Our 20th anniversary was coming up.
We’d had our COVID-19 vaccines, and we wanted to do something special. We’d spent our 10th in the French Riviera, staying in Menton, and checking out Monaco, Cannes, and the small towns dotting the coast.
Originally, we thought about doing a couple of National Parks, since enjoyed our time in the Big Bend National Park so much; however, the logistics of doing the National Parks we wanted to see in Colorado in a week’s time was challenging.
As a result, we asked our friend Kathryn Potter at KP Travel Group to suggest some all-inclusive resort itineraries for the Cancún and Playa del Carmen area in Mexico.
After a 30 minute call with her to discuss what we were looking for – we’re more outdoorsy, hike, mountain, animals people than sit at the beach all day and do nothing people – she came up with several recommendations.
We looked at her list and did some checking on our own, and decided on The Fives Beach Hotel and Residences in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
It was a great choice!
Getting to Playa del Carmen
To get there, we decided to splurge and buy first and business class tickets on American using miles. The cost for 2 people was 144,000 miles, which, according to The Points Guy, was $2,016.
Maybe it was because of COVID-19, but I doubt it. The upgrade was absolutely, positively not worth what we spent for it. Since I had traveled so much for the private equity group I co-founded, I was Platinum, and had, before retirement, been Platinum Plus, so I was used to getting upgraded. Most of the time, in the front of the plane, you got a pre-flight drink, and the food was pretty good.
Not this trip. Most of the time, it was either fruit and cheese or, in one leg, a bag of pretzels. We could have sat in the main cabin and received the same service. My wife and I vowed that, unless it was a lie flat seat, like going to the Women’s World Cup in 2023 in New Zealand, we were not going to pay for an upgrade again. The spend was not worth it.
However, once we landed in Cancún, things got a lot better! I had previously printed the Mexican immigration form along with our COVID-19 vaccine proof, so we breezed through customs.
Once you get out of customs, be prepared to be hit with a barrage of salespeople posing as information agents. Fortunately, Kathryn from KP Travel Group had already set us up with a transfer to the resort, so we knew to go straight outside of the airport and who to look for. If you’re not doing that, you can pay the 3x ripoff fares from the taxi Mafia at the airport, or walk to the left beyond the taxi and shuttle stand, go left again over the bridge, and catch a Cabify or Uber from there.
Our driver picked us up in a nicely air-conditioned Cadillac SUV replete with drinks and a cool breeze. Our driver was friendly and informative while we rode down to Playa and to our ultimate destination, The Fives.
Riding in style to the Fives!
The Fives Beach Resort
Upon check-in, we were given a few pieces of guidance. One of them was to schedule our COVID-19 test to get back to the United States as early as possible the next morning. As of the time of this writing, we were required to have proof of a COVID-19 negative test result no more than 72 hours before entering the U.S..
We hopped in the golf cart and rode to our villa, number 19.
The villa was near the adults only pool, which we thought that we were going to make ample use of.
It turns out that we never went there. Although our driver had told us that it would be a quiet, read a book type of place, there was music all day each day we were there, so it wasn’t really the vibe we were looking for.
That was fine! I found the Lizards swim up bar and had a great time reading and drinking piña coladas there.
We went to breakfast the next day and then went to the Mar Travel building, as advised. There was a long line of people waiting to get scheduled for the test. We were 5th in line from the group. It took us an hour to get scheduled because there was one person working on scheduling, and he was also a concierge, so he was also trying to get people to sign up for tours. It was a very inefficient process, and the worst part of our experience there. Hopefully, that tells you something – the worst part of the entire vacation experience at the resort was having to wait an hour to schedule a COVID-19 test.
On the day that we did do the test, it was quick and efficient. We brought our passports, went in, verified information (they had misspelled my name in my e-mail address, so I corrected that), and then got the tests. The tests were up both nostrils, but not uncomfortable. In less than 24 hours, we had e-mails that we were both negative. When we checked out, we requested printouts of the test results so that we could provide them at the airport. Easy breezy. I do hope that the U.S. government changes entry testing requirements to not need a negative test for vaccinated individuals, but I don’t work for the CDC, so I can’t really complain…
All of the not-so-good part about the resort is out the way. On to the good stuff!
The Food at the Resort
The food at the resort is excellent! We never had a bad meal.
There were 6 restaurants that were open at the resort. When we arrived, they were still at 50% capacity, and halfway through our visit, they opened it up to 100%. The best way to schedule dinners was to get your concierge to schedule them for you. It was possible to do a walk-up at restaurants, but you could potentially face a wait. We did breakfast every morning at the buffet, which was excellent, and then had dinners. We’d occasionally do a lunch, such as at the taco stand at the infinity pool by the ocean, or we’d do a smoothie from the smoothie cafe, but, generally, we just had breakfast and dinner. We did do one lunch at the Sea Olive and one lunch at the Lizard’s bar (which was, in my opinion, the undiscovered gem of the resort).
