The surprise vacation is the new surprise party. I should know — my girlfriend just took me on one to Playa del Carmen for my birthday. Best gift I’ve ever gotten.
Executed properly, it knocks the recipient completely for a loop (I cried a little bit, don’t judge me) and can actually be dead simple and relatively easy on the wallet to pull off — provided you have a blueprint.
Here is that blueprint.
Step One: Secure Clearances
You’re going to be taking a Friday off, so get ahold of your significant other’s boss and square it all away. Unless this person is a total Scrooge you should be fine — everyone wants to believe life can be more romantic, and you’re shoring up that hope, you romantic devil.
Step Two: Book the Tickets
You’re looking for a destination that’s far enough to feel properly special but close enough that you don’t burn too much time in transit. In our case, the Interjet direct flight from JFK to Cancún took off at 6:55 a.m. Friday morning and we had a margarita in hand by 10:15. Also, you’ll want to fly home in the evening — our return flight took off at 6:10 p.m. on Sunday, giving us a full day on the sand and getting us home in time to rest up for Monday. Pretty idiot-proof.
Step Three: Pack the Bag
Just throw a quick one together when he/she isn’t looking — nothing major, you’re not going to be gone that long and relaxation should be the name of the game anyway. Do not — we repeat, do not — forget their passport.
Step Four: Deploy the Surprise
Go to dinner on Thursday night. Enjoy it. On the way home, inform your unwitting travel companion that the two of you will be leaving the country in a matter of hours. Counter each “but…” with a confident “I took care of it.” Do not, as my lovely girlfriend did, allow your unwitting travel companion to get blind drunk at a birthday party, thus resulting in a series of touch-and-go moments at the airport featuring fun dialogue like, “Just stay quiet and still and let me do the talking.”
Step Five: Book at a Killer Resort That Handles the Details
We stayed at Mahekal Beach Resort, arguably the chillest place I have ever had the pleasure of calling a temporary home. A private car conveyed us from the Cancún airport to a series of gorgeous air-conditioned cabanas along a stretch of pristine beach and womb-temperature ocean, where the hammocks outnumber the people and the staff is so friendly and helpful we wondered if they had us confused for celebrities or visiting foreign dignitaries.
They had paddleboards for a morning constitutional on glassy waters. An entire menu of mezcal cocktails to accompany the duck carnitas tacos. They had Bolli, the “best concierge in Mexico,” who can sort out pretty much any fanciful notion that may pop into a guest’s head. Long story short, on a short trip you want a place where you have to do minimal thinking upon arrival.
Step Six: Do a Saturday Day Trip
Wherever you’re visiting, taking the day on Saturday to have an adventure just makes the trip that much more memorable. If this whole Playa del Carmen thing sounds up your alley (and it should) just follow these simple sub-steps for an easy and excellent Tulum jaunt:
6a) Get a map of town from Bolli and have him circle the “Colectivo”: this is the shared bus you'll be taking. Sure, you could take a cab, but the Collectivo costs pennies comparatively and is super easy and travel is supposed to be an adventure and don't be a candy ass.
6b) Tell the driver you want to stop at Cenote Azul, about halfway to Tulum. He'll know it.
6c) Enjoy one of the best swims of your life in a shockingly clear cave pool in the jungle. Do some jumping from the rock ledge. On the way out, stop at the first set of pools and let the fish nibble at your feet and laugh at the suckers paying for this treatment back in town.
6d) Go out to the freeway and stand there. The Colectivo will see you and stop. Tell the driver, “Las Ruinas de Tulum, por favor!”
6e) The Colectivo will drop you near an information station for the Mayan ruins in Tulum. You can explore them on foot, but for some extra cash they'll set you up with a boat trip to see the ruins from water that also includes snorkeling with stingrays and sea turtles. And you get a free drink. Do this.
6f) Once you're back on dry land, grab one of the taxis waiting along the road to the ruins and tell him you want to go to Taqueria la Eufemia.
6g) Enjoy some of the best tacos you've ever eaten, a super bohemian vibe and a killer sunset over the water. Have a few cold ones — you're not driving, after all. There's a chance someone may pass you a joint — to each his own, but your correspondent can vouch that it only makes the tacos tastier.
6h) Take a taxi back to Playa — the adventurous romance of the bus plummets when tired and tipsy. Don't pay more than forty bucks unless it is pouring rain or there are zombies after you. Fifty if it's both.
Step Seven: Your Sunday
Do whatever the hell you want, man. Having your morning coffee in a hammock with the newspaper and the sound of the ocean is a good start.
Step Eight: Head Home
Admire your tan. Admire your unwitting travel companion’s tan. Gloat.