Wednesday, April 10, 2019

From Me to Yucatan: Recapping a Trip to Playa del Carmen with Excursions to Chichen Itza, Tulum and Cozumel

Vacation Review

Playa del Carmen, Yucatan, Mexico
Hotel Riu Palace Riviera Maya
All-Inclusive Resort
Day excursions to Chichen Itza, Tulum and Cozumel
March 31-April 4, 2019

Yes, it seems somewhat odd to award a rating to a vacation--on the Seth Saith scale of @@@@@--like I do with concerts, theater and other performances.

But while I will cite some things that didn't thrill me about this trip--and probably devote considerable word space to the negatives--I want to make it clear that I enjoyed myself far more than not.

Sure, it isn't coincidental that it has taken until age 50, with numerous adventures near and far under my belt, for me to go on a trip based around the beach, a resort and/or a cruise.

It sounds silly to say, but relaxing on vacation just isn't my thing.

No slight to those who prefer such trips--and I can now more acutely see the appeal--but I tend to venture alone as I do not have a romantic partner, nor any close friends with whom I regularly travel.

I barely drink and don't dance or club. I can't swim and don't partake in much physical recreation, in or out of the water. Given the choice of hanging out by a pool or visiting a stellar art museum, I will opt for the latter almost always.

But even though the resort part of this trip to Playa del Carmen was really only a means for getting to visit Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza and Tulum--and there were hiccups in both aspects--I can't deny that it was quite pleasurable in most regards.

After a long stretch--i.e. winter--of cold and crummy Chicago weather, the warmth, sunshine and scenery offered by Playa del Carmen and the Hotel Riu Palace Riviera Maya were wonderful.

Each of the five days of my trip, I did lie out by the pool and go in the water, and a couple times went onto the beach and--very minorly--into the Atlantic. (There was a ton of seaweed in the water and on the beach, so even if I were a swimmer, I'd have largely abstained.)

I got a sun tan, drank a few strawberry daquiris and enjoyed having all my meals--sans one off-site splurge I'll detail below--included in the lump-sum vacation package price offered through Travelocity.

Including round-trip flights to/from Chicago's O'Hare airport, this was about $1,200--and would've been an even better deal if I drank a whole lot more.

As it was, I found it to be rather fair and worthwhile.

Before booking the trip, having heard about Playa del Carmen's Quinta Avenida--"5th Avenue"--being a fun if touristy shopping street, I was looking at staying at either the Hilton or Grand Hyatt that virtually abutted the strip while also offering beachfront access.

But these two noted brands were a bit pricey and in learning that my barbers--a husband and wife couple--had visited Playa del Carmen multiple times, I took their advice to stay in a Riu property in the Playacar district, about a 5-minute cab ride south of the main part of Playa del Carmen.

They actually recommended the Riu Palace Mexico, a few blocks from the Riu Palace Riviera Maya--and amid the Riu Tequila, Riu Yucatan, Riu Playacar and Riu Lupita--but even as it is soon to undergo renovations, the Riu Palace Riviera Maya seemed to be the nicest of these.

And especially for about $500 less than the Hilton or Hyatt, for an all-inclusive stay, it seemed--as my barbers noted--to make sense not to be so close to the noise and hubbub of Quinta Avenida if I didn't intend to partake in the nightlife.

With a few qualms I'll enunciate, I think the Riu Palace Riviera Maya was a good choice, and gave it @@@@ (out of 5) in this review on TripAdvisor.

With a security checkpoint for any cars coming into the Playacar district, the hotel felt very safe, and I didn't mind it being away from town.

Even if I didn't use the beach much, I liked that the resort had its own beachfront access with lounge chairs attended by its wait staff.

The exterior appearance of the hotel, with its multiple pools and tons of palm trees, was gorgeous, and the lobby rather splendid.

The main restaurant--the Don Manolo buffet open for breakfast, lunch and dinner--had generous offerings, if a bit starch-heavy like most buffets, and I found the specialty restaurants to provide decent if not quite spectacular dinners.

These included a Brazilian churrascaria--the cuts of meat weren't as good or diverse as at Fogo de Chao, but were sufficient--a Japanese restaurant I enjoyed and Agave, featuring Mexican food.

There is also a poolside restaurant called Chili's--not the chain--where I ate after arrival after 3:00pm on Sunday, plus a fusion specialty restaurant, a sports bar and free room service.

After days in the sun or large breakfast and/or lunch buffets, my dinners at the hotel were typically a bit on the lighter side, but I think @@@@ (out of 5) is a fair assessment of the food offerings at the Hotel Riu Palace Riviera Maya. (As a guest there, I was welcome to visit any other Riu property for lunch, but never bothered.)

