Hell is a town called Tulum. Watched over by Mayan ruins and buttressed by the ocean, this is a place of pothole-filled streets, overpriced taxis, terrible traffic jams, and out-of-touch yuppies, celebrities, influencers, wannabe gurus, COVID deniers, and well-to-do folks looking to “find themselves” in overpriced retreats, hotels, and bars.
It is a town where one can overhear tech deals, talk of the “the China flu,” Instagram algorithms, and an upcoming drum circle within the span of a few minutes.
I came here with very low expectations. I’d heard the stories from my friends, seen all those “influencers” on Instagram gushing profusely, read the articles, and spoke with other travelers.
Tulum was an influencers paradise, which likely meant it wasn’t mine.
But I wanted to see what all the hype was really about. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe I was just being a stubborn old goat.
Nope. Tulum was even worse than I had imagined.
A sleepy little town during my last visit in 2011, Tulum is now a mecca for jet-setting millennials, celebs, hippies, and spiritual types. It is a place where they come to do all the things they can do back home — but without the cost, in better weather, and with more international people around.
It’s become another Bali or Goa: a relatively cheap retreat where most people come to drop in, drop out, stay in their bubble, eat açaí bowls during the day, and party all night long. Here, expensive beachside boutique hotels, they eat in Miami-style restaurants while listening to the latest EDM music.
They aren’t in Tulum to experience Mexico. They come here for their little bubble.
I wanted to love Tulum. I kept thinking to myself, “What am I missing? What do they see that I don’t?”
Tulum isn’t all bad: the ruins, set above the beach, are immaculately preserved, there are lots of cenotes (sinkholes) to swim in nearby, the beach is truly world-class, and the food downtown — especially the taco stalls and seafood restaurants — are excellent.
And the design of those boutique hotels and restaurants, with their minimalist esthetic and use of wood, plants, and lights, is quite stunning. The “Tulum esthetic” as it is called is actually beautiful.
But the reason Tulum is hell is not because of that but because of the people.
There are just too many tourists behaving badly here, acting as if they weren’t guests in someone else’s country. And it kept rubbing me the wrong way.
Travel is a privilege — and the people who come here don’t seem to appreciate that. Most are simply re-creating their own cultures rather than trying to enjoy Mexican culture.
And, while I did enjoy some of those bougie restaurants and beach bars, I don’t travel in order to just re-create my life back home. I travel to experience a destination. I want to talk to locals who aren’t serving me food, eating a roadside taco stands and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and just trying to get a sense of life here.
Of course, not all travel has to be deep. Sometimes you just want a vacation. Sometimes you just want to jet off to a beach destination and drink from coconuts before going back to “the real world.”
I’m not irked by the ones that come to Tulum for that.
It’s the folks who are here long-term, feigning deeper spiritual enlightenment and extolling the “magic” of this place, that seem hypocritical to me. They come to Tulum and pretend they are on some magical spiritual quest or here to work remote to enjoy Mexico. But all they do is stick to their own Westernized bubble.
They then complain about the locals, crime (fueled by their own desire for drugs), and, in the same breath, lament things are changing — even as they’re excited about a new airport and wonder where they can find a Whole Foods–style grocery store. (Yes, in the expat group I joined, someone actually asked that question.)
It’s these folks, the ones who make up the majority of Tulum’s visitors, that made me hate Tulum. Especially, now, during COVID.
A lot of people come here because they know they can escape public health restrictions in their own country. In fact, a lot of the “COVID is a hoax” folks move here, bars are packed, and group events happen all the time. In fact, the week I arrived, Tulum had a festival called Art with Me, which became a superspreader event.
While I think there is a safe way to travel and am not in the “no movement ever” camp, I think it’s just super reckless to pretend COVID doesn’t exist and go about your business. Most of my time was at my Airbnb, around downtown, eating at outdoor restaurants or stalls, and on the beach alone (the public beach is incredible). I got to enjoy the best of Tulum away from the worst of it.
After all, the traveler is a guest in someone’s home and should treat that with respect. To fly to a place, attend events that increase the risk of COVID, act like it doesn’t exist, refuse to wear a mask, and leave the locals to deal with the consequences (or catch it and take it back home) is just a reprehensible thing to do.
Clearly, I’m not the yoga/burner/let’s talk about chakras kind of guy. And I have many friends who love Tulum and will go back over and over again. The “scene” in Tulum is simply not for me. There’s too much unsustainable development egged on by people who “care about the environment” but are all too happy to stay in overpriced hotels that have to constantly run generators since the hotel zone has no infrastructure.
Years ago, I said I’d never return to Vietnam. Age and experience have shown me I was wrong to judge Vietnam so harshly on a first visit. Every place deserves a second chance.
But, after seeing what Tulum has become, I doubt I’ll visit Tulum a third time. Maybe if I become super-rich and can avoid those bougie $800-a-night hotels or decide that, actually, drum circles really are for me.
So, dear traveler, if you’re like me and travel to learn about the country you are visiting, an extended visit to Tulum probably isn’t for you. There’s not much of Mexico to be found in the overpriced boutique hotels, expensive shops, retreat centers, or restaurants selling pizza, pad thai, açaí bowls, and juice cleanses.
Come for a quick trip to the stunning ruins, swim in a few cenotes, eat the wonderful street food, dine at the hole in the wall local restaurants, enjoy the incredible beach, and wander the downtown area.
Then leave and skip the rest with no regrets.
Because the rest is an unsustainable and overdeveloped hell hole of fake influencers, wannabe celebs, and people tearing down paradise.
And it’s not worth your time.