Breakfast view at the Fives
Lunch at Lizard’s Lounge
- Koh Thai Restaurant. We ate there twice. The first time was when we arrived, and the second time, the power had gone out throughout the resort and the surrounding area, so the staff was really hustling to feed a resort full of people when the resort had neither electricity nor running water. More on that later. Still, this was quite good food – certainly as good as some of our favorite restaurants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
- Brassiere Restaurant. We also ate at this restaurant twice. It was our favorite restaurant. This is their French cuisine restaurant, and we had fabulous service and meals there. We may have been overserved and convinced to buy a Mexican wine for about $120 while we were there. It still tasted quite good a couple of days later when, in a better state of mind, we finished it off.
- Sushi Restaurant. This was the restaurant we went to during our first full day there. It was one of our least favorite restaurants, but, still, like a 7/10. We’re not sushi connoisseurs, so we are probably not the best judges of the food. People whom we befriended there who like sushi raved about it. We did really enjoy the tempura!
- Arezzo Italian Restaurant. This was a quite good Italian restaurant. My wife thoroughly enjoyed the Grandma’s lasagna. She’s a huge fan of the Dunraven restaurant in Estes Park, Colorado, and she reported that the lasagna at Arezzo was almost as good as that of the Dunraven. That’s high praise indeed. Furthermore, we’d arrived an hour after our reservation due to our Chichén Itzá tour from heck (more later), and they still seated us, stinky and sweaty, within about 10 minutes.
- Sea Olive. This is the Mediterranean restaurant. We did lunch one day and dinner one night. Like the sushi place, it was quite good, but not great – a 7/10. This, along with Arezzo, are by the infinity pool and beach at the opposite end of the resort from our villa. The others were in the main plaza.
The last restaurant experience was so amazing, it deserved its own section!
Casa de Rosa
This experience was not included in the all-inclusive price. It was $60 per person. It was absolutely, positively worth every penny that we paid. This was the dinner that we did for our 20th anniversary.
The experience is led by Rosa (not her real name, but part of the game that we played), who has created an experience that is meant to replicate what you would find in a Mexican ranch home. It starts out with a tequila and mezcal tasting. After four tastes, we each drew cards that were from a game that Mexicans play, where we all got our character names (Luna, Sol, Corazon, etc.). You had to name everyone else and their character names. Failure to do so was punished either by having to do a shot of mezcal or a lick of the hottest salsa. It’s amazing how the threat of punishment sharpens one’s memory!
After that, we went into the kitchen area and started making our dinner. We made tortillas, gorditas, and burritos and put them on the grill.
After learning how to make our dinner, we sat at a large table, family style, and got to sample the fruits of our labor. Plus, the kitchen staff had cooked up some other wonders for our noses and mouths to behold. Additionally, we had mezcal margaritas, which were spectacular!
After dinner, we played some Mexican and Latin music and danced. I’m not sure that the Macarena can be counted as authentic, but after several mezcal margaritas, I wasn’t exactly the most discerning listener!
We wound up staying for over four hours, chatting with Rosa and several of the guests, trading WhatsApp numbers and promises that if we came back, we’d meet up. The resort was great, and the Casa de Rosa experience was head and shoulders above even that. We know people who went twice during their trips and one group who cried when they left because they loved Rosa so much.
Chichén Itzá Tour From Heck
One day, we decided to do a tour of Chichén Itzá (note: the link for Viator is an affiliate link for our friend Chris Christensen at the Amateur Traveler, and, while we recommend Viator, we don’t recommend this specific tour).
DO NOT DO THIS TOUR
We were supposed to get a 7 AM pickup. Because of the early hour, we had to do room service instead of going to the buffet. Room service doesn’t start breakfast food until 7 AM, so we had sandwiches instead.
Fortunately, we packed a bunch of water bottles in our backpacks, because, as we’d learn later, while we’d purchased a tour with lunch included, no beverages were included at all in the package.
We got to the lobby at 6:50. At 7:30 AM, there was still no driver to be found. We contacted the tour company and heard nothing back. At 7:50, the driver finally showed up.
He took us to a pharmacy in central Playa del Carmen, where we signed in and milled about for another 30 minutes before boarding our bus. Instead of heading to our lunch location, we went to Tulum, where we picked up a couple more people.
Then, we went to our lunch location. On the way, we were first lectured for not being enthusiastic about yelling “buenos dias” to the tour guide, and then subjected to a salesy lecture about obsidian.
The lunch location was some Mayan “village” (read: souvenir shop and hotel), where we were subjected to another sales pitch about obsidian of about 30 minutes before getting blessed by a Mayan shaman (the blessing part was cool…the rest was not). We expected to be able to go to lunch, only to be told that we needed to wait another nearly hour, left only to mill about at the souvenir shop where no prices were marked. Fortunately, there were some villas and a couple of exhibits to keep ourselves somewhat occupied, although, admittedly, there was about 30 minutes of utter boredom sitting around waiting to go to lunch.
Lunch was bland and uneventful. Then, we went back into the bus to go to Chichén Itzá itself.
