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Review: The Riu Palace Las Americas Resort/Scuba Caribe, Cancun, Mexico

Diving Cancun (and snorkeling with whale sharks) while being pampered at a surprisingly affordable 4-star resort

by Conrad Blickenstorfer and Carol Cotton, August 2011 (updated August 2012, June 2013)

This is a review and description of the Riu Palace Las Americas hotel/resort in Cancun, Mexico, as well as the Scuba Caribe dive operation that has a PADI 5-Star location on the premises, and whale shark snorkeling tours arranged by Scorpio Divers of Cancun. The review is based on a August 2011 stay, and has been updated after August 2012 and June 2013 stays.

Arrival/customs: On your flight to the international airport at Cancun you fill out two simple customs documents. Upon arrival at the sizable and modern airport, immigration and customs are quick and hassle-free. Pushing a button at the customs gate triggers a green (pass) or red (get examined) light. Outside the secure area, dozens of time share salesmen will try to grab your attention and even pretend to be your contact. If you pre-book your airport transfer, your driver will wait outside the airport building with a sign. Do not get side-tracked! We used Olympus Tours which had fairly new air-conditioned mini-buses.

The Riu Palace Las Americas: We had selected the Riu Palace Las Americas based on a combination of cost of the Travelocity flight/hotel combo, a good deal of research about Cancun and its desirable locations, wanting an all-inclusive, and dozens of guest reviews. The Riu Palace is in the hotel zone about 12 miles from the airport on Boulevard Kukulcan, Km 8.5. It's a great location in the thick of things, with plenty of shopping and entertainment around it.

Despite its Moorish/Classicism architecture, the Riu Palace is a recent hotel, having been built around 2004/2005. There are eight floors and 372 rooms/suites. The first impression of the place is incredible. It is luxurious and beautiful, and overwhelms guests from the moment they enter the vast, grand, marble, stained glass lobby with awesome views, smiling staff in uniforms, and everything 1st class. The Riu has hands down the greatest hotel lobby I have ever seen.

From the magnificent lobby you walk out into the beachside court and look onto the gorgeous main pool, which has an infinity design that makes it seam to extend into the ocean.

Rooms: All of the Riu Palace's 372 rooms are considered "junior" or full/jacuzzi suites. Junior suites are split-level, with a couple of steps leading down into a sitting area with sofa and TV. Full suites have a separate living room, a full bath, wired Internet, and some other extras. Our 7th floor junior suite room (#732) faced the ocean. It was large and luxurious. The floors were all marble with classic, elegant designs. There was lots of heavy, dark wood. The shower, all marble, had great water pressure. There were many large towels. The bed was on the hard side, but we slept well on it.

In terms of amenities, there was a safe with a removable lock, a decent size small fridge that had Seven Up, Pepsi, Pepsi Light, plenty of water and Dos Equis beer in bottles and club soda in cans. The rather elegant liquor dispenser had liter bottles of Jose Cuerva Tequila, Bacardi Rum, Smirnoff Vodka, and Presidente Brandy. There were not enough outlets (US-style 110 Volt, 3-prong) for all of our cameras and chargers and we had to be creative. Sound insulation was very good; we hardly heard anything. The A/C, which was initially non-functional due to a tripped fuse, worked very well. Unlike in most US hotels were there is an annoying gap under the room door, the rooms in the Riu have seals for much better visual and acoustic privacy. The TV was a 32-inch Panasonic Viera flatscreen with an SD card slot and accessible ports, so computers, cameras or video games can be hooked up to it. The floors were all granite with wonderful tile. The curtains completely blocked the light. The dark wood that's used everywhere for trim and door frames looks ultra elegant.

The view from our large terrace facing the ocean was almost achingly beautiful and we spent time on it every day, watching the sun rise and enjoying the Caribbean sea and the goings on below at the pool and on the grounds.

Below is the floor plan (7th floor) of the Riu Palace Las Americas, with the inside of the "U" shape facing the ocean.

Grounds, beach: It is hard to overemphasize how beautiful and lush the Riu's grounds are. The layout of the various pools, hot tubs, levels, walkways, sitting areas, etc. is just about perfect. There's no need to walk long distances as everything is close together, but without being cramped.

Some reviews complain about the small beach area. The beach is small and there isn't a large sand area, but it is definitely large enough. The sand is white, fine and very clean. There are lounging chairs (but no umbrellas on the beach), and each guest has a card that can be used to get beach towels. There are two nicely sized, gorgeous pools. One is quiet, the other usually has games and activities.

