Outside, flabby people crisp under Mexico’s unapologetic sun. Kids swim in the resort’s many pools. Poolside, their parents smoke cigarettes; some read books. It’s Saturday afternoon. The lunch rush has settled down. Beachside bars are open, and drinks the colors of wild birds are being served in plastic cups that get rinsed out and reused, all in the name of being eco-friendly. The party is just beginning.
Inside a humid, cacophonous kitchen, eight women—myself included—don disposable paper chef hats and form a semicircle around a middle-aged Mexican man employed by the resort. He wears a hair net. Perspiration beads across his forehead as he scrubs his hands and fingernails for several minutes with vigor. While he does this, one of the women in our group, a public relations representative for this resort chain, explains the lengths hotel staff go to maintain high standards of hygiene.
The man finishes and smiles. Our group applauds.
The PR rep goes on to tell us that, every day, the staff washes 20,000 plates, prepares 260 kilos of guacamole, hunches over small bits of melon and mango, carving them into mukimono designs, probably hoping someone likely buzzed on tequila might appreciate such showmanship.
When she’s done with her speech, the group moves on so that the kitchen staff can present us with cupcakes and drinks adorned with limes cut to look like sunflowers.
It is around this time that I realize this will be a shitty trip.
My husband likes to introduce me to his friends and colleagues as a travel writer. What this actually meant was that my husband, daughter, and I took trips to places I liked—I always picked our vacation spots because I was always the first to say, “Hey, let’s go here!” I pitched my experiences to editors, and sometimes my stories got published. It was really that simple. No one covered my expenses. No one bartered a plane ticket for press coverage. I have eaten and slept on four continents, stayed in everything from a yurt to five-star accommodations to a giant nest facing the Pacific Ocean. For years, the trips happened on our own dime and were always self-directed. In Tokyo, I went looking for cafés where you could pet goats and snakes. In the Galapagos, we went to a wedding where my daughter was the flower girl. In Bruges, we just showed up and ate as much chocolate-covered waffles and charcuterie they could throw at us.
Then, after a string of high-profile stories, PR folks came knocking. My inbox never brims with PR requests like those of other travel writers I know, but I started to receive a few invitations. One involved a free round-trip “Pearl Business Class” flight to Abu Dhabi to attend an Etihad Airways media conference. (I would have had to procure my own lodging, but I would’ve seen Abu Dhabi.) This meant about thirteen hours in what looked like a small hotel room in the sky with seats that fully reclined into six-foot beds and fifteen-inch flat screens to keep myself entertained. I declined. More recently, I was invited to experience the Four Seasons private jet tour around the world, going from the Taj Mahal to the Sydney Opera House to Big Ben, a trip that costs $132,000 per person. I declined. I hate flying, even fancy flying. I endure planes to see the places I want to see; if I could travel the globe by train or road-trip my way to all seven continents, experience the land and landscapes the way I love most, I would.
Last September, the public relations firm representing a family-owned resort chain contacted me offering a free weekend in Playa del Carmen to celebrate the Day of the Dead, a cultural tradition Mexico’s Yuc a tán Peninsula is starting to leverage for its marketing potential. The resort I was asked to visit was in its second year of hosting Day of the Dead festivities. I’d done resort travel on my own twice before—in Mexico and Jamaica—and found it confining. Still, here was someone offering to pay for my flight, hotel, food, and carefully planned itinerary entertainment as long as I participated in their game plan and considered writing nice things about them. Sunshine in late October? A margarita on the beach? A decent taco? And all I had to do was show up? For that, I decided I could stomach a few hours strapped to a chair hurtling through the sky. This is how I ended up on my very first—and, so far, only—press trip.
Playa del Carmen is a teenager of a place compared with the rest of Mexico, bubbling with a youthful eagerness to please. Nearby Cancún is its sultry older sibling and one of Mexico’s best success stories, the result of a tourism project kicked off in the early 1970s. Half a century ago, it was mostly coconut plantations and fishing villages. Now, after decades of continuous building, it looks like Las Vegas, a skilled showgirl who knows her routine cold. The story goes that the region was a gamble: Investors were hesitant to put money into an unknown area that foreigners might not trust, so the Mexican government started building hotels to see who would show up. People came from all over. And they haven’t stopped.
