If one were to magically procure Admin rights to Instagram and was able eliminate all post from Tulum, I’m fairly certain that’d reduce total content on the platform by at roughly 30 percent. Why is that? What makes makes Tulum the ideal backdrop for the willfully self-obsessed narcissists weirdly expending a great deal of energy to convince strangers they are “living their best” lives? Is it Tulum’s fault, or is this once sleepy beach town in Quintana Roo the victim of the creeping, malignant douchery that has infected global culture since the invention of social media? Sit back and relax, dear reader, as your fearless correspondent attempts to “downward dog” in this particular minefield.
But first, full disclosure: Your scribe is of a certain age, so what follows is a bit of the ol’ obligatory “things were much better in my day”. Sure, but bear with me, there is a reason for it. In any event, I’m not unfamiliar with Mexico, but let’s face it, I am still very much a gringo. I claim no deep cultural knowledge of Mexico and only a slightly better understanding of issues in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo states. My Spanish, once half-way decent, has atrophied by many years in Europe. Suffice it to say, however, that my first travels in that area were decades ago, roughly around the time (or perhaps before) most of the IG influencers in question were born. I had just resigned from my job and was taking an extended, hyper low budget backpacking trip with Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. We had crossed the border from Belize into Chetumal and were looking for cool, but above all, cheap places to visit. In those days internet technically existed but it was not the tool it is now. There was no social media or forums where one could get travel tips. There were, however, travel guides such as Lonely Planet and, of course, word of mouth. Once you were “on the circuit” with other young backpackers, people exchange information and “humble brag” about the places they’ve visited. The modus operandi of this form of travel involved taking cheap buses to wherever you wanted to go and then, once onsite, immediately hitting cheap guest hostels that you had heard about to procure a room, bunk or hammock. As an interesting cultural aside, in 7 weeks of travelling like this I ran into very, very few Americans or Canadians. My fellow travelers were almost entirely European, Aussies, Kiwis and Israelis. For one, Yanks and Canucks have very little vacation time in general so to take such a trip would be (as was my case) an exception. “Gap years” is not a thing in North American culture.
In any event, as we made our way up the coast we made plans to stop in Tulum to see what sounded pretty cool – a pyramid on the beach! At that time Tulum was a little bit out of the way and from what we heard, a bit of a gamble in regards to lodging. We had heard there wasn’t much, so the concern was if we got there too late we wouldn’t find a cheap room, or whatever, and would be stuck because there weren’t lots of buses on a daily basis. We made it, however, and were able to score lodging. Tulum was really, really basic back then, what I remember most about it (away from the beach part) was the dust. It was pretty hot but that’s to be expected in the Yucatan in August. The pyramid was definitely worth the trip, though, for the setting as well as wildlife surrounding and/or in it. There were some hippy dippy, cheap new agey backpacker type hostels and cafes that were a fixture of this whole “circuit” but they were relatively few. Most of what you see now in Tulum, whether in the town itself or on the “fabulous” beach zone, didn’t exist yet. There were no high end boutique hotels, no condos, and no real fanfare about the place. I remember thinking, indeed, this place is cool but not really great for an extended stay unless you had a car (and could visit the surrounding area which as many interesting things) or was a hardcore beach lover.
