Susan & I visited Playa Sonrisa Resort for the first time, 20-28 March 2004. The resort is located on the Caribbean Sea just north of Xcalak, Mexico, about a five hour drive south of Cancun. Playa Sonrisa is truly clothing-optional: there are no nudity police and no one to make you get dressed either (except in the restaurant, where Mexican health regulations require a cover-up).
We flew into Cancun and rented a car from Hertz (over an hour to rent, less than five minutes to return). On the way down we wanted to make sure to get Mexican pesos from an ATM, so stopped in Playa del Carmen to do this. South of Tulum, gas stations really thin out and you should fill your tank at every opportunity. There are restrooms at every gas station: admittance is 2 or 3 pesos depending on location, and toilet paper is included in this price. You will encounter military checkpoints. These are staffed by teenage soldiers searching, we presume, for drugs. We were simply waved through every time but once. On that occasion the search of our bags ended as soon as they discovered Tampax.
Playa Sonrisa has two cabanas right on the beach, and two units directly above owners Donn (“Murph”) and Cindy Murphy’s home. These cabanas are not grass huts—they are modern structures with real walls, real windows, and real doors. A third, older cabana is only rented in “emergencies”—such as to accommodate a large group. Our spacious beachfront cabana had a double bed, a single bed, a chair, plenty of lights, shower-only bathroom, wardrobe (with hangers!), overhead fan, and a great front porch underneath the thatch. There was also an air conditioner and a floor fan, but we never turned these on as the sea breeze did such a great job of keeping us cool. The upstairs units have king beds and refrigerators. The only thing I missed was a table or desk. The cabana was kept spotlessly clean with daily housekeeping service from Elsi, whose husband Justino looks after the beach and waits tables at dinner.
Chairs, loungers, hammocks and swings are scattered throughout the beach area; chairs and loungers can also be found way out at the end of Playa Sonrisa’s impressive dock. You may find yourself spending lots of time with new friends, but if you want to be by yourself, this won’t be a problem. The sand is golden and deep; because this property was a coconut plantation decades ago, there are palms everywhere. There are villas on either side of Playa Sonrisa. You can stroll the beach nude for more than a mile south of the resort.
Bottled water is provided in your room each day. Continental breakfast is also included, and this was prepared to the standard of a fine American bed and breakfast: oven-fresh bread and muffins, croissants, real butter and jam, loads of fresh fruit, hard-boiled eggs, quality coffee, four kinds of tea, and a selection of fruit juices.
The lunch menu includes sandwiches, quesadillas, and smoothies.
Dinner is served five or six nights a week (diners are requested to choose from two available options by early that afternoon). The full dinner menu is posted on the Playa Sonrisa website, and if there is a dish you would particularly like to enjoy during your stay, please let them know about it in advance.
Breakfast and lunch attire included pareos and towels. At dinner, guests usually wore actual clothes (shorts and shirts). The bar is open all day, on the honor system, with a lively happy hour before dinner each evening. Murph and Cindy have a huge collection of cool blues (and some other) music available on CD in the bar.
The weather-beaten fishing village of Xcalak is about fifteen minutes down the road from Playa Sonrisa. Here we enjoyed Sylvia’s Restaurant with its literal “catch of the day” and authentic Mexican dishes. Everyone said that El Taquito, also in town, was even better, but it wasn’t open the two times we tried. Costa de Cocos, the largest resort in Xcalak (16 rooms!) is open for dinner without a reservation, and served standard resort fare in a convivial atmosphere. There is a community BBQ chicken/campfire event on Friday and Saturday evenings. A hot dog cart appeared in town most nights, and there is also a bar. Playa Sonrisa is better stocked on snacks than any of the little stores in town. We were disappointed to be charged gringo prices at Marguerita’s fruit and vegetable store. A grocery truck comes up the beach road two days a week.
