Joyful Return to Playa del Carmen by Ron Kapon

In May 2007 I was the guest of Fernando Garcia Zalvidea, the owner of the Royal Resorts in Cancun & Playa del Carmen. Cancun reminded me of Miami Beach and that is where the international airport is located. Be aware that it is the second busiest airport in Mexico after Mexico City. It always seems to have logjams getting through passport control and customs. They have added another runway and terminal but all that seems to do is increase the wait.
On the positive side I flew on Jet Blue, for only the second time, non-stop in under 4 hours.There’s a beautiful new terminal at JFK with a large food court. The check-in was easy, and my flight left on time. There was much more legroom and wider seats than I expected since the plane is all coach. The individual TV consoles had movies and TV shows and made the time go even quicker. Don’t forget the famous snack basket. I would fly Jet Blue again in a heartbeat.

First and foremost, let’s get the geography lesson out of the way; Quintana Roo is a state in Southeastern Mexico on the eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula with a population of 1,135,000 million. The Caribbean Sea is to the east and the nation of Belize is to the south. If the name Quintana Roo is not familiar, look at some of the cities contained within the state: Cancun, Playa del Carmen and the island of Cozumel, enhanced further by the Mayan Ruins at Tulum, Coba and Xcaret.
Less than an hour south of Cancun you will discover the Mexican Mayan Riviera where Playa (del Carmen) was established by Europeans from Germany, Switzerland and, especially, Italy. Playa del Carmen is named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the patron saint of Cancun. In the Mayan time (300-600 AD) Playa del Carmen was called Xaman-Ha (waters from the north) and was the departure place for the Mayans who would cross over to the island of Cozumel (Cutzamil) to worship the Goddess Ixchel and bring her offerings. The first modern village was created in the beginning of the 20th Century. The first tourists to discover it were Europeans who found Playa to be a tranquil place. The lifestyle is slower with clean white sand beaches where one can find beautiful surf, coral reefs, scuba diving, jet skiing, windsurfing as well as a 20 block pedestrian street named Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida) with a mixture of shops, bars and restaurants (mainly Italian & Mexican, but with many other specialty cuisines). With a population of about 250,000 there are fewer large hotels and the atmosphere is definitely more laid back. The Playa del Carmen government has attempted to retain Playa del Carmen’s charm as a small fishing village and artists’ colony, without it becoming as large and metropolitan as Cancún. To this end, the city passed an ordinance limiting buildings to four stories.

The island of Cozumel can be reached from the ferry dock in Playa in less than 45 minutes. It is where the cruise ships dock. The snorkeling and scuba are great as they are near the Great Maya Reef which passes between the island and Playa. It is the second largest coral reef in the world including the countries of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras & Mexico (Australia’s Barrier Reef is larger). That same 45 minutes will take you to Tulum by road, which reveals the Mayan period of 1200-1520 AD and really must be seen to be appreciated. There are truly great photo ops here. It draws over 2 million visitors a year (the most visited of Mexico’s archaeological sites) and was actually “rediscovered” in 1842 by archeologists. Hurricane Emily hit the Rivera del Maya and did minimal damage (mostly broken windows and roofs) in July 2005. In October of the same year Hurricane Wilma hit Cancun very hard, causing a lot of damage but no life was lost. It is worth spending, as I did, an afternoon and/or evening at Xcaret, which is about 15 minutes from the hotel. For $60 you can get an all day pass or, for $43, just experience the two-hour evening extravaganza (the history of Mexico with over 200 performers). I spent 3 hours walking through the Mayan Village, along the jungle trail, through wildlife, underground rivers & caves (called Cenotes, and they are everywhere), through an Aquarium and several other shows. Bring your comfortable walking shoes and do the same.
This time I was invited to the grand opening of El Taj Oceanfront Hotel, one of 4 almost adjacent properties under the Condo Hotels banner. There is the Porto Playa luxury condos with a soon to open deli, a gym (one of the owners also developed Equinox fitness center), two pools and two Jacuzzis where lush tropical gardens surround waterfalls. Villas Sacbe is an intimate boutique condo hotel with a Jacuzzi that flows into a plunge pool. Maya Villa is a unique condo hotel with a jade colored Gecko shaped mosaic and glass tile pool topped off by a 40-foot waterfall cascading into the pool. All the artwork is Mayan. The slightly older (2008) El Taj Beachfront was my quiet refuge for writing with a Bali & Tahitian theme. There are lily ponds and a black mosaic infinity pool and Jacuzzi. Across the street is the brand new El Taj Oceanfront directly on the beach with a world-class Indigo restaurant that just opened. The beach chairs, mattresses and lounges were the most comfortable I had ever used; I was so relaxed it was hard to stay awake. A giant movie screen that will be seen from the beach will soon join the obligatory pool. Developer Jack Perlman and his wife selected all the furnishings during visits to Bali and Tahiti. All the 57 rooms are sold as condos (not time shares or fractional ownership) with prices from $400,000 for the one bedroom I occupied to $1.500,000 for a three-bedroom penthouse with private grill and Jacuzzi, facing the water. There are full kitchens in all the condos, plus flat screen TV in both the bedroom and living room. The owners may choose to rent out their condo when not in use and mine would have ranged from $235 to $445 a day, depending on the season. Like it or not the bed was the hardest, most comfortable I have ever slept on. I actually looked forward to going to bed every night. There was accessible wireless in the room and throughout the condo, including the beach.
Who is Jack Perlman? A 54 year old New York City resident (although he now spends more time in Playa) who previously worked in marketing for Modell Sporting Goods and the New York Yankees. Rudolph Giuliani, a huge Yankees fan, was Mayor during that time. Jack arrived in Playa by accident when trying to escape the prefabricated environment of Cancun, which led him to Cozumel, where he missed the ferry. Rather than wait 4 hours for the next one he walked along the beach and found a hotel for $7 a night (it was 17 years ago). Playa had only two streets and there was no highway from the Cancun airport but it was an ideal place for Jack to begin his second career in developing properties. His first was Villas Sacbe where he implemented the “Americanization” of the real estate processes. Perlman created a legal environment in which the North American buyer can feel secure investing in Mexico. He believed in the curve concept that allows the breeze to flow through his buildings and optimize air circulation. There are no flat walls or pointed corners in any of his buildings. That concept also protects the buildings from the strong winds that lash the region. “If we want our projects to grow, the growth must occur in harmony with the community we’re living in.” By the way, Jack lives on the property in El Taj Beachfront and was working from the time I was awake until the time I went to bed. Playa del Carmen, Condo Hotels and Jack Perlman go hand in hand with success.