A Week at Secrets Akumal Riviera Maya

Tuesday, February 27, 2024


Having traveled extensively throughout France, Belgium, and England in October 2023 on a two-week vacation with many stressful moving parts, we wanted something easy for this trip so we decided on an adults-only all-inclusive resort. If you’ve ever researched resorts in Mexico's Riviera Maya region, you know there’s no shortage of options. After far too many hours on TripAdvisor and YouTube, we chose Secrets Akumal Riviera Maya, about 35 kilometers north of where we stayed last year. 

We flew Delta, and arriving in Cancun was much less fraught than our trip to Tulum in 2023, given that we knew exactly where to go upon exiting to meet our driver. We were told the journey would take about 90 minutes, but our driver was an absolute speed demon, making it in only 60 minutes. 

As you make your way from Cancun to Riviera Maya, you pass several large resort complexes with imposing gated entrances, so I was surprised to see the one for Secrets is quite understated. It took about 10 minutes to confirm our identities and reservation, but then we were through the gates and dropped off at the front of the hotel. 

At first, check-in appeared to be an easy, straightforward process. We were offered a room upgrade for $400/night that we turned down, and then we were handed off to some sort of “concierge,” who, in reality, was trying to sign us up for a timeshare presentation. It felt really gross, and I was definitely peeved that we were being kept from our vacation in this manner. That unsavory experience aside, as a first impression, the lobby of the resort is truly beautiful. 

Once we extracted ourselves from the salesman, a porter led us to our room, but because it was already dark, we didn’t really get to appreciate all that he was pointing out along the way. We were taken to room 9155, a top-floor room at the very rear of the property, which we would come to learn featured a significant amount of road noise while sitting out on the balcony. On the plus side, because it was at the very back of the resort, we were (mostly) spared the noise from the nightly entertainment (more on that later).

After getting situated in our room, we ventured out for dinner. Secrets boasts eight restaurants, seven of which were included in our rate (upgraded preferred club guests have access to a Greek restaurant for dinner, while the Seaside Grill becomes a more formal breakfast venue than the buffet open to all guests). As we’d had a somewhat late lunch and weren’t dying of hunger, I suggested sushi at the Japanese restaurant Himitsu. It was terrible. 

One of the selling points at Secrets is that you don’t need reservations for their restaurants, which, in theory, is nice, but in reality, means you often wait 30 to 45 minutes (or more) to get a table. At Himitsu, you have the choice of teppanyaki or an Asian fusion menu with several sushi items. The first thing we noticed upon being seated was it was so dark you couldn’t read the menu. The second was the temperature. It was HOT, likely from all the teppanyaki grills at the back of the restaurant. We waited about 20 minutes for our waiter, at which point we tried to order sake and a Sapporo. Remember, this is supposedly a luxury all inclusive. Immediately, he brought us a tablet that listed all the various drinks that cost extra - A LOT extra. Then he tried to offer us a bottle of tequila. Finally, (by me posting on a Secrets forum on Facebook) we figured out there is a house sake you can order, and when we did, the waiter told us it was crap and the ones available for purchase were much better. When it became clear that we weren’t paying extra for drinks, he disappeared for a long while. When our food finally came, the salmon sashimi was the slices of smoked salmon available the next morning at the bagel station in the buffet, while the fried tofu was a gloopy, soggy mess. Suffice it to say, our first meal at Secrets was a huge disappointment, and I immediately became worried we’d spent a lot of money for a week of bad food and service. When we went to bed that night, I was in glum spirits.

Day One

Sunday dawned bright and ... windy. Very windy.

We got dressed and headed down to breakfast at the Market Cafe, the buffet that is open for breakfast and lunch for all guests. Based on our experience the night before, I didn't have high hopes. Thankfully, we were seated fairly quickly at a table on the patio. Over the four meals we ate here (three breakfasts and one lunch), the service was hit or miss. In a few instances, we had to ask multiple times for coffee and water or refills on our drinks. Service inconsistencies aside, the food at Market Cafe was universally good to great. One thing that I was really disappointed by during our stay in Tulum was the lack of tacos, but at Secrets Akumal, you could have tacos practically every meal if you were so inclined. Trust me when I say I made a valiant attempt at this. But it wasn't only tacos that were very good. The pozole on Sunday was a great way to reset my expectations after the lackluster meal the night before, and it gave me hope that Himitsu was an anomaly. 

Our bellies full and our tastebuds happy, we went back to our room to get changed into our bathing suits and then made our way down to the main pool since it was so windy and we were concerned about being on the beach. It seemed like almost everyone had the same idea, so it was difficult to find two chairs together with any sort of shade at the pool, especially with chair hogs who claim their chairs early in the morning and then don't use them for hours on end. A pool concierge saw us wandering around aimlessly, and he took pity on us and led us to what were literally the last two available chairs and got us set up. Because of the wind, they weren't opening the umbrellas, so after only 30 minutes or so, I jumped in the pool to cool off. This is where the swim-up bar is, so Alan and I spent some time there chatting with another couple from Phoenix. The bartenders at the swim-up bar were very nice and did their best to accommodate everyone, even if the drinks were too sweet for my liking (and likely made with mixers and not real juice).

