A week south of the border

Weather sucks, beer's warm, not relaxing at ALL.
Weather sucks, beer’s warm, not relaxing at ALL.

Buenos dias, loyal readers! It’s me, that guy who used to write here twice a week.

I’ve not long returned from my first actual vacation in a couple years last week with seven days in Mexico; Cancun, to be precise.

As you can expect, we did a great deal of relaxing by the pool, relaxing by the beach, relaxing by the…well, you get the drift.

It’d be remiss of me not to write some sort of recap to go with the millions of envy-inducing photos, so: here we go. Vamanos!

The Serious Bits

Since this is primarily a blog about my immigration, let’s go over that bit first. I wasn’t 100 percent sure what was going to happen when it came time to go through customs and immigration at Portland International Jetport upon my departure, although I didn’t have any lingering concerns about not getting in to Mexico.

Everyone fills out the same incoming passenger card en route to Cancun, and on the way home it wasn’t necessary for U.S. or Canadian citizens or residents to do the paperwork, so I figured I was pretty safe on that front.

But somewhat stupidly, I’d given the travel agent who’d organized our group’s trip my passport details rather than those of my green card, so my flights were booked with Australian documentation. That made it impossible to check in online on the way home, and caused some minor hassles at the Delta counter in Cancun.

I was also nervous about clearing immigration in Atlanta, where we had a layover on both trips, because it was my first entry into the United States on the green card. I was told I could use the automated booths, which scans your passport or green card, takes your fingerprints and a face photo to compare to that on your card. I thought – jokingly, at first, and then more seriously – that my bearded visage was going to deny me entry because the facial recognition camera couldn’t marry it up with my green card mug. I had to line up to speak to an immigration officer, who ran through the checks again. Turns out it was just my fingerprints that didn’t scan properly.

Anyway, lesson learned: Next time I leave the country (excluding returning to Australia, I guess?), I’ll travel on my U.S. resident documents to avoid any hiccups like that. I thought my Australian passport would make things easier or visa-free on my way out, but it was redundant at best and a pain at worst. Silly me.

First Impressions

“Holy shit, it’s HOT.”

I’d genuinely forgotten what humidity and 85-degree weather felt like, but I was quickly reminded when we stepped out of the arrivals terminal into the ground transport waiting area at Cancun International. Luckily for us, there’s a Margaritaville-branded bar right outside the sliding doors, so we grabbed a couple of cold ones while we waited.

Immediately I wished that I’d even done a little bit of research into what the exchange rate was, because $70 in pesos seemed like a large number for a beer, although the conversion was like $4.50. Cheaper than your average airport Corona, although not by much. There were also a couple of street vendors with small carts set up to hawk cold beers, so we stocked up before we boarded the bus to the hotel.

Deanna and I were both transfixed on the drive to the resort. It’s been about three years since my last trip to a non-English-speaking country, and even then I could speak the language somewhat, so I was equal parts overwhelmed and fascinated by the billboards, advertisements and unfamiliar businesses and storefronts along the highway, all written in Spanish. Even in the short trip – 25 minutes at most – from door to door, it was easy to draw parallels between Mexico and Indonesia.

I was told pretty frequently, both before we left and once we were in-country, to avoid drinking any water that wasn’t in a bottle. That included using bottled water for rinsing after brushing my teeth, and even being wary in restaurants. I was pretty skeptical about the caution, because c’mon – surely resorts with hundreds of rooms aren’t going to endanger the health of their clientele by providing water in the rooms that would make people sick – but I did my best to avoid ingesting any significant amount. I’m sure that’s a warning more intended for water consumed in out-of-the-way places away from the confines of the resorts, but I made it home without any sign of Montezuma’s Revenge.

The Digs

Alright, on to the great stuff. Deanna and I were part of a group trip organized by friends who own a personal training gym in downtown Augusta. There were a solid 40 to 50 people on the trip, the vast majority of whom we didn’t know, but several other friends were along for the ride as well.

The trip package included airfares, airport transfers and seven nights at the all-inclusive Now Sapphire Riviera Maya resort. And when I say all-inclusive, it really was. There were a half-dozen or so restaurants, the same number of bars, a bunch of pools and a huge stretch of beach to enjoy, and enjoy we did. Before we left, we’d tried to lobby our travel agent to sign us up for an upgrade to the “preferred” package, which added 24-hour room service, premium booze and snacks in the mini-bar, and a few other perks, but we were told that they didn’t have the upgraded rooms to offer.

When Deanna and I arrived, with eight or so others a couple hours after the majority of the group got in, we were quickly ushered away from the muggy open-air front desk and into an air-conditioned private lounge to be checked in as “preferred guests.” This came as a surprise to us, since we’d been told it wasn’t possible (and we sure hadn’t paid for the upgrade), but we rolled with it. We were brought cold beers as the check-in staff ran through all of our perks, including spa credits, access to the private adults-only pool area and more. They asked whether we would be interested in having breakfast with a member of the resort staff the following day and listening to “a small presentation” about how we can “market the resort to friends and family back home” in exchange for our choice of incentives, one of which was a romantic beachside dinner for two.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, and we agreed, only to find out the next morning that it was a two-hour sales pitch for vacation club memberships. As a part of the presentation we got to tour one of the rooms we’d have stayed in as paid preferred guests, with a balcony hot tub overlooking the beach, but even after discount after discount we weren’t buying.

Sales pitch aside, the resort was beautiful. The main pool, especially at sunset when the water was still and it was bereft of swimmers, looked like someone’s depiction of heaven. Simply unbelievable. Despite our rooms not being “the preferred suites,” our ground-floor Tropical View room was maybe 20 feet to the beach, with the only obstruction being a beach bar and a ton of sun beds. HOW TERRIBLE. The lobby bar and open corridors to the restaurants were all stunning as well, with cool marble floors and tiles throughout. The photos we took (and we took a ton) barely do the place justice.

