Playa del Carmen & the Tucan/Quetzal Resort

Normally I hate all-inclusive resorts. As an independent traveller, I will suffer through inconvenience in the name of authenticity. But sometimes I just want to park my ass on a beach in the general vicinity of an interesting town while sipping a tasty beverage, and this trip delivered.

I got to use some of my finest-quality, high-octane mumbly spanish, ate some dubious tacos, and snorkelled in some flooded caves. Not bad at all.

So without further ado, here’s my commentary on the Iberostar Tucan / Quetzal resort and its nearby town, Playa del Carmen. I don’t know why they bother to pretend these are two resorts, when they are clearly one, and more or less interchangeable.

Establishment:

The hotel is twelve years old and in good condition. Our rooms were tidy and modern, and not done up in the tacky faux-colonial style seen all over tourist Mexico.  There is a “mayan” wall décor and an acceptable bathroom (large shower) a bit short on shelf space.

The lobbies are pleasant and enjoyable, with a “mayan” style, again not overbearing.

The hotel is structured as several 3-storey buildings, with 12 suites to each floor. The construction is solid concrete and sound isolation is very good.

The buildings are on either side of a completely bonkers jungle that forms the center 50% of the property. Monkeys, various wild and tamed birds, and strange tail-less squirrel/rabbit things are running all over. I am quite sure that this is the most interesting resort in PDC for its natural elements.  There are few pictures of this part of the resort because they don’t look like anything except a dense, wild jungle. Which it kind of is: There was some kind of monkey border dispute outside our balcony every morning at sunrise.

The pool is very large, not heavily used, and has a hideaway swim-up bar.

Food & drink:

Very satisfying, with a good variance from meal to meal. Their cold soups/gazpacho and hamburgers were especially good. There are effectively two buffets (one at beach, one at the services/entertainment area) and five sit-down restaurants which provide marginally better food and an excuse to buy pricy wine. Why you would go to Mexico for a Japanese meal is beyond me. We enjoyed the Mexican restaurant, which I am stunned didn’t offer a mole-based dish, and the Italian restaurant to a lesser degree.

There are bars scattered all over. The alcohols on offer are all acceptable, and the lobby offers better drinks and some recognizable labels including Don Julio tequila and nice cuban rum. The sweet/punch drinks were too sweet for my tastes but the ladies enjoyed them. Order a caipirinha and hold on to your hat.

And hey, the in-room minibar and room service are free.

Location:

This resort is the 2nd-last along the resort strip in the private Playacar enclave.  It is a 45-minute walk and 10-minute cab ride to town.

Playa del Carmen, the erstwhile fishing village, will encourage you to spend as much money as you have in your wallet. The shops along 5th avenue are all extreme rip-offs, with aggressive people out front trying to encourage you to go in. You can get slightly better deals by finding places going out of business (which happens all the time) or walking along any of the streets perpendicular to 5th ave.

The Playacar development is completely safe.  There are goons at the perimeter.  The worst annoyances inside the goon perimeter were the resort-employed people offering inauthentic Cuban cigars and spa services that cost more than the best venues in Toronto.

In town, there’s intense-looking police walking around with bulletproof vests and submachine guns. That’s kind of how the cops roll in Mexico.

The beach is very nice, white fine ground-shell beach with well-built palapas and a bored life guard. The entire beach for all resorts was swept away by a hurricane a few years ago, and this sand was dredged up near Cozumel. It doesn’t burn your feet.

Activities:

The “Star Friends” entertainment crew are enthusiastic, and they manage to put together a good range of stuff to do. My favourite was the 3:30 beach volleyball.

The beaten-up catamarans provided good, free, fun. I miss my Hobie 18.

I am not the sort of person to watch entertainment shows at resorts, but my friends reported it was entertaining, deliberately corny, and the house band was talented.

There is a disco, which a waste of time.. Go to town for your party.

Our friends with children were able to leave the kids at a kids’ club, where they were fed and entertained throughout the day.

Service:

Mexicans in general are gregarious people. The men like to ham it up a bit, often making jokes even when nobody’s looking. Perhaps the hotel also cracks the whip a bit. Any which way, the service here was very good. Never bored, never resentful. These people deserve your tips.

The spa services are extremely overpriced. USD 175 for a massage!?

Fellow travellers:

Predominantly European, predominantly late 30’s into retirement. Some families, though the children were well-behaved. No lager louts. The most obnoxious visitors were from Manitoba.

Add-on tours: Sunwing offered a number of tours, overall interesting but very poor value.

