25 Fascinating Yucatan Peninsula Facts to Know Before You Go

It can be interesting to read and learn Yucatan peninsula facts if you have an interest in Mexican history and culture, especially if you plan on spending any amount of time in Southeastern Mexico. This is one of the most unique and culturally-rich parts of Mexico and many of the people that live in this region today are descendents of the Ancient Mayans.

The culture and ambience in much of the Mexican Yucatan are so distinctly different from other parts of Mexico, that people that live here will often joke that it is almost like it is an entirely different country. There is some truth in that as at some points in history, it was! 

I have been living in the Yucatan capital of Mérida for the last few years and as a Travel Writer, I have made it my duty to explore this region extensively. In this post, I have compiled some of the most interesting Yucatán Peninsula facts that I have uncovered, which will hopefully aid and motivate you to learn and read even more about this special part of the world.

Yucatan peninsula facts: Parque Santa Ana in Merida
Yucatan peninsula facts: Parque Santa Ana in Merida

Table of Contents

25 Amazing Facts about the Yucatan Peninsula 

Yucatan peninsula facts: Baca, Yucatan
Yucatan peninsula facts: Baca, Yucatan

The Yucatan was once an independent nation

Before the Spanish colonization, the Yucatan was not a part of Mexico as it is today. It was its own country. 

The Yucatan has tried to become independent from Mexico several times throughout history and it was granted that wish when it finally became a republic of its own between 1841 and 1848. Unfortunately, the independence was not to last and the Yucatan would later rejoin the United Mexican States during the caste war.

Dinosaurs were wiped out by the Chicxulub meteor

Chicxulub (pronounced chick su lube)  is a sleepy coastal town in northern Yucatan. It is known for its gorgeous beach which boasts soft, powdery white sand and is bordered by translucent turquoise waters. 

The little settlement is home to a population of just 5,000 people, most of whom are involved in fishing and trade.

If you just happened to drive through Chicxulub while diving along the Ruta Esmerelda, you may initially feel that the town is nothing to write home about. However, this area is interesting because it was here where the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs hit the earth 66 million years ago. 

When the asteroid hit, it didn’t just wipe out dinosaurs, it actually caused mass extinction and wiped out 80% of all animals on Earth.

This is the same asteroid that is responsible for the creation of cenotes in Southern Mexico. While you cannot see the impact site of the Chicxulub crater as it is underwater, several dinosaur-themed attractions have started popping up in the local area. 

For instance, the Sendero Jurassico is a local theme park that exists to educate people about the different species of dinosaurs and is particularly worthwhile if you are travelling with kids. You can walk around the trails in the park, past large sculptures of dinosaurs, with descriptions of each one beneath.

In the nearby beach town of Progreso Yucatan, you can visit the Meteorite Museum which tells the story of the meteor strike in more detail.

Tucking into cochinita pibil
Tucking into cochinita pibil

Yucatecan food is one of the oldest cuisines in the world

Yucatecan food is very different from standard Mexican food. It is one of the oldest cuisines in the world and even predates many European cuisines. 

Many recipes that are used in the Yucatan today are the same ones that we used by the Ancient Maya centuries ago. In many cases, the same traditional cooking methods are also used. 

For example, dishes such as pollo pibil and cochinita pibil were prepared in an underground oven known as a “pib” and many Yucatecan restaurants in Merida still use these today.

Cochinita pibil is arguably one of the most famous dishes in the region and could be considered as being the Ancient Mayan answer to pulled pork. To prepare it, pork is marinated in achiote and orange rind and then slow-cooked until it is soft and tender.

Dutch Edam cheese, referred to locally as “queso de bola”/ball cheese is oddly popular in Yucatecan dishes too. After the Spanish colonisation of Mexico, Edam was one of many products that made its way onto the shores of New Spain and people developed a taste for it. 

Yucatan peninsula facts: cenotes are freshwater sinkholes in the Yucatan
Yucatan peninsula facts: cenotes are freshwater sinkholes in the Yucatan

There are over 7,000 cenotes in the Yucatan 

There are over 7,000 cenotes in the Yucatan and these freshwater sinkholes are wonderful places to swim in and explore. Cenotes are only found in southern Mexico and were formed by a weakness in the earth’s surface that formed after the Chicxulub crater smashed into the region. 

