The three states that comprise the Yucatán Peninsula – Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo – are among the hottest and most tropical parts of Mexico, though they lie further north than you might imagine: the capital of Yucatán state, Mérida, is actually at a higher latitude than Mexico City. Until the 1960s, when proper road and rail links were finally completed, the Yucatán lived out of step with the rest of the country and had almost as much contact with Europe, Cuba and the US as with central Mexico, resulting in a very distinct culture. Tourism has since made major inroads, especially in the north around the great Maya sites, such as Chichén Itzá, and on the Quintana Roo coast, where development has centred on the “super-resort” of Cancún and the islands of Mujeres and Cozumel, but is now shifting to the so-called Riviera Maya, the stretch of beachfront that includes Playa del Carmen and Tulum. But away from the big centres, especially in the south, where towns are sparsely scattered in thick jungle, there’s still a distinct pioneering feel.
In northern Yucatán state, the landscape is relatively spare: shallow, rocky earth gives rise to stunted trees, and underground springs known as cenotes are the only source of water. Campeche state, by contrast, boasts a huge area of tropical forest, the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve – though the trees are being thinned in places for cattle ranching and timber. The entire peninsular coastline is great for spotting wildlife – notably turtles at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Quintana Roo and flocks of flamingoes at Celestún and Río Lagartos in Yucatán – but the most spectacular, white-sand beaches line the Caribbean coast, where magnificent offshore coral reefs form part of the second largest barrier reef system in the world.
The peninsula’s modern boom is, in fact, a reawakening, for this has been the longest continuously settled part of the country, with evidence of Maya inhabitants as early as 2500 BC. The Maya are not a specifically Mexican culture – their greatest cities were in the lowlands of modern Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. They did, however, produce a unique style in the Yucatán and continued to flourish here long after the collapse of the earlier, grander civilizations to the south. This was done in spite of natural handicaps – thin soil, heat and lack of water – and invasions from central Mexico. Indeed, the Maya still live in the Yucatán, both in the cities and in rural villages, in many cases remarkably true to their old traditions and lifestyle, despite the hardships of the intervening years: ravaged by European diseases, forced to work on vast colonial encomiendas or, later, subjected to the semi-slavery of debt peonage.
The florescence of Maya culture, throughout its extensive domain, came in the Classic period, from around 300 to 900 AD, an age in which the cities (most over the border to the south) grew up and Maya science and art reached their height. The Maya calendar, a complex interaction of solar, lunar, astral and religious dates, was far more complex and accurate than the Gregorian one. Five hundred years before the European Renaissance, the Maya had already developed a sophisticated perspective in art and an elaborate mathematical and hieroglyphic system. In the early ninth century AD, growing military tension and a prolonged drought saw the abandonment of many of the southern lowland cities (Tikal and Calakmul among them), while the cities of the north – such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and the Puuc sites – began to flourish. These in turn collapsed around 1200 AD, to be succeeded by Mayapán and a confederacy of other cities that probably included Tulum and Cozumel. By the time the Spanish arrived, Mayapán’s power, too, had been broken by revolt, and the Maya had splintered into tribalism – although still with cities and long-distance sea trade that awed the conquistadors. It proved the hardest area of the country to pacify. The Maya carried out constant armed rebellion against the Spanish, and later the Mexican, authorities. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, what became known as the Caste Wars saw the Maya, supplied with arms from British Honduras (Belize), gain brief control of the entire peninsula. Gradually, though, the guerrilla fighters were again pushed back into the wilds of southern Quintana Roo, where the final pockets of resistance held out until the early twentieth century.Read More