Playa del Carmen is forty-two miles south of Cancún, less than an hour’s drive from the airport, past a Starbucks and a Home Depot. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Spring break season is almost here, and Playa del Carmen is a holiday rite of passage for many American college students and for wealthy suburbanites and their families. Maybe you’ve even been to one of the ubiquitous resorts dotting the coastline there where the competition to lure guests is fierce. At the one I’m brought to, there are 819 rooms and at least a dozen restaurants, cafés, and snack bars; I lose count of how many pools there are because they all seem to twist and turn into one another. The place feels more like a suburban mega-mall than a Caribbean getaway.
Walking around, I can’t help but compare what is shaping up to be my most annoying day in Mexico with what had been my best day in Mexico, which occurred during my second visit there in 2011. My family had been at a resort then too, in Cancún, and we had asked the concierge where to catch a bus. The look on his face suggested this just wasn’t done, but we had navigated Cuba and the Galapagos Islands by ourselves and felt confident in our abilities to get around. We grabbed a bus to a ferry and rode out to Isla Mujeres, a small island less than four miles off the coast where you can only get around by golf cart. Isla Mujeres was experiencing residual gentrification thanks to Cancún, but at the time it was still an island in transition, lacking the manicured upkeep of typical resort communities. Lush natural beauty comingled with pockets of poverty. Skinny kids in ratty clothes and scrappy-looking dogs played in dirt speckled with garbage while trees bloomed with orange flowers I didn’t recognize and the greenest palm fronds stirred. We ate fish tacos and watched iguanas watch us. We strolled a quaint downtown, small shops strung together all selling the same stuff: beachwear, straw hats, maracas, sugar skulls, and other tchotchkes painted in extraordinary colors: flamingo-pink, sunburnt-orange, yellows the colors of the sun’s moods. There were some tourists, but Isla Mujeres hadn’t yet been overrun by them. Four and a half years later, the CEO of this resort in Playa del Carmen remarks how fast hotels are going up in Isla Mujeres—he’s worried about growing competition—and my heart sinks.
The tourists in Playa del Carmen have come from everywhere: North America, South America, Europe. I hear German, Russian, British accents, and Spanish in many accents. This should feel cosmopolitan, but it doesn’t. Near my room, a reality TV show is being filmed; brides and grooms who don’t know each other are marrying on camera. I see one bride after another walk down the aisle. It’s a hot day to wear a wedding gown. Cameras roll and production crew shoo me away. I leave the newlyweds to explore, maybe walk the beach. I see a cupcake shop and steakhouse. There’s a new Chipotle-like burrito bar, as it was described to us, as well as giant Buddha heads and Ganesha figures used as ambiance to peddle Asian noodle dishes or spa treatments. I wonder why there isn’t a blue-eyed, blonde Jesus, smiling with perfectly white and straightened teeth, hawking tacos at some taco stand.
I join other resort guests on one of the golf cart trains because I’m lost and hungry and want to be taken somewhere to eat something. I watch a red-faced, white-haired, heavily buzzed middle-aged man pester our driver with conversation, asking him where he’s from, what he’s doing here. The driver quietly responds that he’s from Africa, but doesn’t specify which country. While this conversation unfolds, the man’s wife constantly touches my arm and goes on and on about something I can’t recall because I’m trying to see if our driver will lose his professional cool with this guy. It’s around four in the afternoon, and I think the wife has been drinking since the bartenders started pouring.
After two nights at this first resort, we are shuttled to a second resort fifteen minutes down the road. We’re told it’s swankier. It is owned by the same family-operated company that wants us to experience all of its hospitality, which, in my mind, means they really want me to get to know their brand.
This second swanky resort has an on-site cemetery, which was listed on the itinerary. I’m naive to think that maybe the developers had built this beachside monstrosity around Mayan burial grounds or maybe some turn-of-the-century family plot they had wanted to preserve. I ask the PR rep about the cemetery’s origins and learn it’s really a makeshift memorial; the staff had written the names of deceased loved ones on plastic papier-mâché-looking tombstones as part of the Day of the Dead bash. Above the headstones, candied sugar skulls dangle from a tree. A few steps away, a guy stands behind a small bar with a pitcher of something orange and slushy. The rep asks who in our group wants a mango margarita.