The Riu presents a nice balance between informal and formal, fun and serenity, action and elegance. In the lobby you see bathing suits and evening wear side by side.

Food/Dining: Everything is included at the Riu Palace. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are at the Don Roberto (indoors)/El Romero (outdoors, covered) restaurants. The Don Roberto is large with high ceiling, elegant and quite classy, with attentive waiters, good service, and lots of great selections. Food and variety is very plentiful. Americans may note that there is much less ice and refrigeration than at buffets in the US, and sodas also come without ice. Waiters and other staff are always impeccably dressed and almost invariably friendly and cheerful. Note that there is an enforced dress code for the specialty restaurants (long pants for men, no beachwear, etc.).

Specialty restaurants -- In addition to the two main buffet restaurants, the Riu has five "specialty" restaurants that are also included, but require reservations and have a (not very strict) dress code. We were able to reserve for two days in advance, and Karina at the reservation desk was efficient, friendly and accommodating.

The first specialty restaurant we visited, Mexican Tio Pepe, had wonderful Spanish decor with lots of tile, bullfight paraphernalia, and an overall great look. Food was good, but perhaps a bit on the bland, conservative side. We need some spice, please!

The Grill and Steak House is outdoors in the "El Romero" restaurant. It's romantic and has a great view on the ocean, the steaks were good to excellent, but it can get hot and humid out there.

One night we had dinner at the "fusion" Krystal restaurant, another very elegant place where they greeted us with champagne. The decor was wonderful, the service terrific, and the food innovative, though in 2011 perhaps not quite up to the same level as the visuals. That changed for 2012, when the food was excellent. The Krystal also changed its look for 2012 to all silver and purple. Sounds odd, but looks great. During our 2013 stay, food and service were superb.

The Sakura Japanese restaurant (see below) is smaller, perhaps holding 30 people, and located on the north wing of the hotel, with Japanese decor and an all-glass side so everyone can enjoy the gorgeous view of the Caribbean Sea. We ordered Sake (included, of course), then the waiter brought a sushi tray. Dishes were all Japanese and relatively authentic. In 2012, the salmon, especially, was terrific. In 2013, food was less authentic Japanese with excessive portion, and service was off from prior years.

Our favorite in 2011 was the Rodizio Brazilian restaurant (which during the daytime is the Los Arcos). They start you with a vegetables platter, then six or seven different meats served on skewers (Argentinian chorizo sausage, chicken leg, turkey, pork, beef filet, beef steak). It was a terrific meal and experience (we liked it so much that we ate there three times). Unfortunately, the Brazilian dinner experience was no longer available in 2012, a big loss.

Bars/Entertainment -- the Riu has no fewer than five bars (two of which at the pools) where guests can order anything they want at no extra charge. Wait staff also roams the lobby, hall, pool and even beach areas to take and fill drink orders. Specialty drinks are tropical and inventive. There is entertainment in the large theater/night club every night (free, too). And the Riu will even take groups to various night spots most nights at 11pm (also included).

Diving in Cancun: As far as diving goes, Cancun is greatly overshadowed by nearby Cozumel island, which is one of the great drift dive locations in the world. Cancun is more limited (you can, of course, make day trips to Cozumel, but then why stay in Cancun?) but not without its own scuba charms. There are about 20 named dives, most between the northern tip of the hotel zone and nearby (about 4.5 miles) Isla Mujeres. As long as it is understood that none of the local Cancun sites are deeper than about 80 feet, and that the coral reef sites are not deeper than about 50 feet and do not have walls, there's very enjoyable diving.

Be forewarned that figuring the Cancun dive scene out in advance is nearly impossible. There are numerous shops and places offering dive services, but there are only a few who actually have their own boats. The rest act as referrers. Personally, I like for the resort I stay at to have its own pier and its own dive shop. Neither the Riu Palace nor the Riu Cancun sister resort next door have their own pier, but at least the Riu advertises its own PADI 5-Star dive shop (Scuba Caribe) on the premises (see picture to the right). The Scuba Caribe web page for their Riu Palace location promised four daily boat departures. The site made it look like it was their own modern boats. On that premise we booked five two-tank dives per diver in our party. We found good news and not-so-good news.

