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Mayan Riviera, Mexico

January 4 to 11 of 2003, my wife & I (each age 50) vacationed at the Riu Playacar hotel about a 50 minute drive, 55 km (34 miles) south of the Cancun airport, on the Caribbean side of Mexico known as the Mayan Coast or Mayan Riviera (Yucatan Peninsula), not far from the town of Playa Del Carmen & facing the island of Cozumel. The Riu Playacar hotel is rated as a 5 star by Sunquest/AlbaTours, Riu hotel chain, myself & others. There are 4 Riu hotels in this complex & they are all 5 stars. Because of the time of year (just after kids go back to school from the winter break), we got a pretty good price of $1250. CDN each, for this all-inclusive (includes plane, departure fees, bus transfers, hotel, meals, drinks, taxes, gratuities, facilities, etc). We both enjoyed it very much & we would go back to this location again (see musty room smell exception below). It's just too bad this really nice hotel is packaged with a not so good charter airline (Skyservice).

THE FLIGHT DOWN: We flew out of our tiny local London, Ontario, Canada airport which was quite convenient because it saved us having to drive 120 miles to Toronto & the parking. We arrived at the London airport a couple hours before our 3:30 PM scheduled flight only to find that the plane was going to be a couple hours delayed (no mention of this delay on the Skyservice phone message that's supposed to tell you this BEFORE you leave for the airport), so after checking our luggage & getting seats assigned, we went & visited friends nearby. The final departure kept getting pushed back & was about 4 hours late, which the pilot blamed on various problems at the Cancun airport, having recently changed ownership. The London airport security were very reasonable & did hand check my carry on film & camera, rather than put it through the X-ray machine (which can fog fast film after a few passes, despite them telling you that it's safe). There was only 1 gate at the London airport (the airport was under construction), so we had to walk out through the snow to where our plane was parked & none of us was exactly dressed for winter. While we were waiting to take off, the Skyservice flight attendant tried for 10 minutes to get all the TV monitors to drop out of the ceiling into position & when they finally did, only 12 of the 16 TVs would turn on. Next the pilot announced that they couldn't get the door closed because the safety pin was frozen (I volunteered to pee on the pin to warm it up). Then the pilot announced that there would be a further delay until they could manage to get the engines started (reminded me of an old car I once had that wouldn't start in winter). At this point people were volunteering to get out & help push the plane for a jump start :-) The headphone jacks in many seats did not work, one of the toilets apparently was plugged & the climate control wasn't working well. The seats in this Skyservice Airbus 320 are not all that comfortable (small & narrow, with an uncomfortable metal bar part way up the seat back & lumpy cushion), but that should come as no surprise to anyone who has traveled on Skyservice charter airlines. The seatback at the bottom where it joins the cushion has nothing but a piece of cloth (no padding at all), so an inconsiderate person sitting behind you can easily cross their legs & keep kicking you in the butt periodically, which can be quite annoying. There were so many things wrong on this Skyservice Airbus 320 plane, it was getting to be comical. For the 4 hour delay, I think they gave us a complementary glass of wine. The flight to Cancun was scheduled at less than 4 hours & you set your watch back one hour because of a time zone change. By the time we arrived, got our luggage & cleared customs it was nearly midnight & the time share scammers who inundate tourists at the Cancun airport as they walk out to the buses, had already gone home. Our tickets said AlbaTours which is owned by Sunquest, but the Sunquest hostess at the airport bus didn't know this & wasn't going to let us on the bus. Eventually I was able to convince her that AlbaTours & Sunquest were the same company. The Sunquest bus hostess gives you your wristband which identifies you for the rest of the week as a guest. Since we were now 4 hours late & the dining room at the hotel was now closed, I asked the Sunquest hostess if she would phone ahead & make sure there was something for us to eat when when got there, which she did (a nice sandwich plate was waiting for us in our hotel room). It seems that even though the bus transfer is included in the package, the driver & assistant use the opportunity to try to make money by reminding you several times to tip them & to sell you Corona beer on the bus for $3. U.S. a bottle (if you wait until you get to the hotel you can drink all the beer you want at no extra charge). The total journey to get to Mexico seemed like an all day ordeal (thanks to Skyservice), but fortunately the rest of the week at the hotel (thanks to the Rui Playacar hotel) went very well.

