Table of contents
1 The Yucatán Peninsula
2 The State of Yucatán
3 The region of Yucatán
4 Usage
5 Pre-History
6 The Pre-Columbian era
7 The arrival of the Spanish
8 Independence, and the Turbulent 1840s
9 The Yucatán, Mexico

The Yucatán Peninsula

Yucatán is a peninsula which separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico. The peninsula is divided among part of Mexico (the Mexican states of Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán), the nation of Belize and Guatemala's northern territory of El Peten.


Other Mexican States
Other major citiesValladolid
Area38,402 km²
Ranked 20th
(2000 census)
Ranked 21st
Patricio Patrón Laviada (PAN, with PRD PVEM PT)
Federal Deputies (5)PRI = 3
PAN = 2
Federal SenatorsPRI = 2
PAN = 1
ISO 3166-2
Postal abbr.

The State of Yucatán

Yucatán is also the name of one of the 31 states of Mexico, located on the north of the Yucatán Peninsula. It borders the Mexican states of Campeche to the south west, Quintana Roo to the east and southeast, and the Gulf of Mexico to the north and west.

The state capital is Mérida. The state of Yucatán also contains the cities of Izamal, Maní, Motul, Muná, Progreso, Tecax, Ticul, Tizimín, Umán, and Valladolid; numerous towns including Celestun, Chemax, Kanasín, Oxcutzcab, Peto, Sisal, Tecoh, and Telchaquillo, villages including Xtul, and many important ruins of the Maya civilization including Acanceh, Ake, Chacmultun, Chichén Itzá, Dzibilichaltun, Kabaah, Labná, Mayapan, Sayil, Uxmal and Yaxuna.

The region of Yucatán

The term The Yucatán\ is also used to refer to the region of three Mexican states on the Peninsula where Maya culture was dominant.


In common usage The Yucatán Peninsula is used when referring to the geographic area; Yucatán when referring to the Mexican state; and The Yucatán when referring to the region of Mexico consisting of the states of Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo.


It is thought that the asteroid impact event which rendered the dinosaurs extinct occurred at the location where the Yucatán peninsula is today, centered on the current-day city of Chicxulub.

The Pre-Columbian era

Before the arrival of the Spanish in the area, the Yucatán was the home of the Maya civilisation. Archaelogical remains show ceremonial architecture dating back some 3000 years; some heiroglyphic texts date back to the Maya Pre-Classic era. Maya cities of the Yucatán continued to flourish after the Central Lowland Classic Maya cities collapsed; some continued to be occupied through the arrival of the Spanish. Many ruins of their cities can still be found on the peninsula, such as Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. Other important ancient cities were built over and continue to be occupied today, such as Izamal and Mérida (formerly T'ho). Many inhabitants of the Yucatán today are of Maya ancestry and speak Maya languages.

The lords of Chichén Itzá ruled the Yucatán for centuries until 1221 when revolt and civil war broke out. Not long after lords of the region set up a new capital at the walled city of Mayapan. Mayapan was capital of Yucatán until a revolt against the dominant Cocom family in 1441 resulted in the burning of the city; the Yucatán then broke apart into smaller states, which remained the situation until the Spanish conquest.

The arrival of the Spanish

It is claimed that the name Yucatán derived from a Native American language, and means "What did you say?" The (possibly apocryphal) story goes that when the Spaniards first waded ashore on the Yucatán Peninsula, they asked the Indians watching, "What is this place?" The local indígenas, not understanding Spanish, asked "What did you say?" The Spanish, in their arrogance, assumed that anyone would understand their meaning, and took it to be the name.

The conquest of the Maya city states took decades of long fighting. Three expeditions explored the coastal areas from 1517 to 1519, but no major effort was made to conquer the country until 1527 when the first expedition under Francisco de Montejo landed with Spanish crown authority to conquer and colonize Yucatán. While the chiefs of some states quickly pledged allegiance to the Spanish crown, others waged war against the Spanish. Montejo was forced to retreat from Yucatán in 1528. He came back with a large force in 1531, briefly established a capital at Chichén Itzá, but was again driven from the land in 1535. Montejo turned over his rights to his son, also named Francisco, who invaded Yucatán with a large force in 1540. In 1542 the younger Montejo set up his capital in the Maya city of T'ho, which he renamed Mérida. The lord of the Tutal Xiu of Mani converted to Christianity and became allies, which greatly assisted in the conquest of the rest of the peninsula. When the Spanish and Xiu defeated an army of the combined forces of the states of Eastern Yucatán in 1546, the conquest was officially complete.

a more detailed account: Spanish conquest of Yucatán

The Spaniards were granted land and natives to work it for their benefit. Preists and monks set to bringing the population into the Roman Catholic Church. The first Bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa, burned all the Maya books that could be located (saying "they contained nothing but the lies of the Devil") and surpressed any reminents of pagan beliefs with such vigour that he was for a time recalled to Spain to answer charges of improper harshness. The book he wrote in his defense, "Relation of the Things of Yucatán", is one of the single most detailed accounts of Yucatán at the time of the Conquest and of native beleifs.

