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  • Jessica Stough

Cancun, Mexico - Part One

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

“Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” – Author Unknown


Our first vacation out of the country since Iceland has been another one for the books. It definitely felt weird getting our passports out and ready to go once again, nearly three years after our last time leaving American soil. I even mentioned to Zac that I had forgotten how to travel internationally. There are always a few additional quirks and hurdles to jump through compared to flights within the country, and I had forgotten each of them.

The first hurdle happened to be at the airport. Our flight out of Des Moines went well, and our connecting flight had no hiccups either. We even checked our carry-on luggage for free because of the size of the flight, so we didn’t have to worry about any baggage as we made our way from airport to airport. However, once we got to the Cancun airport, things suddenly became no bueno.


We easily got through customs and to the luggage carousel. Very quickly, we found our carry-on bag that we had been required to check. As the luggage that kept coming started to slow, and our checked luggage was nowhere to be seen, we started to get concerned. The group next to us who grabbed their fourth bag, while exasperatedly stating, “phew, we got really lucky this time and have all of our things” probably didn’t help our concerns.


Now, we have never had a problem with our luggage being lost in transition. That includes the flight where we had to get entirely re-routed, stay overnight in Chicago, and then spend a full day in Germany. All of our luggage has always bumped its way down that conveyor belt to greet us at each location.


Cancun, though, was different. The crowds cleared out, and there were about five or six of us that were left wondering, Where is our missing luggage? As we all lined up and braced ourselves for the news, I listened anxiously to the news the people in front of us received.


Your baggage will actually be here tomorrow, Sir, the flight attendant told the man in front of us in line. I cringed, hoping that wasn’t the same news we were going to receive. I’ve always been wary of checked bags, making sure to pack a few changes of clothes and the necessities in our carry-on in case something like that would happen, but had gotten comfortable with the fact that we have never had any issues. If we had gotten the same news as him, we wouldn’t have anything to wear but the clothes on our backs – that we had been wearing for easily over twelve hours already.


We finally made our way to the flight attendant, and got some much better news. Our bag would be right there. It was just a bit more delayed than the others. With that news, we happily stepped aside and waited. And waited. And waited. Over thirty minutes later, we found that they were actually on another conveyor belt. Finally, yet another thirty minutes went by before they shared with us that our luggage had been sitting on another conveyor belt just out of our eyesight the entire time. We waited in total for nearly an hour and thirty minutes (along with a few other travelers) for our luggage that was just chilling out, playing a terrible game of hide-and-seek.


It was on our way out of the airport, luggage in hand, that we (meaning I) made a few decisions for future travels:


  1. We will be getting a second carry-on, and will travel with just two carry-on pieces of luggage unless a checked bag is absolutely necessary.

  2. I will be investing in some translation earbuds (if I don’t get them for Christmas – they are on my wish list) so I can better understand what is happening, even if I am absolutely not fluent in the language being spoken around me.

  3. Bonus: We also decided later in the trip that we will be investing in some luggage tracking devices. If ever there is missing luggage just feet away from us, we will absolutely know where that luggage is (and hopefully avoid an hour and a half wait to find it).

 

With that, those reading are probably looking for less about the airport and more about what we did after the airport snafu. I will jump right in with the first half(ish) of our trip!


Xcaret Xplor Park


After a very long night at the airport followed by a bumpy ride to our Airbnb, we had a short sleep before our first adventure. Our alarm went off early, waking us for the long day ahead. We booked a full day at Xcaret Xplor Park. Xcaret has multiple parks to choose from, and we picked two (more on the other later). Of the two, Xplor was definitely our favorite.


Highlights:

  • Two circuts of seven ziplines – both circuits finish in the water for an absolutely amazing ziplining experience.

  • “Amphibious vehicle[s]” take adventurers through the jungle (under the zipliners – way cool!) and inside incredible caves.

  • Cave activities – there were so many fun things to do in the caves! Adventurers could walk sections, paddle with hand paddles, and go for an underground cave swim.

