I was looking for an easy, laid-back vacation when I booked a house on the beach in Tulum, Mexico. I would have a toddler and an infant in tow, and so wanted a beach vacation with enough cultural touchstones to make me feel like I had connected with something outside of the Destination Anywhere ethos of the modern resort.
The pictures were inspiring: a stucco house with beachfront access, colorful textile accents, and a locally sourced wood dining table that could seat up to 12. A tiny, kidney-shaped pool between the house and the beach took ample shade from towering palms. The house had a private cabana, perched on a private slice of sand, with lounges and bean bag chairs, perfect for the absent-minded mother who wanted nothing more than to drag fewer belongings with her. Beach chairs and a private palapa? I was sold.
We arrived in Tulum on a Saturday afternoon in January. There is a single one-lane road that leads into the area’s Hotel Zone, the aptly named beach-adjacent area of Tulum where most of the best accommodations are. On the day of our arrival, a massively trafficked music festival was grinding into its final days, and the road, equipped only for minimal traffic and narrow cars, was cacophonous with angry beeping.
Walking the three miles down the beach would have taken less time, were it not for our luggage and children. From the windows of our car, we watched as stunning people lazed through the streets in their brimmed sunhats, their shift dresses and cover-ups, their espadrilles. Tulum’s Hotel Zone, it turns out, is where beauty goes to die; it’s a zone haunted by the tannest, prettiest specimens of humanity, all doing their best to promote the conceit of casual, laissez-faire joy. It is the Instagram Era made manifest.
My life’s travels have been rugged and, at times, difficult. Consider an 18-hour train from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang in a cabin infested with every conceivable variety of cockroach, where, unable to sleep, I befriended a Vietnamese train conductor. Or, a short stint in the Balinese surf town of Padang Padang: felled by food poisoning acquired from a simple bowl of rice, I spent a day making the acquaintance of a predictably unclean toilet. But having children softened me (and my wallet) up a little. I started to see the value in small luxuries, the glory of convenience. We could have chosen from any number of islands in the Caribbean for the certain delivery of vacation-with-babies pre-requisites: daily housekeeping, proximity to swimmable water, and a steady flow of alcohol.
Still, that old impulse nagged at me, the one begging for just a little adventure, just a little nuance. The free-spirited travelers in my life had regaled me with their Tulum love stories. Here was an environmentally friendly, new wave destination, a place that embraced both the cultural capital of food and of wellness. Glossy Instagram photos showed macramé hammocks and wide-open beaches, fresh juices, and authentic wood-fired meats. I had imagined a tucked away slice of Mexico, captivating in its natural beauty, candlelit, windswept. There was a narrative thread, too. Legendary cocaine smuggler Pablo Escobar had once owned a sprawling beachfront home in the Hotel Zone, which had been converted into a hotel and living museum: Casa Malca. I convinced myself that the cultural cachet outweighed the place’s growing popularity.
But the Hotel Zone I found in January felt gutted, rewritten, even. Those beautiful people roaming the streets in their espadrilles were not wayward travelers; they were wealthy Americans, in costume. I wanted to look like them, too, but a search for the right artisanal caftan betrayed an undeniable truth: $400 was the going rate. These were not the wares of indigenous people, appropriated by western travelers. These were the objets d’art of the wealthy, or, at the very least, competent impostors. At Hartwood, a restaurant that had captured the interest of numerous American food magazines, dinner for two, though stunning, cost about the same as the caftan.
What had happened to Tulum? And why did it feel so much like the Hamptons?
Arguably, this brand of prosperity—expensive restaurants, expensive clothing, well-heeled tourists willing to open their wallets—is good news for a country like Mexico, where financial security has always been a looming-yet-untouchable specter. But for travelers attached to the unknown, or the unknowable, Tulum’s shift feels more like a precipitous decline. This is Mexico for the white and affluent, for those operating under the gentle delusion that they are embracing cultural immersion, when really they’ve merely transported American values to a warmer location. Every time a Hartwood moves in, an Antojitos La Chiapaneca (a restaurant known for its superlative .50 tacos al pastor) moves out. That’s a tragedy that cannot be quantified.
I don’t know what “authentic” means when we talk about travel, not really. We think of the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich as an authentic representation of the cuisine, but the bread on which it is served is a result of French colonialism. So is that really authentic? The battle between what a place was, is, and should be will wage on no matter what, because identity changes. Circumstance changes. Access changes. The brilliance of travel is that we get to see a place when it is where it is, somewhere on the trajectory of its existence.
A place, however, can give up too much of itself on the road to prosperity. It is not the price of a caftan or a plate of octopus that necessarily tips the scale as to whether a place has jumped the shark, but after two weeks in Tulum, I viewed the Hotel Zone more as a cautionary tale than anything else. Ten minutes away in Tulum Pueblo, the town’s municipal district, I found hand-painted Mexican ornaments for $5, and hand-muddled mojitos for the same. The ethos in town felt less dedicated to the exchange of capital and more about a feeling, which, I suppose, is what I’m always chasing. It’s the high I want most. What does it feel like to be somewhere that isn’t home? That nuance—the miracle of change that comes with travel—feels as absent from Tulum’s beachfront as a one-piece bathing suit.
It wasn’t as if we didn’t enjoy our time. The house was lovely, and I found even the tourist-trapping beach vendors charming. From them, I bought Mexican candies made from tamarind and a fedora that was almost certainly from China. Hartwood was more delicious than I could have expected, surprising us with its complexity. In town, a taxi ride away, I ordered six tacos al pastor in one sitting, which I washed down with an icy, cinnamon-inflected horchata.
On lazy afternoons, before a turquoise sea, I did all of the things that one does on vacation in paradise: I flipped the pages of books I intended to finish, drank the sun-melt bottoms of piña coladas, and relaxed. But whatever magic once hung in the air in this beachfront enclave felt weakened, or, at least, revised. The Tulum that was secret to most is a well-beaten path now. Robust tourism has taken the edge off. It’s a useful reminder that, as travelers, we leave traces of ourselves behind. Sometimes those traces can create a new place entirely. And that isn’t necessarily a good thing.