Sunset at Playa Viva, a barefoot luxury resort near Zihuatanejo, Mexico
It’s been two weeks since our family met my college roommate and her sons at Playa Viva, an environmentally-conscious beachfront resort south of Zihuatanejo, Mexico.
I’m still struggling to describe the experience to friends.
Playa Viva is a remote, natural place where we played, swam, and adventured by day and slept in stilted, open-air casitas by night. Also, we tutored local school children in English, released baby turtles, surfed, and learned to make tortillas by hand.”
Kind of a mash-up of a beach vacation, a family exchange program, and a summer camp (except with way better food).
If you’re considering Playa Viva for a family vacation, you’ve doubtless spent a lot of time on their website and on TripAdvisor reading previous guests’ ecstatic reviews. If you’ve arrived here, I’m guessing you’re still not quite sure what to expect from a family vacation at Playa Viva.
I can help. Here is what you need to know before you go to Playa Viva:
The eco-stuff isn’t heavy-handed
The Playa Viva website talks a lot about “harmony in nature” and “guilt-free luxury”. Health and wellness feature prominently too. Frankly, as a yoga-phobe, it made me a little worried. What if I didn’t want to take a tour of the organic garden? What if I just wanted to drink a piña colada and read a paranormal romance novel instead?
I needn’t have worried. True, they use solar power, eco-friendly products, and virtually no packaged foods or plastic, but really it just feels like a good old fashioned decadent beach vacation.
In which my college roommate and I try to get our once-a-decade photo together, and get photo-bombed by teenaged boys.
The waves are strong, but the beach is totally private
If you have young kids who aren’t confident swimmers, the waves right in front of the property can be a little strong. Unlike Zihuatanejo, 30 miles to the north, Playa Viva’s beach is open ocean. We found that the waves closer to the beach were fine for teens (or younger kids with a parent), but farther out got a little rough. That said, our teens boogie boarded pretty much every waking minute and loved it.
Younger kids will love the pool, which is really warm and only about 4.5 feet deep at the deepest. It’s adjacent to lots of shade and lounge chairs too — so lazy adults don’t need to get in to supervise.
You can walk an hour in either direction on the beach in front of Playa Viva and never see another person — it’s that remote. For people who don’t like being asked to buy jewelry, hammocks, hair braids, and banana boat rides, it’s paradise.
Releasing baby turtles at dawn at Playa Viva. Me: That one looks like he’s not going to make it. My animal-loving daughter (through clenched teeth): Oh, they’re ALL going to make it.
Two kinds of turtles nest here: leatherbacks and Oliver ridleys. Local volunteers monitor the beach and move the eggs to a sanctuary where they can hatch safely. We were lucky enough to have a clutch of eggs hatch on our first morning, so we got to release the baby turtles on the beach.
It’s reeeeeally casual
Riding horses on the beach at Playa Viva isn’t fast, but it’s fun.
Now, what should you pack? Are you standing in front of your open suitcase right now staring at some cute resort wear? Linen? Jewelry? Take it all out. Seriously. Women will not need skirts or sandals with heels. Men will not need collared shirts. You might even wind up wearing the same thing every day and no shoes at all. Playa Viva tells guests to bring lightweight long pants and long-sleeved shirts, and it’s good advice because dusk can get buggy.
Also, bring flashlights, rash guards for anyone who wants to boogie board, and sun hats. Even our teens (who are normally too cool to practice safe sun) were willing to slap on a hat in the heat of the day.
The food will make you weep with joy
I am not a foodie. Don’t believe me? Check my Instagram stream. In general, food has to be either really, really good or really, really bad to get my attention at all. The food at Playa Viva falls squarely into the first category. Everything is fresh. Everything is locally grown or produced. Inexplicably, my picky kids ate it all and raved: vegetables, fish, soups…they just chowed. And the adults were even worse. We all ate to the point of pain at every single meal.
If your kids have always wanted (even secretly) to learn to surf, Playa Viva is the place to try it. Small waves, warm water, and a great teacher.
Activities are fun, but can add up fast
Playa Viva’s rates include the following: round-trip airport transportation, your casita, all meals, beverages, and snacks, and daily yoga classes. Tips, bar tabs, and excursions all cost extra. Between beers and the smoothies the kids were ordering behind our backs, we were able to rack up a fairly hefty bar bill in a week. Some of the activities were expensive too. Here were the ones we felt were worth the cost:
- Surfing lessons: This was so fun, we did it twice! The instructor was really good and got everybody up on longboards almost immediately. Costly for a family of four, but easily the best thing we did.
- Sierra mountain excursion: We rode ATVs way, way up into the mountains where we had lunch with a local family and toured their coffee and chocolate farm. Highlights included meeting their pet javelina, learning to make tortillas by hand, and swimming under a waterfall.
- Horseback riding: For not much money, local farmers will deliver two somewhat lazy horses to you and let you ride on the beach in front of Playa Viva on your own. It’s entertaining, but good luck getting these animals to move fast.
Accommodations at Playa Viva are luxurious in a natural and breezy way. Living with less felt really relaxing.
Is Playa Viva for you?
Playa Viva is in the middle of nowhere, four miles down a dirt road. Cell service is spotty, and wifi is slow. If you have an emergency, you will get lots of help from the staff, but things may not move as quickly as you’d like. Also, there aren’t very many flights into and out of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo every day. If someone in your family has diabetes or a life-threatening food allergy, this is probably not the place for you.
(I speak from experience, unfortunately. Though it was not the resort’s fault, my son fell and chipped his teeth while we were at Playa Viva. Of course this happened on a Sunday, so getting any dentist on the phone — in America or Mexico — was hard. In the end, we went to a 24/7 clinic in the local town of Petatlan for antibiotics and pain killers, and flew out the next day.)
Without television, video games, and social media, my kids were forced to play together, which was totally gratifying.
Playa Viva is in a natural location. Nature has bugs in it. And crabs. Sometimes the bugs buzz around the mosquito netting over your bed and the crabs fall in the pool. Really, it’s all part of the charm. Plus, the other creatures we saw more than made up for it: baby turtles, leaping stingrays, breaching whales. However, you need to be honest with yourself. Do you hate camping? Does the thought of not flushing toilet paper gross you out? If so, Playa Viva might not be the place for you.
If, on the other hand, you like the idea of your kids spending a week outside, far from televisions, video games, social media, processed foods, and many of the other controversial elements of modern life, practicing their middle school Spanish, learning how to make tamales, and playing in the surf, Playa Viva is definitely worth a look.
I kind of wanted to slip this little cutie into my suitcase, but he was pretty determined to get to the sea.