Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2019, including this trip to Mexico in April.
Hands up if you’ve ever really deeply needed not a life-changing, soul-shaking journey, but an all-out, true vacation.
When I visited Mexico for the first time, kicking off the New Year in 2019, I left with a staggering sense that my normal travel style had left me, in my exhausted state, well, a bit frazzled. And so when Ian was called up for groomsman duty at an all-inclusive resort in the Riviera Maya, well, that sounded like just what we were craving. Pool hopping, free flow piña coladas, and copious naps? Yes please.
We hadn’t spent a week together in nine months, and so we pushed it to the limit of each of our abilities to escape — three nights at the wedding resort just south of Playa del Carmen, and four nights in our dream destination of Tulum.
We timed our flights to arrive together and after much debate, we’d splurged on private transfers to and from all our destinations, which Ian arranged. I got a frozen drink half the size of me the moment we walked out of baggage claim, feeling lighter than I had in ages.
We were staying at the Barcelo Maya Caribe, one of half a dozen mega resorts connected by efficient shuttles and endless beachfront making up the Barceló Maya Grand Resort. While there were very reasonably priced rooms available via a group rate for the wedding we were attending, we splashed out massively on a junior suite swim up room. With a small media discount, we paid $207 per person per night. The upgrade was hard to justify considering what we were paying for a room in a stunning boutique hotel in Tulum, but… I guess if you’re going to do it, do it big?
For us, the room was all about the balcony. The swim up pool we dozen in while the sun was shining, the massive jacuzzi that we filled up while the rain was falling — this made it feel like vacation. As did the bottle of tequila in the room upon arrival.
The little slice of paradise outside our sliding door was without question one of our favorite places at the resort. But after a few days meandering the sprawling properties, we found more — the tranquil adults-only pool in the chaos of mid-day, the manicured beaches at sunrise, the modern spa where we indulged in a late afternoon treatment.
We were majorly impressed by the size and variety of the gym, which I have to confess we never used. What can I say? We had a busy schedule to keep.
All the things that I feel would have once made me roll my eyes about staying at an all-inclusive — a bowling alley, a mini-golf course — were, in fact, a blast, and I loved getting to know Ian’s friends over competitive rounds of each.
There were all kinds of things on our to-do list that we didn’t get to, in addition to the gym — stand up paddle boarding, beach-bumming (we spent most of our time at the pools), and beyond. Relaxing, it turns out, can be quite a lot of work.
As relative newcomers to the all inclusive world — I’ve been to just a few before, two in Bali, and one in Aruba — we didn’t really understand the dinner reservation system very well. Yes, you have 24/7 access to food at buffets, no matter what. But you also can hit up some of the a la carte restaurants, to which you have a certain allotment of reservation requests based on your length and status of stay.
The process of actually making those reservations wasn’t the simplest — you could only do it upon check-in to the hotel, within certain hours of the day, at certain places that were always miles away from where you were during said window. Lucky for us, as we were attending the wedding one night and the rehearsal another, we really only needed to worry about one night.
Craving a taste of our destination, we headed to Mexico Lindo. I’m not going to lie — I think one of my favorite parts of this whole trip was breaking out my beachwear again and having somewhere to get gussied up for every night.
So, can you eat healthy at an all-inclusive? It’s not always easy and we gave ourselves plenty of leeway to indulge. But considering the amount of sugary drinks we were hitting the swim up bar for each day, we were pretty eager to balance things out with at least one nutritious meal a day.
And you know what? We really could!
I also have to give some unexpected props to our hotel — it was way more eco conscious than I expected. All drinks were served in reusable glasses, there were no straws at any of the bars or disposable anything at the buffets. We were able to forgo sheet and towel changes for our short three night stay, and toiletries were in refillable pumps rather than tiny single use bottles. We brought our own water bottles and filled them at the buffets from the fountain machine, so we used no disposable plastic our entire stay.
Next I’d say the thing to work on is replacing those plastic bracelets (though they did provide us with endless opportunities for jokes about them clashing with our outfits). Wouldn’t it be cool to hire a local cooperative to make little woven ones guests could wear instead?
I kind of get how all-inclusive suck you in — when you’re already splashing out and it would only cost you extra to leave the resort, you kind of just want to kick back and enjoy the amenities you’ve already paid for. After all, it was just three days and how often do we stay somewhere with an open bar and like a zillion pools?
And so for the most part, that’s exactly what we did.
But you know me — I can’t really fully sit still! And so when my research revealed there was a trio of cenotes across the road from our resort, I knew we’d have to hit at least one. Joined by one of Ian’s best friends and his girlfriend, we woke up at dawn the morning of the wedding in order to get Ian back in time for wedding party activity kickoff and with hopes of being the first at the cenote when the gates opened.
While I’d originally very ambitiously hoped to visit all three cenotes, when reality took hold I prioritized Cenote Cristalino. We got there right as they opened at 8am and had the place entirely to ourselves for an hour before the crowds arrived.
The price was a reasonable 150 Mexican pesos, or about $8USD. I did have an enormous laugh at the ticket book price list, which included a special rate of 200 pesos for “photographers and models,” which led me to cringe at the kind of Instagram-induced behavior this particular cenote must be overrun with.
The water of the cenote is very cold, which definitely makes it hard to jump in first thing in the morning rather than in the heat of day — but you make a trade-off to beat the crowds! I’m glad I brought my mask to snorkel a bit, though my underwater camera battery died quickly, forcing me to simply enjoy the moment rather than try to capture it.
Had we had another full day, I definitely would have loved to have spent it hopping around the beautiful cenotes right within walking distance of our hotel!
Back at the resort, it was time for the wedding! I’d only known the bride and groom a few days but they’d welcomed me so warmly I was already thrilled to watch them walk down the aisle.
Ian had been with the groomsmen all day and so we saw each other for the first time in hours all dressed up on the beach — and I had to admit that dang, we cleaned up pretty nice. I was in love with this dress I got from Lulu’s — and I wore the top backwards for a completely different look to another wedding I attended later in the summer!
The couple had brought all kinds of cute personal touches to make the wedding their own. It was a beautiful, touching ceremony (I cried during the vows, which is always my favorite part of a wedding), raved my way through dinner (tacos on the beach in Mexico? Yes please!) and dancing the night away on the dance floor under the palm trees.
And the next day, after recovering and reminiscing over breakfast with the crew, we were off to Tulum.
While all-inclusives aren’t our typical travel style, after this past year I think I really understand on a primal level now how all inclusives can be a welcome relief for those looking for a true vacation. I and I also discussed how they would be awesome especially for family with kids who can be dropped at a kids club and the parents can actually kick back.
However, I think I’m more of an adults-only all inclusive kind of gal — I loved the tranquility of the adults only pool areas and if I go back to Riviera Maya, it would be to one of these options (actually, Barcelo added a new adults-only property to this particular fleet of resorts not long after our trip — it looks lovely.)
But for three days, it felt like heaven just to relax. Thank you, Matt and Crystal, for having us.
Next up — Tulum! Are you an all-inclusive fan? Yay or nay?