Playa del Carmen’s six-star resort scene puts the “high” in high maintenance

The Grand Mayan Resort sports "The Largest Swimming Pool in Latin America."
The Grand Mayan Resort sports “The Largest Swimming Pool in Latin America.”


PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico — Dear International Youth Hostel Association: Drop dead.

I could get used to six-star treatment. My days crashing youth hostels were gone a long time ago but I could become high maintenance in a hurry. I’m sitting here on a cushioned, wooden lanais chair next to a small, tiled wading pool just big enough for an orgy. I’m looking over the glass-paneled balcony rail DOWN at a jungle of ferns the size of four-story buildings. A giant pyramid is almost blocking the sun as well as the cloud cover. The pyramid is the resort’s doffed cap to the ancient Mayans who once ruled here but is now, in the best fashion of mass tourism, a water slide. I think it’s made of Plexiglas.

The Grand Luxxe resort is considered one of the top 20 resorts in the world. It’s part of the Grupo Vidanta, a Guadalajara-based conglomerate started in 1974 and has since turned itself into one of the world’s biggest timeshare and resort management groups. They list it as a 5-star++. One + means comfort. The other + likely means cost. The Grand Luxxe redefines opulence. The grand villa where I’m quartered has every luxury you can imagine without violating some federal obscenity laws. It’s 2,500 square feet with two huge bedrooms, two huge living rooms, 2 1/2 bathrooms and four huge flat-screen TVs. My room has a king-size bed covered with enough pillows to house flood evacuees.

An above-ground eggshell-white Jacuzzi tub separates the room from a bathroom that has a shower with two different shower heads. Next to the bathtub is a little stand with a carefully rolled towel tied by a decorative bow. Small bottles of bath salt, bathing gel and bubble bath are placed equal distance around the towel. Who knew feng shui extended to toiletries?

The living room of the Grand Luxxe's 2,500-square-foot grand suite.
The living room of the Grand Luxxe’s 2,500-square-foot grand suite.

There are three huge flat-screen TVs, one in a living room bigger than my apartment in Rome. The kitchen has a microwave, giant refrigerator and a coffeemaker with little brightly colored tubs of espresso.

The lighting can be lowered and raised to fit the mood. A-C puts the room at 72 degrees. As I’m writing this, I hear unseen birds singing inside the thick foliage and a xylophone player beating a steady rhythm near the beach I can’t see. Nor can I see “The Largest Swimming Pool in Latin America,” which, from pictures off the website, looks like a small Tahitian bay had been cordoned off by concrete walk paths and cushioned lanais chairs.

Of course, this is as far away from true Mexican culture as a Taco Bell in Dubuque, Iowa. The Grand Luxxe is halfway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen along the 62-mile stretch of beautiful white sand on the Mayan Riviera. It’s so far set away in the jungle, you need a shuttle to take you to the main highway. In fact, you get wheeled around the three adjoining complexes — the even more obtuse Grand Mayan with the gigantic pyramid lobby and the understated Mayan Palace are a 5-minute ride away — in shuttles that resemble golf carts with four back seats. Smiling Mexican men with limited English say, “Buenos noches!” and “Hola!” and “Como sta?” as they pull up to the various roundabout driveways in front of the lobbies.

One of the three bedrooms, all complete with flat-screen TVs.
One of the three bedrooms, all complete with flat-screen TVs.

The grounds are dotted with swimming pools and restaurants. In between, the golf carts whiz along paths cut through the jungle. Towering over you are giant ferns and palm trees so thick you think you’re playing 18 holes at the Amazon Country Club. Under construction is an elevated wooden walkway which will soon take more energetic guests along the jungle route right next to the fern line.

I was so hungry I didn’t have much time to explore the room other than call management to ask how the massage-therapy shower worked. (You can choose to take the spray coming out of the wall or from a big, round cylinder above your head which feels like you’re standing under a real warm waterfall.) After a 10-minute briefing by Luz, the pretty hotel clerk, she recommended Green Break, “the inexpensive taco shack.”

MIERDA! OK, here’s the problem with timeshares: Yeah, they’re all paid off but the things you buy around the resort make it seem as costly as a normal hotel. The espresso tubs in the kitchen are $3 each. At first glance, Green Break is a real nice beach bar. It’s spacious with an open kitchen and simple tables. A small squadron of mosquitoes chased away an entire table of American tourists nearby. I had the quesadilla with chicken, pineapple, cilantro and onion. It was one of the best quesadillas of my life, sweet and juicy and not a bit of grease. Two small margaritas had my head spinning — but not nearly as much as my bill. With an appetizer of chips and guacamole, the bill?


Me in one of the two Jacuzzis in the suite.
Me in one of the two Jacuzzis in the suite.

They charged $12 for a margarita. One Mexican meal cost as much as many Mexicans make in a week.

Living in Rome, I hadn’t watched an NFL game all year. After dinner, the Grand Mayan lobby with a ceiling higher than the one in the old World Trade Center Marriott led to a giant concert hall where two confused Mexican bellmen tried to find NBC and the Denver Broncos game. A rabid, blonde Peyton Manning fan from suburban Philadelphia was about ready to strangle them both until they got it on after the start of the second quarter.

Even the deck has a pool.
Even the deck has a pool.

Manning made the 49ers look ridiculous and beat the NFL’s all-time TD record. But Manning wasn’t nearly as strong as the two margaritas, which in the end, as I dozed away in six-star luxury, may have been worth $12 each.