Hell is a town called Tulum. Overlooked by Mayan ruins and bordered by the ocean, it’s a place of streets filled with potholes, overpriced taxis, terrible traffic jams and out-of-touch yuppies, celebrities, influencers, gurus budding, COVID deniers and do-gooders looking to “find themselves” in overpriced retreats, hotels and bars.
It’s a city where you can hear tech offerings, talk of “Chinese Flu”, Instagram algorithms and a drum circle coming up in minutes.
I came here with very low expectations. I had heard the stories from my friends, seen all these “influencers” on Instagram gushing about in abundance, read the articles and talked with other travellers.
Tulum was an influencer’s paradise, which probably meant it wasn’t mine.
But I wanted to see what all the hype was about really on. Maybe it wouldn’t then wrong. Maybe I was just a stubborn old goat.
No. Tulum was even worse than I had imagined.
A sleepy little town when I last visited in 2011, Tulum is now a millennial mecca of jet setters, celebrities, hippies and witty types. It’s a place where they come to do everything they can do at home, but for less money, in better weather and with more international people.
It’s become another Bali or Goa: a relatively cheap retreat where most people come to stay in their bubble, eat acai bowls during the day and party all night. Here, in expensive boutique hotels by the beach, they eat in Miami-style restaurants while listening to the latest EDM music.
They are not in Tulum to discover Mexico. They come here for their little bubble.
I wanted to like Tulum. I kept thinking, “What am I missing? What do they see that I don’t?
Tulum is not so bad: the ruins, above the beach, are perfectly preserved, there are many cenotes (sinkholes) for swimming nearby, the beach is truly world class, and the downtown food – especially the taco stands and seafood restaurants – is excellent.
And the design of these boutique hotels and restaurants, with their minimalist aesthetic and use of wood, plants and lights, is quite breathtaking. “Tulum’s aesthetic” as it is called is actually beautiful.
But the reason why Tulum is hell is not because of this but because of the people.
There are just too many tourists behaving badly here, acting like they are not guests in someone else’s country. And it kept rubbing me the wrong way.
Traveling is a privilege — and people who come here don’t seem to appreciate it. Most are simply recreating their own culture rather than trying to take advantage of Mexican culture.
And, while I’ve enjoyed some of those candle-lit restaurants and beach bars, I don’t travel just to recreate my life back home. I travel to discover a destination. I want to talk to the locals who don’t serve me food, who eat roadside taco stands and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and who are just trying to get a sense of life here.
Of course, not all journeys have to be deep. Sometimes you just want a vacation. Sometimes you just want to fly to a beach destination and drink some coconuts before heading back to “the real world.”
I’m not irritated by those who come to Tulum for this.
It’s the people who have been here a long time, feigning deeper spiritual enlightenment and touting the “magic” of this place, that seem hypocritical to me. They come to Tulum and claim they are on a magical spiritual quest or here to work remotely while enjoying Mexico. But all they do is stick to their own westernized bubble.
They complain about locals, rising crime (which is fueled by their own lust for drugs) and how things are changing – though in the same breath they’ll talk about their excitement for a new airport and wonder where they can find a Whole Foods style grocery store.
It is these people, the ones who make up the majority of visitors to Tulum, who made me hate Tulum. Especially, now, during COVID.
Many people come here because they know they can escape public health restrictions in their own country. In fact, a lot of “COVID is a hoax” people move here, where the bars are packed and group events happen all the time. In fact, the week I arrived, Tulum was having a festival called Art with Me, which has become a very popular event.
While I think there is a safe way to travel and I’m not on the ‘never move’ side, I think it’s just super reckless to pretend COVID doesn’t exist and go about to his business. Most of my time was at my Airbnb, downtown, eating at restaurants or outdoor stalls, and on the beach alone (the public beach is amazing). I was able to enjoy the best of Tulum away from the worst.
After all, the traveler is a guest in someone’s home and should treat them with respect. Flying to a place, attending events that increase the risk of COVID, acting like it doesn’t exist, refusing to wear a mask, and letting the locals deal with the consequences (or catch it and bring it home ) is just a wrong thing to do. ***
Obviously, I’m not a yoga/burner/let’s talk about chakras type. And I have many friends who love Tulum and who will return again and again. But the Tulum “scene” just isn’t for me. There is too much unsustainable development pushed by people who “care about the environment” but who are too happy to stay in overpriced hotels that constantly have to run generators since the hotel zone has no infrastructure.
Years ago I said I would never go back to Vietnam. Age and experience have shown me that I was wrong to judge Vietnam so harshly on a first visit. Every place deserves a second chance.
However, after seeing what Tulum has become, I doubt I will return a third time. Maybe if I get super rich and can afford these $800 a night candle hotels or decide that, Actually, drum circles are really for me. Who knows?
But, dear traveler, if you’re like me and travel to learn more about the country you’re visiting, an extended visit to Tulum probably isn’t for you. There’s not much of Mexico in overpriced boutique hotels, expensive boutiques, retreat centers, or restaurants selling pizza, pad thai, acai bowls, and juice cures.
Come and take a quick trip to the stunning ruins, swim in a few cenotes, eat delicious street food, dine at hole-in-the-wall restaurants, enjoy the amazing beach, and stroll downtown.
Then walk away and skip the rest with no regrets.
Because the rest is an unsustainable, overgrown hell of fake influencers, budding celebrities, and heaven-destroying people.
And it’s not worth your time.
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