Pro tips:

You can get a beach umbrella from the towel shack. The breakfast buffet can, in fact, make you an espresso but they will push coffee on you. You’ll get meaner drinks if you tip at the bar early in your trip. There is a man-made “reef” made out of concrete blocks about 500 meters down the coast, 100m off shore – go for a snorkel and find some fish.

Rent a car and drive around to the more relaxed Tulum beach to the south and the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve without fear – Mexico has completely normal driving conditions and habits.​ The onsite car rental is reasonable ($50/day). Watch out for one thing: flashing green lights are not “you can turn left” — they should be treated as a plain green, as they indicate an impending switch to yellow, then red.

Executive looting

The Canadian Centre for Policy alternatives reports that executive compensation is alarmingly high. A sarcastic axe-grinder in the Post says it’s all a bunch of hot air by people with an axe to grind, only admitting at the end that there might be a point in all this.

Executive compensation isn’t the problem.  It’s executive looting.

Let’s have a look at Onex, with the #3 best-paid CEO, Gerry Schwartz @ $16M total package.

Their 2009 annual report makes a big deal out of their option plan, proudly proclaiming that management is the largest shareholder.  They transferred $161M of cash to shares in 2009 (again, mainly to management). The options that can be exercised in the future show up as a liability, which increased $86M to $138M.  They have 13 million share options outstanding, at an average price of $18. The current market price is $30.

ONEX’s share structure lets directors buy back shares (up to 10% of their float per year).  “Onex believes that it is advantageous to Onex and its shareholders to continue to repurchase Onex’ Subordinate Voting Shares from time to time when the Subordinate Voting Shares are trading at prices that reflect a significant discount to their intrinsic value.”

The web page they made to crow about this sham has a convenient number at the bottom: more than $1 billion over 13 years was spent repurchasing shares.  They could have returned $1.40 a year  in dividends instead of the $0.11 our grandparents seem to be happy with.

All this money has gone to people who managed return 5% on their stock price, lost half their business’s value in the collapse of 2008-2009, and have never out-performed the TSX index for any sustained length of time.

Onex (blue) vs. TSX (red) from 2000-2010

Art & Copy, 2009

Art & Copy is a heinous love letter to the ad industry, which the authors should be (depending on your stance) either ashamed or proud of.

These days, nobody seriously thinks that the ad industry is improperly put upon.  Most of the things that make the Internet a worse place to be —analytics software that tracks your every move, permanent browser cookies, banner ads, pop-ups, pop-unders, and more or less the entire domain trade — is in the service of the ad industry. I’ve used Google’s advertising “content network”. It’s a scam that drained me of money, fattened Google’s profit margins, provided no benefit to anyone, and made some people’s web pages slightly more cluttered.

“Art & Copy” is an honest documentary of a dishonest trade and the disingenuous people that work in it.  Not that they lie: they are straight up about what it is they do.

There are two bright lights among this nest of snakes.  One, too briefly seen, is a billboard installer who has never met any of the people whose work he installs. He is introduced, gets a comment in about working in the same trade as his grandfather, and reappears only at the end, clicking around on his computer. The other is the surfer-hippie chief executive of an agency you’ve surely heard of, who is notable in two ways: one, he is convinced he can influence the world for the better; two, his face appears on a punching bag installed in his office.

We are told that ad creep is consumers’ fault; that advertising that presents itself as information is consumers’ fault; and that there is really no such thing as ethics in the industry. I am fairly sure that the word “ethical” never comes up.

In “Art & Copy” the ad industry got a hagiography it neither needs nor deserves.

A good experience fixing our GTI at Alpine Motors in Toronto

I like the GTI I own with Reagan. It’s a good car.  It’s a 2004 and hasn’t given us a bit of trouble, until recently.

I went in with a list of three things: First, I had a consistent moaning sound correlated to road speed, which the dealer (Queensway VW) said was all in my head. Second, random bozos had smashed each mirror, and I had new ones in a box that needed installing.  Third, the engine idiot light was on.

They turned the car around in less than a day and relieved me of $450 in labour and $315 in parts. They work from a labour book, which means that there are standardized times for each job regardless of actual time. So: $160 to install two mirrors, $200 to replace a wheel bearing and hub, and $90 for an engine temperature sensor.

Perhaps if I had ambition, the temperature sensor was within my reach to do myself. The rest wasn’t. I’m sure some enthusiast out there could do it for the part and a case of beer, but I’m through with those kind of people working on my stuff.

I dealt with Hans, who is a charming, tall, grizzled mechanic. He looks exactly like you think someone who has been fixing european cars for 40 years would look like.

They also don’t have a website. This says a lot about their character (“Why would we want one of those? Tell your friends about us.”). Overall, I felt this was excellent service and a fair price from the kind of people I enjoy giving my money to. I’ll be going back before my timing belt gives up.