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We are driving through the streets of downtown Tulum in a gummy heat, our eyes choked with all the brightly painted posadas, and crates of glass-bottled Fanta, and teenagers cramming tacos with minced pork. Here are bike-repair shops, displays of statuettes of the grim reaper and piles of cabbages sold by a grandmother listening to waltzes on the radio.
Not far away, overhanging the Caribbean, are the ruins of what was once a small city during the final decades of the Mayan civilisation, trading turquoise when the Spanish came in the 1520s bringing pestilence for 70 years.
After that, nobody much turned up until a handful of North American hippies in the 1970s with backpacks and tools to cut through the jungle to the beach. Big-game fishermen followed, staying at the only lodge near the lagoons. In the 1980s, it was still relatively quiet, just campers and divers, and Pablo Escobar occasionally ducking and diving in a white-terraced villa folded into gnarled thickets of trees.
By the 1990s Tulum’s reputation was growing. With photographers and fashion folk, yoga bunnies and gypsetters, cute kids making necklaces or opening beach shacks made of little more than taurpalin sheets and a bunch of ropes. Everyone was happy to be here. For one of the loveliest, longest beaches in the world; for fresh mango and orange juices mixed up by pretty girls in leather skirts and buzzcuts; for the low-key, freewheeling, simple pleasures of the place. But precisely what made Tulum so special – no big hotels, no brands, no chains – has also been the root of its vulnerability. Endless disputes about land ownership flared recently when 16 properties, including Coqui Coqui, perhaps the best-known little hotel on the beach, were turfed out.
And yet, either way, the monied tide seems unstoppable. Handsome Portuguese strum guitars on the steps of shops along the beach road selling jewelled dreamcatchers and Dom Pérignon. Girls from Manhattan, done up like Talitha Getty, zip by on pushbikes, limbs tanned to nutmeg from clambakes on Cape Cod. Millionaire art collectors and eco-entrepreneurs launch whimsical hotels modelled on medieval Persian caravans and Tolkienian halls, which unfurl along the seemingly endless pale-glimmering stretch.
The tropical dawn comes blindingly fast, darkness thinning through soft rose to blue as a lolling wisteria. Out come the brown pelicans patrolling the surf like exam invigilators, swooping occasionally to catch a fish – and they always do; the seas are full.
Fishermen here don’t bother much with boats, they just wade into the water with nets for grouper and snapper, or spears for the elegant-looking boquinete, which end up pouting on Tulum’s barbecues, skin crisping to an opalescent pink.
With the light come the first of the pretty people. A fashion photographer friend, well-used to perfect flesh, told me that even he blanched at Tulum’s gleaming beauties – alternative culture seekers, Burning-Man-Balearic-boho meets Ojai diamonds, a bevy of burnished Stevie Nicks-a-likes with smooth faces doing dawn yoga in the waterfront space at the Sanará hotel which seems to float above the sand. All the younger men look like Jeff Bridges in the 1976 King Kong, with surf-muddled, blonde-tipped hair, bracelets of suede and gold.
Ordering water for my breakfast; every meal I’ve ever eaten sits inside me like a leaden lump. I’m in the right place: Tulum is to clean eating what Mittenwald is to Kartoffelkloesse, all the hotel restaurants and beach-road stalls serve romaine-and-parsley juices, and ‘planetary soul food’. A man peeling prickly pears for passers-by as though carefully opening a heap of presents.
Having rolled out of hammocks, a gang of frat boys with heavily muscled torsos tanned the colour of dry earth head in the direction of a beach stall looking for a hangover cure, and find it in fresh coconut flesh drizzled with lime juice and salted chili flakes.
By 10am the hotels’ cabanas and day beds have been set up on the beach, which is wide and long enough to never feel full. Most of the buildings are single-storey and wood-and-thatch-unobtrusive: a Gilligan’s Island, only with clinking ice. Snatches of post-mindfulness-hour, soul-searching conversations waft towards me: ‘It’s a woo-woo thing’; ‘I’m much more interested in the question than the answer’; and most intriguingly, ‘after that night in Harlem with Cher…’ By a tree, two ravishing, beanpole Russian women strike trapeze-artist poses for their tech-whizz consorts, eventually falling on them and folding up their pale-glistening legs to be kissed.
Travelling in Mexico in the 1920s, DH Lawrence wrote that the country ‘has a faint, physical scent of her own, as each human being has…’ In Tulum that scent is of the specific resin from a Mayan tree burned for spirit-cleansing rituals. Not as pungent as incense, it can be very subtle, as though discreetly detected on a wrist or neck, something approaching white cloves mixed with tobacco. It comes and goes on the breeze, as the morning thickens and iguanas emerge from behind sprays of wild yellow flowers to lounge in the sun.
