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Hotel Review: Grand Velas Riviera Maya

Hotel Review: Grand Velas Riviera Maya

Visiting an all-inclusive resort can sometimes be a juggling act of remembering what you paid for. These resorts often encourage guests to upgrade and get more perks. Sometimes guests wait to be seated at dinner because their all-inclusive level isn’t as high as their neighbors. None of these are worries at Grand Velas Riviera Maya which, in my opinion, is the best luxury all-inclusive resort in Mexico.

Grand Velas Riviera Maya poolside suites

The architecture of the rooms and buildings at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya is outstanding.

Best All-Inclusive Resort in Mexico

Located on the Mexican Riviera Maya, you get what you pay for at Grand Velas Riviera Maya, in all the best ways. At first it might seem like the prices are high, and they are. Rooms begin at around $800 USD per night for two persons with a jungle view, $1,200 per night with a pool view, and $1,400 per night with an ocean view. However, these prices include all your food plus access to five AAA Diamond rated restaurants.  Also included are 24-hour room service, a fully stocked mini bar, all drinks including beer, wine and liquor as well as a personal concierge. At Grand Velas Riviera Maya, you get a lot for your money.

Mayan Connection

One thing I liked so much about the resort was how Grand Velas Riviera Maya embraces the Mayan culture of the region. The ceiling of the lobby areas and the walkways are designed in a palapa style, reminiscent of the ancient culture. One of the restaurants is named Chaka after local trees important in Mayan mythology. The spa treatments begin with a drink of ponche (a traditional Mayan drink) along with a Mayan blessing.  And the resort even offers a mezcal tasting, which Mayans considered a gift from the gods (and so do I!). Incorporating the heritage of the indigenous people of this part of Mexico, the resort helped me learn more about the Mayans, making my stay even more special.

covered walkways at Grand Velas Riviera Maya.

Palapa-style covered walkways link the buildings of the Grand Velas Riviera Maya.

Spacious and Luxurious Rooms

The resort is broken up into three sections: Grand Class Experience, The Ambassador Experience and The Zen Grand Experience. Each experience is unique and geared towards a different vacation style.

Zen Room at Grand Velas Riviera Maya

Spacious and cozy, my Zen Room at Grand Velas Riviera Maya was a perfect combination of luxury and simplicity.

I stayed in the Zen section. Every room in Zen faces the jungle area of the resort and is exactly what the section says it is. I’ve rarely stayed at a hotel where you barely see the housekeeping staff, but that’s what happened at Grand Velas Riviera Maya. It was like magical fairies made up my bed every day and did a turn down service at night. At over 1,000 square feet, my room was larger than some of the first apartments I’ve rented! There was even a private terrace with lounge chairs to relax on.

Closer to the beach are Grand Class, which is the adults section, and Ambassador Experience, which is a family-friendly area. Shuttle vans are always available and can get you anywhere in the resort within 5 minutes.

Zen Room with jet tub at Grand Velas Riviera Maya

My Zen Room even had a jet tub with louver doors looking into the room and patio.

Top-Drawer Amenities

Part of the beauty of Grand Velas Riviera Maya is the majority of the amenities are included in the all-inclusive pricing. That includes wi-fi (which was strong and never slow), the fitness center, beach & poolside food and drink service, kayaks, fully stocked mini-bar in each room and the fully supervised kids clubs, which are open late to give parents the break they deserve.

Beach activities Grand Velas

Beach activities are included in the all-inclusive cost at Grand Velas Riviera Maya.

One thing not included in the all-inclusive pricing but something every guest needs to take advantage of is Se Spa. Located in the Zen portion of the resort, Se Spa is an experience unlike any other spa trip I’ve ever had. Even if you don’t get a massage try the Water Ceremony – you get 80 minutes of therapeutic treatments like sauna, clay room, steam room and the water therapy pool. I think it’s the best spa in Mexico and since I’ve tried a lot of them, I’m a pretty good judge.

Se Spa at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya

Se Spa at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya is truly a work of art.

Gourmet Food and Drink

Imagine having access to five AAA Diamond rated restaurants in one place and not having to pull out your credit card.  This is what you’ll experience at the restaurants at Grand Velas Riviera Maya.

