The morning V and I left with my dad and stepmom L for our flight to Cancun, we were up and packed well ahead of time. We even ate a good breakfast. They’d been visiting us in Juárez for a few days and we’d kept it low-key, hanging out around home and El Paso. But like most travel days, our control of things ended when we left the house. The shuttle I’d booked to Ciudad Juárez’s airport, where I’d never been and which required travel through a red zone, arrived a few minutes late and was a small sedan – not at all a “shuttle.” The trunk could only fit three carry-ons, so we had to ride three to the backseat and V in the front, all four of us somehow holding our large wheeled bags on our laps with V’s backpack slung behind my head in the back window. At first I was ticked off and embarrassed. I had explained when making the reservation we would be four adults, two traveling internationally, with luggage! Dad and L are in their 70s. I apologized to them but they are tough and good sports. After a few minutes we took selfies and started laughing about our stupid predicament. At least we all fit in the car, which to be honest I hadn’t been so sure was possible when it first rolled up.
We settled into a “we’re enduring this” quietness for the 25 minute masked ride. It was early October, but still hot. Our driver navigated city traffic in what looked like a relatively poorer and more dangerous area of town. Everything appeared polluted and rough, even after living in Juárez for 15 months. It was the first and only time I’d ever seen an elevated security watchtower in the center of a grocery store parking lot, like the kind you’d see topping each corner of a walled prison yard.
When we got to the airport, V’s displeasure at some arbitrariness during the check-in process led to unpleasantness with a member of the airline staff. We managed to survive that unscathed and drop off our checked luggage. Somewhere before security (where I lost my water and V lost an expensive medical cream) I had to pull out my consular knowledge to help my dad and L fill out their FMM (Forma Migratoria Multiple) cards and then pay the tax in a queue approaching the level of Central Asia in its lack of order. Simultaneously I had to explain in Spanish to a very intense Mexican immigration official why V and I didn’t need to present tourist passports, and why the valid FMMs in our diplomatic passports were sufficient for a leisure trip in our diplomatic country of assignment. My dad and V eyed me, concerned but trying to be nonchalant when they halfway caught the part about us not returning home to get our tourist passports because we only had these diplomatic documents here, see. Fortunately I was both correct and convincing.
Once all that excitement was over, I was definitely ready for my vacation to start! I wasn’t too thrilled about the idea of boarding my first commercial flight in 22 months when we lined up at the Volaris gate and saw roughly every fifth passenger wearing their masks like mouth tape or chin diapers. But board we did. We flew down to Cancun with the luck of a middle seat open between my dad and L, and between V and I too.
The extra space was a comfort on a multi-hour flight that had no entertainment or served meal, but I noted happily that after losing so much weight I sat easily in my seat without the arms or belt pinching me. The last flight I’d taken home from Ecuador in 2019 had been painful even if I hadn’t admitted it. I wished I could magically apply the extra space between me and the people in the row ahead. They nursed drinks and snacks with their masks down almost the entire flight, shouted back and forth with people in other rows, and didn’t mind their child. (Why am I always sitting next to people like these on a flight? It almost never fails.) We collected our luggage in Cancun and found our shuttle – which was indeed a shuttle and we had it all to ourselves! Only a half hour trip from Cancun to Playa del Carmen later and I was back in one of my all-time favorite places, at last.
Returning to the Iberostar was something V and I had been excited about for so long. We flew there the day after our 2013 wedding to spend a weeklong honeymoon, which is still one of the most memorable trips we’ve taken as a couple. Most of our vacations tend to be more of a “trip,” which is also great but means we generally are very busy with logistics, activities, and discovering new places. Relaxation can take a backseat on such a getaway.
Going to an all-inclusive resort like the Iberostar is much more about connecting with your travel partners, enjoying your surroundings, and indulging yourself in the unlimited food and drinks the Caribbean does best! And when I was assigned to Mexico I knew we would find our way back to this place, for sentimental reasons if nothing else, and even though Mexico is full of competing travel and sightseeing options.
[You can click on any of this blog post’s thumbnail galleries to expand pictures to full size.]
So we arrived and found everything still looking more or less the same, eight years and two days after our first departure. But some things had changed. One change I noticed right away was the check-in procedure was quite lengthy. I appreciated the reminder overview of the area and amenities, but I did not appreciate the hard sell for Iberostar membership afterwards. The tactics were reminiscent of high-pressure condo timeshare sales from the 1990s. The whole thing got a bit tedious as our bags waited, carted and ready to take to our rooms and our welcome champagne glasses sat empty. It was so not what I expected based on our prior visit, and we were starving and ready to unpack and eat. So I put an end to it and we were off to take control of our vacation destiny.
We rushed off to our rooms to drop our bags, had a late lunch, and went for a walk on the private Playa Paraíso (Paradise Beach). We were officially on vacation!