Man is a fragile god. And the world is but a series of suns: no beginning and no end, created and destroyed, light going out only to flare into life again, like tinder. This sort of Aztec-y stuff gets talked about a lot along Boca Paila, a place entirely caught up in the wonder of spiritual bewitchment. Nepalese prayer flags are strung up like bunting at a World War I chutney sale. And fire ceremonies, and Aboriginal Dream-times, and Native American sweat lodges, all of it jumbled together into an amiably cosmic grab-bag of myths.
At noon I take a walk north along the sand towards the ruins, passing beach platforms for stretching, and pop-up chai bars, and areas devoted to sound-healing journeys. Among the notices pinned up for today: a flying mermaid class led by Young Grandmothers from the Moondance Movement. A New York City friend of mine once met ‘an ancient dude with a lot of stories’ in Tulum who turned out to have been Jim Morrison’s shaman. ‘He had intense things to say,’ she wrote to me, firmly. ‘I quit my job last week.’
It’s hot, and I flop on the sand, which is as white and fine as dust, occasionally lifting like smoke on the breeze. Through some trees I can see what looks like a campsite – there are a couple left here, vestiges of when this was very much a word-of-mouth destination for travellers. The preferred look on this end of the beach is more Jack Sparrow than Jeff Bridges. Davide from Calabria comes to join me, bare brown legs and feet that haven’t worn shoes, he says, since 1995. Pointless here, he shrugs, the salt water and ants just eat them off your feet. Davide tells me he can remember when the jungle came right up to the water and he had to fight a path through ferns thick with cinnamon-coloured hummingbirds and you ‘couldn’t see the sky for branches’.
Further south, fat prawns are being flung directly from the sea onto grills for lunch at the fashionable hotels, and the bars on the sand are opening, artfully constructed from sun-bleached wood to look like the final frames in the movie when the camera pans back and the actors sink a beer, having made it to paradise after great tribulations with $20 million in the bank and a new identity.
The sand stretches away towards the end of the peninsula in a blindingly perfect crescent. As someone hangs a bikini to dry on a hammock woven from green vines, Chopin plays on a small radio. But all music sounds incongruous. All news and world events a too-clamouring background noise.
‘What’s kept you in Tulum this long?’ I ask Davide, immediately realising it’s a stupid question. And more, that I can’t stop saying the word. Tulum. It sounds like honey on the tongue. ‘I was looking for something mystic,’ frowns Davide, ‘and I have received a beautiful gift from life.’
Just as dawn is quick, the night comes down bewitchingly fast, the road suddenly full of men emerging from a day’s work in the jungle, waiting for pick-up trucks, massaging their feet and eating the scarlet-fleshed mamey fruit. Red-breasted sapsuckers swoop and skim the ground before returning to tap at the spiked trunk of ceiba trees that line the way, along with the torches now being lit outside restaurants and bars.
There is no mains electricity here. (Although there was for a while in the 1980s when Escobar determinedly routed pylons from the town to his house through thick jungle, like Fitzcarraldo dragging a boat across Peru. They still stand, long defunct.) Instead, the hotels use generators, many switching them off in the evenings when everything is gorgeously illuminated by fire and candles: the spangly sprayed VW Beetles parked outside; the vintage fish-finned American cars; the shops selling fringed dresses and beaded bags, all lantern-lit in the last rays of pink-hot twilight.
Now starts the commingling. Americans, Argentinians, Spanish. A tide of perfect tans in Penny Lane kaftans, the sun-blasted newlyweds, the gilded reunion gangs and birthday parties, all leaning delightedly against each other and raising cocktails. Cycling past in a wind-tattered straw hat is the actor Joel Edgerton, his basket stuffed with bottles of wine. Paths zig-zag beyond the bars through dim thickets of trees and shoots of fountain-like leaves into dense jungle. A continuous primeval dark.
Later, over on the beach by the Nômade hotel, with its central feasting hall constructed like a retreat for a world-touring Boromir, are swags of Moroccan and Chinese lanterns, and a band playing covers of Radiohead – the sort of group that makes even a song by Seal sound cool-ish. All the girls wear Valentino dresses slashed up the thighs, and sway in the shadows giving hard, appraising, sexy looks to the singer, a dead ringer for Dennis Wilson circa his Pacific Ocean Blue album.