A (not so) quick note about the pools at Secrets Akumal ...

There are three fairly sizeable pools: the beachfront pool pictured here, another one almost immediately behind it where several of the evening activities and corporate parties took place, and then a quiet pool located closer to where our room was located. The pool pictured here is the activity pool, and there were many activities to be had ... most accompanied by loud music. 

One of the things I struggled with on this trip was the concept of "luxury" - a theme that is pushed pretty aggressively across the resort's app and marketing materials, but so often, it felt the opposite. I'm sorry, but a chicken wing eating contest accompanied by "Eye of the Tiger" blasted at full volume doesn't scream luxury to me. Large groups of drunk friends hollering at one another from across the pool doesn't feel luxe. 

So often, I felt like we were at a party resort rather than one meant for romantic getaways, a feeling that was only strengthened by the many corporate offsites taking place throughout the week. 

I'm trying not to be a snob, but this resort was among the more expensive options we considered, and between the marketing and the cost, I didn't enjoy the overgrown frat boy vibe several guests embodied. For example, in the lobby bar one evening, a large group from a tire company started screaming "Freebird!" when the singer was wrapping up her set. Frequently, I couldn't help but unfavorably compare the vibe to BeTulum, which was serene and very romantic. 

Anyway ... moving on.

Without any sun protection at the pool, we eventually made our way to the beach and claimed an open palapa. I'm so glad we braved the wind. The beach at Secrets Akumal is perfect: no waves with beautiful, warm turquoise blue water.

Dinner was at El Patio, which was really tasty, although the descriptions on the menu were slightly confusing. This proved to be a theme for several of our dinners throughout the week. You'd think you were getting one thing, and what would show up would have no relation to the description. I'm not sure if it was a language barrier or what, but we found ourselves confused more often than not.

Lamb birria tacos

Churro dessert

The restaurant was pretty empty, which we found slightly odd until we realized it was Super Bowl Sunday and the resort had gone all out with a giant buffet on the lawn by the second pool. It was truly impressive.

We don't watch football, but we did pop in after dinner to see what the score was. Alan grew up in the Bay Area, and his uncle Dino was a huge 49ers fan, so for nostalgia reasons, he was rooting for San Francisco. Meanwhile, I was rooting for Taylor's boyfriend's team - obviously. We finished watching the game at the sports bar, which is at the quiet pool (makes no sense to me either), before heading back upstairs for the night.

(Side note: I didn't take any pictures of the room because it looks exactly like what you see online. We enjoyed how spacious it was, though as California natives who grew up with draught protocols and are also slightly germophobic, we tend to shudder when we see giant whirlpool tubs taking up so much space in a room. If that's your jam, you'll love it. It was quite large. The mattress was very comfortable, while the pillows were kind of flat. I really liked the room, but the one weird thing I couldn't get over was if you opened the door to your balcony to get fresh air, the difference between the cold a/c and humid outdoors created very slick tile floors. We realized what was happening, but I still felt like we had to be careful. I could imagine someone slipping and hurting themselves.)

Day Two

Our third day was spent on the beach. We had amazing tacos by the pool for lunch and found a man making margaritas using real ingredients and not mixers. I couldn't get over how much I loved the jalapeno cucumber margarita

Dinner was at the seafood restaurant Oceana, which we enjoyed. I had a tuna appetizer and grilled mahi mahi, while Alan had an octopus appetizer and a grouper. We closed out the evening at Rendevoux, the hotel's main bar. 

Day Three

We woke up early for some off-property adventuring. When we were in Tulum, one of the more enjoyable things we did was a cenote tour, so I wanted to visit some more off-the-beaten-path options. On Airbnb, I found a man named Gilmer who will cook you cochinita pibil tacos before taking you on a bike ride around his town to some hidden cenotes. We took a taxi to Chemuyil and met up with a group of about 10 folks before walking through the town square to Gilmer's house, where we met his brother Santiago and assistant Sayed. Your adventure starts by preparing the ingredients for the tacos - I got to squeeze the bitter orange that was used for the pork and the salsas while others ground up the freshly roasted habaneros for salsa. The meat is braised over an open fire in his yard while we spent the next couple of hours exploring cenotes that are geared toward the residents who live in the area. I worked up quite an appetite riding the bike around town on the dirt roads. I enjoyed seeing the different types of cenotes and really appreciated the community aspect of everything. I chickened out on some of the "swim under this rock into a cave" opportunities (Alan did it), but I got to tackle my fear of heights and jump off a platform into the crisp, clear water at the last cenote. We also watched three giant iguanas fight each other, which was wild. There's a reason this tour has a 4.99 rating (out of 5) with 500+ submissions.

