Current political rhetoric regarding Mexico aside — which is actually hurting our travel industry, not theirs — Playa Del Carmen is a strip of Caribbean shoreline filled with beautiful beaches, pristine waters, cultural artifacts and a recent aura of, well, hipness. Located smack in the middle of spring-break mecca Cancún and hippie paradise Tulum, Playa del Carmen is a happy medium that offers travelers access to both the bacchanalia of a younger crowd and the cool factor of the more discerning, adult traveler. And it’s just a few hours from almost anywhere in the U.S.
Basically, it’s the rare resort where you can pick and choose your vacation style (provided you like sun). For our tour we checked out the IBEROSTAR Grand Hotel Paraiso, an all-inclusive just 30 minutes from the Cancun airport. According to the hotel’s general manager, Alberto Herrera, the resort is geared toward couples from a wide range of ages (30-60). While there are family-friendly areas within the larger property, the Grand Hotel is blissfully kids-free. It’s also, apparently, great for weddings (they limit those to one per day).
The average stay in the area is 3-4 nights, or, according to Herrera, “two weeks if you’re from Europe or Canada.” Since we’re not from a country that’s cool with extended vacation, we did the three-night plan and tried to squeeze in as much of the surrounding area as we could.
Rushed vacay aside, both Iberostar and Playa del Carmen offered us the most relaxing moment we've had this year, our best outdoor adventure (which was deep underground) and our strangest single travel moment.
With all that in mind, here's your game plan.
You Might Not Want to Leave the Resort
Iberostar is actually five resorts in one: The Grand Hotel is merely the snazziest (and adults-only) location within the larger community. But as a guest at the Paraiso, you have access to all the restaurants, bars and amenities offered by the other four properties-within-a-property.
There’s a reason the resort, which opened in 2007, has racked up awards (recently winning the "Best All-Inclusive Resort” from Apple Vacations and, a few years back, from TripAdvisor). The Grand Hotel offers oceanfront suites with private balconies, pristine beaches, dozens of ridiculously good restaurants and access to pretty much any land or water sport you can imagine, from golf to diving. Oh, and your own butler.
You’ll want a master plan to conquer the resort. Golf carts and mini-shuttles will help you get around, whether you’re navigating the property’s 15+ bars (yours truly tried to hit ‘em all and failed spectacularly), multiple pools or multiple gastronomical delights — somehow, in three days, I encountered the best steak I’ve ever had outside of New York, a three-hour Italian feast that left me breathless and some elevated street tacos. We missed it, but apparently some Michelin-star chefs have been stopping by the property for pop-up dinners as well.
Oh, and when you get lost (and you will), you might make a new friend.
Actually, You Might Not Want to Leave Your Room
With 310 suites (including 120 oceanfront “grand suites," some secluded villas and two Presidential suites), the Grand Hotel certainly doesn’t lack for great living space. Our suite featured two queen beds, a separate study and two closets with more space than your correspondent's entire NYC apartment (ditto on the bathroom's square footage). On arrival, we were welcomed with cocktails, a basket of food, a bottle of wine and an additional batch of boozy mini bottles (which, again, are included), all of which we enjoyed on our private patio/balcony that was about four steps from the sand.
Add in 24-hour room service and that private butler — who helped get our wine open but was not asked to draw us a rose-petal bath, much to our host’s chagrin — and there was really no reason to ever move. That moment of calm I mentioned earlier? It was on the first night, ensconced on a hanging deck chair around midnight, sipping vino, staring up at the stars and falling asleep to the sounds of crashing waves.
You Can “Go Out” (Without Leaving)
Name an activity you enjoy, and you can probably do it somewhere on the resort. Kite surf. Play a round of golf (we don’t play, but apparently for an all-inclusive, it’s the best). Hit up one of the many, many pools. Or many, many spas (that we did). Stroll through the private shopping mall and buy a tequila gun. Visit the splash park — it’s kids only (or so they say). Stupidly do an 8 a.m. high-intensity interval training boot camp after a night of bottomless margaritas.
At night, you have cigar bars and a theater (we saw everything from a fascinatingly bizarro Beatles cover band to an impressive Cirque du Soleil-style acrobat act). And the Galaxy nightclub, a bit of Cancún-style mischief where you can marvel at the dads rockin' out with no shirts ... or shame. Bond with the embarrassed sons and daughters nearby.
But Then, Get Out of Dodge for a Day
“What’s unusual about here is that you can leave.” That’s a comment more suited for a white-collar prison, not a five-star resort. It’s also an odd thing to hear from a property manager: all-inclusive resorts are usually designed to get you to stay in (as noted by the amenities above).
But because Cancún and Tulum — aka the city that all your hipster friends are raving about on social media (“It seems like a lot of people from Brooklyn go there,” noted the same resort manager) — are so close, you’ll certainly want to experience the area. There are plenty of on-site tour specialists to help you plan your getaway. And there’s a lot to choose from: Mayan ruins, cliff diving in a giant swimming hole 85 feet below the surface, several nearby towns “very developed for tourism” (as IBEROSTAR’s marketing manager Mariela Gomez noted), a 3D museum, casinos, scuba diving and nature excursions, among others.
To the latter point: one weekend morning, we ventured out to Rio Secreto, a series of breathtaking underground caves that have been around for millions of years ... but were only recently discovered and opened to the public. Here, you'll stuff yourself into a life jacket, journey through a kilometer of stalactites and stalagmites and ponder the geological beauty of our world. It’s unforgettable moment in (well, under) an unspoiled land.
Need more ideas? An array of out-of-resort recommendations are available here.
Overall, you seriously can't beat the price
The average stay at the IBEROSTAR Grand Hotel is $257 per person per night (based on double occupancy in a standard room). Other resorts within the property, however, can go for as little as $125 per person. While the peak season for travel to the resort is December-April, Iberostar offers promotions during the off-season: for example, last year they gave out $250-$500 in credit toward services and amenities including room upgrades, spa treatments, golf and shopping for new bookings between March and August. You can find more offers here.
Flights are about $320-$380 round trip depending on the time of year, according to Hopper, with cheaper trips toward the fall and winter. But depending on how this weather shakes out, now's as good a time as any.