Mexico has always been portrayed to me as an amazing rural country with turquoise waters of Caribbean washing off the golden shores of the soft silk-like sandy beaches. Mysterious Mayan ruins were opening curtains to the forgotten past and I could no longer wait to experience it all myself.
The all-inclusive package I found seemed too good to be true – a five star resort, a business class flight – but since I have not been to Mexico and certainly never experienced pleasures of the all-inclusive arrangements, I decided to give it a try. How bad could be a long weekend spent in Playa del Carmen in a luxurious room of the RIU resort?
Little did I know
After landing at the Cancun International airport and going through customs, all travelers who booked their vacation with FunJet were picked up by a shuttle to be delivered to their hotels. It was about an hour ride and my stop was the last. While passing Mandarin Oriental, some other high-end resorts, and beautiful white villas of Playa, I could not help but imagine that my hotel must be the finest as it was the last on the drop-off list.
Wrong. Just like the business class travelers get to board first, the high-end resort visitors get to leave the bus first.
When I finally made my first steps towards the reception desk of the Riu Playacar, I told myself not to judge the book by its cover. It is a five start hotel, after all. I got the keys, a wrist chain and continued my journey to the room anxiously awaiting magic.
Have you ever visited a nunnery? No? Too bad, as it is a perfect description of my posh habitat in Riu.
Gloomy with bright yellow walls, cheap curtains, and paper-sand towels room was sarcastically screaming – first class. I could not even look at the bed as its dirty yellow (to match the walls) cover was not washed probably in years. I had no other choice but to drown my sorrows in the scent of vinegar with a twist of chlorine filling the air in the room.
Wait a minute, – I thought to myself. – I know what can possibly lift my spirits. Free alcohol! Many and many mojittos will change my mind and perhaps make my eyes view the room as a beautiful oasis.
Not unless you want to poison your blood, I would not recommend drinking at the Riu five star inn. Food and a choice of three restaurants (Asian, Mexican, and Steak) brought back memories of the Soviet vacation in a forgotten village by the Black sea where everyone had to eat porridge and drink compote.
I tried to let my reason take over emotions and justify the stay even when my attempt to have an evening guest on the Riu property almost ended up in the legislative clash between Mexican police forces and my inner world. That’s after I tried to explain in my broken Spanish that I am paying for my company’s drink and not planning on stealing any of the incredible sheets, foods, smells.
First class all the way.
I even told myself have I had three screaming kids and a hairy-back snoring husband, this place would not have seemed so dramatic. However, later, after exploring the rest of Playa, I realized I would rather rent a villa, prepare meals for the entire family, wax that husband’s back, and enjoy my vacation in a clean bright bedroom. Most likely, it could have been even cheaper.
Yet it is possible to have fun in Playa
As I was longing for a remedy not a depression, I decided not to let such little things to spoil my vacation. After a day on the beach, I got a cab and went on a field trip to explore the town, its famous 5th avenue, and tried to meet locals to experience Playa through the aboriginal eyes.
Downtown was full of visitors from all over the world, including my Alma Mater. My new Latin Friend whom I met at a local sushi restaurant was introducing me to the hidden Playa’s jewels. We ended up at Fusion (off 5th Ave), sinking our feet in the sands of the night beach, sitting in the little wooden chairs under a big thatched umbrella. An oil lamp on a small table was setting the mysterious mood and a British band was singing live in English, Spanish, followed by the traditional Mayan music, dances, and a miraculous fire show.
During the day I would explore beautiful beaches around Playa, buy silver jewelry and white handmade clothes at the local shops. An old white church located in the middle of the 5th avenue would offer a quiet wharf with a great view of the beach. I sat there taking a break from exploring the town, wondering about my karma that brought me all the way to Playa and taught how to appreciate simple things in life.
I would take a stroll in one of the neighborhoods in Playa to enjoy those beautiful white villas and suddenly stumble across an ancient Mayan ruins at a park that centuries ago served as a meeting point for travelers to Cancun and Cozumel.
Evenings I spent with the Latin Friend embracing the town at night. It seemed that Playa did not rest. It danced till sunrise (or 6 AM), then stopped for a brief moment just to wash off the memories of the previous night, dressed up in white garments and went on to enjoy the daylight with a Caribbean breezy kiss on its face.
I tried to keep up with the town’s pace. I would start my night with a drink at some local bar on the 5th Ave, then jump into a chic atmosphere of Desei, a lounge on the rooftop of Desei hotel, (5th Ave) to enjoy the view along with a B&W movie, carry on to the Huka restaurant (12th Ave), then a lounge above the sushi restaurant (12th Ave), ending my night at Sensi (off 12th Ave) All places are within walking distance from each other, allowing exploring the area all night long. I tried to avoid the overcrowded touristy places (Blue Parrot is a good example) that served cheap alcohol and were full of “all over the place” drunk faces.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that people did dress up with a taste. Muscular population would show up in jeans or white linen pants and the beautiful half of this world would stroll in dresses, skirts, or light pants. It is rather hot, even at night, so when preparing for a trip I suggest taking light garments, cute comfortable shoes, including high heels for the night, and not over-packing. Don’t bring crazy expensive cocktail dresses unless you are staying in Mandarin Oriental.
I would not worry about exchanging dollars for pesos as most places (even taxis) take dollars (or euros) and give change in pesos or dollars (if available). Majority of the restaurants, bars, and shops also accept credit cards. Don’t be fooled by “everything is so cheap in Mexico”. I’ve come to realize that Playa is far from being inexpensive, especially now with the weak dollar value.
Shopping is a whole experience itself, especially for those who love bargaining. For me it was more of a game – to win or not to win – and yet I did not mind saving a few dollars on those expensive jewelry purchases.
It is difficult not to notice that Mexico tightened its rules and regulations around the touristy towns making the nights safer for its visitors. I would not suggest drinking tap water, but I also would not be afraid to take showers, even at places like RIU, the five star inn. I was told that the sanitation systems have been improved within past years. Try to meet locals, especially those who once lived in the States. They are very welcoming and warm people. Only then you can learn what a true Mexican soul is.