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If you have the time, Mazatlan has time shares

Huevos time share is almost as popular as huevos rancheros for breakfast these days in this old Pacific resort town.

On a recent weeklong vacation, my husband, Dick, and I were approached daily with offers of free breakfasts, accompanied by 90-minute time-share presentations, from aggressive sales people in our hotel and on the palm-shaded streets of the Zona Dorada (Gold Zone). The pitches were sweetened with offers of free lunches, drinks and tours of the city, nearby islands and mining towns.

As veterans of Mexican resorts, we were accustomed to these pesky people. But boiler rooms in hotel lobbies and condo peddlers leaping through traffic to get at us?

In our hotel lobby, smartly dressed young women pushing a frequent-flier-like points-exchange program swarmed us. On Playa Las Gaviotas, a smarmy character named Santiago plied us with offers of beachfront condos. And on the Camaron Sabalo, a moon-faced Seattle transplant named Jackson bolted across four lanes of traffic to coax us with a private tour of the city, accompanied by a cooler of our favorite beverages.

Just when we thought we had heard it all, offers of U.S. dollars floated down: Miguel, an erstwhile shrimper, promised $120 up front if we would look at his high-rise places. A few hours later when we resisted a similar pitch, the salesman upped the ante to $150.

At first we were baffled by all the offers. But we soon discovered that a downturn in tourism in Mexico has resulted in a glut of time-share properties. Thus, a commission-driven sales army is prowling the streets, offering every inducement it can think of to lure potential buyers.

Our initial skepticism lingered a few days _ we had always dismissed the time-share sales pitches as schemes _ but then our curiosity kicked in.

We decided to explore cautiously but first set a few ground rules: We would attend a presentation only if it was in our hotel or within walking distance; no cab or car rides. Nor would we give our names or hotel-room number to anyone who approached us on the street. When we went to a presentation, we would listen with open minds but walk away from high-pressure tactics.

As our daily journal shows, there was no escaping the sales pitches in Mazatlan:

DAY 1, SATURDAY. We had barely checked into the El Cid Castilla Resort when a pair of smiling young women in navy blue pantsuits ambushed us in the lobby and asked if we'd like a free "welcome breakfast" and tour of Stone Island the next day. Unable to think of any reason we wouldn't, we said yes.

By the time we got to our room, we realized that the breakfast was about time shares, and we decided to decline.

That night, a reminder card was slipped under our door. In blue ink and flowery penmanship, it was signed "Rossy." How annoying, I thought, and tore it up.

DAY 2, SUNDAY. The day began with a reminder call. Dick told them nicely that we wouldn't be attending and hung up.

Later, as we strolled down the main hotel drag, a lanky man sporting an orange baseball cap darted in front of us and asked, "Have you been to a welcome breakfast?"

When we said no, he said that we could have any free tour we wanted, plus $120 cash and cab fare to and from a breakfast presentation for some beachfront property the next morning. "No, thank you," we said and scurried away.

DAY 3, MONDAY. The smiling hotel girls again asked if we wanted to attend the welcome breakfast. We shook them off.

Later that day, Santiago leaped out of a doorway and thrust coupons at us for free margaritas at a restaurant across the street. His breakfast pitch included cab rides to and from the ocean-front condos.

When we begged off, he tried to get our names and hotel so he could call. We managed to flee.

That night, another reminder card from "Rossy" was slipped under our door.

DAY 4, TUESDAY. The duo in navy pantsuits approached us for the third time and sweetened the offer with a two-for-one tour to two mining towns in the Sierra Madre. We said we'd think about it.

Later, we confessed to a mutual mounting curiosity about the breakfast and 90-minute presentation. What did it involve? What was it for? How bad could it be?

Deciding to go the next morning, we made an appointment with the young women, who seemed a bit startled by our sudden turnaround. They asked to see a major credit card, with the number covered but the expiration date revealed, to be sure of our resources.

