by XERXES COOK
Anybody who has lived in a city will know that feeling of being there too long. Especially if that city has winters as miserable as London’s. So, feeling the need for a change of scene, and for a bit of a scene, last February I booked a trip to Tulum. I was curious as to whether my Instagram-incubated expectations of lunches at Coqui Coqui, meditating in the sound bath of Uno Astrolodge, and swinging in the palm-fringed hammocks of Nomade were worth all the fuss.
And they definitely are, but here I’m going to get super-fussy: scoping out people like me queuing in the midday sun for a dinner reservation at Hartwood, next to shops selling simple crochet-knit dresses for $250, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Tulum is to hipsterdom as St. Tropez was to Brits in the Agatha Christie-era. It’s not a place to escape the conventions of home, but a fashionable place to sea and be seen. Which is neither good nor bad, but nevertheless here are a few things I wish I’d known in advance.
Tulum is really two places. You have the beach, where you’ll find all the cabana “hotels,” and then five kilometers inland, the town, where the locals live. The former functions like a tropical outpost of Brooklyn, and the latter is surprisingly alive in Mayan culture. This is a problem if you want a beach holiday in Mexico to feel like you’re in Mexico.
It’s way too expensive. What constitutes value for money is as subjective as “good music” — if you’ve chosen to come to Tulum, it’s most likely
that all the money in the world couldn’t tempt you to check into one of the all-inclusives up the road north in Cancún. So let’s think about it this way: your beachfront cabana costs five times its Asian equivalent or what it would cost where the real Mexico begins, 50 kilometers south. It’s not unusual to pay $15 for a margarita: “New York prices,” as you’ll hear everyone muttering under their breath whenever a menu opens.
The food is better in town. Other than the ceviche, by the beach there’s no shaking off the feeling you’re eating the generic-international standard of those Mexican staples that tempted you to Tulum in the first place. Catch a cab (or bicycle) into town, find a street food cart, and stuff yourself with panuchos and salbutes (deep-fried tacos stuffed with black beans, topped with a sliced quail’s egg and marinated pork or chicken) at 50 US cents a pop. If you spot sopa de lima on the menu, order it, but never by the beach — look out for it on the highway on your way to the Cobá ruins.
The sea is not the best in the Caribbean. In winter, it’s so choppy and filled with seaweed, it can feel like a vegetal carwash. But this isn’t a problem, since the cenotes are amazing. Sinkholes caused by wobbly limestone bedrock/caverns caused by the falling rocks in the aftershock of the meteor that killed the dinosaurs/entrances to the Mayan underworld, cenotes teem with fish, iguanas, turtles, and even baby caiman in some, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are small, spooky wells; others, giant lakes fed by a maze of mangrove rivers you can kayak or paddleboard through. Cenotes might just be the best swimming spots you’ll find anywhere in the world.
The party jumps from place to place each night. Thursdays at the Banana, Fridays at James Gardner’s Gitano, Saturdays at Papaya Playa, etc. This is why the place may feel half empty when you’ve just arrived and are wondering where-in-the-hell everyone’s at.
And you’ll probably want to sleep with everyone you see. Whether it’s your buff kite-surfing instructor, the tattooed Brazilian chick hawking hippy trinkets on the beach, or both. This brings its own set of opportunities and challenges.
Don’t ask for the Wi-Fi password. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve overheard someone say, “There’s such a special energy here,” but most people were too busy glued to their phones and Kindles to notice. And after I’d found out the magic word when I wanted to post something to Instagram, it happened to me, too. When you’ve invested in coming this far, it’s worth paying that little extra for the data — Internet addiction is real.
I’m probably five years too late. Or 10. Maybe even 20 — because back then, most of the First World problems described above wouldn’t apply. Today, the main strip is a rumble of generators and forklifts as “ecochic” resorts are being developed along every available slip of beach, threatening to ruin the tropicalget- away-from-it-all-ness that Tulum’s reputation was built upon. The flip side is that there’s something for everyone: cabanas with kitchens for young parents, cenote-front campsites for New Agers, and proper hotels with air-con for the retirees. Would I go back? Let’s put it this way: if I lived in New York, from where Tulum’s just a three-and-a-half hour flight away, I’d be there every weekend.
And then, this past June… Police and security guards violently shut down 16 hotels, restaurants, and shops, evicting patrons and clients, according to many reports, for reasons “supposedly” demanded by judicial order against any property whose landlord was not a local third-party. A radical reshuffling of guests followed, altering a lot of people’s summer holidays. Whether it’s corruption or political instability, this is the kind of surprise that scares visitors more than high prices or invading fashionistas…
[Table of contents]
The Fall/Winter 2016/17 collections
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