Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is an amazing place to explore! Here are my top ten reasons why it should be on any traveler’s “must visit” list of world destinations:
1. Natural History
The whole area is limestone formed from ancient coral sealife – how cool is that? It’s flat, has almost no rivers, is covered in jungle, and is surrounded by some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
And 66 million years ago, a powerful asteroid slammed into the Earth nearby, formed the Chicxulub Crater and (probably) wiped out the dinosaurs. In the process that shockwave created an amazing ring of cracks, tunnels and caves that filled with salt and fresh water, which brings us to reason #2 why the area rocks:
If it gets too hot just head down into the nearest limestone cenote for a cool, refreshing swim in clear clean water, under the sunlit glow of the cave opening above you. A perfect way to pass an afternoon.
But even more fun than swimming in cenotes is…
3. Cenote Diving
I think this is one of the only places in the world where you can easily scuba dive in caves. Read all about the joys of cenote diving here. This is a very special experience.
And in addition to cave diving there is also…
4. Reef Diving and Snorkeling
Want to snorkel within feet of blissed-out turtles? Go to Akumal!
Some of the best scuba diving in the world is off the coast of Cozumel, a diver’s paradise, full of wall-dives, sea life, and abundant coral reefs. There is no shortage of amazing underwater adventures here.
5. Human History and Culture
Merida has the oldest church in the Americas. The Casa de los Montejo, also in Merida, was constructed between 1542 and 1549 for the Spanish Conquistadors who conquered the area. When you go inside these buildings you feel how old the recorded history of this pensinsula is.
What’s most amazing is these buildings were created on an abandoned Mayan temple square, which means there is even older layer of human history beyond the one you can see on the street!
The mixing of the Spanish and Mayan cultures was often violent – we learned about the uprisings, wars, and suffering that occurred after the conquest, and into fairly recent times. One Spanish Priest burnt virtually all of the Mayan books containing their history, culture, and pictographic language. Luckily three copies were discovered later and so archaeologists and linguists have been able to reconstruct the language.
Happily, today the indigenous culture is alive and well, and everyone takes pride in it. Here’s a pic of some daredevil Voladores (“flyers”) as they begin their death-defying whirl to the ground. The dancers stand on top of a tall pole, representing the World Tree, and while one plays music, the others spin down to the bottom. The dance didn’t originate in the Yucatán but it is still impressive and colourful to watch.
6. Mayan Temples
Not only are the temple buildings incredible to look at, but the temples were built with mathematical precision, to line up with major astronomical events. For instance at Xichen-Itza, twice a year during the solstices the rays of the sun descend down a snake pattern on the side of the temple, and light up the carven stone head of a snake at the base.
As a bonus, when you clap your hands in front of a temple stairway, the acoustics rebound up and down, meet in the middle and bounce back at you in the distinctive call of the sacred quetzal bird. Crazy.
To support their Empire the Mayans laid thousands of kilometres of roads, developed sophisticated mathematics and astronomy, built intricate trade routes that interacted with tribes far to the north and south, developed sophisticated logistics to measure and distribute fresh water – and did I mention the height of their civilization was one thousand years ago?
7. Colonial Architecture
The Spanish also knew how to build impressive structures – each city in the Yucatán Peninsula is blessed with numerous limestone houses, palaces, and churches, in the Colonial Spanish style. The town plazas are leafy and social escapes from the day’s heat.
And within and near the old buildings, you can find an incredible amount of beautiful and evocative statuary, paintings, murals, and monuments.
8. Amazing Food
The best food we ate was at K’u’uk in Merida. They used the latest molecular cooking techniques to give us an amazing 15-course meal, but what made it really special was the tour they proudly gave us afterwards, of their kitchen and garden. Highly recommended!
Of course amazing food wasn’t limited to Merida. Everywhere we went we had our fill of Yucatecan-inspired food, like Chaya drinks (a local miracle plant mixed with fruit juices); sopa de lima, which is lime-marinated chicken with tortilla strips; cocinita pibil, which is meat marinated in a mix of achiote, bitter orange, and spices, wrapped in banana leaves and slow-roasted in a pit; and poc chuc, pork slices marinated in sour orange and covered with onions.
9. Travel Fun
There is so much to see and do – take a boat through the mangrove swamp to see thousands of pink flamingos, explore the mysteries of ancient ruins, relax on a sunset sailboat cruise near Cancun – or hang out at a resort pool overlooking the beach!
10. The Yucateco People
Last but definitely not least – we travelled throughout the area for weeks by bus, collectivo (small privately-owned vans) and taxi, and met lots of local people. With only a few exceptions they were very friendly, helpful, and courteous. We found it helped to speak a little Spanish to people we met – “que la vaya bien” is a friendly goodbye and always got a smile.
What impressed us the most was how knowledgeable and proud the locals are of their history and culture.
And they are right to be – the Yucatán Peninsula rocks!
Have you been there? What did you think of it?