As a travel writer, people are always amazed at my job (as am I) and ask where I’ve traveled. My standard response has gone a little something like, “Well, mostly just U.S. stuff. I’ve never been anywhere outside the country, except for Mexico, but that doesn’t really count.” The following travel piece is one of the purest forms of full disclosure you’ll see, but hear me out before you go casting stones in my direction.
First of all, what about traveling to Mexico doesn’t really count as outside the United States? Secondly, when did I get all Travel Channel-snobby without even knowing it? Maybe it’s the simple fact I’ve taken my travels to Mexico for granted (or the fact that I’ve been to Cancun more times than those Carlos and Charlie characters combined), or that it’s a quick two-hour flight from Houston and an easy escape. Either way, after my latest adrenaline rushing experience to the Riviera Maya, Mexico will never again sit on top of my taken-for-granted travel list.
This go-round, I experienced Mexico in a brand new way, not only in the adventures I had, but most importantly, something that was seriously lacking in my previous experiences; the culture and hospitality. It stands to reason that inside those posh all-inclusive resorts, the service is second to none. It stands to reason the staff inside those resorts will tell you what you want to hear and placate your almost-every need while serving you any frozen vice imaginable. It stands to reason you’ll experience the exact same kind of vacation you almost always have, but step outside those botanical-lined walls just once and you’ll see what sets Riviera Maya apart as a premiere destination.
Here’s how I did Mexico differently this time:
I took in a little geography.
I never understood how some people (and hotels) denoted whether it was Cancun, Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen or some other jealousy-inciting place, and here’s what I found. According to Wikipedia, Riviera Maya is known as the “tourism district which historically started at the city of Playa del Carmen” and included Cancun. Cancun and Playa are cities/districts inside the space known as Riviera Maya, so sometimes using multiple geographic designations is actually correct. It’s amazing how much more you enjoy and know about a place once you understand where you are.
I changed my resort habits.
Instead of staying at an all-inclusive adult Disneyland type property, I stayed at the boutique (only 25 rooms) Le Reve Hotel and Spa, just 45 minutes south of Cancun and basically hidden in the depths of the jungle. Just to put it in perspective how small and quaint the place was, in five days I never knew my room number and it wasn’t a problem. At Le Reve, each room is named based on a distinct part of Mexico. There was no “Room 202” to tell the waiter when I charged a glass of Chandon to my room, instead I muttered, “I’m the room on the end…it starts with a ‘C’ I think,” and awkwardly pointed.
Because I had to. Although Le Reve had complimentary Wi-Fi, the signal was spotty so it was hard to connect, especially on a regular and reliable basis. Lounging by the infinity pool sans iPad and other mobile devices and being able to stare at the ocean without the worry of snapping a photo to brag to all my friends was a welcome change in my travel habits.
I embraced the food.
This was big, coming from Texas where I thought I knew (and loved) Mexican food. Apparently I was mistaken all these years. My last visit to Mexico the resort food was terrible. Had Gordon Ramsay been witness to my past dining options, he would have immediately gone into cardiac arrest, or spontaneously combusted. The food at Le Reve, especially the guacamole and octopus ceviche, was well worth the price of admission. On the way to one of our daily adventures, we stopped by a roadside taco stand, Taqueria El Arbolito. Although it may not have passed a germ test with 60 Minutes’ late Andy Rooney and I was ultimately hesitant, it may have been the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. *Note, I still didn’t brave any of the spicy sauces as my palate is not quite there yet.
I showed an interest in the culture.
I’d like to say this was because I turned a new leaf all on my own or that I’ve become wiser with age, but I have to give this one to the tour guides and the local businesses I met throughout my trip. This was the most knowledgeable, respectful, appreciative and downright funny group of people I have come across in recent travels, as they were well versed in the culture and shared pieces of it with complete strangers.
I drove fast cars.
Once upon a time, perhaps before I paid for my own health insurance, I used to be a certified dare devil, not scared of anything. Not so much anymore, but I went along for the ride at Exotic Rides, a place to “race your dreams”. It probably didn’t hurt they had bottles (to the size of 4ft tall) of Veuve Clicquot to ease my nerves (after driving of course). When else will you get the chance to drive a Ferrari 360 Modena or a Lamborghini Murcielago around a track at speeds of 150mph+ and do winner’s circle burnouts and 360 degree turns? Not even Danica Patrick has experienced such fast speeds or thrills! (Check out this video of my racing experience!)
Mother Nature and I coexisted.
Otherwise known as my lifelong frenemy, Mother Nature and I have led a fairly tumultuous relationship. This coexistence would have never happened had it not been for Alltournative Tours who within just a few hours took us swimming in a Cenote, using the best snorkeling gear, zip lining, rappelling and a Mayan ritual and blessing. This was at the heart of where the respect for the Mayan community played a huge part in the trip as we were educated on their culture, but in a fun and friendly manner. The day ended with an authentic Mayan lunch and a bumpy ride in a 4×4 unimog (some awesome combination of a Jeep and Mercedes).
I paid back some karma!
Life isn’t always perfect and sometimes I wonder if there’s any delinquent karma I need to pay back. Thankfully, do-gooder and innovative places like The Pyramid of Positive Thinking 2012 exist. Guests are encouraged to show up (at no charge) and write a positive thought inside a plastic bottle and send it at the Tulum, Mexico location. It’s a great way to take a deep breath, try whatever it is you need to try again, recycle, and take part of a pretty cool movement.
All in all, Riviera Maya is not scary like the Lifetime movies make it out to be. It’s quite the opposite in fact. The locals aren’t out to pick your wallets when you’re not looking-they appreciate your business and the respect you have for their culture.
Live a little; get outside the gated five-star walls and experience the real Mexico. The bright blue oceans can be seen on postcards, but none of the other stuff can.
*This was a full-on media trip, but the ideas presented above are the honest to goodness Jayme Lamm truth – no holds barred.
Putting on her big girl panties two legs at a time (yes, two), Jayme is finding her place in this world as a freelance writer far, far away from Corporate America. Her entire life has been the epitome of unorthodox, complete with broken bones, medical mysteries, and the worst luck, thanks to her little black cloud overhead. This cloud goes with her everywhere, especially those crazy activity-laden travel plans she packs into her already busy schedule. Most of her travel adventures revolve around sporting events or activities, in addition Jayme writes a regular sports column, The Blonde Side.