TLDR version: I went to Playa del Carmen and saw some of the local beaches and destinations, enjoyed beautiful beaches and cultural riches. Stayed at an all-inclusive resort but rented a car to go other areas and did not regret it. It is a must-see destination for beach lovers and those interested in cultural vacations filled with natural beauty.
I had just moved back stateside living for almost 5 years in the Dominican Republic. Even after such a long time in the Caribbean, I'm always ready for more beaches and sunshine. My boyfriend and I were about to move to the Pacific Northwest, so I knew this might be last chance to swim in beautiful turquoise water for a long while, and it did not disappoint!
The resort: Sandos Caracol Eco Resort. They market themselves as an “ecological” resort because they have a big cenote (naturally occurring freshwater swimming holes/ponds that are super common in the area), and are surrounded by jungle and even have some archeological ruins on the grounds. It’s great for families because they have lots of activities, games, etc., for them. The beach that “belonged” to the hotel was very rocky, until you got far out enough where they had made an artificial bank/barrier. They lent out snorkeling gear and we spent hours checking out the fish and swimming around. Overall a good experience, except for the aggressive selling of a timeshare/package type deal with the Sandos chain of hotels. This is extremely common in these kinds of hotels. The salesperson assigned to us gave us our room keys and explained the hotels very nicely, told us about the activities, then said they would give us a free something-or-other if we scheduled a “breakfast meeting” to go over the timeshare options we could buy. We politely scheduled the meeting and then never showed up when the time came 😊. Just a word of warning, unless you really are interested in a timeshare, just AVOID. Don’t give an inch. Whatever free thing they are offering is not worth losing 2-5 hours to listen to their pitch.
Xcaret ecological waterpark: This place is a combination zoo, waterpark, history/archaeology museum, and cultural theme park. It’s not easy to explain, but it was actually really fun and great for families. The main attraction is a long system of cenotes and underground rivers. It has a few swimming areas in the ocean (snorkeling gear is lent out), lots of shows and activities, swimming with dolphins, lots of animals to look at, quite a lot of things to do. The day ends with a really spectacular show celebrating the history and culture of Mexico in their large theater. It might sound cheesy, but this was actually really well-done, featuring regional songs and dances from all over Mexico, telling the story chronologically of the country from its indigenous peoples, to the colonial conquest, to the birth of the new blended culture and how it is lived today.
Tulum: This may have been my favorite place, although it didn’t feel like at the time with the intense heat and humidity! Tulum is a large archaeological park with Mayan ruins, which you can walk through on your own or with a guide. The best part is, after walking around in the oppressively hot sun, you can walk down to the adjacent beach and cool off, with the Mayan pyramids up on the cliff to look at. It was really impressive.
Xcacel beach: There are several beaches on the way to/from Tulum from Playa del Carmen, and each is a little different. I am only mentioning Xcacel because it is my favorite of all the ones we went to. It is part of a nature reserve, because once a year baby turtles hatch here and swim into the sea. I think you can pay to see this, but we were not there at the right time of year. It didn’t matter though, because since it is a protected beach, there were no restaurants or shops, so it is very calm and peaceful. The ocean itself was the cleanest and calmest (best for swimming) of all the ones we had been to. Everyone was cleared out around 5pm, because they do not want people sticking around after dark stealing turtle eggs or disturbing the turtles’ habitat. There is also a cenote up a nearby trail you can swim in.
I highly recommend Playa del Carmen and Rivera Maya area to everyone! It was a wonderful trip.