Anyway, we eventually made our way to Playa del Carmen which back then was going through it’s “Tulum” moment, although much more under the radar as the whole “hype” machine was not as efficient back then. It was the anti-Cancun. A small, affordable, laid-back village that was still “identifiably” Mexican. None of the silly adult Disneyland vibes. It was just a big village on the coast with really, really nice beaches. At that time there were these big palapas on the beach and you could rent hammocks for roughly 2 bucks US a night. It was bigger than Tulum, for sure, but still very manageable. There was no city vibe at all. Yes, there were the same hippy, new agey backpacker establishments that we’d seen in other places. I don’t remember any high end hotels and certainly nothing over 2 or 3 stories. It reminds of Progresso as it is now, only the town was less grubby and the beaches much, much nicer. Kilometers/miles of unspoiled beaches and a really special vibe. Mexico had and still has a socially conservative culture yet, for some reason, a pretty permissive feeling reigned over Playa del Carmen. At this time, topless sunbathing was still a norm in much of Europe and therefore, due to the high concentration of European backpackers, it was tolerated in PdC. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Sleeping on a hammock on the beach, grabbing cheap beer and food from taquerias and surrounded by scads of attractive, scantily clad euro-babes. I remember taking a long walk on the unbelievably beautiful beach ( no Sargasso seaweed back then) one day and stumbling across a nude photo shoot. The photo shoot wasn’t close to the action, sure, but neither was it that far. It was a professional affair with the requisite photography paraphernalia and 2 two breathtaking, butt nekkid models. However, there were no gawkers or weirdos… people would stop to look briefly but it would have been deeply uncool to sit there and drool. Was this an example of cultural and economic imperialism? Yep, it probably was. Nonetheless, it was cool vibe without descending in some of the tackier and dodgy “druggy” vibes that you often encountered in backpacker “towns”.
Fast forward a few years, I was installed in Europe and had convinced some European and US friends to meet me in PdC for a 2 week holiday. My first impression, not surprisingly, was that travelling to Mexico all the way from Europe is a big, long deal. It’s perhaps even easier to go Asia from here than go to Mexico. When I arrived in Playa, the town had grown to, I guess, a small city but it was still recognizable as the place I had seen before. A few more hotels, cafes and bars, but still not Cancun-like by any means. I remember looking for the palapa where I had rented the hammock, and I think it was gone. The vibe was a little less “backpacker” counterculture than it was previously, but that was fine. Restaurants, bars and clubs were cool but without the “exclusive” vibe or preciousness that would later install itself in Tulum. One day I rented a jeep so my friends and I could go Sian K’aan and check out Tulum on the way back. However, when the day came my friends were all sleeping off hangovers. I had one too, but since I had reserved the jeep I felt obligated to go. It was a really cool trip, at one point I was on a single track road in the jungle near (but outside of) Sian K’aan and I was just surrounded by thousands upon thousands on butterflies. On the way back I stopped in Tulum. It had grown, but it still was still small-scale. It reminded me of PdC when I had first visited. In fact, I thought to myself that it’d be cooler to stay here now but we were locked-in hotel wise and besides some of my friends were not fans of the backpacker hostel on a jungle beach thing. (Two of them fruitlessly searched for any place that served Champagne in PdC and couldn’t find any. Oh, how things have changed…).
Years pass, I now have a family and am back in Mexico visiting some family and friends who live there. They tell me how Playa del Carmen has exploded and indeed has become the fastest growing city in Mexico. I couldn’t really conceive of this, but, I said to myself, I guess it was only a matter of time. Even over multiple trips to Mexico during this period I didn’t make it to the “Mayan Riveria” right away. I did land in Cancun each time though, and I’d note that the sign posting on the highway for PdC and Tulum(!) . Anyway, roughly 7 years ago I went to a very secluded bunch of beach huts in Sian K’aan with some family and friends. As the crow flies, the beach huts are not that far from the Tulum but given the state of the road it was good, bumpy 2 hour drive. Anyway, on my way from Cancun airport I stopped at the PdC ADO bus station to pick up a friend…my brain was literally wrecked. I could not equate the place I knew before with this big sprawling city. As we continued on, we inevitably arrived in Tulum. Yes, it had grown, but not like Playa del Carmen. To get access to the Sian K’aan road you must past through the Tulum beach hotel zone. It had changed, it was more upscale in design and no doubt pricewise, but it retained the jungle beach feel. The clientele seemed to be mostly youngish, as before, but not of the backpacker sort. There were lots of tanned, ripped Abs gay dudes cruising around (in both senses of the word) on fat-tired beachcruiser bikes, and lots of quite frankly really hot, bodied up yoga bunnies trailed, inevitably, by straight dudes who seemed to be feverishly dreaming of strategies of relieving said yoga bunnies of their Lululemons. Man-buns, pork-pie hats, signs for yoga retreats and fucking pretentious locavore organic restaurants chef’d by gringos were everywhere. Tulum was still cool and the natural setting still beautiful, certainly, but the vibe had become more “exclusive” and hence douche-ier.