The word “cenote” stems from the Ancient Mayan word “Dz’onot” meaning “cavern with water”. There are a couple of “famous” cenotes that have become popular as a result of social media but the reality is that there are literally thousands of cenotes, many of which are seldom visited at all.

Particularly interesting are the Homun cenotes. There are more than 20 cenotes in and around this little town which experts have referred to as anillo de los cenotes (ring of cenotes). 

Some cenotes (like the one at Chichén Itzá) were used for human sacrifices or ritualistic purposes. Others were used as water sources and others were simply used for swimming and recreation. 

The Yucatan state is home to 6 pueblo magicos 

There are currently 12 different pueblo magicos in the Yucatan peninsula, six of which await in the Yucatan state. Namely, these are the settlements of Izamal, Valladolid, Sisal, Mani, Motul and Tekax.

Pueblo Magicos are Mexican settlements that have been recognised by the Mexican tourism board for boasting a particularly interesting culture, history, natural beauty, or gastronomy. There are currently 177 places with this accolade in the country, and new destinations are being considered every year.

Yucatan state pueblo magicos

Izamal is perhaps the best-known pueblo magico in the area but all six destinations with this title are well worth a stop during your Yucatan itinerary.

  • Izamal – A charming city whose buildings have all been painted yellow in honour of the Mayan sun god Kinich Kakmó. A pyramid dedicated to this deity is found here and is one of the only pyramids in the Yucatan that was not destroyed by the Spanish.

  • Sisal – A coastal town along the Gulf of Mexico known for being one of the best beaches in the Yucatan

  • Valladolid – Pueblo magico named after the city of Valladolid in northwestern Spain which was the capital of Spain at that time. Known for its 1545 church of San Servacio built by Priest Francisco Hernandez

  • Mani – Known for its meliponarios that produce honey from a species of stingless bee harvested by the Ancient Maya and known as “xunan kab”

  • Motul – Famous as the birthplace of the Yucatecan breakfast dish huevos motuleños

  • Tekax – Arguably the least visited Pueblo Magico home to some incredible street art murals

A lot of people are of Mayan descent and still speak Mayan

There are 68 different indigenous groups living in Mexico today and among them, they speak 68 languages divided into 350 different variants. One of them is Maya which is still spoken by over 6 million people.

Mayan speakers are predominantly found in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras and Yucatec Mayan from the Yucatan has its own distinguishable differences from Mayan spoken and used in other parts of Latin America. 

Many Mayan texts and objects were destroyed in Mani 

Most people are to some extent informed about the Spanish colonization of Mexico, although few are aware of how brutal that period in time actually was. Across the Yucatan peninsula and wider Mexico, the Spanish destroyed buildings, temples and important Mayan structures before then using their materials to build their own settlements and churches. 

But it was in the city of Mani that one of the largest burnings of texts and other important Mayan items took place. Friar Fray Diego De Landa was tasked with converting the indigenous people to Catholicism and believed their beliefs were the “lies of the devil”. 

He ordered the destruction of their texts and icons on the steps to the Xcabachen cenote. This action is one of the key reasons why there are so many gaps in our knowledge of the Ancient Mayans today. 

A caste war took place here between 1847 and 1915

A violent caste war referred to as ba’atabil kichkelem Yúum took place in the Yucatan in the 19th century when a group of native Mayans decided to revolt after years of oppression and abuse. At that time, a legal caste system was in place in the Yucatan.

This system recognised peninsulares (native Spaniards born in Spain) at the top of the caste, criollos of Spanish descent in second place, mixed mestizos in third place, and indigenous persons and African slaves at the bottom. The indigenous Mayans were forced to do back-breaking work for the Spaniards in Yucatecan haciendas, and eventually decided to revolt. 

The British initially supported the indigenous rebels and provided them with weaponry before changing their stance. Unfortunately, the Mexican government would go on to win the war against the Mayans, defeating their last stronghold in 1901. 

Creepy statues inside the Parnormal Museum Merida
Creepy statues inside the Paranormal Museum Merida

The Yucatan is home to the only paranormal museum in Latin America

One of the most unique things you can do in Merida is to visit the Paranormal Museum (Calle 63ᴮ 230 x8 y 10, Cortés Sarmiento). The museum is the only one of its kind in Latin America and is said to contain several items that are “cursed” or possessed. 

It is essentially the Mexican answer to the Warrens House Museum in the US. Each item is accompanied by an information plaque that tells its story. 

