FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Yucatán: Uniquely Yucatán

Apr 1, 2009
2009 / April 2009

YucatanIt doesn’t take long to feel it. You know you’re in Mexico, but there’s a difference. It’s Yucatán, a Mexican state with a character so independent and unique that it’s like a country within a country. It’s little wonder that Yucatán marches to the beat of its own drummer — until the middle of the 20th century almost all of Yucatán’s contact with the outside world was by sea. Isolated from the rest of Mexico for centuries, it wasn’t linked to the rest of the county by rail until the 1950s. The first highway from Mexico City didn’t open until 1968, and commercial jets didn’t start flying into the capital city of Mérida until the 1960s. So influences weren’t from the rest of Mexico, but from the United States, Cuba, Europe and Caribbean islands — countries that traded with Yucatán in seafaring times.

Yucatán’s history is long and rich. Remains of ceremonial architecture date back 3,000 years, and hieroglyphic inscriptions have been found from as early as 200 B.C. But Yucatán really hit its stride when the Mayans inhabited the area and constructed impressive cities from A.D. 300–1000. In the 16th century the Spanish conquered Yucatán and remained in power until 1812, when Yucatán became part of independent Mexico.

Even the wealth of Mayan ruins scattered around Yucatán is only a fraction of what lies still buried beneath the surface. Some sites are large and impressive, like Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, while others are smaller with fewer unearthed structures, like Xcambo, Kabah and Xlapak. But all offer a fascinating peek into Yucatán’s Mayan past.

The colonial history of Yucatán is evident in the graceful European architecture of the period. The capital city of Mérida was founded in 1542, and its historic center radiates from the Main Square. Izamal started out as an important Mayan cultural center which became a lovely colonial town during Spanish occupation. Valladolid, founded in 1543, has a strong Spanish flavor with brightly colored houses and historic churches.

Also during colonial times, wealthy landowners built sprawling haciendas in Yucatán’s interior. In the 19th century, henequen, an agave plant native to the Yucatán, was discovered to have fibers, called sisal, that were ideal for making rope. The haciendas turned into sisal-producing concerns until the invention of synthetics killed the industry in the early 20th century. Though most of these grand haciendas have succumbed to demolition or the ravages of time, those that survived are beautiful reminders of a lifestyle long past.

Though coastal Yucatán conjures up images of the mega, modern, high-rise oceanfront resorts of Cozumel and Cancún, they are actually located in the neighboring state of Quintana Roo. Geographically close but a far cry from the party atmosphere and shiny new architecture of these Yucatán Peninsula resort towns, Yucatán’s coastline runs for approximately 235 miles along the Gulf of Mexico from Celestún to Rio Lagartos and boasts sleepy fishing villages, sparsely populated beaches and tranquil seas. Ecological reserves along the coast protect the state’s unique flora and fauna, and are paradise for birders, since Yucatán is home to more than 500 bird species in excess of 70 different families.

Though there are no aboveground rivers or streams in the limestone plain that is Yucatán, there is plenty of subterranean action. Freshwater rivers flow underground through the porous limestone, forming caverns, caves and natural sinkholes called cenotes. Some rise to the surface and some are deep in caves, but either way a dip in the crystal-clear, turquoise-blue water is wonderfully refreshing.

As with everything else in Yucatán, the cuisine is unique and not typically Mexican; instead, it’s a rich blend of influences from Europe to the Middle East. The popular queso relleno — a scooped-out ball of Gouda cheese stuffed with chopped meat — reflects the area’s Dutch heritage. Papadzules, egg-filled tort illas, are topped with a sauce made from ground pumpkin seeds, a popular condiment in Mayan times. Cochinita pibil, a whole suckling pig wrapped in banana leaves and roasted, is more associated with the South Pacific than Mexico.


The restored cottages at this colonial hacienda are close to the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá. $$$
50 Calle 35C x 60 Norte Fraccionamiento Buenavista, Mérida
tel 52 999 920 8407

The historic 1840 hacienda and spa provides a tranquil retreat and a touch of luxury within the bustling capital city.$$
439 64 Calle 62 x 51 y 53 Centro, Mérida
tel 52 999 924 4363

On a stretch of virgin beach but still close to Mayan ruins, the resort offers plenty of amenities and all-inclusive rates.$$
Telchac Puerto
tel 52 999 941 9494


The restaurant in Starwood’s Hacienda Temozon offers regional specialties such as ribeye Yucatán, snapper in mango sauce, tamarind margaritas and avocado ice cream.$$$$
KM 182 Carretera Mérida-Uxmal, Temozon Sur
tel 52 999 923 8089

