Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Gay Vacation To Riviera Maya, Part 1: Iberostar

Our trip to Riviera Maya, more specifically Playa del Carmen, Mexico, was simply amazing. The weather was wonderful, the water was gorgeous, and the place had just enough of the gay to make us not feel terribly uncomfortable. With that said, I wanted to give a run down of some of the things we saw and experienced while in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and give you the perspective of what's good and gay, and what's just plain good.

I'll start with probably the most important piece of the trip: the resort. Playa del Carmen is a bustling new tourist area with tons and tons of resorts and hotels. You can pick between small hotels on the strip or fun, family-oriented beach resorts or even adults-only, all-inclusive resorts. There are several options to choose from, but if you ask me, the all-inclusive route is the way to go.

The boyfriend and I chose the Iberostar Tucan resort for our stay, and we could not have been happier with our choice. When we started our search of where to stay, I relied pretty heavily on two sites: Apple Vacations for the actual package, and Trip Advisor for recommendations and ratings. For the price/quality combo, the Iberostar Tucan was a perfect fit, and it was all-inclusive which made it that much better of a deal.

Being two 'mos that are pretty affectionate with each other, traipsing off to a more rural area of Mexico, which tends to be less gay friendly, held some concerns for us. We were a bit worried of what kind of reaction we'd run into while there. So it was with some relief, and not a little surprise, that we were greeted by the cutest little queen that ever did flame once we got to our resort. He recognized family right away. After we exchanged our super secret gay handshake, our new found friend made sure to upgrade our room to as close to the beach as possible and was even able to get us in to our room before the official check in time (we had an early flight and check in wasn't till 3 pm).

With that taken care of, we were able to take in the resort. Let me just say that the Iberostar Tucan is like no other place I've seen before. The place is not huge; in fact, we were able to walk the grounds the whole time we were there quite easily. It was massive though, in the sense of what they were able to pack into the space they had without making it feel cramped at all. The lobby, which encompasses the check-in/out counter, a lounge area, the various travel agent stands, a few shops and a bar (the best bar, in our opinion), is a completely open-air with a giant thatched-roof above. We soon found out that this open-air feel was a theme of the resort. Most of the eateries and bars were open air, as well as the evening entertainment area, with only three of the restaurants in the whole resort enclosed and air conditioned.

I was worried initially that this would mean that everything would be excessively hot and we wouldn't be able to enjoy meals or properly relax during the entertainment. We were in Southern Mexico in mid-August after all. However, the breeze from the ocean combined with an elaborate, yet subtle, ceiling fan system kept us comfortable throughout the week during our meals and shows. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect because it allowed me to taken in the tropical climate almost the entire time we were in Playa del Carmen, which is most of the reason us Yankee Chicago boys decided to head there to begin with.

The grounds between the front desk/lobby area stretching back to where the pool began and walled on either side by the hotels was landscaped into a tropical jungle that just so happened to have paved paths and random pagodas. Tropical trees and creatures roamed the grounds and mingled with us guests. Toucans, Macaws, monkeys, pheasants, peacocks, flamingos, cranes and turtles all roamed this area. It's a bit unnerving the first time a monkey swings over your head or a peacock strolls into the path and stares at you, but that fades away to charm very quickly. The flora and fauna of this part of the resort made traveling to dinners and our room quite enjoyable the whole week, and we found ourselves taking different paths through this mini-jungle by the end of the week just to make sure we weren't missing anything.

When we got to the pool, I was fairly impressed. To be honest, I wasn't here in Riviera Maya for a pool. But, the fact that the pool was there, and was plenty large to accommodate the vacationers was very nice. There is also a swim-up bar, but it is in an adjoining pool that is no deeper than wading height for adults (likely a good thing given the amount of alcohol one could consume there in just a few short hours). Surrounding the pool were an assortment of chairs, umbrellas and pagodas big enough to fit two to three people comfortably. These pagodas were particularly fun as they were covered, comfortable and each featured their own set of stairs down into the water. There is also a nice grill next to the pool for convenient snacking.

Just to the side of the pool was our room. Our friend from the front desk had provided us a room one hotel away from the beach and right by the pool! The room was nice enough, fairly typical hotel room. Each room featured a nice sized balcony, a mini-bar (all-inclusive as well), a nice sized shower with great water pressure and excellent air conditioning for the times you may want to get out of the heat. The only complaint I had about the room, and I'm not sure if this speaks more to the room itself or the staff, was that we were given a room with two separate beds. Luckily for us, they were both full sized beds so we could make due with sleeping on one while the other became storage space. The beds were also very firm, which may be uncomfortable for some. The firmness did not bother me though, as by the time we fell asleep each night we were either exhausted or drunk.

Possibly the most important feature of the resort is the beach. Some of the reviews had negatively mentioned the "whales" that blot the beaches in Playacar, which I will say are partially justified but not fully so. The area suffers from potential beach erosion, so the resorts (or possibly the state) place the giant tarp bags filled with sand on the beach to prevent the gorgeous white sand from slipping off into the sea. Personally, they did not bother me one bit. If you can't see this beach for its beautiful sand and crystal clear waters, then you must be the kind of person that thinks the glass not half empty, but completely lacking. To compliment the best beach I've ever been on were tons of chairs and umbrellas for fair skinned folk like myself. The resort also sent servers out among the beach goers to take drink orders, and while this wasn't exactly prompt, on-demand service, it was perfect for when we simply could not be bothered to leave the sun. Also, a little ice cream stand and another grill that served hot dogs and burgers all day long were right within reach of the beach, making it completely possible to not have to leave the sand all afternoon if you desired.

