Who Killed Tulum?

Greed, gringos, diesel, drugs, shamans, seaweed, and a disco ball in the jungle.

Photo: Sam Youkilis
Photo: Sam Youkilis
Photo: Sam Youkilis

The walls of seaweed first started washing over the white-sand beaches of Tulum, Mexico, in 2015. They came from deep in the Atlantic and across the Caribbean, darkening the neon-blue water. Some of the seaweed was puke brown, while the rest was dark red, and in the summer it was so thick that swimming was impossible. Dead fish and other sea creatures were mixed in, and the piles on the beach smelled like rotten eggs. Where was it coming from? Development in the Amazon was leaching more fertilizer into increasingly warmer oceans — maybe that was it. But some residents of Tulum, which has long attracted visitors predisposed toward the mystical, thought that Mother Nature had simply had enough: The first time one local remembered seeing the seaweed was after one of Tulum’s many oceanfront venues hosted a wild party and put up a barrier to close off the beach.

“Look at that black wave,” Eugenio Barbachano, Tulum’s director general of tourism, said one afternoon in January, staring at the brackish sea. “That’s my biggest fucking enemy.” He was eating octopus tacos at Be Tulum, one of the poshest hotels on Tulum’s five-mile strip of beach. Rooms at Be Tulum were going for $2,000 a night, which, Barbachano noted, with a mixture of pride and bewilderment, was more than the Four Seasons in Paris. Tulum was busier than ever, but some hotels were reporting cancellations and disappointed customers. Right before Christmas, the receptionist at one hotel apologized to a guest about the seaweed by responding, “I can say with much joy that we have built a very nice swimming pool.”

The seaweed was a problem elsewhere in the Caribbean, but for Tulum, which presented on Instagram as a perfect paradise, the threat was existential. It might disappear for days, weeks, or months, especially in the winter, but here Barbachano was, in Tulum’s high season, staring at his worst nightmare. The government spent $20 million trying to solve the problem, installing nets that Barbachano said worked when the seas were calm (“one out of three days”) and the nets were installed perfectly (“which never happens”). Every hotel on the beach had employees shoveling seaweed into wheelbarrows or burying it in the sand, and when the piles got taller than people’s heads, front-end loaders drove onto the beach to finish the job. The seaweed had doubled in volume since 2015, and 2019 was expected to be the worst year yet. “It is potentially worse than a hurricane,” Barbachano said. “It is longer. It is silent.”

But seaweed was only one of Tulum’s problems, and before the dark wave distracted him, Barbachano had been detailing a list of other plagues: failing infrastructure, overzealous developers, drugs, too many DJs. In a white linen shirt, a Panama hat, and rose-tinted sunglasses, Barbachano looked the part of the fashionable type who had made Tulum one of the world’s hottest destinations. He gawked at a brunette walking by in a red bikini. “Look at this woman! I mean, I’m gay, but she looks like Kate Middleton,” Barbachano said. “You want that, with the beautiful ocean behind, chill music that’s not fucking pounding in your head. But not everybody gets it. They have a few million dollars and say, ‘We’re gonna buy a place in Tulum, get 16 speakers, put a DJ on, and fuck this all up.’ ”

In barely more than a decade, Tulum transformed from a backpacker’s beach into the next stop after Ibiza on the global DJ party circuit. It now has 40,000 residents, with 200,000 expected by 2030, and the town hasn’t been able to keep up with the arrival of wealthy jet-setters and the people who follow them on social media. There is no electricity on the beach, so diesel generators groan all day and night to run the air conditioners that customers demand. The beach has no adequate sewer system, and waste has been leaching into the water supply beneath Tulum and out to the ocean, killing the coral reef. Tulum’s old landfill, a few miles outside of town, is full, and last summer it burned in the heat for three months straight. The new dump was supposed to last five years but was already overflowing after 18 months. The beach and the jungle stretching away from the coast are dotted with construction sites, and small hotels started by hippies chasing a dream are being pushed out by large developers who seem to anticipate no end to the growing number of tourists hoping to see what Tulum is all about.

“My project for this year, for lack of a better term, is to save Tulum,” Barbachano said. When I asked how that was going, he didn’t respond right away and instead leaned back in his chair, dug his feet into the sand, and stared out to sea.

