For years, the Yucatan Peninsula was largely ignored by the rest of the country because getting there was so difficult (the only practical way to reach the area was by sea until 1949, when the first rail line was built). When the Mexican government began scouting sites for a tourist resort in the 1960s, the peninsula was finally recognized as a national treasure. Cancun, near the tip of the peninsula, is now the No. 1 resort in Mexico and comprises a sandbar lined with dozens of luxury resort hotels and an adjacent city on the mainland. From here tour Tulum's romantic cliff top ruins and the Coba Mayan ruins, featuring the pyrmamid of Noboch Mul with 120 steps. Go to the great beach at Xei-Ha sea lagoon, where you can swim and snorkel amidst exotic tropical fish, and Xcaret Eco-Archeological Park, a blend of ancient ruins, beaches and underwater caves. You can also fly to the awesome Mayan site at Chichen Itza.
The low-slung jungles of this part of Mexico-the Yucatan Peninsula-were first settled by the Maya, whose culture and elaborate temples (like those at Tulum and Coba) continue to fascinate archaeologists and casual visitors alike. By the time Cortes began the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519, the Maya culture was already in decline. But the conquistadores accelerated that descent with bloody battles and deadly European diseases. Eventually, the northern part of the Yucatan was settled by landowners of Spanish descent who used the Maya as workers. Though Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, decades of civil strife, dictatorships and instability followed.
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