Rio Secreto underground river tour goes right through dark heart of Yucatan

Rio Secreto is 2 million years old and stretches 20 miles underground near Playa del Carmen.

Rio Secreto is 2 million years old and stretches 20 miles underground near Playa del Carmen.


SATURDAY, OCT. 25

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico — What’s the best way to escape another rainy day in Yucatan? Go underground. You can do that here. In fact, you have been able to do that here for about 2 million years. That’s when an underground river formed in a cave system that spider webs for 20 miles just south of town.
I woke up again to a steel-gray sky only offset by annoying humidity. I’m no weather wimp but nothing makes me scream to the weather gods more than humid, overcast weather. You sweat but there’s no reason to go to the pool or beach. Sun is the elixir. It’s the potion that keeps you going in the Tropics.

Where I went yesterday there was no sun. There was no light. I walked, floated and swam through a half mile of pitch-black darkness while bending over to make sure my 6-foot-3 frame didn’t get gored by a million sharp stalactites.

Start of a very wet, dark journey. I'm fourth from right.

Start of a wet, dark journey. I’m fourth from right.


I did a tour of the Rio Secreto, one of the wildest river cruises in the world. The difference is you do it without a boat. It’s just you, a life vest, a wetsuit and a lighted helmet. That and a guide who stood between seven of us being hopelessly lost forever 60 feet underground.

The shuttle bus took us to a big opening in the jungle where about 40 tourists were partnered up with guides sporting various styles of wetsuits. We got Alberto, a tall skinny Mexican with longish hair and a thin moustache. He looked like an extra in a movie about the Mexican Revolution. He started doing these tours about five years ago — not long after he learned how to swim. He was serious.

“I just put on a life vest and played around in the water,” he told me. “Soon, I started to feel comfortable.”

About the last light we saw before our 90-minute tour.

The last light we saw before our 90-minute tour.


It’s exactly how we navigated the dark waters of the Rio Secreto. This river is 2 million years old. It formed when rainwater carved out this maze of caves in the limestone rocks. The Mayans used this river for their water supply in the 1500s and it’s still drinkable today.

More than 33,000 feet of caves have been discovered in Yucatan, most of them underwater and now the gravesite of many overly adventurous scuba divers. The Rio Secreto is only slightly submerged. It’s just enough to get chilled in the surprisingly cool 72-degree temperatures underground.

Alberto herded us on to a crude bus where we chugged down a long dirt road deep into the jungle. The foliage seemed thicker the farther we went. It could’ve been the Amazon at first sight, except the trees weren’t as large and toucans weren’t chirping above.

We finally got out and walked down some wooden stairs to a black gaping maw in the rock. This was one of about 17 entrances to the caves. I peered inside and saw nothing but blackness. I asked Alberto if any of his tourists have had claustrophobia.

The colors underground are spectacular.

The colors underground are spectacular.


“Oh, yes. It’s a big problem,” he said. “They come here and take one look at the cave and turn around and walk back.”

I’m a little claustrophobic. In 1985 I got stuck in an underwater cave off the Great Barrier Reef for the longest five minutes of my life. Ever since then I’ve been very wary of overhangs. I don’t enter anything in which I can’t see the exit. But those are my rules underwater. Above ground — er, above water — I didn’t have a problem as we precariously crept our way down rocky stairs in river shoes with grated soles. The quarters aren’t real tight. However, the millions of stalactites make you feel like you’re walking under an armory of medieval swords. Stalactites are to caves what plants are to jungles. They’re formed when rain seeps through the limestone and the rock drips down to form sharp, long formations. When water comes up from underground, it forms stalagmites which are more round at the tip. When the stalagmites and stalactites meet, they grow outward. Some of these columns in the world’s biggest cave system in Kentucky, with 390 miles of caves, are five stories high. Rio Secreto’s are more modest.

Rio Secreto's water is so pure you can drink it.

Rio Secreto’s water is so pure you can drink it.


We waded through knee-deep water for a few hundred yards. Despite the slippery terrain we were able to negotiate the rocks on the riverbed as the crystal-clear water made them as visible as if they were above ground. This is arguably the cleanest river in the Western Hemisphere. Parts of it were so blue it looked like I was beachcombing in French Polynesia on a moonless night.