Me tackling my fear of heights

Homemade cochinita pibil tacos

Back at the resort, we chilled by the beach before cleaning up for dinner at Seaside Grill. There was a salad bar, so it was nice to eat some fresh veggies for a change of pace. I ordered a ribeye that was super fatty and overcooked, so I didn't finish my meal. The sausage appetizer was very good however.

Day Four

Valentine's Day! Not that February 14 has ever been all that important to us, what with our anniversary being on the 16th. We kicked off our day with breakfast tacos because why not? Then, we went down to the beach, but by 10:30 a.m., every single chair on the property had been claimed, several by people who weren't actually using them. We didn't come to Mexico to sit by a pool, so we found the cabana concierge to ask about reserving one for the day. There was one left at $75, so we decided to take it. Unfortunately, as he was getting us set up, he learned that a different concierge had already sold it to someone else. Thankfully, he had one of the front-row cabanas still available (usually $175) and offered to match the price he'd already quoted us. We jumped at the offer before he could change his mind. We loved our afternoon there so much that we booked it again for our anniversary. We were still full at lunchtime, so we split a quesadilla that was delivered directly to our cabana. It was so tasty.

Unfortunately, dinner that night was an absolute fiasco (the theme for the remainder of the trip). Having enjoyed our meal at Oceana a few nights before, we decided to go back. When we arrived, the evening's entertainment was a quartet of opera singers that were so loud we couldn't hear each other speak. There was a 35-minute wait for a table, but there was nowhere to really hang out and wait for dinner in that environment because (1) all the pool loungers were still wet, and (2) the bar was too far away for your buzzer to work. You're sort of forced to just linger near the pool area while you wait your turn and hope for the best.

Finally, our table was ready, but it was drowned out by the Il Divo wannabes belting out music by Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, and other sad balladeers of lost love. The first time at Oceana, we had a great waiter, but on this night, we were assigned to another gentleman, and ... he wasn't great. He seemed offended when we asked for sparkling water, and refilling our wine wasn't really high on his radar. I ordered the same tuna appetizer I'd enjoyed so much before, only to find it completely inedible on this night. The connective tissue was so thick and fibrous that I literally could not cut through it with a knife. He didn't come back to check on us for several long moments, so I couldn't even ask for something else without seriously delaying our meal. When he finally did come back, he saw that I didn't eat it. When I pointed out why (you could see the thick white membranes), he didn't apologize or seem shocked. At that point, I was over the whole experience, so even though my dinner was okay, I was upset and ready to just go to the bar and then to bed. Alan reports his salmon meal was tasty. Thankfully, about 45 minutes into dinner, the horribly overbearing, inappropriately themed music finally stopped.

Day Five

I woke up seriously regretting having chosen this resort. I was just so frustrated because I didn't go into this willy-nilly. I watched dozens of videos on YouTube and read every single recent review on travel sites. Everyone loves this place, but we just weren't having the same experience most people did. And it wasn't for lack of tipping the employees or anything like that, nor were we ever rude or hostile. I just couldn't (and still can't) understand the disparity between everyone else's experience and our own.

I woke up with zero appetite, and my stomach hurt from being so upset all night, so we skipped breakfast in favor of an iced latte from the cute coffee shop we drank as we made our way to the beach. At first, it looked dire, but we were able to nag one of the last two remaining available palapas. I don't know if it was because we were on the literal edge of the property or what, but we really couldn't get service there all day. We ended up going to the bar several times ourselves to get drinks and water, and while I had wanted to order another quesadilla for lunch, we went to the Market Cafe because no one would ever come to take our order. 

We also walked down the beach into Akumal Playa. The online travel groups dedicated to this resort had made it sound like the beach town was much larger than it actually was. There were a couple of restaurants (some were only open for dinner), a dive shop we didn't need, and an adorable but overwhelmingly expensive artisan shop. We found a cute cat sculpture we liked, but it cost something like $3800, which - needless to say - was shocking. We have a cat we bought in Budapest that this one would have looked adorable sitting next to, but there was no way we were spending that kind of money on something that would probably break in our luggage on the way home. I truly wonder if this shop ever sells anything. 

The quiet pool is located near the coffee shop.

The landscaping at the resort is really beautiful.

Passion fruit mimosa

Playa Akumal with pelicans

These adorable, low-slung casitas felt more our speed than a large resort.

