For travelers looking for a deal, Mexico’s Riviera Maya, located in the country’s easternmost state of Quintana Roo, has never looked better. It offers an unmatched combination of proximity, value, comfort, climate, exotic setting and hospitality. With the strain of the economy, it doesn’t hurt to add the strength of the U.S. dollar against the Mexican peso.
Mexico’s Riviera Maya spreads out along Highway 307, winding through the 130-kilometer coastal corridor in a series of destinations, quaint fishing villages, and resort communities. Shadowed by a series of coral reefs, the shoreline is often just steps away from potpourri of popular resorts with entrances to the resorts and communities clearly marked.
Last month, our family opted to return to a familiar brand and stayed at the Barcelo Maya Palace, the newest of the five Barcelo all-inclusive, beachfront resorts, north of Tulum and just 20 south minutes of Playa del Carmen. With such a wide range of ages, we wanted a resort with a kids’ program and an adult-only pool, for those that wanted to escape from our young family members. The result was a vacation that appealed to all ages.
During a disorganized check-in, we discovered that only three of the five resorts were open, to accommodate the decrease in occupancy due to the swine flu scare. It was apparent that the hotel was over-booked and under-staffed. Navigating one of those gigantic resorts is like walking blindly through a maze, and unfortunately the skeleton staff did not offer to escort us and our bags to our room, resulting in frustration and meandering through the halls.
Fifteen minutes of wandering and we finally found our rooms, only to discover a major booking error: two rooms for four adults had turned into one bedroom suite with a king size bed, and the hotel was at 99 percent occupancy. The hotel brought in two cots and promised to move us the next day to two separate rooms. (Let’s just say our two very tall, grown daughters were not too happy with the mini-beds!) The following day, we happily moved to adjoining rooms, closer to the pool and our family.
Once the scrambling to remedy a major room glitch was resolved, the hospitality of the Mexican people shone through. We were always greeted with a smile and warm welcome, and the remaining service components were over-the-top. Our two young grandchildren exchanged simple Mexican phrases “hola,” “buenos dias,” “por favor,” “gracias,” and “cómo estás” with the encouraging hotel staff.
As creatures of habits, we staked out our place by the pool directly across from the swim-up pool and close to the entrance of our hotel building by taking turns early in the morning and saving 10 lounge chairs. My grandchildren spent most of the time in the pool, and to be honest, the heat was so intense that we submerged ourselves in the cool waters too.
A pool-side waitress gave us the royal treatment by making us her regulars, promptly refilling our drinks and keeping our area clean. Although this is an all-inclusive resort and tips are not required, we always bring a stash of $1 US bills to tip the attentive staff. They appreciate the tip as they make little money in Mexico, and we appreciate the good service.
Thanks to Barcelo’s 19 all-inclusive bars and restaurants, we never lacked for food and drink. We “adopted” a waiter at the all-inclusive restaurant, La Hacienda, who took care of our entire group each time. Surprisingly, even the buffet food was tasty and always fresh. Breakfast ranged from omelets made-to-order to huevos rancheros. We could grab a quick burger, hot dog or slice of pizza and a salad at the grill, a few minutes from the pool and beach, or sample the overflowing buffet (with varying daily menus and themes) at the two buffet restaurants.
Depending on the number of overnights, each guest is allowed to dine at an all-inclusive specialty restaurant. These are a plated dinners with culinary themes ranging from Caribbean to Mexican to Italian.
One night we chose the Japanese Restaurant, Bali Hai, in the Colonial, a 15 minute walk or short shuttle from the Maya Palace. The chefs at this hibachi grill entertained us with the rhythm of their knives and spatulas, and my grandson was spell-bound when the chef tossed a shrimp tail into his hat. Another favorite was the French Restaurant, Le Brasserie, located at the Palace, and served up a sampling of the best foie gras and escargot.
Each night we met as a group at the Palace’s hotel bar, just off the reception. We often sat on the deck overlooking the ocean, relaxing with a drink before dinner, while the kids played nearby – and sometimes we often stopped after dinner to enjoy a night cap. It was hard to resist the beauty of simply enjoying the smell of the saltwater and the gentle ebb and flow of the Caribbean.
By day, many of us took advantage of a super-relaxing 50-minute massage in the oceanfront huts. Although separate from the resort’s main spa, it’s also worth booking to visit the 16,000 square foot Spa inspired by the Mayan philosophy: the Temazcal.
A must for snorkel lovers is the walk to the dock near the Barcelo Tropical Beach. Bring along your snorkel set as you won’t be able to resist plunging into the Caribbean to view the natural coral ledges. Our group jumped in to see the coral reefs but was delighted with the kaleidoscope of the underworld including a possible sting ray sighting.
It’s worth a visit to Playa del Carmen.
It’s only a 20 minute taxi ride and gives your family a change of scenery and little shopping – and more beachfront. Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue) is the center of town and only open to pedestrian traffic. Each time I visit, Fifth Avenue seems to stretch further north through this former fishing village and now boasts some new areas on the south end.
The entire avenue is lined with souvenir shops, jewelry stores, boutiques and restaurants, ranging from Mexican to Cuban to Mayan. My teenage daughter learned the fine art of “regateo” or bargaining.
I always stop for a margarita and shrimp ceviche at the Pez-Vela Mexican restaurant (a few blocks in from the south) to enjoy people-watching from my unique perch at the bar on a wooden swing. Our eldest family member also enjoys a good cigar, and Playa also offers many options to buy cigars, including a Cuban.
If you have time
Time ran out before we could enjoy the area’s many attractions, of which there are many, so take a look at other activities I’d recommend – if you have time. Discounts are often available if you buy tickets in advance online.
Until a few years ago, Playa del Carmen was where you had to go to catch a ferry to Cozumel the largest inhabited island in Mexico. It’s a laid-back community known for its world-class diving, major cruise ship port-of-call, even more shopping and restaurants. The round trip ferry ride from Playa to Cozumel is approximately $11 USD per adult and $6.50 per child and takes about 45 minutes each way.
For children of all ages, consider Xcaret Park and Xel-ha Eco Park. Both are eco-parks featuring dolphin swims, animal sanctuaries, and cenotes (underground rivers). Xcaret is also known for their colorful night show celebrating the Mayan cultures.
For history buffs, don’t miss the golden glow of sunset at the Mayan Ruins at nearby Tulum and bring your swimsuit to dip into the sea next to this archaeological site. This is perfect for younger kids as it’s an hour dip into the Mayan history and a chance to chase the many iguanas wondering around.
Some of the Riviera Maya’s most luxurious hotels are providing packages and prices to complement their hospitality and white-sand beaches to remind travelers what a great deal awaits them in Mexico.. In my opinion, Mexico has long offered the best value for your dollar, and the Riviera Maya lives up to that credo. It is easily accessible and no matter your budget, there’s a place for you and your family in the Riviera Maya.
By Diana Rowe