Discover the Yucatán

A colonial street at night bustling with shoppers and small market stalls.
Enjoying the evening in Mérida. Photo by licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

On the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula is a place called Uaymitún, where swampy coastal wetlands reach almost to the ocean. Climbing to the top of a platform, you discover that the swamp — rather unappealing from below — is in fact filled with tens of thousands of flamingos, their bright pink feathers a stark contrast to the gray-green surroundings.

Behind you are the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico. To the east is a small Maya ruin called Xcambó. Some And just down the road from Uaymitún is the quiet town of Chicxulub, built near the place where a massive meteor smashed into the earth 65 million years ago, gouging a crater 2.5 kilometers deep and 200 kilometers wide. Scientists believe the impact and its aftermath wiped out the dinosaurs and ushered in the age of humankind, making this, in a sense, the very spot where the world as we know it began.

Uaymitún is not a major tourist destination — were it not for the flamingos, it probably wouldn’t rate a mention. But in a way that’s what makes it all the more amazing. The Yucatán Peninsula has so much history, culture, wildlife, so many natural wonders and outdoor opportunities, that even a dusty roadside town seems rich with stories and possibilities.

For many travelers, the area’s Maya ruins are the biggest draw. Mérida is within easy reach of these spectacular archaeological zones, from the soaring pyramids of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal to the more intimate sites of Labná and Ek’ Balam. Farther away are even more ruins, including the famously beautiful temples at Palenque, Chiapas, and the impressive yet virtually unknown ruins in southern Campeche. It would take weeks to visit all of the Yucatán’s archaeological sites, but no more than one to leave you awed by the artistry and ingeniousness of the ancient Maya.

There’s more — a lot more. Mérida is just one of numerous beautiful colonial cities in the Yucatán Peninsula that boast distinctive architecture, broad plazas, and soaring churches. In San Cristóbal, a strong indigenous influence is palpable to this day; in Izamal, a grand cathedral and convent built atop an ancient Maya temple belie a complicated history of conquest, both physical and spiritual.

If you are a snorkeler or diver, Isla Cozumel is internationally known for its pristine coral reefs, varied sealife, and near perfect visibility, while the mainland hides the longest underground river system in the world, filled with crystalline water and spectacular cave formations.

[pullquote]The Yucatán Peninsula is one of those places everyone ought to visit in his or her life.[/pullquote]The Yucatán also is a world-class bird-watching area, and the northern wetlands from Celestún clear around to Isla Holbox teem with flamingos, herons, egrets, cormorants, spoonbills, pelicans, and more. Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, south of Tulum, also has terrific bird-watching, and is one of several outstanding sport fishing areas in the Yucatán Peninsula. Another biosphere reserve in Campeche State — Calakmul — is home to howler and spider monkeys, elusive jaguars, and mountain lions.

The Yucatán Peninsula is one of those places everyone ought to visit in his or her life. It is a place of beauty and mystery, with endless opportunities for exploration, learning, and enlightenment. It’s also a fun place to visit and home to a diverse and gracious population. For us it has been a joy to explore the region, and it is our sincere hope that the Yucatán not only meets your expectations but reveals, as it has to us again and again, places and people and stories beyond your imagination.

Related Travel Guide