Mexico was out there. Somewhere

Sophie Campbell went to a country called `all-inclusive'. After five days, she was ready to make a break for freedom

TWO hours out of Heathrow and Lenny Henry is on the in-flight video, taking the piss out of pretentious tourists: "We found this amazing village hundreds of miles from anywhere and they'd never seen travellers before..." he mimics. A titter goes around the plane. Lenny, you are preaching to the converted. Three hundred and twentyeight of us, in fact, jammed into a charter plane bound for Cancn on Mexico's Caribbean coast, where we have paid a startlingly low price for bed, booze, food, shows, sports, tips and sunshine.

It must be three years since the all-inclusive - darling of the travel industry, bete noire of a la carte travellers - arrived on the Yucatan peninsula like a virus, fresh from its breeding ground in the Dominican Republic. So popular is the concept that 30 per cent of Kuoni's Caribbean clients choose all-inclusive holidays and most major operators now have all-inclusive brochures. You can get married all-inclusively, or go on all-inclusive cruises. As Cancn was invented for tourism anyway (selected by computer, the story goes, from the scrub-covered nothing of the Yucatan) this is a match made in heaven.

"PPRRRRRRRPP! OLE!" - Mexican music bounces out of waiting buses as our flight is swallowed by a seamless meet-and-greet operation. The first video whirrs - two girls filming each other downing Corona Extras with lime quarters stuck in the bottle necks - and a small but determined rush by airport salesmen is deflected by reps who filter us on to the right buses for our resorts. The driver ("I been waiting for you all morning! Drink?") sells cold beers for 15 pesos each - the going rate - as we swing out of the gates, through a military checkpoint and into Mexico proper.

Or is it? For an awful second I think I've come to Florida by mistake. Wet 'n' Wild and Tony Romera's Rib Shack, say the signs. Rock 'n' Roll will never die of starvation at the Hard Rock Cafe, ladies get in free to the Male Hot Body Concert at the Hog's Beach Saloon. Oh, and it's 307 km to Chetumal, which is a relief because it means we are on the road built especially for the propagation of tourists, the Cancn Corridor, which arrows straight down the coast to the resorts. Tucked among slender, silver-green jungle trees on either side are huts with thatch toupees, frames hung with rugs for sale, ads for riding lessons, snorkelling parks and hotels. This is tourist heaven; half Florida, half Mexico. iEstamos en Flexico! iPrrrrrrrrp! iOle!

The Caribbean Village at Playacar, one hour south of the main strip at Cancn, is on the golf course rather than on the beach. They show us the free minibus shuttle - a five-minute ride to the sea - on our tour of the property. We are newly-tagged (every guest wears a coloured wrist band; blue for us, light blue for timeshare, black for room only, $25 if you lose it) and self-conscious about our mushroom pallor. All around is energy, colour, light. Happy groups cluster around the bar drinking free tequilas and dipping free corn chips into free guacamole. A group of women does free aqua-aerobics in the pool and children wander about with free snack lunches. On the open-air stage, staff are rehearsing for that night's free gala show.

British tourists are in the minority here, outweighed by Germans - who hang out by the pool; and Americans - who hang out on the golf course; but I am still surprised to see that nobody seems to be piling into the free alcohol and falling over. "Peak consumption drops after two-and-a- half days" explains Alain Tiphaine, the general manager, with a grin. "Some go bonkers when they first arrive, eating fresh fruit and seasoned food and drinking too much alcohol in the sun. Then they get ill. Then they calm down." He is right. Too many tequilas in this heat and you would have to miss an afternoon's free entertainment.

This is the secret of all-inclusive success. "Free" or not, people can only eat or drink so much. In addition, a hotel can cater for precise numbers; most guests, loath to give up a meal they have already paid for, will eat "off-campus" only once or twice in a week. Sports and entertainment are provided by a team of incredibly energetic young staff - grateful for jobs when the unemployment rate in Mexico City is running high - who do long hours for low salaries. Rooms are clean and functional (on the ship's cabin principle, you are not meant to be in them for much of the time) and the food is plentiful but not fancy. Economies of scale make this profitable for the owners and good value for the punters - in low season, a fully inclusive week's stay at Caribbean Village costs about pounds 30 more than a scheduled flight to Cancn.

