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Trip Report Playa del Carmen trip report

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We just returned from a one week visit to Playa del Carmen.
We had planned to fly MHT to BWI on Tuesday 1/21 at 5 pm, stay overnight at the BWI Hilton and leave at 9 a.m. Wednesday for Cancun. At 8 pm on Monday night, we received an automated call from SW that our flight to Baltimore had been canceled, along with other afternoon flights because of the predicted snowstorm moving up the east coast. We tried to call SW, but of course the line was busy and there was a 50 minute wait, so we went online and tried to find another flight. There was nothing early enough on Wednesday, and it appeared that the earlier Tuesday flights were “sold out.” If I didn't have a heart attack that evening, I'll never have one. I exited the SW website, staying on hold the entire time for the phone line, and went back into the site, and found seats on an early a.m. Tuesday flight and grabbed them. Our canceled flights had been on points and a Companion Pass, but the website wouldn't let me book the seats using points and I wasn't in a position to dicker, so I just put it all on my credit card and figured I deal with SW when we got back. (Postscript: SW graciously credited my credit card and used points and our Companion Pass for the rebooked tickets. Another reason why we love SW). We had an uneventful Air Tran flight to Cancun and were picked up by STP Caribe, as arranged by Mahekal.
We stayed at the Mahekal Beach Resort. I had stayed there in 1991 when it was known as the ShangriLa Caribe. It has grown quite a bit under the present management, which has owned it for about 5 years and also owns the resort next door, Las Palapas.
About the resort: our opinion is overwhelmingly positive. They have a variety of options for rooms – some right on the beach, with the waves lapping under your front porch; others slightly set back, called “ocean view” and that is what we had. Others are “garden view.” We loved our room (16 Playa) – it was very large, had 2 queen beds ( I had requested a king, but they don't guarantee room types and we loved the room location so much that it was worth not having the king), and was furnished with a dresser, large closet, separate closet with safe, a desk/vanity with chair and mirror, a full-length mirror on another wall, plenty of electrical outlets, a nice tiled bathroom, counter space and excellent shower with plenty of hot water and good water pressure. There is a built-in shelf that extends along the entire wall behind the beds with two good reading lamps and more space for stuff. The wall across from the beds had three huge windows with screened casements that opened, another huge window that looked out onto our private terrace, and the terrace was about 10' x 12', outfitted with two hammocks, a lounge chair, a small round table and two chairs to pull up to it, a built-in banquette on one side, and a laundry line with clothespins for wet bathing suits, etc. Our room looked across one of the resort's two swimming pools and jacuzzi to the sea, immediately below the deck area on the far side of the pool, where you can eat breakfast and lunch (or sit around any other time). The room had a/c which we never used and a ceiling fan, which we did use. If I can figure out how to post photos here, I'll add some photos of the room soon.
The room was immaculate and was cleaned daily by a woman who left us very cute animals fashioned from that day's towels, adorned with hibiscus blossoms. Someone here or on TA said she left the maid's tip the first day with a note that said “muchas gracias”, because apparently they're not supposed to enter your room if there's money left out. I had a little notepad that I travel with and tucked a 50 peso note in it, with “muchas gracias” on the first page, each day when we went out. This was a good system and I appreciated the suggestion and pass it along.
The room rate included two meals a day, breakfast and dinner, although you can switch out lunch for dinner if you want to go elsewhere for dinner. We thought the food was fantastic. Breakfast was a buffet which included anything you could possibly want, from fresh fruit; yogurt/granola/raisins/cranberries; oatmeal; meats/cheeses; Mexican sweet rolls, croissants, and all kinds of pastries, etc. They even had a dispenser of lactaid milk, which we both use and never expected to find. Each table had a tent card offering various kinds of eggs, omelets, etc. that can be ordered , at no extra charge from the waiters, who serve you coffee, clear away the used dishes, etc. There was no limit to the amount of food you could take and it was nice to feel like you could take some fruit and yogurt, for example, and then go back and have a little pastry, etc., and not have to mound up your plate to get everything you might possibly want to eat in one trip. There were plenty of tables in the breakfast restaurant, La Loma, but you could also sit at one of the tables by the pool, with the palm trees overhead and the waves just a few feet away (caveat: there are not a lot of tables by the water, and they are very popular, so get there early and stake your claim). The waiters continually circled, bringing coffee, serving the eggs that were ordered from the kitchen, and were without exception, incredibly hard-working, genial, and polite. In fact, one of the most impressive things about this resort to us was the quality of their staff. They were just fantastic.
Dinners were offered in a variety of ways – some nights the entree was a choice of several items on a menu, served by the waiters in the main restaurant/dining room, with all of the side dishes on a buffet. Other nights, everything was a buffet. The buffet food was always a very high quality and never had that “steam table-been simmering for hours” mooshy texture. There were many choices, including vegetarian main dishes every night. One night, for example, a chef individually sauteed your choice of shrimp, vegetable, and type of sauce over your choice of type of pasta, to go with 3 or 4 different salads, empanadas, etc. All of the food was excellent quality, fresh ingredients, not overcooked, imaginatively prepared. There was always a choice of several desserts. I think there's an extra charge for alcohol, don't know how much. Some people on Trip Advisor complained about the charge for water and other drinks at dinner. I guess that didn't bother us because the charge was so small and the rest of the food was so good. Again, like breakfast, there seemed to be no limit to how many times you could go to the buffet, and what you could take.
We ate lunch several times by the side of the pool at the water's edge. It was delightful, and the food was excellent. I loved the Caesar salad with slices of just grilled and still warm, very tender and flavorful chicken.

