El Dorado Maroma’s private beach. Photo: Goran Vukajlovic
Tulum’s God of Winds temple. Photo: Armando Martínez Ibáñez
One of the new cush villas at the adults-only resort. Photo: Goran Vukajlovic
The largest of El Dorado’s two pools. Photo: Nan Wiener
A Chac-Mool—a reclining stone figure—atop Chichén Itzá’s Temple of the Warriors. Photo: Butch Osborne
Snorkel with sea turtles at Akumal, the Yucatán’s top dive spot. Photo: Akumal Dive Shop
You can be forgiven if the shopping mall of Cancún and the singles mayhem of Cozumel don’t appeal to you. But if they’re what have kept you from the Yucatán, a little penance is in order. The second-largest barrier reef in the world, which runs along the Riviera Maya, and the Mayan ruins nearby are too spectacular to skip. Both pull you into fascinating alternate universes, one under the water and the other far back in time. Just settle into one of the private, upscale resorts on the riviera’s southern half, and you’ll be within striking distance of the main attractions.
Among the resorts, El Dorado Maroma would be Goldilocks's pick—not so big that it's a zoo (only 72 rooms), but not so small that it forgoes all amenities (there's a spa, a gym, and a nightclub, plus a very friendly beach butler). El Dorado pitches itself as a place for couples, but that’s just code for “Your privacy and comfort are our main concerns,” which means no screaming kids or tacky pool toys allowed. It also means more cushy beds than you’ve ever seen outside a Sleep Train—on the beach, on your deck, around the pool—so you can experience as much of your vacation as you want in a horizontal position: reading, napping, or, if you’re one of those couples, uh, whatever (the beach beds have privacy curtains).
When you do finally see the reef, time virtually disappears as you swim through coral as vibrant as the pages of a children’s book (purple, orange, yellow) and among fish as bold in shape and color as works in a modern art museum. You can get close in a number of ways: Swim with the whale sharks, discover a cenote (the Yucatán boasts thousands), or sail on a catamaran to snorkeling hotspots where shaggy brown lionfish and fluorescent blue tangs parade through the crystal clear, 80-degree water. Snorkeling die-hards should shoot down a short way to Akumal, where tons of sea creatures (turtles included) are visible right from shore. (You can also hire a boat to venture farther out.)
At the southern tip of the riviera, another time annihilator awaits at Tulum, the pre-Columbian Mayan walled city that sits high above the sea. Walk the pathways that connected home to home; kneel outside the temple where people worshipped the Descending God; gaze off into the distance from the foot of the 25-foot tower, El Castillo, and you can almost hear the trade ships pulling into port and the merchants shouting greetings. How easily six centuries can slip away under the influence of some sun and a nimble imagination.
See the elaborate ruins of Chichén Itzá, the Yucatán’s other great Mayan attraction. It’s worth renting a car to avoid tour prices and must-keep schedules. The toll road will get you there more quickly if you’ve only got a day, but if you have an extra day, consider the longer, more scenic road that winds through Mayan villages like Valladolid and Ek Balam.