Oh, pretty, pretty Yucatán
History in the making since 65,000,000 BC
Oh, dear and quiet Yucatán. My hammock, a marquesita, and the afternoon’s fresh air… Indeed nothing ever happens here… Right?
As quiet as it seems, the state of Yucatán has been through a meteorite (yes, a meteorite), ice age settlers, Maya culture, colonization, caciques, pirates, emancipation, incorporation into the republic, independence… Oh, and the War of Castes.
Yes, Yucatán is that quiet cousin who went through a whole punk phase in high school.
The best part is that each of these phases has left a mark on the state, enriching its history and culture so that today we may enjoy its peace and quiet while we surround ourselves with its beauty.
So, let’s start from the beginning, or from start to finish… 65 million years ago…
The Chicxulub crater
Yes, the same one that ended the time of dinosaurs on Earth. Well, at least that’s what they say. The Chicxulub crater is located on the northeastern edge of the Yucatán Peninsula and has a diameter of 180 km (110 miles), is one of the most significant impact craters in the world. The meteorite that caused it had an estimated diameter of 11 km (around 7 miles) and was the same that caused the infamous dinosaur extinction.
To tell you the truth, there’s not much to see in this area as far as the crater is concerned since the direct impact happened on the water. However, one of the side effects of the impact and the debris is the hundreds of beautiful cenotes formed in its diameter and all around the Yucatán Peninsula. So next time you’re freshening up in one of these magical places, you know what’s a good story to tell your closest dinosaur fan.
The Mayapán League
Long before Batman got its vigilante crew together, Ah Mekat Tutul Xiu, leader of the Tutul Xiúes, established a peaceful alliance between the three most important Maya cities in the Yucatán Peninsula. The Tutul Xiúes, the Itzaes, and the Cocom were powerful and wise Maya people, and together they encompassed practically the whole of the Yucatán Peninsula and some areas of Central America.
You probably have heard of its main cities:
- Maybe the most well-known of the Maya archaeological sites since its acknowledgment as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Chichén Itzá is proof of the Maya wisdom, their astronomical enlightenment, their mathematical knowledge, and a marvelous testimony of their way of life. Though many different settlers came and went throughout its history, during the Mayapán League period (on Chichén Itzá’s splendor), the city was home to the Itzaes. This is the reason behind its name: Chichén (the mouth of the well) and Itzá (the water sorcerers).
- During this same period, Uxmal was home to the Tutul Xiúes. Their leader was responsible for the gathering of these cultures. If you’re wondering just how influential they must have been in pulling off this alliance, it should be enough to point out that they were also responsible for bringing the cult of Quetzalcóatl to the Maya culture. Uxmal has located around 60 km (35 miles) from Merida, and its buildings are among my favorites corresponding to Maya architecture.
- The city of Mayapán was basically the headquarters of the reunions of this league. It was home to the Cocom, who brought along a solid Toltec influence during this period. The power of this city was such that when the Mayapán League disbanded and the Itza were forced to abandon their city, the Cocom ruled all the North of Yucatán and, during their splendor, their population rose to around 12,000 people! Its headquarter/powerful city nature is visible in its city’s distribution and its buildings’ magnificence.
Nowadays, Merida is the most important city in Yucatán. It’s the state’s capital and has around a million inhabitants. Merida is also one of the safest cities in all of America and has hosted multiple international events.
Historically it’s equally relevant. It was founded in 1542 by Francisco de Montejo and a hundred Spanish families in an abandoned Maya town. From then on, it became an essential spot for colonization, and its relevance increased over time. That is why we can see colonial solid influences on its architecture.
Further on, now in independent Mexico, Merida became an essential site for the production and commercialization of Henequen. It’s important to point out that this period was called the golden age of henequen (also known as green gold). This resulted in an enrichment of the area. Progress was easily seen in public lighting, transportation, and other technologies that were still foreign to other states of Mexico.
This era of bonanza was another of the strong influences in the development of the Merida we can see today. During this period, there was a strong French influence on the architecture and development that we can still recognize today in certain places of the city, such as Paseo de Montejo.
