Review of our fortnight holiday at the Reef Club Hotel, Playacar, Mexico, in October / November 2002.
A good holiday from Airtours/Mytravel.com. The flights out and back both left and arrived on time, and we enjoyed attentive cabin crew, comfortable seats, continuous entertainment (including our first exposure to nose cameras and seat-back TV screens).
Mexico has a wonderful climate in the autumn - hot during the day and warm at night. I'm told that at the height of summer the heat can be unbearable. We were lucky to get a late cheapie, and spent 13 nights at the delightful Reef Club in Playacar (not to be confused with the Reef Club Caribbean further south).
Playacar is a purpose-built "estate" of low-rise hotels and private apartments on the southern edge of the mushrooming town of Playa del Carmen. Just six years ago, this area was virgin jungle, with a stunning beach. Then it was decided to develop the area, and a road was built a few hundred yards back from the beach. Now there are 15 or 20 large resort hotels along the beach. Very tastefully built area - only two guarded entrances, one at each end of the estate. There is a plaza (mostly tourist shops, but also with a bank, a chemist and telephones) by the road in the middle of the estate.
The Reef Club hotel is between the plaza (15 mins walk) and Playa del Carmen (30 mins walk). The hotel is well-designed - from the reception area on the road, you walk along raised paths through a carefully-tended tropical wooded area with lots of palms and ground cover and Mayan-looking statues. There are 20 three-storey blocks of rooms, ten on each side of the wooded area. The gardens then open out onto lawns as you approach the main pool on the right, with its swim up pool bar and whirlpool tub, and the restaurant on the left. The path drops down a couple of terraces (covered with sunbeds under trees and sunshades), down to a second exercise pool and eventually the beach. There is another building off to the right which houses a beach bar, an all day buffet area and a covered seating area above the beach bar. All the buildings are thatched, attractively built and well-maintained. From the beach, you can see the island of Cozumel on the horizon a dozen miles off-shore.
We managed to get a cheap all-inclusive deal, and are pleased to report that everything is included. Unlimited big fluffy beach towels are available from a cabin by the pool.
Mainly hot and sunny - only two days when it rained. Unfortunately these were days when we were off on trips.
Fabulous beach - soft white sand, lots of sunbeds with mattresses, quite a few (but not enough) sunshades, clear warm water (my dive computer claimed 28°C). Non-motorised watersports are free - boogie boards, windsurfers, Hobie Cats, kayaks, etc. Also available were jet-skis, parasailing and a bizarre form of windsurfing that uses a kite instead of a sail. We also saw people doing free-fall parachute jumps high over the beach, to land just along the beach towards Playa del Carmen. Little waders like Turnstones or Sanderling ran along the beach.
Unlimited drinks are available from 09:30 until 02:00 from the various bars. All meals are served in the buffet-style restaurant, and we found there to be plenty of choice, well-cooked and pretty tasty. The restaurant has a view over the exercise pool area and the beach out to sea, and is cool, with open windows and fans. You are asked to cover up in order to use the buffet restaurant, but shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops will suffice, although many made a bit more of an effort at dinner.
Above the main buffet restaurant is Botticelli's - a posher restaurant, with air-con, waitress service, a nicer menu and a dress code - shirts with collars, trousers, and shoes for the men. The food here is better (eg a variety of tastier pasta sauces, fillet steak etc). You can book Botticelli's at breakfast for that night, and even though it is a snootier place with better food, it's still all-included. Wine is served by the glass by waiters/waitresses in both restaurants.
For the real pigs, there is a buffet area by the beach bar which serves pizzas, hot-dogs, sandwiches, burgers, popcorn etc all day until 02:00, again, all-included. Having a steak sandwich at 1am under the thatched seating area on top of the beach bar in the warm night breeze in shorts and t-shirt, with the lights of Cozumel twinkling on the horizon, and the Milky Way shining above, was a great experience.
There is a third bar above reception back on the main road, by the first-floor entertainment area. There was a sparsely attended stage show every night, and a "Mexican Evening" every week - which consisted of silly games and the staff dressing up in "Mexican costumes".
We fell on our feet here. We knew that the rooms were in three-storey blocks, so when we arrived we asked reception if they had a room for us on the top floor. They said no, we were on the ground floor, but if we came back the following morning, they'd see what they could do for us. The following morning they showed us to a fabulous room on the top floor, which had its own private walled sun terrace, with sun-beds, which wasn't overlooked and which looked out over the undeveloped jungle-covered plot next door to our hotel. Unfortunately, without any shade, this was simply too sweltering to lay out on in the daytime, but we often sat out on it for the hour before sunset, watching the birds going to bed, and the bats and geckos coming out to harass the local insect population. Late News: Unfortunately, since I wrote this, the massive Hotel Riu Palace Riviera Maya has been built on this jungle-filled undeveloped plot next door. One of the attractions of our room was that from our third-storey balcony we looked out over the tree-tops. Shame to hear that all this jungle has been felled, and that the balcony now faces the balconies of the hotel next door.
