Plan Your Winter Getaway

Why Playa del Carmen is the Perfect Holiday Gift for Adults

By Rob Kachelriess

Arriving at the airport in Cancun feels a little like arriving at the airport in Las Vegas. You’re immediately greeted with billboards for Cirque du Soleil, a Guy Fieri restaurant and more than a few nightclubs. The complimentary liquor shots inside the duty free shop hint at the wild nights of drinking to come, as does the Margaritaville stand serving cold beer outside by the shuttle buses. Even the Backstreet Boys are taking a break from their Strip residency to come in for a pair of shows on New Year’s Eve weekend.

You almost need a good reminder that you’re not in Las Vegas anymore. And the ads touting Coors Light as an exotic import don’t count, even if I agree that it might be “the most refreshing American beer.”

So the question must be asked: Is it worth leaving Las Vegas to essentially exchange one party scene for another? The answer can be found with a 45-minute drive south of Cancun to Playa del Carmen. The rapidly developing beach town serves as the heart of the Riviera Maya resort district, offering a more refined vacation alternative in Mexico that mixes luxury, nature, and history in one complete solution for the winter doldrums.

When it comes to accomodations, it’s important to choose wisely. Turn your attention to Playacar, an upscale resort and condo community with guard-gated security and easy access to the beach. The hotels here tend to be all-inclusive, which means that most of the food, drinks, and activities are covered in the flat hotel rate. The general feeling here: Don’t think too hard and don’t worry too much. All the work is done for you.

Among the very best Playacar resorts is Royal Hideaway, which features recently remodeled, colonial-inspired villas and is strictly adults-only. So no screaming babies or kids splashing around in the pool. Long walkways twist and turn around vibrant green grass, towering palm trees, elegant water fountains, and a host of amenities, including everything from a complete fitness center to a dapper trio of tennis courts. The scenery is shared with the iguanas and agouti that roam the property. (And if you’re not familiar with agouti, just think of them as photogenic squirrels with colorful coats.)

Convenience is key, starting with six swimming pools to choose from, including a few hidden around corners for a little extra privacy. Ask about the secluded pool-side massages when visiting the spa. Supper club-style entertainment can be found at Club Royal, ranging from traditional Mexican and jazz to contemporary burlesque and pop hits. Relax with afternoon tea tastings or tequila and mezcal samplings. On-property restaurants range from the Mexican and Caribbean cuisine of Spices to the Italian fare of Palazzo and the Far East flavors of Azia. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the Chef’s Table at Las Ventanas, where a multi-course meal of inventive gastronomy comes with a direct view of the kitchen in action.

Of course, the clear turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea are the biggest draw for vacationers, contrasting vividly with the caramel latte colors of the sandy beachfront. Learn to parasail and view the beauty of the environment from the sky or take a lesson on how to cut through the waves and navigate a catamaran. You may even see a sea turtle pop its head up from the water. Look over the horizon and watch cruise ships dock at Cozumel, a tourist enclave famous for having some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling in the world.

Cleanliness counts in Playacar. A single empty soda bottle was the only piece of trash seen during a 30-minute walk along the beach into downtown Playa del Carmen. Continue to explore the tourist hub and you’ll be immediately drawn to Fifth Avenue, a 20-block stretch of shops, bars, and restaurants. Familiar outlets like Nike and H&M are found alongside small markets and souvenir stands selling everything a tourist could want, from t-shirts and cigars to lucha libre wrestling masks.

Portal Maya in Fundadores Park, is a towering statue of two mermaids that form an archway to the beach near a bustling pier offering ferry rides to Cozumel. No worries if you didn’t bother with the currency exchange at the airport. American cash is eagerly accepted throughout the tourist areas.

The natural beauty and attractions of Playa del Carmen are enhanced even further by its history, which dates back to the Mayan civilizations of more than 2,000 years ago. Excursions to pyramids and other ancient ruins are available throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, with famous sites in Chichen Itza and Coba taking about two hours to reach. If distance is a factor, your best bet is the walled city of Tulum. It’s only a 40-minute drive down the coast and a prime photo spot, with an elevated castle overlooking the sea. If you’re short on time and prefer a taste of Mayan culture closer to the hotel, ask around. You may be surprised to come across a handful of small scattered ruins within Playacar itself.

A visit to the Jungle Maya Native Park is a welcome opportunity to explore what could be the longest network of underground rivers in the world. Snorkel through caves and learn to repel down a natural rock formation that opens wide to the pristine waters below. You can even make a “splash landing” with one of five zip-lines at the park. Along the way, you’ll experience various elements that reflect the culture of the land, including a smoke-filled blessing from a native shaman and a meal of authentic Mayan cuisine.

The timing couldn’t be better for a well-deserved vacation getaway to Playa del Carmen. The threat of hurricanes is over for the season and the weather is sunny with comfortably warm temperatures expected for months on end. It’s the perfect way to escape the winter chill of the Las Vegas desert, so book a flight and get ready for that shot of liquor waiting for you at the airport.

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