The crowd on the beach. Photo: Sam Youkilis
A massage tent on the beach. Photo: Sam Youkilis

What happened to Tulum has happened before. Ibiza gave itself over to the DJs, and Mykonos fell prey to the Instagram hordes, but both places had a good run before the fall. Tulum, however, completed the full evolution of a trendy destination in record time: the arrival, in order, of backpackers, hippies, rich hippies, scenesters, and eventually bachelor parties. In January, one of the organizers of a conference called Summit — “a TED–meets–Burning Man–type learning festival for entrepreneurs” — described Tulum to me as the ideal spot for the “intimate 400-to-500-person event” spread over 21 hotels on the beach.

Paradise first opened for renovation in 1970, when the Mexican government converted mostly empty land on the Yucatán Peninsula’s northeasternmost point into a vacation destination. Cancún now welcomes 6 million visitors a year with its gorgeous beach, a strip of all-inclusive resorts, and Señor Frog’s serving tequila shots. That success led the government to rebrand 80 miles of beachfront to the south as the Riviera Maya, including what was once a quiet fishing village called Playa del Carmen, where there are now four Starbucks within ten blocks.

Tulum, meanwhile, was little more than a truck stop a few hours south, with a Mayan fortress on the beach where tour buses disgorged visitors for an afternoon. Unless you were looking to get off the grid, there wasn’t much reason to stay. Beachfront hammocks went for $10 a night, or you could sleep at the ruins, under the stars.

But an empty beach a few hours from New York wasn’t going to stay that way for long. Fashion photographers used it for shoots, and whispers spread. By the mid-aughts, Tulum had become a glamorous but unpretentious spot for people who didn’t know exactly what they were looking for, except that they wanted out of the city, a bad marriage, or a soulless job, but with the comfort of regular direct flights home. Coqui Coqui, a boutique-hotel club opened in 2003 by an Argentine model and his designer girlfriend, started attracting A-list celebrities looking for a quiet hideaway.

Just down the road, Nuno Silva, a Portuguese lawyer who had come to Tulum searching for something new, opened Uno Astrolodge, a beloved commune that gave Tulum a spiritual core, with cacao ceremonies, yoga, and nudity. (One regular fondly described its roof as “thatched with pubic hair.”) It was the kind of place where you could find yourself in the sweat lodge and hear a voice telling you to move there. “And I wasn’t tripping!” Bobby Klein told me recently, in his office at Yäan Wellness Energy Spa on Tulum’s beach road. Klein, who is 76, had been a photographer for the Doors in the ’60s, opened a restaurant in L.A. with Jack Nicholson, earned a degree in psychology, taught martial arts in Aspen, and lived on a Hopi reservation in Arizona. Within a year of hearing the voice, he opened the first acupuncture shop in Tulum and started charging $100 for “energetic life path counseling.” (He now charges $350.) Silva, meanwhile, found what he was looking for in the Mayan calendar, and in December 2012, when it predicted the apocalypse, he held a seven-day Galactic Fest in anticipation of the rapture.

The world didn’t end. But around that time, Derek Klein — no relation to Bobby — was trying to open a cocktail bar and restaurant across the beach road from Coqui Coqui. The detoxers needed somewhere to retox, after all, and Gitano opened at the end of 2013 with a disco ball, a neon sign, and Orlando Bloom in attendance. Klein partnered with James Gardner, who had been pushed out of a company he started in New York that built websites for fashion brands. “We wanted to bring a bit of New York to Tulum,” Gardner told me on a recent weeknight at Gitano. “We were the first to do that.” He wore a black beaded necklace tucked into a black shirt with black pants, black shoes, and a pinkie ring. He said that Leo, a local sitar player, had a gig that night.

Gardner told me to come back on Friday, Gitano’s biggest night of the week. I found him surveying the scene from his table. “Isn’t it glamorous?” he said, gesturing toward the sequined booty shorts on the hips of the night’s DJ, who didn’t blink. Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes, was at the table, as was “some kind of Belgian aristocrat” with long blond hair and a lip ring. The Belgian was leaning back with his leg, in a cast, on the table. “He didn’t have a cast last night,” Gardner said. The Belgian started making out with his fiancée while a man wearing a Balenciaga shirt with a logo modeled after the one from Bernie Sanders’s campaign walked past in one direction. A server carrying a smoking goblet of copal, a local bark, went by in the other. Gardner said it kept the mosquitoes away while having the benefit of looking cool. Other locals told me that copal helps mask how bad the septic tanks can smell at some places in Tulum on a busy night.

