Vacation Diaries: Riviera Maya Mexico

The last time we were in Mexico was 7 years ago.  We took our girls down there for a family Christmas on the beach.  We had a lovely time, however I have to admit Christmas at the beach in a foreign country was strange – it didn’t feel like Christmas.  There were beautifully decorated trees, nativity scenes, and drunk guys at the pool wearing Santa hats, but it still didn’t have the same feeling you get when you spend Christmas at home.  That said, we did enjoy ourselves, spending some of our time at the all-inclusive resort Gran Meliá in Cancun (which is now the Paradisus Cancun).  We also ventured out to La Isla shopping center one evening, took a bus to Mercado 28 where we bought some trinkets and ate authentic tacos, took a jungle boat tour and snorkel trip, hopped on a ferry to Isla Mujeres where we rented a golf cart and cruised around the island, and soaked up the sun.

This year’s trip was a bit different.  It was just Chip and me with no children, and we went down for a 3 night Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds concert on the beach in Riviera Maya, about an hour drive from the Cancun airport.  While the bus ride to the resort was a bit long, I have to admit it was nice to be outside of the hustle and bustle of Cancun and its “hotel row.”  The down side is there really isn’t anything to do without a decent drive once you get down to the Riviera Maya area, meaning you spend your time at the resort, or rent a car to go somewhere. We stayed at the Barceló Maya Resort, which is composed of 5 separate “hotels” on the property:  Beach, Tropical, Caribe, Colonial, and Palace.  Our package allowed us access to everything except for the Palace, which is slightly higher end than the others, and adult-only. And the best part was that the concert venue was on site, meaning we didn’t have to take a shuttle to the concerts each nice; it was a nice 5 minute stroll from our room.

The resort is a HUGE compound and it took us a few days to find our way around.  There are multiple buildings with accommodations, multiple pools, several buffets, bars, and full service restaurants, a mall with a casino, shops, a disco, and more bars, and lots of activities along the extensive beach-front property.  Everything you could possibly need in one place.  But we still left the property a couple times to explore other sights and sounds and tastes of the area.

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The pool at Caribe, Barcelo Resort

Our room was nice, but not high-end or luxurious.  It was clean, the bed was comfortable, the view was nice, the refreshments were stocked daily, and the maid service was terrific.  It did have a weird, musty smell to it, but we attributed that to the constant humidity and overall dampness of the area and proximity to the beach.  I was pleasantly surprised by how well I slept each night – there were no slamming doors!  And, the pillows were nice, though the sheets were a little weird – clean, but a weird texture (not cotton).  There were slippers and bathrobes and decent toiletries, a safe, and a mini fridge that was stocked with sodas, juices, and beers.  The snacks were minimal (potato chips and peanuts).  Since it was all-inclusive, they stopped by daily to top off the mini-fridge.  Our package included room service for no additional charge, however some packages have a charge of $154 pesos per entrée (which is approximately $8 USD – cheap!).

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Which brings me to the topic of food.  It was meh.  Good tasting, nicely presented, generous and abundant, but with the feeling of mass production and lack of imagination or attention to detail.  OK, I admit I’m a bit snobby when it comes to food, so I’m betting for the masses, the food is great.  I found it only OK.  But, there sure is lots of it – you will not go hungry while there!  There are several buffets – I think one in each area.  We visited the buffet closest to our room each morning for breakfast.  There is a crazy amount to choose from:  sweet breads, pastries, donuts, waffles, pancakes, fruits, yogurt, cheeses and cold cuts, breads, bagels, croissants, cereals, an omelet station, a grill that made eggs to order, and many items on the hot buffet that catered to the Americans (bacon, hash browns, sausage, scrambled eggs), and traditional Mexican dishes like chilaquiles, heuvos rancheros, cactus, beans, zucchini, and more.  The wait staff is attentive and will bring you anything from mimosas and bloody Mary’s to coffee and juice.  *Remember to bring along a couple dollars or pesos for tipping.

