Many Canadians expect just a few things out of their winter trip to Mexico: sun, sand, tequila, cerveza, and, of course, a tan that’s deep enough to make your friends back home jealous. But an increasing number of travellers are demanding more from their snowy-weather getaway—they want to learn a little about a destination’s local history and culture, to explore what makes a place distinctive and interesting—and to come back with some added knowledge along with their tan and their duty-free purchases. If you’re seeking this kind of vacation, you will definitely find it if you travel to Riviera Maya. 

Stretching some 80 miles along the Caribbean coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula south of Cancun, the Riviera Maya (as its name indicates) was a major area of settlement for the Mayan people. Inhabiting the rainforests of Mexico and Central America, the Maya built a great civilization that dominated the region for more than 3,000 years. Famously advanced in astronomy, books, numbers and calendars (you may remember that the world was supposed to end in 2012 according to their calendars), Mayans built mighty cities and left behind giant monuments, including many temples, which stand to this day as a testament to both their power and genius. 

And many of these magical places are on full display to this day, including Tulum, one of few places in the world where your historical experience can be combined with some post-tour swimming and sun-tanning.

Perched atop 40-foot cliffs overlooking a small beach and the sparkling aquamarine waters of the Caribbean, Tulum includes more than 60 structures within its three massive walls. Perhaps the most impressive are the soaring pyramid of El Castillo and the Temple of the Frescoes, which includes a number of well-preserved paintings—some of which even retain their original color—of Mayan deities. 

Cobá is another must-see. Its central pyramid rising over above the dense jungle canopy to a height of almost 14 stories, this site served as the hub of a complex network of elevated causeways and roads that stretched to other Mayan sites as far as 60 miles away. You can still walk along these thousand-year-old causeways or even scale the temple pyramids, which provide stunning panoramic views of the site and surrounding rainforest. 

Cobá means “cloudy water,” an allusion to the many cenotes found in the region. The Maya believed these remarkable subterranean basins to be entrances to Xibalba, or the Underworld. Unique in the Western hemisphere and formed as a result of rain seeping through porous limestone, these pools feature amazingly clear water—in some, it’s possible to see almost 200 feet down. While the Maya used them as a primary source of water for agriculture, today they’re a marvelous place for some outdoor recreation—hikers can reach them via a system of trails, and swimmers and divers love to glide through their lovely, cool waters. 

Many cenotes can be found within the boundaries of perhaps the most significant natural attraction in the region, Sian Ka’an. Translated as “where the sky is born” or “gift from heaven” in the Mayan language, this 1.3 million acre Mexican national park has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The park contains a mind-boggling array of biodiversity, including forests, mangroves, marshes, and a dune system that stretches along 40 miles of coastline. In addition to the more than 1,200 species of plants, this reserve teems with animal life: 339 types of birds (including frigates, flamingoes and cormorants) and a stunning 103 species of mammals, from exotic cats—jaguar, puma, ocelot and others—to smaller animals like spider monkeys, tapirs and anteaters. Not surprisingly, the area is also home to almost two dozen Mayan historical sites, from ruins to a recently discovered 24-kilometre artificial canal. 

While a wonder, Sian Ka’an is also user friendly and welcomes visitors. Well-trained guides take guests on a little 6-seater, 23-foot “ponga” boat through a lush and beautiful world, passing nesting grounds, unexcavated archeological sites, termite mounds, grasslands and wetlands, stopping for refreshments at a Mayan temple, followed by full immersion in a canal, allowing the warm, gentle current to carry you downstream. 

And if you’re looking for adventures on—and especially in—the water, the Riveria Maya beholds the largest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere (and the second-largest in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). Covering an astounding 115 million acres, the Mesoamerican Reef hosts 65 different types of coral and more than 500 species of fish, including the biggest one of them all, the massive whale shark. You’ll also find other fascinating creatures, including several types of dolphin, salt water crocodiles, green sea turtles and the largest population of manatees on earth. Snorkel and dive excursions leave regularly from various points along the coast, carrying you out to the warm Caribbean waters where you’ll submerge yourself in a swirling underwater kaleidoscope of color, diversity and activity that you won’t soon forget. 

And after all this exploring, you will probably want to take a little time to relax. So it’s a good thing that in Mexico, the sun, sand, tequila and cerveza will always be waiting for you back at the beach (where you can get that tan that you need to make your friends back home very jealous). 

Experience it all at Sandos Caracol Eco-Resort and Spa

Set on a sugary white stretch of beach in the heart of the Riveria Maya (just 45 minutes south of Cancun and 15 minutes from downtown Playa del Carmen), this eco-resort is surrounded by a number of natural wonders, from cenotes to lagoons to mangroves (plus a few man-made ones, including an 18-hole golf course designed by Nick Price, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame). 

In addition to seven all-inclusive restaurants, the resort boasts a large cenote right on site and guests are encouraged to dive into its crystal waters, while resort guides also lead excursions through the surrounding jungle and to a nearby Mayan village. There’s also a 17-slide waterpark, kids club with video games, trampoline, bouncy castle and mini movie theatre for families. And the resort recently opened a brand-new adults-only Select Club, with separate pool, beach areas and eco-rooms located in 16 individual villas, plus a private oceanfront clubhouse with TVs, premium liquors and gourmet canapés.