A seaweed dump. Photo: Sam Youkilis

Gardner argued that what separates Tulum from other destinations is its “more enlightened” clientele, although it has clearly developed a mass-market appeal. There were women in spangly heels accompanied by men with expensively ripped clothes and perfect teeth; there was also a middle-aged man in an Under Armour polo and a bald man at the bar wearing a T-shirt that read SEND NUDES. Tulum has been one of the Instagram economy’s clearest beneficiaries — or victims, depending on your point of view — and at one bar I met a Pilates instructor from Ireland and a lawyer from Philadelphia who both told me they had been influenced by influencers to visit. Over dinner at a restaurant decorated with a bamboo light fixture I recognized from Ikea, a woman from San Francisco celebrating her boyfriend’s 40th birthday expressed surprise when I told her — four days into her trip — that we weren’t on the Pacific Ocean.

Gitano had just celebrated its fifth anniversary, but Derek Klein left the company in 2017. He has since opened a hotel called Casa Pueblo in town, which is connected to the beach by a single road that cuts through several miles of jungle. While the town became increasingly developed, it maintained a more rustic charm. Casa Pueblo, with its minimalist decorative “nods to the Japanese art of wabi-sabi,” as T magazine put it, was among the first attempts to provide some beach glamour to the town. Klein said he left the beach partly because he’d grown tired of the “pseudo-spirituality” that had overrun Tulum. “The spirituality has become the party,” he said. “The shamanic DJ and this and that.” There were dance parties advertised as “rituals,” and if you stayed in Tulum long enough, you could attend a New Moon party, a Half Moon party, and a Full Moon party. Klein said that Gitano, meanwhile, had “turned into ‘Studio 54 in the Jungle.’ ”

“I love ‘Studio 54 in the Jungle’!” Melissa Perlman told me when I relayed that description. Klein sold his half of Gitano to Perlman, who had built one of Tulum’s largest expat empires. She moved there from New York shortly after 9/11 to start the Bikini Bootcamp, which attracted Cindy Crawford and Maggie Gyllenhaal, among others. “I was sort of the first person to bring New York to Tulum,” Perlman said, eating from a helmet-size goblet of shrimp cocktail on the beachfront deck at Amansala, her hotel. Her other holdings around Tulum include a boutique hotel called Amansala Chica, another hotel in town, a clothing shop, and numerous empty lots waiting to be developed. Perlman still runs the Bootcamp but has adjusted her offerings to meet the demands of Tulum’s changing demographic. She nodded to a group of hung-over-looking guests who were eating their first meal of the day at 1 p.m. “My tribe,” she said, using the term preferred by Tulum hoteliers instead of customer base, “is people seeking balance. They drink their water and eat their salads and get their dose of feeling like they’re in balance, then they go and get toasted.”

Perlman’s interest in Gitano wasn’t in curating a vibe. “Before I came in, it was a beautiful place,” she said. “Now it’s a business.” Perlman owns not only the land under Gitano and half of the business but also the land under Casa Pueblo, and she is soon to open a new restaurant with Klein just a few doors down from Gitano. “Derek said, ‘Please buy me out,’ ” Perlman said. “So I did. And now I’m opening another place with Derek.” She smiled.

When Perlman joined Gitano, both she and Gardner agreed that the place needed to get bigger. To do so, they built the Jungle Room, a concrete structure at the back of the bar designed to look like a colonial ruin. Gitano had been among the first places to expand into the jungle side of the beach road, and the growth had irked locals. The Jungle Room project extended toward the mangroves behind Gitano, which are an important filtration system for the underground rivers beneath Tulum and are protected by Mexican and international law. Gardner said that they had not destroyed any mangroves and that Gitano wanted to be a leader not just in taste and style but in sustainability, too. He said they were making various environmentally friendly upgrades and also pointed out that they had adorned the trees surrounding the restaurant with lightbulbs. “We’re worshipping the environment,” he said. “These are jewels lighting up this beautiful jungle.” The Jungle Room, he said, was designed so that branches from trees around the building poked through the concrete walls, though it wasn’t clear that either party was happy with the arrangement. Around one of the branches, the wall was beginning to crack.

