15 Fascinating Facts About the Yucatan Peninsula
The Yucatan Peninsula, or La Península de Yucatán in Spanish, is one of the most amazing places to visit and tour around in Latin America.
As you may know, a península or peninsula in English, is “an area of land almost completely surrounded by water except for an isthmus connecting it with the mainland.” The Yucatan peninsula is located in southeastern Mexico and it serves as a way of separation between the Carribean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico—and it’s huge!
Surprisingly, with approximately 70,000 square miles of territory (181,000km2), its soil is almost completely composed of limestone.
Yucatán exists within the following territories:
- 3 Mexican States (Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo)
- Petén, Guatemalan
- Almost all of Belize
Yucatan can be an amazing place to plan your next vacations, or to talk about as an ice breaker, or just a fun place to learn about. So here are some fascinating facts about the Yucatan Peninsula that you can share, with others!
15 Fascinating Facts About the Yucatán Peninsula
1. The Origin of the Name ‘Yucatán’ is Controversial.
To this day, the origin of the name “Yucatán” is widely debated. Two popular theories exist:
The first one states that when the Spanish came to America in 1517, the conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba asked for the name of a settlement to the Yucatec Mayans who lived there, and their response was “I don’t understand” in their language, which sounded like “Yucatan.”
The second theory is that the name came from the yuca crop that is produced not only in Yucatán but also various places around all Latin America.
2. Yucatán was Impacted by a Meteorite!
Do you want to learn something really cool about the Yucatan Peninsula? The “Chicxulub Crater,” is the product of an asteroid impact more than 66 million years ago and has a diameter between 6 to 9 miles or 10 to 15 kilometers. The place of the impact is still being studied by scientifics and experts.
3. Bye Bye Dinosaurs, Hello Cenotes!
A lot of scientifics and researchers think that it was the impact of the meteorite that created Chicxulub, the same one that killed the dinosaurs several millions of years ago. But thanks to that impact, the cenotes or sinkholes in English, are now part of the beautiful landscape in Yucatan.
A cenote is a deep natural well or sinkhole formed by the collapse of surface limestone that exposes groundwater underneath, and was sometimes used by mayans for sacrifices. Nowadays, the cenotes are a major tourist attraction all along the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America.
4. Yucatan is Actually Mayan Territory
A lot of people think that because Yucatan is in Mexico, it means that the ancient civilization that inhabited it was the Aztecs, but in reality, Yucatan was Mayan territory. For that reason the peninsula forms part of a significant proportion of the ancient Maya lowlands and is part of the central location of Mayan Civilization. You can find several Maya archeological sites throughout all the peninsula.
5. A Giant Serpent Can Be Seen In Chichen-Itzá
Chichen-Itza, or Chichen-Itzá in Spanish, is one of the most important and sacred pre-hispanic cities of the Yucatan peninsula.
Chichen-Itza means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza.” The Itza were the Mayan ethnic group that lived on that territory.
This pre-hispanic city is famous for its ruins that have endured the pass of the time and to this day are still standing. One of the most remarkable of those ruins is the Kukulkan Pyramid, or Pirámide de Kukulkan, which is the largest building in Chichen-Itza, but also has this amazing feature: every year, on march 21st and September 22th, for the respective equinox, thanks to the lightning and shape of the pyramid, the shape of the sacred snake can be seen on the Kukulkan Pyramid. How amazing!
6. Tulum is the Ghost City that Became a Perfect Vacation Spot
Tulum is located in Quintana Roo, Mexico and is famous for being a pre-hispanic Mayan walled city that served as a major port.
Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the maya and survived about 70 years of Spanish before being abandoned by its inhabitants for several reasons, like fatal diseases brought from Europe.
Besides the archeological site, Tulum is also famous because of a large number of cenotes (sinkholes) located in the area, that are perfect for underwater exploration, swimming and taking amazing photos!
Here is an interesting fact: in 2020 an underwater archeological expedition near Tulum found a skeleton of a woman of approximately 30 years old who lived there at least 9,900 years ago. It’s amazing that there is still so much to discover about Mayan society!
7. The Astronomical City of Uxmal Reveals Ancient Knowledge
Uxmal, which means “three times build,” is a ceremonial site that was founded in the south-western part of Yucatan, Mexico, around the year A.D 700 and was one of the most populated cities, with around 25,000 inhabitants.
Uxmal is known for the layout of it’s buildings, which reveal astronomic knowledge. At the center of the ceremonial grounds in Uxmal is the Pyramid of the Soothsayer, a name given by the Spaniards. This building was covered in symbolic motifs and sculptures of Chaac, the god of rain.
Uxmal is one of three ceremonial sites, and is considered the high point of Mayan art and architecture.
8. Tikal is the City of Ancestral Voices You Can Still Hear Today
In the most southward part of the Yucatan peninsula is Petén, the biggest department of The Republic of Guatemala. In Peten, the Tikal National Park is home to several Mayan buildings that form part of what was one of the most important cities of the Mayan civilization.
Tikal means “city of voices” and was founded in the 6th century A.D, and inhabited until the 10th century A.D. Tikal features several kinds of ancient buildings, like pyramids, ceremonial grounds, a public square, and even a court to play juego de pelota, a ball game played by the Mayans for important religious ceremonies as well as an everyday sport. Thanks to the abundant fauna in Tikal, a lot of animal noises can be heard throughout the day, and some people believe those are the ancient voices that give this ancient city its name.