Paseo de Montejo
- The most important avenue in Merida. Inspired by the French boulevards (specially Champs-Élysées), surrounded by big trees and filled with roundabouts. On this latter mentioned, you’ll find essential monuments that narrate the city’s history and state. On its wide sidewalks, locals and tourists tour along, enjoying the view of impressive mansions, museums, and beautiful buildings once occupied by the wealthiest characters of the city’s history. Besides, it’s a great place to find somewhere to sit and enjoy ice cream to recover from Merida’s characteristic heat.
Another important symbol of Merida’s advancement was the Cathedral of San Ildefonso.
Cathedral of San Ildefonso
- Also known as Yucatán Cathedral, was the first in all continental America (on land), being only second in age to the one in Santo Domingo. It was built between 1562 and 1598. Its history, just like Merida’s, was not exempt from adventures. In fact, during the conflicts of the XIX century, the cathedral was victim to multiple thefts, among which many artworks were lost and even an organ! The cathedral is still afoot and has been restored on different occasions, now displaying a pedestrian walkway “Pasaje de la Revolución” on its side, which results in a very attractive part of the tour.
One of the most important cities of Yucatán. Declared a Magical Town in 2012, Valladolid is filled with history in its streets.
It was founded in 1543 (also by Francisco de Montejo) and has appeared as a protagonist in some of Mexico’s historical events. This was an essential setting for the Maya indigenous during the War of Castes in 1848. This was where the Valladolid Rebellion happened (obviously) in 1910. If the date sound familiar, it’s because this was one of the first sparks of what later became the Mexican Revolution. In this rebellion, different groups stood up to the reelection politics of Porfirio Díaz.
Valladolid’s central plaza is set up in the traditional Mexican town way. A park in the middle is surrounded by colonial buildings, delicious places to eat, and of course, an imposing church.
San Gervasio Church
- Located right in front of the central plaza. Nowadays is admired by locals and tourists for its characteristic colonial architecture. However, the history of this place is often overseen. As it happens, in 1703, this church had to be rebuilt entirely for bloody reasons. After an unfortunate event known as “the mayors’ crime,” two characters took the church as a refuge while being chased by the townspeople who found them, desecrating the ground, and ended their lives. To forget this episode, the church was demolished and rebuilt.
- Later, in 1848, during the War of Castes, this church was a strategic setting for recovering the city. The top of the towers was used to place cannons, giving a vantage point to the defendants.
Another of the historic sites in Yucatán that you should not miss. Its relevance is a live display of the different cultures that have been a part of Mexico through time. It could be seen as a live timeline, and that’s why it is also known as the “City of three cultures”, since it gathers cultural inheritance from pre-Hispanic Mexico, colonialism, and contemporary Mexico.
- Izamal’s archaeological site remained a secret for a very long time. However, its historical relevance is evident; check this out: Izamal used to be known as “The city of the hills,” but why? If the whole Yucatán Peninsula is plain. Well, as it happens, before being discovered, the five pyramids of the archaeological site were entirely covered by vegetation. Their size was such that people just considered them to be regular old hills. The size of its buildings and the sacbé network (white roads used by the Maya) is a testimony of the importance of the city in its time, which is now estimated at around 550 AC.
- Probably one of Yucatán’s most iconic sites, and undoubtedly, the most iconic place in Izamal. Its characteristic yellow buildings contrast with the sky, making the image spectacular. However, it’s not only the colors that make it stand out. The closed atrium of the convent has 75 arches that form a stunning passage. The surrounding esplanade amounts to over 7,800 meters (over 25,000 ft)! This makes the Franciscan convent of Izamal the second largest in the world, only after the San Pedro Plaza.
As we’ve seen, Yucatán is now characterized by its beauty and tranquility, but boy, has it been through a lot. Luckily, we have the fortune of enjoying the state’s history through afternoon walks and comfortable cultural tours. Visiting historical sites in Yucatán is like enjoying a movie in more than three dimensions since you can be in the place where it all happened.
I most likely missed a lot of places that deserved to be mentioned above. Can you think of some? Let me know in the comments!
Luckily born in Mexico. Discovering the world through sports and art. Finding refuge in nature.