Oaxaca City, Mexico

16th century cathedral in Oaxaca City, Mexico. (Mexico Ministry of Tourism)

If you're looking for a personal encounter with thousands of your closest American friends, you could do worse than traveling to Mexican hot spots such as Cancun or Cozumel. But you would be cheating yourself of the chance to experience Mexico itself.

You can do so safely, and with little more effort than you'd expend reaching a trendy Mexican resort. In addition to the easily accessed ruins, museums and markets in and around Mexico City itself, there's a host of culturally and ecologically rich destinations to the south.

Here's a few that I've particularly loved in visits to nine central and southern Mexican states during parts of three recent summers.

—Merida, Yucatan

Just a half-day drive from Cancun, Merida is a vibrant city of nearly 1 million that is the political and cultural capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan. One of the safest cities in Mexico, it's also an ideal home base for some great day trips.

But before venturing out of town, attention must be paid to Merida itself. History here truly runs deep: Merida's striking pastel mansions are built on the ruins of a Maya city. Its central zocalo, or main square, recalls southern Europe — and makes for great people watching.

The Ballet Folklorico de Yucatan offers open-air evening performances at the University of Yucatan. Mexico City's Ballet Folklorico is more elaborate, but it's also more expensive; tickets in Merida are only $5.

It's a steal. The vibrantly presented story that the ballet unfolds is steeped in Mexican history, reflected in dances and elaborate costumes revealing Spanish, French, Cuban, indigenous and Mexican influences. Men wave Cuban hats. Women wear elegant dresses that recall Mexico's brief French interlude. Mayan costuming hearkens back to a more distant and mysterious past.

You can take a piece of Merida home with you by visiting La Casa de las Artesanias, a state-run shop displaying the work of regional artists, many of whom produce traditional folk art. Jewelry, clothing, spices, and soaps incorporate indigenous materials.

Just 75 miles southeast of Merida lie the spectacular ruins of Chichen Itza, a once-powerful Maya city included among the second Seven Wonders of the World. For a modest fee, English-speaking guides can explain the significance of intricate stone carvings, the purpose of the various temples and pyramids, and the rules of the game once played on the ball court.

Minutes away by car, the Cave of Balankanche offers a descent into another world — literally, for the Maya, who viewed the caves as a sacred middle ground between the earth and the spirit world.

Today's visitors won't see ancient religious ceremonies, but they'll be treated to beautiful limestone formations on the walls and see the pre-Columbian artifacts that remain there. It's a moving but physically demanding experience because of the heat and humidity inside the cave.

All that exercise sets the table for a late lunch at the nearby Hacienda Chichen Resort (http://www.haciendachichen.com/), a spa hotel with an outdoor terrace looking upon a lovely garden. The specialty of this region is sopa de limon, a soup made with chicken, lime, and tortilla chips. It's delicious.

One can take an easier, family-friendly day trip by visiting a restored henequen plantation. A fiber extracted from agave and used to make products such as rope and sacks, henequen played an important role in Merida's economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

You'll learn this and much more through a tour of Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, a restored plantation about one hour from Merida; English-speaking guides are available and the hacienda will provide transportation from your hotel for an additional charge (www.haciendatour.com/index.php).

After completing the tour, which includes a demonstration of how rope was once made, only a short ride on a mule-drawn cart stands between you and a refreshing swim in one of the region's many cenotes: natural sinkholes filled with crystal-clear water. A chlorinated dip will never again carry the same appeal.

After a swim, lunch awaits at the hacienda's open-air restaurant, along with a gift shop featuring unique henequen products.

The quiet beachfront town of Celestun, 60 miles from Merida on the Gulf of Mexico and light years removed from Cancun's chain hotels, provides a respite from educational sightseeing.

In open-air restaurants like La Boya, tables and plastic chairs rest upon the sand, the beer is cheaper than the Coca-Cola, and tables don't get turned.