Ever since the Mayans lost their grip on Yucatan during the Spanish conquests of the 16th Century, their homeland has been the subject of intense fascination. For over 2000 years, the indigenous Maya ethnic groups dominated the Yucatan Peninsula, a vast strip of land separating the circular Gulf of Mexico from the sparkling Caribbean Sea. Enjoying life without fear of threat or foe, the Maya are accredited with the cultivation and preservation of a region which remained hidden from the attentions of the world until the 1970's.
Dubbed the “Horn of Mexico” by natives, the “Yucatan Peninsula” denotes a vast outcrop of land jutting into the Gulf of Mexico from the South East of New Mexico's mainland. Three states – Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo further partition the huge outcrop, with Quintana Roo being the most overtly developed for tourism. The purpose-built resort city of Cancún is often mistaken for the Eastern region's Northerly capital, however it is the port city of Chetumal that remains the municipal seat. Modern Chetumal was founded as a port city in 1898, however it served as the heart of the Mayan Empire for centuries prior and was the last city of the peninsula to finally succumb to the Spanish in 1683. Unlike throbbing Cancun, Chetumal retains a quietitude and grandeur befitting of its historic greatness. It is widely regarded the epicenter of culture in Quintana Roo State – the port town teeming with cultural centers and old art galleries.
Nestled upon the North East tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, Cancun developed as a result of a tourism summit for Quintana Roo in 1974. A world-class resort city attracting in excess of 2 million people each year, its fame arose from its being site of the world's first hotel resort – the Blue Bay Hotel (now Temptation Resort). A slew of big name chains have since filled the competitive void, including Hilton, Hyatt Regency and Omni. Cancun's touristic appeal grew as the town evolved, however was increased by its situation beside the world's second largest coral reef in the Caribbean Sea. Cancun offers a cache of finely developed beaches, however the glistening sugary sands of Playa del Carmen are considered the best in the municipal area.
Home to the Meso American natives for over two Millennia, Yucatan State is a modern day Graceland of ancient archaeological sites . Situated midway between the dazzling colonial cities of Merida and Campeche, the ruins of Chichen Itza have become the premier tourist attraction of the Yucatan Peninsula. Archaeologists believe the Mayan city thrived due to underwater rivers feeding the “area of wells” - a fact further confirmed by the presence of two cenotes (large natural wells/ pools) near the Kulkulcan Temple Pyramid. The Sacred Cenote is world famous, for it is here the Mayans are alleged to have made offerings of gold, jade and human sacrifice to the rain god Chaac. Kulkulcan Pyramid is the largest of all buildings at Chichen Itza, famed for its decadent stylized serpent staircase and abundance of petroglyphs found within the galleries.
Just 90 km East of Chichen Itza (within Quintana Roo State) lies the jungle-shrouded Mayan ruins of Coba, the theme of which is though to have influenced the set designers for George Lucas' “Indiana Jones” movies. Darkened by the huge silhouette of Nohoch Mul Pyramid towering 42 meters (137 feet) above the twin ball courts and various ancient temple pyramids, the site takes on an air of eerie mystery – even in the most glorious sunshine. Unlike Kulkulcan at Chichen Itza, visitors are free to make the 120-step climb to the summit of Nohoch Mul and view the jungle canopies that have little changed in 1300 years. The ruins of El Rey at Cancun are less well preserved, yet equally as popular for the panoramic vistas to be had across the port city.
Merida, municipal capital of Estado de Yucatan is a key feature on the Yucatan heritage trail, brimming with well-preserved Mayan traditions and in close proximity to the New Seventh Wonder of The World – Chichen Itza. Located in the far North West of the ambiguous old State, Merida preserves a wondrous array of colonial achievements, including the Cathedral on the Plaza Mayor (the oldest in North America). A seemingly never-ending tree-lined avenue, El Paseo Montejo conveys the sheer wealth of its former henequen merchants with beautiful Porfirian styled domestic mansions and opulent villas. For a sneaky peak inside one of the palatial houses, tour the Quinta Montes Molina Mansion near El Zocalo, where little has altered of its interior for 200 years.
For culture vultures, the Yucatan Peninsula embodies a time-line of Mexican history untainted by the rapid growth of industrialization, while its beaches provide the Caribbean idyll without having to endure endless flight transfers. It may have been subjected to ambitious tourism development along its Eastern shore, however even this cannot stagnate the allure Yucatan for generations to come.