Playa del Carmen Right Outside your Door: Small Hotels vs. All Inclusives
Posted by Tony & Cheri on January 11, 2011
You are going to Mexico! You have been dreaming of margaritas and white sand beaches in the beautiful seaside village of Playa Del Carmen. You’ve waited all year for this vacation and now you just have to decide where you will stay.
We’re Going to Playa! Now Where Should We Stay?
Playa Del Carmen has a large number of small boutique-style hotels throughout the resort/hotel zone which stretches along the shoreline of the Caribbean Sea. The resort/hotel zone goes from Juarez Avenue in the south to Calle 40 in the north and from Avenida 10 east to the beach. There are also many mega-resorts up and down the coast outside of town which list “Playa del Carmen” as their location. These generally are all-inclusive properties—which means the price you pay includes food, drinks and your room, much like the cruise ship vacation your great aunt Myrtle takes every year.
All inclusive resorts (called “AI’s”) have become quite popular in the travel industry. That popularity has been helped along by a tourist industry which too often places its fees ahead of your interests. Such resorts are often part of an international chain which can afford not only extensive advertising, but also to host and finance press junkets for travel writers and pay travel agents large commissions to steer their clients to them.
This is not to say that such a giant resort might not be right for you. But we think the decision should be based on what kind of vacation you want and not because someone else will make the most money from recommending a property to you.
Of course, we are not objective on the matter. We own one of the most popular small hotels in Playa del Carmen, the Luna Blue Hotel & Bar, and have long encouraged people to think about a visit to Mexico outside of some resort’s gated compound.
Over the years we’ve heard many reasons why people prefer AI vacations—generally by people who’ve never traveled any other way. The following is a list of those reasons, along with our own opinions and views. We hope it helps with your vacation planning.
The number one reason given by most people for choosing to stay in a gated, all-inclusive resort on Mexico’s Mayan Riviera is safety.
Some visitors are frightened by the sensationalized media portrayal of all of Mexico being engulfed in a violent drug war. Others are just concerned about possible problems of being on their own in a country where they don’t know the language or the culture. Both fears are understandable, but neither is a realistic view of Mexico’s Caribbean coast.
Playa del Carmen is Safe
Mexico’s drug wars are taking place primarily around Ciudad Juarez, a city near the border with the southwest United States. The violence and crime associated with that problem have not spread to the eastern coast some 3000 miles away. The Caribbean border state of Quintana Roo, which includes Cancun, Playa Del Carmen and Tulum, has a crime rate much lower than many large US cities. Playa Del Carmen is perfectly safe for any visitor, and there is no need for visitors to hide away in a fortress-like compound, avoiding and missing the true spirit and flavor of Mexico.
Likewise, finding yourself on your own without resources or help or unable to speak the language even to ask for assistance is simply not going to happen. Playa is a modern city. Many of the locals working in the hotels, restaurants and bars speak very good English. Well trained English-speaking doctors and health care workers are readily available. There is even a special branch of the police department called the “Tourist Police” that patrols the resort zone to help visitors with problems.
And if you should need assistance, you will find it easier to get help in a small hotel where you are a familiar face to the people working there than a large resort where you are just another room number in a crowd of hundreds or thousands.
Many people also think that an all inclusive experience offers the most convenient way to travel. They think that having shops, a beach club, bars and restaurants all in the same compound will make their vacation easier.
The truth is that the widest range of services and stores in the area are in downtown Playa within easy walking distance to the small hotels. Laundries, clothing stores, pharmacies, wine and liquor shops and souvenirs of all types are available in hundreds of stores lining Fifth Avenue. Even our Super Walmart is conveniently located just outside the central part of the downtown hotel zone. By staying in a boutique hotel in town you have not only convenience but also more choices. By staying in a mega resort outside of town (and very few of the AI resorts are within walking distance of town), you are limited to the choices available there on the resort grounds, and you must share those resources with the hundreds and possibly thousands of others staying there at the same time.
The same is true for restaurants, bars and cafes. With a few feet of any small hotel in town, you will discover limitless dining and drinking possibilities. For example, within one block of our own small Luna Blue Hotel, guests can find eight restaurants and three bars. A ten minute walk down 5th Avenue or in any direction will bring dozens more of all types and price ranges. The same can be said for any small hotel in Playa.