Alberto was a wealth of information — and fear.

“Is anyone afraid of spiders?” he asked.

A tall, overweight American raised his hand.

“He’s terrified of spiders,” his wife said.

“But only if they have eight legs,” he said.

Powerful headlamps were the only light we had.

Powerful headlamps were the only light we had.


Alberto dipped his head to shine his helmet lamp on a rock. Dashing across was a spider with a long antenna waving in the air like a sea fan. He picked it up, and it dashed back under a rock.

“He’s hiding,” Alberto said.

“No, he’s not,” the American man said. “He’s plotting.”

We saw other spiders, some as big as Alberto’s fist. Fortunately, they only had six legs. Otherwise we would’ve had a very large, very panicky man on our hands trying to splash his way through a pitch-black cave half underwater. And it was pitch black. It was as black as the inside of a giant lump of coal. One time, Alberto had us turn off our helmet lamps and close our eyes. We counted to three and opened them. Have you ever been in a room so dark that you lose your sense of what’s up and what’s down? Imagine that waist deep in water. That’s how dark that cave was with no light. For a second I let my mind wander. What if …

… all our lights broke and we had to get back? How the hell would we do it? There is a thin yellow line that goes from the cave entrance all along the cave route. They’re designed for divers to feel their way back without getting lost but they’re also for spelunking (That sounds oddly sexual but crawling underground in the water was the least sensual experience of my life).

Stalagtites  are formed when rainwater seeps down into the limestone.

Stalagtites are formed when rainwater seeps down into the limestone.


The rock formations were really beautiful. The stalactites were a combination of white and gold and yellow and brown. Some of the rocks had a crystalized white coating on them like vanilla frosting. They call it moon milk. It’s when bacteria collects in the water and forms on the rocks it crystalizes.

After just a few minutes I felt very comfortable but I shivered thinking about maneuvering through this cavern under water. I can’t imagine what it would be like exploring a cave not knowing the location of an outlet, how hard it would be not to turn around and head back from where you came. Cave diving is so dangerous here, Alberto said, local cave divers will not serve as guides for tourists. They don’t want to be responsible for people not knowing what they’re doing.

The wetsuit and river shoes loaned to me were invaluable.

The wetsuit and river shoes loaned to me were invaluable.


These caves are also homes to cenotes, deep caverns in the rock that go hundreds of feet deep. This is where free divers have had competitions for a sport in which the world record is 706 feet. Some of them even make it up alive.
After 90 minutes, so did we. Of course, we were greeted to a rain shower. After the week I’ve had, it made me feel as if I didn’t miss anything. I got just as much sun below ground as I would have above ground.
Afraid of spiders? Don't go down Rio Secreto.

Afraid of spiders? Don’t go down Rio Secreto.


Still, despite the rain, the air was curiously bright.

Tulum tour is 10-stop shopping for Mexican souvenirs

This temple was the center of Tulum's social and execution network from 1200-1500 AD.

This temple was the center of Tulum’s social and execution network from 1200-1500 AD.


FRIDAY, OCT. 24

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico — Mayans were powerful people. They developed the concept of zero in mathematics. They produced the most accurate calendar in history. They performed mankind’s first brain surgeries. But the most powerful force they showed was peel me off a perfectly good sunny day at the “Biggest Swimming Pool in Latin America.”

I saw an amazing thing yesterday: the sun. I had not seen the sun since I arrived here Sunday. It looked odd. So did the jungle. The green forest seemed to glisten. The birds chirped louder.

So did I.

I took the shuttle from our Grand Luxxe Resort to the adjacent Grand Mayan and hustled through the boutique, somehow managing to not shell out $28 for a bottle of Coppertone. I emerged to see a pool that seemed to stretch all the way to the sea. The Grand Mayan’s pool is a series of rounded swimming areas all formed around little islands sporting palm trees. I frankly could not see the far end of it. But I could hear in the far distance the faint instructions from someone giving aqua aerobics orders through a loudspeaker. The pool could hold a small city around its edge and I maybe saw 10 people. The sun was bright and there was just enough moving cloud cover to give you a break from the heat every 15 minutes.

