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Cancunmayan civilization to modern oasis

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Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita

Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita

Trickling down the eastern edge of the Yucatán Peninsula, Cancun and the Riviera Maya will make it nearly impossible for you to hold onto your workweek stress. There are underwater caves and breathtaking Mayan ruins to explore. Waterways to kayak. And even if you choose to take it slow, grabbing a lounge chair in Cancun’s hotel zone and wandering the silky soft beach at the edge of the Caribbean Sea, it’s pretty hard to go wrong.

Cancun’s resort mecca is at one end of the spectrum, with a wide variety of resorts and restaurants. Newest here is Nizuc, with suites and private villas scattered among mangrove forests and sparkling white sand. Spend your time on one of two exclusive beaches, in the 30,000 square-foot spa or perhaps on the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course—but at the end of the day, enjoy a cocktail with a view of the turquoise water.

       
The Beloved Hotel.        

At the other end of the vacation spectrum, Isla Holbox is a laid-back island where you can escape even cars to wander the beaches and spy sea turtles and flamingos. Snorkelers and divers head here from all over the world to swim with behemoth (and toothless) whale sharks.

A small blend of the two is Isla Mujeres, with a bit of the chill factor mixed with resorts, beach clubs and opportunities for diving along the Mesoamerican reef system, the largest in the Western hemisphere, which curves along the Caribbean coast. The Beloved Hotel’s boutique all-inclusive property with two miles of beach helps you keep close to the water—whether you choose the three pools, wandering along the beach, kayaking, standup paddling, diving or deep-sea fishing.

On the mainland, head a short way down the coast to Puerto Morelos, which retains its fishing town ambiance, despite being a large port. From here, boat trips cruise out to Cozumel for diving and day trips. Make your base camp nearby at Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita Riviera Maya to enjoy convenient proximity to all the excursions you’d want (shoppers should include time in the streets of nearby Playa del Carmen) while also being able to escape from it all in an elegant suite with ocean views.

Farther south from Cancun, the Riviera Maya is where the legacy of the ancient civilization still holds strong. The stunning Mayan ruins at Tulum, on cliffs overlooking the turquoise Caribbean, will fire up your imagination about this Pre-Columbian walled city . Inland, the jungle ruins of Cobá will have you channeling Indiana Jones. Many of its structures are still covered by thick vines, and wandering the paths in the leafy green-filtered light reminds you that you are in a wild place.

       
A casita at Rosewood Mayakoba Resort in Playa del Carmen.        

More adventure awaits in the Riviera Maya’s cenotes—limestone sinkholes that were considered the gateway to the underworld. Don’t worry, there’s nothing scary about them. Instead, the serene water is an ideal place to swim, snorkel and dive, and they’re scattered across the region. One favorite spot for many is the Cenote Dos Ojos (two eyes), and it provides a very different experience than your water time in the Caribbean.

At the southern end of the Riviera Maya lies the vast Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean, with almost 1 million acres of land. The northernmost part of the reserve contains what is thought to be an ancient trade route through lagoons and mangrove channels between the cities of Tulum and Muyil about 14 miles south. In Mayan, the name Sian Ka’an translates into “origin of the sky.” Standing near one of the vast lagoons at the edge of the Caribbean, it can seem that there is nothing but sky emerging from the waves.

To stay within the Mayan realm, check in at the Rosewood Mayakoba, a luxurious waterfront enclave surrounded by a lush jungle just north of Playa del Carmen, where suites include rooftop sun decks, garden showers, individual boat docks and private plunge pools. Nearby, the seaside estate of Esencia once belonged to an Italian duchess, and settling into a beachfront room there may make you feel like it’s all your own. Don’t skip a treatment in the property’s spa, which mixes Mayan treatments with the more traditional. 


PUERTO VALLARTA AND RIVIERA NAYARIT

On the other side of Mexico, on the Bay of Banderas on the west coast of the Mexican mainland, Puerto Vallarta shows every stage of its transformation into a world-famous destination—from the cobblestone streets and adobe buildings of its colonial center to the towers of luxe seaside resorts. One of the best ways to begin your discovery of Puerto Vallarta is to wander through El Centro and linger at places that catch your eye. Start along the Malecón, the seaside sidewalk studded with amazing sculptures every few feet. “The Seahorse,” installed in 1976, has become one of the most recognized symbols of the city.

       
Hacienda San Angel in Puerto Vallarta.        
From here, streets radiate up to the hillside and are rich with bars and restaurants, art galleries, jewelry shops and clothing stores. Be sure to stop at the Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a crowned church that’s named after the patron saint of the city. For a feeling of old Puerto Vallarta, meander through the Zona Romantica, which is ideal for shopping and people-watching. Here, you can buy handmade huaraches, home décor and jewelry or stop in at a cantina and grab a cerveza. Another good spot for that beer is Playa Los Muertos. Chill out on the beach and watch the fishermen or other tourists—or snack on the stuffed shrimp.