Nonetheless, it was fun to chuckle and play hipster bingo during our visits to Tulum every few days for supplies. One day, I even went to Tulum with a friend in an attempt to “go out” for an evening. We tried, we really did, to hit the beach hotel zone first to get a drink and then dinner. And, yes, it’s very pretty and there is, to paraphrase 10,000 IG posts, a sort of special energy that is perhaps a product of the natural setting and, if you want to get more “woo-woo”, maybe even the pyramid a few kilometers away. But holy shit, the clientele, that has changed. Not everyone, but a significant minority, acts as if they are being trailed by invisible camera crew that are documenting the utter fabulousness of their lives. There is energy, for sure, but some of it seems forced now. Instagram, let’s be honest, is used for presenting an airbrushed, photoshopped versions of most people’s lives. Hanging out in beach zone was like inhabiting a surreal IG live-feed. And I get why so many people were and are posting almost obligatory pics from Tulum. It’s cool, it’s hipster, it’s the anti-Cancun. The subtext, which is not very subtle, is that I’m not one of those obese, infantile lobster red masses wallowing in low brow massed tourism. But there is now an strong undercurrent of “trying too hard” that would have frowned upon before. We just couldn’t hack all of the fabulousness and forced smiles so we went into Tulum town for some beers and seafood – and had a grand old time.
Another reason Tulum is THE grand-daddy of all IG tourist spots is an absolutely brilliant marketing strategy which I think was discovered accidently but is now being overtly executed. If you are easily trigged by non-PC truths, dear reader, please skip this paragraph. Because of it’s setting and probably also a well developed new agey scene in Mexico itself, Tulum slowly started to attract yogis, massage therapists and other sort of new agey types. Yoga, massages, organic food, crystal therapies, visits to cenotes to vibe with “positive energy” etc., is the sort of stuff that attracts straight women and a certain type of gay man. A byproduct of all that yoga and well-being are a clientele that are relatively fit. In short, Tulum became known as a destination filled with yoga Bunnies and their gay equivalent hotties. And that, my friends, attracted the dudes (straight, gay or whatever). Which leads to more “peacocking” and exclusiveness as said dudes feel the need to compete. And, yes, some of the women are shallow as well and require “cute, trendy cafes and shops”, etc. Shallow, yes, simplistic, yep. But true, yeah, it certainly is. Take a look a most of the leading establishments in Tulum. The marketing strategies are exclusively targeting the yoga yummy mummy and IG hottie demographic. For real, read the promotional drivel of these places and ask yourself if somewhere there is a straight 30something man going “wow, that sounds like exactly what I’m looking for”. No, the establishments attract the women. Some of these women are IG , ahem, influencers. They post a few butt pics from the beach to score IG credibility points and/or because of a promotional deal with a hotel. IG puts it out there that this place is filled with toned and tan eye candy. The hotels and other establishments don’t need to market to guys. If they attract the flowers, the bees will come. Kudos and a golf clap to all those involved.
So, the final question, has Tulum jumped the shark? I haven’t been there in 4 years or so but it seems to have achieved terminal saturation on IG. Reports of Tulum’s demise have been heralded repeatedly for the last few years but it’s still a contender and still hasn’t gone “Playa del Carmen” although the reasons for that are both encouraging and discouraging (It’d take another post to explain). At some point soon, people will move onto some place “less discovered” and therefore cooler in the IG-sphere. And there are indeed spots like those, a few hours drive from Tulum. The saving grace is that represents, unlike Tulum, a longish trip by car or bus from Cancun airport. But inevitably those spots will go the same route of Tulum. If it brings much needed money and infrastructure to local (most Mayan) populace, then I’m all for it.