Because I was a bit knackered on my first evening, and had early-departing day tours on Tuesday and Wednesday, I only caught the Riu's featured entertainment offering on Wednesday evening.

This was a circus/magic show, which had some talented performers, but wasn't so amazing overall.

But I really liked that each night, live musicians performed upon a central gazebo a bit earlier in the evening, with jazz, mariachi and more.

I stayed in a Junior Suite, the smallest room size, but it was sizable enough and generally comfortable.

The pool area and pools themselves were fantastic, with points for lounge chairs that never threatened to tip as I maneuvered to get my fat ass out of them.

And for the most part, the staff of the Riu Palace Riviera Maya was delightful, with almost everyone offering a pleasant greeting every time they passed. A bellman/greeter named Paulinho was particularly cool.

But the front desk staff didn't offer much warmth, and their failure to seamlessly resolve a few small issues made this "relaxing stay" not perfectly so.

After my arrival from Cancun International Airport--via a pre-arranged shared Local Expert van--upon check-in a bellman let me into my room. But after changing into shorts and putting on flip-flops, I found that the key cards I was given did not in fact work.

Trudging back to the lobby as the flip-flops hurt my feet--I don't wear them often--I got another set of keys that also didn't work, and had to trundle back once again.

A staff member then joined me at my room and, after about 20 minutes, fixed the faulty lock.

Though this too is relatively ticky-tack, it bothered me that the power outlet next to my bed--where I would intend to charge my phone and have it next to me as I went to sleep & awoke--was extremely loose in terms of holding the plug prongs.

I told the front desk about this and a maintenance man attempted to fix it, but didn't. Fortunately I was able to live with it, but didn't like going to bed unsure if my phone and camera batteries would charge through the night.

At the Don Manolo buffet one day, a cheeseburger patty looked good, but there were no buns anywhere nearby. And it took two requests, two people and 20 minutes to get one.

Given that on Wednesday, I had to catch a tour bus to Chichen Itza at 5:00am, I requested a 4:15am wake-up call.

It never came.

Fortunately I had planned on this, and used my phone alarms.

In the whole scheme of things, well-beyond this particular hotel stay, these are rather piddly problems. But I did pay over $200 per night, and think it fair to note ways in which the Hotel Riu Palace Riviera Maya fell short of my expectations. And, IMHO, didn't work to resolve them with much kindness or chutzpah.

Beyond the resort, things were a similarly mixed bag. Absolutely astonishing in some ways; somewhat disappointing in others.

Monday, after a buffet breakfast, I took a cab to the main drag of Playa del Carmen, beginning at an outdoor shopping center near Quinta Avenida, and starting to stroll from there.

With Starbucks, Old Navy, Nike, Sunglass Hut, etc., etc., it didn't exactly feel authentically Mexican and past every smaller shop, I was cajoled to come on in.

So, much sooner than what I expected would be a good bit later, I opted to take a ferry to Cozumel at Noon.

It's only about a 30-minute ride and beyond enjoying being outside on a boat on a warm day--fortunately I didn't get seasick like the woman next to me--it made me flash back to going whale watching from Boston last August. I like how travels can connect in my memory like that.

I really don't know what I was intending to explore in Cozumel, which had 4 cruise ships docked and seemed to largely offer touristy shops like I had left in Playa del Carmen.

But I had heard that the coral reefs off Cozumel were spectacular, and though unable to see them as a scuba diver, snorkeler or swimmer, I was easily cajoled to buy a ticket on a glass bottom boat (as I had done likewise at Australia's Great Barrier Reef years ago).

I knew other tourists would be on the boat, but what I didn't realize was that everyone except one would go snorkeling with the tour leader.

And that though I did see some beautiful blue sea and some coral and fish I wouldn't have otherwise, the dirty glass bottom was pretty disappointing for viewing and photography.

I also didn't realize--and was assured otherwise by the ticket seller--that the small boat would be so topsy-turvy, and that I would get largely soaked.

Not a disaster, but it was 2 hours on a boat ride that was mainly for snorkeling and really only worth about 30 minutes of my time and a good deal less than the $30 I paid. I was going to complain to the ticket sellers afterwards, but couldn't find them.

After the boat ride, which followed a boat ride, I spent a few minutes going to a Hard Rock Cafe that was only a souvenir store--and over-priced bar; a 7-UP was $6 so I passed--then walked around the main tourist square a bit and got back on a boat to return to Playa del Carmen.