Lobster ceviche with avocado and lime salsa

Lobster ceviche with avocado and lime salsa was one of my favorite dishes at Grand Velas Riviera Maya.

I was lucky enough during my stay to experience meals at the AAA 5 Diamond restaurant, Cocina de Autor, and the AAA 4 Diamond restaurant, Frida, along with several of the other restaurants at the resort. While all the restaurants were excellent, my top favorite had to be Cocina de Autor. With no set menu, each night guests are served courses based on the chef’s inspiration and what’s available from in-season items. A meal that takes advantage of all your senses, Cocina de Autor is based on molecular gastronomy or the science of physical transformation in food. All eight (yes, eight!) courses were smaller than you’d usually expect but well worth every bite. I couldn’t get enough of how the flavors were so large even if the servings weren’t. I also had the honor of meeting Chef Nahúm Velasco and he invited me into his kitchen!

Chef Nahúm Velasco at Cocina de Autor Grand Velas Riviera Maya

Chef Nahúm Velasco invited me into his kitchen at Cocina de Autor to witness the master at work.

Beaches and Pools

Sitting on the Caribbean Sea, Grand Velas Riviera Maya has a view of the sunrise that you won’t mind waking up early for. In fact, I highly suggest you do that at least once during your stay. It’s a peaceful way to start your day. Afterwards have breakfast at Azul, one of the Grand Velas Riviera Maya restaurants – you won’t be disappointed. During the day the beach has activities, lounge chairs and concierges to get your drink orders.

There are three pools at the resort. The pool at Grand Class is for adults only, and the pools at Zen Grand and Ambassador sections are open to everyone. While each pool is slightly different, all offer chaise lounge chairs, umbrellas and cushy towels. Poolside concierges are on hand to bring your choice of drinks and appetizers. Because when you’re half asleep from relaxing, who wants to get up to go to the bar, right?

Zen at Zen Grand Velas Riviera Maya

The Zen Pool at Grand Velas was just that – so relaxing and zen-like.

Can’t Wait to Return

Overall I can’t say enough great things about Grand Velas Riviera Maya. I know it sounds like I’m gushing and I am. Because the service at this resort is impeccable, the food delightful and the architecture splendid. I’ve visited many resorts in Mexico and think this is the best all-inclusive resort in Mexico. I highly recommend this visit for singles, couples, families and groups. You won’t find better service anywhere else. I can’t wait to return!

Se Spa Grand Velas honey vanilla scrub

Everything at Se Spa is done impeccably, like the set-up for my honey vanilla scrub massage.

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Fly from Tijuana Airport via CBX Cross Border Xpress

Fly from Tijuana Airport via CBX Cross Border Xpress

After flying out of Tijuana Airport multiple times now with great success and ease, we’re really happy we discovered how easy and inexpensive it is to fly from Tijuana Airport via the CBX Cross Border Xpress. On a recent trip to Playa del Carmen/Cancun, our family saved almost $700!

As prices for airfare have continued to soar (excuse the pun) we’ve expanded our view to include Tijuana International Airport. Really, San Diego is a two-airport region now. With so many people from the area traveling to points around the world from here, we can see why the TJ airport is flourishing. And now with a modern renovation and upgrades to passenger terminals, the airport is really world class.

It’s always been cheaper to fly to other cities in Mexico from the Tijuana Airport, which is located just feet across the US/Mexico border. It just wasn’t always easy to get there until they built the CBX Cross Border Xpress.

CBX Cross Border Express interior

The CBX Cross Border Express building is beautiful, clean and easy to navigate.

Fly from Tijuana Airport via CBX Cross Border Express

Before I go on, please know that flying from Tijuana is completely safe and very US-friendly. If your family is anything like ours, you might have felt a little dubious about bringing your family across the border to fly from Mexico. CBX could not be safer, and you walk inside the building and across the bridge directly into the airport. No lines at the border, no walking across and then having to catch a taxi to the airport. Our experience was flawless.