Unfortunately, we bought into the weather report that it would rain all afternoon. So we signed up for the free Tulum tour that came with putting up with Alvaro’s timeshare spiel for 2 ½ hours. We all piled into a van with a guide named Jak, a smiling, wiry street-smart Mexican with a short beard, earrings and a tattoo of the punk rock band, the Maniacs. Jak grew up in Mexico City but moved to Valencia, Calif., when he was 15. His English had a Mexican accent but he had the swagger of an American with all kinds of inside advice about what to do in Playa.

The back of the temple begins the incredible beach view.

The back of the temple begins the incredible beach view.


“Go to Fifth Avenue,” he said. “There’s always something going on.”

He gave us a recommendation for Alux, one of two restaurants in the world served inside a network of caves.

“Every time I’ve taken a date there,” he said with a wry smile, “it worked.”

Sitting in front of us was an odd couple. The guy was a heavily muscled, heavily tattooed blond laborer with a strange accent. It’s found in that one area of New Hampshire — er, New Hempsheh — where they don’t include R’s in the alphabet. The only thing I could tell about it was he spoke in terrible grammar as if he was a career laborer. But he was all over a lumpy blonde woman with tired eyes who looked liked his mother. From the time we saw them at the bus stop to the time we were dropped off seven hours later, they were drinking Coronas. They brought them in the van, bought them in souvenir stores, bought them in the restaurant at the end of the day. I don’t know how they could even stand. My frat days are over. If I drank three beers in the middle of the afternoon I’d be asleep under a palm tree by 3 p.m.

The tour was only worth it if it was free. I noticed on the ticket the usual charge is $59. They should’ve paid us half that just for the first part. They took us straight to a jewelry store in what no doubt would be labeled in most Western countries as a hostage situation. Lapis is a gargantuan jewelry factory on the main highway. It’s a big orange building with little Mexicans working behind a glass panel. They had little sharp needles they used to grind into whatever silver object they had in their hands.

Lapis is totally high end and as big as some small airplane hangars. It was all shiny black with back-lit display cases of jewelry on snow-white stands. It has 60,000 pieces of silver, none of which I could afford. Maybe they don’t realize that just because you’re a timeshare owner doesn’t mean you’re rich enough to afford $5,000 watches. Or some, like me, are there free. Half my watches are $5-$10 costume watches found in French flea markets and dive Vegas strip malls.

They had some beautiful pieces, though. Rubies. Diamonds of every color. Gold. Emeralds. Every one was shined like stars behind the glass. I saw a case of beautiful hand-carved Mayan masks. I asked the price.

It was $790. “But,” the clerk in the sharp black suit said, “with today’s discount it’s $490.”

This beautiful beach is off limits due to turtle hatchings.

This beautiful beach is off limits due to turtle hatchings.


Luckily, the only other item I liked was one I could afford. I saw a jet-black watch with shiny gold interior. I figured it was real gold. It was only stainless steel. Price: $45. I bought it. No man in Rome can have enough watches.

Tulum isn’t what I expected. A couple years ago I went to Ek-Balam, a former seat of the Mayan kingdom north of here. That featured everything from living quarters to warehouses to an acropolis. Even though Ek-Balam’s influence faded later during the empire, I got a feel for what the complexity of a major Mayan city.

At Tulum, the first thing we saw as we pulled into a parking lot was a souvenir emporium the size of Wal-Mart. Is there a country that has more souvenirs than Mexico? This place makes Rome look like a fishing village in Greenland. Mexico seems to have as many different brands of tequila as dirty T-shirt messages.

We disgorged out the back of the store to a string of smaller souvenir stands, each one with a barker telling us we can not survive any longer without a hand-carved Mayan paperweight. I told one merchant, holding up what looked like an op-art wood project by an artist on peyote, “I have one.”

The entry doorway that separated the Mayan haves from the have nots.

The entry doorway that separated the Mayan haves from the have nots.


Not missing a beat, he said, “Have another one.”

