We had a great trip to Playa del Carmen last week! I've been to Mexico quite a bit but have only been to the Cancun area back when I was 18 - Senor Frog et al - so this was my first Playa del Carmen experience. I relied heavily on internet research so wanted to return the favor!
We stayed at the Banyan Tree Maracoba and had a love/hate relationship. We stayed at the Tides Zihuatanejo a few years ago and wanted to stay at the Tides Riviera Maya which was unfortunately closed for renovation, and they recommended the Banyan Tree. We flew into Cancun and booked airport transport through CancunShuttle.com, $90 round trip for 2 people, much cheaper than through the resort, and a private reserved transport, highly recommended. When we arrived at Banyan we were really impressed with the look of resort and room and our resort welcome.
We took a swim in our private plunge pool and had dinner at the resort's signature restaurant, Saffron. This is a fantastic Thai restaurant, but, I wouldn't go back. For one, when I get to Mexico, I want great Mexican food, not Thai food. And for two, drinks were like $18. I know resorts are expensivo, but seriously. That just seemed freaking absurd.
Day 2 started with coffee in the room - they have a pretty good espresso maker in the room, and breakfast at the resort, which is included in the price of the room. Now mentally we were comparing it to the Tides Zihua, where we woke to fresh pastries and tea outside our door, somehow exactly when we woke up but hot, and then a phenomenal breakfast we selected from a menu. The buffet was well done at Banyan and there was a fresh omelet station, but none of the food blew us away.
We decided to walk to the beach the 1st day although everyone thought we were crazy. The property's beach is reachable by a 20-minute walk, a boat ride through lagoons, or golf cart. The lagoon boat ride is neat for checking out fish and birds, and the golf cart rides are constantly available, but at the end of the day, you go on a beach holiday to be at the beach, so it's preferable to be right on the beach. We liked the boat method for getting to and from the beach club the best, and then got our walk in up and down the beach where it was cooler.
Once you get to the beach club, there is a nice pool, and really nice chairs. However, the lunch menu wasn't that enticing and was again expensive, and when we ordered drinks, we tended to have to ask for them twice. And, there were no extra amenities really. At Tides and other resorts we've been to of this caliber, we would get little drinks, little treats, etc. - the service at Banyan for the price was just not that over the top. People were friendly but it just wasn't that personal. At resorts of this caliber in the past we knew everyone by name by the end of the trip because we'd chatted with them so much.
The drinks at the beach club swim-up bar were good though and we liked our lunch well enough, softshell crab tacos and some other kind of tacos thing, I can't even remember now. That night we took a cab into town, which is $20 each way (which I found to be pricey but you spend a lot less in town so it's 6 to 1, half a dozen to the other), and had a great low-key dinner at Marisqueria, the 2nd story food stall at Hotel Basico. Great ceviche, fish tacos, salsa, etc. Then we found a bar called Ula Gula, where they played good tunes, had great service, you could sit outside, and they made great drinks, and had 2-for-1 specials on drinks with fresh fruit. We ended up at this place 3 times and they were overall pretty great to us. We had written down Diablito Cha Cha Cha as a bar to check out but when we got close it was a frightening madhouse tourist scene which just wasn't our bag - Ula Gula was right up our alley. We heard a bar called the Hangover was supposed to be good for karaoke but it was a strange scene when we got there. We had a good laugh though and made the best of it with some strong entertaining performances!
We had a good enough lunch at the Banyan Tree main pool one day, the Mexican sampler platter for 2, and another day we had some great shrimp tacos at the main pool. The service at the main pool was much better than at the beach club - they gladly helped us run up a considerable bar tab! We also had a good low-key dinner another night in town at at Los Carboncitos - great al pastor tacos, fried crispy cheese, guacamole, salsas, etc.
Our two best meals were both at the Rosewood Mayakoba resort 2 doors down from Banyan Tree. This place still has the Banyan Tree setup with the lagoon between the resort and the resort's beach club but otherwise it seemed a lot more like what we were looking for. The service was exceptional, the food was great Mexican, etc. We had a great dinner and awesome cocktails at the Agave Azul Tequila Library. We had tuna tartar, duck tacos and the taco trio, and several different cocktails, all great. We also had lunch outside at Punta Bonita at the Rosewood Beach Club. We had great hot sauces, guacamole, lobster tacos and cured salmon tostadas. Both Rosewood meals we spent a fair amount of cash but drinks and food items were priced more appropriately - we just had a lot of cocktails - so the price didn't feel as offensive as at Banyan Tree.
Our worst meal of the trip that I'd really discourage you from going to is La Terraya in town. Got some good reviews online for a divey spot for fresh fish with local preparations like in banana leaf. They didn't have banana leaf preparation, or a lot of other things on the menu, and my calamari dish tasted like egg foo young. A big disappointment.
There were a few other spots we looked at for dinners that we didn't get to. We wanted to get to a locals spot called Los Aguachiles, and even heard amazing things while we were there about it from another couple at our resort, so if and when we go back to the area we will definitely hit that up. Another low-key place on our list was Pastorcita, that I'd be interested in checking out potentially on a future trip. We also considered checking out a couple of more high-end places while we were there, Cocina 38, Cava Veinte 33, John Gray's Place, etc., that I would still consider for future trips, although I find that scene's just not necessarily what I'm in the mood for when I'm down in Mexico.
We did check out a few stores in town that we'd read about - Artevelas candle store that Rick Bayless loves, where we didn't buy anything, and Yulunga on Calle 14, where we bought several jewelry items - this store I highly recommend, super nice proprietor, beautiful items.
I always love Mexico and we had a great trip as always! Hard to complain about a beautiful resort but want to offer insight that I would find valuable were I to be considering which resort/restaurants to select. That pretty much sums up our highlights, hope it's helpful to those planning trips to the area!