American corporations such as Hilton Hotels are careful to export a complete American experience and install it fully on foreign soil. No matter the country, soft-skinned American wimps like us can escape to our creature comforts like clean water, air conditioning, and daily maid service. The Hilton of Puerto Vallarta is just such an oasis.
But our deeply unnerving experiences were not quite done.
The check-in counter, while covered from sun and rain, is completely outdoors, part of a long open breezeway from the sunny pool and beachfront to the parking and drop-off circle. Fountains in rock gardens bubble, tan bodies luxuriate with daiquiris on lobby furniture. Smartly dressed attendants hustle luggage on bellman’s carts, and charming young faces smile to welcome you to the check-in counter. There’s still a general hubbub of vacationers and traffic noise, but the hotel campus is clean and most of the staff speak perfect English.
Side note: Trina is a Diamond Hilton Honors Member, and we booked the hotel under her account.
At the counter, we gave our names. “It’s under Trina Mays. Uh, she’s a Diamond Honors member,” I said feeling smug and entitled.
After a small number of keyboard clicks, the spiffy hotel check-in staff fell silent. A strange, troubled expression came upon their faces. They started avoiding eye contact with us and furtively murmured to each other. Trina and I looked at each other. Behind us, more American families with children were queuing up looking at us in their straw hats and sunglasses and beach balls. Our check-in girl walked away without a word of explanation.
One minute later, another woman approached us, not in hotel uniform, but in professional business attire. This one was corporate. She motioned for us to follow her. We trundled our luggage along, entering a network of corridors, arriving at a spacious business office with a 20-foot ceiling. Modular desk, computer, printer. She asked us to take a seat. Then she left.
The room was quiet and cool, bathed in sunlight from a high window. Bon Jovi played in the distance. I felt for my passport in my pocket. I whispered, “do you know what’s going on?” She shook her head.
We sat there, once again worried for our safety. Worried that our reservations could not be found, that the authorities were seeking us, that the Vidanta agent had caught up with us. Did anyone on the outside know that we were in here?
The woman came back. She asked us if we would like a beverage—Coke, water, beer? We were relieved; they’re probably not going to kill us. But we were still worried that some really bad news was coming. The drinks were to prepare us for some devastating news.
“Bottled water would be great,” Trina said.
“Beer? What do you have?”
“Bud, Bud Lite, Miller, Coors. And we have Mexican beers. Corona, Modelo, Dos Equis, Pacifico—”
She came back with our drinks and sat down at the desk. Here it comes. We braced ourselves.
“Welcome to Puerto Vallarta! Have you been here before?”
“Well I hope you enjoy your stay with us. I just need to see some ID and I’ll get you your room key.”
What? Yes. Apparently, being a Diamond Hilton Honors Member means you do not check in at the counter with the unwashed riff-raff of Puerto Vallarta. No. You check in in a calm, quiet room, seated, drinking a cold beer (at least at this hotel).
We relaxed. The small courtesies seemed too good to be true. She gave us our keys. She encouraged us to go straight out to the poolside and enjoy our drinks; a bellhop would immediately deliver our baggage to our room.
I asked her if she knew about Vidanta because of our airport experience. Yes, she said, it was a scam. “They say it is only a one-hour event but they keep you there all day.” All day. She knew of one family, she said, that only had three days in Puerto Vallarta. They lost an entire day trapped at the Vidanta tour.
Dear God, I thought.
We spent the rest of that day (it was only about 1pm) getting a buffet lunch and then walking the beach. A man with a rack of sunglasses asked if we wanted to buy some sunglasses. A woman buried in wool wraps asked if we wanted to buy bracelets.
Another man asked if we wanted to buy a box of Cuban cigars.
“Okay, some weed? Blow?”
We took a taxi to the Romantic District, an area with oceanfront shops, local art, exotic statuary, a flea market. As we stepped out of the taxi a man asked,
“Good day sir, would you like to buy Cuban cigars?”
“Okay, some weed? Blow?”
We found a small cathedral and went in to listen to five minutes of a choir and Catholic liturgy in Spanish. Then we left and went to buy some ice cream. Policemen were stationed on street corners, and as we walked along the sidewalk a man approached us.
“Cuban cigars, sir? Box of cigars?”
“Okay. Some weed? Blow?”
We started avoiding all street vendors. They were persistent. Some would call at you across the street like an old high school friend. You shook your head mildly and kept walking. Most took your refusal as a young Romeo would take rejection from a lover.
Exhausted, we decided to retreat to the safety of our hotel where vendors were not allowed. Another taxi ride (about $3 US) took us several miles, rapidly, violently, through back streets, around hard corners, down cobblestone streets, past heartbreaking poverty and shocking living conditions, back to our comfortable American hotel.