The resort’s entertainment crew were a hard-working bunch as well. They led a group “game” (generally some sort of drunken dance contest) and pool volleyball every afternoon, as well as nightly karaoke, shows, dance lessons and a ton of other stuff. The beauty of the resort, though, was that you could easily do as little or as much as you wanted to do. That’s a vacation, right there.

The Eats (and Drinks)

As I said, the resort had six sit-down restaurants as well as a walk-up buffet by the main pool and a cafe for coffee and bakery-type foods as well. Those restaurants encompassed French, Asian, Mediterranean, Mexican (duh), a seafood place overlooking the water and an “international buffet.” The French and Mediterranean places exceeded my expectations tenfold, and we had hibachi meals twice at the Asian restaurant but missed out on the a la carte sushi menu. There are only so many dinners you can have, after all.

We didn’t try the Mexican place, although there were plenty of local offerings at the buffet which we checked out on a couple of occasions. The walk-up buffet at the pool was also a pretty handy option, although it was all pretty Americanized: cheeseburgers, hot dogs, nachos and other “don’t have to think about it” stuff.

Given the place was all-inclusive, it was nice to be able to go and eat well without having to worry about what it cost, or bringing money at all, for obvious reasons. There were a couple of downsides though, to my mind, mainly that because the food was included, it was far too easy to overdo it. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had three meals per day for three days in a row, yet the first half of the week we did just that, and in such a warm and humid climate, that was a killer. Buffets are hard places at which to maintain self-control, and it took a full week of training for me to wise up at breakfast and go with small plates and light offerings. I’m not very smart.

The drinking was a similar double-edged sword. We were advised before we left home to bring a bunch of small U.S. bills with us for tipping the bartenders. Now, it might stand to reason that if you’ve already paid for everything, and all drinks are included, what more could they possibly give you? But by tipping a couple of bucks here and there, the bartenders all learned our names (within the first 24 hours, in most cases) and gave us preferential service ahead of all the other customers swarming the bars who weren’t tipping. This is detrimental to one’s sobriety, of course, but at least we had the resort on our side in this one – most of the liquor poured out in shots and cocktails was of…muted strength. I don’t want to say it was watered down, but if they were full-strength shots we were drinking in the sun for hours and hours every day, none of us would’ve made it back alive.

The other catch, I think, was that because everything was so accessible at the resort – you didn’t even have to make reservations, for God’s sake – it was much easier to remain complacent about actually “going out.” I was eager until the very last night to go into Cancun, a 40ish-minute cab ride and a $US90 round trip, to see what the actual city was like, and check out the nightlife there, but the distance and cost ended up being just enough of a deterrent for people to not want to come with us. Sure, the cab fare was steep, but it’s not like we’re in Cancun every weekend, right? We never ended up making it out, and if that’s a regret it’s a minor one at worst.

The Outside

Okay, that sounds a bit dramatic. But there’s definitely a very insulated feeling to being in an all-inclusive place, where you really want for nothing. (Seriously, nothing. We ordered a bullshit amount of room service well after midnight on two separate occasions, completely free of charge. On a related note, I’ve eaten enough fish tacos to last me a year and a half.)

So while I loved lounging around and having nowhere to be, and no decisions to make apart from “which pool to go to” or “do I want Modelo or Pacifico?”, it was exciting to get out and about a little bit.

A lot of our fellow group members went on a few excursions, to see a local shaman, go four-wheeling and zip-lining or visit Mayan ruins, but we only opted for a day trip on a catamaran out to Isla Mujeres. I was interested in checking out the ruins at Chichen-Itza or Tulum, but for five hours on a bus or $US85 respectively, I opted not to. There’ll be other chances, I’m sure. The day on the water was incredibly relaxing, and I braved some kinda choppy seas to do some snorkeling with the group. I’m a TERRIBLE swimmer, so this really was “braving” something for me. There were some real pretty reefs and sea life about 30 feet down, as well as the eerie sculptures of the “Underwater Museum.” It was difficult to see much of the latter, though, since there were probably 100 tourists in the water at the one time all bumping into each other – it was like human soup.

One of the highlights of my trip was during our window of “free time” on Isla Mujeres, sitting at a little bar on the main drag, sharing a bucket of beers, tequila shots and an order of guacamole with Deanna, the tab coming to around $20. While it was clear that every business as far as the eye could see was catering to the tourist crowd, it wasn’t just us gringos running around. There were plenty of locals (or, at least, domestic tourists) enjoying the beautiful Sunday as well.

That, and our many interactions with the resort staff, left me wishing that I’d done more to learn some basic Spanish. Back in 2012 and 2013, I’d taken a few lessons back home, but that fell off long before I became even close to conversational. Once we got to Mexico my memory was jogged a little, and I could remember some small phrases like “please” and “thank you,” greetings and “where is the bathroom,” all of which came in relatively handy. Next time I’ll endeavor to practice a little more, because I’ve found in Indonesia that being able to communicate with locals in their own language – regardless of how rudimentary it is – sets you apart that little bit more.

The Summary

We had a great time – as expected. Basically everything about the trip was a new experience – a new country (with its associated customs, language, currency and more), the all-inclusive resort, the people I was traveling with – and on the whole it was all excellent. I’m not sure whether I’d book an all-inclusive resort again, at least not for the full length of a vacation, because it was really easy to be content with never leaving the accommodation to get more of a taste of where we were staying. Talk about a first-world problem though.

Of course, the toughest part of any vacation is coming home and back to reality. And in my case, with a ridiculously uneven sunburn. And just like I would do immediately after my many trips to the U.S. over the past few years, we’re already dreaming about where the next trip is going to take us.

 

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