A street performer. Photo: Sam Youkilis

Early one morning, I went to the Mayan ruins at the north end of Tulum Beach, where hundreds of tourists were already streaming in from a parking lot. I was meeting Alex Torres and Josué Camaal, locals who have worked as tour guides in Tulum for decades. The Starbucks outside the ruins was too crowded, so we walked to a café across a plaza filled with men in Mayan headdresses with pythons draped across their shoulders and shops selling lucha libre masks affixed with the logos of American sports teams. Two million people visit the site every year, and the government has stopped allowing people to climb the structure. But the rules haven’t stopped everyone. “Justin Bieber, he is not welcome,” Torres said, referencing an infamous incident from 2016. “He was pissing on the structure!” (Bieber could not be reached for comment.)

Walking south from the ruins, you can see the full sweep of Tulum in 2019. There is Papaya Playa, which on its Wellness Day brought in 22 different “healers” specializing in biomagnetism, reiki, color reading, deionization, numerology, and Wataflow. You pass Azulik, which rents one villa for $7,800 a night and recently hosted a “Vibrational Concert for World Peace.” If it’s the morning, Perlman’s Bikini Bootcampers could be running on the beach; if it’s the afternoon, Ak’iin might be throwing one of its daytime beach parties; and if it’s the early evening, a 20-something New Yorker at Coco Tulum might meet her friends for dinner only to realize she’s underdressed (“Are you wearing heels? You little slut. I thought we were all wearing flats,” I overheard one night). A group of three young people could be kicking a pile of seaweed out of the way to clear the frame for a perfect photo, or an older man in a navy-blue Speedo might be lounging on the phone at Posada Margherita, a low-key Italian restaurant, telling someone to buy 200 shares of an index fund that tracks companies in the chemical manufacturing, mining, and timber industries.

If you were here in 2017, you’d have seen a Noma pop-up with dinner for $600 plus tax, but don’t worry if you weren’t; one of the chefs stuck around to open a spot that is “Tulum’s only restaurant with an immersion circulator and sous vide technology.” For a down-market vibe, Eufemia brings together older hippies and young people looking for cheap tacos — “The East Village, in a good way” — and Naked Bob, a regular so named for a proclivity dating from Tulum’s bohemian days, might be trying to persuade a man in a baseball cap with the logo for Elon Musk’s Boring Company to stand up and dance. There are still a few spots holding on to Tulum’s quieter days, like Casa de las Olas, a small B&B at the south end of the beach that still operates comfortably without air-conditioning. But the most blown-out spot on the whole beach is nearby: Casa Malca, Pablo Escobar’s former home, which has been outfitted with Harings, Basquiats, and Scharfs by the Colombian art dealer who bought the place. On New Year’s, the party ends at 5 p.m. the next day, and by that point you might understand why so many spas and hotels offer regular “Sound Healing” sessions.

An EDM festival in the Tulum jungle. Photo: Khris Cowley for Here & Now

A few days into the New Year, I walked down the beach road as a parade of taxis carried passed-out passengers smearing glitter across the back seats. It was 10 a.m., and one of the nightly beach raves that took place during the first week of January was just wrapping up. When I arrived at Ahau, another hotel known for its parties, the faint thump of house music that provides Tulum with much of its soundtrack wafted over the handful of people who were awake for breakfast. “The parties were epic,” Roberto Palazuelos, who owns the land on which Ahau and several other Tulum hotels are built, told me. His business partner, a Manhattan émigré he credited with bringing New York to Tulum, was nowhere to be found. “He must be hung-over,” Palazuelos joked. “He’s a party animal.” Palazuelos opened his first hotel in Tulum in 1994 and was now preparing to open his fifth, with rooms for $1,000 a night.

Palazuelos is best known in Mexico as an actor who plays the villain in telenovelas, but in Tulum he is known in part for his role in the saga that shuttered Coqui Coqui and Uno Astrolodge. After breakfast, he put on a pair of Gucci sunglasses and we walked the beach with one of his three bodyguards trailing behind. I asked if the protection was necessary. “Yes, because I was the one who cleaned the beach,” Palazuelos said. “Because first I was their leader and then they say I betray them.”

The cleansing, or the betrayal, which took place in 2016, had been simmering for decades. In the ’70s, the Mexican government designated 25,000 acres around Tulum as ejido land, a system meant to distribute underused property to landless farmers. Over the years, the landowners, many of whom were local Mayans, had sliced and diced individual properties, sometimes selling them to multiple buyers — one in Cancún, another in Mérida, a third flying in from New York. No one spent much time cross-checking records for what was largely uninhabited jungle, but as tourists and their money arrived, several powerful families from elsewhere in Mexico began claiming that, in fact, the land was theirs. The paperwork was questionable, but some Tulum hotel owners ended up buying their properties two or three times, just to be safe. Others were kicked off their land. In 2012, a lawyer contesting the evictions was shot to death in his office.

