Dario Lopez-mills  /  AP file
Tourists enjoy the beach at Playa Delfines in Cancun, Mexico on Saturday July 16, 2005.
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updated 11/8/2005 3:12:47 PM ET 2005-11-08T20:12:47

Everyone has his or her own idea of the Mexico and Central American vacation. One man’s adventure tour through the Mayan ruins becomes another’s quest for the perfect beachside margarita. With some of the world’s finest dive and snorkel spots, plus stellar fishing, kayaking and other watersports, one could easily spend an entire trip probing the deep blue. Makes for easy packing, to be sure. Land rovers fear not, however, the region’s diverse landscape provides ample opportunity for fun on the ground, whether hiking through rainforests or logging bird species.

Accommodations range from tent camping to five-star resorts, suiting a variety of tastes and budgets. With short flying times and minimal entry requirements, travel to Mexico and Central America seems a breeze. Certainly a compelling and hassle-free way to escape from “real life” for a time. It’s no wonder then, more and more savvy U.S. travelers are wending their way across the border—and thanks to an up-and-coming real estate market, some are even calling it home.

Riviera Maya

With 125 miles of coastline, pearly sand beaches, the world’s second largest coral reef, ancient ruins, ecological parks and scores of other attractions, the Riviera Maya may capture more hearts than any other Mexican treasure. To be sure, this grand coastal region promises something for everyone.

The Great Mayan Reef woos divers and snorkelers alike, spanning the Caribbean from the Yucatan’s tip all the way to Honduras. A guided kayak or cave diving excursion rounds out a full day of fun in the sea. In addition, eco-park Xcaret entices with underground rivers, archeological tours, and evening performances celebrating local culture.

Another excuse to visit, the third edition of the Riviera Maya’s popular Latin Jazz Festival runs November 17-19 in Playa del Carmen. The three-day jam commands a lively assortment of entertainment from top local and international musicians—Iraida Noriega, Magos Herrera, Mint Condition, and others. Once an old fisherman’s village, today’s Playa del Carmen pulls a hip crowd with luxury and boutique hotels, bars, restaurants and dance clubs.

Cozumel

Scuba buffs already know Cozumel’s fantastic dive ops (Palancar, anyone?). In addition, upcoming festivals and celebrations offer a zesty display of local flavor.

On Independence Day (September 15), locals and visitors gather near City Hall to raise their voices in the traditional grito, or cry for independence. Fireworks and folkloric dancing follow, plus parades, games and plenty of local edibles. One week later (September 21-29), Cozumel celebrates its Patron Saint Michael with daily processions, religious services and art fairs. The festival culminates in a parade of local fishermen carrying the saint’s image down to the pier and sailing away, while onlookers throw flowers into the ocean behind them.

The Day of the Dead (November 1) and the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 1-12) pose more reasons to visit Cozumel throughout fall and winter. Plus, with increased flight schedules from major airline carriers, direct access to Cozumel is now easier than ever.

Pueblo Bonito (Los Cabos)

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Perched at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, Los Cabos seduces romantics and challenges sportsmen, with picturesque beaches, world-class marlin fishing, and premier golf courses. Two towns—Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo—anchor the majority of tourist activity, whether it be San José’s 18th Century charm or San Lucas’ modern flare.

The latest hot spot, the Pacifica resort area, houses the newly opened Pueblo Bonito Pacifica Holistic Retreat & Spa, Cabo’s first and only luxury resort dedicated to wellness and relaxation. Guestrooms’ clean, minimalist design reflects the resort’s philosophy of “luxury without indulgence.” Other healthy spa perks include watsu pools, beachside yoga/Pilates cabanas and Temazcal, plus a poolside meditation room.

Also in Pacifica, Pueblo Bonito Sunset Beach Resort & Spa recently unveiled its new 16,000 square-foot spa, the area’s largest with 22 treatment rooms. Guests relax in Jacuzzis and Swiss showers, or invigorate with a cold water plunge. Signature body treatments and massages complement the extensive menu.

Cancún

Cancún’s elegant beaches and five-star resorts often pass under the publicity radar, in favor of flamboyant collegiate coeds on spring break. In truth, this barrier island off the Yucatan ranks among the world’s most lovely (and sophisticated) travel spots.

For elite travelers seeking the ultimate vacation experience, JW Marriott Cancún Resort & Spa introduces their new Club 91. Designed as a boutique hotel within the resort, Club 91 offers an elevated level of service and amenities—staff assistance with travel plans, complimentary airport transfer, arrival gift, preferred golf and spa reservations, five daily food and beverage presentations, and more. Sleep connoisseurs peruse multiple pillow options on the “Sleep in Comfort” menu, while bathing beauties indulge in loofahs, aromatherapy treatments and masks.

