Mexico’s all-inclusives are experiencing a resurgence as longstanding properties are renovating and updating their images and amenities across the country. But two properties in the Riviera Maya/Cancun market are playing an especially strong role in redefining the face of the region and the category.
Recently passing its first year in operation, the 900-room Hotel Xcaret Mexico is capturing the attention of nearly every traveler category, from luxury travelers, to families, to destination wedding couples and honeymooners.
Xcaret Mexico is part of a 915-acre, family-owned entertainment complex in what was a jungle with natural caves and rivers, about three miles south of the southern-most Playa del Carmen resorts. Hotel Xcaret is setting a whole new standard for meeting vacation aspirations of travelers from around the world.
Aside from the standard complimentary food and beverage offerings, Xcaret Mexico includes free transfers from Cancun International Airport (40 miles north), and access to the five adventure parks on the property.
“Xcaret is bringing Mexico’s all-inclusives to a whole new level,” said Ed Cotton, co-owner of the International Association of Destination Wedding Professionals (IADWP), headquartered in Merida, Mexico, and a longtime Playa del Carmen resident.
“What really sets Hotel Xcaret apart from other hotels is the design and quality of the food and beverage,” said Eva Grodberg, CEO and travel specialist at Epic Experiences, in New York. She believes other local all-inclusives “can’t come close to comparing to the food at Hotel Xcaret Mexico, even the buffet food. A good percentage of the guests are affluent Mexicans, so the food has to be excellent.”
Casa Fuego, Xcaret’s luxury 70-room, adults-only, hotel-within-a hotel concept, comes with an exclusive rooftop pool and bar, its own Italian restaurant, and a small gym. The concept will be replicated this December when Xcaret opens the all-adult Casa de la Playa, on the north edge of the resort. The 63-room hotel-within-a-hotel will have its own four restaurants, two pools, a spa, a mezcaleria for tastings and gifts, a chocolate shop, a wine cellar, and a library, with access to the rest of the resort.
“Our intention is it will be like staying in your own Mexican beach house, a barefoot luxury,” said Sakari Malinen, Xcaret Mexico’s director of sales. Casa de la Playa guests also will have access to the rest of Hotel Xcaret Mexico’s facilities.
Touching all the senses in Cancun’s Hotel Zone
Meanwhile, a one-hour drive north in Cancun’s traditional hotel zone, the all-inclusive, 370-room Live Aqua is bringing new meaning to luxe and modern wellness, completing a wholesale two-year renovation that has thoroughly updated its rooms and seven restaurants.
Live Aqua’s wellness theme inspires everything about the property, from the aromatherapy scents that permeate every inch of the property to the complimentary guest arrival hand massages. The outdoor Hidden Garden restaurant, concealed inside dense foliage and under the branches of massive banyan trees, serves up an Asian/Mexican fusion menu.
“Our philosophy is to enhance our guests’ experience, through every sense, smell, touch, taste, everything,” said Alfredo Santamaria, managing director, Live Aqua Beach Resort, Cancun.
Photo: Live Aqua.
Live Aqua originally opened in 2005, but closed for two years when it was heavily damaged by Hurricane Wilma. Today, there are 10 different room categories to match a variety of tastes and expectations, including 16 “Aqua Suites,” and eight Tierra Suites. (Spa services are not included in the room rate.)
The fifth floor hosts the Aqua Club, a special private check-in/check-out area that also serves exclusive light dining fare for breakfast and afternoon tea, and a premium open bar.
“I would like to think that we are dismissing the connotation of ‘all-inclusive,’ the one that means mediocre food and things like that. There is a surprise factor here that may not be possible for travel agents to express until they come here,” Santamaria said. “We want to surprise them, and have them realize they can trust us to create magic for their clients.”
For example, the hotel encourages travel advisors to communicate directly with the property in advance of their clients’ arrival, so that the property can capture special requests and extend the property’s special brand of hospitality – the resort’s signature Mayan greeting "In Lak'ech Ala K'in." In one interpretation, the phrase means "I am you, and you are me," a statement of unity that mirrors greetings like “Namaste.”
“It is amazing to me how our employees, and our guests, have embraced this. It means, we will do anything in our power to make you happy because we are all one. This, I think, is what really sets Live Aqua apart from any other hotel in Cancun that has nice rooms, lots of restaurants, a beach, all of that,” Santamaria said.
