The Yucatán Peninsula is the site of the Chicxulub crater, which was created by an asteroid about 6 to 9 miles (10 to 15 kilometers) in diameter. The impact, which struck around 65 million years ago, caused worldwide climate problems and may have triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs.
The origins of the word Yucatán are the subject of debate. According to Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, the name arose from a confusion. Cortés wrote that a Spanish explorer had asked a native what the area was called. Apparently he responded “Uma’anaatik ka t’ann,” which in Mayan means “I do not understand you.” Misunderstanding his response, the Spanish named it Yucatán.
The Cathedral of San Ildefonso in Mérida is the oldest church on the American mainland and the second-oldest in the Americas, only behind the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in the Dominican Republic.
The first Republic of Yucatán was formed in 1823 but rejoined the Mexican federation just seven months later. The second Republic began in 1841 and remained independent for seven years, before finally uniting with Mexico.
The Yucatán is famed for its troubadour music, or trova, which has roots in Cuban and Colombian rhythms. “La Peregrina,” (The Pilgrim) is one of the most popular trovas songs. Written by Ricardo Palmerín in 1923, the haunting song was commissioned by the Governor of Yucatán, Felipe Carrillo, for his fiancée, the American journalist Alma Reed. Tragically, the romance was ill-fated. Carrillo was shot dead by a rebel army while Reed was in San Francisco preparing for their wedding.
There are hundreds of Mayan archaeological ruins in Mexico, and the majority are found in the Yucatán Peninsula. Many of these impressive sites have somehow managed to stay off the tourist radar, including the spectacular ruins of Dzibilchaltún, Uxmal, and Cobá.
The only Mayan site that is listed as one of the new seven wonders of the world, Chichén Itzá is an incredibly well-preserved Mayan center that was once a major spiritual and economic hub. The steep Castillo pyramid dominates the complex, which also boasts stunning temples and Mayan ball courts.
The town of Puerto Progreso in the northern portion of the Yucatán Peninsula boasts the world’s longest pier. Originally just two kilometers (one mile) long, today it stretches more than seven kilometers (four miles).
The peninsula contains no rivers that run above ground, but has a complex network of underground rivers which have formed incredible caves and underwater sinkholes, or cenotes. Formed when limestone is eroded gradually over hundreds of years, cenotes are a popular place to swim, snorkel, or dive.
Habanero chili peppers are native to the Yucatán Peninsula and are one of its most popular exports. The habanero is classed as very hot and rated 100,000–350,000 on the Scoville scale, which measures spicy flavors.
Check out some more incredible cenotes you have to see while you’re in Mexico.