Featured image, above — If you’re just fine, thanks, without the sand in your toes (or other parts), lounging by the pool is always an option; photo by Robin Catalano.
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The December air was salty and warm. I stood on the beach, the white, limestone-mixed sand cool under my feet, and watched the pulsing of the tide and the quick-stepping of sanderlings from one small mound of algae to another. At sunup, I was one of the only humans stirring, save for the handful of men combing the sand and depositing armfuls of sea debris into wheelbarrows. I walked out to the jetty and stood at the end. There in the DayGlo colors of the sunrise, I inhaled, and wondered why I haven’t been doing this every winter.
I’d come to the Bahia Principe Grand Tulum on the Riviera Maya as a skeptic, a seasoned traveler who believed that all-inclusive resorts hindered my love of exploration and new encounters. But I left a grateful advocate, after having found just what I needed during these cabin-feverish, travel-wary times.
The Rise of the All-Inclusive Resort & the Riviera Maya
All-inclusive resorts originated in the 1950s, and were dominated for years by the trend’s pioneer, Club Med. By the early 1990s, the trend had peaked. On the other side, all-inclusives became known as the old-school Catskill resorts of the Caribbean, complete with seen-better-days accommodations and food, and hokey, Vegas-lite entertainment.
But somewhere in the intervening years, a group of hoteliers got smart. They revamped everything from room design to buffet selections and activities—the kind guests actually want to do—not to mention amenities like full-service spas and infinity pools that spill out over magnificent coastal views.
The coast of the Riviera Maya in Mexico—a region that first saw development in response to the glut of tourism in nearby Cancún—is filled with all-inclusive resorts. Would it be nice to have a few less? Absolutely. But overlooking this region because a few travel magazines—which are usually hungry for the new and now—saddled it with the touristy moniker is a mistake.
The Yucatán peninsula is rich in natural beauty, especially along the coastline. It’s also home to some extraordinary flora and fauna—which shouldn’t be surprising, given that Mexico accounts for about 10 percent of the earth’s biodiversity. And it’s the birthplace of the Maya, one of the most sophisticated ancient cultures on the planet. In addition to the variety of remarkable sites the ancestors left behind, modern-day Maya maintain their culture and the landscape in villages and towns throughout the region.
Finding Community in the Resort Environment
Bahia Principe Grand Tulum is part of the Bahia Principe Hotels & Resort chain owned by Grupo Piñero, a Spanish hotel group. They currently own 27 hotels in the Caribbean and Spain, including four along the Riviera Maya. The Grand Tulum is considered a “value” property, making it an especially good bet for groups and families (there’s an entire area, with pool and club, just for kids). Although hotels in the area are currently allowed to operate at 60 percent capacity, the Grand Tulum—774 rooms—has been hovering pretty steadily between 30 and 40 percent during the pandemic.
Because the Grand Tulum wasn’t crowded, I felt like I had plenty of space to roam. In fact, on most of my trips to the beach, I was one of a dozen or so people on the sand or in the water. Wondering where all the people were, I went to investigate the pools, and found even fewer there. Whether most of the guests were hanging out in their rooms or enjoying an offsite excursion, I felt like I had the place—or at least the places I wanted to be within the place—mostly to myself.
Still, there were just enough people for it to not feel like a ghost town. I saw many of the same guests each day—in the halls, in the restaurants, between villas—which gave something of a small-community atmosphere. At a time when we’re all craving a little togetherness, without too-tight proximity, it actually felt comforting.
Making the Most of an All-Inclusive Stay
I’ve been to dozens of cities around the world, and I rarely stay at luxury hotels. Don’t get me wrong: they’re beautiful, and beautifully appointed. But if I’m mostly going to sleep there, I’d rather save my vacation budget for food, drink, and activities. Bahia Principe surprised me here. I stayed in a suite—king bed, two bathrooms, a seating area, a breakfast bar, and two balconies (currently priced about $215 per night)—that ended up feeling a lot more luxurious than some upscale European hotels I’ve slept in. Spacious and handsomely minimalist, it was inviting and relaxing, and decently soundproofed, so I didn’t have a problem falling asleep.
Cleaning protocols are heightened at most hotels right now, and Bahia Principe has its own deep-cleaning service between guests. The suite was made up each day, but I could have just as easily requested to forego daily service, or hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door. (It’s easy enough to call the front desk for extra towels, soap, and anything else you might need.)
The flip side of reduced occupancy is that not all of the resort’s restaurants were open. Of those that were, I visited the main buffet, Yucatán; Thalí, its new Indian restaurant; the Food Truck, a beachside snack shack; fine dining venue Don Pablo; and Gran Tortuga-Rodizio, a Brazilian-style steakhouse. I also dined offsite at a couple of restaurants at neighboring Bahia Principe properties.
