The day after we checked into the Deseo [Hotel + Lounge] in Playa del Carmen a group of guests arrived from Miami. This begs the question: why come to Playa del Carmen from Miami when Playa is, essentially, Mexico’s Mini Miami with chic shops, great bars, restaurants and clubs and a long, wide beach just emerging from a multi-million dollar rehabilitation?

For one thing, people come to Playa from all over the world (including Miami) because they can afford to stay in design-centric, risk-taking hotels like Deseo (which is the word for desire in Spanish) and its sister down the block Hotel BÁSICO (more about her later).

Words like “crisp” and “white” certainly spring to mind at Deseo. Some of the rooms are on the small side but the suites are certifiably huge loft-like spaces with patios and enough space between the king size bed and the enormous bathroom to put in an indoor hammock and a huge bathtub and still have room to dance around naked if you want to. Sexy.

Deseo gets even sexier at night when the pool bar gets packed with guests and non-guests enjoying a DJ and the melodramatic (even with the sound turned off) old b/w Mexican movies which are projected onto a big white wall.

The pool at Hotel Deseo by day…

…and by night.

Deseo’s sister, Hotel BÁSICO (both hotels are part of Grupo Habita), is located just a few blocks away. BÁSICO pushes the hotel envelope even further than Deseo does, channeling a cool cargo ship aesthetic and a stripped down look, hence the name.

The starkness and industrial-ness and found-object chic (a wooden saw handle is affixed as a door handle) is not for everyone–especially if you’re shy (most rooms are profoundly open). Design aside, the hotel’s restaurant served up some of the best aguachile (a kind of cross between gazpacho and shrimp cocktail) we’ve ever had and the lobby shop was particularly strong in the earthy, hand-made jewelry department with more merch (including more for men) in the works.

Rooms at Hotel BÁSICO are, well, basico. However, they also feature quirky high design. For example, the black “vertical blind curtains” are made from strips of rubber.

The overall effect of Hotel BÁSICO is of being on-board the hippest cargo ship ever. These industrial-looking tanks are actually the hotel’s twin rooftop pools.

Both Deseo and BÁSICO are right on the central pedestrian mall/shopping strip on Playa. It’s actually called 5th Avenue and, true to its name, it’s full of shopping aimed at people who always seem cooler than us (again, just like Miami). Karen did break down and buy a new swimsuit here, however, which should give you an idea of just how infectious the consumption vibe is.

One of the hippest hotels in Mexico gets a lot of its distinct style by co-opting (and improving) elements normally found on cargo ships.

Another way Playa del Carmen reminds us of Miami is the crush of restaurants–some very good, most pretty expensive by Mexican standards. Thank goodness we found El Fogon, an always-crowded taco shop and grilled meat restaurant that served up dishes that were delicious and affordable. We were also grateful for open-air breakfasts at La Cuerva del Chango down a residential street toward the beach off the far end of 5th Avenue. The garden setting is gorgeous, the portions are huge and the dishes are delicious. Try the savory crepes–really more like fancy and light enchiladas. Oh, and Playas even got Miami-style private beach clubs (Hotel Deseo and Hotel BÁSICO both provide free guest passes to three of them).

Good, affordable, non-foofy food can be tricky to find in Playa del Carmen. That made us love the scrumptious and well-priced tacos and grilled meat dishes at El Fogon even more.

Literally on our way out of town after our first quick trip through Playa del Carmen something caught our eye. Just off 5th Avenue we spotted a huge building that looked like condos or apartments. On closer inspection it turned out to be a hotel, but not just any hotel.

There were mannequins posed on many of the balconies and thousands of red light bulbs illuminated the interior ad the exterior. Did we mention the astroturf? We had no time to explore further but we vowed to return to  Hotel Reina Roja (which means red queen in Spanish). Two weeks later we were checking into this new addition to Playa del Carmen.

One look at the mannequin-draped exterior of the Hotel Reina Roja was enough to inspire a return trip to Playa del Carmen so we could check out its experiment in hotel sexiness.

Owned and designed by an architect from Mexico City (his name is on a plaque on the front of the hotel), the Reina Roja has been dubbed a “Mexican emergent architecture theme hotel” and that about sums it up.

Red and black dominate.  The hallways above the lobby leading to the rooms are locked and have been turned into quasi-cages with wire fencing (to keep “them” out or to keep us in?). Speakers in the hall play a constant, incongruous loop of bird and nature sounds. One of the lobby bars features floor to ceiling built-in shelves lined with magic potions more often found in the self-help section of most Mexican markets–sprays, candles, powders and oils to help you achieve everything from a better sex life to success at work to the ability to make your gossipy friend shut her mouth. More than 100,000 red LED light bulbs give the entire hotel a kind of bordello glow.

Each room at the Hotel Reina Roja features a different illuminated headboard–from bathing beauties (aboe) to old VW bugs to a shot from a random stranger’s beach wedding in Playa.

The roof-top pool at Hotel Reina Roja may only be a couple of feet deep but it’s still thick with hot hipsters.

Then there are those mannequins. The half-clad things are everywhere–in the restaurant, on balconies, in a cage in the lobby. The maids brush their wigs daily and the staff moves them around and poses them for best effect. It’s equal parts sexy and creepy.

Yeah. This woman in the lobby restaurant/bar in Hotel Reina Roja is always there. That’s because she’s one of the hotel’s resident mannequins…

…and so are they…

..and she’s a Hotel Reina Roja mannequin too. We love the pillow behind her that says “Be Fabulous.”

Speaking of equal parts sexy and creepy, during our stay the hotel hosted a fetish party which attracted locals, tourists, guests and revolved around watching various “fashion” shows of fetish wear and accessories and gawking as a guy airbrushed clothes on naked people. It was voyeuristic and participatory at the same time.

Over the course of a few days we watched hundreds of people walk past the hotel and each and every one of them stopped and stared, just like we did the first time we laid eyes on the red queen. Love it or hate it, the Reina Roja demands to be the center of attention and it certainly wins the prize for the most unorthodox hotel we’ve stayed at (so far).

Revelers at a recent fetish party at Hotel Reina Roja.

Performers at a recent fetish party at Hotel Reina Roja decorate the already-photo-plastered hotel elevator (seen empty on the right).

Now through the end of August, 2010 you can check out Hotel BÁSICO for yourself at a special rate of around US$315 for two nights for two people including yoga lessons, breakfast and happy hour at the hotel’s popular rooftop bar (book by emailing the hotel and asking for this special summer rate).

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