Palazuelos dealt with several claims to his properties, fighting off one challenge thanks to his father, a prominent Mexico City lawyer, who was himself the son of a former judge. But in 2014, the Schiavones, a wealthy family from Monterrey, said they owned the land under Ahau. Palazuelos says he eventually came to believe the Schiavones’ claim and agreed to buy the land from them at a discounted rate of $250 per square meter. (It is now worth well over $1,000 per square meter.) Palazuelos, who was the president of the Tulum hotel association, started working with the Schiavones. He approached other hotel owners, including Nuno Silva from Uno Astrolodge, and urged them to make similar deals. Running a hotel in Tulum was profitable enough that Silva considered paying the $1.5 million demand for his, but he spoke to a lawyer who said the claim wasn’t legit. “I said, ‘Nuno, you’re my brother, don’t fuck this up,’ ” Palazuelos told me. “He said, ‘I’m gonna take the risk.’ ”

On June 17, 2016, Silva woke up to news that hundreds of men, some with machetes, were making their way down the beach, forcing tourists out of their hotels and demanding, with the help of official court orders, that owners vacate their properties. Silva told his guests to pack up and leave, then parked a truck against the front gate of his hotel while his staff gathered in a circle to sing a Hindu devotional hymn. The prayer didn’t work, and both Uno Astrolodge and Coqui Coqui were among 17 hotels taken over that day.

The evictions left scars for many Tulum business owners, who remain fearful of losing their properties. (Mexican journalists reported that some of the evictions may have been among numerous suspicious land deals potentially involving the then-governor of Tulum’s home state, who has since been arrested on various corruption-related charges.) Silva’s case remains in legal limbo, but Uno Astrolodge has already been replaced by an upscale hotel that Palazuelos said was being rented out by the founder of Cirque du Soleil, who is also a DJ and has played a set at Ahau.

As we walked the beach, Palazuelos was unapologetic and pointed out several other properties he said faced eviction; one was on land being claimed by a general in the Mexican Army. “On the beach, there are people who look like they’re doing really, really well, but they’re under massive pressure,” one hotel owner told me. “As soon as you get a profile here, the big fish start to circle.” Palazuelos said the uncertainty had been “good for the destiny” of Tulum — it had kept the larger developers out, for now. He said his hotels gross $1.5 million each month, which may be only the beginning. The clogged beach road had stunted Tulum’s growth, and Palazuelos was in favor of building an additional road parallel to the beach, 500 meters from the water, which was already under way. The property there, some of which was mangrove, would become wildly valuable if the government allowed landowners to build on what was once untouched jungle. “This is huge, man,” Palazuelos said. “I have a lot of land there.”

Eugenio Barbachano (left) and Mr. Tulum. Photo: Sam Youkilis.
Eugenio Barbachano (left) and Mr. Tulum. Photo: Sam Youkilis.

“We’re the biggest real-estate developers in Tulum,” Nico Wilmes told me at the four-story offices of Los Amigos Tulum. Before moving to Mexico, Wilmes was a competitive bodybuilder operating a cardboard-packaging company in Germany; he met Marc Levy, a construction manager from Arizona, while backpacking in Central America. In 2012, they came to Tulum with the idea of getting into real estate, filming a vlog on YouTube called The Gringos, and leaving after six months if things didn’t work out. They bought some land just outside town, built a house, and listed it on Airbnb. It did so well that within a few weeks, Levy was asking friends for money so they could build a new one.

Six years later, Los Amigos has 500 people on its payroll and 13 developments, the crown jewel of which is Central Park, a condo development with 54 units, a three-story gym, and a dine-in movie theater, where I sat in a recliner to watch a promotional video called “The Los Amigos Story” that mimicked an early National Geographic documentary. “Today we’ll embark on an adventurous journey to the secret jewel of the Mayan peninsula: Tulum,” the narrator said. “A place of astonishing beauty and virgin natural wonders … bursting with wildlife, crystal-clear waters, and golden” — dramatic pause — “business opportunities.” The narrator pumped his fist.