We then boarded a crude wooden train with an engine and one car and chugged up the track to the outside of the Tulum wall. Our guide was a tall, dark, late 30ish gent with the perfect haircut and a crisp white shirt, shocking in the searing humidity. What proceeded was the shortest tour I’ve ever been on. It lasted all of 15 minutes. The guide spoke only four times. Outside the wall he explained to us that Tulum thrived between 1200-1500 AD. Tulum is a Mayan word for “Walled City” and inside the walls were the community’s wealthy. Outside the walls were the working class, not too similar from how European cities are designed today. About 500 people lived inside and 5,000 outside, that is, until the Spanish came and baptized the Mayans in their own blood,

As soon as we ducked our heads under the small door frame and walked inside, the teetering New Hampshire couple poured themselves off the tour, presumably hoping some Mayan beer stand was open somewhere.

“This place looks like a golf course with rocks,” said the woman.

I was about the only one who hung around. Everyone else took selfies in front of ruins, the importance of which they had no idea. What little the guide said was pretty good. He pointed out one stone temple sporting one window. He said every March 21, the sun is just right. When it shines in the window, a star appears. He even showed a picture of it from seven months ago. The Mayans used this as a sign that the spring raining season was coming, one reason why the Mayans are credited with developing mankind’s first credible calendar.

The ruins are fairly well preserved. On some ruins, you can still see red hand prints from the artist who painted the building. Mayan gods’ faces are still recognizable in carvings on the corners of the temples.

What makes Tulum is the main temple. It’s a short pyramid but what interested me were two flat stones about three feet high. Here is where they held human sacrifices but it wasn’t a quick death. They opened up the chest and took out the heart, sometimes still beating. And they weren’t virgins or prisoners of war.

“They were the best of the best,” the guide said. “The best artist, the best player, the best dancer. They wanted to sacrifice the best to get the best from the gods.”

“Surely,” my friend quipped to me, “you would’ve survived.”

One of the most interesting parts of the tour.

One of the most interesting parts of the tour.


After our guide rejected my request to drag said friend atop the temple, he indicated that the Spanish didn’t understand the Mayans at all. As Catholics, they knew snakes represented Satan from the Bible. What did they think when they came to Tulum and saw references of snakes all over the city? They’re on temples, homes. The snake was the main god of the Mayans which the Spanish didn’t consider as they held book burnings all over Yucatan.

Behind the temple is a cliff looking down at one of the best beaches in the region. It’s an enclosed cove lapped up by a beautiful blue ocean. But, alas, that’s where turtles lay their eggs and it’s off limits. Instead, tourists climb down about five flights of wooden steps and swim on a small beach with a big yellow rope marking off the dangerous areas. The view was breathtaking. You can see why the wealthy lived here. Life in Mexico hasn’t changed much. It’s still location, location, location.

Me wishing he could dive into the ocean below me.

Me wishing he could dive into the ocean below me.


I wonder if it was this hot. My clothes were soaked and so was my brain for coming on this tour when I could be soaking by the pool. When we finally got back, however, the little golf cart driver said, as he whisked through the wet walkway, it had rained all afternoon.
Meanwhile, the New Hampshire woman was crying at the adjacent Mayan Palace Resort after she left her iPad on the bus.

“After that stupid Tulum tour I lost my iPad!” she said before breaking down in tears. Maybe some Mayan gods are still around.

Playa del Carmen timeshare spiel is definitely no day at the beach

Would you buy a timeshare from this man? Actually, Alvaro was nicer than most but didn't land the sale.

Would you buy a timeshare from this man? Actually, Alvaro was nicer than most but didn’t land the sale.


OCT. 22 — PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO

Not that it’s raining much but a bird just flew into my room and took a towel to dry off. It has been pouring like I’m in the middle of a National Geographic special on flooded Brazilian villages. It’s starting Day 4 here At the five-star-plus Grande Luxxe Resort and I have yet to see the sun. It reached a crescendo last night when sounds of rain pounding fern leaves and thunder nearly erased the World Series commentary on TV. I’m getting a little irritated. This suite is big enough for a small village but so are the opulent swimming pools who sit empty as people try to stay dry.

What a great weather to listen to a guy sell you a $110,000 condo you can use two weeks a year.

