I asked around at the spa, the concierge counter and the pool: Where can I experience a temazcal, a pre-Hispanic purification ceremony? I finally received an answer from an employee who intercepted me on my way back from the kayak rental stand. The Xcaret Mexico park, he told me in a hurried tone.
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An hour later, inside a sweat lodge at the park, the guide’s deep voice rose from the darkness. “Happiness is cold water,” he said before splashing our roasting group with icy droplets. Pressing my back against the cool stone wall, I added to his body of wisdom: Happiness is realizing that you can’t do everything on an all-inclusive vacation, and being okay with that decision.
All-inclusives are the rare place where it’s perfectly acceptable to fall asleep in multiple public locations. To eat outside of meal times. To literally drink like a fish — submerged in water. But the resorts also appeal to travelers on the other end of the metabolic spectrum: High achievers who will sign up for every activity and excursion in order to learn about the local culture through enriching programs, not the bar specials.
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One of the major selling points of all-inclusives is that you don’t have to make decisions. You pay one price, then just show up. But once you arrive, the choices can be staggering. My 900-suite hotel had a head-spinning 10 restaurants, 12 bars and cafes and access to 8 theme parks, plus a ferry to Isla Mujeres. A little advance planning, however, can prevent the onset of vertigo.
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“At all-inclusive resorts, it’s an embarrassment of riches,” said Denise Ambrusko-Maida, the founder of Travel Brilliant in Buffalo, who served as my all-inclusive expert. “Overpack your schedule and it gets overwhelming.”
Zac Samuels, a travel agent in Michigan, recommends booking multiple restaurant reservations for the same night and deciding closer to mealtime which one you will keep. Just make sure that you are not charged a cancellation fee or hogging in-demand tables.
“You might be feeling Italian when you are sitting in D.C., but the Mexican smells great while you’re there,” he said.
Lauren Yakiwchuk, a Toronto-based traveler who shares her adventures on her blog, Justin Plus Lauren, suggests booking restaurants, spa treatments and activities with limited capacity ahead of time. “You don’t want to be disappointed when you show up and everything is booked.”
For tips, she will join Facebook groups run by a resort’s fans or frequent guests. You can also search for photos of the property on Instagram and message the account holder for insights. I gleaned information from Reddit threads.
Ambrusko-Maida warns to not micromanage your trip and to leave room for spontaneity. “After you pick your one thing, go with the flow,” she said.
To apply this philosophy to dining, she suggests a sampler-platter approach. One night, order a different course at each dining establishment. “Restaurant hop,” she said. “Get an appetizer at one restaurant, a dessert at another.”
I didn’t grasp the full extent of Xcaret’s mega-enterprise until I was on the shuttle bus from the Cancún airport. During the hour-long ride, I watched promotional videos of the Mexican company’s hotels and theme parks. Along the highway, billboards advertising Xcaret’s diversions proclaimed, “Freedom begins here.”
By the time the bus pulled up to Xcaret Arte, I was fully aware of how unprepared I was. I set out to rectify the situation. At the concierge desk, I shared my interests with Jesus, who eliminated any attractions requiring a reservation at least 2o hours before as well as restaurants that could not easily substitute meat proteins for plants. I walked away with an itinerary that included one park, three vegan-friendly restaurants and enough free time to accommodate any whims or whatnots.
Maximize your cultural experiences on property
All-inclusives have become more attuned to the local community, offering at least a few activities a day with cultural leanings. They may appear poolside, or in the lobby, or on the route to the beach.
“For a long time, all-inclusives have offered guests a lot of different ways to have a culturally immersive experience,” said Scott Wiseman, senior vice president of ALG Vacations, which is part of Hyatt Hotel Corp. “But they are being curated and presented better.”
“You don’t have to leave the resort” for culture, Wiseman said. “We will bring it to you.”
Wiseman said the Hyatt’s all-inclusive brands, which include Secrets, Dreams and Zoetry, will schedule several special daytime events as well as theme nights. The diversions might be national in nature, such as a rum tasting; regional, such as a cooking class celebrating a specific style of cuisine; or hyperlocal, such as a crafts market featuring artisans from the area.