We were taken aback by the small “propina” or tip included with the check that you sign at the end of dinner. It appeared to be calculated as 10% only of the items you had to pay extra for, so for example, there's no charge for dinner, but about 60 pesos total for a coffee and a coke, so a propina of 5 pesos is added to the bill. This is about 75 cents! There's a place where you can add an extra propina, and I hope most guests do, because the service is amazing and those waiters work so hard we were really impressed. They run from one end of the resort to the other, including serving guests on the beach itself, and they are without exception gracious and polite.

The pathways through the resort are lit by small concrete “mushrooms” with tile mosaic decorations that provide ample light during the evenings without ruining the mood. The reception area was large, also lit in a subdued manner, with candles and orchid plants on a central table. The reception folks spoke excellent English (and may well speak many other languages) and were very helpful in all ways. There are, as other people on Trip Advisor noted, many security guards both in the resort and around Playa del Carmen. The resort is at the end of a dead-end street and the public beach access goes through the center of the resort. There is a fence around the resort but the wooden walkway which traversed the public street from one section of Mehekal to the Playa section where we were does not have a gate. We never felt insecure or threatened in any way. It is clearly of major interest to the resort management as well as the government to have tourists feel safe, and we did at all times. It can be a little disconcerting when you live in a small New England town to walk or drive around and see machine-gun toting Federales patrolling but they were not demonstrative and we thought they were mostly just making their presence known, rather than for any particular threat. An added note is that the resort's security personnel did not appear to be armed, but very alert and paid attention to who came in and went from the beach and the various entrances.

There are many ATMs along the central shopping street, Avenida Quinta, but my research indicated that it's better not to use any ATM that isn't in a bank. We initially had some trouble locating a bank, probably because most of the tourists use those ATMs on Avenida Quinta. We finally found a number of banks along Avenida Diez, just south of Constituyones. The Scotia Bank ATM had inadequate instructions in English, we felt, and after that we went to other banks and never had any problem. We both have a separate checking account into which we deposit the amount of money we think we might need for a trip, and then only use the ATM card for that account, in case the security is compromised.

There were only two aspects of Mahekal that we might criticize. The beach is beautiful to look at, but has been narrowed by erosion so that in places, people have to walk single file as they walk along at the edge of the water. The sandy part widens out so that there's more room in many places, and we certainly saw many people who were out for a run going along from one end of the beach to the other, but if you're looking for a huge flat beach, this might not be your cup of tea. The sand was very fine and very white, like sugar, and very clean. We saw no trash on the beach nor anywhere in Playa for that matter. There was no litter anywhere we walked in town or on the beach. We particularly liked the fact that local people can use the beach and it is not gated or private, like many parts of Cape Cod, Florida, and other beach areas we have visited. It was very nice to watch some of the men net-fishing and entire families going for walks along the beach.