The catch to staying here a week is I had to sit through the dreaded timeshare spiel. Actually, I didn’t. My friend has a condo and this is one of the trade outs. I came along for support and to see the lengths a salesman will go. I expected nothing less than brass bands and the nut-in-shell con game.

I’m a veteran of these things. I’ve spent a weekend in Steamboat Springs for $75. I had a condo in Cabo for $50 a night. I know how to say no, a word too many people can’t say to strangers. Timeshare salesmen aren’t strangers to me. After an hour or so, they become annoying, cloying vultures who would lie to their first-born child if it ravaged their savings account for one of their properties.

Some are worse than others. I remember one clown with Marriott who asked everyone in the room where’s the one place they’ve always wanted to spend a week. It don’t matter, he said. They had a property there. When they got to me, I said, “How are your resorts in North Korea?”

I greeted his phony small talk with such bored irreverence that his plastered smile quickly turned into a steel glaze. He then tried to convince me that buying a Marriott condo anywhere in the world would be cheaper than traveling to Third World countries on frequent flyer miles as I do. He filled up an entire piece of notebook paper with numbers and scribbles. He wrote and talked so fast I finally said, “I have no earthly idea what you just told me which, if you think about it, is good practice for my visit to North Korea. I thank you.” It became so cantankerous, my then-girlfriend, who had to accompany me because this outfit only dealt with couples, nearly started crying.

The entry-level suite going for $109,000.

The entry-level suite going for $109,000.


I finally got up and left and went straight to the desk for my paperwork to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. My ex refused to join just on the principle that she didn’t want to be reminded of one of the worst evenings of her life.
Turns out, I never went. This ripoff company required you to pay a nominal $15 service charge. It had to be sent by money order and only from a specific bank listed ONLY IN FINE PRINT at the bottom of the Rules & Regulations. When I called to ask if I can send another, some young woman laughed and said, “Sorry, sir! Too late.”

Click.

It was with this in mind that I accompanied my friend to the Grand Mayan Resort, adjacent to our Grand Luxxe. We had a strategy. We’d stay one hour — the exact time the front desk said we had to stay — and leave. Then we’d go collect our 10 percent discount for the week and $150 credit.

Much of the allure was the buffet breakfast which, when not in conjunction with a meeting akin to molar surgery, is $25. We never even got a fork before a tall bald man in a billowy white shirt sat down at a round table with us. I looked around. About 20 other round tables had a bunch of tourists in a variety of ugly shorts with a slick-talking salesman or saleswoman. They all had that young corporate look. The men wore crisp long-sleeve shirts with name tags. The women were all slinky babes in tight, short skirts with slits in the back and high heels that if used to walk along the beach would dig halfway to China. They appeared to be all Americans.

Our salesman’s name was Alvaro. He was a nice enough fellow for a timeshare salesman. In other words, I didn’t want to garrote this one. He was raised in Londonderry, N.H., to Colombian parents who moved to Mexico when he was 15. He’s completely bilingual and has lived in Playa del Carmen for 17 years. He seemingly knew every condo on the beach.

The strategy was threefold:

Bury the customer with positive information about the property.

Find out how much the customer is currently spending on travel.

Create a mathematical equation that would baffle the MIT faculty but convince you that you can’t pass up the savings of buying a $100,000 condo.

Alvaro did lay out an impressive array of superlatives about Grupo Vidanta, the parent company whose three properties in Playa are just a small part of its huge conglomeration:

1. It boasts the largest hotel pool in Latin America. We walked by it as we went to the meeting hall and it’s the size of a small lake. However, as rain slowly pelted us, this particularly lake was void of human beings.

2. Vidanta is the third largest timeshare company in the industry.

3. It has 100,000 owners.

4. It started in 1972 when a Stanford grad named Daniel Chavez Moran surveyed 30,000 tourists about their travel habits. Moran, whom CNN named as one of the 100 most important businessmen in Mexico, formed this company based on that information.

Fresh turkey at the free buffet breakfast.

Fresh turkey at the free buffet breakfast.


Then came the questions. My friend has two condos in Maui, one in Kauai and one in Anaheim. Anaheim? Yes, timeshares are all about trade value. You get these condos for two weeks a year but can trade them out for two more. Everyone wants to go to Hawaii. Every family wants to go to Disneyland. It’s sound strategy. One problem.