Buying airline tickets from Tijuana Airport

General Abelardo L. Rodriguez Tijuana International Airport (TIJ) is located just across the border from the US, near the Otay Mesa Border Crossing. It is one of the busiest airports in Mexico, and handles domestic and international flights 24 hours a day. When traveling from TIJ, we’ve had great experiences booking tickets directly on the websites of Aeromexico and Volaris Airlines. There are language options in both English and Spanish. The terminology and instructions are all the same as booking with a US carrier.

Flights are cheaper from Tijuana Airport

Recently, we had a fabulous vacations at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya and before that the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba, both in Playa del Carmen. When comparing flights from Tijuana to Cancun versus San Diego or Los Angeles, there was a remarkable cost savings. We ended up buying tickets on Aeromexico from Tijuana to our final destination at Cancun Airport. The difference in cost for a family of four was hundreds of dollars, which we were happy to save!

As of April 2019, a quick price comparison shows that a flight on Volaris from Tijuana to Cancun starts at $233 USD. To fly the same itinerary from San Diego to Cancun, we would pay $400 per ticket minimum. For a family of four, those extra dollars really add up! We saved almost $700!!

Crossing the US/Mexico Border via CBX

Even more compelling, a new cross-border pedestrian bridge was recently completed that connects directly into the Tijuana Airport. The Cross Border Express buildings on the US side are architecturally gorgeous, spacious and squeaky clean.

CBX Cross Border Express entrance

We walked right up to the CBX entrance, processed our customs paperwork, and sailed through to our gate.

The process at CBX was ridiculously easy (and faster than San Diego Airport to be sure). We followed the simple directions to the CBX location, parked our car in their convenient lot for $15/day, and checked into our Aeromexico flights on the US side of the border. We paid the $14 per person fee and then walked the short distance across the border using the elevated bridge. On the Mexican side we cleared security and customs in about 10 minutes, and walked directly into the gate area of the Tijuana Airport.

walking across the CBX Cross Border Express bridge

As we walked across the bridge from the CBX building, we crossed the border and arrived in the Tijuana Airport.

The whole process took less than 30 minutes from start to finish. We were astonished to find ourselves with too much time in the waiting area for our flight, which NEVER happens in our family. (It’s usually the opposite, because someone is always rushing to pack that last thing).

US/Mexico boundary inside CBX Bridge

You can literally play Hokey Pokey on the boundary line inside the CBX Bridge between the US and Mexico.

Comparing to San Diego International Airport experience

Compare this to another experience when our family flew to Cancun, Mexico out of San Diego airport the year before last. We had to check in at San Diego Airport, show passports and fill out immigration forms, fly out of our way to Dallas, connect to a different flight, and eventually arrive in Cancun. We went through customs in Cancun, which took forever due to the crowds of visitors coming from all over. The amount of time in lines was staggering.

With the CBX Cross Border Xpress experience, we cleared customs and immigration within the bridge connection before entering the Tijuana airport, and sailed through check-in, security and onto our Aeromexico flight deeper into Mexico.

I highly recommend this travel option – we will definitely do it again. Hopefully soon!

dock at Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba

Flying out of Tijuana Airport via CBX Cross Border Express got us to the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba all the faster!

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Mayan Experiences at the Ruins of Coba

Mayan Experiences at the Ruins of Coba

There are so many fascinating things about the ancient Mayan culture that inhabited large areas of Mexico’s Yucatan Region. Perhaps it’s the nascent archeologist in me, but I really love the allure of uncovering objects and mysteries from long ago. Recently I had an amazing experience on a tour of the Mayan culture at Coba, and it changed me.

view from top of temple at Coba Nohoch Mol

From the top of Nohoch Mol Pyramid, the Yucatan jungle stretches as far as the eye can see.

“It changed me” is a strong statement to make, but this tour of the Mayan culture at Coba did just that. There is something so peaceful in the simplicity of their culture, how they revered nature and its forces. Immersed into the Mayan culture with the local tour company Alltournative, I had the chance to see things from a different perspective. I returned home feeling more connected to nature, and less concerned about some of the modern-day trivialities that had consumed me before the trip.

So yes, my tour of the Mayan culture at Coba changed me.