The final surprise: in our hotel room, the bed had a colored-rice artwork on the blanket. You can see from the photos, it was loose, unglued rice, somehow laid on the bedspread, welcoming us.
I was simultaneously impressed and appalled by the sheer inefficiency of it all. American that I am, I couldn’t help but think that some housekeeping staff person was paid to craft this design that would inspire amazement, yes, but quickly following a sense of befuddlement.
What were we supposed to do with it? A terrible mess just waiting to happen. If we ignored it and flung the rice all over the floor, then the same senorita who meticulously placed the rice there the day before would be sweeping it up into the dustbin tomorrow.
We felt the only humane thing to do was to take two minutes to make a valley of the blanket, funnel all the rice into a channel and pour it into the trashcan.
Trivial artwork admired and thrown in the trash. Like a black parade pantomiming the disparity between the opulent Americans that we are, and the quiet desperation of the locals locked in a world of dirt and disease.
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Here is a little interruption from my Mexico trip diary to talk about what I did today. In case you saw my Facebook post and wondered what’s going on, I am working for an company that provides staff for events: conferences, weddings, parties, etc. I make $15/hr and I stand on my feet all day. It’s brutal for a man of my age.
Here’s what’s up. I have decided to become a bartender. I have always admired bartenders and wanted to be one since I was a teenager working at the Kingwood Country Club where “Cuz” was the coolest guy in the building. I have my TABC permit and, in addition to some life experience with drinks, I am studying mixology. I am working event staff to get back into the world of food service, and hopefully to get assistance with a job placement.
This weekend, NASCAR is at Circuit of the Americas here in Austin. My personnel supply company needed warm bodies to serve drinks, bus tables, and work the buffet. I thought, “a day in the VIP area of COTA? Sign me up!” I met a number of interesting people including one young man who tried everything within his power to get me to understand that I knew nothing of the Christian faith and that I needed to seek power from God to cast out demons and speak in tongues. Stories? Yeah, mission accomlished.
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Outside the Puerto Vallarta airport was a sea of taxis. Tired and sweating drivers stood around with rumpled collars. Again, a field of eyes turned on us.
Getting a taxi at the PV airport is a racket. A young lady approached us with a kind of ticketing booklet and asked if we needed a taxi. “This is how we do it here,” she explained. “I write you an order for a taxi. Then you pay at the taxi kiosk and you are assigned to a driver.”
“How much to get to the Hilton (about 3 miles),” I asked.
“350 pesos,” she said. I didn’t yet know how to quickly convert dollars to pesos, but it seemed like a lot.
We sat down in an airport café like fugitives. Having had just narrowly avoided one major scam, it was clear that before us lay an obstacle course designed for rich American tourists. I had an idea. I called the concierge at the Hilton.
“What’s the best way to get from the airport to the Hilton?”
“You can take a taxi.”
“There’s no Hilton shuttle or anything?”
“I’m sorry sir, there is no shuttle. But you can also take an Uber. It will be cheaper.”
“You have Uber here?”
“Yes, it works just like in the United States.”
We went out seeking where the Uber pickup was. There was a policeman. A blink of hesitation and I asked him where Uber was. Speaking excellent English, he said that, like American airports, rideshare services are not allowed on the airport campus. But there was a skywalk off the airport to the closest street. He pointed in the direction.
A surge of victory! Our first success in finding the secret passage out of the world of exploitation of the newly-arrived-American-tourist-who-doesn’t-know-any-better. Instead of $20 US we would pay about $4 US. Now that’s more like it!
The process was all familiar. A young man pulled up as we stood waving, recognizing his license plate number. He didn’t say anything, just lifted our bags into the trunk. His collar was rumpled too, and jaunty Mexican music played softly on the radio. He wasn’t the usual Uber chatterbox. Thin cloth curtains were mounted across the backseat windows concealing us from outside.
From the wide, open six-lane road we were on, our driver suddenly turned off into a network of narrow, single-lane streets. Trina and I looked at each other. My neck hair stood up. I almost said in his ear from behind, “Qué pasó?” but I feared even more a hasty response that I couldn’t understand. The little car accelerated through what seemed like a labyrinth of cobblestone roads, darting left and right, high walls on either side and men standing around expectantly as we passed, their mustaches heavy, their tee-shirts dirty and not completely covering their big bellies.
My heart was in my throat. I expected our car to stop in front of one of the shanty houses, to be hustled out at gunpoint. Were we being taken to a dank concrete room to be tied to wooden chairs, a flip-phone shoved in our ear with one of our children on the other end? If we were lucky! What if we were being taken to a chop shop to have our kidneys removed and sold?
