The Mayan civilization had been around since 1500 BC, but it was in a stable decline when the conquistadores arrived in AD 1517, burning defiant warriors at the stake, severing limbs, and drowning and hanging women. Evidence of a distinctive “Mayan” style begins to appear four or five centuries before the Christian era, with the construction of ceremonial buildings, refinements in pottery, and quite likely, the development of the calendar. From AD 200 to 800 was the time of the greatest flowering: the temple-palaces of Palenque in Chiapas, of Tikal in Guatemala, and Copan in Honduras were built; the pottery evolved in delicate shapes and color; mathematics, the calendar, systems of recording (numerals and hieroglyphs) became more complex and efficient; and the crescent arts produced the masterpieces of Palenque, Jaina and Bonampak. Then, the vast centers were abandoned. Whatever the different reasons they had, it is believed that these people migrated northward and eastward to the Yucatan Peninsula, where they built Uxmal and the centers that surround it (AD 800 to 1000). It was the period of the 12th and13th centuries that the area saw a coalition of three important centers, Uxmal, Chichén UItzá and Mayapan, followed by a century or two of truce, and again a period of warfare during which intellectual and artistic achievement came to a stand-still. By the 15the century the Mayan-Toltec vitality was an extinguished.
Ironically, Yucatán offered neither gold nor fertile land, but it became a strategic administrative and military foothold, the gateway to Cuba and to Spain. Fransisco de Montejo’s military incursion of Yucatán took three gruesome wars, a total of 24 years. “Nowhere in all America was resistance to the Spanish conquest so more obstinate or more nearly successful,” wrote the historian Henry Parks. Some committed suicide rather than submit, while others fled into remote areas to hold against the Spaniards for over 100 years after the country was subjugated. In fact, the Maya were responsible for the deaths of more Spaniards than any other native community in the Americas-more than during the conquest of the Aztecs and the Incas combined.
By the 18th century, huge maize and cattle plantations flourished throughout the peninsula and the wealthy hacendados (plantation owners), left largely to their own devices by the viceroys in faraway Mexico City, and accumulated fortunes under a semi-feudal system. As the economic base shifted to the export of dywood, henequen, and chicle, the social structure -based on Indian peonage- barely changed.
The Yucatec, Today
Yucatán remains one of the last great strongholds of México’s indigenous population. To this day, many Maya do not speak Spanish, primarily, because of the peninsula’s geographic and hence cultural isolation from the rest of the country. Additionally, the Maya—long portrayed as docile and peace-loving—for centuries provided the Spaniards and the mainland Mexicans with one of the greatest challenge. As late as the 1920s and 1930s, rebellious pockets of Mayan communities held out against the outsiders, or dzulobs. Yucatecos speak themselves as peninsulares first, Mexicans second.
Largely because their geographic isolation, the Yucatecans tend to preserve ancient traditions more than many other indigenous groups in the country. This can be seen in such areas as housing (the use of thee ancient Maya thatched hut, or na ); dress ( huipiles have been made and worn by Maya women for centuries); occupation (most modern-day Maya are farmers, just as their ancestors were); language (while the Maya language has evolved considerably, is still is very similar to that spoken at least 500 years ago); and religion (ancient deities persist particularly in the form of gods associated with agriculture, such as the chacs or rain gods, and festival to honor the seasons and benefactor spirits maintain the tradition of the old).
The superb eastern coastline of Yucatán, which is washed by the exquisitely colored and translucent waters of the Caribbean and endowed with a semitropical climate, unbroken stretches of beach, and the world’s fifth longest barrier reef, which separates the mainland from Cozumel. The proximity of such compelling Mayan ruin sites such as Chichen Itzá, Uxmal, and Tulum allows visitors to explore the vestiges of one of the most brilliant complex societies in the ancient world without having to journey too far from their base. Yucatán offers a breathtaking diversity of other charms, too. The waters of the Mexican Caribbean are clearer and more turquoise than those of the Pacific; many of the beaches are unrivaled. Wildlife is another of Yucatan’s riches. Iguanas, lizards, tapir, jaguars, deer, armadillos, and wild boars thrive on this alternately parched and densely foliaged plain. Flamingos and herons, manatees and sea turtles, their once dwindling numbers now rising to Mexico’s environmental policies, find idyllic watery habitats in and above the coastline’s mangrove swamps, lagoons and sandbars, acres of which have been made into national parks. The capital accounts for about half of the state’s population, but the other half lives a village life of subsistence, maintaining conservative traditions and lifestyles. Yucatán was then and still is a largely agricultural state, although oil, tourism and the maquiladora , or in-bond industry (usually foreign-owned assembly plants), now play more prominent roles in the economy.