For lunch, we would usually hit up the buffet on the beach in the pool area.  There was always a good selection including hamburgers, chicken nuggets, soup, salad bar, taco bar, pizza (NOT good), vegetables, rice, and fruit however none of it was spectacular – it was just average food.  We honestly didn’t eat much lunch because we ate such a large breakfast late in the morning each day.  My complaint about the pool/beach food is that you cannot take it to go, and there is no food service at the pool or beach.  They’ll bring you drinks all day long, but no food.  And since there are no to-go containers, you have to eat in the actual buffet area, or wrap a hamburger in a napkin or spoon some rice into a coffee cup to take it with you.

We only had dinner at a buffet once, the night we checked in.  Again, all the stuff you would expect (pasta, pizza, fish, meat, salads, veggies, desserts and more) but mediocre.  The other nights we dined at the on-site restaurants, which require a reservation and are better than the buffets.  We ended up with reservations at Capri (Italian), Mexico Lido (Mexican), and Kyoto (Japanese Hibachi).  Capri was by far the best in terms of quality and service.  The hibachi place was typical, and frankly kind of annoying with bright lights and the smoke and smells from the flattops kind of unpleasant.  I also was not a fan of the fact that the only wine by the glass was one white and one red house wine.  All others have to be purchased by the bottle.  We skipped dinner one night because I had a very important Vikings football game to watch at the sports bar, so we ate at the concert venue, which actually had better food including varieties of tacos with fresh meats and every topping you could imagine, street corn, nachos, rice, and churros.  The sports bar served hamburgers, wings, fried cheese sticks, popcorn, nachos, cold cuts, and ice cream – 24 hours a day.  So if you needed some late night junk food to soak up some alcohol (or snacks for a playoff game), they had it for you (as well as lots of TVs and bowling lanes).

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Osso Buco at restaurant Capri at the Barcelo Resort

The best meals we had while there were off-site.

First was in Tulum:  We rented a car for the day and drove a few minutes down the road to Tulum.  We first stopped at the park where you can walk to some Mayan ruins.  There is a small charge to park, then once in the park area several bars, restaurants, and trinket shops.  The public bathroom situation isn’t the best.  There are free restrooms inside one of the “malls” and pay restrooms (5 pesos, which is nothing) within a maze of shops.  There is a bathroom at the entrance to the ruins, but it is awful and I only recommend it as last resort.  Once you are inside the ruins, there are no bathrooms, and no alcohol allowed.  It’s very inexpensive to get inside the ruins – I think it was around $70 pesos each which came to $11 USD total (around $3.50/person).  Anyway, we enjoyed some fabulous cocktails prior to walking around the ruins – which by the way are very cool and the views of the ocean from the top of the cliff are absolutely amazing.  Before heading up there, we stopped at a hut where two guys were making cocktails with real, fresh fruit and juices.  Two of the guys I was with had a Coco Loco that was served in a fresh coconut.  After finishing, my husband asked the guy behind the bar if he’d cut up the coconut so he could eat some of it.  He not only cut it up, but served it to us with toothpicks, lime wedges, and seasoned salt!

Once we left the park, we drove into the town of Tulum, parked on a side street and walked around.  It was not at all what I expected – it’s very much a hippy place with lots of hipsters walking  and biking, and a few hostels.  What I found most interesting was the plethora of Italian restaurants.  It seemed like every other restaurant served pizza and pasta – and many of them had real pizza ovens!  We ended up stopping at a place that served both pizza and tacos.  One of the guys and I had the best chicken tacos:  they came with peppers and pineapple and just a little bit of cheese, and two different sauces on the side.  My husband had a pizza that was done perfectly – not something we thought we’d have in Mexico!

