Playa del Carmen’s Next Chapter
The opening of the Thompson Hotel—and its exclusive Beach House Property—in Playa del Carmen signals the beginning of a new era for the popular beach town. Will it regain some of its cachet?
You Never Know what will happen
Remember when Playa del Carmen was the chilled-out alternative to Cancun’s bacchanalia? Back in the 90s and early 2000s, the seaside fishing hamlet was the newest boho paradise on the lips of stylish European and American globetrotters. It was also a window into the Riviera Maya’s untrammeled Caribbean coast, a raw jungle landscape dotted with small hard-to-get-to towns like Tulum and Cobá—now the region’s torchbearers for the global party tribe.
Like a teenager who pledges never to become his parents, Playa del Carmen has more or less evolved into Cancun-lite. It’s a familiar cycle of discovery and oversaturation: the crowds move in and the trailblazers start to look for the world’s next virgin outpost to unleash their free-spirited hedonism.
Yet while some bemoan the modern iteration of Playa del Carmen, others believe it finally has the infrastructure to support more ambitious projects. Fresh off its November debut, the Thompson Playa del Carmen’s location on Quinta Avenida puts it smack in the action of the town’s food and nightlife corridor. The 92-room hotel ups the style quotient with a sophisticated 1950s-inspired aesthetic from a cadre of local talent: architecture firms AS Arquitectura and Sejio Peon teamed up with Mexico City interior designers Niz + Chauvet to infuse the urban brand with a tropical flavor. Mexican accents like hand-pressed Guadalajara tiles and local artwork adorn the rooms; the social spaces reflect the town’s let-loose vibe, though the aim was to elevate it in a way that feels more South Beach sexy than Coco Bongo foam party. "Playa del Carmen is certainly growing in popularity, but our aim is to attract sophisticated travelers with a refined edge," says general manager Robert Shelley, alluding to the makeup of the Thompson’s loyal fans.
But not everyone is bullish on Playa del Carmen’s future. Carlos Couturier, one of the owners of Grupo Habita, the scene-making Mexican boutique hotel group, was one of the first adopters who colonized the area with the opening of Deseo Hotel and Lounge opened in 2001. The design-forward hideout, with a chaise-fringed pool by conceptual artist Silvia Gruner, constant loop of house music beats, and fashionable crowd, was the first of its kind in the area and became an immediate hit. If Instagram was around back then, this is the place that would have inundated your feed. A bona fide FOMO palace. "We went because it was laid back, basic, completely undeveloped," he says. "Travelers to Playa del Carmen at the time were adventurers, nature lovers, and peace seekers at daytime. At night, they transformed into party creatures."
By the time Grupo’s second property, the industrial beach pad Hotel Básico, opened in 2005, the secret was out. The rooftop lounge, with its two oversized circular tubs looking out at Cozumel and supermodel-filled vinyl beds, was straight out of a summer Vogue shoot. Playa del Carmen’s popularity hit a tipping point, cruise ships started migrating south from Cancun, and the amount of visitors swelled. It’s been that way ever since, leading Grupo to the conclusion that it just didn’t fit in anymore. So they shuttered both properties, Deseo in 2014, Básico in early 2016. "The original vibe was lost to over-gentrification and excess. We like to build hotels where we would go ourselves. This was the original philosophy for our two properties in Playa," says Couturier. "We probably got older and the town got louder. It was time to be pioneers somewhere else. Gentrification is good for business but bad for the soul."
Thompson is conscious of the spring break nature that has taken hold, which is why they set out to create two different experiences. Along with the main hotel, they have also built a low-key property called Beach House a few streets away on a quieter road along the ocean. While the main property has a sprawling 30,000-square-foot rooftop pool with in-water loungers, a swim-up bar, live DJs, and a satellite of the Manhattan celebrity hangout Catch, the 27-suite Beach House is discreet, with an intimate pool, no-frills seafood café and beach access.
"We’re offerings guests the best of both worlds: the electrifying main hotel in the center of Playa del Carmen and the more relaxed Beach House experience." In Beach House, Thompson seems to have recaptured some of that erstwhile exclusivity. Then again, the view to the south is a cement structure currently under construction–the bones of the next hotel trying to capitalize off Playa del Carmen’s seemingly never-ending growth.
You Never Know what’s going to happen