The good news was that our reservation made it through and we were expected. We also ended up with a terrific dive master (Alberto, see picture) who was with us on every dive (something that rarely happens on Cozumel), took care of our equipment, was supremely competent, and a great guide who always hit the proper pace. We also had a "home base" for our diving rather than having to go to some off-site dive shop every morning.

The not-so-good news was that Scuba Caribe did not have their own boats, but also just made arrangement with another operator. This meant getting picked up at the beach by a small boat (and sometimes by jet ski to a small boat), then ferried to a nearby pier, then assigned to one actual dive boat or another. This included a lot of uncertainty, waiting, and every boat we were on was old and quite beat up. It is hard to understand why 4-star resorts like the Riu will not either have their own dive shops, or at least insist on equipment and boats up to the same standard as the hotel itself. There is nothing inherently wrong with smaller, older boats, but it'd really be good to know upfront what to expect!

All that said, the diving was fun, and actually quite a bit more challenging than you'd expect based on the relatively shallow depths. That was in part due to some fairly rough weather a couple of days, and in part due to the at times strong currents.

Below are the dive sites we visited, including my depth and time on each.

Saturday, August 20, 2011, Cancun:

  • C-58 wreck (80 feet, 42 minutes, 84F, boat, rain)
  • Horseshoe (50 feet, 49 minutes, 84F, boat, drift dive, rain)
Sunday, August 21, 2011, Cancun:
  • C-58 wreck (81 feet, 34 minutes, 86F, boat, rain, current)
  • Horseshoe (53 feet, 56 minutes, 86F, boat, drift dive, rain)
Monday, August 22, 2011, off Isla Mujeres:
  • Whale shark tour (snorkeling, 7-hour trip, 86F, boat, sun, waves)
Tuesday, August 24, 2011, Cancun:
  • Aristo (52 feet, 46 minutes, 82F, boat, drift dive, sun)
  • El Tunel (50 feet, 45 minutes, 82F, boat, drift dive, sun)
Wednesday, August 25, 2011, Cancun:
  • Losa (53 feet, 51 minutes, 86F, boat, drift dive, sun, flat)
  • Chitales (22 feet, 49 minutes, 86F, boat, drift dive, sun, flat)
Thursday, August 26, 2011, Cancun:
  • C-58 wreck (80 feet, 39 minutes, 86F, boat, sun, current)
  • No Name (57 feet, 46 minutes, 86F, boat, drift dive, sun)
Friday, August 27, 2011, off Isla Mujeres:
  • Whale shark tour (snorkeling, 7-hour trip, 86F, boat, sun, flat)

We ended up doing three dives to the C58 wreck. A former US Navy vessel named the USS Harlequin, the 184 foot long boat was used for minesweeping in the Atlantic Fleet towards the end of World War II. Sold to the Mexican Navy in the early 1960s and renamed the C58 General Anaya, the vessel was sunk in the 1980s (though other reports say 2000, and there seems other confusion) as an artificial reef. There are many nice penetration opportunities and the wreck is full of fish, especially on the bridge. The C58 was broken into two parts separated by about 150 feet by hurricane Wilma in 2005, making for interesting dives.

Cancun reefs are usually fairly shallow, but they are also full of life and colors. We did see a good number of lion fish (below left), vast schools of grunts (below right), large barracudas, groupers, turtles, and several types of rays.

Below is a splendid toadfish.

The water was nice and warm, usually around 86 degrees Fahrenheit, and never colder than 82 degrees. Visibility was good, too, generally in the 80 foot range.

Bottomline for Cancun diving is that it's actually much better than it's being given credit for. The local sites and wrecks can keep almost any diver busy and entertained, and if you want more, the local dive community (including Scuba Caribe) gladly arranges for Cenote diving or day trips to Cozumel. In addition, Cancun dive sites tend to have a wonderful wealth of fish, with massive schools of very tame grunts, tangs, etc.

Whale Sharks!: The reason why we chose Cancun in the first place was its proximity to one of only two locations in the world where whale sharks congregate and feed at the surface. Whale sharks are filter feeders and the largest living fish on the planet. They can be over 40 feet in length, weigh almost 40 tons, and go back some 60 million years. They pose no danger to divers, and they can be observed as they are slow swimmers. Wanting to plan ahead and educate ourselves, we had researched scubaboard.com for whale shark experiences, and one name that popped up consistently was Scorpio Divers.