As a fun fact, the planet Yavin 4 in the Star Wars movies is inspired by Tikal! May the force be there!
9. Yucatán Produces the Hottest Hot Sauce
Yucatán not only has hot weather, but it also produces the hottest hot sauce to eat your tacos with: The Habanero Sauce.
El Chile Habanero, or habanero pepper, is cultivated and produced in the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan. The Mexican Government states that 80% of this production is commercialized as fresh fruit, and the other 20% is used to produce salsas, paste, and dehydrated peppers for cooking.
10. Yucatán Has the Oldest Church in America
Established between 1562 and 1599, the Cathedral of San Ildefonso in Mérida is the oldest in America. It is built by Mayans from nearby quarries under the supervision of the Spaniards. They constructed the cathedral over the Mayan ruins of the city of Ichcansiho, called T’ho for short.
This was the only church that was entirely built during the 16th century in America and colonized territory, San Ildefonso is a monument with a clear architectural style from Andalucía, a testament on how the colonizers brought not only customs and traditions, but art and architectural knowledge to America.
11. In Yucatan People Prefer Hammocks Over Beds
The Yucatan Peninsula is situated in a tropical area, so it is not surprising to say that the weather is hot! With temperatures as high as 40C or 104F in the hottest months, a mattress doesn’t sound as comfortable and fresh as in other circumstances.
Most houses in Yucatan have a place to accommodate una hamaca (“hammock”). And some people use them to relax after a hard day at work, or to relax during vacations. But a lot of people use it to sleep during the hottest nights. They say that you haven´t been in Yucatan if you haven’t slept in a hammock.
12. Yucatan Was Once One of the Richest Places in the World
During the 19th century, the henequén was considered “green gold” because of its industrial boom during that time. El Henequén, or henequen in English is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: a strong yellowish or reddish hard fiber obtained from the leaves of a tropical American agave (Agave fourcroydes) found chiefly in Yucatán and used especially to making twine and rope.
The henequen was cultivated by the Mayans before the colony and called them Ki, and it was used to make ropes and twine. Even after the Spanish Conquest, the henequen was so fruitful and useful that it became an important part of the economy. The products made from henequen were even sold in North America and Europe, and it was produced in far away places like Cuba, Brazil and even Tanzania!
Sadly, the henequen lost value after the synthetic fibers became more popular and cheaper to produce.
13. It’s Home to the Largest Dock in the World
Built between 1937 and 1939 in Puerto Progreso. Puerto Progreso was inaugurated in 1871, because of the need of a port closer to Yucatan’s capital. To this day, Puerto Progreso is one of the best ports in Mexico, with the capacity to attend two mega-cruise ships at the same time, and it plays an important role in the Mexican tourism and business.
When Puerto Progreso was first built, the largest dock of the world began with a length of 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) but now it has a length of 8 kilometers, almost 5 miles! Because of how long it is, this dock is actually in use and can receive deep draft vessels when needed.
14. The Republic Of Yucatan Existed for About 8 Years
The Yucatan peninsula tried several times to become independent, and during the years 1841 and 1848 it actually became a Republic of its own but later rejoined the United Mexican States because of the Caste War. This began with a revolt of the native Maya people in Yucatan against the elite of the European descendants called yucatecos, who were the ones that held political and economic control on the peninsula.
The Republic of Yucatan was governed by a constitution that guaranteed individual rights, religious freedom and amparo, or protection, to those who lived there.
15. Yucatán Houses 50% of the Bird Population of Mexico
The whole Yucatan peninsula is home to 546 species of birds, and 443 of those are guarded in the state of Yucatan alone.
With Quintana Roo and Campeche, Yucatan houses 50% of the bird population in Mexico alone. Here are the names of some of this birds:
- Loro Yucateco (Amazona Xantholora)
- Pavo Ocelado (Melleagris ocellata)
- Matraca Yucateca (Campylorhynchus yucatanicus)
- Maullador Negro (Melanoptila glabrirostris)
- Tapacaminos (Nyctiphrynus yucatanicus)
16. Yucatan is the Perfect Place to Cultivate el Cacao
Cacao, or cocoa beans, are the fruit from where the chocolate originates. The first plantation of cacao dates from even before the Mayans, and it was far from Yucatan, but over the years, the cacao became a product that was produced not only in Mexico and Yucatan but also all around Central and Latin America. The cacao beans were used as money in certain places and the honor of eating or drinking chocolatl, or chocolate, was reserved only for the mayan elite, and later as a treat for foreigners.
Even when Cacao is not original from Yucatan, the soil, and the weather conditions make this territory a perfect place to cultivate cacao, and for this reason cacao plantations on Yucatan are prevalent and perfect for international business. For example, Tikul is a plantation and a project between Yucatan and the famous Puratos Group, a Belgium Bakery and Patisserie. But Tikul is not only a cacao plantation, it also has an investigation center of cacao criollo (creole cocoa) to protect, develop and keep the national production.
The relationship of Yucatan with chocolate is one that originates centuries ago, and the tradition of eating and drinking it are still prevalent even to this day, specially on the “colder months” where people gather to drink it, and even eat it, as a tradition and for quality time between friends and family.
Yearning For More?
The Yucatan Peninsula is an amazing place, full of life and magic. What was the fact that you liked more about Yucatán? What would you do there if you visit it? Tell me what you think by leaving a comment below and let’s start a conversation!
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