The room itself was very clean and comfortable with two double beds, air-con and a ceiling fan, a wall safe, lots of drawers and hanging space, a huge satellite TV (we occasionally watched American CNN for the news), cane seats, a table and a covered balcony. The bathroom was clean and well decorated, with a powerful shower over the bath.
The local insects didn't trouble us too much - we got no more bites than we'd get in Greece.
Swimming with dolphins is a must, and there are plenty of opportunities. We went to Puerto Aventura, 30 mins south, where there is a large tidal swimming pond, cut off from the sea by a large fence. After a briefing, you get to enter the water with two adult dolphins (there were about 15 in all on site). You can stroke them, hold them in your arms and kiss them, be propelled through the water by them, dance in the water with them, and generally have a great time. See the photos.
This is a great experience. The dolphins are healthy, energetic, strong and really join in playing with you. They're doing it for fish from their trainer, of course, but they seem enthusiastic to join in close contact with humans. We had a great time, even though it rained most of the morning.
This was a really long day - although the ruins at the ancient Mayan site are fantastic, if we'd known how long we'd spend cooped up on the coach, I'm not sure we'd have gone.
Chichen Itza is about 3 or 4 hours from Playacar. There are a dozen really impressive restored ruins of the ancient Mayan-Toltec civilisation, dating from the 6th to the 12th centuries, including the Ball Court (where they used to sacrifice the captain of the winning team), and the Great Pyramid (which we climbed). We were told that the Mexican authorities are soon to close the Pyramid to tourists - you will not be allowed to climb it.
We also had the opportunity to swim in the nearby "Ik Kil" Cenote.
The hotel's dive centre was a wooden shack on the beach - which didn't fill you with confidence. The Mytravel rep Auntie Jan recommended a different dive centre, but knew nothing about it, and was hopeless about organising it. In the end I gave up and signed up with a dive centre ten minutes along the beach at the Riu Playacar hotel. They were reasonable but not as organised as some I've been with. They insisted that you turn up at 08:00 for the 08:30 dive boat, which in fact never turned up until nearly 09:00. The BCD was rather venerable - the pockets were ripped open and unusable. They didn't have any medium-sized BCDs, so I had to use a large one.
I signed up for the "Mexican Experience" seven-dive package: two local reef dives, a night dive, a two dive cenote trip and a two dive Cozumel trip, all for US$299 inc tank & weights. Add another US$6 per dive for BCD & regs. Total about US$340 for seven dives, or about £30 per dive. Very reasonable.
Tortuga: - a drift dive about 15 mins boat ride away. A flat sandy bottom about 22m deep, with a fair amount of small hard and soft coral areas. The main attraction here was guaranteed turtles ("tortuga" means "turtle" in Spanish) - on my first dive I saw 4 loggerhead turtles about 1m long, on my second visit I lost count at about 15. A stingray and a moray eel also seen. Good numbers of coral reef fish.
Sierra: another drift dive about 30 mins away, and slightly deeper (about 25m), but nicer coral and more reef fish and moray eels.
Cenote: Two dives in a fresh-water cave (a cenote), called Chac Mool, about 40 mins south of Playacar. Impressive dives, with a really professional and safety-conscious Mexican dive leader called Bernadette. The water underground was crystal clear, except where the halocline de-focussed everything. Lots of fabulous stalactites and stalagmites, both underwater and above water.
Great views underwater, where the sun's rays stab down vertically through the water from holes in the roof. A couple of domes to surface in, one with hundreds of stalactite straws a few inches above our heads, one with tree roots coming down from the roof to drink up the water. Max depth 13m. The dive centre provided a full-length wet suit (water temp was 24°C) and torch.
Night dive: The night dive was cancelled due to high winds. I had a return afternoon visit to Tortuga the following day instead.
Cozumel: Two fantastic dives on the reefs to the southwest of Cozumel Island - among the best dives I've ever had. The weather was appalling - it rained the entire day, but great dives on Santa Rosa Wall and Paraiso Reef. Superb vis, with lots of coral outcrops, swim-throughs, masses of colourful hard and soft coral, thousands of coral reef fish. Also two nurse sharks. There were two other experienced, buoyancy-sorted Brit divers (the rest were Germans, Spanish, Italian, Mexican and American) and on both dives we Brits were the last up! On our first (deep) dive we ran out of bottom time, and our second dive lasted 63 mins, both with bags of air left.
Negative aspects of Reef Club:
- Loud music and organised games with amplified shouting around the exercise pool, competing for space in your eardrums with the eighties influenced pop music from the pool bar right next door. You could get away from the worst of this by moving away from the pool onto the beach.
- One game for the children, called piñata, organised by the games staff, was to beat the shit out of a life-sized human dolly (hung by its neck from an overhanging beam) with a wooden club, until its insides fall out. This seems to be considered ideal entertainment for impressionable Mexican infants. I found it rather offensive.
- We had problems with missing towels in our room - three or four times we had to go and find the maid to get towels.
Positive aspects of Reef Club:
- A great holiday in a good hotel, great room, great location and good weather.
- Fantastic diving on Cozumel - among the best I've experienced. Interesting cenote dives.
- We'd definitely go back to Mexico and definitely go back to this hotel.