We think having access to several dozen restaurants of varying cuisines within a few minutes stroll is certainly more convenient than taking a long hike down to the food complex across the resort grounds to choose from a small group of restaurants, all of which share the same kitchen.
Visitors staying in town will find more beach clubs and find them more conveniently located than at a giant resort. For example, some rooms at a large resort like the Mayan Palace may require guests to take a shuttle bus or even two to get to the beach. Once there you may find the infamous “towel game” in full effect, i.e. when people rise early, go to the beach and “save” chairs with towels or personal items to use later in the day. As most large resorts do not have a beach chair for every guest, many beachgoers end up with no comfortable way to enjoy a day on the sand.
On the other hand, since the resort/hotel zone of downtown Playa parallels the beach it is only a short 5 minute walk from almost any small hotel in the area to the beach. And some hotels can even be found right on the beach. Once on the sand you will find Playa’s two main beaches (centro and norte) to be lined with beach clubs, bars and restaurants. Instead of having one beach club where you may not even get a chair, the person staying in town can pick a new beach club every day of their vacation. In short you are nearer to the beach and have more choices when staying in a small hotel in town.
People can get a little fussy about food. They know what they like, and many folks are not too willing to try something foreign or different. That need for some familiarity combined with the myth that “Montezuma Revenge” awaits anyone who eats in Mexico makes some people conclude it is safer and easier to eat at the buffet or American-style restaurants usually provided by the big AI resorts. Once again, this commonly held view turns out to be untrue.
The truth is that most large all-inclusive resorts will have at most three to five dining rooms (featuring steak, seafood, Mexican, or Asian food). In addition there will be a buffet or two and a couple of burger/pizza grills. One or two of the fancier restaurants will require reservations and have a dress code. Now compare this to what you can find in town.
Playa is a Food Lover’s Paradise
The number of restaurants available within a block or two of any small hotel will be in the dozens. The resort zone has literally several hundred choices of where to eat. One will find Thai, Spanish tapas, sushi, steak (Argentinean, American and Mexican style), and Italian (often featuring excellent homemade pasta from expat Italians). There is traditional Mexican food, French, fondue, vegetarian, seafood featuring fish caught that day, or lobsters fresh from the tank. You will find local specialties like lobster macaroni and cheese, coconut shrimp and marinated barbequed pork tacos. Street-side cafes offer fresh coffee and Mexico’s famous chocolate. There are grills with hamburgers and hot dogs, street carts with tacos and empanadas. And don’t forget the Italian bakeries and gelato stores. And of course there are some familiar names like Burger King, MacDonald’s, Johnny Rockets, Haagen Dazs, Starbucks and even Dairy Queen. Or you can even have Domino’s deliver a pizza to your hotel room.
Whether you will only eat the same food you know from back home or want to experiment with something new, you will find many times more restaurants within steps of your hotel than you will in any major resort. And it is perfectly safe to eat at these places.
Yes, it’s Safe
Playa Del Carmen has an efficient system of health inspection. Restaurants in town are held to the same high standard by the same government inspectors as the kitchens and dining rooms of the large all inclusive resorts. There is no more need to worry about your health when eating in town than when eating at a resort. In fact it might even be safer to eat at a restaurant in the resort zone where the meal is prepared when you order it instead of having food which has been sitting out in an AI buffet for hours.
And if drinking is a favorite pastime, you will certainly not go thirsty in Playa. You will find bars with swings, bars on the sand, bars with swimming pools, bars with dancing, bars with live entertainment and bars with big screen TVs showing the latest sports. A bar crawl with friends at an AI resort will most likely consist of a drink at the pool bar and one at the disco. In downtown Playa a bar crawl will become a fun filled fiesta stretching from one end of town or the beach to the other. And don’t worry about drinking the water. Purified water is provided in every restaurant in Playa’s resort zone, and ice in your drink is also purified. Most small hotels provide bottled drinking water for their guests.
Another concern which leads people to stay at an AI is their own lack of Spanish language skills and the fear they won’t be able to speak to the people around them. It’s a needless worry.
In Playa Del Carmen and all of the Riviera Maya, the number one source of income is tourism, primarily from English speaking countries. Over the years this has caused a Mexican national workforce to develop which is fluent not only in English but other languages as well. It is not unusual to find a waiter or bartender with limited formal education who can speak not only Spanish but also English and Mayan. He or she will probably have some knowledge of Italian and maybe even a smattering of French or German, as tourists speaking those languages are frequent visitors here. You will also find most restaurants have English language menus available.
