Thursday 13 February 2014

Ixtapa, Mexico

Amanda and I - Bahamas 2006
Just before Christmas my best friend Amanda and I were talking about upcoming trips and she mentioned having booked one to Ixtapa, Mexico with her parents at the beginning of February  Amanda and I had spent a week in Freeport, Bahamas back in 2006 and had a blast! Ever since then we had been trying to arrange another vacation but life always seemed to get in the way. When she suggested I come along with her and her parents I was interested but didn't think it was possible. I'm sure you can tell by this blog, I've traveled a lot in the past year.... Maybe even more then a lot! So I was hesitant to book something else, especially considering I have been applying like crazy to school boards and other jobs. I was also hesitant because it was a trip without Brian and I have also done a few of those in the last year. Despite wanting to say yes, I declined explaining as awesome as it sounded it wasn't possible.  
When I went home I jokingly told Brian about my invitation, and was shocked when he was adamant I go. Brian felt that Amanda and I needed "best friend time" (his words) and that a week in Mexico would be a good idea. He also explained that down the road jobs, kids and life could prevent us from having another opportunity to do this for a while. When I expressed concerns about applications he pointed out that the window between the cruise in January and Mexico was small enough any interviews could be worked around it. I'm not going to lie, it didn't take much convincing for me to agree! A few days later I was all booked counting down to sun and sand. 
The trip was an all-inclusive vacation, which was something I hadn't ever done. With my dad having timeshare, that's usually where vacations are spent. Our flight was an early one - 6:30am on Wednesday February 5th.  The vacation dates being Wednesday-Wednesday worked great for me, as it meant I would be back at home in time for Birthday-Mania as from February 13th - 20th my family celebrates four birthdays in the span of a week (it’s a busy, expensive and sugar filled week!)
Amanda and her parents opted to stay out by the airport on Tuesday night, but my parents offered to drive me to the airport that morning. We left the house at 3:15am in the middle of snow and ice. The weather reports were calling for the weather to get pretty bad, so the early flight was likely a blessing in disguise. While we were a bit delayed due to plane de-icing, we did actually get out, unlike many other flights that day. Due to booking after Amanda, I didn't get a seat near them - and ended up way at the back in the last row. When I checked in the woman told me it wasn't a full flight and I would likely have the row to myself, but that wasn't actually true as the flight was completely full. The couple I sat beside were very nice, and going to the same resort as us. The flight was okay - a little bumpy but nothing as bad as my last flight from Florida to Toronto in January. CanJet (the airline we were on) actually provided a free meal which was surprising but it was horrible looking eggs so I opted for just the fruit cup. 
Our flight wasn't direct as we landed in Acapulco to let off passengers. Because we were officially entering the country at that point, we all had to deplane and go through customs. It was extremely quick - as we seemed to be the only international plane having arrived at that time. Afterward we had to go back through security to get on the plane, where the security people were interesting. Both Amanda and I had bottled water with us - and Amanda was forced to drink hers. She wanted to throw it out, but they wouldn't let her and insisted she drink it. Luckily it was a mini bottle so she was able to do so easily. Luckily they didn't seem to care about mine, which was an extra large size. There is no way I could have finished that water in the few minutes we had to get back to the plane. 
The flight from Acapulco to Ixtapa was only 30 minutes, and soon we had landed at our destination. As we had flown in, I could see the bright sun and blue water which was exciting considering the winter blast we had only left a few hours prior. The airport was pretty small - about the same size as the Monroe, La airport - so we were the only plane on the Tarmac. This made getting our baggage an easy process. What delayed us a bit is the weird way in which Mexico handles incoming passengers. Once we had our bags and were heading for the exit each person or family had to go up to a screen and push a button. If the result flashed green you could exit, if it flashed red they had to search all the bags of those in your party. I went first, and got the green button. As I was leaving, I saw Amanda's family get red. It's so bizarre because it is totally random. I can see that it would have some benefits, but it's definitely flawed in the sense those looking or acting suspicious could easily get through. Amanda's family didn't seem to mind the search - which was through - but a number of other people did. I heard some woman complaining that they went through everything and pulled out underwear, toiletries, etc for everyone else in line to see and she felt violated and invaded. I think she was being a bit overdramatic…
Once Amanda and her family were done with the random search we were directed to a shuttle bus that would take us to the resort. The drive from the airport to the resort was only about 20-25 minutes but it was eye opening. The whole atmosphere is so drastically different then what you see at home, that it takes a minute to adjust. Ixtapa is a small area and most residents are employed through he resorts/tourism. In actuality it is one of the better areas and has lower levels of poverty, but driving through it didn't seem that way. Just as I did in Jamaica, I found myself really grateful for my life in Canada. Sometimes it takes seeing a different world to reinforce that gratitude. 
Barcelo Ixtapa
Our resort was the Barcelo Ixtapa, and pulling up to it I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was a tall stone building, with a very plain exterior. It looked nothing as I imagined it. The overall layout was bizarre as once you got inside there was a giant open space in the middle. Looking up you could see the individual floors, but everything was stone and covered in fake greenery. It reminded me a lot of the older buildings at UTSC where I went to university - truly not anything pretty or impressive. Ultimately, the interior and exterior didn't matter as everything else was awesome. 

