finally, in 1901, a tentative peace was reached.
Since 1970 the Yucatán Peninsula has reoriented its economy towards tourism. The commercial success of Cancún led to hundreds of kilometers of public beach along the Caribbean coast being sold off to commercial developers, displacing many small fishing communities. While many indigenous people still earn a living of agriculture or fishing, large numbers now work in the construction and service industries.
Eco tourism is a new trend where some individuals and communities are opening their lands to tourists and/or serving as guides.
The peninsula really is a paradise for nature lovers, from stunning beaches and coral reefs to dense jungle, cenotes and mangroves, it has it all. The beaches along the Riviera Maya are no doubt one of the most beautiful in the world. There are many incredible biosphere reserves and national parks to visit. Different ecosystems make for a great diversity in wildlife. Think of whale sharks, jaguars, crocodiles, sea turtles, spider- and howler monkeys, coatis and hundreds of bird species.
In Yucatán the ancient Mayan culture is still alive. Indigenous Maya and Mestizos of partial Maya descent make up a sizable portion of the region’s population, and Mayan languages are widely spoken. The famous Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, Coba and Tulum are a must see. The incredible architecture of the temples and pyramids and their knowledge of science, math and astronomy will certainly impress you. And the good news is that the peninsula is full of these amazing , some lesser-known, archeological sites.
The largest cities on the Peninsula are Mérida, Cancun, Campeche, Ciudad del Carmen, Chetumal and Playa del Carmen. There is always something to do in these lively cities, be sure to check an event calendar for upcoming events, (free) concerts or art exhibitions. Besides, they are a good starting point for discovering the peninsula. Worth exploring is also the island of Cozumel, on the coast of Playa del Carmen, which is great for snorkeling and diving.
While you’re there, don’t forget to enjoy the delicious Yucatecan cuisine! The food is a blend of influences from Mexico, Europe and the Caribbean. Seasonings like achiote (a sweet, slightly spicy sauce made from the annatto plant) and sour orange give a distinctive flavor to the dishes. Some traditional dishes worth trying are: Pibil (marinated meat (chicken or pork) wrapped in spices and banana leaves and cooked on a barbeque pit), sopa de lima (lime soup with chicken and fried tortillas), Poc Chuc (grilled porc marinated in orange juice) and Papadzules (tortilla rolls filled with egg and pumpkin sauce).
The majority of flights into the peninsula arrive at the International airport of Cancún, and most flights into Cancún from the rest of the world pass through the US or Mexico City. The region’s other four international airports are at Cozumel, Chetumal, Mérida and Campeche, with only Cozumel and Mérida receiving direct flights from the US and Canada.
Before the late 1960s there was little infrastructure in the Yucatán Peninsula, which means that most of the main roads and highways are relatively new. Traveling by car is therefore convenient and easy, except in the downtown areas of Cancún and Mérida.
The bus system in the peninsula is reliable and inexpensive. ADO buses run from the peninsula’s major cities to most other parts of Mexico as well.
Oh and did I mention the weather? The tropical climate with average temperatures of 28 °C (82°F) is reason alone to pack your suitcase today and fly to the Yucatán. The dry season from November through May is more desirable and pleasant for most tourists, while the wet season (from June through October) can be humid and rainy. Also there are changes of hurricanes.
The currency of Mexico is the Mexican Peso. 1 USD is about 12 pesos; exchange rates change by the day. US dollars are widely accepted everywhere in the peninsula.
As you can tell there’s plenty to do in the Yucatán Peninsula, from cultural to outdoor activities. If you’re planning a holiday there, then let us show you the most amazing spots. We offer:
In short, the Yucatán is just one of those places that surprises you and make you want to visit again and again. Even experienced travelers will be amazed by the rich culture and beautiful nature it has to offer.