I have two words for the legions of college students and sunburnt snowbirds clogging Cancún's high-rise resorts: Adiós amigos! The best advice I got when I planned my first trip to Mexico's Yucatán peninsula was to get out of Cancún as fast as possible.
Drive south along Mexico's Caribbean coast -- also known as the Riviera Maya -- and you'll find a 75-mile stretch of quiet white beaches, turquoise sea, lush jungle, world-class snorkeling and scuba diving, and a region packed with wildlife and Mayan culture. What makes the Yucatán even more appealing is that it's so easy to get to -- Continental, Northwest, and other carriers have direct flights from major cities into Cancún daily. Yet another reason to like the Yucatán is the price: The sagging U.S. dollar still carries weight. (A great resource is the tourism board's Web site at rivieramaya.com.)
You need drive only 10 miles south from the airport to escape the hubbub. There you'll find remote resorts tucked a mile or so off the main highway, more often than not down bumpy, potholed roads. One of the best bargains is Ceiba del Mar Spa Resort (ceibadelmar.com), a small hotel and spa just 20 minutes from the airport. I recently spent a long weekend there with five friends. Within a day of lounging by the illusion pool that blends into the ocean, the pickiest of the bunch declared that Ceiba del Mar has the look, feel, and service of the super-deluxe Las Ventanas al Paraiso resort on Mexico's West Coast -- for thousands of dollars less. Double rooms start at $215 per night, including breakfast and dinner. Nearby Maroma is similar but more intimate and upscale (www.maromahotel.com).
There are many other lodging options, starting at $15 a night for a cabana with a hammock and a mosquito net. True spa junkies should check out the 22,000-square-foot spa at Paraiso de la Bonita & Thalasso (paraisodelabonitaresort.com), also a quick drive from the airport. More adventurous travelers (read: those willing to forgo cable TV) should consider staying south of the Tulúm ruins, about a 90-minute drive from the airport. The accommodations aren't nearly as plush; the beaches, however, are even more beautiful and unspoiled. Most hotels are solar powered, and air-conditioning is rare, but the sea breezes keep temperatures cool even when the thermometer hits 88F in May. Some Tulum favorites are Zamas (zamas.com) and Las Ranitas (lasranitas.com), from $100 to $250 per night.
All of these hotels are the perfect base to explore the Yucatán's treasures, including the Mayan ruins. The Maya, who occupied a swath of Central America from Honduras to Mexico from as early as 1500 B.C., were masters of architecture as well as mathematics and astronomy. Their legacy extends to several ancient cities inland, including the mysterious pyramids of Chichén Itzá and Cobá. Although Tulúm's ruins aren't as big or architecturally important, they sit in a postcard-perfect setting on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean.
CITY OF DAWN
Tulum, which means "wall" in Maya, is a walled city, one of the few the Mayans ever built. They called it Zama or "City of Dawn." Whatever the nomenclature, Tulum is majestic. It's no wonder hundreds of iguanas sun themselves on the rocks of Tulúm's gray castle above a palm-fringed beach.
Within a 10-mile radius inland from Tulúm, you'll find cenotes. The Mayans believed these freshwater springs surrounded by limestone walls were windows into the underworld. Take a dip in one, and you might see a manatee.
The Yucatán also boasts the world's second-largest barrier reef, which is why it's such a popular spot with snorkelers and divers. And, if you are in the mood to shop, Playa del Carmen -- about 45 minutes south of Cancún -- is packed with craft shops and restaurants.
Nature lovers should also check out the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, named a World Heritage Site by the U.N. in 1997. The 300,000-acre park, directly south of Tulúm, is home to more than 360 species of animals, including jaguars and crocodiles. The terrain is rugged, so it's best to visit on a guided boat trip for about $100 per person (ecotravelmexico.com).
Although the peak season ends in May, don't be scared off by the summer's intermittent showers. July is a perfect time to visit the Yucatán to see sea turtles lay their eggs on the beach. Even better, hotel prices fall by 20%.
In fact, soon enough the off-season might be the only time to visit. Tulúm, like other Yucatán beach towns, is getting discovered. But for now, nature prevails. As we left for the airport, a spider monkey jumped in front of our van and scurried off into the jungle.
By Lauren Young
Edited by Adam Aston