Chichén Itzá is AMAZING. However, be warned that you have to run the gauntlet of people trying to sell trinkets, particularly ones that make fake jaguar sounds. Everywhere we turned, we heard the fake jaguars.
Our particular guide was Gonzalo, and he was fantastic. If I could just get Gonzalo to take us into Chichén Itzá, that would have been perfect, and I’d have been happy to pay more for that.
This is the Castillo Temple. It’s what most people think of in this place, although it is much larger.
Put the ball through here and die!
We then got back on the bus to go to a cenote in Valladolid, Mexico. On the way, they tried to sell us a bottle of Mayan liquor.
Once we got there, they informed us that we needed to purchase life jackets to go into the cenote. That was sensible, given the cenote was 140 feet deep; however, it was an unexpected expense. Additionally, they recommended lockers. So, that was another unexpected cost.
As a result, my wife and I decided to just wander around. We grabbed a drink and wandered through the park.
They told us that we had 45 minutes, and it had started raining, so about 5 minutes before we were supposed to be back at the bus, we wandered back. The bus was locked, and we were getting rained on. We waited. Others came back. We all talked about how long the tour was taking. Finally, someone from the tour came back. It turned out that the driver had fallen asleep in the bus, leaving the door locked and the entire tour milling about. Finally, 20 minutes after we were supposed to have boarded and left, they opened the bus up.
Finally, we went to Valladolid. The bus dropped us off. By now, we’d already been on the tour for 11 hours (which was the listed length of the tour), and we had dinner reservations. The bus driver informed us that we’d not get back to Playa del Carmen until after 10 PM.
We had had enough, so, along with two other people on our tour, we grabbed a taxi, negotiated a rate (1,800 pesos, or about $90), and took a 2 hour taxi ride back to Playa del Carmen and our respective lodgings.
Our two main complaints:
- The tour took way too long. It was advertised as a 11 hour tour. By the time we would have come back, it would have run 15 hours.
- They tried to upsell us at every stop. I get, now, that the tour was subsidized by kickbacks from all of these vendors, which made the tour cheaper. However, it was never disclosed to us.
We would have rather paid more for a trip that a) didn’t try to nickel and dime and upsell us everywhere, and b) ran to schedule.
A Good Experience With Mexican Medicine
One evening, my wife started having gastrointestinal distress.
Concurrently, the resort (and the surrounding neighborhood) lost power and water.
The staff at the resort did yeoman’s work at serving all of their guests with no power and water. However, without flushing toilets, we couldn’t stay. Fortunately, the hotel next door had electricity, water, and vacancy. That was about the extent of its benefits. We walked over there, and roasted in a room with no air conditioning. Finally, at 3 AM, we asked to be moved. The other room had somewhat working air conditioning, getting down to the high 70s. But, the water ran, which was important.
The next morning, we called our resort, found out they had power, and checked out to walk back.
Towards late afternoon, my wife’s issues were still unresolved, and we decided to go to a local urgent care facility.
The resort called us a taxi, and we went to Amerimed Playa del Carmen.
The reviews on the place are not good, but we had a fine experience. After about a 15 minute wait, we went into the back. A nurse took my wife’s vitals and intake information, and told us that the doctor would be in shortly.
Another 20 or so minutes later, the doctor came in, also apologetically for having made us wait. He examined my wife, wrote out a prescription, and sent us on our way.
We walked a few blocks down to a pharmacy, where they filled the prescription for about $22 right away, and off we went to the resort again.
The Fives is about 7 miles outside of Playa del Carmen, so had we been living there, we probably could have received medical care much more cheaply.
Summing Up and Random Thoughts
We had a fantastic time in Playa del Carmen at The Fives. Our travel agent, KP Travel Group, got us a great deal. We loved the resort. We loved the nature. We saw monkeys, coati, and even petted a tame peccary. Furthermore, KP got us a much better deal at the resort than we would have been able to do ourselves as independent travelers.
When you go to your concierge, they’ll try to get you to take a tour to buy a residence. Don’t do it.
However, use your concierge to book your restaurants, especially Casa de Rosa.
Bring sunscreen, aloe vera, and extra razors. The convenience store on the resort recognizes that it’s a $40 round trip to go to town to get supplies and prices accordingly.
We had trouble getting Cabify. We were only successful once in getting Cabify back to the resort from town. However, we were able to negotiate with a taxi driver in Playa del Carmen one day to get a better than Cabify rate. There were no Ubers around.
The infinity pool at the beach was pretty neat. There are a couple of staffers who lead Zumba and dance classes. There’s good music. The street taco vendor is delicious.
We never were concerned about safety. Of course, we weren’t wandering the streets at night, and our resort was well out of town. Still, we’d definitely feel comfortable returning and doing our usual independent traveler thing.
Cost of 8 days at The Fives, Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Even with the unexpected extra hotel stay and medical spending, this was still a great value, thanks to the help from KP Travel Group. For a 20th wedding anniversary, this was an amazing, and memorable trip.