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Pollo Loco Tacos

The second off-site trip was to Puerto Aventuras.  We took a cab – it was about $12 and about 2 miles up from our resort.  This place had a completely different vibe from our resort and totally different from Tulum.  It sort of reminded us of places in Florida – there were lots of what appeared to be timeshares and condos along a marina area with several fishing boats – many of them were very nice charter boats.  There were some shops, restaurants, and bars along the dock area.  Most of the tourists in this area were Canadians, and for the most part in the 60’s age range.  We ate at a very nice place called Pelican Point.  High end, quality food and attentive service.  They start with hot towels for your hands, then bring a basket with a variety of breads.  The menu is extensive, with appetizers, salads, soups, fish and seafood, meat and poultry, and pasta dishes.  They also had separate Mexican and “Oriental” menus (the menu actually said Oriental!).  They do a tableside Caesar salad – we didn’t have this but the couple near us did and it looked fantastic.  We had the tuna tartar appetizer which was fabulous.  The portion was HUGE and honestly, I would have been satisfied with just that for dinner.  I had the catch of the day which was wahoo.  Unfortunately, it was prepared with a ton of cheese and spinach; it would have been so much better just grilled because the fish had a terrific flavor.  My husband had the lobster and he said it was very good.  Unfortunately we did not leave room for dessert.  Getting a cab back to our resort meant walking back to the main entrance for the area (which is entry controlled with security) but the walk was enjoyable.

Now what about the main reason we were there?  The concerts were fantastic, and the crowd super cool.  If you’re a big Dave Matthews fan (which my husband and his friends all are), this is a “must go” event, like The Gorge shows in September.  When you walk into the venue, there is the typical outdoor concert/festival security checkpoint, then a long line of servers with trays of beer, margaritas, and tequila shots welcoming you.  These servers walked through the crowd all night long, each of the three nights of concerts serving drinks so you didn’t even have to walk over to the beer tent!  I have never been to a concert with drink service like this – it was awesome.  The food was amazing, and really the lines were not bad at all (except for churros – that line was crazy long).  I was able to walk right up, get some food, and move along without any wait.  There were plenty of photo op areas, including a super cool sand sculpture.  Because there are only around 4,000 people, no matter where you stood on the beach, you had a good view of the stage.  I’m only five feet tall, so being able to see at concerts is usually an issue for me, but not here!  The crowd for the Dave show was cool, and I didn’t once witness anyone being an asshole.

There was music for entertainment at the pools during the lunch hour each day, featuring the opening act from the previous night.  The only problem with that was there simply weren’t enough pool chairs for everyone to enjoy.  We ended up just taking chairs on the beach, which is more enjoyable in my book.  As I mentioned previously, you can still get drink service on the beach, but because the beach is open and not privately owned, that means there are random vendors trying to sell cigars, sunglasses, jewelry, pot, whatever.  For the most part, they aren’t obtrusive and a simple “No” sends them on their way.

All in all, it was a nice vacation.  Here are some tips if you happen to head down to this area:

  • Bring small bills (ones and fives) for tipping; Pesos aren’t necessary if you stay on the resort, but you can get them if you wish
  • Have a currency converter app handy to make sure you know how much you’re spending
  • The check-in process can take a while, especially if you are there for an event like we were; plan on extra patience during this
  • If you are at an all-inclusive resort, make plans to leave and do other things. Excursions will require a little advance planning as most buses leave around 8:00 a.m., however if you rent a car and drive yourself you can check out all that stuff on your own and at your leisure
  • You’ll need a light sweater or sweatshirt for evenings; it gets a little breezy and cool at night
  • Pack sunscreen, because the stores charge quite a bit for it.
  • A bag or tote is also good for taking your things to and from the beach or pool
  • Confirm your airport ground transportation in advance, and when you arrive, just keep walking until you see your designated pick up.  There are lots of people trying to get your business for rides to the resorts and hotels; it’s best to ignore them.
  • The same souvenirs and trinkets (and cheap tequila) are at every store, everywhere. You’ll have to really look to find something unique and worth taking home

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