Best Tips for a Destination Wedding

We love working as Colorado wedding photographers during the summer and fall, but we also love working as Riviera Maya wedding photographers in Mexico during the winter and spring. We have learned a lot about destination weddings after working in both countries for the past four years. Since it’s not so hard to organize a destination wedding in the U.S., we want to share our knowledge about Mexico, specifically the Riviera Maya.

WHY DO A DESTINATION WEDDING?

Once the unofficial guest list hits 300 and the costs began to spiral out of control, you start thinking about a destination wedding. Something small and intimate on the beach in the Caribbean or in an alpine meadow starts sounding good. You wouldn’t be alone, since destination weddings are wildly popular. How popular? A top web site for destination weddings just reported nearly 200,000 unique visitors a month!

There are a number of good reasons for choosing a destination wedding (not least of which is reducing the burgeoning guest list): the honeymoon and wedding are done in one trip, you can get married in the great outdoors, you’ll be surrounded by 30 to 50 of your closest friends and family, and an exotic location means exotic foods, decorations and photo sessions. In our case, much of our family had not met prior to the wedding. Our destination wedding on Cozumel allowed them the opportunity to get to know each other on “neutral” turf and in a relaxed setting.

As Riviera Maya wedding photographers, we live in what is arguably one of the most popular wedding destinations in the world.  We have been part of many happy weddings. We have also been part of a couple of unhappy situations and we would like to help you avoid those.

First, are you sure a destination wedding is for you? There is a bit more work involved, with unfamiliar surroundings and sometimes even a language barrier. If you are looking for the perfect day, with total control, perhaps a beach or mountain meadow wedding is not your ideal venue. So, ask yourself, do I want to walk down the aisle wearing fabulous high heels and a four-piece dress, admiring the groom and his men wearing Armani tuxes? That’s probably not going to work on the beach or in a mountain meadow. Make sure your personality fits the style of the destination.

Many brides want to go someplace new and don’t have the budget for a site visit, so they depend on travel agents to steer them to the right resort. The Riviera Maya has more than 70 resortsof all shapes and sizes from Cancun to Tulum, but the one that your agent is going to sell is the all-inclusive (AI), partly because of better commissions to the agent, but also because there are more things for a group to do on site. They do make the packages look very attractive. The more guests you bring, the more perks they throw in, such as a reduced price for the bridal suite, a free dance floor for the beach reception, or free nights. Sounds great, right?

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You receive a great package that includes a DJ, a cake, the flowers and the photographer. However, the photographer will be good at snapshots and will have your husband dip you backwards in a Gone-With-the-Wind movie pose and perhaps get everyone to jump in the air (WHY?). If that isn’t your style, or if you don’t like the look of the flower samples and decide to use an outside vendor, here is where the unpleasant surprises begin. For example, one resort chain will not allow outside vendors and several chains charge couples more than $500 to allow an outside photographer to work on their property (we have shot at these resorts before and will do so again – we think it is unfair).

Our advice is to ask a lot of questions, read the fine print, negotiate exactly what you want (yes, the time and location of the ceremony), and don’t sign anything or send any money until you have all of the details in writing. Don’t take no for an answer, especially if you have not signed a contract. Most everything is negotiable.

The all-inclusive resorts have a lot to offer, but make sure that the particular resort is for you and make sure that you understand all of the charges. If you can’t do a site visit, then choose a travel agent that has been to the resorts and can help you choose what is right for you.

If your style is more elegant and chic, consider one of the boutique hotels along the Riviera Maya coast, or on Isla Mujeres, or one of the fabulous haciendas on the Yucatan Peninsula.

To achieve your vision of elegance, search for an independent wedding planner. With web sites and Google searches, a good planner is easy to find. Good, organized planners with a sense of style should have a good web site. It should be easy to navigate, have photos that show their style and a couple of ways to connect with them.

A good wedding planner wants to hear about your style and your expectations and will suggest a small number of venues, including boutique hotels or private villas. Once a planner knows your style and your budget, the choice of food, flowers and music becomes easier.

Finding a good photographer here is easy. There is an enormous selection of talented photographers with a wide range of styles and pricing on the Riviera Maya. Why anyone would want to have their wedding day documented by the same guy who does the pool snapshots is beyond comprehension. Once again, visit photographer web sites, read testimonials from other couples and conduct an interview. We usually don’t meet our couples in person until they arrive in Mexico. So, we always have a Skype conversation with our couples before we agree to photograph their wedding. It’s important for both parties to see if they are a good fit and a nice Skype video chat is the perfect solution for hiring a Riviera Maya wedding photographer.

For a Riviera Maya wedding, we recommend a ceremony start time about 60 – 90 minutes before sunset. Don’t make the guys wear tuxes – it’s hot, especially from April to November. Don’t make your attendants wear heels – they’ll beak an ankle walking in the sand. We shot one wedding where the attendants wore heels and every woman was looking down as she walked down the aisle so she wouldn’t trip. No smiles, either.

One of the great advantages of a Riviera Maya wedding is the day-after “Trash the Dress” session. Because of our beaches, the warm Caribbean ocean and the crystalline freshwater cenotes, we have a variety of locations for adventurous couples who want to create something special from their wedding trip. Let’s face it, a talented photographer will create memorable images for you. However, if you want GREAT images, the best thing you can do is give your photographer time. Plenty of time, means time for scouting a good location, experimenting with different light and poses and being open to serendipity. If the wedding day is too busy with events, the day-after session is the perfect opportunity to create unforgettable images.