Wilmes wanted to show me several of Los Amigos’ properties, so we hopped into the company Tesla. The satellite image on the dashboard GPS couldn’t keep up with the pace of development; it showed us moving through virgin jungle as we drove past construction sites on our way to Panoramic, which was slated to include “the most iconic elevator experience in Tulum,” taking residents to the “first 360-degree infinity pool in the world.” (Los Amigos was debating whether to pay Guinness World Records the $25,000 for official confirmation.) Dozens of workers were hustling to finish construction on the schedule demanded by Los Amigos’ investors, which was necessary given that the brochure for another Los Amigos project, one that would have a “lagoon-view co-working space,” promised “the fastest ROI on your investment.”

Return on investment has become the most common amenity advertised on the dozens of billboards for new condo developments around Tulum. Much of the activity is centered on Aldea Zama, a planned community between the town and the beach. Beginning in the aughts, the Mexican real-estate company behind it bought hundreds of acres from the government, much of it at below-market prices. Only a small portion of the development has been built thus far, which gives it the feel of a ghost town, with condo buildings popping up here and there along wide, winding roads. There are still plans for a golf course and rumors that Faena, the extravagant Miami hotel chain, was planning a large project.

The rest of the jungle between the beach and the town is now a free-for-all. One afternoon, I had lunch with R. J. Thoman, a local real-estate agent better known as “Mr. Tulum,” a nickname he gave himself. Mr. Tulum moved to Mexico from Texas in 1990. He had tried to bring Church’s Chicken to Cancún, which didn’t work, then inflatable amusement games to Mexican malls, which somehow did. “Then I got a divorce,” Mr. Tulum said. “That ended that.” He moved to Tulum in 2000, got into real estate, and was the only person I met who didn’t express much nostalgia for its quieter days. “I’m an entrepreneur, and I’m here for the money,” he said, before his third wife interjected, “He enjoys the nature, for sure.”

Mr. Tulum pulled out a map that displayed the thousands of lots that have been sold off in the jungle between the town and the beach. He said he’d sold one piece of jungle in 2004 to the head of a major European fashion label for $180,000, and he just put it back on the market for $1.4 million. He pointed to another area that has been designated for low-density construction because the underground river threatens its stability. I asked if that means a developer can’t build there. “Can’t is not a good word in Mexico,” he said. He had already sold eight lots in 2019. It was January 10.

Mr. Tulum was especially excited by a connection to an American investor new to the Tulum market. “He’s hooked up to a bunch of Chinese,” Mr. Tulum told me before introducing me to the developer, who is in his mid-30s and spent the past decade working in wealth management in New York and Hong Kong. Building a real-estate empire in Mexico comes with its dangers, and he tries to keep a low profile. (“I ride around in a late-model Tahoe. In the U.S., I’d ride around in an Escalade with a driver.”) He and his partner had started buying up land in the jungle outside Tulum two years ago and were now building luxury villas and duplexes. He had his eyes on the beach, where he saw several hotels that were “underdensified.” He hoped to buy a couple, build them out with more rooms, and jack up the prices. His motto, he said, was “If people will pay for it, we’ll build it.”

The beach by the Tulum Mayan ruins. Photo: Sam Youkilis

One afternoon, I met in town with a group of environmental activists who had organized under the umbrella Red Tulum Sostenible, which exists largely to provide moral support. “It’s difficult to continue going against the wave,” Karla Acevedo, one of the group’s members, said of Tulum’s unceasing development. “You have all these activists who are like, Why are we even here?” In the ’90s, Tulum was the kind of place where leaving your sandwich on a table meant risking a monkey snatching it, but now the monkeys, not to mention the toucans, are harder to find. It was difficult to hear any birds at all on the beach road over the thrum of the diesel generators.

The activists from Red Tulum have made only fitful progress. The town shut down the recycling center in November because it was disrupting a government organization run by the mayor’s wife. Mauricio Jervis, a local chef who runs a composting service, managed to persuade only 30 of the hundreds of hotels and restaurants in Tulum to sign up, even though all it required was passing along an extra 25-cent charge to each customer. “My favorite excuse is ‘We just printed our menus, so we can’t change the cost,’ ” Jervis said.

