Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Mexico, Part 3: Our Tropical Honeymoon in Riviera Maya

Our tropical honeymoon began at the conclusion of our beachfront destination wedding. The newly minted Mrs. Tires and I intended to fill our remaining six days in Riviera Maya, Mexico with a tour of ancient ruins, some spelunking, a dip with dolphins, and plenty of tropical beverages by the pool. For the first two days, we'd stay at Dreams Riviera Cancun, the resort where we had just said I do. We'd end our trip at a resort in the southern portion of Riviera Maya. That was the plan, at least...

After an informal post-wedding breakfast with our guests, Mrs Tires and I kicked off our honeymoon with a trip to the on-site spa. Mrs. Tires used the spa gift certificate included in our wedding package for a full body massage, and my dogs were barking so loud after dancing all night at the wedding that I was actually about to pony up real cash for an hour-long foot massage for the first time in my life.

The entire experience at the spa was fantastic. While we were waiting for our massage therapists, we hung out on the comfy couches in the lounge, which was adorned with bamboo finishing. A couple of carafes doled out uniquely colored liquid concoctions, each with its own healing quality. We enjoyed a sampling of each drink while we watched a strange but soothing video of a woman swimming with manatees. From there we were lead to private huts, where we received our massages. Mrs. Tires is a massage therapist, and she said her massage met her high standards, and I was amazed that someone could work on a pair of feet for a full hour. 

As we exited the spa, we ran into a friend who was organizing a massive field trip into Puerto Morelos, and he invited us to join. On the hotel's recommendation, we took a sixteen passenger van to the waterfront portion of town, where a small but impressive series of restaurants sat ready to feed tourists and locals alike. We chose a spot called La Panza es Primero, which translates to The Belly Is First. In addition to the clever name, several other factors drew us there: their famous guacamole, their luchador theme, their balcony overlooking the ocean, and, most importantly, their world-renowned margaritas. 

None of these items disappointed. The guac and the 'ritas exceeded our high expectations, and the theme added a fun vibe. We soaked it in, even donning luchador masks at one point to get into the spirit. Not to be overlooked, the food was outstanding. 

The balcony was too small to fit our entire party, but we took a peek before we left. The view was fantastic, and was highlighted by beautiful blue and turquoise water.

That night was a mellow one by design. The previous few days had been a whirlwind, we had to be up early the next day for an excursion, and we also had to pack, as we'd be checking out later the next day. Sadness seeped into our suite as we packed up our wedding supplies and reminisced. Fortunately we were too tired for the post-wedding blues to last too long. 

Bleary-eyed and just a couple sips into our first cups of coffee, we met up with a few friends the next morning and boarded a van filled with several other hotel guests. We were off to Tulum so we could bare witness to the remains of an ancient Mayan city. 

Tulum was inhabited by the Mayans up until sometime in the 15th century, and many of the city's large stone buildings still stand. The ruins draw many a tourist, ourselves included. When we arrived, we took a long walk to the visitor center, where we were assigned to a tour group. Our appointed guide was knowledgable and engaging. He was of Mayan descent, and it was clear he was passionate about Tulum.

He led us from one ruin to the next, explaining the purpose of each building, and sprinkling in some history along the way. It was 2011, so murmurings of the December 2012 date that represented the end of the Mayan calendar (and therefore the end of the world) were already swirling. Our guide assured us the date didn't mean the end of the world, just the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next. 

He also informed us that the Mayans never actually used the name Tulum, they called the city Zama. When he explained this, he gave us some details on a movement he was involved in that argued that the name should be changed back to Zama. No luck so far. 

One more nugget that stuck with me from our tour was the existence of a liquor the Mayans used to make called xtabentun. It's still produced today, and he promised us it would take our margaritas to the next level. He was right. We sampled it in our 'ritas later on. It added a sweet taste that took a lot of the bite out of the margarita. 

A number of lizards freely roamed the grounds. This amused us to no end. They were everywhere, and some were quite large. Apparently they're common in that part of Mexico.

At the conclusion of the tour, we were set free to explore the ruins on our own, and the guide recommended we head down to the beach nearby when we were done. We wandered around a few ruins that caught our eye, but it didn't take long before the beach started calling our name. It was pushing 100 degrees that day, and we were anxious to cool off. 

