In August, 2011 my wife Jane and I, our son Ricky, his girlfriend Ange and two of Jane’s sisters – Bobbi and Sue – had a too short 4-night vacation at El Taj in Playa del Carmen.
We stayed at El Taj in Playa del Carmen at the end of an 8-day adventure in the Yucatan that I wrote about here.
I promised I’d be back with the rest of the story, and here it is. We picked unit 336 because a) it was a spectacular hotel in Playa del Carmen b) it could accommodate six people c) it overlooked the beach and d) with apologies for repeating myself, but it was SPEC-TA-CU-LAR! In fact, the entire El Taj property was so amazing that we vowed to return as soon as we could (and we’re going back at the end of 2012).
Rick Howe in Unit 336 at El Taj
If you haven’t been to Playa del Carmen, or if you haven’t been to El Taj, I need to paint a picture for you. One side of El Taj overlooks the Caribbean, and the other side lies on a quiet back street in Playa. You walk in the front door and up a short flight of stairs and you are transported to an astonishing Caribbean/Balinese world. When you stand there, surrounded by authentic furniture and decorations and statuary from Bali, and the sounds and smells from the water, and the smiles of the staff . . . everything you thought, everything you felt, especially everything you worried about, simply evaporates.
We travel to Mexico a LOT! El Taj is IN Mexico, but it is NOT simply Mexican!
Rooftop Hot Tub at El Taj
It is a sensory hybrid that you must experience to believe. I have read some comparisons between El Taj and resorts like Disney’s Polynesian Resort at Walt Disney World. I’ve been to The Polynesian – when Ricky was young it was one of our favorite places at WDW (mostly because it’s on the Monorail), but the “Poly,” as the folks who work there call it, is as artificial as a movie set. It may look authentic on the surface, but behind the paint is plywood and styrofoam. And I’ve made the mistake of staying at Hilton and Hyatt properties in various resort locations, including Waikoloa Village on the Big Island of Hawaii. And right under the surface it’s all the same: plywood and styrofoam.
El Taj, on the other hand, is completely authentic. The art is ART. The statues are BRONZE. The furniture is HAND-MADE. We know – we’ve been to Bali. It rings true in every corner, at every step. El Taj is gorgeous. A magical fantasy.
View from the private rooftop at El Taj
But yet, for all that, Mexico is just a few steps out the door. We arrived on a Wednesday late afternoon, having driven from Merida with stops at the Dzitnup Cenote, the Pyramid at Coba, and Tulum. We wanted to go out to a great Mexican restaurant for dinner. The folks at the front desk gave us a list of restaurants who offered discounts to guests of El Taj and the other Condo Hotels properties. I fired up Trip Advisor on my little laptop and checked restaurant reviews in Playa del Carmen, and based on the reviews we picked Mi Pueblo on Fifth Ave at about 8th St. North. Outdoor seating for people-watching, Mariachi Bands (who take requests), and delicious food. It was a great place to start off our vacation’s first night – eat and shop on Fifth Ave – all in one location.
The next morning Ricky and Ange wanted some adventure, so the front desk arranged for them to go up to Maroma for horseback riding, jet-skiing and snorkeling.
Horseback Riding at Maroma
A whole day adventure that was convenient, reasonably priced and so much fun that the kids are going to do it all again when we return.
The adults opted for Indigo Beach Club in front of El Taj, lunch on the sand, swimming in the Caribbean and time in the pools. And then we all went shopping! With a few side excursions, Fifth Ave is the main commerce area in Playa, about 20 blocks of pedestrian walkway that is the envy of every resort town. Food, fashion, jewelry, art and artifacts, furniture, tequila, cigars, bars, clubs, shoes, handmade clothing and more. I suspect you might be able to explore every store on Fifth Ave if you spent five hours a day for about ten days. But I’m a guy – I shop fast. Jane’s sisters would probably take twice – no, three times – that long.
That night we tried another Trip Advisor-recommended restaurant – La Mission, on Tenth Ave (which is only one block west of Fifth Ave – go figure), a little south of 2nd St. North. We were greeted by Juan, who must be either the owner or manager – his English was very good. It was a little warm (you should sit back away from the grill in the front), but the food and the music was wonderful.
The next day, while the family was out baking in the sun at Indigo Beach at El Taj, I opted for a massage right there on the beach. And while I was drifting away, Ricky arranged for a boat to carry us down the beach (towards Akumal, I believe) for some snorkeling. Sounded good to me. But when we got there what did we see? Turtles. Sea turtles.
On the way to swim with the turtles
Swimming around us. The guys on the boat had little bait fish with them. So when I held out a little fish underwater, this BIG BEAUTIFUL turtle – who was SMILING! – swam right up and grabbed it out of my hand.
That night we had our third dinner in Playa del Carmen, again with a recommendation from Trip Advisor. This time we drove up to 38th St. North to Origenes, and the meal was spectacular! We got GREAT service and WONDERFUL food, accompanied by two very talented musicians.
Origenes in Playa del Carmen
Sat outdoors on a cool evening, although inside seating was also available. All the food was wonderful, and we’re pretty picky (lots of travel experience to Mexico over the years): Calamares Fritos (Fried Calamari), Camarones Mango (Shrimp with Mango), Fetuccini con Mariscos (Fetuccini with Seafood), Pasta Rellena con Huitlacoche (home-made Ravioli with corn truffles), Pesca del dia al Ajillo (fresh fish with LOTS of garlic!!!). Yumm!!
The next day Ricky proposed to Ange (!!!!!), having slipped the engagement ring on her finger while she slept. There is another long story there, but that day was spent with the warmth of the ocean, the warmth of El Taj, and the radiant warmth of their love for each other. So to celebrate, we arranged for a private chef to prepare dinner for us in our place.
Rocio arrived at our condo loaded with groceries, and with an assistant. It was fascinating to watch a professional chef prepare our dinner – washing, sorting, slicing, cooking and tasting in OUR kitchen! We had already told her we would dine “up on the roof,” so she brought all of our courses upstairs for our gastronomic pleasure. She served all six of us and waited politely for our approval.
Private Chef at El Taj Rocio Norzagaray
It was all delicious. Rocio was wonderful, and we couldn’t have been happier. So we’ve already arranged for her to prepare another dinner for us when we return.
Playa del Carmen is unlike any resort I have even been to in my 62 years. And El Taj is simply magical. If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line. I’m a yapper, and I love to share. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org