The Iberostar is actually made up of five separate all-inclusive resort hotels – the Grand Paraíso, Paraíso Maya, Paraíso Lindo, Paraíso Playa, and the Paraíso Del Mar. Of the five, the Grand is the most luxurious, part of Iberostar’s global Grand Collection. It’s also the only resort of the five for guests 18 years of age and older. The other four resorts are more family-oriented, and I think most have kids’ clubs, playgrounds, and activities for families. Guests of the Maya, Lindo, Playa, and Del Mar may all visit one another’s facilities interchangeably, including restaurants, shops, gyms, etc., and guests of the Grand may visit facilities throughout the entire complex; however, use of anything throughout the grounds of the Grand is limited exclusively to guests of the Grand. You receive a bracelet upon check-in that indicates which resort you are a guest of to make things clear to staff.
When we were there for our honeymoon, we never left to check out any of the other resorts. We frankly weren’t even aware of where they were other than vaguely glimpsing them on the long driveway up to the Grand. In the six days we had, we just enjoyed ourselves at the spectacular facilities and restaurants where we were. Why leave? Leaving for an afternoon of parasailing 20 minutes away was more than enough. We were in recovery mode from the insanity of all the wedding preparations, and leaving the solitude and bliss of our adults-only honeymoon haven for swimming and dining with other people’s small children sounded like a downgrade.
This time V and I did go to all the other resorts in the context of our morning walks. A few times we made it to the gym early enough that no other guests were inside. But even though masks were required, other guests often did not wear them and the gym space was small. So in the interest of health and safety, and particularly for me being immunocompromised, my daily workouts with V turned into very early morning long walks around the larger complex where we saw the native coatis, flamingos, many birds and peacocks, and sometimes a stray cat. We perused the cafes and shops of the other resorts, varying our route each time. The other resorts were nice enough, but they didn’t hold a candle to the Grand and I didn’t think we were missing anything. After 90 minutes or 10K steps, we’d return to shower and put on swimsuits, just in time to breakfast at the Grand with my dad and L. After that, we’d make our way to the tranquility pool, have some drinks, or sometimes go to the main pool swim-up bar before lunch.
Speaking of things that changed this visit, and not necessarily for the better. I remembered the main pool being a much more quiet, romantic and secluded place the first time we visited the Iberostar. It was certainly more populated this time, and often bordered on crowded. There were a couple of times guests needed to be told to quiet down at the tranquility pool too, which is supposed to be the quiet pool bordering on silent. I’m not sure whether the pandemic made people more prone to letting their hair down and hotels more prone to look the other way to protect their bottom lines, or if a lot just changed over the past eight years. But some of the behavior V and I saw from guests did not match the level of decorum and sophistication commensurate with our prior visit. And that’s not just because my dad and L were there, and having recommended the place I was hyperaware of everything. On our first visit there were elegant couples who dressed well for dinner. This time the dress code at dinner in the gourmet restaurants seemed more lax, we saw several incidents of people (usually in their 20s) drunk, out of control, and making fools of themselves, and we even saw a couple of families with kids wandering around the grounds of the Grand even though the Grand is supposed to be for adult guests of the Grand only. Some of that behavior seemed to be making the staff uncomfortable, like your refined cousin watching someone act distastefully at a formal event. The behavior didn’t go with the setting, let’s say.
Service. One night very late, our loud-music blasting, pot-smoking neighbors were so rambunctious yelling and carrying on I thought they were going to put a hole through our mutual wall. I could not believe it. We called the concierge repeatedly and little was done, and what was done wasn’t handled correctly. I certainly don’t expect everything to be silent and everyone to go to bed at 8pm. But my days of frat party living are over. I spent good money on a resort that was purporting itself to be Diamond level, and that’s what I expected. If I wanted a nightclub atmosphere I would have selected a resort with a nightclub. And if I wanted an all-night party I would have found a resort that has a pool open at night, a nightclub, a beach with a night bar, and the stuff I would have wanted in my late teens and 20s. If you can’t have fun without being obnoxious (and doing drugs which by the way are illegal in Mexico) and disturbing everyone around you, newsflash: you’re not fun, you’re a jerk. I deal with these people in my work all the time who come to Mexico and break the law but have no idea why they got arrested or why U.S. citizens in tourist towns in Mexico constantly look like the kind of clown shows who should have just stayed at home.
There were also several times the butler, minibar, and room service were very inconsistent which we were willing to overlook. We understood the resort was short-staffed and the pandemic has been hard on a lot of levels. Those who were working worked very hard. And fortunately my dad and L didn’t perceive a lot of these little rubs like we did.
I think at some point the Iberostar will have to decide whether they want to cater to a drunken party crowd or a more exclusive repeat clientele. I understand they can’t choose who comes – anyone with the right credit limit can make a reservation. However, their management has to deal with problem guests, not reward problem or illegal behavior, or move guests who rightly complain because we aren’t the problem. They were handing out promotional coupons to a group of several dozen 20-somethings attending a YouTube conference who were screaming and carrying on about how they just couldn’t believe dude they had negative COVID tests before their departure flights to the United States. (Eye roll.) Bye, Felicia!