We emailed Scorpio Divers, found them to be very responsive, and booked a whale shark trip with them, with pickup and drop off at the Riu. As seems common in Cancun, Scorpio acted as a referral service to another company that actually had the boats, but everything went well. Our whale shark boat, a twin-outboard-engine 33-footer which held ten snorkelers, a captain and a guide, departed from Puerto Juarez (see below).

Marta Zapata of Caribbean Connection provided a briefing on whale sharks, the tour, what to expect, etc. The boats supplied life jackets, fins, masks and snorkels (we brought our own gear). The boat ride took us passed the northern tip of Isla Mujeres, and the entire ride to an open ocean spot where at least a hundred whale sharks congregated was about an hour. Those prone to sea sickness should take precautions.

Two snorkelers per boat are allowed in the water at a time, with a guide. Whale sharks surface to scoop up food (plankton), then glide just under the surface.

Whale sharks do not shy away from snorkelers nor do they seem to have an interest in them (like giant mantas have). Whale sharks move slowly and snorkelers can keep up with them, at least for a while. It is an awe-inspiring experience.

Door-to-door, the whale shark tour was about seven hours, and we were actually on location with the whale sharks for about two hours. Whale shark season off Isla Mujeres lasts from about mid-May through mid-September. In 2013, Caribbean Connection, with the same staff, had morphed into Contoy Adventures. We did go on a whale shark trip despite marginal weather, and this time the boats did not find the whale sharks, so there's always that possibility.

Cellphones: If you're from the US and use a US carrier, unless you make prior arrangement with your carrier for international coverage, you won't be able to use your phone; Europeans and Asians used their smartphones all the time and do't seem to have that problem.

Internet access: In 2011, we had no internet access in our Junior Suite. Free access in the lobby area was adequate. In 2012, WiFi was available in our room, but it was quite expensive (you can sign in via some European carriers). Access in the lobby area was improved, but bogged down badly when too many guests used it. In 2013, all rooms had free WiFi Internet access via persistent login and password, with reliable, strong signal throughout the resort and never a need to switch access points.

Security: Mexico has received some bad press with regard to security as of late. We did not have any problems in Cancun. Security at the Riu is excellent, and walking around the hotel zone streets felt safe as well.

Vendors: The Riu has a couple of small gift shops in the lobby. And, weather allowing (which it didn't in 2013), arts and crafts vendors set up their tables on the atrium grounds a few times while we were there. While there are some unique items, watch out for pricing as vendors may ask for exorbitant prices even for generic items.

There are several shopping malls and outlets within walking distance of the Riu. Most is generic tourist fare, but there are also designer stores. Pricing is high and not attractive. Those who enjoy haggling may get relative bargains. In 2011 and 2012 prices at the attractive Cancun airport were absurdly high across the board. In 2013, pricing seemed much more reasonable.

Cost: Trip costs depend. We booked a flight/hotel package through Travelocity and got very attractive pricing that included everything. Booking flight and hotel separately almost certainly costs more. Unlike dedicated dive resorts where diving costs are included in the package, scuba is an extra cost item here. Our cost per double tank dive was US$70 in 2011, US$80 in 2012 (and US$65 from an independent scuba operator).

Tips: All gratuities were included in the package price as well. However, hotel staff, drivers, porters, captains, etc., do appreciate small tips, so it's good to have a number of small bills at hand.

Riu Palace Las Americas, Cancun

Bottom Line: If you're looking for an all-inclusive luxury hotel/resort in Cancun, the Riu Palace Las Americas delivers in every respect. It is elegant, impressive, and well run. Rooms, air-conditioning, and facilities are excellent. Food, both buffet-style and in the five specialty restaurants is good to excellent. Service is excellent, the pool areas are gorgeous, and there are enough bars and entertainment to never want to leave the premises. As scuba divers, we'd appreciate better coordination between dive shops and hotels.

Overall, the Riu Palace Las Americas was almost too good to be true. It exceeded our expectations in virtually every respect, to the extent where we returned several times, and it is a terrific home base for an enjoyable vacation in Cancun.

Check the Riu Palace Las Americas website, Scuba Caribe at the Riu, and the Scorpio Divers website.

Above is an aerial view of the Cancun hotel zone located along an inverted L-shaped sand bank. Downtown Cancun is to the left on the mainland. The Riu Palace Las Americans is located at the top of the inverted L, facing north.

