Spirit of exploration at Panama Jack Cancun

The main pool at the Panama Jack Resorts Cancun.
The main pool at the Panama Jack Resorts Cancun.

"Travel is the trip to reach the journey," reads one freshly painted wall of the Panama Jack Resorts Cancun. Similar bits of wisdom can be seen throughout the 458-room property, attributed to the resort's namesake, the Miami-based maker of sunscreen and other beach-lifestyle products.

For the past year and a half or so, the all-inclusive resort has been on a journey of sorts itself, ever since Playa Hotels and Resorts announced plans to renovate two of its properties and relaunch them under its new Panama Jack Resorts brand.

At the former Gran Caribe Real, the transformation is nearly complete. At sister property Panama Jack Resorts Playa del Carmen (formerly the Gran Porto), the switch is even further along, according to Playa representatives. Last month I got a look at the Cancun property during a hosted stay for travel media.

The resort is about a half-hour from Cancun's airport and is located next to Playa sister property the Hyatt Zilara Cancun along the hotel zone.

As I arrived, midday festivities were well underway in the main pool area, with a poolside DJ overseeing dance lessons, birthday wishes and more. At night, the airy Jack's Landing bar takes over with live music (during one early evening, the cover band played Motown hits and other circa-'60s selections).

On another evening, the property's gazebo was the venue for a tequila tasting. Staffers walked guests through samples of blanco, reposado and anejo tequilas from a variety of distillers. Tequila's smoky Oaxacan cousin mezcal also made an appearance, as did another Oaxacan specialty: fried grasshoppers (not great on their own, but they can add a nice, briny crunch to guacamole).

A renovated oceanview guestroom at the Panama Jack Resorts Cancun.
A renovated oceanview guestroom at the Panama Jack Resorts Cancun.

The lobby has fully embraced the Theodore Roosevelt-era aesthetic of Panama Jack's monocled mascot. Check-in counters evoke a vintage-luggage look, and an old-school Huffy cruiser is parked near the entrance, where offices for car rentals and excursions with Best Day Travel can also be found.

The new Panama Coffee Co. shop offered a variety of brews and baked goods throughout the day. The cinnamon rolls are especially popular, said general manager Matias Klein, who added that the shop's loft area was his favorite spot from which to observe the lobby action below.

The huge gift shop offers an array of beach apparel, sundries and, of course, a variety of sunscreens and other products bearing the Panama Jack name.

The property hosts about 200 weddings a year as well as vow renewals and other ceremonies. Wedding and other celebration specialists are on site to handle the details for a range of ceremony packages.

Breakfast is served at all-day venues At Sunset (casual, American-style fare), Deck 74 (which becomes a Mongolian barbecue venue at night) and Viaggio (Italian), or guests can opt for room service.

Room minifridges are stocked with water, soft drinks and beer; guests seeking liquor, wine and cocktails can head to one of three bars (Las Olas, Jack's Landing, Amigos).

Guests in premium rooms additionally have access to Club Panama VIP, an exclusive sixth-floor lounge area serving beverages and snacks throughout the day.

Guestroom renovations are complete. In my oceanfront junior suite, aquamarine accents echoed the Caribbean Sea's palette of blues, and the all-important bedside electrical outlets and propertywide WiFi ensured continual connectivity.

Renovations continue throughout the property's common spaces. The Ventanas (international) restaurant is expected to open by the end of this month, and the ballroom space, spa and kids club are all slated for completion by the end of the year.

Off-property exploration

The Temple of Kukulcan, aka El Castillo, at Chichen Itza, about a two-hour drive from the resort.
The Temple of Kukulcan, aka El Castillo, at Chichen Itza, about a two-hour drive from the resort. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

Part of the Panama Jack philosophy is to "be a traveler … not a tourist," as the brand's tagline goes, and I suspect that slogan is intended to encourage guests to explore the area beyond the resort's walls.

And while no one would argue that Cancun's hotel zone is off the beaten path, certainly there's off-property fun to be had within walking distance: shopping at the various souvenir stores and high-end retail outlets nearby, perhaps taking in some nightlife at kitschy Coco Bongo or other nearby clubs. Or more adventurous guests can catch a bus along Kukulcan Boulevard and head downtown for shopping at Mercado 28 or bar-hopping along Yaxchilan Avenue.

More structured excursions are available, too, of course. One morning, our group made the two-hour journey to the ruins of Chichen Itza. With a 7 a.m. departure from our hotel, we beat the throngs who would arrive about two hours after us. Beto, our guide from Cancun Passion, offered brief lessons in astronomy and the Mayan numerical system before allowing us to break off and explore the site on our own. The drive back included a stop at the popular Ik Kil cenote complex: again, not exactly off the beaten path, but an essential Cancun attraction and one much appreciated by the group.

Through June 21, starting rates at the Panama Jack Resorts Cancun are $158 per person, per night, based on double occupancy; from June 22 through the end of the month, rates are $174 per person, per night. See www.panamajackresorts.com.


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