Review: Papaya Playa Project Tulum, part of Marriott’s Design Hotels
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This is our review of Papaya Playa Project, a Design Hotel in Tulum, Mexico.
After a couple of nights in Mexico City – here is my review of the W Mexico City hotel – it was time to hit the beach. There is plenty of choice in Mexico on both the East and West coasts.
Looking to escape the Cancun crowds, at least a little, we settled on Tulum, a rapidly growing but still fairly compact, bohemian coastal town about two hours south of Cancun.
One hotel that immediately caught my eye was the Papaya Playa Project. This unique property is part of Design Hotels, which Marriott now wholly owns. Whilst not all Design Hotels take part in Marriott Bonvoy, this one does.
Before anyone starts complaining I’ll say it up front: this resort isn’t for everyone. Papaya Playa Project is a back-to-basics sort of resort. Don’t come here if you’re looking for a cookie-cutter hotel with manicured lawns and every single amenity you could ever want. But if the boho natural vibe is your thing then keep reading ….
The hotel website is here. Thanks to Marriott for arranging my stay for review purposes.
What is a Design Hotel, anyway?
You may not have heard of Design Hotels – it is not a brand that is particularly prominent in Marriott’s stable of 30+ brands.
Design Hotels consists of over 300 boutique hotels in 50+ countries worldwide. Like Marriott’s ‘collection brands’ (such as the Luxury Collection and Autograph Collection), Design Hotels is more of a marketing affiliation than anything else, with individual hotels able to set virtually all of their own brand standards.
That means that your typical Design Hotel doesn’t feature any guaranteed amenities, unlike a Ritz-Carlton or ‘standard’ Marriott Hotel which are managed by Marriott.
As you might expect, hotels that join Design Hotels often feature unique and unusual architecture or room features, and perhaps no-where is this more visible than at Papaya Playa Project, where no two of its 100 or so rooms / villas are the same.
Where is Papaya Playa Project located?
As mentioned above, the hotel is along Tulum’s hotel zone, just south of the famous Tulum ruins and National Park.
Tulum is different in that the town is not on the coast but set back, whilst the majority of resorts feature along the beach. Papaya Playa Project is one of the closest hotels to downtown Tulum – about 3-4 kilometres down the road and easily accessible by car or bike.
Unfortunately, Papaya Playa Project doesn’t offer a free bicycle service like many other hotels do, although it does have a couple of bikes available that you can hire at US$20 for a 24 hour period. This feels a bit stingy and it’s a shame they don’t offer free cycles.
Arriving at Papaya Playa Project
Unlike other resorts in Tulum, Papaya Playa Project has chosen not to bulldoze the native vegetation and instead inserts itself in between palm trees and ficus bushes.
Check-in is done in a large open-air thatched vaulted roof that is dark and cocooning. Cold towels and a welcome ice-lolly are provided whilst you sign the documents.
Instead of a room key, you’re given a wristband with an NFC chip in it:
Ocean View Casitas at Papaya Playa Project
We were given an Ocean View Casita. This is, I believe, a mid-level room at the resort which mostly features a collection of villas, including several 5-bedroom suites.
In-keeping with the resort’s down-to-earth nature the paths are unpaved, with just local gravel and sand that is raked daily. It’s very jungley:
The Casitas are free-standing single room adobe bungalows with thatched roofs. Inside, you’ll find a womb-like cave with smooth surfaces and rounded corners and nary a sharp corner inside:
The bathroom is on a sort of lower mezzanine. Whilst it’s technically separate to the bedroom, a big window above the sink means it is fully open to the bedroom, which I know will put some of you off.
Don’t expect much privacy; I think this is the most open-plan hotel room I’ve ever stayed in.
Toiletries are organic-honey scented and provided in these refillable wooden bottles:
The water pressure was good, although it took a while for the warm water to come through. Annoyingly there were no hooks anywhere to hang used towels or bathrobes.
Head up a handful of steps and you’re into the main part of the room, with its dome-shaped appearance. In the centre is the king bed:
…. whilst on the left you’ll find a large ledge-like sofa which also doubles up as a luggage rack.
To the right, you’ll find a wardrobe with safe, plus another wardrobe with a fully stocked mini bar. There is no coffee machine or kettle.
Connectivity is poor, with just two US-style sockets on the left of the bed. I believe the last time the resort was refurbished was in 2011, just before our addiction to smart phones, so this does need to change. There’s no TV either, which may be a deal-breaker for some! Wifi is available throughout the resort.
Lighting is also very dark in the room, with just a handful of wicker-covered lights around the room and a handful of candles. This makes it very atmospheric but almost impossible to read, and could easily be solved with the addition of a reading light.
The only thing that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the room is the air conditioning unit, which sticks out like a sore thumb. It also has a fairly bright blue light which remains on throughout the night. This didn’t disturb me but it might someone else.
