Magic Maya: The Mexican Caribbean

It is the fine white sand and warm turquoise waters that have made Cancun a beach lover's paradise. Mexico strictly forbids the removal of any organic materials a beachcomber might want to collect, but visitors are free to stroll the 14-mile stretch of beach that wraps around the entire hotel zone. In Cancun, playas are always the perfect place for relaxation, water activities, and people watching. With over 250 days of sunshine each year, the best advice of course is to remember your sunblock.In keeping with the tastes and trends of the luxury traveler, Cancun has been steadily expanding its offerings of golf courses. Nine courses are now in the area, including those by famous designers such as Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones. Similarly, full-service spas - offering an array of body, skin care, and therapeutic massage services, plus steam, sauna and relaxation areas - are now available in many of the resorts.Often called the gateway to the Mayan world, Cancun is an easy base from which to explore Maya sites such as Tulum and Chichen Itza by day trip. At the southern end of the hotel zone, Ruinas del Rey is Cancun's largest historical Mayan site. Ecological parks and outdoor adventures like zip lines and ATV tours are also available in the area. Historic or modern, relaxing or adventurous, Cancun offers something for everybody.| Ceiba Del Mar Beach Resort & Spa Paraiso De La BonitaThese two beautiful resorts straddle the line of demarcation between Cancun and the Riviera Maya. Both are located beachfront along the quite Yucatan mainland, near the town of Puerto Morelos.| | * * *| | ### CozumelKnown for its natural beauty and relaxed pace, Cozumel has long been attracting visitors in search of something a little different. Its serene beaches, rich tropical reefs, and ancient Mayan sites have not disappointed.Boasting one of the world's largest chains of coral reefs in the world, Cozumel is among the world's greatest destinations for scuba diving and snorkeling. Strap on some fins to get an up-close look at the wide array of plant and animal life beneath the sea, including more than 500 species of fish. Twist and turn through the underwater caves and tunnels, or dip far below sea level with one of Cozumel's glorious dropoffs. The waters of Castillo Real are a must-see for dive enthusiasts, as they harbor several shipwrecks. Drift diving at Columbia Shallows is another unique scuba experience. Those new to snorkeling will enjoy the guided tour through the Chankanaab Lagoon, while sports fishermen (and fisherwomen) will enjoy a wrestle with a prized billfish in the offshore waters.

Chankanaab National Park offers snorkeling and outdoor activities, a botanical garden, the Dolphin Discovery interactive experience, and a sea lion Show. The Punta Sur Ecological Reserve is a 247-acre eco-park and nature preserve that harbors several of Cozumel's endemic species. For those curious to learn a little about the history Mexico, Cozumel's latest attraction, Discover Mexico, will teach them. This cultural theme park traces Mexico's pre-Hispanic, Colonial and modern times through replica buildings, interactive videos and documentaries.Maya historic sites on Cozumel include El Cedral, the oldest Maya structure on the island; Castillo Real, with its beautiful coastal ruins; El Caracol, where the Mayas crafted a wind-powered foghorn of seashells to warn of bad weather; and San Gervasio, an important sanctuary of Ix Chel, the fertility goddess, which attracted pilgrims from throughout the Maya world. Be forewarned, local folklore intones that just stepping foot on Cozumel makes women fertile. Ix Chel's prowess, apparently, remains.| Fiesta Americana Cozumel Resort El Cozumeleño Beach Resort| | * * *| | ### Riviera MayaStretching southward from Cancun to Tulum along the Yucatan Peninsula is a string of beautiful palmlined beaches abutting the calm Caribbean Sea. Not long ago, this area - save for the sleepy hamlet of Playa del Carmen - was home to little more than nesting sea turtles, sun-soaked iguanas, and forest-covered Maya ruins. Today, the "Riviera Maya" is a travel destination noted for its luxury resorts and spas, and the once-quiet town of Playa del Carmen has become a trendy hot spot for chic American, European, and South American travelers.With most development kept to low-rise and low-density and with an emphasis on ecological and cultural preservation, the Riviera Maya has largely retained its charm as a great place to hideaway and recharge.

Travelers can commune with nature and learn about the region's unique flora and fauna at several eco-parks in the area. An important port during the Mayan era, Xel-Ha today offers water sports, adventure activities, and Maya ruins. Yaax Che Garden is a botanical garden that incorporates the tropical plant life of Mexico with ancient Maya beliefs. Xcaret is an eco theme park that offers outdoor activities (don't miss the swim down the underground river), zoo-style wildlife exhibits, tours of Maya sites, and quality entertainment shows - including a recreation of the ancient Maya ball game.For a purely historical glimpse of the Mayas, head to Tulum to see the beauty of this walled city overlooking the Caribbean Sea. From its bluff-top perch, Tulum's El Castillo (the castle) is among the most recognized of all Maya ruins. With little shade and the occasional afternoon tours bus scene, Tulum is best enjoyed early in the day. Two other sites nearby offer the opportunity to explore ruins that are less touristy and more "jungle-shrouded." Just 15 minutes south of Tulum, Muyil features a blue freshwater lake.Roughly 25 miles inland from Tulum, the ruins at Coba are surrounded by a network of limestone roads built by the Mayas more than 1000 years ago. Coba includes an un-restored pyramid that can be scaled by visitors - an amazing spot for a picnic.Though all manner of water sports are available, not to be missed on a visit to the Riviera Maya is a swim - or scuba dive - in one of the regions many cenotes, which are openings in the limestone landscape revealing the freshwater river that flows beneath much of this area.The Riviera Maya also, of course, provides all the modern luxuries sought by its international visitors. Whether you're in the mood for an afternoon aloe vera body wrap or a holistic aromatherapy massage, the A-list spas in Riviera Maya offer soothing treatments to pamper guests. Golf has also come center stage recently with several new courses, including the championship links at the Mayakoba resort, which now hosts Mexico's first official PGA event. Clearly the Riviera Maya has come of age as one of the world's preeminent leisure destinations.| Bahia Principe Riviera Maya Occidental Hotel and Resort Grand Palladium Hotels & Resorts|