The city is on the western side of Chetumal Bay near the mouth of the Rio Hondo, at 18.50° North, 88.29° West. Chetumal is an important port for the region, and Mexico's main port of trade with Belize.
In Pre-Columbian times a city called Chetumal was the capital of a Maya state of the same name which controlled roughly the southern quarter of modern Quintana Roo and the north-east portion of Belize. This original Chetumal is now believed to have been on the other side of the Rio Hondo, in modern Belize, not at the site of modern Chetumal.
Two hurricanes in the 1940s leveled the entire town; Chetumal was devestated a third time in 1955 by Hurricane Janet. After this the town was rebuilt with more solid construction, with concrete blocks replacing wood as the usual material.
The population of Chetumal was small (about 5,000 in 1950) until the construction of highways linking it to the rest of Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s; the city then boomed with substantial emigration here from other parts of Mexico.