Real Estate

As housing prices in the United States continue to escalate, investing in international real estate can be more affordable than buying locally. Not to mention, owning a beachfront oasis overlooking the Pacific does possess a certain air of appeal. Potential investors best study up on Mexican real estate laws and practices, as important differences do exist (for instance, most buyers purchase on a cash basis rather than financing through a home equity loan). Still, the Mexican housing market is open and ready for US business.

Cradled between the San Pedro Martir Mountains and the Sea of Cortez, El Dorado Ranch has piqued the interest of US investors since 2002. Today the 35,000-acre private development continues to grow, following strict environmental and density guidelines. Nearby fishing village San Felipe sets the mood for relaxation with margaritas and fish tacos. Residents of El Dorado know how to savor life, and appreciate the joys of beachside naps and perfecting their golf swing.

For something a little more upscale—classic luxury meets exotic, old-world charm at Estrella del Mar Golf and Beach Resort, just outside Mazatlán. Custom waterfront and golf course home sites comprise the bulk of the development, along with condominiums and a boutique hotel. Golfers appreciate the Robert Trent Jones, Jr. championship course, while plans for an equestrian center and stables, tennis complex, and spa further sweeten the deal. Easily accessible from the states, the country club community lies merely two hours-flight from Phoenix, and ten minutes-drive from the Mazatlán airport.

Belize

Soon-to-be retirees, Belize wants YOU. The Belize Tourism Board entices qualified persons to build retirement nests in their neck of the woods, with numerous financial incentives— including duty-free import of all personal belongings, plus tax exemption on pension payments or other income.

On Ambergris Caye’s northern Caribbean coast, Sueño del Mar residential resort community poses a tempting investment option, with one- and two-bedroom residences overlooking tropical pools and gardens. Sweeping veranda views, custom Belizean hardwood details, atrium entryways. Not a bad way to enjoy the golden years. A full-time concierge even promises to stock the refrigerator before owners’ arrival. Those who may be nervous about taking the plunge into second-home real estate can dip their toes in with two-month fractional ownership. Plus, long-term storage stows bulky gear and equipment, for light back and forth traveling.

Often deemed the world’s best dive spot, Belize draws divers and snorkelers galore, with 80-degree waters, a stunning barrier reef and visibility of more than 100 feet. Outdoorsy types find paradise here. Between diving, fishing, birding, kayaking, manatee-watching and the rest, the day hardly holds enough hours.

The next time you’re looking to cash in a few vacation days, or invest in something long-term, turn your gaze toward our southern neighbors. Rich with vibrant natural beauty and ancient indigenous culture, the Mexico and Central America region stands as one of the world’s historical splendors—complete with modern day luxury. Not a bad combo when you get right down to it.

Each issue of ISLANDS Magazine explores the most beautiful island destinations in the world, from tropical island outposts to the sophisticated gems of the Mediterranean. Our top-rate photographers and writers discover the quiet beaches, boutique hotels, and unique cultural experiences that make island travel unique.

Photos: Marvelous Mexico

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  1. Tempting Tulum

    The Mayan City of Tulum, Mexico is located on the Caribbean Sea coast of the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. (Ml Sinibaldi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. View from Palenque

    Tourists sit atop a pyramid in Palenque, set in the foothills of the Tumbal mountains of Chiapas Mexico. (Marco Ugarte / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Blessings in Chiapas

    A tzotzil child walks in front of the church of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. (Matias Recart / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Luxury in Puerto Vallarta

    The terrace on the Celestial Suite is seen at Hacienda San Angel in Puerto Vallarta. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Ancient stories

    This photo shows details of a Maya stone, relating the coming to power of governor Sir Jupiter Humenate and dated 613 AC, found in Tonina, Ocosingo, Chiapas. (Janet Schwartz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico magic

    Mexico City, the capital city of the nation of Mexico. (Diego Goldberg / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Musical Mexico

    A mariachi band play on a punt at the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco in Mexico City. (Danny Lehman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cool Cancun

    Cancun, Mexico is ranked as one of the top international vacation destinations. The beaches of Cancun have been completely restored following damage caused by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Travelers will find its newly renovated resorts, restaurants, beaches and attractions better and even more accessible than ever. (Business Wire) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Isla bonita

    The ferry landing on Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Isla Mujeres is a tiny island mere miles from the Yucatan coast, and feels a world away from Cancun's hustle and bustle. Isla Mujeres, thriving in its own tourism, manages to maintain the feeling of a small fishing village. (Anja Schlein / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Soccer and bullfights

    Estadio Azul (left), a soccer stadium; and Plaza Mexico, the world's largest bullring, in Mexico City. (Danny Lehman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Azure Cortez

    People kayak in the Bahia de Loreto National Park, in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. (Terry Prichard / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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