Monday, 28 November 2016

Hualtulco, Mexico and the Dream of Dreams

We have been to the Mayan Riviera on several occasions and are now exploring the west (Pacific) side of Mexico.  What can we say, except to say we love it.  Not only is there plenty of opportunity for tourism, there is plenty of opportunity for a tourist to rub shoulders with the locals, if that's what you like to do. . . and that's exactly what we like to do! We found the Mayan to be heavily developed, and one really has to look for ‘authentic' Mexico.  While I would never go so far as to say the local population is unfriendly, we are of the opinion that tourism is a means to an end (survival) but that the locals don’t really like us in their country.  Not so Huatulco.  The atmosphere is laid back, ‘authentic’ and the local people are some of the friendliest we have encountered anywhere in our travels.  While being apologetic for their poor English, we found most had a very good verbal command of the English language, and those that didn’t get “A” for effort.  We have often referred to Mexico as the ‘playground of Americans’, which has been our experience in the Mayan.  Much to our surprise, almost all the tourists we met, off or on the resort, were from Western Canada

Huatulco is a series of 9 bays in the far southwest corner of Mexico, in the state of Oaxaca. In the late 1970’s, the Mexican tourism agency, Fonatur, identified this area for major development; in fact, the original master plan envisioned another Cancun.  For whatever reason, Cancun and the Mayan took off, while Huatulco slowly percolated – a blessing in disguise, as the plan has since been amended to protect several of the bays from development. Although the impact of tourism has been reduced, the locals are concerned future development will ultimately destroy the relaxed feel of the community. Those in the tourism industry understand the draw to the area is its lack of sophistication and density.  There is significant ongoing private development in the area and a new 400-suite Secrets is set to open in 2010/11.

While there are a few planned tours, we didn’t partake in any of them.  We have been told the tour of the bays is a must.  We also met someone who did a combination tour of rafting, plantation tour and mud bath.  They found it to be very educational and completely entertaining.

As this particular area of Mexico is virtually crime free, we took a walk around ‘old Huatulco’ located in the resort area of Tangolunda Bay.  When Fonatur identified Huatulco for tourism, the government purchased much of the ocean front, from the locals, including this particular area.  There are few small hotels, markets and shops.  In other words, everything you need is within walking distance of the resort.

The government constructed  LaCrucecita to serve as a support community for the area.  Although planned with tourism in mind, it has a more genuine Mexican atmosphere. A $3 cab fare lands you near the zócalo or plaza, the focal point of the community enjoyed by residents and tourists alike. A number of hotels and restaurants are located on or near the zócalo. 

Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe
The town church, called Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, is located in front of the park. In the cupola of the church is painted a 20 meter tall image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is the largest in the world.  We were unable to enter the church, which is usually open to the public, as the church was holding an outdoor service.  We did, however, have a visit with some of the local children, hung out in the park for a bit, and had a pizza at the famous LaCrema Restaurant, known for its world class wood-fired oven baked pizza.
We also hired one of the local guides off the beach, to take us fishing and sightseeing.  We were picked up at the resort at 7 a.m., returning around 5 p.m., for a total of $250 US.  I have read these guides are not insured and I’m pretty sure they aren’t.  There is also some ‘hidden costs’ involved, such as the cab fare back to the resort ($3) and lunch ($50) and shopping if you like.  

Dolphins by the Hundreds
We fished for about 4 hours, during which time we saw plenty of dolphin and sea turtles.  We didn’t catch anything and except for the sea life (the dolphins were an absolute THRILL) the fishing for me, was much akin to watching paint dry.  That may have had something to do with the Dramamine we took for fear of being seasick (we weren’t) but my better half is a fisherman and I’m not; and he enjoyed it.  We then went to lunch at one of the Bays frequented by locals and tourists alike; snorkeled for about an hour; toured a few of the bays and returned to Santa Cruz, the local marina where a few cruise ships dock.

Our guide, Jesus and Rudy

One has to remember, these guides are not professional.  Rudy’s English was very good, while Jesus’ speaks Spanish only.  Both were very friendly and understood what tourists wanted to see.  That being said, the experience could easily be enhanced.  As the spokesperson, Rudy’s sales skills are pretty sharp.  He needs an identifier or ‘brand’ so he is recognizable as there is a lot of ‘talk’ on Trip Advisor, in particular.  Second, he needs to become a little bit more aware of safety while boating.  I would suggest a bit of an orientation to boating, offering life jackets when you step on board and leaving the choice to the guest as to whether or not they are worn.  Learning/sharing knowledge about the sea life and local area would be a great asset.   We like to learn about how the area was founded, what the expectation of growth is for development; how that will impact the community, how people make their living, etc.  It might take a bit of time to gather the details but Rudy  is very personable and certainly capable.  I would have liked to have known what kind of turtles and dolphins we were seeing or even that there are different species in the area; popular bird life, etc. 