While the Maya embraced Christianity, many took it on as an addition to rather than a replacement of Pre-Columbian beliefs, and some Chrisitan Maya continue to offer prayers to the ancient agricultural deities in addition to the Christian God and saints.

There were periodic native revolts against Spanish rule, including a large one led by Can Ek in 1761.

Independence, and the Turbulent 1840s

In February of 1821 Mexico achieved independence from Spain. On 2 November of that year Yucatán became part of independent Mexico. The State of Yucatán at that time included the territory of what is now the states of Campeche and Quintana Roo as well.

In 1835 a conservative unitary system of government was instituted in Mexico, Yucatán became a department, and authorities were imposed from the centre. Discontent increased and an insurrection erupted in Tizmin in May of 1838, advocating Yucatecan independence. In 1840 the local Congress approved a declaration of independence of Yucatán. At first Governor Santiago Méndez blocked it, saying that Yucatán would again recognize the rule of the central government in Mexico City if the Mexican Constitution of 1824 were reinstated. Andrés Quintana Roo, sent to Mérida in 1841 by President Antonio López de Santa Anna, succeeded in settling the differences and signed a treaty with the local government. But when Santa Anna later ignored the provisions of this treaty, hostilities resumed, and Governor Méndez ordered all Mexican flags removed from Yucatecan buildings and shipping in favor of the flag of the "sovereign nation" of the "Republic of Yucatán", two red and one white stripe, with a quincunx of stars in a green field. The Yucatecan Constitution was modeled in part on the 1824 Mexican Constitution and the Yucatán state constitution of 1825.

Santa Anna refused to recognize Yucatecan independence, and barred Yucatecan ships and commerce in Mexico and ordered Yucatán's ports blocaded. He sent an army to invade Yucatán in 1843. The Yucatecans defeated the Mexican force, but the loss of economic ties to Mexico was deeply hurting Yucatecan commerce. Yucatán's governor Miguel Barbachano decided to use the victory as a time to negotiate with Santa Anna's government from a position of strength. It was agreed to return Yucatán to Mexico so long as various assurances of right to self rule and adherence to the 1825 Constitution within the Peninsula were observed by Mexico City. The treaty reincorporating Yucatán into Mexico was signed in December of 1843.

Once more the central government rescinded earlier concessions and in 1845 Yucatán again derecognized the Mexican government, declaring independence effective 1 January 1846. When the Mexican American War broke out, Yucatán declared its neutrality.

In 1847 the so-called "Caste War" (Guerra de Castas) broke out, a major revolt of the Maya people against the Hispanic population in political and economic control. At one point in 1848 this revolt was successful to the point of driving all Hispanic Yucatecans out of almost the entire peninsula other than the walled cities of Mérida and Campeche.

The government in Mérida appealed for foreign help in suppressing the revolt, with Governor Méndez taking the extraordinary step of sending identical letters to Great Britain, Spain, and the United States of America, offering them sovereignty over Yucatán to whatever nation first provided sufficient aid to quash the Indio revolt. The proposal received serious attention in Washington, D.C, the Yucatecan ambassador was received by US President James K. Polk and the matter was debated in the Congress, with no action taken other than an invocation of the Monroe Doctrine to warn off any European power from interfering in the peninsula.

After the end of the Mexican American War, Governor Barbachano appealed to Mexican President José Joaquín de Herrera for help in suppressing the revolt, and in exchange Yucatán again recognized the central government's authority. Yucatán was again reunited with Mexico on 17 August, 1848.

Frequent skirmishes and occasional large battles between the forces of the Yucatecan government and independent Maya of the eastern part of the peninsula continued through 1901, when the Mexican army occupied the Maya capital of Chan Santa Cruz. Some Maya communities in Quintana Roo continued to refuse to acknowledge Ladino or Mexican sovereignty as late as the 1910s.

a more detailed account: Caste War of Yucatán

The Yucatán
Map from the 1910s

The Yucatán, Mexico

In 1857 Campeche broke off from Yucatán to become a separate state. On 24 November, 1902, President Porfirio Díaz proclaimed the creation of the territory of Quintana Roo, separating that territory from the state of Yucatán.

Sisal for making rope was the major export crop of Yucatán. The region prospered from this lucrative crop until alternative rope materials came into wider use after World War I. The decades of the Sisal boom was a fairly progressive era for Yucatán; the city of Mérida had electric streetlights and trolley cars before Mexico City.

Until the mid 20th century most of Yucatán's contact with the outside world was by sea; trade with the USA and Cuba was sometimes more significant than that with the rest of Mexico. In the 1950s the Yucatán was linked to the rest of Mexico by railway, followed by highway in the 1960s, ending the region's comparative isolation.

Commercial jet airplanes began arriving in Mérida in the 1960s, and additional international airports were built first in Cozumel and then in the new planned resort community of Cancún in the 1980s, making tourism a major force in the area's economy.