TRAVELSCRIBBLES is a blog featuring travel reports, advice, and idea sharing for those interested in both domestic and international exploration.

Roger Sauer and his wife Donna have spent years traveling the world but have many places yet to see. You can follow their past and current travels here as well as post comments and questions about places they have visited.

Roger and Donna travelled to New Zealand and Australia in September, 2013. They will be in Paris in September 2015 with a train trip to Nice and Barcelona. They will then be aboard the Disney Magic (again) for a transatlantic cruise to Miami. Follow their travels on Twitter @rsauer3473.

Donna and Roger own Disney Vacation Club memberships at Old Key West and Beach Cub resorts in Walt Disney World. They also have other timeshare interests in Maui, Cancun, Orlando, and Palm Springs.
Feel free to contact them at 503-585-3473 if you would like rent one of these properties.

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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Two Weeks on the Riviera Maya

Part 1: Do two Jesuses bring good luck or bad weather?

Donna, our grandson Colin, and I arrived in Cancun after a long flight from Portland via Houston. A small mechanical problem delayed our connecting flight, however we still flew in about 3:30 PM. The three of us easily maneuvered through customs with forms we filled out on the plane, then grabbed our bags, and set out through the terminal to find our car and driver that we had arranged through Claudia Becerra, a resort concierge, the week prior. A gauntlet of "official transportation representatives" besieged us while we headed outside the building. Across the driveway was a large man with a purple shirt and a Westin Lagunamar sign. He had our name on a list so we moved to the slot where a very new Suburban backed in. Our driver was Jesus. As it was Sunday, this fact represented our religious experience for the week and, as this was our first trip to Mexico, was taken as a sign of good luck. The rate through this company, One Travel (not affiliated with the resort) is $35 each way for a twenty minute trip up the sliver of beach that is the Zona Hotelera between the Caribbean Sea and an expansive Nichupte Lagoon.

We were glad to have been warned ahead of time about those other drivers. The terrain around Cancun is flat as a tortilla but concrete and glass shards of hotels have pushed their was up through the sand on this stretch of Quintana Roo.

  The Westin Lagunamar resort is a timeshare property, the most recently purchased interval vacation resort we own. It is a 7-8 floor sandy beige structure composed in an irregular E shape with the openings facing the Gulf. The newer phase opening this year was the southern part of the E. Our room was a one bedroom unit on the corner of the sixth floor of building 8 facing the main pool area, beach, and (as this is being written) a glorious sunrise and a view of a resort employee raking the beach, a job that has its appeal. Each curve of the E wraps around massive symmetrical pools with infinity edges, swim-up bars, whirlpools, and children's play areas. The north pool has a slide.

This corner unit allowed for lanai access from both living area and bedroom. Each room had its own air conditioning controls. A full kitchen with a microwave but no oven, stacked laundry appliances, and large bathroom with separate shower and jetted tub made this an ideal place from which to plan our excursions. Registration was quick and our clerk was also named Jesus. Luis from bell services was very helpful in orienting us to the room and handling our bags. A couple of minor problems arose: a lamp with a faulty switch and the lack of a stopper in one of the two bathroom sinks. We filled out a service request card to have these issues addressed. By the time we returned from a
shopping trip the next day, the sink was fixed, the lamp was not repaired until a second call after a day or two. A few days later during a rainstorm we noticed other patios had cushions for the patio chairs. We called and asked for a set which came to us wet and moldy from another room. When I called guest services to request a new set, I was told there are no extras, only wet ones from other rooms. Later that evening, clean dry pads were delivered. Due to our longer stay, it was important to get groceries.

The small Tierra Market on the resort's lowest floor is limited and those shopping face resort prices. On the advice of the concierge we opted to take a city bus to a Wal-Mart grocery store subsidiary, Superama, about twenty minutes up Kukulkan Drive near downtown Cancun. The bus tickets are 8.5 pesos per trip. The store is new and is arranged like any domestic U.S. grocery. An in-store bakery, produce section, and meat and fish departments allowed us to meet most of our needs. Liquor, beers, and wine are available. Prices for most items were comparable to those in the U.S. After an hour of shopping and collecting a cart full of bags, we obtained a cab outside the store for the ride back to Westin Lagunamar. The fare was 140 pesos, a little over $11.00. There are several Wal-Marts in Cancun and also a Costco. The resort features three restaurants: Oceano, a breakfast and dinner full-service restaurant and two pool bar/restaurants, Viento by the North pool and Duna by the South. Across the wide Kukulkan Drive is La Isla Mall, a sprawling web of restaurants, shops, and brand name stores between the Drive and Nichupte Lagoon.

On our first evening we had dinner at one small restaurant called Taco Grill where food was fresh, prices reasonable, and service prompt. The only confusion came when we tried to add the tip to the credit card bill and wound up using cash, pesos, that is.

A word about Mexican currency: as this is written the going exchange rate for the dollar in Mexico is 13.7632 pesos. This means that one peso is worth a little more than 7 cents. Some shops and even the Westin posts a 13 pesos to the dollar "official" rate and I saw a rate as low as 12.5 pesos to the dollar. This means that some merchants are getting a slight favorable bump on every exchange. Perhaps the overage goes to St. Cecilia's Charity Home for the Math-Impaired, but I doubt it. For most large purchases we used credit or debit cards that tend to be pegged to official rates despite some bank fees. All merchants have calculators and can figure dollar equivalents. Personally, I don't do math in public.

