the Yucatan Peninsula

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Essay On the Yucatan Peninsula

The Yucatan Peninsula in Central America separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea. Covering about 73,000 square miles, and mostly in southeastern Mexico. It comprises the states of Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo, Mexico; Belize; and part of Peten, Guatemala. Merida and Campeche, Mexico and Belize City, Belize are the chief cities of the Yucatan. The peninsula is largely a low, flat, limestone tableland rising to 150 meters in the south. To the north and west the plain continues as the Campeche Bank, stretching under shallow water 150 miles from the low, sandy shoreline. The eastern coast rises in low cliffs in the north and is indented by bays and paralleled by islands and cays in the south. Cozumel is the largest island. Short ranges of hills cross the peninsula at scattered intervals. The only rivers are those flowing east and northwest from Peten.

In the northern half of the tableland, rainfall is light and is absorbed by the porous limestone. The land has tropical dry and rainy seasons, but generally in the north the climate is hot the dry, and in the south hot and humid. The north and west are arid grasslands dotted with cacti. In the south are swamps and dense rain forests. Water for people and livestock comes from a maze of underground rivers and wells (cenotes) from which it is often pumped by traditional Mayan windmills, and from surface pools (aguadas). The main crop is sisal (henequen); fishing is also economically important. Tropical beaches, inlets, peninsulas, and offshore islands (the largest of which is Cozumel) are popular tourist resorts.

Most of the northern half, although covered with only a few inches of subsoil, is one of the most important henequen-raising regions of the world; the uncultivated area is under a dense growth of scrub, cactus, sapote wood, and mangrove thickets. Subsistence crops, tobacco, and cotton also are grown. Magnificent forests of tropical hardwoods in southwestern Campeche, Peten, and Belize provide the basis for a lumber industry. This area teems with tropical life, including the jaguar, the armadillo, the iguana, and the Yucatan turkey. Fishing is important along the Yucatan coast. Many of the peninsula’s fine beaches and archaeological sites have been developed for tourism, which is a significant part of the peninsula’s economy. Yucatan possesses large oil deposits, and Mexico in particular has developed a substantial oil industry.

Centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, from about the 1st century BC, the Yucatan was the seat of a great civilization. Probably the first Europeans to arrive were the two survivors of a Spanish shipwreck (1511)-Gonzalo de Guerreo, who joined the Maya, and Geronimo de Aguilar, who was rescued by Hernan Cortes in 1519 and became his interpreter. Later (1524-25) Cortez made an epic march across the base of the peninsula to Honduras. Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba had in 1517 already skirted the coast, and in the following year Juan de Grijalva had explored the same area. The battling with the Maya began in 1527 by Francisco de Montejo and continued until 1546, when his son, Francisco de Montejo JR, crushed the revolt of a coalition of Mayan groups. Mayan resistance to Spanish (and later Mexican) rule perpetuated into the early 20th century. Today a railroad (completed in 1957), a highway (1965), and air connections have facilitated access to the peninsula. Most people are descendants of the Maya and still speak the language.


Foster, Lynn L. A Brief History of Mexico.
New York, Facts on File.
1997, pages 118-120

Jermyn. Countries of the World.
Milwakae, Gareth Stevens Publishing.
1998, page 76

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