Yucatan Peninsula Mexico

The Yucatán Peninsula is a land apart from Mexico, and not only because it sticks out from the mainland like a hitchhiker's thumb. Today's Maya, whose ancestors waged a centuries-long battle for independence, remain Yucatecans first, Mexicans second. This "otherness" is one reason the Yucatán has largely escaped the drug violence plaguing other parts of the country; it remains the safest region in Mexico, with far less crime than travelers are likely to encounter at home.

Even so, the Yucatán offers all that is best about Mexico -- sublime beaches, a unique cuisine, joyous fiestas and exotic wildlife. Beyond Cancún and the Maya Riviera's enormous resorts lie inexpensive guesthouses on white sands shared only with scattered fishing families and near jungle villages where many Maya still live in thatch-roofed stone houses, sometimes among the ruins of great cities built by their forebears.

Those forebears, it should be noted, are innocent of the 2012 doomsday prediction attributed to them in recent years. It is true that one cycle of their Long Count Calendar ends sometime in December, but also true that an earlier cycle ended with no mass destruction or alien invasions. Today's Maya regard 2012 as a new beginning -- if they recognize it at all.

In the Yucatán, you could breakfast on eggs Benedict in your all-inclusive, climb a 1,500-year-old pyramid, cool off in a cenote (the Maya's "sacred wells"), feast on piquant recipes hundreds of years old, and bed down that night in a restored 19th-century hacienda. Better plan: Take it slow, spend some time with the stoic, dignified people whose culture is anything but a "lost civilization," and it will rearrange your perspective on the world.

Christine Delsol is a contributor to Frommer's Mexico, and Frommer's Cancún & the Yucatán. She writes the Mexico Mix column for the San Francisco Chronicle's website at www.sfgate.com/mexico.