PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico — The mannequin wore a spiky collar and black leather leotard, sitting wide-legged inside a metal cage. Nearby, guests sipped drinks by the indoor pool, silhouetted by the red lighting.
“Wow, this is intense,” said one tourist, yelling over dance beats. “This place is making me ill,” replied another, “I’m leaving.”
A mix of urban jungle, red-light district and elegant symmetry, Reina Roja Hotel is the newest and most radical addition to the growing trend of modern, theme-based hotels in Playa del Carmen, the popular beach town along Mexico’s Mayan Riviera.
Cozy, quaint and quickly multiplying, boutique hotels are trying for a more personalized and authentic Mexico experience compared to the soaring skyscrapers of neighboring Cancun. (One boutique hotel, In Fashion, uses post-modern architectural lines in its completely white structure and adopts an artsy take on IKEA for its inside decor.)
Camoflouged under Reina Roja's party ambience and racy sexual innuendos are pre-Columbian elements that give the hotel a fetishistic, sadomasochist feel. It inspires strong feelings of awe, interest and disgust — all at once.
A mannequin dressed in a shiny gold leotard greets guests at one entrance to Reina Roja Hotel. (Angelica Marin/GlobalPost)
It is also pushing the Mexican city to re-examine its own identity, as hotels evoking colonial Mexico battle with provocative locations like Reina Roja in an effort to set the tone for Playa's future growth.
The experimental boutique hotel opened just a few months ago. It is owned and operated by the Alarcon family from Mexico City, who wanted to offer Mexicans and foreigners a more updated and sensorial Mexico. Each room is decorated with elements that purposely imitate natural beauty, such as neon panoramic beach scenes and walls textured with hay.
“We wanted people to know that Mexico too is proposing new and fresh ideas,” said Alejandro Alarcon Fierro, Reina Roja’s young architect. His scruffy look and gentle demeanor is a far cry from the loud and aggressive vibe of the hotel.
The hotel bears the name of an ancient Mayan princess whose corpse was found to have absorbed the red color inside her tomb. Red was a sacred color to the ancient Mayans, and they used it to tint many of their pyramids and as body paint.
To Alarcon, his hotel is part of Mexican culture too.
"Mexicans like baroque style," said Alarcon. "I wanted my contemporary design to produce a similar overwhelming effect."
Huge panoramic photographs of Yucatan’s natural settings — like the Mayan ruins of Tulum — decorate the walls. (Angelica Marin/GlobalPost)
And that’s where Angel Islas, a well-known architect in the Yucatan Peninsula, disagrees. "These new hotels are like the latest clothes or music, at some point, they all have an expiration date,” said Islas. “Mexican architecture never goes out of style,” he said.
Islas, the man who designed the first condominium in Playa del Carmen almost 20 years ago, made his name by bringing traditional Mexican-hacienda architecture into the 21st century. Using local artisan materials like chechen, salam and zapote wood and hand-painted tiles, his buildings pay homage to traditional Mexican culture.
One popular boutique hotel that bears his vision is La Lunata, whose entrance peeks out like a storefront on the colorful Fifth Avenue strip of Playa del Carmen. Inside, the 12 bedrooms decorated with bright colors and Mexican folk art look more like a 17th-century hacienda than a hotel.
Although a younger crowd might prefer a more contemporary style, many tourists are still looking for a more cultural experience, said Fabiola Belez, La Lunata's hotel manager.
Bedrooms inside Reina Roja Hotel stay true to its name. The bed cover, curtains and lights —all red— create an intense and sensorial experience for guests. (Angelica Marin/GlobalPost)
As the tourism industry began to take off in the early 1990s, Playa worked hard to preserve its Mexican pueblo feel and stand out in the Mayan Riviera. More importantly, it strived to set itself apart from its much larger neighbor — Cancun.
“If you stand in the main avenue of Cancun or Miami Beach, you won’t see any difference,” said Luis Garcia, CEO for the company that runs the luxurious Hacienda Real Hotel. “You’ll see the same bars, the same restaurants, and you won’t find any cultural markers,” he said.
This is what Playa del Carmen city planners wanted to avoid all along. Strict construction rules forbid hotels from exceeding five floors along Fifth Avenue and in other tourist areas. There are few all-inclusive hotels. Tourists must explore the city to to eat, shop and suntan rather than staying confined in mini-cities with food, entertainment and the beach. On the other hand, when it comes to architectural style, Playa is a total free-for-all.
As the sun sets on Fifth Avenue, barelegged visitors in flip-flops and bikini tops return to their hotels. They can walk into La Lunata, Reina Roja or another contemporary alternative, and their choice will determine what kind of hotel props up next.
Four trendy Mexican youngsters stop and gawk at the entrance to Reina Roja. “How cool,” says one in a distinctive Mexico City accent. They open their wallets and scrounge up enough money to pay for one night for them and their girlfriends. This might be exactly what they're looking for.