Ruta Maya in Chiapas, Mexico
Though it's still unfortunately best known for a bloody indigenous uprising two decades ago, Chiapas, the southernmost Mexican state, has since pursued a future based on eco-tourism. While traditional tourist hotspots like Acapulco seem increasingly ridden with violent crime, Chiapas today remains one of the safer places to travel in Mexico. Its flagship attraction is spectacular: a series of sprawling, ancient Mayan ruins littering the lush rainforest on the state's western side. The long-gone denizens of these once glorious cities were traders and, using the same circuits of waterways they once relied upon, modern visitors can head inland to explore. You''ll want to stay at Escudo Jaguar, a small eco-resort in the town of Frontera Corazol, run by the Ch'ol people – who are in fact descendants of those early traders. The cabins here, known as palapas, have soaring, woven-palm roofs and mosquito nets over the beds, so you can fall asleep to the throaty roars of howler monkeys and the hoots of owls coming through open windows. The property also overlooks the 620-mile-long Usumacinta River, one of the early Mayans' main travel routes, and still the only way to get to the ruins (unless you have a plane small enough to land on its narrow grass strip).
Riding 45 minutes downriver aboard a narrow wooden lancha will get you to Yaxchilan, a Mayan metropolis that dates from circa 250 to 900 AD, and which is adjacent to Palenque, occupied from the first until the early ninth centuries. Deeper still into the jungle is Bonampak, which remained hidden from the outside world for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1946. Wander the ball courts where ulama, the oldest game that involved a rubber ball, was played (the rules are not known, but it's believed the game was somewhere between racquetball and basketball – and possibly human sacrifices!). There are plazas, long, crumbling steps to the still grand palaces, where you can ponder the intricately carved stone slabs called stelae. All of this is beneath a towering rainforest canopy that fairly brims with monkeys and toucans — much as it would have centuries ago.
Back in current civilization, the Escudo Jaguar's restaurant (as well as a half-dozen others scattered along the winding roads between these sites) serves Chiapean cuisine, which features pechuga, or chicken breast, fresh cheese, and hot-off-the-griddle tortillas, along with traditional juice drinks, and a potent sugarcane-based liquor called posh. Fresh fruit abounds here, too – pineapple, papaya, and melon are served at breakfast and sold in markets in every small town, alongside exotic rarities like the slightly citrusy mamey and peach-like rambutan.
More information: Austin, Texas-based outfitter JB Journeys offers three-day, four-night trips which includes tours of all three sites with locally hired guides, transfer from Villahermosa airport, lodging, and breakfast. Direct flights are available from Houston to Villahermosa. [From $375 per person; jbjourneys.com]