Things that WERE better this time! I commend the resort for changing to all organic toiletries, getting rid of drink straws, and doing away with the dumb dinner reservation system that was inflexible and added an unnecessary layer of exclusivity to a place where everyone equally paid top dollar to enjoy a wonderful meal.
Technology also improved. Gone were the room service menus and resort maps – replaced by an app. I found the app a little clunky to use, but I did manage to successfully book a sports massage through it, so that was something! I had to stop and laugh remembering last time we were there, I was furloughed on the second day of our honeymoon (a U.S. government shutdown two days after you pay for your own wedding, how awesome is that!) and I found out from television news; my U.S. phone didn’t work and I don’t recall there was Wi-Fi at the resort. In fact, my iPhone had been in airplane mode the entire time we’d been in Mexico and most of the photos I’d taken were with my Nikon.
In 2013 it hadn’t been until we’d landed back at Dulles that I’d checked my phone. It’s hard to imagine now waiting a week to check the flood of hundreds of wedding-related Facebook notifications and pictures, or missing the news about a death in my family because I hadn’t checked my email in days. This time I used my phone for everything from logging my calories and workouts to taking photos to exchanging WhatsApp messages with my dad, L, and V about where we were going to eat or swim next. And on top of that, I’d brought my Mexican cell phone, which I used to read my work email – at least once in the morning and once at night – to see if there were any emails related to bidding or emergency U.S. citizen cases that required a response from me. I even did two interviews related to bidding from my work phone, and one of them was on my birthday. It wasn’t ideal, but… my next job is important. Being able to use the resort’s WiFi to check in quickly on things and then put work aside helped my well-being on the vacation more than I can explain. Not knowing what was going on with my bidding would have had me anxiously in the business center 10x a day – no fun for anyone.
Bonding with family, seeing more animals, enjoying meals and activities together. One of the things my dad was most excited about on the trip was getting in the ocean. My dad spent close to 30 years as a scuba diver, but gave it up a couple of years ago for health reasons around the same time he and L relocated from the Monterey, CA area to Washington state. As I grew up and even in my 20s and 30s, it was not unusual for my dad to log multiple dives per week, and he traveled to many countries in pursuit of good diving including Venezuela, Mexico, Australia, and the Philippines. It’s hard to come to terms with saying goodbye to such an important part of your life. The good news is, a love and appreciation for the ocean and marine conservation is lifelong. The ocean will always be there for you to enjoy, however you can enjoy it during the different phases of your life.
One evening I took something of an enchanted walk alone around the complex, delighting in the absence of other people and being able to shed my mask. I was pleasantly surprised by how cool the night mode pictures on my iPhone came out.
But there were certainly plenty of things to do during the day. We didn’t go to the arcade, golf course, or do any archery, but there were some free scuba lessons and small sports competitions around the pool that my dad and V had a lot of fun with.
All in all, this trip was wonderful because I got to spend great quality time not only with V in a place we love but also with my dad and L. Even though L decided not to swim and found the weather too hot to her liking, she enjoyed the food and spending some time reading. It’s good to be with other people in the sunshine when you’ve spent the past couple of years cooped up at home with your spouse due to the pandemic. She and my dad also got to spend some time together in a very different place than they are used to, and I think it’s renewing. The great thing about an all-inclusive is you don’t have to worry about money. You’ve already paid, in our cases several months before, so don’t worry about how much things cost, don’t make decisions, don’t even bring your wallet – just bring your appetite and enjoy!
Like any family, even on vacation we had our moments of struggling with things, whether it was not feeling well, not having slept enough, disagreeing on an issue, or whatever. All four of us were worried about personal health issues on one level or another. Eating indoors was uncomfortable for me but given the humidity and high temperature it was the best option for everyone, so I tried to socially distance the best I could. At a certain point we were all glad my dad and L had purchased emergency medevac insurance but fortunately they did not need to actually use it.
But the time we spent together in such a beautiful location is something I will cherish and something we should do again. When we left to the airport on separate shuttles (our flight was a few hours earlier than theirs) it was sad to say goodbye, but I was so glad we’d done this and I would love to make it happen again sometime. I don’t know if it would be at the Iberostar or somewhere similar we haven’t been yet, or maybe we have fulfilled our destiny with beach vacations. Maybe in the future when we are all in an even happier and healthier place and we are better protected from the pandemic than we are now, we will know where the next place is. I’ll keep our four-way Iberostar Fiesta WhatsApp chat open and waiting.
When V and I made it to the airport in Juárez, so did our bags. We watched the slow progress of my dad and L’s flight towards Seattle, and then Portland. As we stepped out of our Uber into our driveway, the newly crisp air signaled the turning point of autumn had definitively arrived.
Great post. Especially loved the loud American clown show reference. Ah, gringos! ~ Kelly
Sent from my iPad
LikeLiked by 1 person
Brilliant . We have been here twice and will be back soon 😁👍
LikeLiked by 1 person