The beach was absolutely stunning. The water looked like it was straight out of a postcard, and it was flanked by giant cliffs. Unfortunately we had no idea the beach would be part of the day's activities, so we didn't have our bathing suits. I don't have a lot of regrets in life, but not being prepared to swim in that water is one of them. If you go to Tulum, don't forget your trunks!

It was a long bus ride back to the resort. We were quite tired from the early wakeup and the blazing heat, and even worse, we knew that upon returning to Dreams Riviera Cancun, we'd be departing for good. Checkout didn't take long, and after a few more goodbyes, we got in a cab and took another long drive from DRC to the Iberostar Tucan, where we'd be staying for the remainder of our honeymoon. As far as all-inclusive resorts go, It was a step down from DRC and we knew that, but we had no way of knowing quite what we were getting into. 

The resort looked promising at first, with a stunning, vibrantly-colored lobby, kind greeters and huge, intriguing statues waiting for us when we stepped out of the cab. 

However, a warning sign popped up when they affixed wristbands around our wrists before giving us our keys. They informed us we’d need to wear the bands for the entirety of our stay. Wristbands are a pet peeve of mine, and I wasn’t looking forward to sporting one for the better part of a week.

With that, a hotel staff member took our bags and lead us on a tour of the resort. While the vibe of the resort was fun and playful, featuring thatched roofs and brightly-colored buildings, we could tell it was going to fall far short of our expectations, as dried grass, chipped paint and crowded common areas greeted us at every turn. Our guide took us by the beach, where it looked like every square inch of sand was taken up by a beach chair or towel. We also walked by the pool with the swim-up bar, which was tiny, sported murky water and looked long-since abandoned. 

Our suspicion was turning into apprehension. Despite this, we kept our spirits up, as we hoped our honeymoon suite would turn things around. Things seemed ok when we first entered our room. It was large, cheerful and featured a humorous, well-intended combination of stuffed swans and rose petals. 

Before bidding us adios, our guide pointed out the mini-fridge, which would be stocked every other day. We peeked inside and saw two Coronas and two bottles of water. Doing some quick math, we realized we were each rationed a half a beer and a half a bottle of water per day. Hardly the fully-stocked fridge at DRC, which was refilled several times a day.

We weren’t quite sure how to proceed from there, and we shared our concerns as we explored the room further. As we poked around, we discovered a laughably uncomfortable bed, grimy, stained bathrobes, and, worst of all, an infestation of bugs. Tiny but plentiful winged creatures seemed to be crawling and flying all over the place, a pet peeve of Mrs. Tires’ that far exceeds my irritation over wristbands. We called the front desk about the bug infestation, and an hour later, a housekeeper showed up with a giant can of Raid, which she immediately started spraying all over the place without saying a word. As the fumes filled the room, we too were fuming.

We decided to take a walk around the resort to search for redeeming qualities while we let the chemicals in our room do their job. The main feature that drew us to the hotel was the on-site jungle, which promised exotic wildlife, just a stroll away. We were initially impressed with the plant life assembled to create the illusion of walking through a jungle while cruising through a luxury resort, but that was outweighed by the serious lack of wildlife. The animals we witnessed included a rooster in a tree, a caged parrot, and tiny rodents vaguely resembling rats that weren’t part of the jungle specifically and were actually found throughout the resort. We later learned from the hotel staff that they were called sereque, and they were more closely related to rabbits than rats, but by then it was too late. The phony jungle was the last in a series of disappointments that lead us to an inevitable conclusion: this resort just wasn't good enough for our honeymoon. 

We got on the phone and made an international call to Sally, our travel agent at SAL Travel, who advised us to seek out the Apple Vacations desk in the lobby and see what arrangements could be made. We did so and talked to a very understanding and accommodating gentleman who started working the phones to see what we'd have to do to stay at our wedding hotel. It took almost an hour, and when he finally got things figured out, he beckoned us with a concerned look on his face. He told us he could book us a room at DRC, but the downside was we'd have to pay an extra $80. I asked him if he meant $80 per night. Nope. $80 total. What he thought was bad news was a delightful surprise to us. We'd gladly pay a one-time $80 fee to leave the skuzziness of the Iberostar for the luxury of DRC. A credit card swipe, some suitcase lugging and a cab ride later, we returned to Dreams Riviera Cancun as happy as could be.