  • They had delicious and unlimited snacks and non-alcoholic drinks.

  • Their buffet lunch was absolutely amazing. They had so many options and wonderful service. Even as we were shoving our faces full of pasta salads, hamburgers, and tacos – there was an incredible wait staff bringing us chips and guac and desserts.

  • None of the park activities had any additional fees (this is important to note for later). The only additional fees would have been if we chose to purchase extra snacks (but why would we, because we had a delicious buffet!) or any souvenirs. Each activity was included in the park entry, and there were even more activities than what I mentioned above.


Be Aware:

  • They do have lockers available with entry to the park, but the lockers are very small. We had to push and shove our one small bag with towels and a change of clothes into our one locker that we were provided.

  • We opted in for the “Xelfie” photo package, which was (of course) an extra charge. The photo package is pricey, and although some photos turned out really good, their automatic cameras are not the best.

  • Our wristbands we received upon entry were linked to our photo package, so at each “Xelfie” station they had throughout the park, we could scan our bracelets and get our pictures snapped. Their stations were actually really impressive (in front of waterfalls, by dinosaur fossils, and more).

  • Each of our helmets had trackers in them, so when we were ziplining or doing other activities, the motion-detecting cameras would capture pictures and assign them to our photo package.

  • However, the cameras oftentimes got us at the edge of their frame or even captured others ziplining and grouped their pictures into our photo package.

  • The park does share to leave selfie sticks, GoPros, and other cameras at home or in the lockers (which we did – especially since we splurged on this photo package and assumed it would catch everything for us) – but a lot of people brought theirs along anyway.

  • I did not see any of the park staff telling people to put their cameras or phones away for safety, as I assumed I would. I guess this is a “choose at your own risk” sort of thing that each park-goer will have to decide for themselves.

 

Xcaret by Mexico! Park


The next day, after our adventures at Xplor and finally getting some zzz’s, we were up again and ready to go by 7 AM for our next tour bus. This time, though, the bus took us to the “main” Xcaret park. There were so many different options for parks and adventures through Xcaret, but this one seemed to be the “big” option to choose so we went for it.


Highlights:

  • This park has a lot to see – underground rivers, a beach, a butterfly sanctuary, an aquarium, and more.

  • There is a really cool tropical jungle trail to hike. We walked this and loved that there were barely any other people on the trail. We were in the middle of a (very) crowded park, but were basically alone on the trail with the animals.

  • The three underground rivers were amazing. We really thought that this was the coolest thing we were able to do at the park. There are life jackets available at no extra charge, and people check them out at the beginning of the river and swim as far as they want.

  • With the “Plus” package, there are no additional fees for the snorkel gear.

Be Aware:

  • Much like Xplor, there is one lunch buffet. However, this park only includes drinks while at the buffet. All other drinks and snacks are extra charge – if you’re a snacker, be sure to bring some of your own items into the park so you’re not paying overpriced park fees.

  • We opted in for the “Xelfie” photo package again, which was an extra charge. The park made it seem as though a lot of the activities would be in water, and their waterproof phone cases (you know, those ones that fit around your neck like this) were over $30 each. Honestly, I rationalized purchasing the photo package because I figured it was worth paying a bit more to not have to carry my phone and not have another phone case (since my non-overpriced one was sitting happily at home, not being used).

  • There are so many things to do in the park that do not involve water that visitors can absolutely bring their phone with them through the park for multiple pictures.

  • There were even more limited “Xelfie” stations at this park than at Xplor.

  • There were no additional pictures past the “Xelfie” stations in this park. Without the helmets with the chips, the only way to get pictures at this park was to find the “Xelfie” stations and scan our bracelets.

  • I do think that this package came in handy for our river swim, but do not think it was worth the price, especially with some of our pictures still ending up a bit out of frame.