You can explore the museum and gain an in-depth understanding of each item and its story on a tour for 80 pesos per person. Notable items include dolls made using the same cut of fabric as the notorious Anabelle doll and dolls retrieved from the creepy Isla de la Muñecas (Island of Dolls) in Mexico City.

Yucatan peninsula facts
Yucatan peninsula facts

Once upon a time, the Yucatan was one of the richest places in the world 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Yucatan was one of the richest places in the world. The henequen plan (sisal) was grown and used to make natural fibre products like hammocks, bags and clothing.  

Sisal was in high demand and was exported across the globe. To satisfy this demand, wealthy Spaniards living in the Yucatan set up grand haciendas to live in and cultivate sisal from. 

Sadly, the invention of synthetic fibres saw the eventual demise of the industry. Many haciendas fell into abandonment, although many Yucatan haciendas have been converted into hotels over the past few decades.

The Mexican singer Pedro Infante loved the Yucatan and sadly died here

Pedro Infante, the beloved Mexican singer, and actor from Sinaloa loved the Yucatan state and spent a lot of time here. You can visit a cafe called Petropolys Cafe (C. 70 530, Centro) in the centre of Merida which he supposedly frequented regularly.

(There is a huge poster of him out front).

You can stop here in the mornings for classic Mexican breakfast dishes like huevos rancheros, or chilaquiles. Sadly. Pedro Infante died while flying an aircraft over Celestun. If you decide to visit the biosphere reserve in Celestun today, you can also tie in a visit to the small nearby museum dedicated to his life. 

Yucatan peninsula facts: arriving at Chichen Itza early in the morning
Yucatan peninsula facts: arriving at El Castillo, Chichen Itza early in the morning

Some of the most important Mayan ruins in Mexico are found here

Some of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico can be found in the Yucatan state and many can be explored as day trips from the city of Merida or from Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

Chichen Itza is arguably the most famous ruin of all and its Temple of Kukulkan is one of the most iconic images of Mexico.

The city has been UNESCO-protected since 1988 and in 2007, it was designated as one of the “new” seven wonders of the world. 

Chichen Itza is a very large site that stretches over 4 square miles and was once home to over 35,000 inhabitants. 

There are a lot of interesting structures and sites to look out for here such as the observatory and a stone platform carved with skulls known as a Tzompantli which just a short distance away from the Temple of Kukulkan. 

The skulls of enemies would be placed on the top of this in order to scare off enemy tribes and send an intimidating warning to any potential traitors. The nearby cenote was used to make human sacrifices.

The city of Mayapan is also worth noting and is often missed from most Yucatan itineraries. This was essentially the “last great” Mayan city as King Kukulkan II and his people moved here after the downfall of Chichen Itza. 

Visiting the ruins of Chacchoben in the Costa Maya
Visiting the ruins of Chacchoben in the Costa Maya

Mayan ruins are still being discovered in the Yucatan

Archaeologists are still constantly discovering and excavating Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. Some sites, such as Chacchoben in southern Quintana Roo, are only partially excavated and archaeologists continue to work around the clock to reveal their secrets.

In Summer 2022, construction workers stumbled across the Ancient Mayan city of Xiol when working on an industrial site on the outskirts of Merida. It was believed to have been occupied between 600 and 900 AD and to have thrived during the Late Classic period. The site consists of several plazas, palaces, and public buildings. 

Since so much of the Yucatan peninsula consists of dense, thick jungle, who knows what other ruins and treasures lurk beneath the surface?

Since there is so much jungle cover across the Yucatan peninsula – particularly in the southern part of Campeche and the Yucatan state, there are probably dozens more Mayan settlements waiting to be discovered. In 2023, new structures found at Oxtankah ruins were opened to the public, and INAH are working on excavating more than 26 other ruins found in the state of Quintana Roo. 

A boat on the Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve, Celestun
A boat on the Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve, Celestun

The Yucatan is one of the best places to see North American flamingos in the Americas

The gorgeous North American flamingo calls the Yucatan home during the winter season. Approximately 35,000 of these birds live in the Ría Celestún biosphere reserve between November and April before migrating east towards Rio Lagartos and El Cuyo.

If you are driving around the Northern Yucatan in the spring or hanging out on local beaches like Uaymitun, you may be lucky enough to see flocks of flamingoes flying overhead. 

