By Paul Wildwood
An opportunity often afforded a travel writer is the chance to witness the growth over time of a secret hideaway into a full-grown travel destination.
While naysayers and purists will usually bemoan this transformation from small to large, the bigger issue is how well these destinations succeed at striking a balance between growth and authenticity, with the latter being the preservation of elements that attracted visitors in the first place.
Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, located about 45 minutes south of Cancun, represents one of those destinations that have seen rapid growth. I first visited Playa del Carmen in 1997, and found an abundance of world-class beaches, secluded cenotes (famed fresh water sink holes found in the area), and impressively preserved Mayan ruins. Along with plenty of cheap cervecerias and taco stands, this first visit made for a wonderfully authentic Mexican beach town experience.
Fast forward fifteen years, and this small beach town with under 10,000 residents is now a coastal city with close to 250,000 inhabitants. Where there were dirt roads, there are now paved streets. What was once a 4 block pedestrian mall in the center of town is now a mile-long entertainment zone. Beachfront resorts by the dozens can now be found along the Mayan Riviera from just south of Cancun down to Tulum, the site of very well preserved Mayan ruins, and a beach town in its own right that has seen a transformation into a mecca for wellness and spiritual travel.
Thankfully, what have not changed are the draws that appealed to me on my first visit. Those beautiful beaches are still such. The ocean here is abundant with marine life ranging from the green turtles and stingrays you can swim with in Akumel, to the thousands of species of fish, all easily accessible to visitors by snorkel or scuba, either from shore or by boat. The cenotes are still there to enjoy, with a few such as Ik Kil receiving over a thousand visitors a day, largely due to bus tours made up of a cruise ship clientele. The majority of cenotes, though, still offer independent travellers a secluded Blue Lagoon-esque experience, especially for those travelling via rental car.
The Mayan experience includes visiting the many archeological sites, most notably Tulum and Chitzen-Itza. Access to most sites has been limited recently due to the fragility of the limestone structures, but you can still climb to the top of the pyramid at Coba, where you’ll tower above the tree line with a birds-eye view in all directions. You can also visit authentic Mayan villages, such as Pac Chen, learning about the history and customs of this long surviving people. Yes, they are still around…what disappeared was their existence in the great cities which are now the aforementioned ruins.
So now that we’ve confirmed that Playa del Carmen is still at its core an authentic destination not to be missed, the question becomes where to stay while visiting. Two properties we love representing very different ends of the spectrum insofar as luxury resorts are concerned in the Playa del Carmen area are the Viceroy Riviera Maya and the Fairmont Mayakoba.
The Viceroy offers singles and couples a destination hideaway, in a jungle meets the sea environment. 41 villas dot the 6 acre property, with every spacious and elegantly appointed villa featuring a completely private patio and plunge pool, outdoor shower, and a high-ceiling thatched-palapa roof that resonates with the jungle environment. All villas are connected to civilization via a network of paths that cut through the jungle, directing guests to the beach, lagoon pool, fitness room, spa, and restaurant.
If you want to get off the grid for a few days or longer, this is the place to do it. If you confine yourself to the villa, you’re likely to see more spider monkeys and lizards than you will people.
The Viceroy has an attentive staff that does a great job of being unobtrusive when they are not needed. It’s also not uncommon to see no more than a handful of other guests on the property at any one time, since all are there for the same reason…to explore Playa del Carmen and its surroundings, but, at the end of the day, return to a place of tranquility. This in no way means that the Viceroy is a snooze fest. The beachfront here can get busy, with plenty of activities to enjoy, from snorkeling and diving off the private pier, to chilling at the beach bar. In the evening, the hotel often hosts sumptuous beach barbeques that draw diners from other resorts, as well as locals.
The Fairmont Mayakoba, in the grand tradition of Fairmont hotels, offers visitors everything one has come to expect from this top luxury chain. Situated in the newly built Mayakoba Beach and Lagoon area just south of Playa del Carmen, the Fairmont provides a selection of 401 rooms, casitas, and ocean front villas.
With 5 pools, 4 restaurants, an acclaimed PGA golf course, the renowned Willow Stream spa, and a wonderful Kids Club, ,there is not much left to chance here. Honeymooners to large family gatherings are equally accommodated, and whether traveling as a couple or with family in tow, an efficient club car shuttle service gets you and yours from room to beach, pool to restaurant, etc., across this 45 acre property. With a web of lagoons and streams on the property, there are of plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors on premise, from canoeing to kayaking to fishing. An excellent concierge staff can arrange everything for you for your travels off the property, from dining to excursions.
Of particular note at the Fairmont Mayakoba is the food. With so many options, it’s best to highlight one experience, this one from La Puerta, an elegant restaurant overlooking the main lagoon. Chef Lenin Zuniga, a 28 year old culinary prodigy in my mind, has help create a menu which utilizes local flavors and ingredients married with international flair and whimsy. Sampling from the “Mayan Tasting Menu”, favorites included the Quail in “Relleno Negro”, infused in Mayan spices, with a black chili paste, yucca chips, grated egg yolk and verdolagas, followed by the Surf and Turf “PokChuc” , a savory lobster annatto paired with dark beer marinated filet mignon, along with spicy chocolate sauce, local squash and chayote corn dumplings stuffed with chicharrón in salsa verde.
While on the subject of food, there are plenty of great restaurants in the Playa del Carmen area and broader Quintana Roo state. In no particular order, favorites include Como Como in Playa del Carmen, Zamas in Tulum, Imeldas in Akumel, and, the lunch lady at the Pac Chen Mayan village, where we ate tasty chicken, black beans and rice, empanadas, and more, for about $2 US.
So there you have it, after 15 years, Playa del Carmen still has much for all to enjoy. How you choose to get there, and where you stay, is up to you.
Viceroy Riviera Maya
Playa Xcalacoco Frac 7
77710 Playa del Carmen
Riviera Maya, Quintana Roo Mexico
Toll Free: 1.800.578.0281
Fairmont Mayakoba Riviera Maya
77710 Playa del Carmen
Km. 298 Playa del Carmen Solidaridad
Riviera Maya, Quintana Roo Mexico
Toll Free: 1.800.540.6088