The Ruins of the Mayan Culture at Coba

As our tour van dropped our group of ten adventurers at the entrance to the Coba ruins, I knew something was up. Unlike my previous visits to the ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum, Coba seemed very unassuming. Somehow more real and authentic. Yes there are some shops and a restaurant or two, but it’s not overrun with commercialism like the other two spots. Perhaps it’s the remote location of Coba, which does not seem to be near any major towns or villages.

Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort in Playa Del Carmen

The luxury Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort was the ideal homebase for my visit.

We were staying at the gorgeous and luxurious Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort in Playa del Carmen, and the drive to Coba was only about 1.5 hours. Coba was decidedly not luxurious or gorgeous. Coba’s beauty comes from a different place.

Visiting the Ruins at Coba

After paying a small entrance fee, our group walked a short way as our guide Rebecca explained the significance of what we would be seeing. She told us a bit about what modern day researchers have learned regarding the ancient Mayan culture of this region. Rebecca also explained there is much still left to learn and uncover, with many mysteries still yet to be solved.

tour guide at Coba Mayan ruins

Our guide Rebecca explained the language and alphabet of the ancient Mayans at Coba

Throughout the Coba park acreage, we saw many stone blocks that contained faint or partial carvings. These stone carvings told stories about the rulers of the time, and the things they deemed so important that they literally had them etched in stone. Part of the difficulty in uncovering the answers to these stones was the way the Mayan cultures warred with each other. When a conquering ruler came into a village like Coba, they would strike the faces of the previous ruler and their histories from the stones. As we toured the grounds, we saw that all of the remaining stone carvings had their faces removed along with much of the detail.

The Ceremonial Ball Court

Without knowing for sure the exact meaning behind the ancient Mayan culture’s use of the ceremonial ball courts, historians do know a little bit. The slanted stone edifices are angled away from a center walkway. Near the top of each side is a circular stone carving with a large round hole through it. It is believed that heavy balls were moved through these holes as part of a ritual.

Coba Mayan ruins ball court

The ball court at Coba signified much more than a simple game.

Rebecca explained her own interpretation of this ball court, which had to do with the Mayan culture’s beliefs about life and death. She said they believed the sun died each night as it turned dark, and was reborn in the morning once again. That life and death were on the same plain, and just different versions of life as we know it. The ball court might have had something to do with honoring the sun and moon, day and night, life and death. Fascinating.

Walk, Bike or Ride to the Temple

After visiting the ball court, we were given the choice of how we wanted to continue our tour. On our own, we could either walk to see the remaining archeological sites. We could also pay a fee and be driven there in the back of a bicycle rickshaw, or we could pay a smaller fee to rent a bike and pedal ourselves. Our group opted for riding bikes up the pebbly dirt road to the remaining ruins.

bicycle ride through jungles of Coba Mayan ruins

Biking through the jungles of Coba was a fun experience.

After paying the rental fee, which amounted to less than $1, we hopped on and pedaled away. It was the perfect means to experience this site, viewed from a path through the jungle that ancient Mayan villagers also had used. In just about ten minutes of very easy riding on flat ground, we reached the Temple of Nohoch Mol.

Climbing the Ruins at Coba

Unlike the better preserved Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, which are very impressive, Coba contains the Temple of Nohoch Mol. It is the tallest Mayan pyramid in Mexico. Visitors are allowed to climb to the top of this temple to take in the view of the overall site and surrounding jungle. So of course we did!

climbing Nohoch Mol Temple at Coba

Climbing the Temple of Nohoch Mol at Coba is no easy feat.

The stone steps leading to the top of the temple are not regular, equal steps. Rather, they are very steep steps, some crumbling in spots, and enormously uneven. It’s some 120 steps and 140 feet in all – in the hot sun and humidity. Needless to day, this climb is not for people with heart issues or folks who have trouble walking. By the time I picked my way to the top, I had carefully inspected each step for proper footing on the way up. It was still super fun, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

climbing down Nohoch Mol Pyramid at Coba

After climbing 137 feet practically straight up, you have to go back down.