The tortillas are homemade, the margaritas are tasty, the portions are generous and the surroundings relaxing. $$
299 Calle 27, Izamal
tel 52 988 954 0489

Traditional Yucatán specialties include queso relleno, lime soup, suckling pig and Yucatán tacos. Frequently features live entertainment. $
Calle 57 between 52 & 50, Mérida
tel 52 999 928 5459


On top of the list of Yucatán’s spectacular Mayan ruins is Chichén Itzá (www.chichenitza.com), dating from the seventh century. Today this World Heritage site archaeological zone covers approximately three miles. Two of its most famous structures are Kukulkan Pyramid, which stands 78 feet high, and the Great Ball Court, constructed in A.D. 864.

The World Heritage site archaeological zone at Uxmal is characterized by low horizontal palaces set around courtyards, decorated with rich sculptural elements and details. The most impressive structure is the 100-foot-high House of the Magician. The ruin at Dzibilchaltun is one of the oldest, dating from 500 B.C., and the closest to Mérida. Extending over more than 10 miles, only a fraction of its estimated 8,000 architectural structures have been excavated. Besides being an eco-archaeological park, the Museum of the Maya People displays artifacts of Spanish and Maya origin. Ek’ Balam thrived from the seventh to the 10th centuries and then became engulfed in dense jungle. Today 45 structures have been uncovered, the most impressive being an enormous, elaborate Acropolis pyramid.

Mérida, Yucatán’s biggest city, has both historic and modern centers. In the historic zone, facing the central square to the east, the imposing Cathedral of San Ildefonso is the oldest cathedral in North America. The Neoclassic-style Government Palace, built on the north side in 1892, has murals by one of Yucatán’s most famous artists, Fernando Castro Pacheco. Sidewalk cafés around the square are the places to hang out at night, listening to street musicians and watching horse-drawn carriages wheel by. Along the elegant Paseo de Montejo, a stately Italian Renaissance-style building houses the Museum of Anthropology and History.

Izamal, one of the most important Mayan city states between A.D. 850 and 1000, suffered a decline and then was reborn during the Spanish period. The colonial town is dominated by the Convent of San Antonio de Padua, founded in 1549, with a courtyard second in size only to St. Peter’s in the Vatican. Horse-drawn carriages carry visitors over cobblestone streets past colonial buildings painted mustard yellow, in striking contrast to the blue sky.

Staying in a historic hacienda is a great way to get a feel for the area’s colonial past, and you can do just that at Haciendas Temozon, Santa Rosa and San José, which have been transformed into elegant 5-star Starwood properties. To check out sisal-making up close, head for Hacienda Sotuta de Peón(tel 52 999 941 8639, www.haciendatour.com), which still produces sisal and offers tours of its operation. Visitors ride through the henequen fields on wooden platforms pulled by mules over rails, then observe workers as they transform the gray-green stalks to fiber in their small factory.

Beaches in Yucatán are low-key and relaxing. Progreso is the state’s most important port, biggest fishing center and largest coastal town. There’s an oceanfront promenade and plenty of places to eat fish just off the boats. The absence of currents or tides makes the ocean perfect for swimming. Telchac Puerto is a tiny port town with long stretches of white-sand beach and lovely transparent water. This is the place to chill, eat fresh seafood and float in tranquil seas.

Of coastal Yucatán’s ecological reserves, Celestún is known for its estuary, which is a natural breeding ground for pink flamingos. Locals run boat tours through the mangrove forests to the sea, including a refreshing dip in the estuary’s fresh water fed by underground springs. Rio Lagartos, located within the Biosphere Special Reserve, is famous for its hundreds of bird species, including a large flamingo colony. The area’s United Nations designation as an important international wetlands protects its diverse flora and fauna.

There are plenty of cenotes where you can take a dip in the cool, clear water. At Hacienda Sotuta de Peón, a tour of the property includes a swim in a cenote hidden deep in a cave. Among the Mayan ruins at Dzibilchaltun there’s an aboveground cenote perfect for swimming, and only two miles from Chichén Itzá you’ll find Ik kil, an open well-type cenote, with a grand stairway leading 85 feet down into the water.

Mérida/Rejon International Airport (MID) is less than 10 miles from Yucatán’s capital city of Mérida. The airport is small, but there is an information desk, and car rentals are available. Buses into town run infrequently. Taxi fare into the city center is about $9. A recent addition to Mérida is Turibus, double-decker tourist buses — see the city in an hour, or visit five designated stops on your own schedule. Visit www.yucatantoday.com.


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FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.


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