The youngest state in Mexico, Quintana Roo remained sparsely populated until the late 20th century when it burst onto the scene as one of Mexico’s top vacation getaways. It’s home to both Mayan ruins and resort areas like Cancun, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen. Despite the substantial growth in tourism, Quintana Roo contributes just 1.34 percent of the national gross domestic product, ranking it at 24 among 31 states. Tourism accounts for 91 percent of the state’s economy. After tourism, the most significant industries are agriculture, livestock, forestry, beekeeping and fishing.
Pre-Mayan cultures inhabited the Yucatán Peninsula as early as 3000 B.C. During the 10th century, a Mayan group known as the Itzáes migrated into the area and built the cities of Coba, Xcaret, Xel Ha and Tulum. They also founded Chichén-Itzá and Champotón nearby in what would become the state of Yucatán.
In 1502, members of Christopher Columbus’ final expedition became the first Spaniards to make contact with the inhabitants of Quintana Roo when they happened upon several native fishing boats off the coast. Nine years later, another Spanish ship came to the area and became stranded. Natives captured the survivors and killed all but two, Gonzalo Guerrero and Jerónimo de Aguilar, who were spared and assimilated into Mayan society.
In the first quarter of the 16th century, several Spanish explorers ventured into the vicinity of Quintana Roo without establishing any settlements. One of these conquistadors was Hernán Cortés, who landed at Chetumal in 1519 and rescued Jerónimo de Aguilar eight years after his capture by the Mayans. In 1526, King Carlos V authorized Francisco de Montejo to conquer the Yucatán Peninsula. For several years, Montejo fought the Mayans on both the east and west coasts, but he failed to pacify the region and abandoned the attempt in 1535. Later, his son would meet with greater success, founding the cities of Mérida and Campeche in the 1540s.
Coastal settlements came under frequent attack by pirates during the 16th and 17th centuries; Salamanca de Balacar, for example, was sacked and then abandoned in 1652. Despite the difficulties, the Spanish increased their efforts to protect their holdings because the Yucatán Peninsula offered the closest mainland ports for the valuable Caribbean islands.
When Mexico began its fight for independence from Spain in 1810, it found an ardent supporter in the young lawyer Andrés Quintana Roo, a native of Mérida. Quintana Roo was instrumental in shaping Mexico’s formal declaration of independence, and he served in a wide variety of legislative and judicial posts as the new Mexican government took shape. In recognition of his contributions, President Porfirio Díaz named the new state after Quintana Roo in 1902.
Following Mexico’s independence from Spain, national boundaries in the Yucatán region were disputed by Guatemala (also recently independent), Belize (a colony of Great Britain) and Mexico. The issue was finally resolved by the Marshall Saint John Treaty, which established the border between Belize and Mexico on the Hondo River at the southern end of Quintana Roo.
Throughout the 19th century, the native population of the Yucatán Peninsula frequently rebelled against the Mexican government. They were finally subdued at the beginning of the 20th century, and Quintana Roo became a separate territory on November 24, 1902, by decree of President Porfirio Díaz.
When the Mexican revolution started in 1910, the population in Quintana Roo was deeply divided. Those who held most of the political and economic power supported Díaz, but the Mayan descendants took up arms against the Díaz government. Although the Mexican army overpowered most of the indigenous rebels, it lost the larger war waged by Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, Francisco I. Madero and others. When Díaz was overthrown, Madero appointed General Manuel Sanchez as the new Quintana Roo governor, removing Díaz’s protégé, General Ignacio Bravo.
From 1914 to 1934, Quintana Roo was integrated with Yucatán several times. It was finally made an independent entity by President Lázaro Cárdenas, who served as president of Mexico from 1934 to 1940.
Quintana Roo Today
In the early 1970s (about the same time that Quintana Roo achieved statehood), Cancún, Isla Mujeres and Cozumel began to rapidly develop as tourist destinations.