After checking in and unpacking, we got back into our bathing suits and headed out to the swim-up bar. Some familiar yet surprised faces greeted us at the pool, as some of our friends were still staying at DRC and were enjoying cocktails as we waded into the water. After a joyous reunion, we realized we had enough people to make a reservation at one of the open chefs tables at Hamatsu, the Japanese restaurant at the resort. This restaurant offered open tables for large parties which included a coordinated cooking show. If you've been to Benihana, you've seen this show, but who ever gets tired of knife tricks, onion volcanoes and flaming food? The show was delightfully amusing, and a bit more daring than the US version. We thoroughly enjoyed it, and the food was great too.

The next day we mostly stayed at the resort, where we made a point to check out places we hadn't made it to during the days leading up to our wedding. We started by ordering room service (included under the all-inclusive arrangement) and enjoying some breakfast in bed.

After washing breakfast down with bloody marys at the swing bar (pictured at the top of this post), we snagged some paddles and headed to the wading pool, where Mrs. Tires beat me mercilessly in a game of in-pool ping pong. 

Later in the day, we went on a snorkeling trip which was hosted by a third party vendor set up just down the beach from the resort. Some of my family members from Boston had gone during their stay, and they encouraged us to go for it so we could "see some shaaaks." We showed up at our appointed time, boarded a boat, and met our snorkeling guide, a large Mexican named Bacon.

After a brief and enjoyable boat ride out to the snorkeling site, we were handed face masks, snorkels, life jackets and flippers, and were told to gear up and dive in. I had never been snorkeling before, and I was surprised there was no orientation before we hopped in the water. I was expecting at least a few tips before jumping in. As it was, we put on our gear and hoisted ourselves off the side of the ship, landing in water that was pleasant and clear.

Snorkeling was actually pretty straightforward, and I really didn't need the orientation I was expecting. Bacon guided us in general directions, but we were free to swim off wherever we wanted. Bacon also pointed out a few cool things he saw that many people (and predators) overlook, such as crabs hanging out of their tiny caves, stingrays swimming at the bottom of the ocean, and lived-in conch shells. Apparently it was a bad year for snorkeling, and the captain told us the the number of sea creatures out in recent months had been lower than usual. Regardless, we had a great time seeing the vibrantly-colored fish and craggy formations that sat on the bottom of the ocean, and we loved being part of the underwater world for a while.

While we were glad to have some extra time to check out the resort, we certainly didn't plan on spending our entire time there. We had a couple of excursions planned, one of which was a trip to Xcaret the next day. This half zoo, half water park sounded right up our alley. If only it had lived up to its promise. Sigh. 

A greyhound-style bus filled with vacation revelers picked us up early the next morning, and we took an hour plus drive to the park. When we approached, the first stop was to drop off people at the zip lining adventure that was adjacent to the park. We felt a twinge of jealousy as they disembarked. Mrs. Tires had always wanted to zip line, and part of us wished we were joining them. Our lackluster experience at Xcaret justified our jealousy. 

When we finally arrived at Xcaret, we found a landscape that seemed like a combination of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and a Rainforest Cafe. Animals and attractions were accessible just by wandering the paths that wound around the park, but there were a ton of gift shops and cheesy details that made it feel very commercial and watered down. 

The top draw for us at Xcaret was the opportunity to swim through an underground river that went through caves. I was sure that alone would be worth the price of admission. Boy was I wrong. Before entering the water, we were handed the same gear we were given during our snorkeling adventure the day before. Once we geared up, we got into the river and noticed the river floor was made out of cement. We figured this was just for the area where visitors entered the water, but as we got in and swam, we quickly realized the whole riverbed was paved. In addition, there were a ton of us swimming down the river. Each of us had flippers on (even though we easily could have navigated the river without them) so there was a lot of faces being accidentally kicked with flippers while we swam. The whole thing was too man-made, cheesy and crowded - a rather miserable experience that seriously underwhelmed. We were off to a disappointing start to the day. 

From there, we wandered over to the butterfly haven. This disappointed as well. The number of butterflies paled in comparison to the butterfly haven we were used to in Chicago.  The waterfall in the center of the haven was gorgeous, but of course Xcaret couldn't resist ruining the view with some carefully placed branding. 

By now we were pretty disappointed with our experience. We were also roasting in the heat. And tired. And maybe a little hung over. We needed some shelter and some fuel, so we wandered over to one of the eateries. To the surprise of no one, the food was overpriced and terrible. At that point, we were about ready to give up on Xcaret. 

