Venturing just a few steps beyond the exorbitant taxi ride, I was immediately approached by a succession of individuals lurking in the shadows, eagerly offering an assortment of mind-altering substances. It seemed as though an army of such characters lay in wait. For the youthful revelers seeking a hedonistic haven, Tulum was a paradise. However, for the middle-aged cynics in the carefully manicured jungle of Mia Tulum, attempting to derive enjoyment from Anden’s electrifying musical performance without succumbing to a crippling hangover, the experience proved obnoxious.
I anticipated that my entire six-day sojourn in Tulum would mirror this initial encounter. Once a humble town, consisting merely of a chicken shack and a gas station nestled alongside a captivating set of ruins, Tulum has now been consumed by a frenzy of construction driven by Burning Man-inspired revelers. This unbridled development boom has strangled the road running alongside the pristine white sand beach, while simultaneously inflating the prices of everything from hotel accommodations to quinoa bowls, reaching Los Angeles-levels of exorbitance. I expected a landscape teeming with disillusioned, drug-addled, sunburnt tourists, aimlessly drifting from one overpriced, extravagantly decorated tourist trap to another. I anticipated confirming the popular sentiment that Tulum, akin to San Francisco, Paris, Venice, and Barcelona, had lost its allure, and only the woefully unaware “basic b*tches” remained, oblivious to the memo that Oaxaca and Todos Santos had dethroned Tulum.
To my surprise, however, what awaited me were serene beaches, hotels tastefully blending with the contiguous jungle, immersive tortilla and salsa making classes hosted by Top Chef luminaries, invigorating cenotes, world-class massages, innovative and vibrant market vendors, artisans showcasing their handcrafted creations, and a multitude of individuals who genuinely adore Tulum.
Corinne Tobias, a recent arrival in town, expressed her mixed sentiments, stating, “I despise the $15 smoothie bowls, but I adore the healers, Alice’s school, and the opportunity to meet people from all corners of the globe. Informing others that I’ll be residing in Tulum for the school year is a challenging task. I simply mention Mexico and hope to evade further inquiries.“
Tobias joins the legion of Tulum enthusiasts who possess conflicting emotions toward this once-wild expanse of oceanfront jungle. Olmo Torres, who relocated to Tulum in 1998 following an awe-inspiring SCUBA dive into the depths of a 180-foot cenote called Angelita, shares a similar tale. Torres, hailing from Mexico City, had undergone weeks of rigorous training to embark on such underwater adventures, but it was the Angelita cenote that left an indelible mark on him. “Formed during the last ice age,” Torres muses, “it comprises a 100-foot freshwater layer transitioning into marine water, surrounded by ethereal white haze. It’s an incredibly hallucinogenic experience. How did such a marvel come to be? That’s when I realized my desire to comprehend everything about this place.“
Torres became so engrossed in the subterranean world that he found himself devoid of air and had to rely on a friend’s oxygen tank to resurface. Undeterred by the harrowing ordeal, he swiftly replenished his air supply and plunged back into the water. By day’s end, he had discovered his life’s calling: “This is what I want to devote my life to,” he declared. “I want to study cenotes.“
Cenotes, the hidden gems that distinguish Tulum from the myriad of beach towns lining Mexico’s extensive coastline, are now endangered by the city’s rampant and reckless development. Since Tulum’s growth occurred without a meticulously planned wastewater treatment network, the responsibility to “do the right thing” primarily falls upon individual property owners. Regrettably, even hotels boasting state-of-the-art septic systems fall woefully short. Designed to accommodate a maximum of 5 to 10 users, these systems prove utterly inadequate for the dozens of individuals populating the beachfront accommodations. Consequently, human waste seeps into the underground aquifers, polluting the once-crystalline cenotes and, eventually, finding its way into the ocean. Calavera, the most severely affected cenote, poses the greatest risk, potentially causing ear and eye infections when submerged or even diarrhea upon ingesting its tainted waters.
It becomes apparent that Tulum is not solely inundated with irksome tourists; it is grappling with a profound issue. The city finds itself mired in excrement, and the slim hope of rectifying the situation is steeped in cynicism. Should the ocean become sufficiently polluted, and escalating prices and overcrowding drive people to more responsibly managed destinations, Tulum’s unchecked growth will inevitably meet the harsh reality it desperately needs. Only then will those who profited while the cenotes suffered be forced to address the city’s urgent need for reform.