“How much do you pay in maintenance fees?” Alvaro asked.

In total my friend pays about $5,000 a year. I could practically see the light bulb appear over Alvaro’s head. That’s when he bore in. He took his legal pad and started writing down numbers and explaining Vidanta’s maintenance fee strategy. If you don’t use the condo, you don’t pay the fee. Thus, the maintenance fees are much less. He talked of guaranteed upgrades. He talked of the 30 properties in Latin America and thousands of trade-out properties around the world. I looked at the Manhattan telephone book-sized catalog and they may very well have a resort in North Korea.

They have one in Mecca.

We received a tour. We saw the deluxe suite that we had and an entry level suite with only one bedroom. That was $109,000.

Think about the math there. Pay $109,000 and you get it for only two weeks plus two weeks trade out to other condos. That’s one month of vacation. I kept thinking how I traveled around the world alone for a year on $4,000. Sure, it was 1978-79 but making monthly mortgage payments on a condo that could sit empty 11 months a year sounds like the dumbest investment this side of a Hooters in Baghdad.

Here’s where they try to convince you that you’re throwing away money: If you spend X amount of years at their condo, you will have saved up enough in maintenance fees to pay it off. That is true. But it’s math logic stretched to the max, or to the customer’s savings account.

And, of course, they always pepper the meeting with small talk, just to make it a little less painful. Over an admittedly spectacular breakfast buffet of crafted omelets, French toast, taquitas and fresh turkey, Alvaro talked about speaking Spanish growing up in New Hampshire. He asked me about my traveling style.

“I just like to show up and wing it,” I said.

“That’s what I like,” he lied. “I find a charter and just go.”

Sorry, Alvaro. Independent travelers don’t fly charter. They fly frequent flyer.

“Sir,” he said, “how do you pay for your hotels, online or at the front desk?”

“I stay at AirBnBs,” I said. “I stay with local families.”

By then, he knew I was a lost cause. About the most honest thing he said was when I asked him about the horseshit weather.

“It’s the rainy season, sir,” he said. “Sorry.”

“I read a weather chart that said Playa only gets three days of rain every October.”

“That was wrong,” he said as I slumped, wanting to throw myself in the roiling surf.

After breakfast and finishing the math, he asked, “Which of your condos would you most like to own? Which of your condos do you use the least?”

He tried to get my friend to drop a couple of the condos and buy one here. It would make sense if it wasn’t $110,000 for an entry level condo half the size of ours and the rain nearly causing pool furniture to float past our window. It also makes sense if you come back here for 25 years.

I couldn’t do it. This place is over-the-top luxurious. The room is so nice you feel if you leave you’re missing something. A week like this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m still glad I came even though I may return to Rome more white than I did when I arrived. But it’s not my style. It’s not Mexico. I come to Mexico to meet Mexicans, not people like the old man I met yesterday morning in the University of Michigan ball cap who complained that other Vidanta resorts have better personal service.

“The one in Puerto Vallarta, they knock on your door at 8 in the morning and ask if they can do anything for you,” he said.

Which I would reply, “Yes. Leave.”

I don’t want to be around people whose only idea of travel is 6-star resorts where they see the same other Americans every trip and won’t leave the grounds for fear of rubbing elbows with the locals. I couldn’t do it. For a week? Yes. Not for a lifetime which is what it takes to pay one of these off.

The meeting went 2 1/2 hours and Alvaro STILL had more math to show us. He wanted to meet my friend again.

“I’ll throw in some more goodies,” he said. “I’ll take you out to dinner. I’ll give you another tour.”

My friend made a mistake by telling Alvaro to call back in two days. We took the shuttle back in the rain chuckling about the lengths these people go to sell these properties. I don’t blame Alvaro. He was nice, competent, informative and courteous. He was high pressured just enough to be good at his job. He has to make a living.

And soaking in the Jacuzzi, up to my chin in bubbles, made me think I could get used to this. But then I think of what the world is and what you can learn from so many people. I don’t know what I’d learn talking to old men in University of Michigan ball caps.

