The cot was uncomfortable. Stiff, cramped, it would have sufficed at a youth hostel. But I was at a chic resort on one of the world’s most luxurious beaches and shelling out over $250 a night for our tiki-style bungalow. The structure gave me the impression of staying in a DIY tree fort perched above a bed of palm trees. On the bright side, it overlooked a sea as beautiful as any I’ve seen. At least I would be nursing my sore back in an aesthetically accurate iteration of paradise.
Tulum is all grown up—and that may not be a good thing for this once earthy outpost 100 miles south of Cancun. Like any young adult, 20 years ago most of what you see here did not exist at all. What was previously a little-known and affordable strip along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula has now gone glam, a new favorite of New York’s fashion crowd and with the television show The Bachelor hosting its boozy offshoot, Bachelor in Paradise, in one of the seaside resorts. Crowds at the local bars today veer more Kardashian than Cheech and Chong–even if one can still purchase a bong kit at the popular La Eufemia bar (which may boast the best taco and smoothie along the beach). For those looking for a laid-back vibe, Tulum is bound to disappoint, unless “laid-back vibe” could also be considered an apt descriptor for the Hamptons.
That is not to say that Tulum is devoid of charm—neither are the Hamptons. Its white sands framed by a dense canopy of green jungle will dazzle even the most seasoned beach snobs, and a lazy ride along the main seaside strip, which intersects a long line of hotel fortresses and touristy restaurants with names like La Zebra and The Banana, can make for an entertaining afternoon. Kite surfers flock here for its breezy offshore winds and warm waters. And history buffs can peruse the nearby Mayan ruins.
But try spending under $50 for a meal of a few nachos and guacamole, even on a lunch menu. Sticker shock never wore off during my week there. Somewhere I imagine a bunch of bearded hoteliers and restaurateurs noshing on Cuban cigars and laughing at how many suckers are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars a night on hotels that barely deserve one star.
Our six-room hotel was serviceable but bare bones – we had to cook our own meals and I’ve seen nicer bathrooms in refugee camps. The beach was littered with seaweed. I never counted a staff of more than five at any given time. It would have been a comfortable enough place to crash for a hundred bucks a night, not upwards of $250. Unfortunately, that’s the status quo in Tulum today.
Tulum needs another makeover. Its boozy nightlife is preferable to the spring break haunts of Cancun, but barely. The celebrated Hartwood bar and restaurant receives universal acclaim, but in the flesh has a Meatpacking vibe. Its trying-too-hard neighbors are full of fashionistas busy documenting the trip on their design blogs. It was perhaps inevitable that Tulum would aspire to attract a more refined customer. Which is fine, but the overall project could have been executed more thoughtfully, cultivating a scene dictated not by class but by taste, and with at least a fleeting nod to the local culture it is replacing.
-by Lionel Beehner