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Yucatán Peninsula.png
The Yucatán peninsula as seen from space
Sediment off the Yucatan Peninsula.
Relief map of the Yucatán peninsula showing major Mayan archeological sites.

The Yucatán Peninsula, in southeastern Mexico, separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, with the northern coastline on the Yucatán Channel. The peninsula lies east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a northwestern geographic partition separating the region of Central America from the rest of North America.

The peninsula comprises the Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo; the northern part of the nation of Belize; and Guatemala's northern department of El Petén.



The peninsula is the exposed portion of the larger Yucatán Platform, all of which is composed of carbonate and soluble rocks, being mostly limestone although dolomite and evaporites are also present at various depths. The whole of the Yucatán peninsula is an unconfined flat lying karst landscape. Sinkholes, locally called cenotes are widespread in the northern lowlands.

According to the Alvarez hypothesis, the mass extinction of the dinosaurs at the transition from the Cretaceous (K) to the Tertiary (T) Periods (the K-T Boundary) 65 million years ago was caused by an asteroid impact somewhere in the greater Caribbean Basin. The deeply buried Chicxulub Crater is centered off the north coast of the peninsula near the town of Chicxulub. The now-famous "Ring of Cenotes" (visible in NASA imagery) outlines one of the shock-waves from this impact event in the rock of ~65 millions years of age, which lies more than 1 km below the modern ground surface near the centre, with the rock above the impact strata all being younger in age. The presence of the crater has been determined first on the surface from the Ring of Cenotes, but also by geophysical methods, and direct drilling with recovery of the drill cores.

Water resources

Due to the extreme karst nature of the whole peninsula, the northern half is devoid of rivers. Where lakes and swamps are present, the water is marshy and not palatable for drinking water. Due to its coastal situation, the whole of the peninsula is underlain by an extensive contiguous density stratified coastal aquifer, where a fresh water lens formed from meteoric water floats on top of intruding saline water from the coastal margins. The thousands of sinkholes, locally called Cenotes throughout the region provide access to the groundwater system, and the cenotes have long been relied on by ancient and contemporary Maya people.[1]


Short and tall tropical jungles are the predominant natural vegetation types of the Yucatan Peninsula.

The boundaries between northern Guatemala (El Petén), Mexico (Campeche and Quintana Roo), and western Belize are still occupied by the largest continuous tracts of tropical rainforest in Central America. However, these forests are suffering extensive deforestation.


There is a popular myth that the name Yucatán comes from the Yucatec Maya phrase for "listen how they speak," or "I don't understand your words" — supposedly said by contact period Maya, when the first Spanish explorers asked, what the area was called. The proper derivation of the word Yucatán is widely debated. However, it is also claimed that the actual source of the name "Yucatan" is the Nahuatl (Aztec) word Yokatlān, "place of richness."


The Yucatán Peninsula comprises a significant proportion of the ancient Maya Lowlands (although the Maya culture extended south of the Yucatán Peninsula, through present Guatemala and into Honduras and highland Chiapas). There are many Maya archaeological sites throughout the peninsula; some of the better-known are Chichen Itza, Tulum and Uxmal.[2] Indigenous Maya and Mestizos of partial Maya descent make up a sizable portion of the region's population, and Mayan languages are widely spoken there.


In the late historic and early modern eras, the Yucatán Peninsula was largely a cattle ranching, logging, chicle and henequen production area. Since the 1970s (and the fall of the world henequen and chicle markets due to the advent of synthetic substitutes), the Yucatán Peninsula has reoriented its economy towards tourism, especially in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Once a small fishing village, Cancún in the northeast of the peninsula has grown into a thriving city. The Riviera Maya, which stretches along the east coast of the peninsula between Cancún and Tulum, houses over 50,000 beds and is visited by millions of tourists every year. The best-known locations are the former fishing town of Playa del Carmen, the ecological parks Xcaret and Xel-Há and the Mayan ruins of Tulum and Coba.


Like much of the Caribbean, the peninsula lies within the Atlantic Hurricane Belt, and with its almost uniformly flat terrain it is vulnerable to these large storms coming from the east. The 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season was a particularly bad season for Mexico's tourism industry, with two forceful category 5 storms hitting, Hurricane Emily and Hurricane Wilma. The 2006 Atlantic Hurricane Season was a typical year which left the Yucatán untouched, but in the 2007 Atlantic Hurricane season Yucatán was hit by the Hurricane Dean (also a category 5 storm), nevertheless Dean left little damage on the peninsula despite heavy localized flooding.

Strong storms called nortes can quickly descend on the Yucatán Peninsula any time of year. Although these storms pummel the area with heavy rains and high winds, they tend to be short-lived, clearing after about an hour. The average percentage of days with rain per month ranges from a monthly low of 7% in April to a high of 25% in October. Breezes can have a cooling effect, humidity is generally high, particularly in the remaining rainforest areas.


External links

Coordinates: 18°50′42″N 89°07′32″W / 18.845°N 89.12556°W / 18.845; -89.12556


Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

North America : Mexico : Yucatán Peninsula

The Yucatán Peninsula is a region of southeastern Mexico, consisting of the Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo.

