Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Month: April 2019

Resort Review: Riu Palace Mexico – Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

Located in the upscale gated residential, resort and luxury golf club community of Playacar 3 kilometers south of Playa Del Carmen, Mexico the  434-room Riu Palace Mexico will delight beach lovers with its stunning stretch of sand while its extensive all-inclusive amenities are outstanding if not quite palatial.

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My first impression of the family-friendly Riu Palace Mexico is one of loud Las Vegas-like luxury with a soaring lobby adorned with acres of marble and a purple design theme that runs throughout the resort following an extensive 2012 renovation. Garish may not be the right word and too harsh a critique but ‘understated elegance’ isn’t how I’d describe the Riu Palace Mexico.

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A welcome drink at check-in is always a nice touch but less so is having to wear a plastic wristband for the duration of the stay as this is becoming increasingly rare at luxury all-inclusive resorts.

The assigned room 2134 is a second floor Junior Suite at the end of the accommodation building nearest the beach and features two double beds and a lower level loveseat and desk with handy outlet to use or recharge devices. The complimentary Wi-Fi for up to 4 devices with the username and password  included in the welcome packet given to guests upon check-in.

A light cotton sheet was all that the firm but comfortable beds are fitted with but unless you set the air conditioning to deep freeze level it should be all that’s needed.  A ceiling fan is a good alternative to cool the space enough without cranking up the AC.

I did appreciate the heavy drapes blocked out more Mexican sunlight  than I expected allowing this light sensitive sleeper to sleep in past dawn as is rarely the case at most tropical hotels & resorts.

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The open concept bathroom with a jetted tub may in the middle of the room not be to everyone’s liking however the vanity with dual sinks did come in handy. The toilet is hidden in a small water closet behind a white door and while not roomy serves its purpose.

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The large shower stall with shower wand and rainfall shower head is behind a frosted glass door and purple glass tiles but has only one small light so I found it on the dark side in the morning with the drapes pulled.

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There is a wall-mounted multipurpose body wash and shampoo but extra lotion, shampoo and conditioner on the vanity.

One brand trademark of Riu resorts is what I call the “medicine cabinet”, a wall-mounted liquor dispenser just above the coffeemaker and mini-bar stocked daily with cans of beer and soda.

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The view from the smallish balcony with two plastic chairs of the central courtyard with reflecting pools and fountains is good but because there is a set back of the accommodation from the swimming pools and beach the resort doesn’t have ocean view rooms or suites.

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The room does offer a large laptop friendly wall safe in the closet and plenty of hangars and drawers to hold all my tropical beach and resort wear.

A big screen TV has dozens of channels and even some in English but it was barely on the whole four night stay as there are more than enough activities and evening entertainment around the grounds to keep me occupied.

There are some room quirks I found such as an array of light switches everywhere but it’s comfortable and user-friendly enough to serve as a good base. Hallways in the block-long accommodation buildings do amplify sounds but an absence of loud late night revelers made for very good sleep quality.

The biggest deciding factor about the room is its modern open concept so for those wanting an enclosed bathroom and a more traditional design the Riu Palace Riviera Maya is a few hundred meters down the beach .

Playacar Beach is miles long and deep with a gorgeous grove of towering palm trees and plenty of shady lounge chairs for everyone.

photo by author

photo by author

This was my favorite spot between the resort pools and the waters edge as it was an uncrowded and quiet oasis visiting only occasionally by waiters taking drink orders and the odd brown agouti, a large but timid rodent relative of the guinea pig found throughout Central and  South America.

photo by author

photo by author

The Sargassum seaweed that has fouled Caribbean beaches in recent years has washed up in the Playacar beaches making swimming in the sea impractical for all but an intrepid few. The ankle deep brown plants are removed by resort staff daily by hand and skid-steer loader but there’s only so much that can be done to keep up with the volume that washes up all along the Riviera Maya.

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video by author

The Riu Palace Mexico’s pools are clustered just off the beach with two pools, one adult only and the other family friendly, flanking a central pool with a swim-up bar that comes complete with tiled lounge chairs, stools and a  long pool table.

photo by author

photo by author

I noticed an innovative sun shade design in the metal trellises around the main pools with a screen that could be opened or closed like a window blind to allow or block the sun from guests occupying the loungers.


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It wasn’t too hard to find a spot by the pools or beach although inevitably there were the early risers who reserved their spots early in the morning.