Giving credit to an enterprising local who recognized that a fat, white, solo American traveler was a prime candidate for a customer, I agreed to let him take me on a bike taxi from the ferry dock down a good stretch of Quinta Avenida.

Feeling somewhat sheepish and somewhat like royalty--perhaps penny "royal tea"--I didn't notice any stores, restaurants or bars I wanted to peruse or patronize, but did appreciate it being a popular pedestrian pathway (for most).

I got out near the Hilton but only saw its sign, before buying some souvenirs and catching a car taxi back to the Riu Palace, where I would eat dinner at the Japanese restaurant.

Though I could have booked my day tours at the hotel, given that Chichen Itza was the impetus for this trip, I booked a tour ahead of time through Viator, a website I've frequently used with satisfaction.

Viator, which is now part of TripAdvisor, doesn't run tours, or at least most of them. So the tour I booked--which was to take me to Chichen Itza on Tuesday and Tulum on Wednesday (as two separate outings from Playa del Carmen--was with an outfit called Amigo Tours, with whom I had gone to Teotihuacan from Mexico City in 2015.

For under $79, the two-day combo tour seemed like a really good deal, as seemingly comparable tours offered from the hotel to Chichen Itza were just $119.

But, planning to be picked up for Chichen Itza by 5:00am on Tuesday, on Monday I had an email from Viator/Amigo informing me that my Wednesday trip to Tulum had been canceled for unexplained reasons..

Fortunately, I was able to get in touch and--still really not knowing what the Wednesday problem was, and scheduled to fly home Thursday--was able to flip the days.

But this minor problem made me nervous about more substantive ones with Amigo, especially when the van that was to pick me up for Tulum at 7:00am didn't show up...until 7:15am and two phone calls later.

I also didn't realize the van that picked me up would take me to a larger tour bus, with far more passengers and the tour guide. (Not that this was a problem.)

Let me say here that I went on the tour to Tulum, and likewise Chichen Itza, wanting to learn some of the Mayan history.

And I realize a tour will be a balance between being shown the sights and simply hearing the history, and each person on the tour may wish for this to be calibrated a bit differently.

On Tuesday in Tulum, my Amigo Tours guide--a knowledgeable and professional man of Mayan descent going by the nickname of Cat--gave an informative tour, complete with several pictures & graphics he brought along.

And though it was early in the day, perhaps he was cognizant of the sun and rising heat. But, with the first half-hour at Tulum spent standing in one spot listening to him, I didn't feel he showed us around enough.

Especially as I was admittedly there primarily for the photography.

While I did wind up getting most of the shots I wanted, with some free time as the end, for me it was a good but not great tour.

What remains of the Mayan seaside city is striking, and I appreciated the insights Cat provided, but I just wish I had a bit more time to wander freely at Tulum.

Both the amazing sights I did see and photograph, and the disappointment over what I didn't, were even more pronounced the next day, at Chichen Itza.

Even without my requested wake-up call being handled by the Riu staff, I was up in plenty of time to catch the van at 5:00am, which--as with the Tulum tour--took me to a more populated tour bus. Fortunately, the van was on time and there was no confusion or worry.

I think it took us about 2-1/2 hours to reach Chichen Itza, allowing for some sleep along the way, yet getting us there early enough to be among the first two groups on the sacred grounds.

Our guide on this day, Frank--also a man of Mayan descent--was, like Cat the day before, informative and professional, but not particularly friendly or perceptive to the varying whims of the tour members.

And while I would have like to have said to him that while I was looking forward to listening to his explanations, I was admittedly there for photography and might occasional wander as such, his continuous narrative never provided me the chance.

So while I'll forever be thankful that I got to see Chichen Itza--and its glorious pyramid, El Castillo--on a beautiful day, initially without any crowds, I'm genuinely chagrined that Frank never led the group to, or suggested that I go see, a secondary but also monumental part of the grounds.

Certainly, I won't absolve myself, as at any point I was at liberty to ditch Frank and the tour--and honestly, in the moment, was oblivious to wanting to see the the El Caracol observatory, Las Monjas complex and more, though I had read about them--but I really did want to hear about the Mayan history and not be rude.

I don't know if companies such as Amigo Tours are limited to a certain amount of time on site per tour, of if the low cost of my 2-day tour factored in.

But after initially giving us 10 minutes to photograph El Castillo and whatever else we could see, Frank organized us back and led a 2-hour tour, saying we would have an hour on our own. But that was an hour including a 15-minute walk back to the tour bus.

I loved what I did see--including the Temple of the Warriors (though simply from the front; I would've valued more time here) and the Great Ball Court, where losing players were beheaded back in the day--so can't complain about where Frank did take us and the history he shared.