The Inside of the Resort
Check in was easy mainly because we had upgraded to Club Premium. This feature gave us better rooms, quicker check-in/check-out, the ability to dine at specialty restaurants nightly, free internet and an exclusive lounge/bar. I believe it was around an extra $20.00 a day and it was definitely worth it. 
Our rooms were on the 11th floor (one floor below the top) and had an incredible ocean view. I will be honest, never having done an all inclusive I was a bit apprehensive. I had heard many horror stories about rooms and food, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. But my worry was unfounded as the room was amazing. It was very clean, the bed was comfortable, the air conditioning worked well, and the showers and sinks used filtered water. Something we did learn – thankfully early enough – is that you don’t leave anything on your bed as the maids will assume it is for them. There had been cases of people losing their iPads, clothes, and other items because they carelessly left it on the bed, and it was an assumed tip. Its customary to leave a few bills for the maids each day, so Amanda and I were extra careful to ensure that’s all we left on the beds!

They did make towel animals for us each day - which was awesome! :) I seriously love towel animals! 

Immediately after arriving we changed into bathing suits and headed for the pool area. Beside the main pool there was an a la carte restaurant that served lunch, so we opted to make that our first stop. Again I was a bit worried in terms of the food; but it was great. The fajitas were good and the guacamole, salsa and refried beans were amazing (beans of any kind are not something I ever eat, so that shows just how awesome these were!). They also made a delicious raspberry margarita. After lunch we found some pool chairs and spent the next hour by the pool. There were three pools at the resort - one of which we didn't find until the last day. The main pool was adults only and included a swim-up bar. It was a huge, and often had games of volleyball or water aerobics taking place in it.  This was the pool we spent most of our time at. 

After dinner we returned to our rooms to shower and get ready for dinner. Our first nights dinner was a Mexican Fiesta done buffet style outside. It was delicious. I wasn't too experimental and stuck to dishes and items I knew of, but it was wonderful. All of us were tired and opted to pass on the show that night in favor of going to be early. We didn't realize it then, but a 9:00 bedtime would become part of our normal routine. Amanda and I didn’t go to any show during our stay, and I believer her parents just went once but left shortly into it (it was a Michel Jackson night, and from what I heard the worst of all the shows!) 
Sunrise at the pool

Our days in Ixtapa, pretty much followed the same pattern - I would wake up early (between 6:45-7:15am – not something I typically do), great my iPad, phone, pool towels and books, and head to down to the pool to get us good chairs. The first row of chairs facing the main pool were the best, so that's what I aimed for. Toward the end of the week, I picked chairs that offered more shade as Amanda's mom was starting to burn. While I waited for Amanda to wake up and join me, I would play on my iPad, check my email (I got the best signal downstairs by the pool), watch the sun rise and call my mom. 
Once Amanda came down, we would get breakfast - which I wasn't too fond of. I'm not usually a breakfast person anyway, so I found the choices limiting but Amanda loved it. I usually had a cheese quesadilla with salsa and croissants - an interesting combination. Actually looking back, I think I had salsa with almost everthing. After breakfast I would go change into my bathing suit and by 9am we were laying out in the sun. Amanda's parents usually joined us by 9:30 and we tended to remain outside until around 2:30 or 3:00pm. During that time we would lay in the sun, Gaylee and I would read (I finished 8 books on the trip!), and we would go in and out of the water. 

