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Playa del Carmen

4.30.17
- THE MAYAN RIVIERA


My first trip to the Yucatan Peninsula was more than 35 years ago. Fresh out of college, with my first real boyfriend, we spent a week at Club Med Cancun, Stumbling on a whole new world of freedom and adventure, we met a couple of lesbian physicians, who took us snorkeling after lunch one day, all of us sans brassieres. But, I digress.

We took an excursion to a wonderful Mayan ruin site, on the beach in Tulum, approximately 1 hour south of Cancun. With the turquoise waters of the Caribbean as backdrop, dozens of “buildings” and temples all encased in a limestone-walled city made for a magical experience. We were too young to appreciate it, as we climbed atop the steps of the Temple of the Wind God, a stunning structure, which is the focal point of the site. There were few tourists around; we had time to snap pictures inside and around these ancient structuress.

These days, things have changed. Playa del Carmen exists today, where nothing stood 35 years ago. Playa, as the locals call her, was merely a pier with a few boats to Cozumel, shacks and tents of support businesses and souvenir shops clustered about. Today, it is a bustling resort, inhabited by sun worshippers form all over the world. It is just as easy to exchange euros as dollars. Starbucks has 7 stores in this region, Walmart, Home Depot, Cartier and Sephora are all here. But I am getting ahead. Focus Julie, focus.

Let’s start this journey with my arrival in Cancun, smack dab in the middle of Spring Break, 2017. And no, I did not arrive by cruise ship.

Rather than stay in the hotel zone for a single, stopover night before pushing on to me destination deep in the Mayan Riviera, I decided to try the “local” scene, in city centro, Cancun. It was easy to find a hotel bargain in the downtown section, and I certainly did at $40 a night. It was gritty, without any of the amenities reserved for the touristas that fill the resort hotels here. It was even a bit intimidating. But, it was clean, with wifi, and close to 2 gay bars that exist in the city. And I was headed out!

I got on my device and quickly learned one of the clubs, 11:11 Club was only open on the weekend. So it was to be Laser Fun Club, and the crowd was a late one. Yippeeee!

Personally, there is nothing better than getting out in a new town the very night you arrive, I enjoy hitting the streets early, hanging with the local crowd, learning about things up close and personal. But given that the place didn’t even open until 10pm, I did all I could to wait until 11:30 to step out. Uber is alive and well in Mexico, and a ridiculously cheap $2 ride took me to the place.

Alas, even at 11:30, I was the only patron there. But there were a number of staff, including 3 waiters, 2 doormen, 3 busboys, 2 bartenders, a dj and a manager, I got the feeling things might just pick up. The bar was small, with a stage and dance floor, as well as a fantastic smoking patio, in the front, where I could monitor the arrivals.

Laser Fun Club is a drag bar, with big shows, and by 1 am, some 10 drag queens, along with their entourages (make-up, costume, fluffer, mother, boyfriend?), filed into the club. By now there were some other patrons, and I met a man from Brisbane, on his way back home to Australia, after touring Cuba for 2 weeks. He was back in City Centro after having an amazing time at 11:11 Club at the beginning of his trip.

Before too much longer, the lip-synching had begun, and the bar was roaring. The 5 or 6 tequila shots I had been sipping, conspired with the couple of beer chasers I forced down, to bring me to that requisite Mexican vacay moment, OLE! I was having a ball. Bar staff hustled plates of chips, queso and pico, along with other foods brought by guests in a sort of pot luck celebration to celebrate someone’s birthday, or maybe the fact it was Wednesday. It mattered little, and was charming, and festive, and great fun.

Thursday morning came too fast, and by noon I was in a car heading south to Playa. Both Uber and the taxis have the same rates to travel the 1 hour south-about $35.00. There is only one road that cuts through the jungle that flows down to the coast. Along the way we passed grand entrances to the more than 40 resorts that now line the path from Cancun down to Playa.

These are the kind of resorts where once there, you do not leave.

Humongous properties these are, each with private roads down to the coast, and no doubt, heavenly private beaches for the fanciful enjoyment of their guests. How a travel destination can support this many resorts is beyond me, but here they were, and none looking to be struggling.

From out of nowhere, we arrived in a cluster of residential buildings and commercial properties. This was Playa Del Carmen.

