Author Topic: One Week in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico  (Read 1379 times)

Offline riem37

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One Week in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
« on: March 20, 2024, 02:27:59 PM »
My wife and I went on a Tuesday to Tuesday trip to Playa Del Carmen at the beginning of March, here's the details both of what we did, what we possibly would have done differently, and the general state of Kosher/Jewish Options at the time of writing. I'm going to divide this into different sections rather than mix everything into one narrative:

MONEY:
Doing my research before this trip, there was lots of advice that many vendors do not accept cards, or they do but with an added fee, and that some will accept USD but you'll get a bad exchange rate. I have to say that in our experience, there was actually a large variety of which method gives you the best bang for your buck. First off, every kosher restaurant we went to took card no problem and with no extra fee, as well as the local convenience and grocery stores (some may have a minimum purchase requirement). If you're looking to buy things from local artisan shops or book tours at a booth, then you probably need cash. When paying cash, at the regular stores, MXN is definitely better, but when we were booking at our tour booth it actual would've been better to pay in USD, so really depends. We got MXN from an ATM as my card has all fees covered. You get a great exchange rate BUT, there are a couple things you must know. First, only use an ATM in a bank or another indoor location with security cameras - do NOT use the ones just on the street, as you don't know if somebody put a skimming device in them. Second, when you use an ATM, it may ask you if you want to pay like an insurance fee. Say 'No', then the biggest trick, is at the end, the screen shows a whole exchange math with a terrible rate and asks if you want them to exchange the currency. SAY NO. It makes it look like saying no will cancel the transaction, but in reality saying no just makes your bank do the exchange instead of the ATM and your Bank will give you a much much more favorable rate, likely the best you can get. After you hit no, it will disperse your money. Many people are tricked into thinking not to use ATMS at all because of this, but if you know what to do it's a reliable way to get MXN at a good rate.

TRANSPORTATION:
The only transportation we used was a private van to and from the airport, shuttles to certain excursions, and the Ferry to Cozumel. We didn't rent a car, take the bus, or any taxis. We booked airport travel with this site: https://www.cancun-airport.net/services.php. For some reason, this site is waaay cheaper than any other site, and it worked great. You can book a private taxi or van for like the same price somehow. There was somebody at the airport with our name on the sign to pick us up, and on the other way the picked us up from our AIRBNB to go to the airport, very timely. Would highly recommend this over a Taxi, who are incredibly overpriced. Only thing to know is this website is really 3 different car companies working together, so the person picking you up could have any of their logos. They tell you this but just important to know so you don't get confused.

We also booked tours where a shared van would pick us up and then pick up a couple other people before going to the location. Much cheaper than a private driver but obviously there are pros to going private, especially with a big family or little kids.

Everything actually in Playa Del Carmen is in walking distance to a couple of healthy adults. The whole tourist area is probably like a mile or two long. There are Taxis everywhere if you want to make use of them, we chose to just walk. From what I understand, if you use a taxi, never take the first price offered and avoid using card for payment.

The Ferry to Cozumel was like a 15 minute walk or so from where we were staying (near the Grand Hyatt). No advantage to buying tickets in advanced or buying the round trip ticket, just get one way at the booth as this allows you to come back whenever you want instead of being locked into a time. There are also two ferry companies, they leave at alternating hours, on the hour. Just buy from whichever one is leaving next (that will be the one with the line). Recommend getting there like 20 minutes before departure to be safe. On of the companies has a First Class section with comfier seats, but I thought regular was fine. Again only buy tickets from the booth or ticket machines, random people may try to tell you you can skip the line by buying through them, but they're just trying to rip you off and sell the same ticket for more money.

Accommodations:
Being without any points/miles, we stayed at an AIRBNB near the Grand Hyatt, in a luxury condo building. A lot of the AIRBNBs seem to be in these Condo buildings with tons of other AIRBNBs in them, so it slightly feels like staying in a hotel anyway, as everybody in the building is a tourist. Pretty much anywhere you stay will be very close to 5th ave, which is a walking only street that's the tourist center, with lots of vendors, restaurants, bars, malls, etc. This street is like 1.5 miles long. Daytime is much more chill than nighttime, where in certain parts of it there's lots of loud bars and clubs, but as the cross streets get higher, it's more chill, even at night. For reference the Grand Hyatt is closer to the more chill part. Going a couple blocks lower will have you hit the beach, which varies on size/crowds depending on where you are. Going a couple blocks up will get you further from the tourist stuff, once you past 10th it gets a lot less touristy.

