Marketed as Mexico’s Caribbean playground, the Riviera Maya is this and much, much more. Yes, there are sugary beaches, iridescent waters, coral reefs, bays frequented by nesting turtles and opportunities to experience every water-based adventure you can dream up. But there are also towering stone temples, vine-tangled jungles, eerie limestone caverns and an ancient Mayan culture that informs and infuses life in the Yucatán with its reverence for nature’s rhythms. And while the glitz and glamour of Cancun stretches ever southward, you can still find plenty of places in which to leave it all behind.

1. Explore the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

Photo by Fouque/iStock

As you slip through the mosaic of mangrove-lined lagoons known as Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, you’ll understand why the Maya called this lush landscape Origin of the Sky. The 1.3 million-acre refuge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an intricate ecosystem of islands and waterways that protects thousands of rare plants and an incredible 494 species of birds and mammals; your tally may include manatees, ocelot and water lilies.

2. Swim in a cenote

Photo by Fouque/iStock

Dive or snorkel in a cenote, one of the thousands of eerie limestone sinkholes that pockmark the Yucatán. Considered sacred wells, freshwater cenotes were the centrepieces of Mayan life, and many allow access to extensive underwater cave systems. There are hundreds of swimmable cenotes throughout the Yucatán peninsula; Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos are among the most popular options, or you can choose an ecopark such as Kantun-Chi.

3. Dine at Hartwood Tulum

Octopus at Hartwood Tulum, photo by Gentl and Hyers
Octopus at Hartwood Tulum, photo by Gentl and Hyers

Hartwood Tulum is an open-air, wood-fired kitchen run by a pair of former Brooklynites. Sourcing from the area’s traditional Mayan farms and the daily catch, the menu (which changes daily) features uniquely local ingredients like red avocados, baby pineapple and the chamomile that lines local roads. Try the octopus, whole roasted beet or pork ribs.

4. Visit Chichén Itzá

Photo by chuvipro/iStock

It’s a long drive inland (approximately two hours) to get to the pyramid of Chichén Itzá, but that’s not what you’ll remember about this ancient structure and its surrounding Mayan ruins (the second most-visited archaeological site in Mexico, after Teotihuacán) once you’ve visited. Climbing the pyramid is not permitted, but it’s just as impressive to watch the sun’s slanting rays light the top of this famous landmark at sunset or dawn.

5. Go turtle-spotting

Photo by Esperanza33/iStock

It’s sea turtles that first drew tourists to the crystalline waters of Akumal Bay, and it’s still the turtles that provide moments of pure delight as they nose along the sandy ocean bottom. Rent gear from the Akumal Dive Shop to turtle watch, then venture out to the coral reefs, still colourful with angelfish and home to numerous octopi, as well. If Akumal Bay gets too crowded, coral-strewn Half Moon Bay to the north may provide better viewing.

Read more: Where to Go in Mexico

[This story appears in the November 2016 issue of WestJet Magazine and has since been updated.]