Riu/Cancun related websites
Riu Palace Las Americas
Riu Palace photo tour
Scuba Caribe at the Riu
Cancun dive sites
Scorpio Divers website
Our whale shark video (YouTube)
Our photo collection (I) (YouTube)
During our stay at the Riu Palace Las Americas in Cancun August 19 through 27, 2011, the weather changed from hour to hour, ranging from blazing sunshine to pelting rain, with high humidity and temperatures generally around 90 during the day and the low 70s at night. During a stay at the Riu August 14 through 23, 2012, the weather was sunny throughout, with modest humidity and temperatures generally around 90 during the day and high 70s at night. During a stay at the Riu June 1 through 8, 2013, the weather there was lots of rain, with modest humidity and temperatures generally around 85 during the day and mid to high 70s at night.
Water Temperature
During our trip in late August, 2011, the ocean water temperature on the surface and at the bottom varied from 84 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, with an occasional 82 at depth. I used a 3-mil wetsuit that I thought would be too much, but it was just right. On a trip in late August 2012, water temperatures were generally 82 degrees Fahrenheit at the bottom, with an occasional dip into the high 70s. On a trip in early June 2013, water temperatures were 79 degrees Fahrenheit at the bottom, and without much sun, my 3-mil was barely enough. The pools at the Riu Palace seemed in the low 90s in 2011 and 2012, inviting to lounge and linger (but they close at 7pm for water conditioning!) and in the low 80s in June 2013.
None, neither in 2011, 2012 or 2013. This was a big, very pleasant surprise as we'd been pretty much eaten alive on prior stays at nearby Cozumel island and most other Caribbean locations. No mosquitos, no sand flies, no flies, nothing. After a full week at the resort (including walks on the beach, eating outdoors, small excursions) without bug spray, I didn't have a single bite. It felt marvelously liberating not to have to worry about bites.
Getting there
Cancun is a big tourist location, so getting there is easy, with plenty of flights to choose from. We booked through Travelocity and ended up with American Airlines flights from Sacramento to Dallas (3+ hours) and Dallas to Cancun (2+ hours) 2011 and 2012, and Sacramento through Phoenix to Cancun in 2013. The Cancun airport is large and very modern. We booked hotel transfers ahead of time through Travelocity on Olympus Tours.

Cancun airport is modern and very attractive. Initially extremely expensive, many prices were more reasonable in 2013. The hotel told us there'd be a US$52 departure tax per person. However, that apparently was built into our Travelocity package as we did not have to pay it during any of our trips.

Cancun is an international tourist center with, despite its location deep in ancient Mayan territory, only a brief history, going back some 35 years or so. Cancun is located on the northeast coast of the Yucatan, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Cancun consists of two parts, the center on the mainland and the "hotel zone" on a long L-shaped sand bank, with most of the larger hotels facing the Caribbean Sea. Total population is over 600,000, but you'd never know it if you stay in the hotel zone with its wonderful beaches with fine white sand. From Cancun, it's easy to reach Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, the Riviera Maya, various Mayan archeological sites, and numerous tourist attractions, such as the Xcaret park south of Cancun.

The local language, of course, is Spanish, but this being a major tourist area, almost everyone speaks at least a bit of English. It doesn't hurt to brush up on Spanish a bit, though, so as not to be confounded when suddenly faced with Spanish-only (like at some ATMs).
The currency of Mexico is the Peso, which, confusingly for Americans, also uses the $ sign. The exchange rate in August of 2011 was about 12.8 pesos to the dollar, in August of 2012 about 13.2 pesos to the dollar, and in June 2013 about 12.85 pesos to the dollar. In Cancun, and especially in the hotel zone, the US dollar is almost universally accepted. Most shops will give you the official exchange rate whereas some try to simplify to a 10:1. You can use major credit cards in Cancun, but with banks being increasingly jittery about fraud, inform them of your stay abroad ahead of time and even then expect glitches. It's good to bring a good number of small bills (US dollars are best) for transportation, tips, etc. For some reason, the hotel was not allowed to provide currency exchange with US dollars, though it was allowed for other currencies.
There are ATMs everywhere, but unlike in the US where you can generally select multiple languages, menus are usually all Spanish. We could not get the ATM in the Riu lobby to work and had to go to a bank across the street. There may be ATMs that dispense dollars, but we never found one.
Cancun tip pics