El Castillo at Chichen Itza
El Castillo at Chichen Itza

The Yucatán was the home of the Maya civilization before it was conquered by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. Much of the population is part or all of Maya descent, and in many places the Maya language is still spoken, usually in addition to Spanish, the main language of business.

Until the mid 20th century, most of the Peninsula's trade with the rest of Mexico was by sea, and the culture, cuisine, and traditions developed different flavors from other parts of Mexico. Starting in the late 20th century the Yucatan has become more integrated into Mexico, especially such areas on the Caribbean coast as Cancun and Chetumal, where many people from other parts of the nation have moved to take advantage of the economic opportunities of development. The Mayan Riviera stretching south from Cancun has seen the most growth related to tourism.

  • Campeche - moderately sized city with Spanish ruins
  • Cancun - beach, modern tourist resort
  • Chetumal - capital of Quintana Roo, located on the Caribbean coast, close to the Belizean Border with a nice Mayan Cultural museum
  • Izamal - small mostly Maya city with large colonial convent and remains of large Maya pyramids
  • Mahahual - small coastal town, recently a Cruise ship destination called the Costa Maya
  • Mérida - colonial city, the metropolis of the Yucatan
  • Playa del Carmen - was a nice fishermen's town, now has lots of resorts
  • Progreso - port city with beaches and seafood north of Mérida
  • Valladolid - small colonial city
  • Mayan Riviera - the stretch of coastline between Cancun and Tulum (which includes Playa del Carmen), it is a quickly-developing resort area that still maintains a relaxed atmosphere in contrast to the city of Cancun
  • Cozumel - an island with beaches and ruins

Extensive Maya ruins are scattered all over this region, most of which are easily accessible by bus. Some of the more important include:

  • Becan - large ruin in the lower center of the Peninsula, little restored
  • Calakmul - large ruin in jungle preserve, off the tourist trail
  • Chichen Itza - the largest, most restored, and most visited of Yucatan's Maya ruins
  • Coba - large ruin that has undergone little restoration
  • Cuzamá - home of three beautiful cenotes
Lol-Tun caves
Lol-Tun caves
  • Dzibilchaltún - moderately sized ruin with only a few buildings restored, worth a look on the road between Mérida and Progresso
  • Kabah - medium-sized ruin south of Uxmal
  • Mayapan - historically important, but less interesting to see than Yucatan's other famous ruins
  • Mahahual - laid back beach area
  • Tulum - the tropical beach backdrop is the main attraction of this picturesque, much-visited small ruin on the shore of the Caribbean Sea
  • Uxmal - one of the most beautiful of all Maya ruins, a large, well-preserved site with fine architecture
  • Ednza - discovered in the 1950s, the well preserbed site it a one drive from Campeche
  • Lol-Tun - an underground cave system, two hours south of Merida
  • Xpujil - a remote inland village, with unique Mayan cultural sites, and jumping-off point for visits to the Reserva de la Biósfera Calakmul
  • Cenotes of the Yucatán - unique underground cave systems with unique snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities


The Yucatán peninsula is famous for being the center of the classical Mayan empire, with its stunning ruins at Chichén Itzá and other sites. Many tourists are surprised that, while those cites were abandoned before contact with europeans, Yucatan is still predominantly Mayan. Mayan culture, identity, traditions, and language are very much alive, especially outside of main cities. Referring to locals as Mexican rather than Maya, may risk offending them.

Away from beaches and tourist hotels going around in a bathing suit or short shorts is considered improper and rude.


Spanish is the main language. English will be understood at the more expensive resorts and tourist locations. Knowing a few phrases of basic Spanish will help away from the main tourist resorts and can often help you find better deals. Yucatecos are generally tolerant of visitors who do not speak Spanish fluently and appreciate the effort.

In much of the Yucatan some Maya is spoken. Except in a few small villages, almost everyone will have at least a working knowledge of basic Spanish.

Get in

By plane

Fly in through Cancún, Cozumel, or Mérida. For the best deals, look for charter flight consolidation seats - spare capacity on flights run by package tour operators.

By bus

From the west through the Chiapas region. Buy tickets for long journeys in advance, particularly at busy times such as weekends and public or religious holidays.

Check Ticketbus for times and prices. Only rule out overnight buses for what you would miss en route.

By train

There is no remaining passenger train service in the Yucatan Peninsula. After the federal government privatized the railways, most passenger services across the entire nation were discontinued.

However, Expreso Maya does expensive train tours in the area.

Get around

By bus

Many different class buses are available to/from all the major and many of the minor cities. Mexican first class buses are excellent value and remarkably comfortable - comparable to European train services. Many cheaper services are also available - from second class (little noticeable difference really) to very basic minibus and truck services. Safety seems to decrease with price, however - second class and below may lack seatbelts. Beware of the excessive air conditioning that seems to be a feature on most services - the bus may be many degrees colder than the outside air, and being stuck on a twelve hour journey without adequate clothing can make a journey singularly unpleasant. Travelling second class is not recommended for taller people (5'10" feet or above). As second class busses hold more seats than first class ones do, there is almost no leg room. The major first class bus line is Autobuses del Oriente (ADO). Most of the smaller lines (Mayab, for example), are owned by ADO.