Although the beach is of upmost importance, to me the staff of the resort of the most important piece of the puzzle. Even with all its other pleasantries, the staff at the Iberostar Tucan could have ruined the whole deal for me. Could have. But they did not ruin it. Instead, they put the perfect touch on what was already a wonderful experience. All but one staff member we interacted with were amazing (you know who you are, guy in the scuba shop). Even the groundskeepers smiled and greeted us as we walked by. The servers were happy to get you what you wanted, the bartenders were appropriately chatty, and even the housekeeping staff left fun animal-shaped towels on you bed everyday. Even the occasionally over-the-top Star Friends staff (the entertainers on the resort who did everything from running beach volleyball tournaments to putting on elaborate stage shows every night) struck a nice balance between hokey and fun. The only complaint I had the entire time was the obviously condescending glare we received from the guy in the scuba hut, but even when that complaint was heard we were apologized to and assured it would be "handled."

With all that said, I'd like to share a few tips about the Iberostar Tucan. First, while this is an all-inclusive resort, you should budget for tips, and plan to tip everyone. No one dared ask for tips, but those that received tips were much more attentive to us, from the quick service at the bars, to the extra care and free upgraded wine at the restaurants, to the daily stocked mini-bar in the room (they were only suppose to stock every other day). Everyone appreciated the tips and showed gratitude in kind. Second, skip the Japanese restaurant unless you're really into Hibachi-style grills. While the food wasn't bad, it just wasn't their forte. The Mexican and Italian were simply amazing though, and the steakhouse was a bit average. The seafood/tropical restaurant was not open during our visit, but since neither of us enjoy seafood we likely would not have tried it anyway. Thirdly, you should know that the evening shows are above good, but not quite at great. If you're finicky about your entertainment, either forget your prejudices for the week or skip them. I found them to be good, particularly the Disco Night and the Culural night (which featured traditional, regional Mexican dances). Fourth, the bar in the lobby is the hands down best bar at the resort. If you have a choice, go there. Lots of mixed drinks, top shelf liquor, and excellent bartenders made for a great couple of drinks. Finally, if you need something or want something, simply ask. We did not have a single reasonable request refused by the resort.

As for being gay at the resort, we did not run into any issues (aside from the above mentioned scuba guy). We may have toned down our affection some while on the trip, but not much. Again, the staff were extremely friendly and made our stay nice, but anytime you're around children there's bound to be a little silliness and a few kids pointing and staring. It did seem that most of the vacationers at the resort were European, which apparently meant that they could care less about our sexuality. Some of the Mexican families did seem to give my boyfriend (who is of Mexican decent) the stink eye, but didn't seem to care less about me. In general, the resort seemed perfectly friendly and accepting.

Overall, the Iberostar Tucan was an amazing experience and easily 4.5/5 in my books. The value of this resort was just phenomenal. I would (and do) recommend this resort to anyone. Even those who are child averse (like we are), should find that there are enough ways to avoid kids and enough cozies where kids just don't go to keep you very satisfied. We plan on returning to the Iberostar Tucan and we will definitely be looking for other Iberostar resorts on our future travels.


Dyl said...

Glad you guys had a good time down there :-)

Joel Derfner said...

I'm sorry, I just can't get the image of Toucan Sam out of my head. I would be frightened/excited to run into him at every turn.

Anonymous said...

My girlfriend and I went to Iberostar Jamaica and loved it. So, now we are looking for an all inclusive gay friendly wedding location, which led me to your blog. Thanks for the info!

Francisco said...

Dear Dickie,
Thank you for such a detailed review.
I will be in Riviera Maya in a week for one week. I am traveling solo from Vancouver.
Any recommendation for a single gay guy in that corner of the world?
Best regards,

Dickie said...

Hey Francisco!

We found a total of one gay bar in Playa del Carmen:

It's a quaint gay bar, a bit small, but very private. There's a court-yard, but it has tall fencing and they obscure the view of the bar with flyers and banners and such. It's a bit dead in the week, but the weekend seemed a bit more fun. Finding it can be a chore though, as many of the locals either don't know the bar or they don't want to admit they know the bar, and it is down a bit of an alley way. I would definitely suggest mapping it out before heading into Playa del Carmen to find it!

Outside of there, there are rumors of a gay beach, but we did not venture out to find it. In general though, we found several other L and G folk at the resort and lots of fun young, straight people, so don't be afraid to be social at your resort!

PS, I love Vancouver. We were just there in June to get married ;)

Dickie said...

There's also a gay owned restaraunt and hotel on the main drag there, but I can't recall the names at the moment. I'll see if I can't google them in a bit. We did not get a chance to hang out at either, but I'm betting you could meet some other LGBT travellers there as well.