I was a little un-nerved that we were literally dumped over the side of the boat to go snorkeling (once I got in I was fine).  I was expecting one of them to get in with us and have read that other guides do so.  One of Rudy’s strengths was that he was quick to remind us how to respect their environment, staying away from the reefs, etc.  While we came with money, we have been on several tours where some did not; it would be helpful to advise his customers to bring cash to purchase their lunch, pay their cab fare back to the resort, and purchase local crafts.  This will come in time as Rudy and Jesus’ perfect their tourism skills.  That being said, we would not hesitate to do it again and we wouldn’t hesitate to do it with them.

For us, the scenery was unusual and sparse but it has a way of growing on you.  We have become very accustomed to lush green tropics but this area, during high season, is not lush and except the resort areas, it’s not even green.  This is because the area is semi-arid and the only thing green this time of year are the cactus.   The rainy season (late May to September) brings all the trees into full leaf and I’m told, in October, it’s breath-taking.  The coast line is rocky and craggy, backed by the Sierra Madre Mountains; the trees are mottled greys and the sea a deep blue. The longer we were there the more we liked it.
Sierra Madre Mountains along the Pacific Coast
Although we rarely stay at all-inclusive resorts anymore, this time we chose Dreams Hualtulco.  We didn’t take photos of the facility itself; these are all available (and, incidentally, accurate) on the web at: http://www.huatulco-dreaming.comOur past all-inclusive experiences have resulted in some very high-end resorts, however, this was our first ‘Dreams’ experience.  I’m only guessing but I suspect Dreams Huatulco is at the bottom of the Dreams resorts chain.  This was an existing Gala Hotel taken over by Dreams a few years ago.  While the resort classes itself as a 5*, the accommodations, in my mind, is more akin to a 3+*.  The rooms are nice, but there is only a shower (we have been spoiled by double Jacuzzis); the ceilings are low; the buffet is adequate but the choices are limited.  

It was here I discovered that I had become a bit of a snob when it came to accommodations and sadly, my initial impression was one of disappointment.  That said, the place really grew on us.  The entire facility is extremely clean; staff and guests alike are extremely friendly; while choices were somewhat limited at the buffet (I’m a very picky eater) the food was excellent; the beach is great with lots of palapas; there are 6 pools; and, because we were traveling during shoulder season, the resort was nowhere near capacity.  At this time of year, we estimated the resort to be running at about 25% occupancy during the week, and about 60% from Thursday to Sunday as it seems to be a very popular destination for Mexican families.  We also witnessed several weddings and a Mexican christening, with the christening being the largest gathering.

The resort itself is very compact, with little variance in elevation from street to waterfront.  I would consider it an excellent choice for anyone with a physical handicap as there is also considerable hardscaping.  You can get everywhere via a couple of elevators, with the exception of the beach.  Suffice it to say, even my partner never got lost and he gets lost everywhere!

Tangolunda Bay sand is course and golden and the waves are rowdy and unruly.  If you don't get rolled once or twice, I'm guessing you didn't go in.  The beach extends considerably west and south, with about 5 other resorts on the Bay, with Las Brisas Resort on the point.  I wouldn’t consider it a particularly good beach for young children as the tide is quite erratic with big waves (there is surfing a few miles up the coast); and the drop-off is fast and deep.  It was also extremely warm and my better half is convinced there is a higher salt content as he had no problem staying afloat – a real novelty for him.  In other words, we LOVED it!  There are 6 pools at the resort, including a well-used kid’s pool and an adult only.  This is the first resort we have been to where pool hours was unrestricted; people would be swimming laps at 6:00 a.m. and it was common place to find a few in the pool at 9 and 10 p.m.  We tend to be ‘ocean going’ folk, so we never tipped so much as a toe into any of them but they all looked lovely and I understand they are also heated (that means something to some people; coming from Alberta, we were just happy it wasn’t frozen). 

The resort seems to be frequented by older couples (40+) and families with young children.  The kid’s pool and day camp appeared to be very popular and although we didn’t partake in any of the activities, the main pool seemed very participative.  Evening entertainment was minimal.  To my knowledge, there was no professional talent on the resort at any time, though one evening there was a solo act in the lobby bar which seemed popular with a few 60+ couples.

