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 veers away from the Gulf Coast towards Mérida and east to Valladolid and the Caribbean coast. Near Mérida are both the excellent craft town of Izamal and the Ruta Puuc, which includes major Maya sites such as Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, as well as a trove of smaller, less-visited ruins. Past these, you can push on to the Caribbean beaches.
The stretch of coast between Cancún and Tulum, known as the Riviera Maya, and including Playa del Carmen and Isla Cozumel, 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, collectively known as the Río Bec sites. 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.
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.
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.
On February 1, 2015, the state of Quintana Roo, which includes Cancún, changed time zones, swapping Central Standard Time for Eastern Standard Time. The aim was to boost tourism by creating longer, lighter evenings.