We were also required to hand over a $20 deposit to secure our reservation.

That afternoon, as we walked to the hotel, Jackson, who looked about 21, darted across the four-lane avenue to coax us into looking at his high-rise units. Besides the inevitable breakfast, he offered a "private city tour" in his "Mazatlan limousine," one of the gaily decorated little carts popular in the area.

He also dangled "120 U.S. dollars" and, cranking up the pressure, told us that he needed to bring in 30 couples a month to pay his rent. Pointing to a white plastic table with chairs across the crowded street, he proudly announced, "That's my office."

DAY 5, WEDNESDAY. The day of the hotel feed arrived, but it was more presentation than breakfast because we ate beforehand.

At 10, an El Cid receptionist led us to the adjacent El Moro Tower, part of the El Cid Resort, and introduced us to our sales rep.

Susana, a blond, bubbly Canadian, told us that she had come to Mazatlan 20 years ago for spring break and never gone back.

In an oceanfront conference room, the three of us sat at a round table with a checked tablecloth, surrounded by other couples getting similar pitches.

Susana was not hawking a traditional time share for a specific property. She was selling a "vacation points program," in which points are bought for 20 years and used each year to purchase, at presumably lower prices, airline fares, hotel or condo accommodations, cruises and attractions.

She was vivacious and spoke fast as she leafed through a presentation binder and nudged our arms when she wanted to make a point. She ordered coffee and tea from the young waiter flitting about the room and quizzed us about our backgrounds and vacation habits. We gave vague responses.

After a pleasant hour, she whisked us upstairs 20 floors to show us condos similar to those offered in the plan. The studio, one- and two-bedroom units were bright and spacious, with Pacific views.

While we walked, Susana spoke to us in English and bantered in Spanish with the housekeeping staff, confiding that she became fluent by watching Mexican soaps and through her full-time maid and wicked former mother-in-law.

When we returned to the lobby, a subdued saleswoman named Gloria took over. She was more specific about what would be expected of us if we bought.

But neither Susana nor Gloria would provide written material or get specific about what the plan cost.

Almost two hours into the presentation, Gloria delivered the bottom line: The minimum number of annual points, 77,000, for the next 20 years would be a one-time cost of $9,500.

A better deal, she quickly added, would be 154,000 points for $15,500, or 308,000 for $25,500.

We were not prepared to drop thousands on something we knew almost nothing about. We tried a few times to end the meeting before we succeeded.

As we walked out, a receptionist handed us an envelope with our "gifts." Inside were coupons for a two-for-one tour to the mining towns and free city tours; our $20 deposit; a discount certificate for a jewelry store; two T-shirts that said "I've seen the best . . . don't want to see the rest!" and a lunch coupon.

That evening, more sharks attacked. One offered a free Mexican Fiesta night at a hotel and $200 cash. Another promised $150 and any tour free if we went to see some beachfront property that was almost completed "except for the swimming pool."

We fled both.

DAY 6, THURSDAY. We went on our two-for-one bus tour of Concordia and Copala, silver-mining towns founded in 1565. The daylong trip was delightful. Several couples on it were "two-for-oners." As far as we knew, none of them had purchased anything, although Susana said that four out of 10 Americans buy.

DAY 7, FRIDAY. We avoided all sales pitches.

DAY 8, SATURDAY. As we checked out, a fresh pack of travelers was checking in. Jet-lagged and disoriented, they were being approached by our smiling young women.

Back home, Dick and I are still trying to figure out if the points program would work for us. Maybe next year.

Irene Woodbury is a freelance writer living in Denver.

In addition to free breakfasts, the intrepid time-share sales force of Mazatlan's Zona Dorado (Gold Zone) promises free tours, and even cash, for a chance to make its pitch.

Mazatlan's El Cid Castilla Hotel Resort and El Moro Tower is only one vacation spot at which time-share sales people importune tourists to attend breakfast presentations and often offer added inducements.

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