From the freeway, we turned towards the coast, and the big box stores turned to restaurants and adorable shops. Cobblestone streets now were inhabited by delectable-looking restaurants, and inviting watering holes. A sense of excitement pulsed through my body, as I suddenly wanted to leap out of the car and explore each and every venue on foot.

In minutes we stopped in front of a whimsical hotel, with original architectural features, lush landscaping and a beckoning shingle-LA TORTUGA HOTEL. This was no Hampton Inn, and yes Dorothy, we were no longer in Kansas!


The room was spacious, with lots of detail-inlaid tile; a portal window to the hallway; exposed hardwood beams; and a private balcony nestled in the jungle that was the pool area of the hotel. It wasn’t so much a pool, as a river that meandered about the courtyard, in and around rooms, the lobby bar, and the delicious oseteria attached to the wonderful space.

From La Tortuga, I ventured out to discover Playa. My first mission was to get to the beach, and it was 3 short blocks away. This part of the Caribbean is know for the color of the water, a mix of vibrant turquoise, along with various shades of blue and even green. It was, and is stunning.

One block up from the water is a sort of malecon, the most famous of which stretches 5 miles in Havana, Cuba. Part boardwalk, part outdoor mall and swap meet, Avenida 5 Norte stretches some 50 blocks, probably 3 miles, lined with shops, restaurants, bars and all the entertainment one could consume.

Massage, yes it is here. And cheap. You want small fish to eat the callouses from your feet? Okay, it is here. You want to eat fish-lots of it, and fresh here. Slushy, mardi gras drinks by the dozens, of course. Tequilas, no kidding. McDonalds, yes. Starbucks, duh.

Okay, paradise is not perfect. But, for many gringos, nothing cures a tequila hangover faster than a Big Mac and fries. And while the locals decried the fact that there were 7 Starbucks over these 50 or so blocks, there is something quite settling when you are away from home, to have that moment when you exit exotica and step into the world of American corporate branding, quality control and comfort, if only for a moment. Plus, the wifi is pretty dependable, and still free!

The existence of commercial America amidst this natural wonderland didn’t unnerve me, even as I strolled by Hurley, and Quicksilver, and RVCA. It is a beach town, after all. And, there were enough local vendors and artisans to make the experience unique, and frankly, purely enjoyable.

Avenida 5 Norte took on a whole new life at night. The bars and restaurants are packed, and go later into the early hours of the morning, some open ‘til 5. There are mariachis and live bands; big screen television broadcasting into open air lounges; break dancing crews entertain up and down the boardwalk; street vendors display wears on blankets, as if the voluminous gift stores aren’t selection enough for shoppers.

On one night I decided to turn in early. I awoke at 4am to find my cell phone was not charging. No cell phone, no good, so I hit the streets. Loud music filled the air as I stepped out of the door of my hotel. Indeed there were several clubs on my street that were raging at this hour. Food options abounded-there was pizza, burgers, quesadillas, of course tacos, in a number of open and thriving establishments. The kicker, I found a phone charger at an all night convenience store, for about $4, and by 5 am I was back in my room, charging my lifeline, and with a full stomach no less.

The next morning I had a delicious breakfast, included with your room at La Tortuga. “The Italian Breakfast” consisted of fresh fruit and yogurt, granola, toast, and a perfectly foamed cappuccino.

Moving on, my second hotel was not in Playa Del Carmen, but north of the city by a couple of miles. The Viceroy, Mayan Riviera, is nestled in the jungle, with its own private beach. Now before I go on, I must advise that Playa is the kind of destination that is best enjoyed with a group of friends, or better yet, with that special someone.

There are a couple of gay bars in the city itself, but the locals just don’t seem to get out, and the scene is way too late to ever get a buzz going with tourists. Perhaps this is but another casualty of the phone applications, or maybe that the town is so gay friendly and there are so many enchanting spots to drink and carouse, there just isn’t the gay singles nightlife, that exists in Puerta Vallarta, for example.

So, I arrived at the Viceroy, a compound of romantic bungalows tucked into the thicket of vegetation the runs up to the turquoise shoreline along the peninsula. My room was like a dream.

A private courtyard, with a decent sized, kidney shaped pool immediately stood out, with an elevated deck, perfect for nude sunbathing, a shaded hammock, and even a king sized day bed completed the front yard amenities.

