Welcome to Mexico, where time is merely a suggestion; the weather is hot, hot, hot; the flat landscape is dotted with mangled, hurricane-swept trees; and margaritas are poured faster than you can drink them. A few weeks ago, I took a trip to the country's Riviera Maya with some other journalists on a press outing to Viva Wyndham Maya, located in Playacar, just one town south of Playa del Carmen. We spent a quick three nights and four days exploring beach and water activities, visiting Mayan ruins, and relishing the opportunity to eat Mexican food.
Spanish Lessons: First, the Heat and Then, the Language
It seemed like every pore on my body opened up the minute I stepped foot off the plane. Nothing can prepare you for a scorching, humid May morning in the Cancun airport, which was easily 30 degrees hotter than middle-of-the-night Newark airport.
I found my transportation to the hotel and spent the 50-minute ride brushing up on my rusty Spanish with my driver, Luis, who spoke very little English. He offered some basic questions -- am I married, do I have children -- but also some rather provocative ones, too: What do I think of the pending immigration law and what (not if) religion I practice. For the most part, I answered in complete albeit simple sentences. I often found myself able to formulate three quarters of my responses in Spanish, stumbling to remember the final and most important word. Frustrating! (This was the first of several translation struggles. Later, in the hotel, puzzled by the in-room safe, I wanted to call the front desk and say "Necesito ayuda con el safe." But is el safe the word for safe in Spanish? How about caja fuerte?)
I don't want to impart the impression that one needs to speak Spanish to get by in Mexico, but any attempt to use the language, even just a simple "Hola," prompted a warm smile and "habla espanol?" Making an attempt seemed to go a long way. And the less I thought about it, the more easily words came back to me.
And so did the heat, but thankfully, it took less than a day for my body to adjust. All that sweating taught me something: when you go somewhere hot on vacation, the heat that greets you at 8am forces you to slow down. When you slow down, you relax and focus only on the most immediate needs. Usually, these involve questions of satiation: When can I have something cold to drink? Why should I eat something hot for breakfast (even though I did -- the omelet station was fantastic) when watermelon, oranges and mangoes are so much more appropriate? When can we stop walking around so I can jump into the pool or the Caribbean? When can I take a cold shower? And the intuitive intelligence of spending half your day in the water, wearing very little clothing, and consuming cooling beverages and foods quickly becomes apparent in hot climes. Don't fight it: you'll be much happier.
The Hotel: On the Waterfront and Swimming with Activity
We stayed at the Viva Wyndham Maya (tel. 800/996-3426; www.vivawyndhamresorts.com), which is a sister hotel to the Viva Wyndham Azteca, also located in Playacar. After suffering damage from Hurricanes Emily and Wilma last year, Maya went through $10 million in renovations, including the remodeling of the main lobby, restaurant and bar, the addition of an Italian restaurant (more on the preponderance of those later), and new equipment at the gym. The exterior of the hotel was sandblasted and repainted, and there's a new buffet at the snack bar by the large pool, which also has a lively, crowded swim-up bar. The activities schedule is chockablock, from poolside yoga to water aerobics to Spanish language lessons and Spanish bingo. (The latter two take place over the PA system, so you learn even if you're not paying much attention.) During evenings at the resort, entertainers perform Mexican folk dances or musical revues. (One evening we caught the tail end of Grease; a curious thing, indeed.) For those whom all this noise is far too much, Maya has a "relax pool," located behind the spa area, where no phones or music is tolerated, and no children are permitted. (Azteca was quieter and more couples-friendly: there is no swim-up bar at the pool and the guests seemed to tote fewer children.)
The lobby is an open area that spills out onto a large, patio-like lounge. The walk to my room was partially covered, and the surrounding pathway lush with vegetation, flowers, and indigenous creatures -- watch out for iguanas and agoutis. (I kept calling agoutis Mexican squirrels; they are both of the rodent family.) The rooms have either two queens or one king bed, satellite television (close-captioned versions of the WB and E! were available, along with CBS, Fox, CNN, and others), a bathroom and in-room coffeemaker. The room's mini-fridge is stocked with cold drinks and coolers with purified water are scattered in the hallways by the rooms. (Nothing better than free water in a hot climate!) The dÂ¿cor is requisite Caribbean: bright colors on the stucco walls and bedspread, and terra cotta tile floors. The hotel's 480 rooms are situated in a V-shape, cradling the pool and garden; the outermost rooms face the sea.
