5th Avenue and Calle 32, Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Opened as Hotel Cacao, then Lat20, this 5th Avenue off-beach property is now settling into a groove as Live Aqua Boutique Hotel, an all-inclusive run by Mexico's largest hotel company, Grupo Posadas.
Playa del Carmen is known as a great place to party, shop, and dance, with the crowded so-so beach in the center being a secondary consideration for many. Live Aqua Boutique Resort Playa del Carmen capitalizes on this attitude, being situated right in the city itself, on the main pedestrian-only boulevard. While this is now an all-inclusive resort that's part of the same company as Fiesta Americana, it's far more artistic and upscale than most of the other hotels in the city center.
This was originally designed and run by the team that owns and runs Hotel Matilda, which played a big part in changing the image of San Miguel de Allende after its opening in 2010. After only a year as Cacao, however, it switched to Lat20 and then Live Aqua. The transition to an adult-only all-inclusive has been relatively smooth though and most of the elements that made the original great are still in place.
Thankfully they left well enough alone with the art work. Remaining is a jungle mural running the entire length of one wall in the main apporopriately named Mural Restaurant, from Brazilian street artist Kobra. The look changes dramatically from day to night, with sunlight filtered through the canvas-covered courtyard by day, candlelight and soft lighting illuminating the space at night. It's open-air seating though, which means most guests don't wear much here in the sweltering hot months.
Most of what went into the contruction of this building came from Mexico, with building materials, furniture, and light fixtures all sourced from within the country. The style is subdued and tasteful, with lots of stone, wood, bamboo, and water features, accented with occasional art pieces like two halves of a shell-covered VW Bug from Tommy Hilfiger.
The rooftop bar was one of the city's top hotspots when this was open to outsiders, but now the party is limited to guests only. It's a fun spot with the young crowd that gravitates here, a DJ spinning tunes some afternoons. With a view of the Caribbean a couple blocks away and lots of room to lounge around, the setting alone is a big draw. The Live Aqua Boutique Resort pool is surrounded by comfortable designer lounge chairs and you can order food and drinks while you catch some rays.
The bar itself is covered with a variety of Mexican floor tiles like you'd find in a grand hacienda and it's only a few steps from the long rooftop swimming pool lit up at night. The cocktail menu goes well beyond the norm and again makes use of as many regional ingredients as possible to provide a real sense of place. It has some bar stools (always a welcome sight in Mexico where they're rare) and many lounge chairs, sofas, and day beds.
The big change on the top floor is that there's an additional dining outlet here now, with indoor and outdoor seating. It serves a mix of sushi and tapas that are delicious and attractive to look at too.
The other addition, part of the all-inclusive plan, is a self-serve coffee bar with pastries and snacks on the ground floor level. For guests that are just here for a few days, the variety is sufficient. For a week-long stay though, you'll probably want to venture out and spend a little money elsewhere to mix it up. Fortunately the main restaurant dinner menu has a lot of variety, from steak and seafood to vegetarian and Yucatecan dishes.
The gym that used to be where the poolside restaurant is now moved to the ground floor and into a slightly smaller space, but it's adequate for your workout. You can also fill up your water bottle with cold water here. There's a nice spa on site for getting a massage or other treatment and sometimes package deals come with a spa credit.
Staffers can arrange tours and excursions in the area, or you can walk out the door and be at the beach in five minutes. Hang a left on 5th Avenue or just wander the nearby streets and you'll find dozens of restaurants, shops, coffee shops, and bars to explore for a change of pace.
Rooms at Live Aqua Boutique Resort hold up to the promise of the public spaces, with a lot of attention to detail. Items that should be a given in a fine hotel are all in place: a very comfortable mattress, free Wi-Fi, a flat-screen TV with some English channels, robes, stocked minibars, and good lighting. A few more outlets in easy-to-reach places would be nice, it would be nice to see an alternative for all the single-use plastic water bottles, and our air conditioner seemed to struggle to fend off the heat, but overall the rooms are ample and comfortable. Rooms have a sitting area and a furnished outdoor balcony accompanying ample closet space and a beautiful bathroom. The standard deluxe rooms are more than 500 square feet, so even in the ones with two queen beds there's still plenty of room to move around.
Tech touches include a music player, a touch key for the door, electronic safe, Nice Molton Brown toiletries are in the bathroom.
Junior suites add a bit more space, with natural light in the baths because of the corner location. Three master suites have more than 1,000 square feet of space, including two terraces (one with Jacuzzi), a couples' shower with two overhead fixtures, and a TV in both the bedroom and living room.
The luxury hotel scene in this area has long been outside the city itself, with most high-end properties being secluded Riviera Maya resorts. Here you don't have to depend on taxis to leave the place. You can take advantage of the underground parking or walk everywhere you would want to go. Guests here even get access to the nearby Mamita's beach club, where the reduced admission is applied as a food and beverage credit. When you return to the property, you'll be welcomed back to a gorgeous city-type boutique hotel that's a big step up from what you've traditionally been able to find here in Playa del Carmen.
The all-inclusive concept seems a little strange at first in such a small hotel with two restaurants, but the young and beautiful crowd that gravitates to this boutique property seems to enjoy the set-up, especially the rooftop pool and bar scene.
Review and photos by Timothy Scott.