I get talking to a dive instructor, Carlos, from Mexico City. ‘Oh, wanderlust,’ he laughs, explaining what brought him to Tulum. His outfit – dark waistcoat, a pair of cream cut-off trousers – makes him look like one of Fletcher Christian’s mutineers. His forearms are dipped in freckles. ‘Actually, I came to make a farm in the middle of the jungle, but it didn’t work out,’ he admits, remembering his first tough couple of years doing odd jobs in the Yucatán, working his way from Tunkas to the markets of San Juan de Dios, and then to the state of Quintana Roo, where he stayed with a family who taught him how to kill iguanas with a slingshot and roast them over the fire. He says being in Tulum feels like ‘living inside an infatuation’. Inside a kind of dream woven of poinsettia and mezcal and the bright glances of pretty girls.
Near midnight, the sky is ferocious with low-hanging stars – so vivid it feels like we’re in a vineyard and might pluck one down. The band is packing up and the girls lounging so comfortably it’s as though the sand were a sun-warmed lilo. And always, the continual surf, a few feet away, the colour of moonlight.
There is just one road along Boca Paila. Follow it away from the ruins and after a while the hotels begin to dwindle. Only a few private houses now, the route increasingly potholed until you reach Laguna Campeche, with panthers in the surrounding jungle and the occasional crocodile plunging into the shallows with a ruddering tail.
Entering the lagoon by boat, reeds mass thickly to the sides, dotted with trailing sprays of scented things, and the unusually shaped luxuriance of rare pink orchids standing high as a van. Hidden tributaries lead to sandbars and endless false turns, like a complicated map of streets and alleys, the water shot through with unexpected reverberating colours, a milky amethyst, an agave blue. Everything dancing with fly catchers, plump with their primrose-yellow breasts, and sternly overlooked by herons and ibis – and all of it as far as the eye can see, nothing disgraced by any sort of building save an occasional wooden pontoon stretching into the reeds. It is hard to believe that such a sight, such vast fecundity, still exists in the world. One time, a man in his fifties called Santiago told me about being raised in a village near here, speaking only in a Mayan dialect, swimming in the lagoon without fear of the crocodiles or the spiders in the jungle as big as puppies.
‘When I was young,’ Santiago said, ‘everything was free.’ Now he had to pay 70 pesos to swim in the cenotes, the fresh-water sinkholes that he used daily as a child. He shrugged. All things must change. The writer Sybille Bedford observed that in rural Mexico in 1946 the only things you needed money for were matches, salt and drink, everything else could be bartered or grown, raised or fished. Here you wouldn’t even need to buy the salt.
It is mawkish to overplay the notion of an Eden-like innocence, but few places feel as immensely old as parts of Tulum. Unchanged since the world began. One day, I have a snoop around the remains of the first hotel to have been built here – as a fishing lodge in the 1970s, tucked into an immaculate lick of the beach, its long-empty rooms fleeced with moss and ensnared by creepers.
In what had been the gardens, I come across a dinosaur bone. Huge and mounted long ago as a curiosity for guests, like Ozymandias it overlooks the continual, white-pouring surf while a few children sit in the sand rolling pitaya fruit to each other in front of it, as though making offerings to a slumbering god.
Where to stay in Tulum
Cabanas and beach tents, Berber rugs and silver-beaten plates – this hotel feels as if it has been constructed out of things spilled from a camel train. It’s like a village unwound on the sand, only one made from gauzy hangings and partitions. Outdoor lunches of grilled octopus are the best along the beach, and in the evening Asian food is served on a table made from a giant tree trunk. nomadetulum.com. Doubles from about £120
Discreet and gentle, 19-room Sanará is constructed from tiles, glass and cream stone. The emphasis is eco and the restaurant exceptional, serving healthy food that tastes almost suspiciously heartening (chicken broth; a salad of shrimp and moringa leaves). A yoga studio overlooks the sea, as does the spa where – unusually – the treatment-room windows are flung open for sea breezes. sanaratulum.com. Doubles from about £265
Once Pablo Escobar’s hacienda, this luxurious space was redesigned by its new owner, the art dealer Lio Malca. At the entrance are gigantic wooden doors hung with curtains made of hundreds of antique lace Mexican wedding dresses. There is nothing to fault here. From lunches of freshest ceviche to the bedrooms overlooking the quietest stretch of beach. casamalca.com. Doubles from about £380
The best spa in Tulum
The Yäan Wellness Spa has Mayan-themed treatments and beautiful plunge pools beside which healers sit and press fragranced flannels to your face.
Where to eat in Tulum
Casa Jaguar and long-standing Hartwood restaurants for a sense of being at the jungle’s entrance, and Arca bar, a cool space with high-raised lanterns.
Virgin Atlantic flies twice a week from London Gatwick to Cancun.
This feature was published in Condé Nast Traveller January/February 2017
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