When I walked into the open-air lobby of our eco-chic hotel, I couldn’t help but notice the inviting conversation pits of comfy sofas and chairs, filled with beautiful young people sitting side-by-side — Apple computers propped on lap pillows, earbuds connected to iPhones.
I used to say that Tulum, Mexico, was where hippies went in the 1960s and, discovering paradise on the beach, never left. Raising their sun-browned, bleached-haired children in palm-thatched beach huts or VW campers along remote stretches of sand. Naked and Alone, with kids.
Tulum evolved into a destination for eco-tourism. Electricity, and I use that term loosely, was generated to what I would call a “brown out” level from dusk to 10 p.m. After that, candles. When we first traveled to Tulum, there were no flashlights on cell phones. Even if there were, there was no place to charge up. It wasn’t that long ago that we had to call home from a pay phone.
We relished the romantic, unplugged lifestyle — waking to the sound of the ocean, dining with our toes in the sand, watching the chef grill the catch of the day. We played Scrabble by candelight. Being disconnected from work and our young family, however, was enough of an inconvenience that we decided to try out a new destination, but that never happened. Three months later, we longed for Tulum.
It was too good to last. Tulum Beach and the once undisturbed jungle side of the road are almost fully developed from the famous Mayan ruins to the north, south to the Biosphere – the end of the pavement. More accommodations, more restaurants and now, upscale boutiques – “tienda deluxe” – with so few items for sale I wonder how they pay the rent. There’s even a restaurant where getting reservations is like getting tickets to a Bob Dylan concert. Get on line at 1:30 p.m. When the restaurant opens at 3, you might be able to get a reservation. Don’t be late or your table will quickly be assigned to one of the hopeful people waiting on the “walk-in” line. That’s just how I want to spend my vacation. Of course, we didn’t follow protocol and showed up after 3 p.m. We were greeted by a staffer who pulled the fence closed in our faces. “Is there a waiting list?” I inquired. “Already full,” she said, turning her back on us. Better luck never.
Paradise Found. It was inevitable. The price of accommodations has tripled, and the hippies have been replaced by hipsters. You can’t walk the beach without seeing signs for “yoga” and “massage” every hundred yards or so. There are classes for kite surfing. There are probably classes for yoga kite surfing, and there’s probably a Sanskrit name for it.
The worst part was the music. I had to ask one hotel guest to please turn down her music. It was so loud that I do believe she was signaling her tribe; and it worked. “What?” she yelled at me. She couldn’t hear me. “I can’t hear the waves,” I said. Since Tulum is on the second largest barrier reef in the world, it’s hard to compete with the surf. She turned it down a smidge, so we decided to go for a swim. When we came back, techno-girl and her friends had taken over the beach chairs, draped with our hotel towels. Our personal items were relocated to the table next to the chairs. At first they ignored us as we practically dripped over them. “Oh, is this yours?” She looked surprised, and I honestly believe she didn’t recognize us – that would have required her to make eye contact with us in the first place. We were foreigners – not part of the tribe.
What happened to Tulum? Blame it on the New York Times travel section. First the celebrities came. Then fashionistas. Now New York hipsters. A shabby chic $300 per night cabana now gets you hot water, all-day electricity and 12-hour air conditioning. It almost made me want to ignore all the signs that begged for conservation.
Breathe. Just breathe. I inquired about yoga classes at the front desk. “You practice yoga!” It was more like an exclamation than a question. “Yes, in fact, I teach yoga.” “Really?” “Yes, what style of yoga classes do you offer?” “Vinyasa Flow. The kind where you move a lot.” “And?” “Just Vinyasa Flow.” No Hatha? No Yin? The kind where you don’t “move a lot.” “No. Just Vinyasa Flow.” Of course, because that’s the style that appeals to the new demographic they serve – a culture that is wired to move. “I’ll just check out the studio across the street.” My favorite jungle-side yoga palapa now had a boutique and a sparkling-like-diamonds new sign in front. I felt like Charlie Brown encountering Snoopy’s over-adorned doghouse at Christmas. At least, the studio offered a variety of classes, but not regular Hatha – just Hatha Flow. It made me laugh out loud. I asked about one class with a custom-name. “Oh, that one. This particular instructor holds asanas longer. She’s older,” they felt compelled to add. No worries, I was going to meet up with my yoga teacher trainer and guru Stephanie Pappas, who probably trained an entire generation of “older” teachers on the beach.
Stephanie is one of the bravest women I know. She built a casita (Casa Pastel) on the jungle side of Tulum pueblo (the business district), before there was any electricity at all in Tulum. Walking downtown with Stephanie is like walking with a local celebrity. Lots of people know her, both Mexican and ex-patriots. When I asked her how she felt about all the changes, she shrugged. “It was bound to happen. “ It’s good for her rental business, but not so good that she has to spend 100 pesos on food she doesn’t need or want to gain access to her favorite section of the beach. Clearly, it bothered me more than it did her that beach businesses are now beyond the budget of the people who first brought yoga and massage to Tulum, the people who helped build the infrastructure that now attracts those who want-to-be-seen and young New Yorkers, sporting hair-buns, sarongs and body ink. Men and women.
We met up with our Tulum friends at one of our favorite restaurants, El Tabano, on the jungle side of the beach. The food is typically good, and they happened to have a cool jazz trio that night. The table next to us started to fill up with New York hipsters. “It looks like the Last Supper,” my husband said, pointing out Jesus- with-a-man-bun who presided at the center of it all. They strung more and more tables together as new acolytes wandered in. They all knew each other from some New York neighborhood. Their conversation revolved around subway travails and, well, New York. Weren’t they here to escape? Maybe not.
On our last night in Tulum, we ate at Zamas. We probably go there at least once every trip. We sat at a painted wooden table with a single wax candle, as close to the water’s edge as you can get, watching the full moon rise and pelicans fly home. A Spanish guitar player took the stage, sending sweet arpeggios into the breeze. Ah, Tulum. At that moment, we were home again.
When it came time to check out, a young same-sex couple in front of us were complaining about Paradise Lost to the desk clerk. They shared our disenchantment. I wanted to tell them about TanKah, a decidedly more serene residential section of north Tulum where we had spent the first part of our trip at Casa Jacqueline . But I held back. I needed to keep it to myself for a little longer. It’s where the hippies are retiring. It will be discovered soon enough. It’s inevitable.