Mexico Vacation 2010: Playa del Carmen (Part 3)

This trip was originally posted in December 2010 on another blog that really wasn’t about travel, but was the only place I had to post it. Now that I finally have a place where it belongs, I’m happy to share the experience again.

Don’t miss the beginning of the trip…read about the trip in order.
Part 1
Part 2

Part 3 – Playa del Carmen

After a couple of days in colonial Merida and a few more in peaceful Mahahual, we were excited to start the final leg of the trip. Even better, my brother was able to arrange the weekend off so he was going to join us as we all went to Playa del Carmen for the first time.

With my brother behind the wheel of our rental car, we took off late on Friday afternoon to make the 3.5 hour drive from Mahahual to Playa. And even though our pre-trip planning was to avoid all driving at night, we again pulled into an unfamiliar city after dark. Like the previous two arrivals, we made a few wrong turns and had to ask for directions, but eventually found our way to our hotel.

Our Playa Hotel:

La Tortuga lit up at night

Continuing the quest for unique hotels rather than mega-resorts, we booked a room at La Tortuga Hotel. The online pictures of this 51 room hotel were pretty amazing, but it was even better in person. If I ever return to Playa for a romantic vacation, I will definitely book a room here again.

The winding pool resembled a lazy river surround by lush tropical plants and a few sitting areas with space for just a few people.

La Tortuga Hotel pool

I will admit that we were a bit disappointed with the cramped room after having such spacious rooms up to this point. And, with 3 of us sharing a room with 2 double beds, we found ourselves climbing over each other. With honestly no place to lay open even a single suitcase, we got creative putting two of the suitcases on the floor inside closets. We’re good sports and we didn’t plan to be in the room all that much anyway, so we figured we could manage.

Unfortunately, the reviews that said that the noise from being on the main strip didn’t spill into the room didn’t apply to ALL of the rooms. Our room had windows directly on a side street, and we heard noisy tourists heading back from the bars until around 2 am, and then the noise started up again at 5 am when all of the workers started heading to work.

Luckily, the staff at La Tortuga was very accommodating when I requested a change of rooms in the morning. They actually came up with 2 other options for the same price, both larger rooms (one was even a 2 bedroom townhouse style suite), plus they offered us a discounted rate to upgrade to a room with a balcony that overlooked the pool. For an additional $10 per night, we gladly took the upgrade.

La Tortuga upgraded room

3rd floor balcony overlooking the pool

Even with a poor night sleep the first night and the inconvenience of changing rooms, I still highly recommend the hotel. As long as you get a room with a balcony or a swim-up room, you shouldn’t have any problem with street noise and should have plenty of space.

The location was within blocks of everywhere we wanted to go, the staff was friendly and responsive, and they included a free breakfast that let you order off a menu.

They even seemed to have a bit of a happy hour where couples staying at the hotel socialized with each other.

Exploring Playa del Carmen:

Most people going to Playa would plan to spend most of their days at the beach, but I was traveling with my mom and my brother…neither of whom see a day laying in the sand as a good way to spend a vacation. So, we spent most of the time exploring the town’s shops and restaurants.

I love the way Playa is laid out compared to other beach resort Mexican towns. The main strip is Avenida 10, where most of the hotels (including ours) are located and is the 2nd block parallel to the beach. The street between Avenida 10 and the beach is a pedestrian cobblestone street (Avenida 5) lined with shops and stores and bars.

Compared to other places I have been in Mexico, including Cancun and Puerto Vallarto, Playa has a sophisticated feel to the city. From what I’ve read, it tends to have more European tourists compared to Cancun, and you can feel the difference.

We also had a rare treat on our first day in Playa. We took a walk a few blocks off the strip so my brother could buy a bus ticket back to Mahahual, and we managed to stumble upon a local parade for Mexican Revolution Day. Knowing nothing about the holiday, it was clear that this holiday celebrated the Mexican workers. We were treated by groups of cheerleaders of all ages, emergency workers and several unions.

Another highlight of the trip was the fire show on the beach held by the Blue Parrot Beach Club every night. We got there a little early and enjoyed a few beers at a table in the sand while we waited for the show to begin.

We also had some great meals in Playa. One night we went to a wonderful steakhouse where my brother and I both enjoyed the steak & lobster special for an unbelievably low price of $28 (normally $45). Our last night we took the advice of some other guests at our hotel and ate at Casa Mediterranea, a tiny Italian restaurant in a tucked away courtyard. The restaurant is owned by an Italian couple and features wonderful homemade pasta.

Casa Mediterrenea view from courtyard

Our Day at the Beach:

After a full week exploring Mexico, my mom and I spent our last day of the trip at the beach. All of the Playa beaches are open to the public, and as long as you buy a drink, you can pretty much use the beach chairs at any of the clubs.

Playa’s beaches are great for a few reasons. The white sand was pristine and easy to walk on without worrying about stepping on rocks or seaweed. The water was great with a soft sand bottom that made it fun to play in the waves.

But I think the thing that struck me the most is that we weren’t constantly approached by vendors trying to sell us something. In fact, I don’t think I saw a single person walking up and down the sand beach bothering tourists.

Of everything we did in Playa, the beachside massage that I got from Ramon was my very favorite thing. Only $18 for an hour, it was one of the best massages I have ever had.

Puerto Morelos:

Given the spirit of this trip was to let our rental car take us as many places as possible in a week, we decided to make one more stop on our last day before heading back to the airport in Cancun.

We read that a hurricane had come and knocked the historic lighthouse in Puerto Morelos askew and they had built a new one while keeping the old one as a landmark. The town’s biggest worry is that someday another hurricane will come along that will straighten the old lighthouse.

We enjoyed walking around this little fishing village town, shooting a few last pictures before heading for our flight home.

Fishing boats line the shore

Woman fishing on the pier by hand

Mom & me on the fishing pier

And because I couldn’t resist, I put together another video to capture the essence of the entire trip.

See more pictures of Playa del Carmen and the Mexico trip and the other video I made of the rope making tour.