Fourteen years ago, my family took a boat from our cruise ship to Playa del Carmen, which we found was a quiet little Mexican town on the northeastern coast of Mexico. Just one block up from the dock, we boarded a bus that took us down a dusty, bumpy road to the ruins at the Mayan City and Fortress of Tulum. Since then, Playa del Carmen has grown phenomenally, and boasts paved streets, sidewalks, and plenty of resorts and shopping. With its pristine white beaches and turquoise waters of the Western Caribbean, both Mexicans and foreigners flock year-round to vacation or live in this area, which has been branded as “The Riviera Maya.”
The resorts in Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya are notably different in appearance to the high rise hotels in Cancun – rather than “towering” over the environment like in Cancun, they are designed to reflect the Mayan culture and housing, and incorporate the surrounding rainforest, jungle, and Mayan ruins within their properties.
The Spanish Sandos Corporation offers four Riviera Maya all-inclusive resort properties (all-inclusive is defined as one price for room, food, alcohol, and the majority of activities). The two large properties each have two separate hotels. In Playa del Carmen the Sandos resorts are Playacar Beach Resort & Spa and Sandos Playacar Riviera Hotel & Spa. Outside of town, Sandos offers the Caracol Eco Beach Resort & Spa, and Select Club Beach Resort & Spa.
A week’s visit to the properties revealed that the Sandos Corporation treats their employees well, which equates to gracious service to the guests. The Company invests in better quality food products and meats to provide not only delicious buffets but also full-service thematic dining. All of the resorts offer an abundance of free amenities to their guests.
The Sandos Playacar Beach Resort & Spa
South of the dock where we once embarked for our earlier Tulum experience, is the planned development area called Playacar. This section of town has a public golf course, stores, some private homes and condos, an aviary, and small Mayan ruins. The Playacar Beach Resort and Spa is a sprawling, beachfront property in the Playacar section. The lush, tropical grounds is laid out in a network of three- and four-story buildings with 460 guest rooms as well as other buildings with amenities shared by the Playacar Beach and Playacar Riviera guests. With a capacity of 2000 guests, even at 85% occupancy between the two adjoining Resorts, the spaciousness of the resorts makes it difficult to feel crowded.
The Playacar Beach property offers the majority of activities for both Playacar Beach and Playacar Riviera guests, including a recently completed 800-seat open-sided entertainment area for nightly live shows and movies; a discotheque that serves liquor and is open well past midnight; tennis courts, and a fully-equipped gym with classes for spinning, Pilates, yoga, and aerobics.
The large, central complex where you check in for the Playacar Beach guest rooms is steps from the beach, and includes: a square for outdoor dancing and festivities, and the Playacar pools where adult guests are invited to join in for various activities such as watching a bathing suit fashion show, playing Bingo or getting an introduction to SCUBA diving. Sign up for free bikes to tour around the resorts and Playa del Carmen, free Spanish and cooking lessons, babysitting services, water sports, golf, SCUBA diving and snorkeling, swimming with the dolphins, and tours around Playa del Carmen and to the Riviera Maya archaeological sites. During my stay, a booth and table were set up poolside where, for an additional low cost, you could paint your own plaster-of-Paris Mexican-style pottery, plates, and statues, which later were fired for you to bring back as keepsakes of your Riviera Maya vacation.
The central complex also has gift and jewelry shops; Gourmet French, Italian, and Mexican full-service restaurants which require reservations for dinner (although all food and drinks are included in room rate) and an open air buffet under a tall, thatched, conical roof which is converted at dinnertime to a full-service Mediterranean-themed restaurant.
The supervised, free youth program has its own complex of facilities, with a large, colorful sign posted with daily indoor and outdoor activities, and includes: colorful, thatched-roof youth center; kids-only pools, playground, sandboxes, and pool tables under an open-air, thatched roof hut (called a “palapa”). The “Kids Club” is open from 10am – 10pm for ages 2 – 12 years old, and the Teen Club offers activities and a discotheque from 10am – 9pm for young adults 13 – 17 years old. Each week, Sandos employees and guest youth volunteers put on a Disney-like show, which is the highlight of the program.
The Playacar Beach adult-only spa offers guests three floors of services: free saunas on the ground floor, including hydrotherapy and an actual Turkish sauna; an extensive menu of massages and body treatments on the second level; and a three-story beauty salon. I love massages, so I had to experience an “eco-massage.” I had a wonderful massage, but it turned out to be on the beach — in a thatched roof hut with 5 tables and a large opening towards the beach chairs. I wish I had refreshed my Spanish language knowledge as my therapist did not know English, and I could have used phrases such as, “a little harder” or “a little softer” or “You want me to pull my bathing suit down… here!?” Gestures did help! With this said, I recommend going indoors if you are at all embarrassed by removing part of your bathing suit under a towel or turning over while partially nude in a somewhat public area, or, if you want your massage free of people talking outside the hut or the sound of power garden tools.
The Playacar Beach room options are:
- Standard rooms featuring two double beds or one king-size bed, a private marble bathroom, and balcony or terrace with a sea, garden, or pool view.
- Sea-facing Junior Suites with full sea view from a private balcony (which offer a whirlpool bath and a lounge area with a sofa bed, a mini-dining room, plasma TV, DVD and Play Station (films and video games are available at no additional cost),.
- Adults-only Royal Club Junior suites overlooking the beach with a view of Cozumel in the distance.
- Hacienda Royal Club Junior suites — ten separate buildings named after various aspects of the Mayan culture. Each building has a separate, small outdoor swimming pool and solarium, and houses 15 Junior suites with a patio or balcony overlooking gardens. These rooms can be adjoined for families or larger groups.