THE ROOM: The Riu Playacar hotel is laid out in 3 story bungalows & is rated as a 5 star hotel (I would agree with that rating). It was what I considered a luxury hotel with a moderately large room, 2 double beds pushed together, & large bathroom with the nicest shower I've seen. There is a safe to lock your valuables in (no extra charge), which one day we forgot to lock & the maid honestly reported it to the management who kept our money in their vault & gave it all back to us (nice to see honesty for a change). The TV had enough satellite channels though we seldom watched it. We were able to get a second key from the front desk with a deposit. The electrical receptacles use the North American 115 Volt standard & plug type. There is a vestibule outside the door which helps minimize noise from the hallway. The room included, at no extra cost, a mini-bar fridge with bottled water, beer & soft drinks which were replenished every other day. Each day the maid shaped some towels into a cute dollSee photo.. The only problem with the room was the air conditioning which was not central air & was moldy (musty) smelling. Because it was January we didn't have the need to turn on the air conditioning constantly, but when we did turn it on, it was noisy & had an odd musty smell which tended to give me cold-like symptoms or chest congestion. There was a strong disinfectant smell in the room when we first arrived, which was probably to mask the musty smell from the air conditioner. We discovered throughout the week that even if we left the air conditioner on all day, it would cool properly, but it was not dehumidifying (damp clothes or bathing suits would not dry even after several days). Apparently the air conditioner wasn't draining the water, so it didn't dehumidify & the water sits in the catch pan & filled with bacteria (mold). What I was experiencing was bacterial asthma caused by the defective air conditioner. Some people aren't as affected by this as others, but if you experience these conditions (no dehumidification, asthma & a musty smell), ask to have the air conditioner repaired (unplug the drain & disinfect), or have them move you to another room. We were on the first floor, but I've heard others say that the third floor isn't as musty smelling. This musty smell in the room is reported often by other tourists to this hotel & is the only reason I would consider not going back. If you are an asthmatic or are prone to lung problems, pick another hotel. Don't let anyone try to tell you that this musty smell is normal because it's the tropics. This musty smell is not normal in most other 5 star hotels rooms in the Caribbean, especially in January.

ORIENTATION MEETING: The next morning there was an orientation meeting put on by the permanent host from Sunquest/AlbaTours if you want to attend. This guy was a native Mayan, very professional & imparted what we needed to know in a short time so we could get on with our day. He was fluent in Spanish, English, French, German & I think at least one other language.

THE POOL: Each of the 4 hotels at this Riu complex has one or more nice pools & you are allowed to go to any of them except the "Palace" which is a 5+ star hotel. Our Rui Playacar hotel had two very nice pools beside each other. One was waist/chest height with a swim up bar (very nice) & the other was slightly deeper for swimmers & scuba lessons. In January, both pools were COLD (guessing at about 24 - 25 C or 75 - 77 F), so not many people went in for long. The hotel manager said that none of the pools at this complex are heated because normally they don't need heaters, but this was a colder than usual January. Frankly I thought that any 5 star hotel located around 20 - 21 degrees latitude should have pool heaters for the winter. It would have been much more acceptable if at least the Jacuzzi had been heated. I had my own shortie 1/8" wetsuit with me, so I was able to make more use of the pool than most others. You are each given a towel card which you can trade for a large beach towel at your pool (they run out some times late in the day). This card can be used at any of the Riu hotels in this complex. The weather in January was not too cold to lounge around the pool deck & just enjoy the scenery & the drinks. Even sometimes after dark the air temperature was still quite nice in January.

RESTAURANTS & BARS: There is a large air conditioned buffet style restaurant on the main floor of the hotel lobby. No reservations are required for breakfast or lunch, but for some strange reason reservations are required for dinner, as well as a dress code. You must book either the early (6:30 PM) or later (8:30 PM) dinner sitting & arrive at that same time each night & sit at the same table. Frankly I wished they would lighten up a bit, since myself & many others on vacation didn't feel like conforming to a schedule, or dressing up for dinner especially if it was hot (which it wasn't excessively hot in January). Despite the huge amount of food, the buffet doesn't change much from day to day, so the food gets a bit predictably boring by the end of the week (I'm not a fussy eater). There is a very large open concept bar & snack bar very near the pool that is open during the day & late evening, but in the early evening is for specialty steakhouse & Mediterranean dinners, to give you a change of pace from the buffet (book really 6:30 a.m.).  Nobody we met claimed to get sick from the food or drink at this Riu complex. Those who were sick said that it was probably because they arrived sick with flu-like symptoms, drank too much, got too much sun, or ate food at a restaurant off the Riu complex. Mexico is what I would call a developing nation, so you are much more likely to have higher sanitation standards at a 5 star Riu hotel than if it were in a third world nation such as Dominican Republic (we know from first hand experience).