Food at all-inclusive resorts is largely—and often justly—maligned. But the Grand Tulum did a solid job of maintaining a consistent food and beverage service. The standout here was Don Pablo, with its carefully crafted flavors and killer cocktails, all served in an old-fashioned club atmosphere.
Likewise, the pandemic had shuttered some activities, such as snorkeling—bring your own gear to circumvent the restriction—and reduced the availability or capacity for others. While I couldn’t find a yoga class to fit my schedule, I was still able to swim, kayak, use the fitness center, see a show at the theater, take part in a cooking demonstration and a cigar and tequila workshop, and visit the spa for a massage (ask for Frida; she’s a magician). I’d have done more if I’d stayed onsite all of the days, but I set aside time for two offsite excursions. The lesson here: if there’s something you have your heart set on doing—whether that’s salsa dancing, paddleboarding, or a body wrap—plan ahead, and book it either before you leave for your trip or the day you arrive.
While most guests went sans mask outdoors—there’s plenty of room to do it and still feel safely distant—the general rule in any indoor areas, including restaurants, is masks on anytime you’re not seated. That won’t stop the hard-core virus deniers, and there were a few. Bars are an especially tough spot, at least at night. Once folks start drinking, good judgment takes a nosedive. Add to this the fact that the entertainment crew at Bahia Principe is awfully good at energizing the crowd, so when said crowd is participating in a trivia night or other games, you’ll find a fair number of tipsy maskless folks shouting out answers or cheering one another on. Fortunately, the bars are large, and I found it easy to keep to a less populated section on the night I visited.
Beyond plentiful opportunities for food, drink, and relaxation, the Grand Tulum is also well located near a variety of attractions. Your best bet is to choose a day or two, and plan some offsite excursions.
The small, colorful village of Akumal is less than two miles away. Its brightly painted murals and handful of small restaurants and shops make for a satisfying mini excursion, but the big draw here is the Akumal Monkey Sanctuary—which, contrary to its name (and its goofy tagline, “Live the monkey experience”), is actually a rescue organization for a variety of wildlife. You’ll need to take a taxi over a long, rutted road to get there, but it’s a worthwhile visit.
If you’re up for a drive of an hour or two, skip the taxis and rent a car; it’s cheaper, and you’ll be able to control your own comings and goings. Or hire a tour company to take you to the ruins at Tulum and Cobá. Cobá isn’t far from Tulum, and presents a different perspective on ancient Mayan culture. It’s also less popular than Tulum as a tourist attraction, and a better option for escaping the crowds.
The area is also home to several of the Yucatán’s many cenotes (natural sinkholes used by the Maya—past and present—as a source of fresh water and spiritual connection). The best way to experience them is with a guide who can make sure you have permission from local residents to tour or swim in their cenotes. Yes, it’s more expensive (in the $150 range), but typically includes transportation, entry fees, a meal, and intriguing extras, like participation in a traditional Maya ceremony. I had two endlessly energetic guides from Alltournative, which specializes in eco-friendly tours, and was grateful to have their knowledge and their company; these guys and gals are a hoot.
For some of the world’s most stunning—no exaggeration—beachcombing, head for Xpu-Ha or Puerto Morelos to the north, or Playa Paraiso and Playa Ruinas, both just outside the Tulum archaeological site, to the south.
But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a nicer place to watch the sunrise than on Playa Chemuyil or Playa Akumal, where Bahia Principe Grand Tulum is located. I got up early almost every day of my stay just so I could walk the beach with the waking sun as my companion, and the image is still vivid in my memory. On my final shoreline walk, I actually teared up, knowing what I’d be missing once I returned home.
The all-inclusive experience has changed a lot in the past decade, and it’s worth another look—even for those of us who had sworn off the experience. It’s easy to fill your day with offsite exploration, or to stay close and do nothing but relax. And while you might have to contend with some travel-shamers when you land, if you follow safety protocols while there, in transit, and upon arrival, the chances are good that you’ll stay healthy. And you’ll be helping a local economy that relies heavily on tourism dollars, and needs the support now more than ever.
Robin Catalano believes in the power of storytelling to connect communities and cultures. She’s applied her creative approach to writing for magazines, books, blogs, websites, and a wide variety of marketing projects, and has published more than 75 articles and 1,000+ blog posts. As an editor, she has worked on more than 350 books for publishers including Penguin Random House, Workman, and Simon & Schuster. She has also served as a book coach for independent authors, helping them take their ideas from concept to print. An avid traveler and travel writer, Robin lives, reads, and writes voraciously in upstate NY.