Itinerary/trip route:
We flew JFK to Cancun, then got picked up by our private van (see transportation section), who drove us to our Airbnb, right by the Grand Hyatt. After e were all settled in it was evening, so we started just walking down the bustling 5th Ave. Soon enough we bump into a kosher place, Two Smokers, where we have dinner. A fellow patron ordered way too many appetizers and gave us some before we even ordered, so shout out to that guy wherever you are. The appetizers were great, a roast beef facacia and pulled beef empanadas. The sandwiches we weren't as impressed with, mainly just due to strange condiment and seasoning choices, we got the meatball sandwich and a pulled beef sandwich. Others could easily be great, and we didn't get any of the meat entrees which looked great. We agreed to come back another time and only get appetizers. Also at the place was a cute weiner dog named Flaco who is the place's real treasure.


Speaking of dogs, you'll sometimes notice dogs without leashes. I'm sure a couple are strays, but also local people here seem to just let their dogs out un-leashed and/or without collars like outdoor cats during the day.


The next day we stayed local and walked scoped out the whole touristy area. If you're on 5th you'll tons of shop owners and taxi drivers trying to get your attention, just ignore them. I should note I was wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis out the whole trip and never felt unsafe or uncomfortable, although some vendors trying to catch my attention shouted out "Shalom!" lol. We checked out the malls (there are like 3 just on 5th). They've got lots of American brands if clothing shopping is what your into, can't comment on if it's priced well. We got lunch at Mas Pan, one of the two Dairy places, and it was delicious. Got the Shakshouka which was huge, came with tons of bread, dips, and a mini salad. Also got a large greek salad which had an ample amount of cheese. Should note that the prices at all the food places were pretty on par in NJ prices, so it's not cheap or anything, but I'll definitely say I found the service to be better than your average teaneck joint, probably because the waiters aren't high schoolers.



This is a good time to note that it is not advised for non-locals to drink the tap water here and no restaurant will give tap water as a result. Idk if Hotels provide bottled or filtered water, but we figured that since we'd need to buy water bottles, and we'd need a lot of water since it's very hot and during the day you're drinking constantly, we'd go to a big supermarket outside the touristy area to buy in bulk. There was a MEGA supermarket (a mexican chain), 13 minutes walk away from our place, and a Walmart 16 minutes away. Both were basically the same. We bought some big jugs of water, tossed them in our fridge, and refilled water bottles from them for the rest of the trip. To give you an idea, a 1 liter water bottle on 5th is like 25 MXN, and at MEGA a 10 Liter jug was 43 MXN. Even if you don't go to MEGA, just go one block up to tenth to a 7-11 or an OXXO and get a jug, still way cheaper than constantly buying bottles.

We then went to look for a place to book activities. I had read before that booking them online or through a hotel was often much pricier than doing it in at a tour booth on the street, but I admit I was apprehensive going to any of the many booths run by people who I can't communicate particularly well with and giving them cash, hoping that it all went well later. Luckily, we happened to find a tour booth run by a couple from the Netherlands of all places - they just moved down here a year ago to live in Playa and become tour people, and they spoke perfect english and gave, what I believe were, very fair prices. They were also very knowledgeable on all the activities, and very friendly and helpful. Their booth was on 18th and 1st and their info and whatsapp is here: https://perfect-tours-mexico.com/. We only booked shared tours through them but they can book private drivers/tours as well, can't speak to the prices for that though. We booked a Buggy Tour in Cozumel for the next day and they offered to walk us to the Ferry and explain how tickets worked the next morning, which we gladly took them up on.

Spent the rest of the day at our rooftop pool, then went to Coco Rico for a quick dinner. It's your average hole in the wall israeli place, good food, nothing too remarkable.

