The Riviera Maya Resort Experience
We Have Reservations
A few weeks ago, for the first time in our lives and in the nine years that we have lived in the Yucatan, we booked ourselves into a bonafide Riviera Maya resort hotel. You know, the kind of hotel you see along the route between Cancun and points south… one with an over-sized front gate beside a water feature, a Gran This or a Palace That. Ours was of the variety that you find between cities… just a few minutes north of Playa del Carmen in our case. There are, of course, the resort hotels strung along the Zona Hotelera beaches in Cancun… but ours was not one of those. We went for the kind that is isolated on its own piece of land, an all-inclusive, all-enclosed jungle paradise-and-quasi-honor-farm. That’s how it seemed to us before we stayed there, anyway. We were excited to go, but we had reservations. Both kinds.
Upon arrival, we checked in at the front gate with our reservation confirmation. The white-clad young man with a clipboard and a totally-unnecessary but very cute Pith helmet wished us Bienvenidos! and raised the white parking gate to let us through. We drove slowly down a long paved avenue of palms and oleanders waving in the warm evening breeze and parked in front of the reception area. The lobby was clean, shiny and cool… ours was not a first-class resort where you might find Polynesian art hanging from a mile-high palapa ceiling. Ours was more the garden variety resort, classy but not luxurious, with marble everywhere and gold-painted columns, the kind that Yucatecans come to for the weekend because they get such a good deal.
As a matter of fact, that is how we ended up there: our Yucatecan friends belong to a club that gives them a great deal on this place, and they were able to pass it on to us as their guests. For the price of a utilitarian hotel room ten blocks off the beach in Playa, we were able to stay in a resort with a two-bedroom suite, a kitchen, unlimited air conditioning and daily maid service. Oh, and one of the biggest swimming pools on the planet. We went for it.
Checking into the resort, we were welcomed and upsold by some very pretty bilingual young ladies. (Do you want to try our golf course? Would you like a tour to Chichen Itza?) After parking our car and giving all our bags to the bellman, we went up to our room.
Checking It All Out
Not a single room in this resort, we learned, has a view of the ocean. We found this rather odd. Usually when we go to the Caribbean, one of the points of being there is to be there… on the beautiful azure sea. Here in this resort, the ocean was almost beside the point. Our room, on the second floor of a three-story building (one of twenty buildings), looked out into a well-groomed section of jungle. From our balconies (both bedrooms and the living room had their own balcony), we could watch palm, ramon, almond and other local trees waving in the breeze, separated from us by a well-maintained lawn. Our little patch of jungle was just a corner of the magnificent gardens that wove themselves in and out of the buildings and the swimming pools.
Our suite was functional and comfortable… about the level of a Holiday Inn Express with brighter colors and lower thread count sheets. The art on the walls was probably never touched by human hands, and the beds were passable, though our backs begged to differ after two nights. There was a TV in every room, a separate air conditioning control in every room and a kitchenette and dining area with a refrigerator, sink, toaster, blender, 2-burner stove and all the utensils you needed to make scrambled eggs or blend a margarita. We had everything we needed, we thought, and we settled in.
Of course, the first order of the day was to set out and explore our surroundings. Armed with our keycards for the door, our wristbands that indicated that we belonged in this resort, and our handy map which we needed just to know which way the ocean was, we set out to learn what was available to us at our new home-for-a-week.
Shunning the shuttle that regularly ferried guests back and forth around the property (Okay, we took it just once, buy only to get the photo.), we walked the paved paths that wound themselves through the jungly gardens past the other three-story buildings. Eventually, we made it to the main pavilion, a monstrous edifice that housed an Italian restaurant, a billiard and video game hall, a complete grocery store (with prices about two to three times what they are in Merida), a department store selling clothes, jewelry, books, bathing suits, toys, a snack shop and probably more we never discovered. To the side of that building was a two-story gym, complete with salon, locker rooms, and classrooms for yoga, Pilates and the like. We could also get a bikini wax, a beard trim or a Maya Mud Body Treatment. The gym was free, a pedicure was $720 pesos and a 50-minute massage was $1170 pesos… definitely USA prices. Around the pool, there were restaurants, puestos set up to sell more jewelry, purses, sunglasses, henna tattoos and hair braids, designed to give guests the feel of shopping in the streets without actually having to hit the streets.
All Hail The Pool
There was also, of course, the pool. The incredibly large, incredibly clean and blue pool. As veterans of hours spent cleaning and vacuuming our own pool in Merida, we marveled at how clean they kept that pool. Despite the total absence of a single tree that might shed a leaf anywhere near the pool (apparently, pools are why God invented palm trees), we still marveled at how many people it must take to keep such a large body of water so crystal clean. The pool was often a hub of activity. At various times, we witnessed a team of mostly ladies doing water aerobics led by an employee with his face painted like a KISS guitar player, schools of sunburned thirty and forty-somethings drinking like fishes, spring breakers drinking even more than that, and lots of kids paddling and splashing to their little hearts’ content. There were others playing volleyball, dads rough-housing with their children, and young beauties sunning themselves everywhere, often accompanied by big coconuts full of sweet blended drinks. The pool seemed to wind in and out of the palm trees forever… but we never found a spot that was deeper than 3.6 feet.