Until 1970, Cancún was a small fishing settlement of about 100 Mayan descendants. Then, after a three-year study by the Mexican government and private interests, the area was selected as the site for an international vacation center. A building boom in the 1980s transformed Cancún into a major resort for tourists from the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
The Cancún area has expanded during the last decade, tailoring its attractions to many types of tourists. While Cancún features busy luxury hotels and beaches, the quieter, more relaxed atmosphere of Isla Mjueres is just a 20-minute ferry ride away. The ecological theme parks of Xel Ha and Xcaret offer natural trails, underground rivers, aquariums, a butterfly pavilion and Mayan traditional dance demonstrations, while Playa del Carmen boasts a classy European-style nightlife.
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Annual events draw visitors from around the world every year. Each spring during the week before Ash Wednesday, the Carnaval offers parties, parades and dancing. In May, a jazz festival provides free concerts showcasing world-famous musicians like Wynton Marsalis. November brings the World Cup Triathlon, where elite athletes compete in a grueling contest of swimming, cycling and running.
Facts and Figures
- Capital: Chetumal
- Major Cities (population): Cancún (572,973) Chetumal (219,763) Playa del Carmen (135,589) Cozumel (73,193) Felipe Carrillo Puerto (65,373)
- Size/Area: 19,387 square miles
- Population: 1,135,309 (2005 Census)
- Year of statehood: 1974
- Quintana Roo’s coat of arms uses stylized images to represent natural features. At the top is the sun whose rays correspond to the state’s municipalities. In the upper left corner of the shield, a snail’s spiral signifies earth. To the right, a star stands for heaven. The large panel at the bottom displays the Mayan symbol for wind. Thus, the four Mayan elements are represented: Day (sun), Night (star), Earth (snail) and Wind (three triangles).
- In 1902, the territory was named after a well-known lawyer, Andrés Quintana Roo, who was born in the city of Mérida in the neighboring state of Yucatán. He and his wife, Doña Leona Vicario, supported Mexico’s fight for independence.
- Even though Quintana Roo achieved statehood relatively recently, it has rapidly become a popular tourist destination, with attractions such as Cancún, Cozumel and the Mayan ruins at Tulum, Kohunlich and Cobá.
- Cancún is Mayan for nest of vipers.
- The state’s abundant fauna include deer, monkeys, manatees and alligators. This diversity arises from Quintana Roo’s four distinct ecosystems: the reef, the forest, the savannah and the mangrove.
- The Museo Casa Maya, a free ecological park in Cancún, houses spider monkeys, alligators, iguanas and sea turtles. The park also displays replicas of Mayan statues.
- The Palancar coral reefs were discovered by marine explorer Jacques Cousteau off the island of Cozumel in 1961; he subsequently proclaimed Palancar to be one of the world’s best places for scuba diving.
Cobá is home to several large temple pyramids. The tallest, known as Nohoch Mul, is 42 meters (138 feet) high. Most of Cobá’s major construction is believed to have been completed between 500 and 900 A.D. The majority of the hieroglyphic inscriptions date from the 7th century.
Cancún and Cozumel are the most developed, most popular beaches in Mexico. With 4 million visitors each year, Cancún is by far Mexico’s most-visited seaside destination.
The cities of the Riviera Maya–Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, Tulum and Cozumel–offer a variety of attractions that appeal to different types of tourists. While Playa del Carmen is known for its beautiful beaches and lavish accommodations and restaurants and attracts an upscale European clientele, Isla Mujeres, only a 20-minute boat ride from Cancún, provides a refuge for people seeking a more relaxed environment.
Cozumel, a much larger island than Isla Mujeres, measures about 38 kilometers (30 miles) in length and 16 kilometers (10 miles) in width. Its famous coral reefs make it one of the most popular destinations for scuba diving in the Mexican Caribbean.
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a small ecotourism and education center, is located near the Mayan Ruins of Tulum, south of Cancún. The reserve seeks to promote sustainable development in sensitive tropical ecosystems.