Our favorite restaurant was Luna de Plata, in Mahahual, one hour north of Playa Sonrisa. Operated by Italian ex-pats, outside of the cruise ship zone, it has fresh-baked pizzas and perfect pasta in a variety of creative and traditional sauces and a good selection of wines, along with great music and a fun crowd.
Things to Do
Playa Sonrisa provides free use of bicycles, kayaks, pedal boats, and beach toys; snorkel equipment is $5 per week. While we were there, other guests went scuba diving, and on a day trip by boat to San Pedro, Belize. We enjoyed an overnight trip to Chetumal, 2½ hours away, where we stayed in a $14-a-night motel and experienced the outstanding Museum of Mayan Culture, and from which we visited the Chacchoben and Kuhunlich ruins. Paradise Beach, as it is called by ex-pats, is less than an hour away from Playa Sonrisa, and another great naturist experience.
Safety and Community Relations
We never felt unsafe at any time, anywhere in Quintana Roo, nor did we hear of any crime. If Xcalak were any more mellow it would require resuscitation. The only time we felt uncomfortable was in Mahahual, on a cruise ship day, when vendors in the faux Mexican village grafted onto the real Mexican village were particularly annoying (as if they had been sent to Jamaica for special salesmanship training, but skipped the sense of humor lessons). But this was merely a nuisance, not a safety concern.
We got by fine with rudimentary Spanish and a phrase book. A man who spoke no English fixed our car, and we were able to successfully bargain at the giant mercado in Chetumal. Everywhere we went, we began in Spanish, and apologized when we could not understand. We never expected anyone in Mexico to speak English on account of us.
Playa Sonrisa Positives
• Incredible natural setting. We saw more birds, fish, and other wildlife on this trip than in our previous 20 visits to the Caribbean combined. One of our favorite memories is of relaxing in our favorite sandy pool, staring up at the perfectly blue sky, watching a huge roseate spoonbill glide by. Seeing a monkey scamper across the old Beach Road was kind of cool, too.
• A surprising level of creature comforts and amenities in such a primitive setting. (There is no TV, of course, or electrical things such as irons in the room. But we were impressed by the high quality of the towels, for example, and many little civilized touches.)
• Proprietors Murph and Cindy are great people.
• Picture-perfect sandy beach with mature palm trees providing lots of shade.
• The food is really good.
• It is blissfully quiet.
Playa Sonrisa Negatives
• It takes a long time to get there. If you are one of those people who want or need to be on the beach a few hours after leaving home, Playa Sonrisa is not going to work for you. We saw the drive as an adventure, and all but about five miles of the roads were as good or better than what we drive on in Ohio. Other guests broke up the trip and/or avoided driving in the dark by spending a night in Playa del Carmen on the way, and way back.
• This is not a swimming beach. Because the water is shallow, and grassy near the shore, this isn’t a place where you can simply jump off of your chaise and go play in the rolling surf. However, it is easy to go for a dip off of the end of the pier, and there are several jacuzzi-deep pools with sandy bottoms a few feet off the beach. These are perfect for relaxing, or socializing.
Playa Sonrisa Worry
• Because Playa Sonrisa is off the grid, manufacturing its own electricity and purifying its own water, it is essentially limited to 4 or 5 units. I do not see the small size of the resort as a negative today. Based on our visit, Playa Sonrisa is attracting a varied and interesting group of guests. However, as it becomes more and more popular, rates will increase and the clientele will evolve. I have begun avoiding resorts where I find myself spending all my time with naked stockbrokers, but I realize that this wish for economic and cultural diversity is simply my own prejudice.
I don’t just want to be someplace warm. I want to be some place. Playa Sonrisa not only has a great vibe as a naturist resort, it has a great feeling of “this is someplace special.” I plan my vacations a long time in advance, and I am one of those people who plans where he is going to eat each night on vacation. At Playa Sonrisa, I came as close as ever to forgetting what day it was. That was a vacation!