Until the 1960s, when proper road and rail links were finally completed, the Yucatán Peninsula – the states of Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo – had more contact with Europe, Cuba and the US than with central Mexico. Today, the region remains distinct, with traditional Maya life alongside massive tourist attractions such as the great ruins of Chichén Itzá and the super-resort of Cancún. Once the province of Maya rebels and palm-plantation owners, the Caribbean coast is now the so-called Riviera Maya, which includes the towns of Playa del Carmen and Tulum. But away from these big centres, especially in the south, where settlements are sparsely scattered in dense forest, 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. The entire coastline is great for spotting wildlife – notably turtles at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Quintana Roo and flocks of flamingos at Celestún and Río Lagartos in Yucatán. Along the Caribbean coast, magnificent offshore coral growth forms part of the world’s second-largest barrier reef.
There’s really only one main route around the Yucatán Peninsula; the variation comes in where you break the journey or make side trips. Whether you come from Palenque or along the coast from Villahermosa, you’ll find yourself on Hwy-180, which heads up to Campeche, then Mérida and east to the Caribbean coast. From Mérida the best of the Maya sites, including Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, as well as a trove of smaller, less-visited ruins, are in easy reach. Past these, you can push on to the Caribbean beaches.
The stretch of coast between Cancún and Tulum, known as the Riviera Maya, is one of Mexico’s most heavily touristed areas. South of Tulum, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, encompassing mangroves thick with birdlife and coral reefs offshore, briefly slows the march of progress. The coast south of the biosphere – dubbed the Costa Maya – is on its own development trajectory, but it’s still your best bet for hammock camping. The vast, beautiful Laguna de Bacalar is a crystal-clear lake that’s rich in wildlife and an affordable alternative to the beaches. Chetumal, the state capital and a duty-free border town, is chiefly important as a gateway to and from Belize.
The road across the south of the peninsula is much less travelled. It passes through jungle territory dotted with ruins. The star is the enormous site of Calakmul, deep in the forest reserve near the Guatemalan border. From the top of its main pyramid, the tallest in the Maya world, the forest stretches to the horizon like a green sea.
The Yucatán Peninsula is the longest continuously settled part of Mexico, with evidence of Maya inhabitants as early as 2500 BC. The Maya were at their cultural peak during the Classic period (300–900 AD), during which time they used solar, lunar and astral cycles to develop their complex and highly accurate calendar; they also had an elaborate mathematical and hieroglyphic system. Five hundred years before the Renaissance, moreover, the Maya had developed a sophisticated perspective in art. In the early ninth century AD, southern lowland cities (Tikal, in Guatemala, and Calakmul, among others) were abandoned, and northern cities such as Chichén Itzá grew. These in turn collapsed around 1200 AD, to be succeeded by Mayapán and a confederacy of other cities that probably included Tulum and Cozumel.
After the Conquest
By the time the Spanish arrived, the Maya had splintered into tribalism – although still with cities and long-distance sea trade that awed the conquistadors. The Yucatán Peninsula proved the hardest area of the country to pacify, with the Maya resisting slavery and debt peonage through constant armed rebellion. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the Caste Wars, when the Maya briefly gained control of the entire peninsula. The guerrilla fighters were eventually pushed back into the wilds of southern Quintana Roo, and held out until the early twentieth century, ending their struggle with conciliation from the Mexican government. It was one of the most successful fights against colonialism in the New World.
The Yucatán today
Today, the Maya still live in the Yucatán, in many cases remarkably true to their old traditions and lifestyle. The culture and language remain a strong source of pride that sets this area apart from central Mexico.
Fiestas in the Yucatán
Fiestas in the Yucatán
A highlight of village festivals in the area are the massive bullrings, elaborate hand-built structures made entirely of saplings. Expect plenty of fireworks and jaranas, one of the traditional Maya dances. Carnaval, the week before Lent, is colourfully celebrated in Mérida and on Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. For events in smaller villages, ask at the Yucatán state tourism office in Mérida, which maintains a full list, or check the weekly events bulletin at wyucatanliving.com, which often mentions nearby fiestas.
Fiesta de los Tres Reyes (Jan 1–6). In the cattle town of Tizimín (Yucatán); expect steak.
Día de la Candelaria (Feb 2). Candlemas: candlelight processions at Tecoh and Kantunil (Yucatán). The week prior is a fiesta in Valladolid (Yucatán).
Equinox (March 21). Huge gathering for the serpent shadow at Chichén Itzá.
Semana Santa (Holy Week, beginning Palm Sunday, variable March–April). Passion plays in Mérida, Acanceh and Maní (Yucatán).
Fiestas de Santa Cruz (end of April). Two-week fair in Cozumel’s El Cedral (Quintana Roo), ending on or near May 3.
Fiesta de la Cruz Parlante (May 12–18). Chancah Veracruz (Quintana Roo), near Felipe Carrillo Puerto, celebrates the Talking Cross of the Caste Wars.
Feria del Jipi (May 20). In Becal (Campeche), celebration of the Panama hat.
Torneo de Pesca (last weekend in May). Fishing tournament and party in Puerto Morelos.
Día de la Chispa (June 4). In Valladolid (Yucatán), re-enactment of the battle that sparked the 1910 Revolution.
Fiesta de San Pedro y San Pablo (June 26–30). On Cozumel and in Panaba (Yucatán).
Fiesta de Nuestra Señora del Carmen (July 15–30). Ciudad del Carmen (Campeche) and Motul (Yucatán).
Chac ceremony (dates variable). In Edzná (Yucatán), to encourage the spring rains.
Feria (Aug 10–16). Town celebration in Oxcutzcab (Yucatán).
Feria de San Román (Sept 14–30). Campeche’s city festival.
Gremios (mid-Sept to mid-Oct). Pilgrimages and processions to Mérida’s main church.
Equinox (Sept 21). Another serpent spectacle at Chichén Itzá (see March).
Día de San Miguel (Sept 29). Cozumel’s main town festival.
El Cristo de Sitilpech (Oct 18–28). The miraculous Black Christ is paraded from Sitilpech (Yucatán) to neighbouring Izamal, where there’s ten days of celebration.
Feria del Estado de Yucatán (first three weeks of Nov). At fairgrounds south of Mérida.
Feria de Motul (Nov 4–11). Festival in Motul (Yucatán) with bullfights.
Día de la Inmaculada Concepcíon (Dec 8). Widely celebrated, especially in Izamal, where crowds gather to sing the entire night before.
Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe (Dec 12). Celebrated everywhere; roads are filled in the days prior with church groups running relays.
Christmas Fiesta (Dec 25–Jan 6). In Temax (Yucatán), featuring the procession of Las Pastorelas, in which images of the Holy Family are carried from house to house.