At the top, the view is unimaginable. I could see what seemed like forever, looking across the green jungles of the Yucatan and Quintana Roo. Every so often, there was a small green hill that rose above the jungle. Rebecca had told us to be on the look out for these rises from the jungle floor. They are actually other Mayan ruins and temples yet to be uncovered and studied. There were dozens of them!

Blessed by a Mayan Shaman

The Mayan culture and language has been diminishing for centuries. In this modern world, most of the Mayan people have moved to cities for work and resources. We were fortunate to meet a Mayan Shaman along the path at a site outside of Coba. He stood with smoky incense burning and an altar of sorts made of sticks and flowers. Then he blessed our group using the traditional Mayan language. From what the translators were able to tell us, he was blessing us for safe travels and healthy lives. I’ll take it!

Mayan Shaman blessing at Coba

Being blessed by a Mayan Shaman was a very moving and spiritual experience.

Swimming in a Mayan Cenote

Used throughout Mayan history for rituals and worship sites, the cenotes that dot the Yucatan Peninsula and Quintana Roo are beautiful and impressive. (Cenotes are deep swimming holes containing fresh water – the Yucatan hosts more than 3,000 of them). We visited a special underground cenote, reached via a cave and constructed staircase. The cave was well lit, which did not seem to bother the bats hanging from the rocky ceiling. Even the waters of the cenote were lit from beneath, giving the whole room an unearthly blue glow.

swimming at Mayan cenote underground

Swimming in this underground cenote was a refreshing highlight.

We stripped to our swimsuits, rinsed off any modern chemicals from our bodies, and plunged into the refreshing waters. Have you ever had the chance to swim inside a cave? It was like being on another world, and we all loved it. No one wanted to leave, despite being famished from all our morning activities.

Traditional Mayan Cuisine

We had worked up quite a hunger, and the lunch spread was beckoning. Our cooks had prepared a number of traditional Mayan dishes, made with local herbs and spices unique to this region. Chicken, pickled red onions, rice, small fried tortillas kind of like sopes, and other delicious vegetable dishes were set out in a buffet. We descended like locusts. Nothing was left in our path, and it was all so delicious.

Mayan lunch at Coba

We were famished, and a lunch Mayan favorites was the perfect solution.

Mayan Spirituality

As I stated at the beginning, I left this experience changed. I had a newfound respect for the ancient culture of this region, and had fallen in love again with Mexico. There are so many things to learn and places to visit in this fascinating, rich and diverse country. I can’t wait to see what more there is to discover. But on this visit, I left with something important: a healthy respect for the Mayan culture and people, and a strong desire to return and learn more.

I can’t wait to return to Coba for more exploration, and I’ll be contacting Alltournative again to guide me on my next adventure here.

stone carvings at Coba Mayan ruins

Stone etchings at Coba are partially visible in the Mayan ruins

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Eating Insects and Tasting Mezcal in Mexico

Eating Insects and Tasting Mezcal in Mexico

*Our visit to the Riviera Maya was hosted in part by the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba, and we are grateful for the experience. As always, the content and thoughts expressed here are our own.

On a great family vacation to the Riviera Maya recently, we had the opportunity to try something out of our comfort zone. One evening our hosts at the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba asked us to an insect dinner party. That’s right, we eat insects. Well more precisely, Triton and Jon ate insects while Sophia and Ava gagged at the thought. We did get to wash this feast down with a healthy tasting of Mezcal, so we learned, tasted, laughed and grimaced. Turns out eating insects and tasting Mezcal in Mexico is pretty darn fun – and delicious!

Now let’s correct any of your pre-conceived notions right up front. We did not eat live, slithering bugs like some twisted episode of Fear Factor. These insects are a delicacy in Mexico, thoughtfully prepared by the Fairmont’s Chef Fernando in very artful presentations. Although maybe not for the squeamish, we were game. We sat down inside La Laguna restaurant, ready for anything.

Fairmont Mayakoba Chef serving insects

Chef Fernando brought his insect creations to our table, while we warmed our palates with shots of mezcal.