The French doors open onto a private terrace with hammock overlooking a small private plunge pool:
Whilst you can also head up the steps to the side of the building and up onto the roof deck:
Pools, beach and beach club at the Papaya Playa Project
Papaya Playa Project occupies a fairly large stretch of the coastline from a more flat, beachy area to a more rocky area in the south.
There are two pools for all guests, both of which are fairly small. Here’s one by the beach club:
Here’s the other, quieter pool a bit further down:
Given that most of the villas have their own private pools the size isn’t really a problem. They were never crowded and there was always somewhere to sit. In fact, the pools didn’t get a huge amount of use at all, with most people just hopping in for a quick dip to cool off.
The beach club is pretty big and gets livelier at weekends, I’m told:
Meanwhile, the quieter pool had a terraced deck with plenty of daybeds (stacked here, to stop them blowing away in the high winds!).
The pool service was pretty lackadaisical. Whilst there was a few members of staff, they rarely greeted you or offered towels until you walked up and asked for them.
The seaweed problem
As anyone who has been planning a trip to Mexico’s Gulf coast will know, seaweed has been and continues to be a massive problem on the beaches. This is a losing battle for the resorts, as the sheer quantity of sargassum overwhelms all attempts to clear it, arriving tonne-by-tonne on the tides every day.
At Papaya Playa Project, I watched them use a special little beach tractor to comb the beach. It takes a long time and many, many passes to even vaguely get close to clearing it.
Unfortunately, this is a problem at most if not all of the resorts along the coast here and is something you just have to live with. I read some reviews with complains of the smell but, in all honesty, I didn’t find it particularly strong or bothersome. Every so often, the wind would blow the smell across but I found it fairly natural smelling. Still, if that sort of thing bothers you, Mexico probably isn’t for you.
Breakfast at Papaya Playa Project
Depending on your booking, you either have breakfast included or you don’t. If you do, you have access to something called ‘Jungle Breakfast’, whilst anyone else can choose from a wider a la carte breakfast menu.
The Jungle Breakfast is pretty basic. You get a choice of:
- Juice OR fruit plate
- Chia pudding OR oatmeal bowl
- Avocado toast OR fried or scrambled eggs
- Coffee OR tea
The a la carte menu is much more extensive, with eggs benedict from 240 pesos (around £11). Both mornings I went for the chia pudding and avocado toast:
On the second morning I asked about the eggs, and whether these come with toast or anything, but apparently it is literally just the fried or scrambled egg with no accompaniment, which is a bit odd.
Whilst delicious, I do think it is a bit stingy to offer an ‘included’ breakfast that really only gives you a couple of options!
By now, you may be horrified by the lack of paved paths, open-plan bathroom, basic breakfast or lackadaisical service …. and yet, I still loved my stay at Papaya Playa Project.
It’s not perfect – few resorts are – but the things it needs to fix are fairly minor issues and can be done relatively easily and cheaply, from providing a fleet of free bicycles for guest use to offering a more extensive breakfast and more proactive service from all staff.
Fundamentally, this is not a 21st century resort with all the bells and whistles – it’s a boho, naturalistic experience and whilst that may not suit everyone it certainly suited me. For a few days of more off-grid living it was a charm.
Rates start at US$350 per night but can get quite toppy, whilst redemptions start at 80,000 points per night. You can find out more, and book, on the hotel website here.
How to earn Marriott Bonvoy points and status from UK credit cards (March 2023)
There are various ways of earning Marriott Bonvoy points from UK credit cards. Many cards also have generous sign-up bonuses.
The official Marriott Bonvoy American Express card comes with 20,000 points for signing up, 2 points for every £1 you spend and 15 elite night credits per year.
You can apply here.
Marriott Bonvoy American Express
20,000 bonus points and 15 elite night credits Read our full review
You can also earn Marriott Bonvoy points by converting American Express Membership Rewards points at the rate of 2:3.
Do you know that holders of The Platinum Card from American Express receive FREE Marriott Bonvoy Gold status for as long as they hold the card? It also comes with Hilton Honors Gold, Radisson Rewards Premium and MeliaRewards Gold status. We reviewed American Express Platinum in detail here and you can apply here.
The Platinum Card from American Express
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You can also earn Marriott Bonvoy points indirectly:
- American Express Gold (20,000 bonus Amex points)
- American Express Rewards Credit Card (10,000 bonus Amex points)
and for small business owners:
- American Express Business Gold (20,000 bonus Amex points)
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Until 30th March 2023, the sign up bonus on American Express Business Platinum is increased to 120,000 Membership Rewards points – click here. The bonus on American Express Business Gold is increased to 60,000 Membership Rewards points – click here. T&C apply, see the application forms for details.
The conversion rate from American Express to Marriott Bonvoy points is 2:3.
Click here to read our detailed summary of all UK credit cards which can be used to earn Marriott Bonvoy points.
(Want to earn more hotel points? Click here to see our complete list of promotions from the major hotel chains or use the ‘Hotel Offers’ link in the menu bar at the top of the page.)