The activists have been most successful in decreasing the use of plastic — many restaurants now serve agave straws and cutlery made from avocado seed — but the more serious ecological problems don’t have agave solutions. Tulum is built on highly permeable limestone, the geologic equivalent of Swiss cheese, below which flows one of the world’s largest underground river systems. Some of Tulum’s biggest non-beach attractions are its cenotes, where the ground has collapsed to reveal open-air pools with highly Instagrammable turquoise water. The trouble is that less than 10 percent of the town is connected to the municipal sewer system. The beach, and many of the newer developments, aren’t connected at all. Most businesses depend, instead, on septic tanks, but, whether by accident, neglect, or ignorance — willful or otherwise — a significant amount of Tulum’s waste ends up in the ground, where it eventually leaches through the limestone into the water. In January, a documentary called The Dark Side of Tulum was released with footage shot by cave divers of feces floating in the rivers. According to Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, 80 percent of the cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula have some level of contamination, and researchers have found traces of the entire Tulum consumption cycle: skin-care products, cocaine, Viagra, and ibuprofen.

While Mexico has relatively strict environmental laws, corruption is rampant and enforcement is lax. Some developers pay bribes to get around various laws, like those restricting how much they can build on a lot.
Hotels in Tulum like to describe themselves as “eco-chic,” a term Melissa Perlman claims to have coined — she had recently considered sending cease-and-desist orders for its unauthorized use — but Olmo Torres-Talamante, a local biologist who runs an environmental NGO, said that, while a few places are trying harder than others, none of the hotels in Tulum operates sustainably. The do-what-you-want ethos of Tulum’s early days has produced fresh consequences now that people show up to party as much as they do to commune with nature, and the sacrifices being asked of tourists are comically small. (The first rule posted on a government sign instructing visitors on how to interact with sea turtles is a request not to sit on them.) One of the new EDM festivals encouraged attendees to use “biodegradable glitter,” but no one seemed eager to grapple with the inherent unsustainability of clearing a spot in the jungle to put in a giant speaker system. Nico Wilmes, of Los Amigos, told me he hopes his company can be “the Tesla of real estate in Mexico,” by which he meant inspiring others toward a more sustainable future, and said they had prepared all of the rooftops at Central Park for solar panels. But instead of installing the panels and building that into the cost of the condos, the choice had been given to each buyer. Only two have taken them up on it.

Tulum is a transient boomtown, and even the Mexicans who live there come mostly from somewhere else for work. (The riches, however, haven’t trickled down much to them.) That has left only the committed group of activists trying to tackle various problems. But they are outnumbered, and no one is completely pure. Several people who criticized Los Amigos for “greenwashing” admitted to me that they belong to the well-air-conditioned Los Amigos gym. Self-described hippies have investment properties. One woman complained to me about her failed effort to get more hotels on the beach to adopt solar power, then told me about the recent discovery of what she believed was a small Mayan temple at a construction site. “We can’t let the Department of Anthropology know what we found, because they’ll take the property,” she said. “We put in a 24-hour hamburger stand.”

The town landfill in the jungle. Photo: Sam Youkilis

Eugenio Barbachano, the tourism minister, took a roundabout path into government. He comes from a Mexican tourism dynasty with properties around the Yucatán from Cancún to Playa del Carmen (“Carmen being my great-grandmother,” he said). Barbachano forged his own path, spending much of his 20s in New York, working to bring AriZona Iced Tea to Mexico and living the life of a successful gay man in Manhattan, where he met another set of real-estate heirs. “I taught Ivanka how to drive stick,” Barbachano said. “I’m not gonna call her my fag hag, but she was someone very close to me for a long time.” He brought the Trump children on trips to the Yucatán, and their families considered a joint project in Mexico that didn’t happen. “Almost every day of my life I am outraged by Donald Trump,” Barbachano said. “But Ivanka and Don and Eric are my friends.”

Barbachano had a real affection for Tulum, having fallen for a Connecticut Wasp there, whom he eventually married at the Maidstone Club in East Hampton. The marriage fell apart in 2017, and when he emerged from the heartbreak, he decided to enter public service. Barbachano threw himself into the job and was learning both the power and challenges of governance. He said Tulum’s government is busy building infrastructure “that should have been done ten years ago,” while trying to crack down on development that has gone unchecked. “We’re demolishing buildings,” he said. “People have done some stupid shit.” He hoped to close the beach road except to pedestrians, bikes, and golf carts.