Of course Spanish is the primary language of Mexico, so it should not be a surprise to visitors that it is spoken in most places and circumstances. And while many Mexicans will be glad to switch to English for you if they can, it is still nice to remember you are a visitor in a land with a different language from your own. So even if you can’t speak much Spanish, just try a little…such as “hola” (hello) or “por favor” (please) or “gracias” (thank you). After all, part of the adventure of a new land is negotiating a new language. At the very least it will earn you a smile.
And it would seem to go without saying that your chances of meeting, speaking to and interacting with locals is much more likely in town than at a gated resort that most Mexicans will never see the inside of.
In the end, after the issues of safety, convenience, food, and language have been shown to favor the small boutique hotel, it always boils down to money. Some people believe that an all inclusive is cheaper because the guest doesn’t have to pay for food and drinks. That is simply not true.
There is No Free Lunch
One doesn’t eat or drink for “free” at an AI. The price of what you will consume during your stay is factored into the price of the room. Those prices fluctuate greatly depending on the resort and on the time of year you are visiting Mexico. The truth is a stay in a small hotel in town, even adding in the cost of dining out, can easily be less expensive than the cost of staying at a large resort. More importantly, the small hotel can make decisions about discounts and upgrades on the spot. Rarely do they need to forward your requests up the corporate chain for a decision by someone not even in the same country.
AIs may occasionally offer what appear to be very low rates. However it is important to remember that those rates are per person, not per room like you’d find in a small hotel. And of course there are often extra fees—for towels, for use of sports and leisure equipment, and for those mysterious “resort fees.” Be sure to factor in all costs and fees, or you won’t be comparing apples to apples.
Playa Won’t Break Your Budget
If you’re concerned about cost, do a little research to look for the best deal. Look on the internet. Contact the hotels directly. Ask your travel agent’s advice. Go to tripadvisor.com and other travel-based websites. And don’t worry about paying for your own meals and drinks. After finding the small hotel that is right for you, you can be assured that the costs of dining out in Playa will still be very low. Most of the restaurants in Playa are mid-range to outright cheap. Sure, you can find a four star, multi-course dinner for top price, but if budget is your issue, you can find plenty of places to stretch your dining dollars. Eating and drinking well for little money is a tradition in Mexico that has been passed on to its visitors.
A One of a Kind Experience
And a vacation is not just about cost. People work hard for their money and want a quality experience when they take some time off. Cheapest is not always the best. And if you’re looking for a unique experience customized to your interests, you won’t find it in an AI. Why? Because large resorts are generally owned by international corporations which standardize their services and costs. Food is mass produced—often ahead of time—in order to serve thousands of meals each day. Accommodations must be of the same mass-manufactured design so that furniture and fixtures are interchangeable. Tours, activities and events are chosen and marketed to the guests based exclusively on the commission paid to the hotel, and steps are often taken to limit the guests’ access to other activities.
And often any spirit of the people or culture is eliminated when creating cost-effective generic resorts. You might be in an AI in Orlando one day and in one in Mexico the next and not be able to tell the difference.
You can choose an AI and have a “cookie cutter” hotel experience similar to every other hotel or resort. Or, you can choose a small hotel vacation and have a unique, one-of-a-kind experience You can stay in cabanas right on the beach or in a classic Mexican posada, experience the trendy hip vibe of a modern Euro-style hotel, or settle into a quaint, peaceful Caribbean bed and breakfast set amidst a tropical garden. It will be a vacation unlike any other you have had. And you will remember it forever.
It’s Your Vacation; It Should be Your Choice
In the end, if you’re planning a trip south of the border, you should consider the type of experience you want to enjoy. If you choose to come to Mexico because of its physical beauty, because of its rich culture, or because of its unique traditions and heritage…and if you want the adventure of new experiences and to meet and get to know people who live life differently than you do…then don’t lock yourself away in a gated high-rise resort. As a friend once remarked to us, “There is more to Mexico than what you can see from the lobby bar of a big resort.”
Consider a stay at a small hotel in Playa Del Carmen where the flavor, the adventure, and the people of Mexico are right outside your door.
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