How could we have fallen for it? Uber was a just front for a Mexican kidnapping ring! and stupid tourists who refuse to pay the taxis mafiosos put in the tank. And that cop was in on it too! We had been fish in a barrel, easy prey.
The car started breaking rapidly. This is it, I thought. But we were pulling up to an intersection to take us back onto the 6-lane road…going the other direction, into town. I saw that there are no U-turns on the road. The only way to turn around was to use the traffic light at the intersection.
Realization dawned on us. Our shoulders relaxed.
In ten minutes we were deposited with little ceremony (or conversation still) at the welcoming open check-in desk of the Puerto Vallarta Hilton, where we were treated like royalty.
“Sir! Welcome to Mexico! Come, may I ask you something? Do you like tequila? We are serving free tequila! Look, let me give you this. Try this one. This one is called reposado. Good? Do you like it? Some for you Madam? Or perhaps a margarita? Yes? Wonderful, can I get a margarita for the lady? Here, please. Here you go. This one is for you. Real Mexican tequila, the best. Pretty good, eh? Now look at this one. You like mango? This bottle over here is different. This one is mango tequila. Here you go. Taste this. What do you think? No? You do not like the flavored ones. Just the straight tequila. I understand. A man of taste. Let me get you another.”We were frazzled and ready to get to our hotel room.
“Sir, before you go! you may have noticed coming down the corridor, the signs. There are many signs. Did you see the signs for Vidanta? Yes? Do you know about Vidanta?”
“We already have a hotel.”
“Excellent! May I ask where are you staying?”
“An excellent choice, sir. How long are you in Puerto Vallarta?”
“Only today. Tomorrow we go to Sayulita for the week.”
“Ahh! Sayulita is wonderful! If you give me just a minute of your time I will get you free transportation to the Hilton.”
To cut to the chase, Vidanta is a not-yet-finished resort. The whole presentation was about getting us to come to a one-hour tour of the Vidanta campus the following morning. The man promised to pick us up himself and take us to enjoy a free breakfast.(We later learned that “one hour” is actually literally the whole day. Trina and I fell for this once when we were newlyweds around 1992. They promised us a voucher for a luxury hotel if we come listen to a 45-minute presentation. We were dirt poor and naïve, and a free vacation was enticing. But you know how it goes: they trap you in a room for hours and pressure you to buy a vacation time-share package or something. It was horrible. We never fell for that again. I assumed that only American businesses could be so scammy. I wasn’t expecting it in Mexico.)
To get us to sign up for a tour, the freebies started adding up. By the end, he had offered us:
- A free taxi to the Hilton
- Personal escort to Vidanta the following morning
- Free breakfast before the tour
- Personal escort to Sayulita after the tour was over (approximately a one-hour drive)
- A full BOTTLE OF TEQUILA
- 1000 pesos CASH! (approximately $50 US)
He asked my name and wrote it on a registration form, thanking me on behalf of his poor children because he worked on commission.
“Sir, we only want you to see Vidanta so you can tell your friends who may come to Mexico. To help get the word out with advertising, because Vidanta is new and not well known. Nothing else.”
“But they want us to buy a vacation, right?”
“There is no obligation to purchase.”
“Yeah, but will we be pressured to buy a vacation, right?”
He pointed to the registration form that said, “NO OBLIGATION”
“I get it. We’ve done this before. They’re gonna twist our arms to sign up.”
“Sir there is no obligation.”
That’s when Trina said, “Nope. We’re gonna pass.” And I said “You heard the lady! We’re gonna pass.”
“But sir! Wait, think about my children! What if I will give you ONE-THOUSAND PESOS!” And that is when we walked away.
Suddenly the gauntlet of thirty other salesmen lining the corridor erupted into shouts— “SIR! PLEASE, ONE MOMENT! SIR! SIR! SIR!” They stepped toward us urgently, as you would for someone whose clothes were on fire, their faces shocked as if we had insulted the whole nation of Mexico.
For a moment, we sensed we could be in serious physical danger from the brigade of salesmen charging at us and pleading with us. Trundling our luggage behind, Trina and I huddled together and pressed into the fray like sailors into a hurricane. Adrenaline surged. We avoided eye contact. Perhaps the tequila steeled our nerves. But they didn’t follow us down the corridor. Thank God, we were safe.
Physically trembling, hearts racing, and looking at each other in sheer astonishment, we approached the airport exit.
But we were blocked by a line of people, like a game of Red Rover, urgently asking if they could hail us a taxi.