By combi

Are collective-taxis that offer both inter and intra-city services. Cheaper than a taxi and usually faster than a bus since it makes less stops.

By taxi

Available for hire even in small towns. For long distances however, like the caves at Lol-tun, be sure to agree on a price before boarding, or you might get ripped off.

  • Mayan archeological sites. Yucatán is home of several famous Mayan archaeological zones. The best known and most widely visited by tourists is Chichén Itzá, the site of the Kukulcan Pyramid, the Maya Observatory, and the Sacred Cenote. A contrasting cultural style, more ornamental, can be observed at Mayan sites along the Ruta Puuc. The most famous Mayan sites in Quintana Roo are located at Coba and Tulum.
    Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza
    Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza
  • Equinox: The period when the Earths sun is directly above the equator, about March 20 & Sept. 23 of each year. Mayans are very dependant on astronomy as reflected in their art and Temples. At Chichen Itza, during sunset on the Equinox, the shadows of the serpent-god Kukulcan, moves down along the pyramid, a very impressive sight! Other structures have Equinox related events that take place on those days also, like Tulum.
  • Ecological Parks: The Yucatan Peninsula is site of several Ecological Parks, like Xcaret, Xel-Há and Garrafón; aimed for the conservation of the flora and fauna of the region, which serve as well as tourist attractions. At these parks you can know more about the Mexican culture, and also enjoy several activities as swimming with dolphins and snorkeling.
  • Cenotes of the Yucatán are complexes of sinkholes and caves in the Karst geological landscape of the Yucatan. Some cenotes contain spectacular cave formations, while others are important archeological sites, and several were considered sacred by the Mayans. A few are open to the public for swimming and diving. The states of Yucatán and Quintana Roo have established a "tourist corridor" called La Ruta de los Cenotes along which many of the most spectacular or famous cenotes are situated.


Yucatecan food has its own culinary traditions developed from the long mix of native Maya and Spanish traditions. While some dishes can be very spicy, many others are not.

Common meats are turkey, chicken, pork, and deer. Yucatecan venison is quite good and not "gamey" tasting.

Typical dishes include:

  • Pibil dishes, most commonly "pollo pibil", the chicken version, slow cooked in a banana leaf, very tender and tasty. "Cochinita pibil," the young pig version, is a Yucatec classic. Both dishes are seasoned with a red-colored, mild spice called achiote. "Pib" is Yucatec-maya for the cooking technique of wraping in bananna leaves and cooking in a pit.
  • Poc chuc pork marinaded with salt, onion, lime juice, and spices.
  • Huevos Motuleños are eggs on tortillas with black beans and cheese, often with other ingredients such as ham, peas, and tomato sauce.
  • Pollo Motuleño, a chicken dish cooked with orange juice, achiote and plantains.
  • Sopa de lima, tasty lime based vegetable soup with bits of corn tortilla.
  • Panuchos - "sopes" with pork (called cochinita pibil)

Seafood is also very important, especially in Campeche. Pulpo (octopus), cazon (shark), camaron (shrimp) and various other tropical fish are very popular.

Contrary to the advice of many guides, the food served in all-inclusive resorts may have been prepared in far less safe conditions than that available in local establishments away from the major tourist zones. Poor refrigeration, retaining food beyond safe time limits and poor hygiene have been reported from many resorts - whereas street vendors patronised by locals have little choice but to maintain high standards, as everything is on view and their business is dependent on their reputation, not passing foreign visitors.

A good approach for regular restaurants is to note those with a lot of locals and to patronize them.


Tap water is not generally advised for drinking in Mexico, particularly for visitors. In many places (particularly backpacker-friendly resorts) water containers can be filled with drinking water for a few pesos - so a reusable container is both an environmentally and financially better option.

The water system in Mérida is unusually good for Mexico; for some visitors it is the only Mexican city where they will drink the tap water. Outside of this city the situation is different. In small towns the local water can be very bad, and bottled water is recommended.

It would be difficult for anyone visiting this area not to sample the Tequila, which should be used in moderation. For those more adventurous souls, Absinthe is legal in Mexico [[1]] and also, moderation is suggested. Fresh fruit juice is very popular in The Yucatan and freshly squeezed OJ can be found in most markets. Dairy products, including cheese, should be avoided, unless you are positive they have been made with pasteurized milk.

Stay safe

Strict drug possession policy exists in Mexico. Be very careful even with "greens". Local police are hopelessly corrupt, and like nothing better than to catch unwary tourists with small quantities of marijuana. Threatening long prison terms - whether this is a likely outcome is a moot point - their main aim seems, unsurprisingly, to exact bribes - in some areas a fairly standard 50% of all the traveller's money. Caution is also advised on long bus journeys, particularly across state lines, as police or military checkpoints exist and passengers may be asked for identification or searched. In general, however, these checks seem to be aimed at locals - particularly in the Zapatista homeland in Chiapas.

Get out

The Yucatán is a good launching point for going to Chiapas, Belize, Cuba and Guatemala.

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