We were looking solely for an opportunity to decompress and relax from a very hectic and busy life and, for one entire week, that’s precisely what we did.  There isn’t enough activity on site, in my mind, to keep one entertained for two weeks and teenagers and 20 somethings would be quickly bored.
On-line photos of the rooms are precisely what you get.  They are modern, of decent size, and very clean.  There is a large shower and double sinks; the closet space is a bit tight; there is a typical sized safe and well stocked mini fridge.  We opted for a tropical view room because we could get one with a two-man Jacuzzi on the deck and I’m a Jacuzzi-holic.  We only used it once because the deck is really a bit tight for the Jacuzzi, two chairs and a table, and there is absolutely NO privacy.  I have read reviews the decks are often too hot to enjoy; fortunately our room faced east and looked into a treed crag.  The sun never made it over the hill until around 7:30 a.m.; very comfortable for morning coffee, late afternoons and evenings, but I’m guessing east facing is key to our success.  We did not opt for the ‘preferred club’ which offers a special beach area and some other perks, including its own private lounge and upgraded afternoon hot and cold snacks.  At this time of year, this was the right choice for us, though at high season, the preferred beach seating may have been a good thing to have.  Comments around the resort suggested that most folks were very happy with the accommodation and I understand it is currently the best in the area.

As I stated previously, the buffet selection is limited.  That said, the food was, perhaps, the best we have ever experienced in an all-inclusive.  We had a roast beef dinner one night that tasted ‘home cooked’ and you can’t get much better than that.  We would have liked to have seen a fresh grill area and fresh pasta bar (possibly there is one during the high season) but we certainly didn't have problems finding enough to eat.  Breakfast and lunch was always very good.  Suffice it to say, we found the buffet tasty enough that we only ate at an a la carte once, being the Porto Fino, which we also found very good.  Some people complained that it took too long but it’s supposed to – it’s fine dining – besides, where else did they have to be?  We also didn’t take advantage of room service, but heard it was fast, accurate and tasty as well. 

What I liked best was the international drinks.  I’m a fussy drinker, and a fussy eater so being able to get premium alcohol is a big deal for me.  My partner found bourbon he liked and the cerveza to be tasty.  I found the wine to be pretty decent and sucked back more than my share of Irish cream.  I also discovered a new drink:  MUDSLIDE. . . hmmm hmmmm good. . . . .   

Okay – we admit it – we were more than just VERY VERY lazy, we were slugs!   Just when I think we have hit the epitome of laziness, we are able to redefine the term ‘sloth’!   We began our days early (kinda sorta) but rarely made it for breakfast before 9:30 a.m., after which we would spend the rest of the day at the beach.  The one activity that we never did see though, was beach volleyball.  We talked to another couple who has been to the area before and they commented it is just not popular in Huatulco for some reason.  The most active ‘on resort’ activity I did a lot of, besides floating around that big ol’ ocean, was hobie catting.  You need to have a lesson and then you can take it out as often as you like. 

We heard via other guests the evening shows were clearly amateur productions taken on by the activities staff, who worked very hard all day too.  Parents told us the kids club and pool area were popular.  There was little to no entertainment in the bars.  One night there was a solo singer/piano player; we didn’t enjoy it but there were several older couples (a relative term, I know. . . ) dancing so somebody did.  There was a nightly evening movie and there was always a few to several people enjoying the outdoor theatre presentation.

We were very impressed with the majority of the staff.  Housekeeping was efficient, timely and most of those we talked to were pretty fluent in English, which we have not experienced at other resorts.  With the exception of the beach waitress (Ana Guadalupe) we didn’t find the bar staff particularly friendly or efficient, but they weren’t the worst we have ever experienced either.  Restaurant and front desk staff were friendly and helpful.  Check in and check-out was a breeze.  We really had nothing to complain about.

Every all-inclusive resort has strengths and weaknesses, and Dreams Huatulco is no different.  We found the food to be some of the best we have had, even though the selection is limited and a fresh grill at evening meals would really go a long way. The property, while somewhat older, is well maintained and extremely clean.  The rooms are nice, equipped with all the amenities we needed, and the beds very comfortable (which can't be said for much of Mexico which seems to prefer VERY hard mattresses).  While I would class the facility itself as a 3.5*, the management and staff are clearly 5*.   Everything related to ‘people skills’ Dreams definitely met or exceeded our expectations and that's exactly where we like it.  I went from initial disappointment in the facility, to falling in love with Huatulco as a community and being very comfortable at the resort.  Dreams is obviously committed to service delivery and this has to be recognized and commended.  We can’t say enough about the friendliness, cleanliness and level of safety we found in Huatulco, on and off the resort.  We have never returned to the same resort twice, preferring to have a new experience, even if it’s just through a change of venue.  Dreams Huatulco just might have tipped that scale in favor of a return visit.