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.
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 yucatanliving.com, which often mentions nearby fiestas.
Some 65 million years ago the Chicxulub asteroid struck the Yucatán Peninsula – near the town of the same name – an event that is considered to have contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The strike also caused large sections of the region’s limestone bedrock to collapse, in turn forming thousands of cenotes (sinkholes).
The region’s network of cenotes – which are generally filled with fresh water – was crucial for the Maya civilization that dominated the Yucatán Peninsula before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. These flooded subterranean chambers were vital sources of potable water in an area short on rivers and lakes, and towns, villages and ceremonial sites often sprung up around them. They were also considered sacred gateways to the Maya underworld, known as Xibalba (“the place of fear”). At Cenote Sagrado at Chichén Itzá (see p.752), for example, the Maya threw statues, pottery, incense, textiles, jade, gold and human sacrifices into the water as offerings to the gods of the underworld. The few human sacrifices who survived the ordeal, incidentally, were considered to have spoken with the gods, and have developed prophetic powers.
Today the region’s cenotes – some of them have been turned into theme parks, others remain blissfully undeveloped – are perhaps the most memorable places for a swim, snorkel or dive in the Yucatán. Two of the most spectacular are Cenote X’Keken and Cenote Samula, just outside the city of Valladolid.
West of Chetumal, along the border with Guatemala, lie the little-visited but dramatic Río Bec sites, many tucked in dense jungle that harbours diverse birds and beasts, especially in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, around the ruins of the same name. The area was once heavily populated by lowland Maya, and linked with the site of Tikal in Guatemala. The largest ruins here, with their long, low buildings, dramatic towers (really elongated, stylized pyramids) and intricate carvings, are easily as impressive as Chichén Itzá, heightened by the jungle setting. The area is accessible either from Campeche or from Chetumal, and you’ll need to have a car or hire a taxi to see many of these sites – but this means you’ll see few other tourists.
The largest town in the area is Francisco Escárcega (usually just called Escárcega), far to the west in Campeche state. It’s a major bus hub, but somewhat dusty and unwelcoming, so most visitors to the sites use the much smaller village of Xpujil, on the border of Campeche and Quintana Roo, as a base for visiting the area. It’s a one-street town straddling Hwy-186, with basic hotels and restaurants, as well as taxi drivers prepared to shuttle visitors around. If you’re in your own car, note that there’s a gas station just east of town.
The ruined Maya city of Calakmul is one of the best places for contemplating the culture’s architectural legacy. The complex is only partially restored and a long drive south of Hwy-186, but its location in the heart of the jungle and its sheer size are awe-inspiring. Probably the biggest archeological area in Mesoamerica, Calakmul has nearly seven thousand buildings in the central area alone and more steles and pyramids than any other site; the great pyramid here is the largest Maya construction in existence, with a base covering almost five acres.
The view of the rainforest from the top is stunning, and on a clear day you can even glimpse the tip of the Danta pyramid at El Mirador in Guatemala. Arrive early (the gate to the biosphere on Hwy-186 opens at 7am) to look for wildlife such as wild turkeys, peccaries, toucans and jaguars. Even if you don’t spot anything, you’ll likely hear booming howler monkeys and raucous frogs. Plan to spend about four hours exploring the site – longer if you’re a Maya-phile. Bring snacks and water, as there’s no vending at the ruins.
During the Classic period, the city had a population of about two hundred thousand and was the regional capital. A sacbé (Maya road) running between Calakmul and El Mirador (another leads on to Tikal) confirms that these cities were in regular communication. Calakmul reached its zenith between 500 and 850 AD but, along with most other cities in the area, it was abandoned by about 900 AD. Excavations begun in the 1980s have so far uncovered only a fraction of the buildings, the rest being earthen mounds. Some of Calakmul’s treasures are on display in the archeological museum at Campeche, including two hauntingly beautiful jade masks. Another mask was found in a tomb in the main pyramid in 1998.