The Yucatan capital of Merida is the safest city in all of Mexico 

The city of Merida is hailed time and again as being the safest city in Mexico. Not only that, but it is one of the safest cities in all of the Americas on the whole. 

Crime rates are very low, including petty crimes like pickpocketing and theft. Merida has as of yet managed to avoid a lot of the drug-related violence that is seen in other parts of the country. 

There are several theories as to why Merida is so safe. A popular running theory is that narcos and their families live here and they have agreed to keep Merida as neutral territory. 

That isn’t the craziest suggestion as there are definitely a lot of people with a lot of money in Merida. However, generally, it seems to be a cultural thing that again iterates how the Yucatan is very different culturally from other parts of Mexico. 

The police are generally better here – they patrol the streets and have a big presence, respond quickly to complaints, and there is a big sense of community. Yucatecans are proud of their home state and even outside of Merida, the Yucatan is a very safe place. 

The Yucatan is home to a supposedly haunted village 

There are a lot of abandoned places scattered throughout the Yucatan. One of the eeriest of all is the ghost town of Misnebalam. 

This little settlement sits on the road between Merida and Progreso. No more than 100 years ago, it was home to approximately 170 people who worked in the thriving henequen industry. 

The decline in this industry caused people to gradually move away. However according to local legend, so too, did the paranormal activity. 

This all started when the owner of Misnebalam Hacienda, Don Fidencio G.Márquez was killed while driving on one of the roads near the town in 1921. His killer was never found and according to legend, he has been seen wandering the grounds of his hacienda at night. 

As time went on, more spooky activity started. The ghost of a young boy who was apparently assaulted and killed named “Juliancito” has reportedly been running through the fields playing with a ball. 

So too, has the ghost of a headless monk wearing black robes. The final two residents left the town in 2005 and Misnebalam has fallen into an eerie level of abandonment ever since. 

Today, the area is filled with roads that lead to nowhere, and billboards advertising hotels and businesses that no longer exist. 

Summer is the rainy season

Summer in the Yucatan marks the start of both the rainy season and the hurricane season. So, if you are trying to decide the best time to visit the Yucatan, it isn’t necessarily best to travel during the summer months, as is the case with other travel destinations. 

Summer in the Yucatan sees daily temperatures soar above 104° F and the conditions are incredibly hot and humid. June also marks the start of the hurricane season here and sometimes, the storms can be so severe that they cause some flooding in certain parts of Merida, or knock out the power and internet in certain areas for days on end. 

Painting inside the impressive Convent of San Miguel Arcangel, Mani
Painting inside the impressive Convent of San Miguel Arcangel, Mani

Nobody is certain where the name Yucatan came from

Nobody knows for sure where the name Yucatan actually came from, although there are a number of theories about its origins. A popular one is the idea that the region takes its name from the Yuka crop which grows in this part of the world.

A second theory Is that one of the Spanish colonizers who first arrived in Mexico asked the native people what the name of their settlement was. Since they spoke different languages to each other, the natives replied that they didn’t understand. 

This sounded like the word Yucatán in their language.

Many unique fruits are native to this region

Many delicious fruits grow in Mexico and many are ones that you are probably already familiar with ( bananas, pineapples, coconuts, papaya, etc).

However, there are also many more fruits that you can find in the Yucatan that are only found here and in surrounding areas in Central America. Star apples, sapote negros and mamey sapotes are fruits that grow in abundance in the humid, tropical climates here and are well worth a taste.

The Cathedral of San Ildefonso in Merida
The Cathedral of San Ildefonso in Merida

Merida’s cathedral is the oldest in the Americas 

The Cathedral of San Ildefonso in Merida sits in the city’s main square (Plaza Principal) and is credited as being the oldest cathedral in the Americas. It was constructed between 1561 and 1598 and like many other churches in southeastern Mexico, was built on the site of an old Mayan temple using building materials quarried from Mayan sites.

Several controversial paintings inside the cathedral depict the indigenous Yucatan people paying respect to Francisco de Montejo, the coloniser of Merida. Only a handful of these paintings remain today as many were understandably destroyed during the Mexican Revolution.

The convent in Izamal is one of the oldest in the Americas 

The Convento de San Antonio de Padua sits on a hilltop just above the zocalo (Central Square) in Izamal. Construction of the site finished in 1561 and the convent is still in operation today.