One of the best ways to enjoy Puerto Vallarta in style (as well as a few blocks away from the action) is by checking into the Hacienda San Angel, located on a hillside in El Centro. Each of the 19 rooms is decorated differently, and all have jaw-dropping views, either of the hotel gardens or the surrounding city and ocean. An interesting historical tidbit is that Richard Burton once owned one of the five villas that make up the property. If you prefer to be in the center of things, choose Hotel Mousai, scheduled to open in November. The chic and lavish suites come complete with breathtaking views and private terraces, so you can enjoy some quiet downtime. Or head to the rooftop beach club with some of the best views in town.

       
Hotel Cielo Rojo in San Francisco.        

Stretching north from Puerto Vallarta is the romantic Riviera Nayarit, consisting of seaside towns and beach resorts along nearly 200 miles of coastline. Like Puerto Vallarta, the region’s location allows for water and mountain adventures—as well as the opportunity to simply enjoy time away.

The more remote towns of Sayulita and San Francisco (also known as San Pancho) draw those who want to escape crowds yet still prefer a full list of restaurants and variety of shopping options, from boho-chic boutiques to beach stalls. Be sure to score some of the freshest ceviche along with a surf lesson right off the beach in Sayulita. If you enjoy feeling like a temporary resident, check in to Hotel Cielo Rojo in San Francisco, located just an easy walk from town. Rooms sport a spare yet artful design and the palm-shaded courtyard is the perfect place for a postlunch siesta.

Equally beautiful, yet more secluded, is the community of Punta Mita, home to luxury resorts such as the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita. The full-service luxury at this casita-studded property makes you feel like one of only a few guests, rather than being packed into a high rise. For an extreme experience, treat yourself to the resort’s helicopter tour to the Jose Cuervo distillery for some tequila tasting.

Save time to lose yourself in the cobblestone streets of Bucerias, a traditional Mexican town complete with brightly colored homes and enormous wooden doors. Swing through the communal market to shop for items such as silver jewelry, handicrafts, clothing and traditional sweets. In the nearby fishing village of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, the focus is on the marina and the daily scenes of fishermen returning from the sea with boats loaded full of fish. Stay nearby at Matlali, a recently opened luxury resort with 40 private villas, a spa and beach club. Here, you’ll have the perfect balance of relaxation and integration into village life.


LOS CABOS 

Seemingly at the end of the earth, Los Cabos is at the southernmost end of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula. Often called simply “Cabo,” Los Cabos is two different towns linked by 20 miles of four-lane highway (called the Tourist Corridor) that skirts the Sea of Cortez. While both are convenient and optimal vacation spots, each has its distinct personality. In the south, festive Cabo San Lucas features nearly nonstop nightlife and bikini-filled beaches. In the north, San José del Cabo’s quieter pleasures lure those in search of a little bit of tranquility to balance the boisterousness. Even more tranquil are the surf enclaves along the Pacific Coast.

       
One&Only Palmilla in Los Cabos. Photo by Barbara Kraft.        
Those in search of outdoor adventure often choose the picturesque El Arco—a natural stone arch that’s the site of countless vacation photos. From the time gray whales arrive in Cabo early in the winter months through spring, whale-watching adventures take visitors out on to the water to see gray whales blow, breach and spyhop. Tours also allow views of groups of sea lions at Playa del Amante (Lovers’ Beach). If you’re a landlubber, you can also view whales from shore from the Pacific Ocean beaches near Finisterra.

The combination of the fertile feeding grounds of Gordo Banks north of San José and a marine canyon in Cabo San Lucas Bay makes Cabo a key spot for fishing. Boats set out from the San Lucas marina and the One&Only Palmilla Resort, where anglers head out hoping to catch dorado, marlin and yellowfin tuna. The resort’s whitewashed buildings and red-tiled roofs sit among palm trees at the edge of the peninsula, near San José. Every room here faces the water, with choices among villas and oceanfront and beachfront guest rooms with Mexican accents.

If you’re not into fishing, there are also surfing, snorkeling, diving, parasailing and kayaking options easily available from beachside resorts. Favorite snorkeling spots can be found at Chileno Beach, Playa las Viudas (Widows’ Beach) and Playa Santa Maria. Kayak and snorkel tours also head 60 miles north, to Cabo Pulmo Marine Park. The park stretches more than eight miles from the northernmost tip, Pulmo Point, to the southernmost tip, Los Frailes.

       
An aerial view of Capella Pedregal. Photo by Robert Reck.        

Get the feeling of being at the end of the world at Capella Pedregal, which sits at Land’s End—where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean. The beach resort is reached via the only privately owned tunnel in Mexico, Dos Mares. After a long day exploring the region where the desert meets the sea, you’ll want to relax in your private plunge pool. Also with easy access to Cabo San Lucas is Esperanza, where guests enjoy the resort’s private beach and ocean-view rooms. Weekly cooking classes give you a unique way to take your Cabo experience home.

Can’t decide between the two Cabos? Make your Cabo home base right between them, at ultraluxe Las Ventanas al Paraíso. In addition to the spectacular suites, oceanfront villas were recently added that include private swimming pools, full kitchens, media rooms and glass doors that open onto patios with outdoor showers, fireplaces and Jacuzzis. [Note: These and other resorts in Los Cabos were closed temporarily this fall due to damage inflicted by Hurricane Odile.]

Not only does the wealth of opportunities at these Mexican destinations allow travelers plenty to choose from on one vacation, it ensures that there’s always a reason to return—or try a new one.

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