For the past 35 years Mexico's Maya Riviera mistook itself for a place that needed all-inclusive resorts and bars with names like Señor Frog's to impress visitors. Now it knows better. Outside of Cancún, a new batch of boutique bungalows and ecofriendly outfitters are attracting travelers less interested in cruising in a Bubba Tub at Wet 'n Wild than they are in splashing through the untamed Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. The 1.3-million-acre (526-thousand-hectare) park is a quilt of lowland rain forest and grassy savannas set against the ivory shores of the Caribbean. Round out a road trip there with pit stops at the Mesoamerican Reef and ancient Chichén Itzá, and enjoy the real mettle-tester: getting nose-to-snout with Sian Ka'an's 12-foot (3.7-meter) crocs.
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TOTAL MILEAGE: 373 (600 kilometers)
DAY 1: Mileage: 73 (117 kilometers)
Try the octopus (el pulpo) at Playa del Carmen's Tarraya Restaurant, owned by local fishermen.
Second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the 450-mile-long (724-kilometer-long) coral reef fringing the Maya Riviera is a trove of scuba sites—most just a ten-minute ferry ride from shore. Tank-Ha Dive Center leads trips to Tortuga Reef, a 60-foot-deep (18-meter-deep) soft-coral jungle swarming with stingrays, nurse sharks, and its namesake sea turtles.
DAY 2: Mileage: 11 (18 kilometers)
Before a Sian Ka'an croc hunt, paddle freshwater bays on a guided kayaking tour.
Within its tangled borders, Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve houses jaguars, spider monkeys, and a booming populace of American crocodiles. Get within snapping range on a nocturnal catch-and-release trek: While reserve biologists tag the crocs, you'll run reconnaissance to help locate and snag the beasts.
DAY 3: Mileage: 140 (225 kilometers)
Don't move: After a morning cenote dive, lazing away the afternoon on Tulum's white-sand beach is activity enough.
Centuries ago, in times of drought, the Maya people flung human sacrifices into cenotes to appease the rain gods. Today visitors go willingly into the flooded stalagmite- and stalactite-riddled caverns with Cenote Dive Center. Opt for Temple of Doom, a skull-like ring of three sinkholes with a ten-foot (three-meter) rope-swing drop to the waters below.
DAY 4: Mileage: 149 (240 kilometers)
The real-life Indiana Jones, Sylvanus Morley, stayed at Hacienda Chichen while excavating Chichén Itzá.
Staying at Hacienda Chichen Resort gives you VIP access to your own open-air history museum. An exclusive cache of Maya ruins are right on lodge grounds, and a private entrance grants access to Chichén Itzá's most famous sites. Rise early and you can climb the 79-foot-high (24-meter-high) El Castillo pyramid before tour buses hit the parking lot.
DO: Tank-Ha Dive Center ($70 for a two-tank dive; www.tankha.com); Centro Ecológico Sian Ka'an ($45 for a three-hour kayaking tour; www.siankaan.org); EcoColors ($99 for a seven-hour croc-tagging trip; www.ecotravelmexico.com); Cenote Dive Center ($100 for a two-tank dive; www.cenotedive.com)
SLEEP: Diamante K ($100; www.diamantek.com); EcoLodging ($95; www.ecotravelmexico.com); Hacienda Chichen Resort ($160; www.haciendachichen.com)