Any American who has vacationed in Mexico has either verbally stiff-armed an army of pitchmen or succumbed to the horror of a timeshare presentation.
Tourists in Mexico are repeatedly badgered to attend timeshare presentations. As bait, the pitchmen offer jungle tours, booze cruises, even cash. And every tour, cruise and peso of it is earned the hard way — by surviving a hard sell from hell.
My wife and I survived one years ago and emerged looking as if we’d spent a day of torture in a Mexican prison, which in a sense we had. We vowed that never, under pain of death, would we be suckered into another one.
That, however, was before we met the irresistibly charming and cunningly sneaky Javier on a recent vacation. Javier wasn’t at the beach or other of the usual huckster hangouts so our guard was down. We met him in an American-style, big-box supermarket, a nice little man we initially thought was the store interpreter.
When we asked a clerk about a product that was advertised but not on the shelves, he produced a walkie-talkie and called Javier — who was wearing what we thought was a store uniform. He was friendly, helpful and spoke excellent English. If we couldn’t find a product or a label confused us, there was Javier. Need an ATM? Directions? Help in translating? Javier was delighted to oblige.
As we were leaving the store, my wife happened to spot some zipline brochures on a counter near the exit.
“Wouldn’t it be fun to go on one of these?” she innocently asked.
Lurking just within earshot, Javier was on her like a cockroach on an empenada.
“You want to go on a zipline tour? I can set one up for you. It goes 7,000 meters from one mountaintop to another. Beautiful! You will love it!”
“I don’t like heights, Javier. Do you have anything that stays closer to the ground?”
“Yes, a party cruise. You will love it!”
Javier was not the store translator. He worked for a posh resort, which had an arrangement with the store to let its hawkers work the crowd. This has become common in Mexico; it was just our first exposure to it. A bit sneaky, if you ask me, but apparently legal.
“I don’t know, Javier,” I said, feeling my stomach tighten. “How much does it cost?”
“Normally $225,” he replied, “but for you — today only — a special price of only $40. And I’ll throw in some beautiful T-shirts. What size do you wear?”
“What’s the catch, Javier?”
“No catch at all. All you have to do is attend a 90-minute presentation at a beautiful resort only five minutes from here. It’s not a timeshare — it’s a private residence resort. And the people are very nice. It’s not a hard sell; no pressure at all.”
The difference between a time share and a private-residence resort, of course, is the same as the difference between cow dung and horse poop. We should have seen it coming. I was starting to sweat and could feel my blood pressure rising dangerously. But just when I was about to sprint for the safety of the nearest cantina, my bride, ever the optimist, blurted the fatal words:
“Oh, come on. Let’s go. It’ll be fun.”
Going for the throat, Javier arranged to meet us the following morning in the village where we were staying and drive us to the Jaws of Hell Resort. That isn’t its real name; I made it up. But hell is what I was dreading, an expectation that did not go unfulfilled.
The next morning, Javier was waiting at the village square to take us for a ride, literally and figuratively. After winding over a jungle road, he delivered us to the palatial doors of a resort that appeared to have been designed for Mayan royalty. It was heart-stoppingly beautiful, sinfully opulent. You half expected to see Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian fox-trotting in the lobby.
Our “guides” were Pepe and Lupe. They began the inquisition pleasantly enough, treating us to a sumptuous breakfast of everything from made-to-order omelets to sushi. Then we were whisked away in golf carts to a Fantasy Island setting of palms and coconuts, lakes, tropical birds, crocodiles, interconnected swimming pools and a waterpark-style river bobbing with overstuffed Americans on floaties. It was groomed and manicured to the point of being almost too pretty, as if it wasn’t quite real. If you have a seven-figure bank account and “The Stepford Wives” is your favorite movie, you’d think you’d found paradise.
After dazzling us with Lincoln-Memorial sized Mayan statues and suites where everything but the toilet handles was made of marble, Pepe and Lupe escorted us to a conference room filled with other victims, sharpened their calculators and got down to business — meaning us. As resort members, they said, we could enjoy a two-bedroom unit with room for friends and family members for up to six weeks a year for a mere $800-a-week maintenance fee. A one-bedroom or a studio could be had for somewhat less. If we didn’t want to use our weeks, we could sell them and make money. And as anyone knows who owns a timeshare, that’s about as easy as selling used underwear.
It took a while for Lupe to get to the bottom line, a.k.a. the membership fee. Pepe for the most part remained silent. I think he was a trainee, or maybe he just didn’t have the stomach for what was coming. To fatten us up for the kill, Lupe produced a gleaming iPad and showed us pictures of other five-star resorts we could enjoy by doing a simple exchange with victims in, say, Italy, Fiji or Dogwater, N.D.
The membership fee, when she finally got around to it, was only $61,000. In the unlikely event that we didn’t have that much up front, we could pay in monthly installments of roughly a third more than our house payment. Putting it another way, we’d be paying $61,000 for the privilege of paying $800 a week to stay in a marble palace with a view of a golf course we would never use. Airfare, meals, taxes and gratuities not included. If that sounds reasonable to you, I have a great deal for you on foxtrot lessons with Donald Trump.
As politely as possible, we told Lupe and Pepe it wasn’t in our budget. Along with a new Ferrari, a Gulfstream G650 and spa dates with Paris Hilton.
No problem, she said. A more modest plan could be had for $40,000 and change. Still too much? Plans C, D and E were available for less money up front, offered a variety of accommodations and features and came with a barrage of financial options that would have confused an accountant. As the bombardment continued, I realized that what what happening was nothing other than the time-honored Mexican tradition of bartering. It was exactly what happens on the streets and beaches of Mexico, except that instead of necklaces and T-shirts the stakes are colossally higher. By the time we said no for the fifth or sixth time, I was sweating like a nun at Hooters on amateur night. I’d have paid a thousand bucks just to get the hell out of there.
At last, when we said no to even the cheapest plan, Lupe reluctantly introduced us to her manager — who trotted out still more plans. When even he gave up, she icily drove us to the resort’s “travel agency” to collect our free gifts and a cab ride home.
But we were far from home free. After stonewalling some of the best timeshare sales people in the business, we were now in the clutches of the travel agency people.
I won’t bore you with the details except to say that the final pitch — by then our “90-minute presentation” had taken the whole day — seemed almost reasonable.
“It actually sounds like a good deal,” said my wife, who is smarter than I am about such things. “I think we should do it.”
And so … we did. No timeshare or private-residence membership, no ownership of anything. Just a travel club that, if we live long enough and go to enough places, should be worth almost what it cost to join.
The important thing is that it got us out of there, clutching party-cruise tickets and the world’s most expensive cheap T-shirts. By then I was so battered from sales pitches that I felt like an iguana squashed on the highway.
We were glad we’d opted for the no-pressure presentation Javier had promised back at the supermarket. The hard sell would have killed us.
Tim Woodward’s column is posted here on alternating Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com.