THE BEACH: The Riu Playacar hotel is located on the beach, although the rooms are back a bit. The beach is beautiful, wide, long, has very nice sand & the water is nice for swimming (sandy bottom), though the ocean was rather cool in January, I'm guessing no more than about about 24 - 25 C or 75 - 77 F. Snorkeling isn't a great idea near the beach because of all the boats, but it's very easy to charter a snorkeling or scuba trip & the general area is one of the best in the world for underwater scenes (Cozumel Island is nearby). There are some topless women on the beach, but not as many as some destinations that cater more to European vacationers. The hotel's scuba shop at the beach will loan you items like body board, mask/fins/snorkel, kayaking or paddle boats simply by showing your wrist band & they don't always insist that you return them in 1 hour when it's not busy. There were other motorized devices you could rent from beach venders such as personal water craft (jet ski for $25. U.S. per 1/2 hour). Staff did a good job of cleaning up the beach for the next day.

SCUBA DIVING & SNORKELING: Because some parts of this area of Mexico are excellent for scuba diving & snorkeling, each of the Riu hotels located on the beach has a scuba shop operated by Scuba Caribe resort dive centersExternal link, which rents equipment & books dive tours. Like all optional cost services that you purchase on the hotel premises, the scuba prices (pdf) certainly weren't cheap. However the scuba staff were VERY professional & the equipment was new & first class. Booking a similar scuba package in the town of Playacar would have been much less expensive (possibly less than half price), but I've heard of horror stories with old defective equipment & I've experienced unprofessional dive staff elsewhere, so I didn't want to save money at the expense of increased risk to my life. A four dive scuba package including a single tank dive nearby on 2 separate days (includes boat ride to reef) & a 2 tank drift dive at Cozumel Island, including the taxi, the ferry to/from Cozumel, really nice dive boat, lunch, drinks & all dive equipment (tank, backpack, BC, regulator, depth gauge, weight belt & full 1/8" wet suit) cost about $218. U.S. cash as best I recall. Because I didn't bring that much extra U.S. cash, I paid in pesos by VISA credit card, which cost about 10% more. The hotel knows that most tourists don't bring much cash (they use credit cards) & most tourists aren't very familiar with the exchange rate, so they play this little exchange game with prices. The price sheet is in U.S. dollars with the Mexican peso amount beside it, but the exchange rate they use for the peso amount isn't a fair exchange rate (10% too high). Next time I go to Mexico, I'll know to bring a lot more American cash & rely a lot less on my credit card. I'm a certified scuba diver but my wife isn't, so she paid a little extra to come along on the Cozumel trip, only she & several others went snorkeling while the rest of us scuba dove & it was the highlight of her trip. Not every day is calm enough for snorkeling, but the staff were good enough to keep rescheduling us until we got a calm day & they were willing to refund the unused portion of my fees if we didn't get good weather before we had to go home. That's one of several reasons why I felt they were professionals, because I've seen so called "professionals" book dives in Florida when bad weather put lives at risk. Here in Mexico during one of the deeper dives that required a minor decompression stop at 15 feet for a few minutes while ascending, I discovered that I didn't have enough lead weight on my belt now that the tank was nearly empty & I was fighting to stay down. The dive master spotted this & handed me a 3 pound lead weight under water which solved the problem. Now that's what I call being on top of the situation like a professional dive master is supposed to be. Our dive master also made sure that none of us were beginners before taking us through some caves. My wife also felt that the dive staff made sure everybody who was snorkeling was helped in & out of the boat & was safe, happy & comfortable. I'm the type of person who doesn't like to spend any more money than necessary, but it was definitely worth the extra money to book these pros from Scuba Caribe right at the hotel.  BTW, while we were at Cozumel snorkeling, a freelance underwater cameraman came by & took individual pictures, which he has developed & ready if you want to buy them at the ferry dock when you leave the island, but we were the only ones in our group that noticed him at the ferry dock (pictures are quite good because he has an underwater flashSee photo.). You have to keep your eyes open and watch for him as you start walking up the dock towards the boat, or you'll easily miss him.

