Speaker’s Corner: Amy Williams Bernstein considered herself an intrepid, independent traveler. Then she found herself at an all-inclusive Cancun resort.
Photo by adpowers, via Flickr (Creative Commons)
I confess: I’m a travel snob. I turn my nose up at the words “package,” “tour,” and “all-inclusive.” And I believe that going to a new place just to lounge in a beach chair with a slushy drink in hand is for the lazy.
My husband Stuart subscribes to my way of thinking. He’s perfectly happy exploring foreign streets unguided, looking for unique experiences and adventures. Together we’ve helped save a beached whale in the Galapagos Islands, biked into the Amazon basin with a Dutch couple we met at an Ecuadorian B&B, and crawled into a claustrophobia-inducing Maui lava tube. I return home brandishing these stories to prove our traveler status.
So when my mother suggested an all-inclusive Cancun resort for a family get-together, I scoffed. No good travel story comes from staying within protective walls. But Stuart talked me down. “Just think of it as a time to be with family,” he said with infuriating reasonableness.
Stuart and I met my parents, brother, sister-in-law, and two young nephews in the open-air, thatched lobby of the Iberostar Tucán resort. As Stuart and I towed our suitcases along the paved path to our room, an animal scurried in front of us. The cat-sized, tailless creature had the body and face of a mouse, but it walked on stilt-like legs. Curiosity got the better of us. We abandoned our bags and followed the creature toward the bushes, where it was sitting like a squirrel munching on a berry. What was this strange cat/mouse/squirrel? We weren’t even rid of our luggage and already we were staring at a creature as confounding as a platypus.
Now I was intrigued. We ditched our bags in the room and headed out to explore the grounds. At the end of a path, tucked into jungle vegetation, flamingos and roseate spoonbills surrounded a man-made lagoon. This idyllic scene was only steps from our room, but I refused to be charmed. The non-native birds only proved that the wildlife was staged for the benefit of tourists, I told myself.
That night we were all together at dinner. Stuart asked Francisco, our server, about the strange animal we had seen that afternoon. That’s a cereque, a native rodent, he told us, and local descendants of the Maya still eat them. Enjoying our shock, he kept going. “Very tasty,” he said with a big grin, and launched into a list of ways to prepare cereque, the best of which he assured us, is a la plancha
Okay, so maybe we had managed to stumble onto some local culture inside the resort. But real travelers like us would not be content to stay within resort grounds. When my brother mentioned a jungle trail he had noticed from the beach, I decided I would lead the family on an adventure.
The next day, all eight of us hiked down the beach and picked up the trail running parallel to the surf through the jungle. Guest Services had provided a list of animals that might be found in and around the resort. I was especially interested in finding a tepezcuintle, another native rodent that Francisco had (mistakenly, it turns out) described as a marsupial. An hour into our sweaty trek, we had seen nothing more interesting than jungle foliage and bright green grasshoppers as long as my palm. Then something rustled a few feet off the trail, and my father called to the rest of us to catch up. There in the trees, he said, he saw something with a pointy nose and a long ringed tail. But the presumed tepezcuintle had climbed out of view into the tree canopy before I arrived.
I wouldn’t give up on adventure so easily. I went back to the women at the desk and pestered them with questions about the animals on their list and where I might find them. But the two friendly multilingual staff members were non-native themselves and didn’t know. I persevered. They must have somebody on staff to take care of the captive animals. Could I talk to them? The animal caretaker wasn’t available, they said.
I felt desperate to find some unique experience. A free SCUBA lesson in the deep end of the pool, fun as it was, didn’t count. I needed to leave with a story to prove I was better than the average slouch who frequents an all-inclusive.
Could I go into the kitchen and meet the chef, I asked. Could I get a glimpse behind the scenes at how the hotel is run? Would someone give me a lesson in folding towels into animal shapes? They politely turned down each of my requests.
With my hopes of adventure dashed, I settled into a rhythm for the rest of our vacation: lengthy swims around the pool each morning, playing in the glassy waves with my nephews in the afternoons, and, the best part, endless helpings at the surprisingly good buffet, which included common local foods, like grilled strips of nopal cactus and fried chayote, a native green gourd.
On our last day, as Stuart and I walked to the lobby to check out, a brown creature with a pointy nose and ringed tail ambled into the path in front of us. It took its time crossing, giving us a long look before it disappeared into the trees. When I looked it up on the Guest Services list, I found out this was not a tepezcuintle, but a coati—a cousin of the raccoon.
That’s when I realized that our most memorable moments had occurred when I let my ideals rest and we did exactly what you’re supposed to do at an all-inclusive resort: relax and indulge. Treating ourselves to poolside soft-serve ice cream, laying claim to the shadiest beach chairs, and indulging in afternoon naps didn’t prove our traveling chops. Instead of leaving with a story, I left with fond memories of family time, a good tan, and a renewed sense of well-being. And that makes me the worst kind of travel snob—one who secretly enjoys a little culturally-empty luxury.