The cemetery’s bartender works hard, filling plastic cups quickly. The kitchen staff sweating through their hair nets work hard. The cleaning staff works hard. The guy gliding a net across my private pool works hard. All the men and women arranging marigolds and candles around Day of the Dead altars work hard. The resort’s CEO, a fast-talking young guy from Spain who inherited the job, meets with our group of journalists and explains everything his company is doing to give consumers what they want. He talks about the challenges of the business, the entitlement middle-aged visitors express, and how TripAdvisor is “blackmail.” He lets slip that guests have complained about hearing too much Spanish during their stay. He describes his resorts as “affordable luxury.” But I learn over the course of my visit that if it’s affordable, then it’s hard to be luxurious. Having bright white towels folded into elaborate swans and placed on your bed is a mirage of luxury. Not too far from my folded swan, a cockroach scuttles by, because las cucarachas feel entitled to junior suite status, too.
I start to wonder about the whole tourism industry, all of its ethnocentrism, its classism (the resort’s caste system is based on what category you pay for; gold status gives you full access to all resort amenities), its facades. If I had wanted unspoiled Yucat á n Peninsula, then I was fifty years too late. Maybe authentic travel is just some ridiculous concept entitled people came up with that I bought into. When I was chasing after snakes and goats in Japan, was I duping myself into thinking I was having an authentic experience? Maybe quieter places and cultural curiosity now only exist in museums. Maybe no matter what kind of travel I do, it’s just voyeurism. And maybe this loquacious CEO and the staff at his two resorts were just showing me what they had known all along—that when people are on holiday, they want to be placated. Playa del Carmen was one giant, tequila-dipped pacifier for anyone with enough money to indulge. But if that helps feed families living in this area, who the hell am I—pale and privileged—to show up and question that?
I leave my junior suite to the cockroaches and go to dinner. It’s my last night in Mexico. I walk past cerulean pools toward the resort’s new vegan restaurant where I will eat things I can find in Manhattan and hear a man loudly launch a loogie into the water. Two monkeys sit on top of one of the guest complexes and throw fruit to the ground. After all this silliness, a tangerine sunset over the sea. Beauty prevails.
The plane taking us back to New York City is packed with weary-looking travelers dressed for 80-degree weather even though it will be below 50 degrees when we land. Most of the passengers look hung over. We’re preparing to detach from the gate when an airport worker boards the plane and begins speaking in halting English to a frowning blonde woman seated in the row in front of me. Next to her, Seat 14E is empty. The airport worker asks the woman where her husband is, for he is the only passenger on the list who has not yet boarded. She shrugs. “Probably drunk somewhere.” The airport worker looks perplexed. The guy in seat 14F looks perplexed. The airport worker asks the woman for a description of her husband, what’s he wearing. He asks if they can call him. The plane is about to leave, and you can tell he doesn’t want to get in trouble for not doing his job. Again she shrugs, and explains that her husband’s cell phone isn’t working and he likely doesn’t know where he is anyway. “Let’s just go,” she tells the employee, and then turns to the guy sitting next to her. “He’s done this before,” she says.
Cancún is probably used to this: drunk gringos missing their flights, being out of cell phone batteries, forgetting things, littering their beaches. Yes, alcohol and inconvenience are often the battle scars of many vacations—who hasn’t partied too hard somewhere exotic and recovered to brag about it? But this isn’t how I travel or why I travel or why I write about travel. I’m not under any contractual obligation to write anything about this trip, but the intention is that I’d write something, that my article would serve as a sales pitch for escapism, saying something to the effect of: “Come here and lose yourself, just like the guy in 14E!” Instead, I am writing out my conflicted thoughts in this essay, which I’m assuming means no one will ever invite me on a sponsored press trip again.
Flying home, I replay the last whirlwind four days in my mind, and focus on the best hour of it, which occurred the night before my flight. After our vegan dinner, the PR reps took us to a long, noisy hour of traditional Mexican singing and dancing set to video montages. The journalist next to me dozed off. When the showed ended, we did a round of hugs, handshakes, and goodbyes, and then were set free. Alone—finally—I wander over to a three-man band standing in front of a Day of the Dead altar that reached the ceiling. Hundreds of candles glowed; orange marigold blossoms, like pom-poms, filled the gaps. I take a seat at one of the tables by the band to watch and listen. They play American cover tunes, then something salsa-ish, alternating between singing in English and Spanish. Men and women twirl across the dance floor, and I envy their coordination, their flair. I start to relax, wishing I had a dance partner. Just a few unscripted moments between me and Mexico.