But if you click the El Caracol and Las Monjas links above to images on the Wikipedia entry for Chichen Itza, you should see that I missed some really great stuff (especially as a photography nut who likes to publish calendars from my trips).

Again, I'm largely to blame, as A) I was delighted with my time at Chichen Itza in the moment and not consciously aware of what I wasn't seeing; and B) I used my free 45 minutes to walk 15 minutes to see a Cenote (water hole) and buy some souvenirs from the gauntlet merchants, making it back to the bus with just 2 minutes to spare.

But I feel like I should've been told about these adjoining sights--it would've been a 5-10 minute walk through a clearing--and, if not taken on the tour, provided an extra half-hour to see them.

Now, although I was there just a week ago, I feel like I need to plan another trip to Chichen Itza and see it on my own timetable.

To be clear, while disappointed, I am neither distraught nor irate. I often say about traveling, enjoy what you see and don't rue what you don't.

And I'll have to follow my advice, especially as in the moment, my visit to Chichen Itza was wonderful. (It wasn't until later that evening that it dawned on me that I missed seeing the observatory.)

It's just a bit of a shame. (Hence, this review on TripAdvisor and this on Viator.)

Especially as I was back at my hotel by 3:00 and after getting some dessert from the lunch buffet, taking a nap and hanging by the pool, I still had plenty of time to kill before my 8:00pm dinner reservation, which required a 20-minute cab ride.

Now, it might seem like dinner after visiting Chichen Itza would be an afterthought, but not only had I planned for it to come after visiting Tulum--a much closer trip from/to Playa del Carmen--it was actually one of the highlights of my trip.

I don't truly consider myself a foodie, but when within reason, I like to try restaurants that are considered exquisite, including years ago Charlie Trotter's and Alinea in Chicago, and numerous notable places in New York City: Le Bernadin, Aureole, The Four Seasons, Nobu, Le Cirque, Jean-Georges, Cosme.

Understanding it isn't gospel, I like to reference the World's 50 Best Restaurants annual rankings, and in recent years it's helped me visit Pujol in Mexico City and both Maido and Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Peru.

Playa del Carmen is not represented on this list, even as it extends to a Top 100, but the rarefied list of AAA 5-diamond rated restaurants is another point of reference I respect. (Before I seem too snooty, let me say that I love McDonald's, hot dog stands, taco joints, etc., but respect the culinary arts as an creative pursuit I occasionally like to taste. )

Passion by Martin Berasategui is one of just two restaurants in PdC to receive 5 Diamonds--Cocina de Autor is the other--and is located in another all-inclusive resort, the Paradisus, which I believe does not include it in its all-inclusions.

So I had made a reservation there for 8pm on Wednesday, but was accommodated when I arrived a bit past 7:00pm (I didn't see much of Paradisus, which seemed more elegant than the Riu Palace Riviera Maya but didn't make me envious.)

Though a la carte service is available, the 7-course tasting menu was appealing, quintessential and--
though about $100--considerably less expensive than many prix fixe meals (I spent more at both Maido and Astrid y Gaston).

On my Facebook page, I posted pictures course by course, so I won't be so detailed here.

But while I don't think all of the relatively small courses were as imaginative as at Maido, or for the memories as at Picasso in Las Vegas, everything I ate was superb.

My waiter, Juan--who claimed to be a Bears fan when I told him I was from Chicago--was great, and the myriad, often richly-blended flavors I savored served to remind why I like to work high-end dining into palate when opportunity and budget allow.

I gave Passion by Martin Berasategui--the Spanish chef has restaurants around the world and was likely not on site--@@@@@ in this review on TripAdvisor.

So despite Chichen Itza being a tad disappointing once I had time to consider what I had and hadn't seen, I literally ended the day with a good taste in my mouth.

Back at my hotel, I was able to see some of the mainstage entertainment, but though some of the magic was impressive, I didn't last long.

The next day, Thursday, I didn't leave the hotel until it was time to go to the airport around 2:30pm.

This gave me a bit more time to lounge by the pools, go down to the beach and eat at Don Manolo--reminding me that there was much I'd enjoyed about the trip--but nothing that requires further detail here.

Unlike the outbound flight, which was direct from Chicago, my return included a connection in Dallas, which was a bit too tight, especially given DFW's confusing signage.

But like just about everything else regarding this trip, it was far better than it could've been, if not quite perfect.

This resort vacation came at a perfect time, and I'm entirely grateful I was able to go on it.

In a nutshell, to someone who didn't care deeply, I could comfortably say the trip "was great."

For in many ways it was. But for the few who've read this far, I'm happy to have given a fuller picture.


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