Next morning we went on the Ferry (see transportation) to Cozumel. Takes like 45 minutes. We landed in Cozumel and met at the designated meeting spot where got hooked up with our Buggy tour with others. We shared a buggy with the other only English speaking couple and drove around the Island, with some stops at a tequila farm, and some pretty beaches/lookouts. The last stop on the drive was a beach club where you can stay for 2 hours, comes with a free meal you can't eat of course, but the beach is nice and there's also free snorkeling, kayaking, and pools there. Once we left and were dropped off by the ferry, we stopped by the Chabad real quick and then ate at Pita Loca, another hole in the wall Israeli place, but I heard very good things about the falafel here and it did not disappoint, alos very unique pita bread, more of a spongy cake like texture. There's 3 other Kosher places in Cozumel, and all of them are within five minutes of the Ferry so it's a great location. We took the Ferry back home and settled in for the night.

Next day was Friday, we had booked a swimming with dolphins thing at Dolphinaris. They have a location both in Cozumel and near Playa. A shuttle picked us up and we were the only ones on it, so sometimes you end up with a private ride to tours if you're the only one that booked from Playa for that time. The Dolphin stuff was cute, you get to pet the dolphins and we in the water with them, although a decent amount of time is spent waiting while other people get their turn, although you're still in the water right next to the dolphins the whole time. We paid for the "Ride experience" so we also got to basically hold onto the dolphins dorsal fin as it swims very fast, giving you a ride. Was pretty cool. Of course where they really get you is that the whole time they take like 60 pictures of you, and at the end if you want them they will charge an insane amount of money for them. I think that as a couple the price given to us was like 135 USD. As we said there's no way we could do that and begun to walk out, they changed it to 80 USD and we caved. What can I say, they were cute pictures.

For Shabbos, there is no eruv, just fyi. There are 2 Chabad Houses. The one on 10th was a 13 minute walk, while the one on 20th was a 25 minute walk from where we were staying (again, we stayed close to the Grand Hyatt for reference.) Here's a breakdown of the two Chabads:

Chabad on 10th: smaller, lower key chabad. It's basically one big room on the second floor above a store, right around the corner from the restaurant Mas Pan. This is the "Official" Chabad, while the other one is "Yellow Flag". Seen lots of people describe this one as a bit more intimate, I could see it possibly better for families as your kids can move around the room while always being in your view, and there are some nice couches for them to chill if they get tired.

Chabad on 20th: Much bigger, known as a more "happening" Chabad. Yellow Flag. The Rabbi is the one that gives the teuda for many of the places in Playa. It's a bit more out of the way than the other chabad, but much larger, they have like a whole compound with 2 restaurants, a shul, and some outdoor space. I've heard friday nights are particularly crazy with 125+ people but I wasn't there to see it.

We reserved dinner in advanced at Chabad on 10th because we were looking for something more chill. Davening was nice, lots of energy. I guess the Chabad couple were out of town because the whole show was run by 4 Israeli Bochurim. I'm sure it's a little different when the couple is there. Around 35 people or so, like half Israelis. My wife and I don't speak any hebrew at all so we sat with some American couples and had a great time. Dinner was delicious, particularly the moroccan salmon and the vanilla sponge cake, some of the best of each I've ever had. Plenty of food. The bochurim legit spoke no english so didn't get much out of the dvar torah but they did some nice zmeros. Very casual, comfy atmosphere.

For Shabbos day, we decided to check out the Chabad on 20th. Due to some delays we got there at 11, but they were just up to Barchu, and davening ended at like 1PM. Very nice davening but they did a whole little song in between every Aliyah which definitely contributed to the timing lol. Afterwards they quickly set up a bunch of tables for lunch with tons of bowls of different salads and dips. I asked the Rabbi if there was space for us to join since we didn't reserve, and he very warmly said there was plenty of room and food for everyone. Was probably around 80 or so people there, like 75 percent Israelis. All the english speakers sat at the same table and we had a great time. Great food and plenty of it. Chilled the rest of Shabbos, then got some motzei shabbos pizza at Mas Pan, where literally everybody we met over shabbos had the same idea.

On Sunday we mainly chilled around at the pool/beach. For dinner we wanted to go to Moshe Cube which we had heard great things about, but it was temporarily closed, so we went to two smokers again and got all appetizers.