It started to get windy at the beach, so we headed back toward our room with the intent of stopping at the quiet pool, but by 4 p.m., it had been taken over by the crew setting up for that night's entertainment while the second pool was overrun with another crew setting up for a large party for one of the corporate groups. The techno music going on at the quiet pool while they were setting up was anything but quiet. In fact, it was so loud that we could hear it in our room even with the door closed, never mind being able to sit out on our balcony. I continued to be mystified by the entertainment and why anyone on TripAdvisor would talk about it like it was the best show they'd ever seen. It was not good, y'all. 

For dinner that night, we went to the French restaurant Bordeaux. Despite me telling the waiter that I had a nut and shellfish allergy, my appetizer included almonds. When I pointed this out to him, he had zero understanding that almonds are nuts. It was wild. I kept having to say, "todos nueces" in hopes that he would understand. He brought back a new serving of foie gras that was so slimy and gross, and based on the way the roof of my mouth immediately blistered, I'm pretty sure was covered in a sauce containing nuts. Alan had some avocado roll-up thing, and as the waiter was taking my initial appetizer away, we asked if I could eat Alan's. He paused and then said yes. It included shrimp, y'all - an allergen I'd just warned him about. I was exhausted.  

We finished dinner and headed to the bar where some women from one of the corporate groups were harassing the bartenders and just generally acting like trash. Just more proof that a fancy dress does not mean you're classy. In what world does anyone look at someone serving them and think it's appropriate to tell them to get on the bar and do the splits for them? The bartender took it all in stride, but I can't imagine dealing with that type of behavior day after day (because you know it happens constantly; we saw it on our Christmas market river cruise as well).

At least the Negronis were good.

Day Six

Happy 22nd anniversary to us!

We started the morning with iced lattes and croissants from the coffee shop and made our way down to the cabana we'd booked, where we were given a bottle of $10 Spanish cava presented in a Moet & Chandon bucket of ice. At this point, is the concept of "luxury" funny or just plain sad? I can't tell.

Despite the low quality booze, this was probably my favorite day of the trip. We didn't do anything but hang out together, read, and swim in the ocean. We even saw a bunch of turtles without having to go looking for them as Akumal Bay is famous for its sea turtle population. There was a BBQ at the pool with several different kinds of roasted meats (the Argentinian sausages were the best) and drinks served in pineapples. 

It was just super relaxing and lovely - a perfect way to celebrate our anniversary together.

I blew through Sarah J. Maas's Crescent City series on this trip.

We'd contemplated partaking in the special wine cave dinner as a splurge for our anniversary, but it was so hard to figure out what the process was. The concierge told us it started at $250 per couple, and no matter how many times we asked, we never got a clear explanation of what that meant. Once again, I logged into the travel forum where previous guests explained that you could order off the menu from either the French or Italian restaurant while ordering a nice wine to drink that had to start at $250. An example of the wine on offer was a bottle of Red Schooner from Wagner Family Wines that retails for $50 in the real world. I shouldn't have been surprised by the blatant money grab, but I continued to be.

In the end, we ended up at Portofino, Secrets' Italian restaurant. My pasta bolognese was decent, but everything else was really poor. Alan ordered what he thought was a cheese plate for an appetizer and it came as a cheese soup. We both ordered the pork saltimbocca as our main and it was completely inedible. The meat tasted like it was several days past its use-by date. Absolutely disgusting. I won't even go into the piano player we were seated directly next to who launched into a six-song concert that included hits such as Bohemian Rhapsody. Because nothing says romance like, "Mama! Just killed a man ..." We didn't bother staying for dessert as, at this point, I was almost in tears. 

Final thoughts ...

While I was sad to be leaving the warmth and beautiful crystal blue waters of Akumal Bay, I was ready to go home. In doing a deep dive into our week at Secrets Akumal, I've concluded that all-inclusive vacations aren't for us. 

Breaking down the cost differentials between our trip to Tulum, where we ate all the food and drank all the booze we could ever want to - and all of it incredibly delicious - with what we spent on this "all-inclusive" trip, there wasn't much difference in price give or take a couple of hundred dollars. Our room at BeTulum was nicer, the food was extraordinary, and the property was more to my liking. I preferred the beach at Secrets Akumal, and it was about 45 minutes closer to the airport so our travel time was greatly reduced. 

I know it's not an apples-to-apples comparison, but I felt it was worth looking at them side by side as it'll help better inform what we're looking for on future trips. 

It feels disingenuous to say I hated Secrets Akumal because we had several lovely days, but it's not really our vibe. We're introverts who value quiet and serenity. That said, if we were traveling with a group of friends or as part of a corporate offsite like so many other guests, I might feel differently. At this point, I think we're going to call a moratorium on Mexico and explore options in the Caribbean or Central America that are more boutique properties or VRBO rentals. 

But ... before I can think too much about our February 2025 anniversary trip, we've got a few other vacations lined up in 2024, including a cruise with my sister, brother-in-law, and cousin and a wine-themed river cruise along the Rhine River with our favorite winemaker in Sonoma. Can't wait to share them with you! 
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