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One disappointment for me was the lack of a quiet adult pool as a DJ stand was set up between the two main pools at the El Palmeral swim-up pool bar with the tunes going throughout the day but for those who like lots of pool games and music this active environment would be to their liking.

A central plaza served as the evening entertainment zone with a variety of local and imported bands entertaining the assembled guests. One Cubano band was a particular favorite.

 

Some resorts I’ve stayed at leave printed daily activities calendar in each guest room however the Riu has several touch screen information kiosks in the main building and lobby.

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The main buffet restaurant Don Julian is open for breakfast 7 – 11 AM and for supper 6:30 – 10 PM.  I liked that diners could choose between an indoor and covered outdoor patio section.

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The beef tenderloin I had at the fusion restaurant Krystal Restaurant was among the best main courses I’ve had at an all-inclusive but the same can’t be said however about the chocolate  dessert calzone on another night at the Italian La Dolce Vita Restaurant as the dough was too  thick to consume with a fork. Maybe I should’ve opted for the more traditional tiramisu.


photo by author

photo by author

The steak at the beachfront Steak House Guacamole was tasty but a little overdone (more well done than the medium I’d ordered) while I ran out of time to try the Japanese Miyagi and Mexican La Bodega specialty restaurants.

The family-friendly Riu Palace Mexico does offer a supervised kids activity play place called Riu Land which comes complete with outdoor kiddie pool and indoor kid’s club.

photo by author

photo by author

Guests of the two palace resorts in theory have access to the facilities at the five others adjacent or nearby Riu resorts however upon check-in the Hotel Riu Lupita was crossed off the resort map (see the resort complex map here) and was advised that we needed to stay within our own resort for specialty restaurant and morning buffet breakfast dining.

I visited the adjacent Hotel Riu Yucatan which was hotel chain’s first property in Mexico when it opened in 1997 and underwent its own renovation in 2013 and found the main pools near the beach quite crowded but there is an uncrowded quiet pool just off the resort’s main lobby. The resort has a number of individual walk-up villas instead of the large “U” shaped main building and accommodation wings as at the Palace resorts. The inter-resort exchange privileges are a perk better utilized on longer stays.

My stay at the Riu Palace Mexico was very enjoyable as I was able to find a quiet beach lounge chair in which to devour a few paperback books and while away the first few days doing almost nothing. I’d rate this as a solid four plus star all-inclusive resort but it just doesn’t compare to the true five-star resorts that aren’t far away within the Riviera Maya corridor.

Find a Riu Palace Mexico resort map here.

Pros

  • Miles of glorious white sand beach
  • Four swimming pools including one for adults only with swim-up bar
  • Kids’ club, playground, and swimming pool
  • Renovated rooms have liquor dispensers and jetted tubs
  • One buffet and five specialty restaurants and seven lounges and bars
  • Exchange privileges with other neighboring Riu resorts
  • 24-hour all-inclusive plan
  • Live entertainment in a central courtyard
  • Complimentary Wi-Fi throughout the resort

Cons

  • Lack of a quiet adult pool
  • Bathrooms with a modern open concept may not be to all guests liking
  • Seaweed on the beach
  • Plastic wristbands
  • Big rooms, small balconies

 

 

the

Ek’ Balam ruins and cenote swim day-trip from Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

An adventure appetizer with a Mayan culture main course jumped out at me from the day-tour menu while researching options during an all-inclusive resort holiday in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico and this moveable feast of a fun-filled day was the highlight of the trip!

Friends recommended I bypass the crush of the crowds at the Chichen Itza Mayan ruins and head instead to Ek’ Balam, a Mayan city that hits its zenith long before its more famous neighbor and the advice was on the money with the bonus being a second stop for a swim in the cool, crystal clear waters of the largest cenotes in the Yucatan.

The USD$120 advertised tour price on Cancun Vacations Experts is more than I expected to pay but as it includes resort pick-up and drop-off and a buffet lunch along with park entrance fees I confirmed a reservation for a friend and I but had two surprises come the tour date and time. Despite booking with Cancun Vacation Experts an Alltournative tour bus  came to collect us at the appointed hour and the tour leader Irvin also advised that his company was the tour provider regardless of who the tour was booked through. He also said that the itinerary as shown online with the Ek’ Balam visit in the morning followed by the Cenote Maya Native Park stop in the early afternoon was being reversed for tour company logistical reasons. A few passengers myself included wondered aloud about the change of plans which meant a morning swim and walk through the ruins in the heat of the afternoon but thanks to a partly cloudy day the concerns proved unfounded.