However, as we left, we encountered a few key attractions that started to turn things around. They had some really cool animals typically not found in American zoos, and their enclosures were established via deep moats instead of cages, which made the animals feel more accessible. 

While the animals on the other side of the moats were gaining our affection, the wild lizards we saw as we wandered from one attraction to the next amused us as well. 

As we walked further, we passed some relatively scenic pools that were designed for snorkeling, and then found ourselves on a beach with hammocks. We claimed a couple of open hammocks and got comfy, and things started looking up. 

From there, we decided to take a riverboat tour. While I believe any time spent on a boat is a good time, this one ended up a disappointment thanks to its over-Disneyification. 

We had one more attraction in us after the riverboat, and that's when we wandered around to the beach that was roped off and filled with inner tubes. It didn't take us long to swim up to a couple of tubes and have a good float, a great cap to an up and down day. 

Overall I was not to thrilled with our Xcaret experience. The cool animals, the hammocks and the inner tubes were a lot of fun, but I don't think Xcaret really knew what it wanted to be, and the lousy cave swimming, the commercialization of the park and the overall murkiness evident throughout the place made for a rather lackluster destination that I can't recommend. 

We had one more excursion planned, a trip that would allow me to pull out a life-sized sharpie and cross an item off of my lifetime bucket list. We were going for another swim, but this time we would be joined by a few friendly dolphins. Dreams Sands Cancun (the other Dreams property in the Cancun area) offered the chance to swim with dolphins, and we dove in at the chance. 

A van took us from one Dreams property to the other, and on the way, we struck up a conversation with the couple sitting in front of us. They got married on the same day we did, only they were married in their home country of Ireland and then they traveled to Mexico for their honeymoon. She had a beautiful Irish name (which I can no longer recall) and he was a fan of the soccer team that had recently been purchased by the same guy who owned my favorite baseball team. We became fast friends, and we chatted the entire way. I wish I could remember their names. To our Irish friends, if you read this, please reach out! 

The ride up brought us through the main drag of Cancun. I had never been to Cancun proper, and it provided an interesting glimpse into life up there. There were a ton of clubs and bars, as well as every chain novelty restaurant ever created. It seemed quite crowded and chaotic, and I was glad we stayed further down the shoreline instead of in the heart of Cancun. However, in a different life, that whole area would've been a ton of fun. 

When we arrived at Dreams Sands Cancun, we were lead to lockers where we could change into our bathings suits, and then we walked out to the pool area. Dreams sported several large parallel pools, most of which were populated by happy tourists splashing around with dolphins. We were admitted into our designated pool as a couple, where we met two trainers who then introduced us to our designated dolphins. Two dolphins swam our way, did a couple laps around us and then came right up to our sides. We were encouraged to reach out and touch them, and they clicked and quacked as we petted them and tripped out over their rubbery skin. 

From there, we were instructed on how to hold our bodies so the dolphins could do their first trick. The trick involved swimming up behind us, pushing on our feet with their snouts, and pushing us up so we skimmed across the water. It was a tough trick for both the humans and the dolphins, but we both got pretty good rides. 

After that, the trainers walked the dolphins through a series of other tricks, including shaking our hands with their fins, swimming on their backs so we could cradle them, and even giving away some smooches. 

The whole experience was a blast and a half. The dolphins were wonderful creatures, and our interactions with them were effortless. It was amazing to play with a large swimming rubber mammal as if it was a pet. I highly recommend it to everyone. 

Our swim was photographed, and we were offered all of the pictures on a disk for the absurd price of $110. However, we were so taken by the experience, we couldn't resist. 

We chatted with our Irish friends for most of the ride home and then grabbed a drink with them at the swim-up bar when we returned to DRC. After saying farewell to our new friends, we cleaned ourselves up for one more dinner at the resort. That night we ate at El Patio, the restaurant that hosted our rehearsal dinner. It was a wonderful meal, and a great way to wrap up our time at Dreams Riviera Cancun. 

Our flight back to Chicago the next day marked the formal end to our time in Riviera Maya. It was hard to say goodbye. Riviera Maya will always be a special place for us and an important part of our story. Part of us will always be back there, lounging in the sun and having drinks at the swim-up bar. 

More Mexico: 


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