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At Xcaret, I learned more about Mexican culture and traditions than I had on all of my previous trips to the Yucatán Peninsula. In addition to the temazcal, I attended free workshops that taught us to cross stitch (one day, my flamingo’s leg will grow a body and head), paint pottery and dance salsa. Even lounging at the pool was an edifying experience: A band performed popular songs from around the country, including many that inspired guests to put down their drinks and join in. Late night at the Oaxacan Cantina Vi.Ai.Py, the lead singer noticed that I was neither singing nor dancing. He handed me a guiro, widening the circle to make room for one more.
Book excursions beyond the resort
Resort offerings, however, are often limited in length and depth: They may feel like an intermission between main events. To satisfy deeper cultural cravings, you will need to explore outside the resort gates, independently or on a guided tour.
“Despite a hotel’s best efforts, you won’t truly have an understanding of the local culture if you stay at an all-inclusive resort,” said Laura Sangster, founder of Caribbean Journey. “A lot of our clients will use an all-inclusive resort as their home base in a destination and still get out and explore locally.”
Adventurous travelers can venture off on their own, depending on the property’s location. Ambrusko-Maida said that some destinations are built for self-guided exploration, such as the compact islands of St. Lucia, Grenada, Guadeloupe and Aruba, whose main town, Oranjestad, is within whistling distance of many all-inclusives.
“Smaller islands are just so easy to experience,” she said. “The tourism isn’t so overwhelming.”
Among larger islands, Sangster gives a shout out to Jamaica. “Due to the layout of the island, it is fairly easy to plan a day tour and explore a more authentic side of the island.” She is more circumspect about Cancún and Punta Cana, which she said “are not known for being as authentic as the smaller towns and islands.”
During a stay at Dreams Vallarta Bay, Yakiwchuk and her partner, Justin Ceksters, walked into the town of Puerta Vallerta in search of Mexican street food. “The food at the resort was delicious but it catered to American taste,” said Yakiwchuk, a vegan. “I wanted to try out the restaurants and eat all different kinds of tacos. We found what looked like a guy grilling in his garage.”
Travelers might balk at the idea of paying for food, an affront to the all-inclusive format. Yakiwchuk said their meals averaged $15 to $20 for the pair, a worthwhile investment for an edible slice of culture.
Some all-inclusives are enclaves closer to the beaches than the cultural centers, so you can’t easily walk or catch a ride into town. Other regions, especially in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, are suffering from a rise in crime. In these less-hospitable environments, travelers should sign up for a guided outing through the resort or a local operator.
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“It’s challenging because the area where you’d go to interact with locals is not where tourists usually go,” Ambrusko-Maida said of the Dominican Republic.
Booking through the resort’s excursions desk is quick and convenient. You can set up a week’s worth of adventures between dips in the pool. You might pay a bit more than if you had reserved directly with a local agency, but you will save on transportation (which is typically included) and stress (which is unnecessary): Similar to the shore excursion arrangement on cruise ships, the resort will take responsibility if any part of your off-site outing goes awry.
The resorts typically hire local operators, guides and drivers, a comforting notion for guests who want their money to trickle into the community. To further boost the local economy, while out on your own or on a tour, make a concerted effort to shop at small neighborhood businesses. Also bring some extra cash for tips.
During a 2019 vacation at Sandals Grande St. Lucian, Yakiwchuk booked a day-long trip that satisfied her need to “go, go, go.” The group snorkeled and soaked in a mud bath, visited cacao and coconut plantations, cooled off in a waterfall and heated up in hot springs.
“For culture, I usually get off the resort,” said Yakiwchuk.
Many all-inclusives have partnered with Amstar DMC, an excursions specialist at resorts in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Mexico. (You can also book their trips online.) A bulk of the adventures are standard island fare, such as snorkeling or sunset sails. Others are unique to the destination, such as the nine-hour Bavaro Runner tour that features a visit to a rural school and the home of a Dominican family and a get-together with farmers who share stories about their livelihood.
“You’re getting away from the beach and going into a rural area,” Wiseman said.
Last fall, Wiseman signed up for a five-course feast on a Riviera Maya beach near his hotel, Secrets Moxché Playa del Carmen. At the Traveler’s Table event, the group dined on dishes showcasing Mayan, Spanish, Middle Eastern and African cuisines. At one point during the meal, the guests looked down at the sand and noticed hundreds of squirming baby sea turtles. They cut the lights and spent the next 20 minutes helping the dinner party crashers return to the sea.
“It wasn’t a shtick,” he said of the extraordinary experience. “It wasn’t a gimmick.”
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