Beyond, an air-conditioned bungalow awaited, with plenty of large glass windows with views of the play space out front, and even a wonderland in the back, with tropical canopy and private outdoor shower. It was the place to have a romantic weekend, without a doubt!

The Viceroy has tremendous dining, whether al fresco out by the sea, or on the second floor balcony under a thatched roof with views of the water. There are themed nights, with special offerings from their fine chef. And if you go, don’t skip the tequila tasting, with perfect pairings of shrimp and octopus ceviche.

But the real thrill of staying at the Viceroy, among many, are the morning visitors that meander in from the jungle to mingle with the guests, and eat apples right from their hands! It is a little known fact that the jungles here are home to several species of monkeys. I always thought one had to venture down to Costa Rica to interact with these tree inhabitants. But, right here at the Viceroy, spider monkey feedings occur almost on a daily basis. How many places can boast that feature for guests?

My trip pushed onward, with the next stop Palm at Playa, back in the heart of the action in Playa Del Carmen. Let me say, if there is a gay hotel in this town, one that has the swagger, and the style to be known as “the gay hotel”, it would be Palm at Playa.

At first glance, it is your whitewashed, modern, garden style hotel, trickling water walls, Palm infested courtyard, vines draping the balconies. The rooms are spacious, with hammocks on the decks. But, get to the roof, actually, The Roof Club, and it is a whole other story!

Sweeping panoramic views of Playa and the gorgeous water await at The Roof, along with an infinity pool, with day beds, in the pool itself! There is a hammock hanging over the crystal clear water, which is cool enough to take your breath away, but a welcome relief in the heat of day here.

There is a spa on the roof, where one could arrange all sorts of pampering. Likewise, there is a restaurant, where once again, I had amazing ceviche. I am not a big fan, but the citrus cooked seafood in this town was winning me over big time. And, here, they had a wicked green sauce, deceptively parading as some kind of guacamole knockoff. But, beware, it is made with green habaneros, and it is crazy hot, and super good. Green habaneros, who knew?

The bar here is pumping from 9am, with nothing but the trendiest circuit party beats. And the music is loud. This is Mexico baby! Get here early to stake out your party position for the day. This is the pool to be at in Playa!

My last hotel in Playa was The Acanto, a boutique hotel just a block from the beach, and right in the heart of a vibrant stretch of the action. Each morning breakfast is served in the quaint courtyard, including fresh pineapple, mango and papaya, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, cereal and, of course, coffee. It’s more breakfast than I normally eat, to be sure.

Residence at the Acanto includes privileges at a state of the art, huge gymnasium just around the corner. But the real treat is the membership at The Kool Beach Club.. Just 4 blocks away, The Kool, as it is known, is adjacent to Mamitas Beach Club, which according to the guides online, is a gay beach. The thing is, the beach clubs take up so much of the beach area, that, unless you are a member of a beach club, you can barely find a snatch of sand to plant your flag. And, on my stay, there really wasn’t anything more, or less gay about Mamitas, than the rest of the beaches in the area,

So, an afternoon at The Kool, is, well, really quite cool. Hundreds of chairs line the turquoise blue waters, with a caste system of seating for those of you who like the VIP experience. There is a fantastic restaurant, pool, also with plenty of chairs, and a whole range of water activities the club can provide, including kayaking, sail boarding, paddle surfing, even parasailing. You gotta love a beach club!

Leaving Playa, I have but one more stop on this Mayan adventure-a trip across the Caribbean to Cozumel. From central Playa, four ferry companies make the 11 mile trip to the diver’s paradise just off the Playa coast. We were hosted by Utramar, the only operator with brightly colored blue and yellow boats, that you can see from miles away up and down the coast. With the comfort and speed of their newest ferry, we are there in 35 minutes.

Our destination on Cozumel is a romantic hideaway, some 20 minutes by car from the ferry dock. Secrets is one of those places where romance is launched, rekindled, or shattered. You know the place, all inclusive, private, the time of your life!

Indeed, Secrets is a sprawling, adults only resort, with spacious rooms, some with swim up features, as the pools meander among the lodging.

There is a private beach, with dock from which you can contract any number of sea excursions. The water sports that don’t require a motor are free, and there is a activities counter right on the sand for snorkeling, paddle boarding, kayaking, and the like. They can also hook you up with more advanced adventures like diving, deep sea fishing, parasailing, and more.