The beach was just a quick walk from the pool, so we would usually go there once a day. But Amanda and I tended not to say long. It was the Pacific Ocean (actually this trip marked my first time seeing/swimming in the Pacific) and the water was a bit rough. Plus it was really sandy, so you couldn't see much but you could feel something grazing up against you - likely some sort of fish. I prefer to see what is under me, so remaining at the pool was my first choice. Still the ocean was nice, and it did help clear my sinuses each day. On our last day we saw two army ships side by side cruising close to shore with the men looking down at the water - we later heard there was a rumor of possible shark sightings. Whether that is true or not, I'm glad we didn't spend much time in the ocean. 

Our quiet empty pool!
Our last day was also the day Amanda and I discovered a different pool. It was just behind the swim up bar and to the side of the main pool, and was basically empty. The shallow end was so shallow that you could sit/lay there and sunbathe, and it slowly sloped down deeper. We spent the entire day just lying there in the water, soaking up the last of the sunshine!
The sign outside the restaurant- Amanda and I couldn't decide
if it meant "drunk" or "dunked" - let wet. Opinions?
We ate lunch at the a la carte restaurant every day but once (that day we tried the outdoor buffet which was good, but limited). Each time we ate there I ordered the fajitas and guacamole. Amanda tried a few other things but her go-to became the mozzarella bites. Looking back, I don't really see the appeal of them but at the time we thought they were delicious - possibly due to have a margarita or two while in the sun! In all honesty we didn't drink much - just a few drinks by the pool in the afternoon. None of us got drunk or silly unlike many of the other people at the resort. It's amazing how people go crazy when it comes to vacations. 

There were a group of three woman walking around the resort in some inappropriate tee-shirts, a couple boasting about their drug dealing arrests and subsequent ban from the US and many people drinking ridiculous amounts. There were a large number of people who brought their own refillable cups to the pool, and some of these were insane. A common one was a large metal one that held about 6-8 cups. I saw the bartenders filling these up and about a 1/4 bottle of alcohol was poured in for a mixed drink. I personally don't see the appeal of making myself sick on a vacation and can't grasp where the fun is in spending a week consistently drunk, but that attitude didn’t seem to be the norm. It wasn’t a wild/crazy resort by any means – there were a number of families, and seniors but the majority was a 25-40 crowd that seemed to be there to party and drink. To each their own.  

The first morning Amanda, her mom (Gaylee) and I did a water aerobics class. We thought this would be a fun and easy activity but we were wrong. It was an hour long, and far more intense then the aqua fit class I take at home. 30 minutes in we were dying, and just before they had us pair up and pull each other across the pool we snuck away. It wasn't an activity any of us opted to do again. Amanda and her dad (Wayne) joined a water volleyball game one afternoon. Gaylee and I had fun watching and laughing. They tried to get me to join, but in order for me to stand in the pool I had to go on my tippy-toes, so Volleyball was out. 
The resort had a ton of activities including ceramics painting, but the one that seemed the most interesting was rifle shooting. I wanted to do this from day one, but Amanda talked me out of it, I have a history of being pretty klutzy, so she - taking a line from "A Christmas Story" - was afraid I would "shoot my eye out" or something of the like. I listened to her logic until the last day, when I threw caution to the wind and decided to go for it. Turns out I am a horrible shot. But considering the fact I had never held a rifle let alone shot anything, being horrible didn't bother me. 