Playa del Carmen’s six-star resort scene puts the “high” in high maintenance

The Grand Mayan Resort sports "The Largest Swimming Pool in Latin America."

The Grand Mayan Resort sports “The Largest Swimming Pool in Latin America.”


MONDAY, OCT. 20

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico — Dear International Youth Hostel Association: Drop dead.

I could get used to six-star treatment. My days crashing youth hostels were gone a long time ago but I could become high maintenance in a hurry. I’m sitting here on a cushioned, wooden lanais chair next to a small, tiled wading pool just big enough for an orgy. I’m looking over the glass-paneled balcony rail DOWN at a jungle of ferns the size of four-story buildings. A giant pyramid is almost blocking the sun as well as the cloud cover. The pyramid is the resort’s doffed cap to the ancient Mayans who once ruled here but is now, in the best fashion of mass tourism, a water slide. I think it’s made of Plexiglas.

The Grand Luxxe resort is considered one of the top 20 resorts in the world. It’s part of the Grupo Vidanta, a Guadalajara-based conglomerate started in 1974 and has since turned itself into one of the world’s biggest timeshare and resort management groups. They list it as a 5-star++. One + means comfort. The other + likely means cost. The Grand Luxxe redefines opulence. The grand villa where I’m quartered has every luxury you can imagine without violating some federal obscenity laws. It’s 2,500 square feet with two huge bedrooms, two huge living rooms, 2 1/2 bathrooms and four huge flat-screen TVs. My room has a king-size bed covered with enough pillows to house flood evacuees.

An above-ground eggshell-white Jacuzzi tub separates the room from a bathroom that has a shower with two different shower heads. Next to the bathtub is a little stand with a carefully rolled towel tied by a decorative bow. Small bottles of bath salt, bathing gel and bubble bath are placed equal distance around the towel. Who knew feng shui extended to toiletries?

The living room of the Grand Luxxe's 2,500-square-foot grand suite.

The living room of the Grand Luxxe’s 2,500-square-foot grand suite.


There are three huge flat-screen TVs, one in a living room bigger than my apartment in Rome. The kitchen has a microwave, giant refrigerator and a coffeemaker with little brightly colored tubs of espresso.

The lighting can be lowered and raised to fit the mood. A-C puts the room at 72 degrees. As I’m writing this, I hear unseen birds singing inside the thick foliage and a xylophone player beating a steady rhythm near the beach I can’t see. Nor can I see “The Largest Swimming Pool in Latin America,” which, from pictures off the website, looks like a small Tahitian bay had been cordoned off by concrete walk paths and cushioned lanais chairs.

Of course, this is as far away from true Mexican culture as a Taco Bell in Dubuque, Iowa. The Grand Luxxe is halfway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen along the 62-mile stretch of beautiful white sand on the Mayan Riviera. It’s so far set away in the jungle, you need a shuttle to take you to the main highway. In fact, you get wheeled around the three adjoining complexes — the even more obtuse Grand Mayan with the gigantic pyramid lobby and the understated Mayan Palace are a 5-minute ride away — in shuttles that resemble golf carts with four back seats. Smiling Mexican men with limited English say, “Buenos noches!” and “Hola!” and “Como sta?” as they pull up to the various roundabout driveways in front of the lobbies.

One of the three bedrooms, all complete with flat-screen TVs.

One of the three bedrooms, all complete with flat-screen TVs.


The grounds are dotted with swimming pools and restaurants. In between, the golf carts whiz along paths cut through the jungle. Towering over you are giant ferns and palm trees so thick you think you’re playing 18 holes at the Amazon Country Club. Under construction is an elevated wooden walkway which will soon take more energetic guests along the jungle route right next to the fern line.

I was so hungry I didn’t have much time to explore the room other than call management to ask how the massage-therapy shower worked. (You can choose to take the spray coming out of the wall or from a big, round cylinder above your head which feels like you’re standing under a real warm waterfall.) After a 10-minute briefing by Luz, the pretty hotel clerk, she recommended Green Break, “the inexpensive taco shack.”