“In one way or another, the world is compelling us to adopt better practices,” observes Torres, who, despite Tulum’s woes, maintains his deep affection for the town. “It’s still a small community. In just five minutes by car, I can traverse the entire town. I can cycle. The water remains beautifully azure.“
Even those who depend on tourism revenue bemoan the town’s transformation. Brendan Leach, the CEO of Colibri Hotels, the proud owner of three breathtaking waterfront properties in Tulum—La Zebra, Mi Amor, and Mezzanine—recounts his initial encounter with the area in 1996, when he was merely a backpacker seeking solace on the beach, which at the time boasted only a truck stop, a chicken shop, and a humble taco stand. Leach secured a job at Zamas, one of the first upscale hotels to grace the beachfront, and subsequently witnessed the metamorphosis over the next 25 years. Be Tulum and Amansala followed suit, enticing luminaries such as Jude Law, Sienna Miller, and Demi Moore to explore the region during the early 2000s. The influx of Burning Man devotees, derogatorily referred to as the “Tuluminati,” further cemented Tulum’s beige-hued ambiance as an Instagram-ready brand. Leach reminisces, “Even in 2006, Tulum was all about utilizing local resources to decorate hotels, driven by necessity and a desire to preserve the jungle’s essence, given the scarcity of nearby furniture stores.“
As Playa del Carmen to the north and Cancun beyond became ensnared in overdevelopment, people flocked steadily to Tulum, seeking a rare amalgamation of natural wonders. Leach explains, “There are very few places that can offer the captivating blend Tulum does: the Caribbean Sea, pristine sandy beaches, the immediate proximity of the jungle, the extensive cenote network, the enchantment of traversing the wetlands, and an ancient Mayan city.“
Rachel Appel, an American who frequented Quintana Roo during her childhood, first encountered Tulum in 2010 when it was merely a quaint beach town adorned with charming restaurants and an air of tranquility. She fell irrevocably in love with the place. Returning in 2015, she secured a seasonal position with a tour guide company, followed by a role as a concierge at a hotel. Appel contemplated permanent relocation but soon realized that Tulum faced numerous unaddressed challenges. Fueled by her concerns, she embarked on a journalistic endeavor, delving into Tulum’s problems. Her radio project, which subsequently spawned a short film titled “The Dark Side of Tulum,” garnered over a million views on YouTube, shedding light on the issues that most visitors blissfully overlooked. Appel notes, “Now it feels like Miami 2.0. When I’m there, I no longer sense Mexico’s vibrant essence.“
Nevertheless, Appel continues to return periodically, residing with a friend far removed from the beach and the pulsating techno beats, in a home equipped with a rain catchment system and modern septic tank. Her aim is to remain connected with individuals committed to ushering positive change in Tulum.
Pablo Doma, a Spaniard whose first encounter with Tulum occurred in 1996 when only two hotels existed, vividly recalls a time when there was no real road to access the area. He subsequently moved to Mexico City but maintained a deep affinity for Tulum, eventually selling his possessions and investing in two small plots of land in the Yucatan in 2010. On this land, he constructed five eco-friendly houses, harmoniously integrated into the surrounding jungle. Doma has since witnessed the advent of a new breed of investor driven solely by financial gain, preying upon drug-fueled tourists.
“These individuals pay $700 to stay at luxurious hotels, undergo cleanses, party for a couple of days, indulge in fine dining, attend DJ sets, ayahuasca ceremonies, and cacao rituals. Mixing all these elements with drugs under the pretense of healing oneself? It’s a recipe for confusion, I’m afraid. Combine politicians, reckless construction, unbridled greed, and counterfeit spirituality, and you find yourself in this state. This is akin to a mental hospital with an ocean view.“
Nevertheless, Doma expresses contentment in Tulum. Sipping his coffee on the street, he never dons a mask, and no one ever demands proof of vaccination. “I haven’t set foot on the beach road in a year,” he reveals.
Freedom, asserts Cristobal Diaz, entices those who relocate to Tulum. Diaz arrived in 2015, nursing a broken heart and armed with a piece of land. “This is pirate country,” he jests. “An Italian with a checkered past can come here, install a pizza oven, and lead a delightful life.“
The regrettable consequence of the development boom, Diaz acknowledges, is the unrelenting proliferation of “fast fashion for hotels.” He laments, “The market devours everything in its path.” Nevertheless, Diaz cherishes Tulum for what it still represents: an amalgamation of intriguing individuals from across the globe, the opportunity to swim in cenotes, basking in a sun that remains invitingly warm but never scorching. “It’s still Mexican Disneyland, but with a touch of authenticity, a relaxed atmosphere, and the sight of beautiful women and men dancing on the beach,” Diaz affirms.
Wesley A’Harrah, grieving the loss of his grandparents in Washington, D.C., sought solace in Tulum in 2020 after a winter escapade with friends. “It was during the midst of the pandemic, yet there I was, swimming in the Caribbean and indulging in acid on the beach,” A’Harrah recalls. “People come here to smoke DMT and engage in debauchery. Some exploit these substances for sinister purposes, while others seek holistic healing and transcendence.” A’Harrah purchased a property in the jungle, featuring a slide emerging from his bedroom, cascading into a mini-cenote in his front yard. He established Caracol, an interdisciplinary art lab, inviting artists from various mediums to collaborate. A’Harrah enthuses, “A highly creative community thrives here.“
A’Harrah welcomes the notion that Tulum’s appeal may wane in favor of emerging destinations like Costa Rica. He reveals, “The peak influx occurred between the end of 2022 and the middle of 2023. This high season was remarkably tranquil, with only half or a third of the visitors compared to the previous winter. It’s heartening to hear people proclaim that ‘Tulum is canceled.’ One can still carve out a personal haven here.“
Even along the beach, it remains effortless to escape the frenzy. Mi Amor, situated at the northern end of the beach road, exudes tranquility, while La Zebra, though located on a livelier stretch, offers oceanfront cabanas serving as havens of serenity amidst the tourist throngs. La Valise Tulum takes tranquility to an even higher level, with a collection of cabins resting on the powdery white sand, leading to a splendid open-air dining room and extending further to beachside cabanas and loungers on a serene stretch at the southern edge of the hotel zone. In town, the Marriott’s ALOFT Tulum presents a sleek rooftop pool and seamless access to the city’s heart. In none of these establishments did late-night DJ sets disturb my slumber, nor did drug peddlers pester me. Perhaps, just maybe, Tulum’s downfall remains a distant prospect.
Article based on the original by Winston Ross.