Unceasing development. The constant hum of diesel generators on the beach. Out-of-control EDM festivals. Contaminated cenotes. The problems continue to pile up in Tulum, a five-mile strip of white-sand beach on Mexico’s Riviera Maya. At The Cut, Reeves Wiedeman takes a look at how a mix of poor infrastructure, unsustainable hotel practices, drugs, too many DJs, and tourists of all flavors over the years — backpackers, hippies, wealthy hippies, pseudo-spiritual partiers, influencers, celebrities — has ruined a once-chill getaway destination.
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.
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.