Barbachano wants Tulum to be known as a place of “barefoot luxury,” not out-of-control partying, and he spent the first week of January walking the beach, asking hotels to turn down their music. A few days earlier, during an EDM show at a venue in the jungle called Zamna, a man had been found shot and killed. Barbachano said officials believed the man was a drug dealer possibly operating on turf that wasn’t his. The obvious presence of drugs is a relatively new phenomenon in Tulum and makes many locals nervous. Cancún and Playa del Carmen have struggled in recent years to deal with turf wars between cartels, and reports of robberies and shootings are growing in Tulum. One restaurant owner told me that last year a person involved in the drug trade demanded he pay a cut of his revenue every month in order to stay open, a story I heard from several business owners. His business was good enough that he could afford it, but he didn’t care to get involved with anything risky so he closed up shop. Other places seemed to have come to an uncomfortable peace, and there were dealers at various spots in town and on the beach. At Gitano on a Friday night, they were at the entrance to the Jungle Room, offering “weed, molly, coke” to anyone who walked past.

Many people in town want to shut down the festivals and curtail the partying, but they are cash cows, and Tulum doesn’t have much recent history of putting principle before profit. Some told me they have high hopes for Victor Mas Tah, the town’s new mayor, who has spoken a lot about sustainability. But his property around a cenote hosted one of the biggest new additions to the festival calendar this year. The new government had been in office for a hundred days, and Barbachano told me he was happy with some of his progress. “Are things perfect? Absolutely not. Do we have the best rates of any place on earth? You bet your ass. Do I have a lot to smile about? Yes. Am I the smiling type? No,” he said. “But there’s so much more to be done. And then again …” He trailed off as another wave of seaweed crashed ashore. “I’d like to tell you 2019 is gonna be better, but who the fuck knows,” he said. “Maybe next year I’m living in New York in Chelsea being a muscle gay.”

Tourists at the Mayan ruins. Photo: Sam Youkilis/SY2016

Even some of Tulum’s biggest critics told me they prefer to look on the bright side: When the wind blows away the seaweed and the house music dims, Tulum is still a great place to be with a margarita in hand while your friends in Manhattan trudge to work in the snow. But the problems are becoming harder to ignore, and there are certain signs that the Tulum bubble is gently deflating. Some hotels are reporting more vacancies than usual, and so many new condos are for rent around town that some had to lower their rates. When Mr. Tulum told me one developer he worked with sold 60 lots in the past year — “He’s dumping. Well, he’s not dumping ’em. He’s selling” — I suddenly realized why his wife had responded to a joke I made about buying property by peppering our conversation with suggestions for lots I might consider.

And at least some people seem to be looking for the next thing. Bobby Klein heard a new voice telling him to start an online-education portal called the Wisdom and Mystery School. Nico Wilmes told me Los Amigos is designing a hotel to be built on the moon. (He wasn’t joking.) A few people were thinking of moving to upstate New York. “Off the record,” one longtime resident told me, “I miss America.” And many people were interested in being early to find, and buy land in, the new Tulum. The most common prediction I heard was Bacalar, two hours south, on an inland lake known as the Lagoon of Seven Colors for its varying shades of blue water. Mr. Tulum was working on a deal for a 437-acre project nearby. In an age of rising seas and seaweed, could lagoons be the new beaches? Bad news: Several Bacalar residents told me the cycle that overtook Tulum was starting there already. Land was getting expensive, and there was no infrastructure to keep up with the pace of new arrivals. So much contamination was already leaching into the lake that, on a good day, it was now the Lagoon of Three, Maybe Four, Colors. In a few years, the colors would likely be gone.

Many of Tulum’s business owners believe the Tulum brand is exportable — there is now a restaurant in a Dallas strip mall called Tulum — and last summer, Perlman and Gardner opened a Gitano pop-up on an empty lot in Soho. Leo, the sitar player, flew in to play a set. Gitano NYC was a hit, with lines out the door, and people back in Tulum could only roll their eyes when, three weeks after opening, it was temporarily shut down by the Department of Health for a number of violations, including “improper sewage disposal.”

But it was enough of a success that Gardner and Perlman decided to open a permanent spot across the street in the James Hotel. “You’re back in Tulum!” Gardner told me when I stopped by for a tour of the double-decker restaurant and bar. “There’s a one-floor elevator, which is so glamorous.” There were no giant palms, but there was one made of crystal. If all goes well, they plan to reopen the outdoor location this summer, creating a “Gitano District” that is only the beginning. “Gitano can go global,” Perlman said. Gardner told me they were in negotiations to open more Gitanos elsewhere. Tulum would always have a special place in his heart, but one stretch of beach could only hold so much ambition. “Tulum is hot,” Gardner said. “Gitano’s hotter.”

*This article appears in the February 18, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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