  • There are multiple “Optional” activities at this park. The majority of the park’s advertising and marketing show the “Optional” activities – which, of course, are all additional charges. Although we had researched what was and was not included in our entry, we still were bummed to find out just how few of the park activities were free (considering Xplor had everything included).

  • Keep in mind for the photo package and the “Optional” activities – some of the activities are not included in the photo package. For example, the shark swimming is a separate fee because they have a special photographer for that activity. I believe swimming with the dolphins is similar.

 

The Buses and Hotel Zone Shopping



We had a few days where we didn’t have big excursions planned. With those days, we decided to explore more of the Cancun Hotel Zone and shopping areas. Reader, if you haven’t already caught on, with some of the things we read before our trip, we decided to manage through this vacation without a rental car. Instead, we decided we would rely on transportation included in our excursions, walking, and public transportation.

When we decided to explore the Hotel Zone for shopping was when we realized we had absolutely no idea what we are doing when it comes to public transportation in other countries. We learned a few things:

  • There are two routes for the public transportation buses in the Hotel Zone – Route 1 and Route 2. It is important to know which direction each route goes in order to know which bus to jump on.

  • Most of the buses will take cash immediately when riders get on the bus and give each rider a ticket. However, we had one instance in which the bus driver didn’t even seem to notice us get on with the other people, and we didn’t pay until we were headed off the bus (this was our first trip, so it made things extra confusing).

  • The buses do not stop at every bus stop. The driver will only stop if he sees people at the stop waiting to get on or if riders request to get off the bus. It is important to know where stops are and which stop is needed for this very reason.

  • We initially thought that the driver was stopping when riders would stand up prior to bus stops. However, we soon found out (perhaps after missing our stop) that he was stopping when riders pushed a small button at the back of the bus, signaling him that someone wanted off. For those of you in the back (who may be as trasnportationally challenged as me), to get off the bus, push the button at the back.


After mastering the public transportation, we got to some shopping. There were two main places that we explored: La Isla Shopping Village and Plaza Caracol. La Isla Shopping Village was very similar to a “classic” expected shopping mall. It was like a giant strip mall, with the majority of the shops having entrances from outside. There were well-known brands there like Bath and Body Works, but also fun, touristy shops with discount souvenirs – and all kinds of other places in between.


They even had a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! location. We nearly visited the museum (because everyone knows I love me some Ripley’s!), but decided against it since we had so many other excursions already planned. What I did find when I looked into it, though, was that there was a great bundle with multiple other fun things to do in the shopping area (read more about it here). For anyone who hasn’t visited a Ripley’s museum before, I would highly recommend making this a stop!


We also stopped at Plaza Caracol. Zac had read that there were a lot of more unique, handmade items there. He read that it was much more quiet – and that it wasn’t the same souvenirs over and over again (which was what we had seen in most of our excursions and the shops at La Isla). When we got to Plaza Caracol, though, we did not expect it to be a total ghost town of a mall. For those in the Des Moines area – think Southridge Mall right before it was “revamped” into the strip mall it is today. A lot of the stores were closed and those that were open had virtually no visitors. In all, when we did look through the shops, we still found just repeated souvenirs that we had already seen in other places.


Something else we found at both shopping locations were tourist traps galore. Seriously, shoppers beware. We got called over to an excursion seller before we even knew what was happening and got stuck talking to him for 10-15 minutes before we were finally able to pull away. He was actually really nice, but nearly trapped us into purchasing another excursion! After talking for so long with him, we walked away only to be called over by another – and another and another.


We kept walking past each and every one of them after getting sucked in with the first person, but it is definitely something to be mindful of when shopping. We even had one person holler at Zac, “Sir, I think you dropped something!” in an attempt to get him to turn around and talk with him about what he was selling. Spoiler Alert: He had not dropped anything.


 

Now, I think that is about enough for one blog post! Soon, I will share in another post the rest of what we did on our trip – including the beloved experience of swimming with dolphins. ¡Que tengan una buena noche, amigos!


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