The Yucatan sticks out from mainland Mexico like a hitchhiker's thumb, as if trying to flag a ride further into a warm Caribbean sunset. The Riviera Maya, running along the peninsula's eastern coast south of Cancun, is pretty much there already.

The Yucatan sticks out from mainland Mexico like a hitchhiker's thumb, as if trying to flag a ride further into a warm Caribbean sunset. The Riviera Maya, running along the peninsula's eastern coast south of Cancun, is pretty much there already.

A world apart from the tumultuous, crime-ridden Mexico of the news, the region is characterized by astounding natural resources, remnants of a proud ancient culture and posh resorts populated by travelers from across the globe.

You might've heard about the all-inclusive buffets and intoxicating swim-up bars. You could go down, never leave your resort and be quite alright.

But another world awaits. Just miles from the manicured lawns and mango margaritas of the luxurious hotels are natural habitats that would take a lifetime to explore.

Here are three reasons adventure-lovers should make the Yucatan their next big trip.

Snorkeling

The Mesoamerican Reef winds roughly 700 miles from the northern tip of the Yucatan to Honduras, making it the world's second-largest reef system. To help you explore it, companies such as Adventuras Mayas run fun, affordable day trips perfect for beginners.

Mine stopped first at a calm, beautiful lagoon where it's normal to spot 30 species of fish, brain coral, eagle rays and hawksbill sea turtles. We then hit a cenote, a sinkhole fed by an underground river, where people dove from cliffs and rode a zipline into crystal clear water.

The final stop was an underground cave, home to stalactites, stalagmites and submerged boulders that descended eerily into the depths. Snorkeling through the abyss was one of the coolest things I've ever done.

If you don't have an entire day to kill, exquisite portions of coral lie just offshore at most resort beaches. Hotels generally rent equipment for free, but if you have your own gear, bring it.

Web: aventurasmayas.com.mx

Wildlife viewing

You won't have to go far to see the Yucatan's diverse animal life. Yellow-throated warblers flittered within the palm tree outside our patio, and green iguanas scurried across the cement paths to the buffet.

Yet there's much more to explore in the natural parks that line Mexico 307, the main drag south from Cancun.

Eco-tourism and environmental sustainability are becoming cornerstones of tourism in the region, and large tracts of land have been kept intact for natural wildlife.

A prime example is the natural resources park at Xel-Ha. This natural wonder's like an aquarium and terrarium that you can walk through and experience firsthand. You can bus through the trees to see macaws and orchids, swim with manatees or explore an apiary of rare stingless bees.

Web: xelha.com

Mayan ruins

Ancient Mayans were expert builders, carving the Yucatan's trademark bedrock into giant cities of stone. Both Tulum and Chichen Itza, the peninsula's two biggest temple complexes, make a great day trip. Each has its own charms.

Chichen Itza is bigger and has weathered the centuries a bit better. The city includes numerous religious and astrological buildings and an ancient ball court. At the center is the towering Temple of Kukulcan, a step pyramid dedicated to a snake deity.

Tulum, on the other hand, is a bit closer to many seaside resorts and is situated along the coast. Breathtaking views are framed by a background of lush, azure Caribbean Sea.

Numerous companies offer interactive bus tours to the ruins, often with a side excursion into a traditional Mayan village. They're definitely worth a day away from the beach.

Web: travelyucatan.com

Looking for an outdoor pursuit a bit closer to home? Click to the Ohio Adventure Map at columbusalive.com/venture.