This satellite image taken on Tuesday shows a swirl of clouds in the western Caribbean Sea associated with Tropical Storm Ernesto as it approaches the Yucatan Peninsula. Ernesto has become a hurricane with sustained winds of 130km/h.

Cancun, Mexico - Ernesto strengthened into a hurricane on Tuesday just hours before making landfall on the southern part of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, home to popular tourist destinations.

Ernesto had top sustained winds of 130km/h and was located 295km east of Chetumal, Mexico, the United States National Hurricane Centre in Miami said in its 2pm EDT advisory.

“I am only going to pack up my things but will not evacuate. Streets do flood but the water comes down quickly,” said street vendor Rita Lopez, 46, as some light rain sprinkled Chetumal. “This is normal, I don't think this one is going to hit very hard.”

Ernesto is forecast to arrive in the southern Gulf of Mexico, where state oil company Pemex has port facilities and offshore platforms, late on Wednesday. Pemex has said it was keeping an eye on the hurricane but there were no reports of evacuations or shipping restrictions.

Earlier on Tuesday, authorities from the Mexican state of Quintana Roo ordered the evacuation of 1 500 people in the southern portion of the state, known for its scuba diving and eco-tourism attractions.

“These are just precautionary measures,” said worker Francisco Velazquez, who led a group of five men wearing raincoats and wielding hammers and nails as they boarded windows at a government office in Chetumal.

While the eye of Ernesto is not expected to hit the region's major resort of Cancun, some rain fell in the area, which is packed with local and international visitors this time of the year.

Cancun, 380km to the north of the storm's forecast path, was devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma, the most intense storm ever recorded in the Atlantic.

“The centre of Ernesto is forecast to move across the Yucatan peninsula late tonight and early Wednesday, and emerge over the Bay of Campeche by Wednesday afternoon or evening,” the NHC said.

Hurricane warnings were extended northwards to the resort island of Cozumel from Chetumal and include the entire coast of low-lying Belize. A tropical storm warning remained in effect for the Atlantic coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua.

Mexico's top airline Aeromexico cancelled a late flight to the Chetumal airport on Tuesday and one more Wednesday morning due to the bad weather, the company's regional office said.

One cruise ship which was due to dock at Cozumel on Wednesday cancelled its visit and another was diverted to Veracruz, in the Gulf of Mexico.

Heavy rain hit northern Honduras early on Tuesday but there were no reports of damage.

Rainfall of 10cm to 20cm, and possibly 30cm in some areas, were expected over Belize and the southern portions of the Yucatan peninsula.

Belize's government said 175 residents of outlying islands had voluntarily moved to safer ground, and five emergency shelters were being set up to house evacuees.

August and September are usually the most active months of the Atlantic-Caribbean hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30. - Reuters