Oh, And Then There's The Beach
Past the pool, almost incidental to most people who were apparently having the times of their lives at the pool, was the beach. The beautiful white sandy beach and the aqua blue-green water of the Caribbean seemed almost an afterthought, although there were plenty of chairs and palapas, a few employees selling and facilitating water sports, waiters delivering piña coladas and french fries, and a beach-side restaurant. The next day when we wandered down to the swimming pool and beach area, there was not a chair to be found near the pool, but empty beach chairs were plentiful.
Up until this point in our nine-year Mexican adventure, we have always stayed in Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Akumal or Tulum, with an occasional foray to Puerto Morelos, Puerto Aventuras and Cancun. In all those places, with the exception of Puerto Aventuras which has no beach, and Cozumel where underwater is the only place we cared to be, the beach was the focal point for us and our vacation. This was definitely a switch for us, but since the weather was a bit windy and the seas were a bit choppy, we were semi-converted. We spent our days lying on the beach, but since the water was rough and this particular beach had rocky outcroppings between it and the sea, we went to the pool for our water time.
Gringos, Gringos Everywhere!
One of the biggest changes for us at this resort was how many gringos there were! Everywhere we looked, people from the United States and Canada were wandering around and speaking English. After nine years of enjoying only-gringo-on-the-block status much of the time and getting used to not understanding much of what people were saying around us, this took some getting used to as well. We found ourselves greeting and talking to the employees a lot more than the other guests, which we’re pretty sure everyone thought was a bit strange. Ni modo…
We had elected this mini-vacation in order to really rest, so we chose not to partake of the many physical activities that were available here… diving, snorkeling, parasailing, golf, tennis and more. Each activity came with its own pricey price tag, so though we were willing to do what it takes to have a good time, we were secretly glad that those physical activities were not necessary to our enjoyment of our week.
Waking up whenever we wanted, making breakfast in our own little kitchenette, letting the maid make the bed (though she did not wash the dishes…), strolling out to the beach and lying there all day, hopping in and out of the pool and taking walks along the coast made us perfectly happy for each day we were there. Though the winds were a little high and snorkeling would have been difficult (if we’d had that much energy…), the temperature on the beach was perfect. It rained briefly a few afternoons, but that was perfect too.
How The Other Half Lives
At one point, during one of our daytime explorations, we did wander into the upscale, high class, luxurious counterpart to our section of the resort. This place had the Polynesian style lobby, with an incredibly large palapa ceiling, Pacific-style art and furnishings, shell-encrusted floors and planters, tropical planting everywhere and piped-in music. The pool beyond the lobby was a deeper blue than our pool, curiously, and incredibly quiet. No aerobics classes here, no sir! Even the few children in attendance were subdued in their splashing. Comfortably padded lounge chairs were clustered around the pool in tasteful settings, and overarching everything was an attractive wooden stick-structure that gave the whole area an air of a palapa but with all the palm fronds blown away. Maybe that sounds strange, but it was very attractive. We did also notice that the people around this pool had different colored wristbands, and wondered if we would be chased off if we lay down in one of those comfortable lounge chairs with our wristbands. We never did test our theory.
Eating and Drinking
Every day, we ate and drank on the beach or at the swim-up pool bar. We ate french fries, mostly. And indulged in tropical drinks like margaritas and piña coladas. Everything we ordered was easily charged to the room, making it easy to buy and imbibe a bit more than was advisable at times. A few nights, we had dinner at one of the restaurants in the resort. We chose the restaurant on the beach because of its location. The sterile rock-and-roll band playing old favorites for the American and Canadian guests to make fools of themselves by dancing was NOT a draw for us, but the proximity to the stars and the sea definitely was. The food was good… there were even a few Yucatecan items on the menu, but they were bland compared to what we are used to. The hamburgers and fries were delicious, however, and added to our sense of vacation from our normal lives. (We realize this is completely opposite to why they are on the menu in the first place, but we enjoyed both the food and the irony).
On other occasions, we drove the ten minutes to Playa del Carmen to eat in one of the seemingly thousands of restaurants there. Playa was hopping, como siempre, with seemingly thousands of visitors from around the world, and it was nice to return to our peaceful little jungle retreat after a busy night there.
The End Result (And The Point Of It All)
In the end, we left after five days, totally relaxed and refreshed. Sure, we might have been even MORE relaxed and refreshed if we’d stayed at a more upscale, luxurious resort. But there is an element of relaxation in looking at that American Express bill and seeing only a 3-digit charge, instead of a 4-digit one. We had all the comforts we needed, plenty of entertainment, lots of free time, fresh air and family interaction with a minimum of problems, trouble or complications… just what we needed. We left with fond memories and suntans, which is exactly what the Mexico Board of Tourism would have wanted us to do!