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Explore Mexico: Yucatán

The three states that comprise the Yucatán peninsula - Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo - are among the hottest and most tropical-feeling parts of Mexico, though they in fact lie further north than you might imagine: the sweeping curve of southern Mexico means that the Yucatán state capital, Mérida, is actually north of Mexico City. Until the 1960s, when proper road and train links were completed, the Yucatán lived out of step with the rest of the country - it had almost as much contact with Europe and the USA as with central Mexico. Tourism has since made major inroads, especially in the north around the great Maya sites and on the route from Mérida to the Quintana Roo coast, where development has centred on the "super-resort" of Cancún, the islands of Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, and, in more recent years, the once sleepy fishing village of Playa del Carmen . But away from the big centres, especially in the south, where townships are sparsely scattered in thick jungly forest, there's still a distinct pioneering feel.

Travelling around the peninsula, the changes in landscape are hard to miss. In Yucatán state, the shallow, rocky earth gives rise to stunted trees - here, underground wells known as cenotes are the only source of water. At the opposite end of the scale, Campeche boasts a huge area of tropical forest, the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, though this is steadily shrinking with the growing demand for timber and land for cattle ranching. The entire peninsular coastline is great for spotting wildlife - notably turtles at the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve in Quintana Roo, and the flocks of flamingos at Celestún and Río Lagartos in Yucatán - but the most spectacular, white-sand beaches line the Caribbean coast, where magnificent offshore coral reefs form part of the second-largest barrier reef system in the world.

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