Eating Insects and Tasting Mezcal in Mexico

Insect Degustation

In Mexico, people have been consuming insects throughout history, first as an important source of protein since meat was scarce. Now in many nice restaurants, insects have become a delicacy prepared carefully with other tasty ingredients. Honestly if you can get past what you are actually eating, the overall combinations are really quite good.

The Fairmont Mayakoba has become well known for their culinary masterpieces created with insects. The experience is available for $75 per person, and pairs three dishes with a sampling of Mezcals.

insect sampler at Fairmont Mayakoba

Our sampler platter of edible insects was colorful and delicious.

Chapulines – Grasshoppers

These are the largest and probably hardest to overlook as actual insects, with little legs clearly visible. Prepared by boiling and then frying, they crunch in your mouth like a tortilla chip but softer. These little grasshoppers are fairly common, and are organically raised on farms feeding on only the best alfalfa.

At the Fairmont Mayakoba, chapulines (cha-poo-lee-nays) were served atop a blue corn tortilla, dotted with sour cream, avocado puree and crumbly white cheese. The crunch of the insects is complemented by the creamy sauces and the rich corn flavor. It was really quite good. We each ate the entire serving, while the girls squirmed. (They were served cheese quesadillas).

edible grasshoppers in Mexico

These grasshoppers still had their legs and antennae, but they tasted fantastic.

Escamoles – Ant Eggs

Tiny white capsules, escamoles are look much like risotto in appearance. Difficult to harvest and only available a short time during the year, the ant eggs are considered a true delicacy. Escamoles (es-cah-moe-lays) are often called “Mexican Caviar” for their appearance and expense.

Our tasting experience had the Fairmont serving them up atop a savory cheese pudding-like concoction. Meant to be consumed at room temperature, this one had a consistency some might find difficult. Triton found it unappealing and did not taste it more than once, but I liked it. The escamoles tasted buttery and soft, blending with the cheese for a pleasant bite.

Hormigas Chicatanas – Ants

These little guys are actually leafcutter ants that are found in the wild all over the Yucatan. They are pretty large in comparison to American house ants. To prepare the chicatanas (chee-kah-tah-nahs), they pull off the legs, heads and such. Although toasted to a crunchy crisp, their bodies still delicious for eating.

edible ants in Mexico

With the legs and heads pulled off, these ants just look like raisins. Kind of.

Our servings at the Fairmont started with a blue corn sopapilla (soft, thick tortilla-like), with a crema and cheese. The chicatanas were placed on top, and then garnished with pickled something – I think they were diced radishes. This one was my favorite and I scarfed it right down. Of course, we ate this one last and had been tasting several bottles of mezcal, so that might have helped!

Mezcal Tasting

While we were working up the nerve to eat the insect concoctions, a very nice gentleman from the bar was instructing us on the finer points of Mezcal. Tequila is a type of mezcal, made only from a certain type of blue agave plant only grown in the Jalisco region of Mexico. Anything else in this family of liquor is called Mezcal, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of varieties made in Oaxaca and all over Mexico.

Tasting Mezcal and Tequila in Mexico is like sampling fine wines.

Smokey Flavor

I always thought ALL mezcals have a strong smokey taste, but I was corrected. All mezcal is created by torching the hearts of agave plants in pits dug in the ground. This process condenses the juices and adds a smokey flavor. Some mezcal is left to ferment with the smoke intact, resulting in a bottle tasting of the fiery way it was processed. Other mezcals begin the same, but are processed, filtered and distilled differently in a way that removes the smoke flavor.

Colors and Nuances

Mezcal comes in many colors, just like tequila. It can be crystal clear, honey colored or even dark amber in tone. Not unlike fine wines, each distillery has its own special touches that add flavor tones, nuances and other tastes to their mezcals. Our instructor helped us pick up tones of cherry, chocolate, cinnamon and even juniper among others. The process of tasting five different liquors was hugely enlightening. And delicious.

lesson in mezcal tasting

Our leader taught us how to discern flavors unique to each Mezcal we tasted.

My favorite mezcal in the tasting was bottled by Gracias a Dios, and was called Tobalá. Triton like the bottle of Gracias a Dios Cuixe. Either way, we left happy!