Mar 092013
 

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, a low, flat limestone platform, is the most recently formed part of Mexico. The low topography, which is quite similar to western Cuba and southern Florida, is virtually all below 150 m (500 ft). The submerged western and northern portion of this platform is known as the Campeche Bank. The peninsula was connected to Cuba until the bridging section sank below sea level forming the Yucatán Channel. The west and north coasts are marked by lagoons, mangrove swamps and sand bars. The emergence and infilling of coastal lagoons in the southeastern and southwestern extremities of the peninsula have resulted in areas of marshland interspersed with remnants of the original lagoons.

Offshore to the east lie coral reefs. Most of the peninsula has shallow, highly permeable soils and virtually no surface water. However, underground water is relatively abundant. The peninsula is honeycombed with extensive underground cave systems, which are connected periodically to the surface via hundreds of natural sinkholes (cenotes). The ancient Maya believed that these cenotes led to the underworld.

Map of Yucatán Peninsula. Copyright 2010 Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula includes three states: Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. This region is the ancestral home of the Maya. There are about 800,000 Maya-speakers in Mexico, almost all of them living in this region. There are literally thousands of archaeological sites scattered across the peninsula, including many that are open to the public. Among the more famous are Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Calakmul (all three are UNESCO World Heritage sites), Tulum and  Coba. The city of Campeche (capital of the state of the same name) is also a World Heritage site on account of it being a walled city, one of the very few remaining in Mexico.

The state of Yucatán was important for sisal production. Between 1870 and 1920 the area experienced an economic boom based on the production of twine from sisal (oro verde or green gold). In order to transport the  sisal from the fields to processing centers and from there to the port of Sisal for export, plantation owners built an extensive (4500-km-long) network of narrow gauge railroads:

Quintana Roo is best known today for its tourism industry. The centrally planned resort of Cancún is Mexico’s leading tourist destination:

In Quintana Roo, 54% of the residents were born outside the state. These residents were mostly attracted to Quintana Roo by the rapidly growing tourist industry in Cancún and further south in the area known as the Maya Riviera. Almost 13% of Quintana Roo residents moved into the state within the last five years.

The Yucatán Peninsula has several important biosphere reserves:

  • Ría Celestún (Yucatán and Campeche): coastal region including important wetlands and drowned river valley (ría) with diverse fauna and flora, including flamingos.
  • Región de Calakmul (Yucatán): diverse tropical rainforests; the largest forest reserve in Mexico, with important Maya sites; ecotourism project.
  • Ría Lagartos (Yucatán): coastal estuary with diverse birdlife including more than 18000 pink flamingos as well as some 30,000 migratory birds.
  • Arrecife Alacranes (Yucatán): the largest coral reef in the Gulf of Mexico, and the only one in Yucatán state.
  • Sian Ka’an (Quintana Roo): coastal limestone plain, and extensive barrier reef system on Caribbean coast, with numerous archaeological sites; more than 4,000 plant species.
  • Banco Chinchorro (Quintana Roo): mosaic of open water, sea grass beds, mangroves, sandy beaches and coral reefs; more than 95 species of coral.

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