The hotel is especially popular with babymooners, couples celebrating anniversaries and empty nesters. “Someone who stays at Live Aqua or The Royal, for example, has the benefits of an all-inclusive, but the freedom to walk out of the property and have great nightlife, dine locally and more authentic (or not) shopping,” Grodberg said.
Xcaret Mexico on a separate plane
While Live Aqua competes with a host of Hotel Zone properties, Xcaret Mexico is defining a whole new category for the region, in great part due to the massive complex of five entertainment venues (with admission and transportation included in the room rate) in close proximity and its ever-expanding, luxurious offerings.
Shuttles run from the lobby every 20 minutes, or guests can take Mexican-style riverboats along a manmade waterway adjacent to the hotel’s spa.
When the complex is fully built out, Destino Xcaret will include 6,000 hotel rooms; a 1.2-mile river promenade with shops, entertainment and dining spaces; a convention center; and eventually a stadium and arena. The property is so large, it has its own paramedics and a doctor on call 24 hours a day.
“For families with kids older than stroller age and adventure lovers of all ages, having access and transportation to the parks – and the tour to Chichen Itza (Xichen) and the area's cenotes (Xenotes) – is a fantastic benefit and justifies the price.”
One of Grodberg’s family clients “raved about access to the parks. The kids are 7 and 11, so they were the perfect age for the parks.”
“The stadium will help bring in top-name entertainment, which can be a reason for travelers to come at a certain time, outside of the main vacation seasons,” Cotton said. “Xcaret will evolve like Disney did in Orlando, which will force the other resorts to rise to the occasion.”
Some already are. Nickelodeon and Karisma Hotels & Resorts will open Nickelodeon Riviera Maya this spring, the brand’s first and only resort in Mexico. The 276-suite, five-star resort will include a 500,000-square-foot Aqua Nick water park, including a lazy river, waterslides, and a splash park.
“It won’t be long before travelers and travel advisors are going to be distinguishing between Cancun and Riviera Maya, as distinct destinations,” Cotton said. Xcaret Mexico’s Malinen agreed, noting, “Perhaps in the future, people will say, ‘Should I go to Cancun, or to Xcaret?’”
The resort and the surrounding landscape and parks are meant to evoke the raw jungle history of the Playa del Carmen region, before it became popular with tourists. The stone covering the floors, walls and other structures of the hotel was recovered directly from the grounds and incorporated throughout the property.
“The owners are dedicated to showcasing Mexico and the decor reflects that – from the local stone used in the construction and the spectacular Otomi embroidery in the rooms, to the regional Mexican coffee pods for the Nespresso machines and the selection of Mexican candies in the minibar,” said Grodberg.
Malinen, originally from Finland and employed in Mexico’s tourism industry for 20 years, said one of the main reasons he joined Hotel Xcaret was because of the owner’s respect for the land, the local culture, and fine arts.
“I always thought a Mexican theme night should be more than sombreros and tacos. This hotel brings the flavors, culture, authentic handicrafts and fine arts to the guests,” he said.
He pointed to mescal tastings, using small local distillers, as one example. “We are trying to showcase what the real Mexico is all about, because not every guest is going to take the chance to visit the remote villages and markets.”
Focus on authenticity
Educating agents about the unique experiences found at the resort is one of Malinen’s biggest challenges.
“This is why agents are our biggest support for sales. We are not able to be in every market with a personal presence, so having agents understand our unique value, and everything that comes with staying at Xcaret Mexico, is crucial for us,” he said. “People are surprised when we tell them what ‘all-inclusive’ covers when they book with us.”
“Xcaret has something for everyone,” said Lorraine Simpson, president at Concierge Travel Group, in Saint Catharines, Ontario, who recently visited the property. Simpson was running a travel agent mastermind meeting with nearly 20 other agents, and had chosen to bring along her two teenage children. “There’s so much to do for them, culinary experiences for me.”
Carlos Gaytán, the first Mexican chef to receive a Michelin star, is the genius behind HA', one of Xcaret’s ten restaurants. There also are eight bars.
Malinen likes to have agents focus less on selling the resort’s pools, and restaurants and bars, and focus more on “how this will make their clients feel, the emotions and experiences they will enjoy here,” he said.
He tells the story of how one day, a guest standing next to Malinen in the lobby reacted with joy during an unexpected mariachi “flash mob” performance. “One mariachi is playing the violin, another on their trumpet. He was touched by it. There were a lot of teary eyes in the crowd.”