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Here are our top five things to do before booking a planner, a resort, or a travel agent and plunking down the big deposit to save your day:

1. Do a site visit. This is simply the best way to discover if this is the place for you. Plus, you get to meet the independent planner or the one at the resort. Visit several places and ask hard questions. Don’t worry about being nice, it’s your money.

2. What is the weather like? I read where 9 out of 10 couples say that the weather is an important factor in deciding where to go for a destination wedding. This may be a no-brainer, but I have heard more than once from a bride who remarked how reasonable the prices are in October (wet, humid, hurricane season). We suggest late November through March as the best months here. Unless you are used to hot, humid weather, the summer and early fall temperatures and humidity can be insufferable. There is usually a nice ocean breeze in this part of the world. However, in the summer and fall months, the ocean breezes subside. Wedding photos the groom who has wet clothes from sweat will not look good on your wall or in your album. This is one of the reasons why we don’t work here from June through October.

3. Ask the AI resort how many weddings are held per day? How many do they hold per week? (you’ll know if they are telling the truth by how many locations they offer and how many times they say the location is already booked). The big all-inclusive resorts average 10 weddings a week in high season. We just booked a wedding where the bride was told, “sorry, but all of the afternoon times are taken, the only other time for the beach wedding is 11:30am”!! Really? Standing in the sun at noon!!!

4. Use one of the many online forums where brides have been posting questions and reviews. Some of these have been active for more than five years and are a great resource.

5. Does the resort/hotel have a back-up plan for rain? It does rain on the Riviera Maya at virtually any time of year. If there are three weddings at your resort (“don’t worry, we have a 20 acre property and you’ll never know there is another wedding”) where do they all go if it rains?

WHERE TO GET MARRIED IN THE RIVIERA MAYA?

Isla Mujeres: a lovely little island with a beautiful beach, some very nice hotels and condos, a very cool downtown pedestrian street lined with good restaurants, and off-shore there is decent diving. We love visiting and working here. The vibe is definitely small town and laid back – think Mexico 1970s. Isla is probably not the best choice for the late-night party, clubbing group. We think Privilege Aluxes is one of the best resorts with one of the best planners in the entire Riviera Maya. Villas Rolandi is a nice choice, the Palace resorts have a property here and there are several villas for small groups. Also, like Cozumel and unlike the mainland, Isla has beaches where the sun sets across the water.

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Cancun: the hotel zone is a massive strip of land with exclusive hotels, all-inclusive resorts and one of the nicest strips of white sand in the world. There is so much beach, that weddings here surprisingly tend to be more private than beach weddings in Playa. Our experience has been that the beaches tend to be more sparsely populated when late afternoon weddings take place. For a non-AI experience you’ve got the Ritz-Carleton and JW Marriott. Cancun is the opposite of Isla Mujeres.

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Cancun to Playa del Carmen: This strip includes the real little fisherman’s village of Puerto Morelos, which is becoming a little more sophisticated with some good places to eat. The town has mostly small hotels and condos, but a nice beach and the reef not too far offshore. Making your way south are lots of all-inclusives (A-I) and exclusives, including some of the better run places: Azul Sensatori (high vendor fees), Now Sapphire, Mayakoba and Grand Velas. However, the beaches in this stretch sometimes suffer from excessive seaweed and seagrass. Check them out before you book if the beach life is important.

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Playa del Carmen: is hip, international, sophisticated, and has something for everyone. Boutique hotels, A-Is, gelato, Argentine Parrillas, all-night discos, a wide sandy beach and an hourly ferry to Cozumel. We like Le Reve, a small boutique hotel just north of town. 20 years ago Playa was a small beach town, but today the concentration of hotels and beach clubs in centro means that beach weddings in central Playa can be a spectator event.

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Cozumel: is our home. It is has some of the best coral reefs in the world, one of the longest unspoiled beaches in Mexico and the nicest people you can imagine. There are several good beach clubs, hotels and A-Is on the island. Like Isla Mujeres, and unlike the mainland, the island has a west coast for cool sunset pictures. Check out Hotel B Cozumel, Occidental Grande and Nachi Cocom beach club as possible venues.

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Playa to Akumal: One of our favorite stretches of the Riviera Maya has a couple of all-inclusives, features several world class cenotes along the highway, and has two very special boutique hotels. The beaches are great, there is very little seaweed and a small reef is just offshore for good snorkeling. The very posh Esencia resort is a former private property that now has very upscale villas and cabañas. On the same bay a little south is Al Cielo, a boutique hotel that blends Caribbean funky with Italian style.

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Akumal: Quite possibly one of the hidden gems on the Riviera Maya (if it’s possible for anything to be hidden on this coast). This small community is predominantly villas, condos and a couple of small hotels. There is a nice bay for swimming and snorkeling, a nearby lagoon that is pristine, and small restaurants and bars. We have worked with Andrea Salazar several times. We recommend her without reservation.

Puerto Aventuras: Mostly for the yachting crowd, due to the man-made large marina, there are a few all-inclusives with a nice beach area. Like Akumal, there are large all-inclusive resorts to the north and south of the central area.

Tulum: Small, intimate, new-age, super-hip, eco-lodge, and great beaches are all superlatives that apply to Tulum. There is a Dreams resort to the north of the Mayan ruins, but the coast south of the ruins is dotted with small, boutique hotels of varying sizes and price ranges – almost all off the grid. Ana y Jose Charming Hotel is one of the best locations with a great beach club separate from the hotel. Both are great places for a destination wedding. Las Ranitas and B Hotel are both worth a look.

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 We hope some of these tips help you decide if a destination wedding is right for you. It’s not for everyone, but it was for us. We were married here, on the beach, one month after moving to the Riviera Maya. I can’t imagine a better location.

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