After spending the day at the pool or beach, we would head back to the room in stages. Usually I let Amanda go first to shower and change, and then I followed about 30-40 minutes later. From 4:00-6:00 we would usually watch TV (as we found two stations with popular TV shows that were spoken in English and subtitled in Spanish) or Amanda would sleep and I would read. Then we would get up and get ready to meet her parents for dinner. 
We ate at the buffet twice for dinner and it was okay. The food wasn't bad or anything and no one got sick, but it was a bit bland and repetitive. We ate at specialty restaurants the other nights. Our first one was at the sushi place which was a bit
different. The fish was very fresh and everything was tasty, but they put cream cheese in all the sushi rolls and rice balls, which was strange. I was able to easily pick the cream cheese out so it wasn't a big deal, but it was an odd combination. I've seen Philly rolls at sushi places, but that's the only item that tends to have cream cheese. This place was putting it in everything. Still all the food was fresh and really good.
Our second and third time was at a Spanish restaurant. There was a variety of meats and items on the menu and everything sounded great, but both times I stuck with the salmon which was incredible. It was done with a citrus sauce and rice and was hands down the best salmon I have ever tasted.

Our last specialty restaurant was an outdoor grill that did Lobster, Salmon, Chicken and Steak on the BBQ. Our dining time was just around sunset, and dining outdoors under the moon was lovely. It was a delicious dinner and an excellent way to celebrate our last day in Mexico.

We only left the resort once, to visit a craft market across the street. While I wanted to support the local economy, the stuff wasn’t anything handmade/crafted but instead the usual cheap tourist stuff you see everywhere with high prices attached. The vendors try and entice you in, but the prices just weren’t worth it. I guess I must seem jaded and unapproachable whereas Amanda has the air of being an easy mark, because everywhere we went they would zero in on her. 

Amanda is incredibly friendly, and of course would stop to be nice. I however was the one dragging her away. I have been to enough of these islands markets that I have learned while it may be rude, sometimes the best option is to just keep walking. This attitude also seemed safer, as the market went way back with long, narrow and dark halls and had some secluded and empty booths. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel safe, but it was just Amanda and I alone, and I wanted to air on the side of caution.

Amanda bought a hat, but that was it. We walked a little but into the town area, which seemed nice. But it was the morning, and we didn’t see the point in eating/drinking anywhere when we had everything included at the resort. We considered going to “Senior Frogs” one afternoon (it’s a fun bar chain in Mexico and the Caribbean) but we never wanted to leave the pool.  
Apparently there is a really great pizza place/bar in the area that is owned by a Canadian and broadcasts Canadian sports at all times. As the Olympics had just started, a bunch of people from the resort spent their evenings there. From what people were saying they felt safe walking around at all hours, but all of us agreed it was fine in the daytime, but not someplace we would want to be past dark. A few craft vendors set up tables at the resort, and they had some nice and unique stuff- and I found a few souvenirs for my mom and brother. There was an excursion to the local marina the next town over that I was interested in, but when I got more information on it, it turned out that it was only an hour at the marina and then another two hours at a different market. Plus it was $45.00 each, so it didn’t seem worth it. The pool and resort were so wonderful that it was nice to just sit back and fully relax.
Our flight home was in the afternoon, so we didn’t have to leave the resort until 11am. There was a bit of drama over the shuttle as there were multiple busses taking us to the airport. After we got on the first bus, Amanda realized our luggage still wasn’t on. When I got off the bus to find out what was going on, they told me it would be on the next bus. I refused – not wanting my luggage to be unattended. What’s the first thing people ask/say at the airport? “Has your luggage been unattended?” I was pretty adamant until they took our bags and started loading them. Of course when we arrived at the airport Wayne and Gaylee’s bags were there, whereas Amanda and mine were not. We were furious. Naturally since it’s the end of the trip the tour company doesn’t care, and that just angered us more. Fortunately the second bus did have our bags, but it was annoying. By the time we got inside the airport the line was extremely long, and it took as awhile to check in. From there everything went better.
The airport was small, but we were able to buy some duty-free items. The flight was 5 hours, and it was fine – a bit of turbulence but nothing too bad. I was siting in the row behind Amanda and her parents, and we were close to the front, so we got off the plane and through customs/baggage quickly. Getting out of the airport took over 30 minutes as there were a ton of international flights arriving, but finally we were free and back at home! We parted at the airport as they were driving home, and Brian had been nice enough to come get me.
It was a wonderful trip – incredibly relaxing, fun, and enjoyable. It was awesome to spend time with Amanda’s parents – who I have known since I was 5 years old – and really fun just to have a week with my best friend. I am not sure when we will next have the opportunity to do a week-long all inclusive but I know we definitely will, and I look forward to that day!

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