There are activities all day long here, like water aerobics, pool volleyball, beach volleyball, archery, table tennis, life size chess by the pool, zumba, yoga, rifle shooting, and water sliding. It’s like summer love camp, for adults.

Did I mention the eating and drinking-all included? So, in addition to 24-hour room service, there are 5 restaurants on the property. One specializes in seafood; there is a French restaurant, an American continental cuisine; a burger and fries lunch spot; and, the coup de gras, a buffet place, where for breakfast lunch and dinner you can eat all you want. Help, save me!!

The buffet restaurant has the most incredible bloody mary bar, just to bridge you through until the swim up pool bars open, and you, my friend, are off and running. By the way, there even is a coffee house, for when you awaken at 3 in the morning, and need that little bite of pastry and a double cappuccino, to get a base going for your next day of hedonism, Insane!

I gained 10 pounds here in 3 days. Wow.

So, the incredible beaches, and the first class hotels are reason enough to visit the Mayan Riviera. Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Cozumel all offer an amazing time.

But this peninsula has so much more to offer than fun in the sun and sand. The Yucatan is a mecca of eco-tourism, from scuba and snorkeling-the Meso-American reef is the second largest in the world, behind the Great Barrier Reef-to sport fishing and ruin trekking.


Did you know one of the 7 wonders of the world, as determined by UNESCO, exists here? Chichen Itza is a sprawling ancient Mayan city, with meticulously maintained ruins. It is so packed with wonder and awe, one could easily spend an entire day here.

The Mayans were pioneers in a number of sciences, two of them-architecture and astronomy-are on full display here. Along with being the creators of our calendar, the site is a rich display of an ancient civilization that was way ahead of their time in mapping their existence on this planet.

Being a basketball junkie, I was most impressed with the sport court. The largest one is most impressive, with amazing sound engineering, and carved panels that tell the unbelievable story of two teams competing to put a ball through a ring high up on the stone walls.


The team that does so is the winner of the competition, and the reward for this feat, a beheading of the winning team’s captain, as an honor sacrifice to the gods. Yikes! These guys were serious.

There are zip-line adventures, jeep tours, and wonderful natural phenomena known as cenotes. The ground here is mostly limestone, and so when it rains, which it does frequently, the water seeps through the stone, forming pools and underground rivers.

There are many openings, or sinkholes in the limestone surface, which reveal amazing sunken swimming holes known as cenotes. The water is crystal clear, chillingly refreshing, and the experience is fantastic.

There are big “Disney” style resorts that take advantage of these natural wonders, and package them in a user-friendly way, if that is your thing. Places like Xel-ha and Xcaret are natural aquariums, with underground rivers, and loads of tropical fish and wildlife, all bundled together in a theme park experience. They even offer all-inclusive pricing, for that all you can eat and drink, while you “nature out” experience.

But the real adventure is to head into the jungle with a guided tour and experience the Riviera Maya, au natural. As you drive through the trees, you will notice rope bridges across the top of the highway every mile or so. These are for the spider and howler monkeys that make these jungles their homes. There are also tunnels under the roadways to allow for non-climbers, a variety of mammals to cross traffic safely.

At Tulum we spotted a coatmundi, a sort of racoonish fellow, with a very inquisitive nature. There were Yucatan Woodpeckers at Il Kil Cenote, along with numerous brightly colored birds. We saw Yellow Throated Warblers and Golden Finches, but there are also Toucans that reside here, for the lucky adventurer. Flamingoes are native here as well, and if you have ever seen a string of the pink beasts flying in single file, it is a bucket list item, let me tell you.

Iguanas are everywhere. Sixty-six species of Tarantula Spiders exist here. And the largest land mammal in these forests-the tapir, which grows to 80 pounds, calls the Maya home. There are pumas, and ocelots, though rarely seen. On my trip, a jaguar was killed by a car near Tulum. This really is the jungle!

And, from May to September, Isla Mujeres and Cozumel host whale sharks. Apparently they vacay here for the all-inclusive deals. It is relatively easy to swim with them, as there are numerous tours offering the once in a lifetime chance to swim, and be filmed, with these docile, giants. Are you kidding me?! How many bucket list items can one knock off(ha) here?

As a body-builder god, turned actor, turned has-been reality host and Trump punching bag once said, “ I will be back!”
Most definitely.

Hasta la vista baby!


 

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