One of the activities available on a weekly basis is a shopping tour of downtown Cancun. The cost of the tour is $10 USD per person and includes lunch we were told. Great deal. So we signed up and were driven in a van with eight or so others eager to dispose of their cash. Stop one was Market 28; salespersons were waiting for us at this shop. Individual shoppers were accompanied by the salespersons to explain the price coding on items. This means that no shopper has a hint of the sales price. Pottery, blankets, artwork, and jewelry filled the shop's many rooms. Despite the assurances of quality, origin, and great price of treasures ranging from wall hangings to bowls to Corona T-shirts, we did not buy. The second stop was also called Market 28, a meandering maze of shops a mile or two further. The two rules of Mexican shopping appear to be: 1) the priceless souvenir you buy will be cheaper at the second kiosk and 2) even cheaper at the third kiosk. Nevertheless, we purchased a couple of blankets, purses, a mortar and pestle. My own personal purchase was a trip to the bathroom where I paid a dollar for services rendered. The only bargain of the day.

After these two stops we were driven to a restaurant called Cantinita situated coincidentally right above another location of Taco Grill. Once seated we learned that the "included meal" was $25 USD per person. Our party of three asked for clarification on this and were informed that the cost was not included. This was surprising to us as the same person told us earlier in the day that the meal was included. To the extent that the shoppers were at the restaurant ten miles from the resort and could eat where they had been dropped off, this was technically correct. However, we three hopped out of our seats along with a nice lady from Seattle and descended the stairs for another great meal at this branch of the Taco Grill. The host Ricardo was especially friendly and helpful. Prices for three with Sangria and tip was about $40.00.

The Westin has a gym area with free weights and a variety of ellipticals and treadmills on the lower level adjacent to the Kid's Club and market. A book trade area, foosball and air hockey tables are available for older children and outside the building guests have access to a miniature golf course that is somewhat austere and less than competitive as players are not given score cards (and I can't really count well my fingers while holding a club.) Owners of timeshares and their guests do not need to pay resort fees along with nightly room rates. One benefit is free Internet. Rooms have an Ethernet cable as well as wi-fi. However, connection speeds vary greatly during the day- great in the morning, maddeningly slow in the evening. There were not enough outlets for our electronics. Bring a power strip.

The expansive pools at the resort are the center of activity and many guests can take advantage of poolside bingo, craft sales, pool slide races and games. There are many lounge chairs and umbrellas on the pool decks as well as thatched umbrellas and chairs on the beach for guests. About a dozen well maintained KitchenAid gas barbecues are strategically placed near pool area for visitors desirous of home cooked meals. While the resort says lounge chairs cannot be reserved with strategically placed beach towels before 9:30 AM., the rule is not enforced well. Pool towels are rationed through the use of cards issued at check-in that are used to trade for towels at pool kiosks. Again, the theory and practice are different as we ended up with about a dozen pool cards by the fourth day of our stay. And by the fifth day of our stay the towels that were placed on chairs by the early birds at 7 AM were soaked by 9:00 AM due to a rather persistent weather system that included lightning and thunder during the night. I saw this a a sign that Jesus the driver or Jesus the registration clerk was looking out for us and punishing the early towel placers.

We had seen some rain infrequently earlier in our stay but the rain was continuing into the afternoon. So we decided to move our "owner update" presentation by the Westin timeshare folks up to the rainy day in hopes that Friday would be nicer. The 90 minute presentation was informative. This means that we listened but did not buy any more timeshare despite "a really neat opportunity to make even better use of our ownership." The opportunity involved giving them $15,900. The rain looked better than staying around the sales center.

Unfortunately, the rain continued and plans for excursions on Friday were again curtailed. We decided to try to go to Costco for additional supplies. This required taking a bus to Wal-Mart, then a cab to Costco. While we were prepared for rain, the short trip to the bus stop left us drenched. The tropical depression had rain worse than cats and dogs because they had all drowned. The Cancun Costco is like any other Costco except for the signs. There were few people there and we were very surprised at this. Samples were being given out everywhere. Our favorites were the Grey Goose Vodka and Bacardi Rum- a practice our Salem branch should adopt. Our cart full, we pushed on to the hot dog station for lunch then tried to get a cab. The rain by this time was torrential and the covered apron around the store was packed with customers waiting for the rain to let up (they may still be there.) Finally, one cab arrived, a station wagon where we loaded our bags then then got in. There we met a smallish John Belushi look-alike who informed us that the fare was not $15 as we had been told but $25. After some dickering the price went down, but we again were concerned that the driver whose English was poorer than our Spanish was hopelessly lost.

In time the mystery was solved when we stopped at a gas station where our driver obtained translation services. (Why don't US stations do this?) Apparently the rain had flooded the northern stretch of Kukulkan Boulevard into the hotel zone so we had to go the much longer south route nearer the airport. Even if the south road was better, the drive was nerve-wracking as the car had no operable ventilation or defrost system, the driver had to keep wiping his window, and the entire experience was like moving within a very wet ping pong ball. Our fears of being captured by a Mexican drug cartel were allayed and we soon arrived at our hotel room where rain had leaked through a bathroom window drenching a strategically placed towel and leaving rain across the floor. A call to guest services was promptly answered with a gentleman bringing his solution to the flooding- more towels.

Groceries all stowed away, we decided to walk on the beach to look for shells in the light rain. Few shells were found.