If you like brown water beaches, extortionately priced taxis, and crappy restaurants more pricey than New York City, you’d love Tulum.
My wife turned to me while sitting on the couch in our apartment in Astoria. “Tulum sucks,” she said out of nowhere.
It really does.
Tulum is without a doubt one of the worst tourist traps on the planet.
Tourist trap: A place that suck that draws a high frequency of tourists and charges them elevated prices for subpar amenities, services, and experiences based on its reputation.
My wife and I visited Tulum together in 2011 The water was apatite blue, the ruins were a relaxing, undeveloped place to walk around, and the weather was sunny and warm. Beyond that, I found the place underwhelming, but well worth the stop … I remember Tulum being a whole lot of nothing then — a place that had bulldozed its traditional charm in exchange for grey concrete boxes — but this was part of its appeal: it was kind of a normal, run down, Mexican highway town near a beach. I wrote a blog post about the hurricane coming in but nothing more.
I didn’t think about Tulum for nearly a decade until I started seeing pics and raving reviews of the place being delivered by influencers in various places. I became a little curious, as the Tulum I knew wasn’t a place where the money people would bother going. In fact, the position that I could garner on the place was that it was beautiful, hip, and fun … and I automatically concluded that it must have changed.
I became a little curious. So as part of a broader trip we decided to go back to Tulum, 11 years later.
I was expecting the place to have developed and to have been pretty nice — the kind of place I would have scorned as a backpacker but today don’t really mind so much. When your aim is to collect information and write, how nice a place is is irrelevant, but when your aim is to enjoy the moments of the day how nice a place is is what it’s all about.
But what I found surprised me.
The bus ride there took three or four hours from Cancun — three or four hours to go 90 kilometers. The traffic was beyond the carrying capacity of the highway, and if it wasn’t for it being strewn with potholes and errant vehicles I’d say that you could probably get there faster on a bicycle.
We eventually rolled in we were dropped off at a crammed and dingy bus station that was as unceremonious as they get. I let a cab driver rip me off $2 (this is not worth the time haggling over anymore) and began our ride to out hotel. It looked like Mexico out there. Not the charming traditional, village-life Mexico and not the developed, jet-setty Mexico, but the in between, indistinct, cinder-blocky Mexico. It actually didn’t look much different than it did last time.
Besides all the new resorts …
The contrast of luxury hotels in otherwise under-developed places has always piqued my interest. During my ghost cities project in China I would often marvel at the 5-star hotels that were fully functioning in the middle of barren expanses of ex-farmland or popping up out of literal villages. Here in Tulum it was kind of like an acid burn victim applying lipstick … we have nice resorts, who needs paved roads? I chuckled as I walked through through the door and into the other world within, but couldn’t complain. The place was nice …
Plus I knew that once I got to the beach the water would be glistening greenish blue and I’d be able to sit on the beach drinking pina coladas out of hallowed out pineapples with little umbrellas sticking out the top like every other asshole from New York City.
But about that …
While we were near the road that lead to the beach it was still around an hour’s walk or ten minute drive away. The receptionist asked if I’d like a taxi on our way out. I asked about the price. She called someone. $40. I laughed — you could get a rush hour Uber in NYC for less than that. No thanks.
We began walking. The road to the beach was narrow, pot hole strewn, and packed with traffic. Massive dump trucks and other construction vehicles going to and from construction sites birthing new resorts dominated, covering everything they rumbled by with brown dust — dust that stuck to our sweat moistened arms and faces. The edges of the road were battlegrounds for bicycles, motorcycles, and pedestrians. There was no sidewalk.
I gave up and flagged a taxi who agreed to do the ride for $20. He smiled and acted like he was doing us a charity. The narrow road was flanked on both sides by massive resorts at various stages of completion, and it was clear that the was a remarkable and ever increasing imbalance between tourism offerings and infrastructural carrying capacity. The place was growing beyond its ability to civically handle it. Build first, worry about things like traffic, electricity, and plumbing manana … someday … maybe never. Development at its worst.
When we got to the beach it was time for the taxi driver to reveal the practical joke of Tulum: “The water looks like chocolate!”
It did. It was brown. I laughed as I imagined all the people who were lured in by the social media cartel’s photos of stunning blue water here only to find a beach that looks more like a communal toilet at an ayahuasca retreat.
But the water was not brown due to the fact that 80% of the hotels in Tulum dump their raw sewage directly into the ocean but because of sargassum, i.e. seaweed. Apparently, there’s a mass of this stuff floating in the mid-Atlantic, and each year from March until the end of summer it moves over to the coast of Mexico, clogging up beaches with piles of the stuff that’s literally feet deep while turning the water the color of English tea and wrecking additional environmental havoc. But as far as I’m concerned, blame is irrelevant, who the fuck wants to go to a beach with brown water?
Apparently, not many people besides us. We walked on the empty beach for a while, clodhopping through the piles of seaweed before calling it quits. Let’s go get drunk.
We walked up to the road that lead to the main tourist area on the beach and found myself unable to fully comprehend what I found there: luxury restaurants and hotels and tourist bars crammed along a road that appeared to have been extracted from some backwater Guatemalan village. It was narrow, full of potholes, didn’t have a sidewalk, and was full of traffic. Taxis brushed my sleeves on one side and on the other touts fought for my attention on the other. I soon realized that all I wanted to do was escaped this shitty town … which is a little ironic as people come here on vacation to temporarily escape wherever they came from.
It was almost comical. All the tourism money that must be pouring in from all the resorts and hotels and restaurants and they can’t even fix the fucking road or build a sidewalk so tourists aren’t being run down in between their bouts of overpaying for subpar services? The place clearly not only sucked, but was corrupt …
We grabbed a decent meal in an empty restaurant and watched the sun set over the sea. It actually wasn’t too bad. As the light dimmed you could hardly tell that it was the color of chocolate milk. I drank my stupid pina colada from a coconut and thought about a conversation that I had while eating US$15 hamburgers in town the night before.
Sitting near us were a black couple from Brooklyn who spoke glowingly about Tulum and its prospects for the future. They said they were investing in property and told us that we should too.
Did they not know that hardly five years ago a private army seized 31 properties, including entire hotels, on the beach, kicked out the tourists, and evicted the owners, many of whom were foreigners? Apparently, someone with the means to hire a couple hundred armed thugs and pay off the police and courts wanted what these foreigners had, so they just took it. The former owners dumb enough to try to fight it unceremoniously lost in court. Or maybe they never heard the story of a couple of “laborers” who claimed that four hotels didn’t pay them for their work so the courts just gave them the hotels? Or maybe the one about the lawyer who represented those who were evicted who was shot to death in his office? A crime that authorities, you guessed it, have yet to solve.
We then tried to get a taxi back to our hotel that was ten minutes away we realized we’d been had. If we thought it was expensive getting to the beach it was even more so leaving it. The drivers knew we had to use their service to get back, and none were doing it for less than a premium. I believe we were first quoted $60 before finding someone who would do it for $40. I’m no longer one to haggle too much over taxi prices — I just can’t be bothered anymore, the time input just isn’t worth the savings output. If I overpay by $2, who cares? But overpaying by $35 is a kick to the balls that can only be responded to with two words: “Fuck Tulum.”