The other potentially negative problem at Mahekal is an intermittent smell, which people on Trip Advisor also noted. We asked at reception and were told that when the resort expanded, they filled in the mangrove swamps at the edge of the water and the mangroves are now rotting. In all honesty, I didn't smell the odor more than a whiff once or twice, but my S.O. said it was pretty bad one night and woke him up. I think most of the time, especially if there's a breeze, this is not a problem, but felt I should mention it to be fair. They are working on solutions to this problem. I would return there in a nanosecond.

The location of the resort is just off Avenida Quinta, so it's only a couple of minutes walk from endless little stores, restaurants, coffee shops, etc. It's fun just to take a walk early or late, engage in banter with the shop owners (“99% off! FREE! What? You don't believe me? I'm an honest crook!”) that made us laugh out loud, and also find the occasional well-made, artisan object to buy.

All in all, we were extremely happy with our stay at Mahekal, would recommend it highly to anyone looking for a beach vacation, or simply a really relaxing, warm weather spot with great food and fantastic service.

Boli, the manager, hooked us up with a driver, Gregorio Hernandez, for a trip to Chichen Itza. It was a long ride from Mahekal, about 3 hours. I enjoyed very much trying to practice my Spanish with Gregorio and quizzing him on English during the drive. When we arrived, a guide by the name of Abel (rhymes with Ma Bell) came over to us and started talking to us as if he were the only guide available. We hired him for 800 pesos, which seemed very high and more than we expected to pay. We invited Gregorio to walk around with us, because he had not previously been there. The tour lasted an hour and a half. Abel was knowledgeable but he spoke very rapidly, as if he were in a huge hurry, flicked through images on his Ipad or tablet, only took us to the Castillo, pointed toward the Columns of the Warriors, told us we could go look at the cenote and observatory after the tour, then started showing us images of him with Bill Gates and other famous people, before terminating the tour at exactly 90 minutes. If he imparted the same information but took 2 hours or so to do it, it might have been a more interesting and informative tour, but we really felt overcharged and underwhelmed by his tour. We also felt he was condescending and rather dismissive of Gregorio, who is quiet and unassuming. We walked around by ourselves with Gregorio for half an hour or 45 minutes afterwards to see what Abel didn't show us, and would have appreciated more information for our 800 pesos.
We wanted to go to Ek Balam before returning to Playa and thought we would stop for lunch in Valladolid. Gregorio telephoned some colleagues and one of them recommended the restaurant in a charming hotel near the center of Valladolid called Meson de Marques. The restaurant was open air, around a central courtyard with a fountain and flowers, ancient wrought iron chandeliers and what looked like wrought iron candelabras for votive candles from churches. Very atmospheric. Varied menu, good food, not very expensive – maybe $30USD for the 3 of us.
We continued on to Ek Balam which was totally fantastic. We didn't get a guide there because of the poor experience we had at Chichen Itza. The carving on the main building is atypical of the Mayan ruins, in that it is not carved into the stone that is the building, but instead carved into stucco or some similar material that was applied to the surface of the stone. The carving is being protected by a thatched roof overhead. It is unbelievably detailed and ornate and worth the trip. The castle has a set of steps that are as high and steep as the Castillo at Chichen Itza, and is pretty scary to climb, not to mention descend. We saw several people climb the steps carrying very young children, which I thought was pretty horrifying.
I really enjoyed practicing my Spanish with Gregorio on the way to and from Chichen and Ek Balam. He's a very safe driver and a delightful person, with a lovely sense of humor. We asked specifically for him again when we drove to Tulum a couple of days later. Again, mostly because of our unfortunate experience with the guide at Chichen, we didn't hire a guide here, and I kind of wish we did. I think it would have been more interesting but it is still a beautiful site and amazing to walk around. Even though we arrived before 9:30 a.m., it was quite crowded with tours (as in, large groups of people arriving with their own guides) speaking in many languages. If you can arrange to arrive here as soon as it opens in the morning, you would probably enjoy it more.
Admission prices at all 3 sites seemed reasonable to me, and the ruins were much better taken care of and maintained than ruins we saw in Italy last year.

We understand that the average worker in the area earns about 1000 pesos a month, which is about $80USD a week. The Mexican government has raised the price of gasoline (oil is nationalized), raised the costs of food and taxes, but wages are stagnant. I hope travelers keep this in mind, when they think that leaving a $1 bill on the restaurant table after a meal is a great tip.

I appreciate all of the information and tips I pick up here at Fodor's and hope this is of assistance or interest to others. Please let me know if I can answer any questions.

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