MIERDA! OK, here’s the problem with timeshares: Yeah, they’re all paid off but the things you buy around the resort make it seem as costly as a normal hotel. The espresso tubs in the kitchen are $3 each. At first glance, Green Break is a real nice beach bar. It’s spacious with an open kitchen and simple tables. A small squadron of mosquitoes chased away an entire table of American tourists nearby. I had the quesadilla with chicken, pineapple, cilantro and onion. It was one of the best quesadillas of my life, sweet and juicy and not a bit of grease. Two small margaritas had my head spinning — but not nearly as much as my bill. With an appetizer of chips and guacamole, the bill?

$50.

Me in one of the two Jacuzzis in the suite.

Me in one of the two Jacuzzis in the suite.


They charged $12 for a margarita. One Mexican meal cost as much as many Mexicans make in a week.

Living in Rome, I hadn’t watched an NFL game all year. After dinner, the Grand Mayan lobby with a ceiling higher than the one in the old World Trade Center Marriott led to a giant concert hall where two confused Mexican bellmen tried to find NBC and the Denver Broncos game. A rabid, blonde Peyton Manning fan from suburban Philadelphia was about ready to strangle them both until they got it on after the start of the second quarter.

Even the deck has a pool.

Even the deck has a pool.


Manning made the 49ers look ridiculous and beat the NFL’s all-time TD record. But Manning wasn’t nearly as strong as the two margaritas, which in the end, as I dozed away in six-star luxury, may have been worth $12 each.

Cuba Journal: Clubbing in Cancun a loud way to pour your way home from Cuba

Mois, Katy and Ashley at the rainy Beachscape Kin Ha Villas in Cancun.

Mois, Katy and Ashley at the rainy Beachscape Kin Ha Villas in Cancun.

FRIDAY, MARCH 1 – CANCUN, MEXICO

Am I home yet?

It’ll be nice to get back to Colorado and be warm again. It’s rainy, gray and miserable in Cancun – in more ways than one. This place is mankind’s cesspool. It’s debauchery in its filthiest form. If planet Earth had a morality scale, you could only locate Cancun with a submarine. This place makes Las Vegas look like the Vatican on Easter weekend.

Last night was my first time “out on the town” in Cancun and I’m still recovering from the ear-splitting disco music, getting hit on by a transsexual and just avoiding projectile vomit that flies here like snow in Alaska.

Fortunately, the margaritas were so weak I don’t have a savage hangover like half a dozen people I saw carried out by their friends. Then again, I only lasted 2 ½ hours. It felt like 2 ½ days.

Cancun’s famed Zona Hotelera is a nine-mile string of land between the Laguna de Nichupte and the Caribbean. It goes north about seven miles then cuts inland for a couple where it rejoins the mainland and heads toward downtown, my preferable location. The road, Boulevard Kukulcan, is lined with more high-end hotels than any place I’ve seen outside Las Vegas. The farther my airport shuttle drove, the tackier the tourist traps and souvenir shops got across from the hotels. I was going right into the heart of Cancun’s sleaze. Using a Vietnam War term, I was going straight into the shit.

My hotel, the Beachscape Kin Ha Villas, is on the modest end. In other words, no employee hack wearing a sombrero greeted me at the door. It’s a series of two-story, blinding-white buildings with patios and palm trees. It has a small, poorly lit, open-air lobby that made me think this would be one terrific dump.

No wonder the place was marked 40 percent off all the way to $100 a night. The lobby doesn’t have a single decoration. Forget a sombrero. How ‘bout a chair?

But I will admit the location is terrific. Walking to the back I passed a big, deep pool and past the crowded beach bar was a brilliant expanse of white-sand beach. The lanais chairs spoiled the pure, raw beauty of the Caribbean but for the purpose of just vegging out for two days before returning to work it was perfect.

Except for one thing: It was pouring. I hopscotched over puddles to the bar where I pounded $5 margaritas all afternoon. Joining me were two beautiful Minnesota women, one a recent graduate of Mankato State, and another a senior at Minnesota. Both were Cancunophiles. They knew every disco and had burned out on every one of them. They seemed to have stayed in half the resorts. And they know all the discounts. They went on Social Network and found a deal here for five nights for $300 each all inclusive. After last night, I’d take one night and one bullet.

Continue reading