During our time in Mexico through June 29, rates start from $116 per person and $133 per person June 30 through September 3. They're currently offering a special June 1-July 31 where kids 17 and under can stay free while accompanied by a paying adult at any of Viva Wyndham's eight all-inclusive resorts in the Bahamas, Dominican Republic and Mexico. The offer can be booked through their toll-free number or the website.
The rates are based on double occupancy and include all meals, snacks and unlimited drinks, cocktails and wine, a welcome cocktail, taxes and gratuities, daily activities, entertainment, water polo, table tennis, volleyball, and more. If you want to wander off the premises, you can do so easily; the resort offers bikes and you can cheaply take a taxi into downtown Playa del Carmen, with great shopping, bars and restaurants. You can also sign up for a diving excursion off the coast of the island of Cozumel, a short jaunt across the Caribbean.
Locks, Ants and Safes: Troubleshooting my Room
The best test of a hotel comes when you have a problem. After I checked into my room -- within paces of the beach -- I couldn't figure out how to open the terrace door. I unlocked it but it wouldn't budge. I am admittedly not the most mechanically inclined person you'll meet, so I asked at the front desk, and someone was dispatched to happily show me how to work a "Mexican" lock: it's a skinny pin in the door that you need to release. I changed my clothes and went to the beach, which seemed shallow even by the standards of someone who grew up summering at the constantly eroding Jersey shore, but way more beautiful. The beach did suffer some erosion after the hurricanes, but the resorts have engaged in a recuperation program to replenish the shoreline. Regardless, what startles the most is the color of the Caribbean Sea, a blue so Technicolor you'd swear the resorts conspiratorially pooled their resources to maintain that unreal, beautiful color. Eager to cool off, I spent some time on the beach; the water was warm and clear, and then headed to the pool. Nearly all the shady spots were taken by the time I got over there, around 3pm. I baked for a half an hour or so, cooled off in the pool's quieter end, and got back out for some people watching.
When I returned to my room, I noticed a significant problem in the bathroom: small ants crawling on the countertop and all over the sink. I thought for a minute that it might be within the realm of normal to have ants in your bathroom in Mexico, but they were crawling into my toiletry case. So I called, and guest services promised that the bathroom would be sprayed during our dinner outing, as they couldn't move me to another room because the hotel was nearly full. Later that night, after a fine, al fresco dinner at La Scala, the Mediterranean restaurant at Viva Azteca, I came back to a pile of ants in the sink, some of which were walking wounded around the countertop. I called again, and was told that the bathroom was safe to use, but because I don't travel with rubber gloves, it took a bit more careful wording in English to express my wish to have the ants removed. And that was the end of that.
My ant story prompted an honest discussion about the rooms one morning over breakfast. We were told that all of the rooms were the same, but one person didn't unpack because there was no armoire, which the rest of us had. Another described the in-room safe as "hanging off the wall" but mine was tucked away discreetly in the armoire. Most agreed the air conditioner was loud (but effective!). It didn't bother me -- because I am a light sleeper, I travel with earplugs.
Thus, despite the fact that most of the hotel received a facelift, the rooms here could use a little love, beyond aesthetic improvements such as painting. For example, why do so many hotel owners insist on hard mattresses and marshmallowy pillows? Resort owners probably don't anticipate guests will spend a whole lot of time in the room, because there's a lot to explore on and off the premises: the second-largest coral reef in the world is just off the coast and the Mayan ruins at Tulum a recreational eco-park called Xel-Ha are about an hour away. But we all need a good night's sleep, right?
Stay tuned: In next week's installment, we'll talk about our prolonged yearning for Mexican food, my trip to the spa and my cooking lesson, how Spanish saved me from becoming perdido (lost) in Playa del Carmen, and our excursion to Tulum and Xel-Ha, where I lost my hat but gained an even deeper appreciation for the intelligence of ancient civilizations.
Readers can get additional officially sanctioned information on traveling to Mexico by contacting tel. 800/446-3942 or www.visitmexico.com.
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