TOURIST SITES: There were often agents in the lobby of the hotel who had a variety of interesting tours available, but we felt they were quite expensive & a bit too regimented. We thought we might save some money & be able to custom tailor a day trip by renting a car to go where & when we pleased. We did that & it worked out as we had hoped for. The car rental available through the hotel lobby agent was outrageously priced, so we phoned Hertz in Playa Del Carmen who came & picked us up & drove us to their office where we rented a car for about half the price. Note that credit cards & your home auto insurance policy do not usually cover third party liability insurance in Mexico, so you will need to purchase this from the car rental company. We drove about an hour south on the Yucatan Peninsula to the Mayan pyramid at TulumExternal link which involves walking about 15 minutes in the hot sun from the parking lot. They unfortunately only take Mexican pesos as payment to get in & they won't accept American cash or credit cards (it's a government run place). We had pesos in the car, but we weren't willing to walk 30 more minutes to go get them so we left. The whole place at Tulum seemed like a tourist trap & not well run. We had to pay to use the toilets, which were dirty & had no seat. The tent venders outside Tulum were by far the most aggressive we've experienced. Several miles north of Tulum we found a really nice large souvenir shopSee photo. (with a donkeySee photo. outside) run by a family (probably not big enough for the bus tours to stop at) & my wife had a great old time buying all kinds of things & getting a good deal (another highlight of her trip). Next we went to Xel-HaExternal link (pronounced Shell Haw) which is a large snorkeling lagoon (expensive) where cool underground fresh water meets warmer sea water. We had heard so many glowing reports about Xel-Ha, that our expectations were high, but it was really windy & that stirred up the water, which made for poor visibilitySee photo.. The water seemed polluted & stagnate to me (like a swamp with green moss) & I ended up with a sore throat from snorkeling at Xel-Ha for 2.5 hours. Being January the water was also cold enough to be uncomfortable (even though I was wearing a 1/8" shortie wetsuit) the fresh water on top being much colder than the sea water on the lower layer. We saw a small barracudaSee photo. which is NOT amongst the fish species they advertise. We were quite disappointed with Xel-Ha compared to the beautiful snorkeling available from the shoreline on Cozumel Island for free (& warmer because it's ocean water).

SUNRISE SUNSET: This part of Mexico is about 20 - 21 degrees latitude & on January 3rd in this area the sunrise was 6:25am & sunset 5:19pm (total 10:54 hours of daylight). Our latitude where we are from in London Ontario Canada is 43 degrees & the London sunrise on the same date was 7:56am & sunset 5:03pm (total 9:07 hours of daylight). If you like to take maximum advantage of the daylight hours, you may want to gear your schedule while on vacation to getting up early & going to bed early, especially in the winter.

THE LANGUAGE: The staff's native language is Spanish, though most knew an adequate amount of English & other languages. As mostly English speakers, we did not find much of a language barrier in this part of Mexico. It wouldn't hurt to take a vacationer's Spanish course before you arrive, or learn at least a few important words & phases in Spanish. http://www.studyspanish.comClick for larger photo.

SMOKING: Note that unlike Canada & the USA where smoking is not permitted in most public places, Mexico allows smoking. We did not find this to be a really annoying problem like we did in the Dominican Republic, possibly because there were a lot less Europeans in Mexico, hence less smoking.

PHOTOGRAPHS: If you prefer to develop & print your exposed film so that it doesn't get exposed in the security X-ray machine going home, there is a photo shop on the grounds of the Riu Yucatan hotel & another one right across the street in a small mall. Hotel photographers come to the pool, beach & lobby throughout the week & will take your picture with a parrot, iguanaSee photo. or Maruichi band, etc. These pictures are usually on display & for sale in the lobby the next day & after that in the photo shop at the Riu Yucatan, if you want them (no obligation).