Cenote Maya Native Park is a two-hour, 170 kilometer journey due east of Playa Del Carmen near the town of Valladolid and a warm welcome from a Mayan shaman awaited us when we entered the jungle. As cenotes are considered scared places in popular Mayan culture, the shaman’s blessing ceremony gives permission for guests to enter and wishes them Malo Kin, or ‘good day’ in the Mayan language.

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The park star attraction is the Ik Kil Cenote which is the largest in the Yucatan and arguably one of the most beautiful cenote in Mexico measuring 60 meters in diameter with a water depth of  40 meters.  The stories of human sacrifice to the rain god who filled the sacred cenote ran through my head as I geared up to rappel the 26 meters from the rim to the cool waters below.

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The rappel was an adrenaline-pumping way to reach water level and I was happy to overcome my fear of heights however for those unwilling or unable to make this kind of entrance there’s a wooden staircase available.

The cenote is almost completely shaded from the Mayan sun and so the waters are cool and clear having been filtered through layers of limestone. The green tint makes for a magical feel of this cathedral sized cave.

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There are a number of diving platforms within the cenote as well as  a short zip-line.

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After playing in the water, a traditional Mayan lunch complete with handmade tortillas awaits visitors.

photo by author

photo by author

The sturdy lunch after a morning of activities was enjoyed, especially the chicken and orange coloured honey potatoes.

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The meal excludes beer which is available for USD$5 and despite the premium price I felt a small reward was in order so enjoyed a cold bottle of the local Cerveza Montejo.

Park photographers snap your picture a number of times during your visit which are available for sale but at USD$16 for one souvenir action shot and $50 for a DVD with up to a dozen photos was too pricey for my liking and passed. I wore a GoPro HERO5 Session camera mounted on a head strap as only actions cams with either head or chest mounts are permitted in the cenote.

An hour drive away are the Mayan ruins of Ek’ Balam, a Mayan city dating as far back as 100 BC but  whose zenith was reached between 700-1,200 BC. Ek ‘ Balam, Mayan for ‘black jaguar’, is comprised of 45 structures which were lost to the jungle until the late 1800’s when rediscovered by French explorer and archaeologist Désiré Charnay but not fully excavated until a century later.

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The Alltournative guides explained that the dominant structures in all Mayan cities are mistakenly called pyramids but as they lack a triangular shape that converges into a single peak should instead be referred to as temples.

Structure 1 or the Acropolis stands 32 meters high and its top level may be reached by climbing 106 steep stone steps making it unique as most other prominent Mayan sites in the Yucatan including Chichen Itza may no longer be climbed.

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The climb to the summit of the temple affords a memorable view over the tree tops of the Mayan jungle and an excellent view of the site below.

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On a clear day the tops of the temples of Coba and Chichen Itza can be seen in the distance but I failed to spot them as the clouds covered the horizon.

The temple, which was an earthen mound until excavations began in 1998, is believed to  contain the tomb of Ukit Kan Leʼk Tokʼ, an important Mayan ruler, and about halfway up the structure – a welcome spot to catch your breath during the climb – the intricate carving that adorns the tomb facade can be seen. The main tomb entrance is carved to resemble the mouth of a jaguar reminding all of the ruler’s power.

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There’s a good view of the temple from the Oval Palace near the Entrance Arch to the site.

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The 2-hour visit to Ek’ Balam includes a guided visit and free time and was enough to take it all in and not feel rushed. While an estimated 2.1 million people visited Chichen Itza in 2017 by comparison a tiny fraction of that number experience Ek’ Balam annually and during my visit an inexact head count found no more than 40 visitors and guides. For those history and culture buffs wanting to walk and climb ancient Mayan ruins while avoiding the crowds at other sites I’d highly recommend visiting Ek’ Balam.

Alltournative tour leader Irvin talks a little about what makes this day tour unlike others.

video by author

Irvin provided an excellent introduction into the Mayan culture and  I appreciated his approachable and personable tour leader style as it made it seem that our small group of eight  was travelling with him rather than his simply being our driver/guide. His choice of classic 80’s and 90’s tunes during the longer drives between Playa Del Carmen and the Yucatan sites was music to my old ears and is another reason why I enjoyed the day tour so much. The combination of the active adventure at the cenote and history lesson at Ek’ Balam was a perfect balance so would highly recommend Alltournative for this an other Yucatan tours.

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