Monday we booked a tour of Tulum (a Mayan Ruins) and a Cenotes, which are like these underground caves filled with water you can swim in. There are hundreds of these cenotes all over the area so a lot of the excursions include visiting on. We a shuttle picked us up and picked up a couple other people, one was a couple that lived in a villa with a giant security line to enter so just getting them added like 20 minutes to the trip, so that's a slight risk if using a shared shuttle. Tulum is in a national park, and they will not allow you to bring in any plastic water bottles out of fear of litter, so if you can pack a reusable bottle. A tour guide told us a bit about the history and then left us to explore for an hour. The ruins are neat, and there's a very nice view of the Caribbean sea, as well as tons of iguanas running around. There's also a spot where sea turtles come during the summer months to lay eggs.

We then went back to the van and they took us to a lunch we couldn't eat, followed but taking us to the cenotes. Now here's the thing. Some Cenotes are like, very well known cenotes that tons of tourists come to as the center of the excursion, not an add on. So those ones are, I imagine, a bit more sanitized an experience than this one. We walk down some rickity wood steps, put on life jackets, take a waterproof flashlight, and go in the water right by this giant pitch black cave. Idk why I didn't expect the cave to be pitch black. There are little fish in the water and bats on the roof of the cave, they're mostly sleeping but you can hear them a little and the guide warns you not to scream or flash the light at them or they'll all wake up. Everybody was VERY squeamish but the guide coaxed us on. We swam through the cave, which was a very cool looking cave with tons of stalactites etc. Eventually we hit the end, the guide tells us a little, and then we head back. It was kind of terrifying but very cool experience that I'm glad I did in retrospect.

We got back, had dinner at Mas Pan where we got a delicious portabella mushroom burger and salmon broccoli pasta. We walked around the chill part of town at night and sat at a bench across from a bar with a live band playing, caught a nice show.

Next morning we got picked up by our van we booked before the trip and went through airport security, which is much much more lax than American airports. And that's the whole story! Hope it can be of help.

Kosher
Here's a quick run down of all the kosher places in Playa:

Mas Pan - Dairy place with excellent variety of foods, we ate here a lot. Huge portions. Skip the pizza and try out the other dishes if you're not with picky kids. - https://www.facebook.com/MasPanPlaya/

Two Smokers - Meat place with sandwiches and plenty of nice meat entrees, and great appetizers that are basically mains. Only kosher place directly on 5th, so you can do some nice people watching and sometimes street performers will do a show in front of it. -https://twosmokers.oledesignstudio.com/

Coco Rico - average hole in the wall israeli place. Has a couple tables outside but mostly for takeout. - https://cocoricokosher.com/

Moshe Cube - sit down Israeli place with outdoor and indoor seating and lots of unique menu items, heard very good thing about the shabbos takeout menu as well - https://www.moshecubekosher.com/

Platinum Grill - indoor seating, probably the nicest place besides the Grill inside the Hyatt. A bit too much $$ for us so we didn't go but it's very good central location to many of the hotels.

The Grill - the restaurant in the Grand Hyatt, I think if you want to go but aren't staying there you need a reservation. Fancy but $$$ - https://www.thegrillplaya.com/

Let's Meat - steakhouse with a delicious looking menu (and they have a cocktail menu as well), located inside the Chabad on 20th, was too far of a walk for us to feel up to going - https://letsmeatplaya.com/

Malka - Dairy place, also in the Chabad on 20th. Don't know much about it, seemed like standard casual dairy fair - https://malka-kosher.jimdosite.com/

There's also a small kosher market and bakery but I don't no anything about them.

The Chabad on 10th also has a catering/meal delivery service and they will deliver meals to your hotel.

If you're trying to go grocery shopping, in addition to the stuff with regular kosher symbols, you can also check the KMD Kosher product list, although if you don't no any spanish it's a bit annoying to use: https://kosher.com.mx/

Chabad on 10th: https://www.jewishplaya.com/

Chabad on 20th: https://chabadplaya.org/en/

Tour Booking
As described above, had a great experience with https://perfect-tours-mexico.com/, no language barrier makes things so much easier and they were very friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful.

Feel free to ask any questions and I'll do my best to answer from my limited experience.