LOCAL VENDERS: There is plenty of good shopping nearby in the town of Playa Del Carmen (you can usually barter), which is about a 30 minute walk away, 3 kilometers (1.8 miles), or a short taxi ride ($4 U.S. each way). There is also a small boutique mall across the street, but don't expect to barter much except with the street venders. All places would accept American dollars (best to have) or Mexican pesos, but most wouldn't accept credit cards.

INTERNET: If you want to check your email or do some internet surfing, the prices are much higher at the hotel (about $0.25 U.S. per minute), than they are at an internet cafe in the town of Playa Del Carmen (about $0.04 U.S. per minute).

TRIP BACK HOME: We were asked to be out of our rooms early on checkout day, for pickup by the bus at about 7:00 AM for the ride to the Cancun airport for our 10:10 AM flight. Although we asked the Sunquest host & the front desk if the Skyservice plane was on time & was told that it was, when we got to the airport we found that it was running about 2.5 hours late. Package charters like Sunquest tend to herd vacationers like cattle with little respect for their time. We could have enjoyed a leisurely breakfast & had a an hour or two at the pool, if Skyservice had bothered to let the local Sunquest host know that the plane was running late. The checked luggage security lineup at Cancun airport was very long & they looked inside everybody's suitcase. Skyservice did weigh our luggage to see if it was over the allowed limit of 20 kilos (44 pounds) plus 4.5 kilos (10 pounds) carry on bag each. Going upstairs, to the personal check-in area, was a VERY long slow crowded herding of people up the staircase. The carry on security area staff would not listen to reason & refused to hand check my camera & film, claiming that the X-rays are safe for film (they are not). One of my wife's 400 ASA films had clear evidence of X-ray damage. Once in the large Cancun airport waiting terminal, our tickets said that our boarding gate was #1, but the departure monitors said gate #6 for our flight so that's where we went. There is no built-in paging loudspeaker system in the Cancun airport, but we faintly heard our name paged over a portable bullhorn & we were told that they were waiting for us at gate #2. I pointed to the departure monitor which still said gate #6, to which the man said "oh nobody pays any attention to those monitors, they're never right anyway". We arrived at gate #2 where they loaded us in a bus & took us to the plane that was parked over at a different terminal, presumably because they couldn't get a parking gate at the main terminal. It was pretty clear that the Cancun airport wasn't a very organized place. Prices for food or drink in the Cancun airport terminal were outrageous. During the flight, the Skyservice Airbus 320 was too hot in the front part of the plane where we were seated & the air was EXTREMELY dry. Airbus 320 planes are not known for good climate control even under the best of circumstances & winter is not the best of circumstances because the air is normally drier. When we arrived home, the only plane parking gate was filled, so we had to walk through the snow to the terminal (most of us not dressed for winter). Canadian Customs clearance went fast & smoothly. The London Ontario airport has since finished it's expansion renovation so I hope the number of flights to the Caribbean will increase as this was a convenient location to fly from without the hassles often associated with larger airports.

POST HOLIDAY: Even though I wasn't sick on the holiday (except for the bacterial asthma caused by the defective room air conditioner), by the time I arrived home I did feel rather sick (not intestinal). My equilibrium was off a bit, I felt a bit clumsy, not 100% with it mentally, felt hot but had no abnormal temperature, had a bloody discharge when blowing my nose, had a significant cough & tight breathing, felt slightly achy with joins hurting & I felt very low on energy for about 7 - 10 days. Two days after arriving home I went to the doctor & had a blood test done which revealed a high white blood cell count, so my immune system was obviously fighting something. It could have been a combination of the mold in the room air conditioner, or snorkeling in the polluted water at Xel-Ha, or 4 scuba dives with several rough boat rides, or the poor ventilation & extremely dry air in the Airbus 320 (it's drier in winter), or exposure to others who were sick, or the fact that I'm an old fart (50) who was as active in water sports as somebody half my age :-)   Anyway, it's not unusual to feel a bit lousy after a trip abroad, so factor than into your schedule.

Here are some interesting links for the area: lots of reports from other tourists.
TripAdvisor user reviews. Lots more user reviews. RIU Playacar web site. about Mexico. about Mexico. weather.

By Doug Hembruff.

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