GETTING THERE: Most major U.S. airlines fly to Cancun, Mexico, from all three D.C. area airports, with at least one stop. Consider anything under $600 a good fare; a price check for this month shows a low of $475 and a high of $1,211. Apple Vacations operates daily nonstop charter flights (except Sunday) from BWI. Details: 877-USA-3000, www.usa3000airlines.com. Vacation Express also offers nonstop flights Thursdays and Sundays. Details: 800-309-4717, www.vacationexpress.com. Charter prices run $400 to $500 round trip.

WHERE TO STAY:

* KaiLuum II (800-538-6802 , www.mexicoholiday.com) offers a luxury "camping" experience 30 miles south of Cancun airport, just off Highway 307. Its parent company, Turquoise Reef Group, specializes in small, unique lodgings in the Yucatan, all of which are listed on the group's Web site. Doubles range from $85 to $140. (The easiest way to reserve any of the properties is to go to their Web sites and send an e-mail.)

* Zamas (415-387-9806, www.zamas.com) is on the water in Tulum's hotel zone, just south of the same-named ruins. No TV, and light is by solar power. Doubles begin at $45.

* Cabanas Ana y Jose (011-52-998-887-5470, www.anayjose.com), in Tulum's hotel zone, is a series of brightly painted stucco buildings grouped around a pool and the beach. Doubles begin at $75.

* Las Ranitas (011-52-984-877-8554, www.lasranitas.com) is the most luxurious property in Tulum's hotel zone, with prices much higher than resorts nearly as nice. Doubles begin at $170.

* Maya Tulum (888-515-4580, www.mayatulum.com), a former ashram, has kept the healthy vegetarian menu and yoga classes from its former incarnation. Doubles are $70-$85.

* Hotel Lunata (Fifth Avenue, Playa del Carmen, 011-52-984-873-0884, www.lunata.com) is a charming European-style hotel, marred only by music blaring from the bars on the street. Centrally located, about a block from the beach. Doubles begin at about $60.

* Playa del Carmen's Pelicano Inn (between Sixth and Eighth streets, 011-52-984-873-0997) is a low-rise on the beach, with 39 rooms and tiled floors. Doubles range from $53-$91.

* Deseo (Fifth Avenue and 12th Street, Playa del Carmen, 011-52-984-879-3620, www.hoteldeseo.com) features a pool that glows purple after dark and an entrance modeled on a Mayan temple. Doubles begin at $118.

* Qualton (011-52-984-877-4000, www.qualton.com) is a modern hotel on a private beach, with pool, in Xcalococo six miles north of Playa del Carmen. Doubles begin at $45.

* Villa Arqueologica Coba (800-258-2633, www.clubmed.com, 011-52-985-858-1527), less than a half-mile from the Coba ruins, is serene and lovely. The Club Med property overlooks a lake, and lobby areas have Mexican tile mosaics. Doubles start at $60.

WHERE TO EAT:

In the Tulum hotel zone, try the seafood or the fabulous wood-fired gourmet pizzas at Zamas (see above). Entrees are about $10. KaiLuum II has gourmet food served family-style at one seating each evening. You must make reservations by 1 p.m. because all of the food is bought fresh that afternoon. Dinner, with several courses, is $20. Lunch entrees (no reservations required) start at about $5.

Also in Tulum's hotel zone, Posada Margherita's is a small outdoor restaurant that features homemade pasta and freshly baked Italian bread, with entrees beginning at $9. Cabanas Ana y Jose offers fresh seafood and Mexican food in a screened patio overlooking the beach; entrees begin at about $10. The French owner of Las Ranitas has imported a Spanish chef and offers food with French, Spanish and Mexican influences. Entrees begin at about $12.

RUINS: Tulum was once a great city on the ocean; Coba is about 40 miles inland, on a good road that's easy to drive. Entrance to each is a few dollars. Few visitors get as far south as Muyil, but the ruins there are among the best in the Yucatan.

TOURS: The area is a mecca of water sports. Locals at the dock at Puerto Morales will take you on their own boats to a natural underwater preserve. For unique tours that can include snorkeling in underground cenotes, trips to villages and ocean kayaking, contact Alltournatives at hotel desks, or through the tourism office (see below).

BIO PRESERVE: Sian Ka'an -- Mayan for "where the sky was born" -- is a 2,800-square-mile bio preserve south of Tulum. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to monkeys, jaguars, pumas, ocelots, rays, crocodiles and 400 bird species. Consider a boating/walking tour with EcoColors (011-52-998-884-9580, www.ecotravelmexico.com). Avoid tour operators who are tearing up the jungle with four-wheel-drive tours.

INFORMATION: Mexico Tourism Board, 800-44-MEXICO. www.visitmexico.com; Riviera Maya, 888-604-6044, www.rivieramaya.com.

-- Cindy Loose