There’s really only one main route around the Yucatán Peninsula; the variation comes in where you choose to break the journey or make side trips off the trail. Whether you come from Palenque or along the coast from Villahermosa and Ciudad del Carmen, 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 beaches of the Caribbean coast, the area known as the Riviera Maya.
The road across the south of the peninsula from Escárcega to Chetumal (Hwy-186) was laid in the early 1980s in an attempt to better define the border with Guatemala; it passes through jungle territory dotted with ruins, many of them still being excavated. The star is the enormous site of Calakmul, located deep in a reserve near the border with Guatemala; from the top of its main pyramid, the tallest in the Maya world, the tropical forest stretches to the horizon like a green sea. You can get accommodation and arrange tours to all of the ruins at Xpujil, on the border between Campeche and Quintana Roo states.Read More
- Campeche and around
Even if practically every road didn’t lead to Mérida, it would still be an inevitable stop. Nicknamed “La Ciudad Blanca” after its white limestone buildings (now covered in peeling layers of gem-coloured paint), the capital of Yucatán state is in every sense the leading city of the peninsula, with a population of some 1.6 million. But within its historic core, there’s a sense of small-town graciousness coupled with an extremely lively and sometimes avant-garde cultural scene. It draws thousands of visitors, both Mexican and foreign, and has seen a rash of expat investment in the last decade. But even as the buzz increases, the city retains its grace and manners: every street in the centre boasts a well-maintained colonial church or museum, and locals still ride in little horse-drawn taxis, which gather by the plaza in the evenings. Not only can you live well here, but you can also find good beaches nearby, and it’s a great base for excursions to the Maya sites of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.
Founded in 1542 by conquistador Francisco de Montejo the Younger, Mérida is built over, and partly from, the ruins of a Maya city known as Tihó or Ichcansihó. Like the rest of the peninsula, it had little effective contact with central Mexico until the 1960s and looked to Europe for influence. This is especially evident in the architecture of the older houses, built with French bricks and tiles that were brought over as ballast in ships that exported henequen, the rope fibre that was Yucatán’s “green gold” from early in its colonization to World War I.
Trade was interrupted in the spring of 1849, when, early in the Maya uprising that became known as the Caste Wars, rebel armies laid siege to Mérida. They were within a hair’s breadth of capturing the city and thus regaining control of the peninsula, when, legend has it, the Maya peasant fighters could no longer neglect their fields and left the siege to plant corn. Thus spared, the Yucatecan elite quickly arranged a deal with the central Mexican government ceding the peninsula’s independence in exchange for support against future Maya rebellions, which ground on for some fifty years.
By 1900, Mérida had become an extraordinarily wealthy city – or at least a city that had vast numbers of extremely rich haciendados (estate owners). Much of this wealth was poured into grandiose mansions on the outskirts of town (especially along Paseo de Montejo) and European educations for upper-class children. Today, though the henequen industry is all but dead (it petered out around World War II, when nylon became the rope-making material of choice), Mérida remains elegant, prosperous and intellectual – it’s said to have Mexico’s highest number of PhDs per capita. The streets are filled with a vibrant mix of Maya, mestizos, Lebanese (who emigrated here in the early twentieth century) and more recent transplants from Mexico City and abroad, all drawn by the city’s mellow yet cosmopolitan feel.
- South of Mérida: Uxmal, the Ruta Puuc and the Ruta de Conventos
The exceptionally scenic town of Izamal, 72km east of Mérida, is a beautiful, tranquil place to spend a night or two, or longer, as a more rural alternative to the big city. It was formerly an important religious centre for the Maya, where they worshipped Itzamná, mythical founder of the ancient city and one of the gods of creation, at a series of huge pyramid-temples. Most of these are now no more than low mounds in the surrounding country, but several survive in the town itself, and are fascinating to see right in the middle of the residential grid. The largest, Kinich Kakmó (daily 8am–8pm; free), dedicated to the sun god, has been partly restored. It’s just a couple of blocks north of the two adjacent central plazas – ask for directions from the roving brown-clad tourist police.
In 1552 Fray Diego de Landa (later responsible for a vicious Inquisition and auto-da-fé in Maní) lopped the top off a neighbouring pyramid and began building the grand Convento de San Antonio de Padua, which now anchors the main squares. The porticoed atrium is particularly beautiful in the late afternoon. Inside the complex is a statue of Nuestra Señora de Izamal (usually in a small chapel behind the main altar, reached through a side hall and stairs), the patroness of the Yucatán. The statue inspires pilgrims from all over the peninsula, especially during the fiesta dedicated to her in August and again in December, when penitents climb the convent’s broad stairway on their knees. A few evenings a week, a sound-and-light show is projected on the facade of the main church.
Izamal is also renowned as a refined crafts centre. A free map, available from most hotels and businesses, identifies workshops of wood-carvers, papier-mâché artists and other artisans; be sure to visit Don Esteban, on Calle 26 at Calle 45, whose jewellery made from henequen spines is striking and modern, and whose effusive character is memorable. To get around, you can rent a bicycle (M$40 for 2hr) from the Centro Cultural y Artesanal on the plaza. Its museum showcases choice pieces of craftwork from all over Mexico; there’s also a small café and a quiet back room where you can get a foot massage. On the south side of the convent plaza, Hecho a Mano, a particularly good craft and folk-art shop, is stocked with everything from Mexican wrestling masks to Huichol yarn paintings from Nayarit, as well as excellent photography by one of the owners; note that the hours can be erratic.
The most famous, the most extensively restored and by far the most visited of all Maya sites, Chichén Itzá lies conveniently along the main highway from Mérida to Cancún, a little more than 200km from the Caribbean coast. A fast and very regular bus service runs all along this road, making it perfectly feasible to visit as a day’s excursion from Mérida, or en route from Mérida to the coast, or even as a day out from Cancún, as many tour buses do. But both to do the ruins justice and to see them when they’re not entirely thronged with tourists, an overnight stop is well worth considering – either at the site itself or, less extravagantly, in the nearby village of Pisté or in Valladolid.
Though in most minds Chichén Itzá represents the Maya, it is in fact the site’s divergence from Maya tradition that makes it archeologically so intriguing. Experts are fairly certain that the city was established around 300 AD, and began to flourish in the Terminal Classic period (between 800 and 925 AD); the rest of its history, however, as well as the roots of the Itzá clan that consolidated power in the peninsula here after 925, remain hotly disputed. Much of the evidence at the site – an emphasis on human sacrifice, the presence of a huge ball-court and the glorification of military activity – points to a strong influence from central Mexico. For decades researchers guessed this was the result of the city’s defeat by the Toltecs, a theory reinforced by the resemblance of the Templo de los Guerreros to the colonnade at Tula, near Mexico City, along with Toltec-style pottery remains and numerous depictions of the Toltec god-king, the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcán to the Maya).
Work since the 1980s, however, supports a theory that the Itzá people were not Toltec invaders, but fellow Maya who had migrated from the south (an explanation for their subjects referring to them as “foreigners” in texts). The Toltec artefacts, this view holds, arrived in central Yucatán via the Itzás’ chief trading partners, the Chontal Maya, who maintained allegiances with Toltecs of central Mexico and Oaxaca.
- Valladolid and around