It was built on the ruins of an old prehispanic building known as Pap Hol Chac.  it is one of the oldest convents in Latin America and the largest of its kind on the North American continent.

A few modifications have been made to the original structure over the centuries. Inside the convent, there is a beautiful Baroque-style Altarpiece covered with laminated gold that depicts various scenes from Jesus’s life.

The convent boasts a large atrium with four chapels, the church, the chapel of Indians, and the chapel itself with its upper and lower Cloisters. If you visit Izamal today, it is free to explore the convent and its courtyards. 

You might also be lucky enough to see some of the resident nuns hanging out in the gardens or enjoying their lunch on the convent walls.

The Yucatan produces the hottest hot sauce in Mexico

Everybody knows that Mexico is known for its hot sauce. It is believed that it was the Aztecs that invented this spicy condiment several millenia ago and today, dozens of varieties exist. 

Hot sauces are essentially a Mexican dining staple and are served with virtually every meal, street food eat, and even poured on snacks like sabritas (potato chips). Salsa Valentina and salsa huichol are perhaps too of the most beloved and common ones that you will come across but the spiciest hot sauce is the El Chile Habanero hot sauce that originates from right here in the Yucatan. 

Puerto Progreso is one of the longest piers in the world 

Today, the little beach town of Progreso, on the Yucatan’s northern coast, is a popular place for locals to head to on sundays when they want to enjoy some rest and relaxation by the sea. Its port (Puerto Progreso) is no great beauty, but interestingly, it is one of the longest piers in the world. 

Construction on the port started back in 1937. In the 1970s, it was an important place for the trade of henequin, honey, fish and gum. 

The pier was expanded in 1999 and today, it is a popular disembarkation point for tourist cruises that explore the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. 

More than half of Mexico’s bird population lives in the Yucatan 

The North American flamingo may be the bird species that attracts all of the attention from tourists but it isn’t the only one that calls this region home. Over 565 species of birds live in the jungles and cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula, and many are native to this area and not found elsewhere. 

The T’ho bird is perhaps one of the prettiest and most unique, and it has become something of a symbol of Merida and the Yucatan in recent years, immortalised on various street art murals across the area. This little bird, also known as a mot mot   

Other interesting birds to look out for in this part of Mexico include: 

  • Flycatchers/x’takay – beautiful yellow-bellied bird seen around Merida

  • Yucatan woodpecker/Melanerpes aurifrons – local species of woodpecker with a white and black striped back and red crown

  • Herons and egrets

  • Toucanetes

Several big cats call the Yucatan jungle their home 

Several species of big cats live in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula including the jaguar, the puma, the margay, the ocelot, and the jaguarundi. 

Jaguars live in the Yucatan jungle close to Lake Bacalar in the southern part of Quintana Roo as well as in the southern part of Campeche state close to Calakmul. Sightings are rare as the jaguars’ territory is becoming more and more significantly reduced due to constant developments in the Yucatan. 

This big cat is also very shy of humans. You are more likely to catch a sighting of the jaguar in remote parts of Campeche State very early in the morning.

Of course, these cats typically stay away from humans, but alarmingly, a jaguarundi was found roaming the streets of Cholul in September 2023.

Yucatan peninsula facts: sitting on a hammock on the shores of Lake Bacalar
Yucatan peninsula facts: sitting on a hammock on the shores of Lake Bacalar

Final thoughts on these facts about the Yucatan peninsula

Hopefully, you enjoyed reading these facts about the Yucatan Peninsula and they have inspired you to visit Southeastern Mexico if you haven’t already.

There are also many interesting non-fiction books about Mayan culture and the Mayan civilizations of Southeastern Mexico that you may enjoy. In particular, consider taking a look into the explorations in this region by renowned adventurers Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens who are credited with the initial discovery of many ancient cities in this part of the country. 

You may also enjoy reading these general facts about Mexico. Do you have any more questions?

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. As I mentioned, I have been living in the Yucatan capital of Merida for the last two years and I am happy to help out with any questions you may have.

Safe travels and have a wonderful time in Mexico.

Buen Viaje! Melissaxo

Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer based in Merida, Mexico and the Editor-in-Chief of Mexico Travel Secrets. She has over seven years worth of experience in working in travel media and has travelled to 57 countries, mostly solo. Throughout her career, Melissa has produced written content for several high-profile publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, the Huffington Post, Rough Guides, and Matador Network.

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