A VIP program is offered at all Sandos properties for only an additional $20 per day per person over the standard room rates. VIP services include: private check-in; an upgraded, larger guest room with a welcome fruit basket, plush bathrobe for each adult, in-room Satellite Plasma TV, free mini-bar with mineral water, bottled water, soft drinks, and domestic beer, and nightly turn-down service; concierge services and priority reservations at on-site restaurants; use of private, patrolled beach complete with hammocks and upgraded chaise lounges; and the Royal Club Lounges with plasma TVs and computers to access the internet for free, and where guests are served canapés and drinks using top label liquor daily from 7 am – 11 pm.
The Playacar Riviera Hotel & Spa
With all of the hustle and bustle going on at the Playacar Beach Resort and Spa, you may prefer to stay at the quieter, recently opened Playacar Riviera Hotel & Spa property that is next door to the 18-hole Playacar Golf Course, and backs up to the jungle where you can see colorful Grackles and Orioles and the Orioles’ distinctive, net-like nests hanging from the trees.
In addition to all of the available amenities at the Playacar Beach property, the Playacar Riviera has a separate lobby for check-in, as well as a bar, a VIP lounge with free internet access and a top label bar, a small gift shop, an indoor, air-conditioned buffet, and a full-course gourmet Asian restaurant. I usually stopped daily at the breakfast buffet at Playacar Riviera, where the resort offered wonderful local and tropical treats, including melon and papaya smoothies, mimosas, fried plantains, chorizo, Mexican cheeses, and freshly made pancakes and omelets.
The large, center pool has a bar you can swim up to, an island with flowering plants, and little bridges connecting the narrower sides. The large patio area around the pool is an ideal location for private parties. While I was there, this pool area was beautifully decorated with Mexican ornaments, lights, and embroidered tablecloths for an event.
To get to the beach and to the other Playacar amenities and services, in addition to walking or riding free bicycles, a free tram shuttle runs every 10 minutes from the center of the Riviera property.
The Riviera guest rooms are larger than those at Playacar Beach, and are designed with families and large groups in mind. The 400 Junior and Master Suites (the latter accommodates up to 5 guests with a large bedroom, whirlpool bath, separate shower, a large living room with a sofa bed and Murphy Bed, and hot tub on the balcony).
The Sandos Caracol Eco Beach Resort and Spa and Select Club Beach Resort
Caracol Beach was developed on a large coastal piece of land in the Playa del Carmen area. The design of the property is more indigenous than the resorts at Playacar, with buildings physically integrated with its surroundings: natural rivers, salty lagoons in large cenotes (Mexican Spanish for sinkhole), lush tropical foliage, and an abundance of fauna, including pelicans, raccoons, blue-shelled crabs, and turtles are found throughout the property. The reception area is under a large palapa overlooking a beautiful natural lagoon. The central entertainment area is designed to look like a Mayan village with thatched roofs. The 778 rooms are in brightly colored buildings with thatched roofs, and offer garden, pool, or jungle views. Caracol Beach offers similar quality of service, variety of food options, and abundance of free amenities for both adults and kids as at the Playacar Beach resort.
The Select Club Beach Resort & Spa
The Select Club at Caracol Beach is treated as a “hotel within a hotel.” For the additional VIP membership of $20 per day per person, Select Club members use a private entrance and check-in desk for the 118 Select Club Junior Suite rooms that are housed in smaller thatched buildings built between the jungle foliage. In addition to the VIP room amenities, each Select Club room is stocked with Moët champagne, a premium bar, and daily refilled fruit platter. The Select Club property also includes a private pool area with a top label bar and buffet, a private beach with a spa for only VIP members, and an exclusive Kids’ Club. Select Club guests, of course, may also take advantage of all other Caracol Beach amenities. Although children are welcome, this was, by far, the quietest and most romantic Sandos property – highly recommended for couples and honeymooners.
For rates on all-inclusive packages and seasonal promotions for each resort and to make a reservation, call Sandos Hotels & Resorts at 1-866-887-5601 or visit their web site at http://www.sandos.com.
Symbolic Wedding or Vow Renewal Package
For an additional US$300 over the cost of a couple’s stay you can have a wedding ceremony or renew your vows at Sandos Hotels in the Riviera Maya. This package includes
- Personalized service from a wedding coordinator
- Decorated wedding site such as a private area on the beach or a tropically-inspired, private location (including guest seating), and guest room decorations
- Sparkling wine for the wedding toast and one-tier wedding cake (for up to 30 guests).
- Background music during the ceremony (or couples can bring their own songs and use the hotel’s CD player)
- Room upgrade for the wedding couple (based on availability) with in-room amenity of fine pastry, fruit basket and sparkling wine upon arrival
- Plush bathrobes for the wedding couple to use during their stay
- Gifts for the couple including a basket of aromatherapy products, “Just Married” “His” and “Her” t-shirts
- Priority reservations at the resorts’ a-la-carte restaurant
Requirements for Getting Married in Mexico
In order for U.S. citizens to get married in Mexico, the bride and groom must arrive in the country at least three working days prior to the wedding date and provide valid passports and tourist visas (given to all travelers at the airport upon entry to Mexico). Bride and grooms must take a blood test while in Mexico (arranged by the wedding coordinator at a cost of US$250 per couple, payable in cash) and must have two to four witnesses to the ceremony who have also been in Mexico for at least three business days prior to the ceremony (witnesses can be provided by the hotel at a cost of US$30 per witness). A Mexican Judge’s transportation to the hotel (US$30) and a translation fee (US$50) are not included in the price of the package and must be paid in cash on the day of the wedding.