Certainly nobody cares about being in Mexico. "We don't give a bugger if we're in Mexico or not," says one couple bluntly, "we just don't want to make any decisions for two weeks." Anyway, it's a laugh; the staff are friendly, the people are nice. Bar the inevitable guests with five- star standards and three-star budgets, and some good-natured whingeing about the food and sharing tables at meals, people - particularly parents - reckon they are getting a great deal. Which makes it all the more interesting that most of them, to some degree or other, are suffering pangs of guilt.

They have noticed the hours put in by the entertainment staff and know that the cleaners and maintenance men get around 400-500 pesos every two weeks and that it costs roughly that much to rent a house for a month. All of us are disorientated by the altered balance between servers and served; it seems churlish to complain when you are getting such a good deal, yet we suspect one or two staff of lacking "tip-motivation". American guests are suffering particularly badly from the no-tip rule, so they tip anyway and tell everyone about it, making us all feel guiltier than ever.

Setting aside the wider arguments about mass tourism, though, I'd say the Caribbean Village is doing a good job. Yes, profits from our hotel go to Allegro Resorts, based in the Dominican Republic, not in Mexico, but they have to buy their food and hire their staff - and their construction teams, for that matter here. While Alain Tiphaine admits that it affects local food and beverage outlets - "We have 600-plus guests and they all eat their meals here" - more staff (mostly Mexican, 60 per cent of them from nearby Playa del Carmen) are needed to feed and entertain the captives. In a sense, by keeping guests firmly in one place and bussing them out - using Cancn operators - for excursions, the impact on local communities is limited.

No, my problem is that sometimes, like Greta Garbo, I want to be alone. And I want to see Mexico. A walk along the beach, fine, white and dazzling, to Playa del Carmen, described by our rep as "a really authentic Mexican village" (which it is, for this coast; lots of concrete, lots of bars, lots of "Ten stages of Tequila" t-shirts), is notable for the fact that nobody tries to sell me souvenirs because they can see my wrist band. Instead of feeling delighted I feel rather put out. When I find myself wandering in a temple site above the beach, looking nervously around for snakes and spiders instead of reading the plaque about the Conquistadors, I decide I have been inside too long.

On Thursday, three of us jump the wire. Fumbling with unfamiliar money, we pay for ferry tickets to the island of Cozumel (US$9), car hire (US$35), snorkelling equipment (US$6) and breakfast (US$6). It hurts. Other people from our resort have bought snorkelling packages, going on a posh boat to fish-feeding sites, and we feel sorry for them as we roar off around the island with the wind blowing in our hair. Unfortunately all the temples we want to visit close as we reach them. The snorkelling is lousy; lots of dead coral and about three minnows. The others see two biq barracuda, a moray eel, "thousands of fantastic fish", a baby shark and a sting ray, all for US$38.

So much for independence. We scuttle back to the resort, to the safety of five meals a day, unlimited drinks, free stretch classes, low impact aerobics, aquagym, salsa, Spanish lessons, blindfold volleyball, "crazy games" and "El Tiburon" - Allegro's signature poolside Shark Dance, which takes place each afternoon and is compulsory for every member of staff (including chefs, chamber maids and receptionists). Phew! it's good to be back.

Back in the UK, after a not-so-seamless return flight (two check in desks, six coaches) a friend rings to ask if Mexico was fun. "Haven't been to Mexico mate," I say, "had a great time though".

FACT FILE

Kuoni (Brochure Line 01233 2112606) offers seven nights at the Caribbean Village at Playacar for between pounds 699 and pounds 969 per person, depending on the season, including return flights, transfers and accommodation on an all-inclusive basis. Children stay for half price - look out for extra offers in low season.

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