PUERTO MORELOS, Mexico — It has been a long time since we’d been cruising on land…
Cruising on land?
The closest thing you’ll find to a cruise without the water under the room in which you’re sleeping is at an all-inclusive resort, and there are likely more of them than there are cruise ships. We hadn’t been at one for almost 30 years, not for any particular reason, but when Family Reunion Time came along this year the decision-makers settled on an all-inclusive.
That was to become El Cid.
There are six El Cid resorts in Mexico — four in Mazatlan, one in Cozumel and this one, in a sleepy little town called Puerto Morelos, which is halfway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen along the Maya Riviera. The name comes not from a movie now 44 years old, but from the legendary Spanish hero of the 11th century, El Cid, who is still revered today.
It was founded by the late Julio Berdegue Aznar, who grew up in Madrid and became a political refugee in Mexico during the Spanish Civil War, Highly educated, he developed the business that his two sons operate. At this El Cid, the operations manager is Ricardo Bustamante Altamirano (Ricardo for short), a bundle of energy who is as proud of the company’s heritage as he is of the Puerto Morelos resort.
“It is one hundred per cent Mexican,” he says. “What distinguishes us is the service, also the quality of food and drinks. We don’t buy the cheapest food and we don’t buy the cheapest liquor. The company always treats employees with a lot of respect. When you do, the Riviera Maya is like a gold mine.”
Ricardo spent a year in the cruise business, as a bar waiter on Royal Caribbean’s old Sovereign of the Seas. His resort reflects a cruise ship in its cleanliness, its service and its “mass-market” food.
One employee we encountered said the reason he worked at El Cid is that it’s booked “90 per cent of the year” while others in this area are more seasonal.
Booked means filling 428 rooms, a number that will grow to 700 in two years, and there will be another main building.
It’s easy to see why.
In a week at El Cid, the two seniors only left twice, walking 30 minutes on country roads to Puerto Morelos. That wasn’t the plan. It was the reality. This all-inclusive — perhaps like others — has a large pool bubbling with activity most of the time, sit-down restaurants, programs for kids who need to be supervised by non-parents, a beach with more water things-to-do and food 24/7. What impressed us was that after a week, we wanted to stay.
There are 12 in our family and we pretty much covered the gamut of things to do. Kayaking (included) was over at the beach. Snorkeling ($20 each, from a Puerto Morelos vendor) meant going out to the world’s second-biggest coral reef. Maya ruins (also not included) was more than an hour’s drive to Coba, and well-worth the trip. The zoo — Crococun — was a short cab ride and in-zoo guides are mandatory, if for no other reason than for protection from crocodiles, 33 of them, that are just off the path you’re walking.
This was spring break, so the place was buzzing with families, but it didn’t feel crowded. Not unlike being on a cruise ship like Oasis of the Seas and feeling there was plenty of room for its 6,000 passengers. Just like on cruise ships, somebody is cleaning all the time, and not just in the front rooms, where you could eat off the floors. Ricardo took us on a behind-the-scenes tour that was revealing in the degree to which employees go in the clean department.
The main pool (there is also an infinity pool) was exceptional. This is not a lap pool, it’s a fun pool. With small children and at least a couple of non-swimming adults in our family, it was perfect. There is plenty of space and, yes, loungers draped with “reserve” towels that nobody ever seems to use.
The rooms are spacious, too, and all easily accessible from the pool. Room service is unbeatable. There are four restaurants to go with the buffet, all of them good but in hindsight we found the Mediterranean one, El Alcazar, the tastiest…perhaps in part because of a delightful server named Luis. Presentation was exceptional. The buffet is…well, buffet food. When you’re dealing with hundreds of people and perhaps dozens of dietary restraints, there’s only so much you can do with the flavor of buffet servings — the “chefs” in charge of the ready-made hot dishes always seemed to be trying to do the work of two people.
And just like cruise ships, hot toast is a problem on shore, too.
The Riviera Maya El Cid is nine years old. Its opening was delayed by category 4 Hurricane Wilma. There was water in the rooms and the kitchen doors were blown off. Ricardo, a lifer in the hospitality business, spent three months working in Mazatlan until the new El Cid was ready. Another deadly storm — the tsunami that swept through the waters of Asia — was critical in El Cid’s growth.
“Ever since then,” says Ricardo, “all year long people come to the Riviera Maya instead of crossing the Pacific.”
Capacity is about 1,400 people, which happens at Christmas, and 80 per cent of the customers are either Canadian or American. While the prices vary like cruises do, they’re generally in the same ballpark, per person.
We’ve been telling people how much this family enjoyed El Cid…and now we’ve just told thousands more.
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