There was a time not so long ago when everyone who went to Tulum absolutely loved it. The boho vibe, the stunning unspoiled beaches, the magical cenotes, the low-density development, the perfect weather, and that unbelievable water – it was almost impossible not to love.
My wife and I got married near Tulum over 20 years ago, and every one of our guests was blown away by its beauty. We have come back to Tulum multiple times every year since then, and have watched the changes to the once-small town with a combination of fascination, awe, shock, and concern.
Tulum is not in the top 100 largest cities in Mexico, yet everyone in the country and increasingly around the world has heard of this special place.
Tulum was once a tiny little beach town, known for its Maya ruins, hippies, chill music, yoga, healthy food, and a relaxing vibe. I remember many times walking on the Tulum beach saying to my wife, “this is about as perfect of a spot as one can find on the planet”. Back then, the beach had only one access road, and it was slow and potholed. The hotels on the beach, as quaint as they were, ran on generators, trucked in clean water, and trucked out dirty water – not exactly perfection.
As often happens to such places, the word got out, and social media accelerated the buzz of this magical place. In the mid-2010’s, prices began to increase, quite dramatically. The quaint little hotels on the beach started doubling or tripling in size and density. The music went from “chill” to “ electronic dance music”. The crowd changed from real hippies to big city wealthy wanna-be hippies (at least for a long weekend). Along with the crowd, the scene changed from a beer and a little weed to much harder party drugs that began to bring in a whole other set of problems.
Yet Tulum kept growing and growing. A large supermarket came in. Ever larger and glamorous condo and hotel projects started to be built. Hundreds of trendy restaurants and bars opened up. And eventually, a second access road to the beach along with power and city water connections.
Prices continued to increase – it is said that the price per kilometer of a taxi in Tulum is more expensive than in Manhattan. Beach hotel prices of US $1,000 per night are not at all unheard of. Tulum’s popularity hit a stratospheric level during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city didn’t shut down, and the rich and famous from around the world came and stayed for weeks and months – posting about every great day and every epic evening on social media.
And so the growth even further accelerated. In 2022, building permits for more than 4,000 new housing units were granted in Tulum. The new Tulum international airport is now well under construction and expected to open by December. The Maya Train will include not only one but two stops in the city. A massive new natural reserve, the Parque Jaguar, is being built around the ruins at the north end of the city. Hotel chains are coming in, a new shopping mall in under construction, chain restaurants are coming in…
How can we make sense of all of this? Is Tulum forever ruined or a better place as a result of all of this?
Let me say that for those of us who long for “the way places used to be”, we will likely never be convinced that the change is for the good. Of course I long for the Tulum of many years ago. But no thoughtful analysis is that simple. The world is changing, every place is changing and evolving. I personally strive to be an optimist and will apply that frame of thinking to Tulum’s changes.
First, I try to find solace in so much change by focusing on the people who live and work there, versus the occasional tourist who misses the way things once were. I have seen firsthand how many locals with barely a roof over their head have been able to climb the social ladder as a result of all of the jobs and investment.
I have seen countless immigrants (often from Chiapas – Mexico’s poorest state) come to Tulum to be a part of the “Tulum dream”. They arrive on an overnight bus from Chiapas in the morning and have a job by the afternoon. Initially, there was no place for all of these immigrants to live and so they all began carving out homes from the jungle in an area called la invasión (“the invasion” – as there were no building permits or land titles).
These immigrants began with nothing more than a hammock strung from two trees, a backpack, and the clothes on their back. When one sees this area now, there are brick homes, small stores and restaurants, bikes and motorcycles, families with young children – all working hard to improve their economic status and striving to live the immigrant’s “Tulum dream”.
For tourists, with the right perspective, Tulum can still be a great place to vacation. More cenotes and jungle activities have opened up for public enjoyment. New hotels, restaurants, and bars open up weekly. You can find a quiet beach club offering cold coconuts and hammocks or a loud one with beach beds, go-go dancers, and US $1,000 bottle service, depending on your interest. The “old Tulum” can still be found in small restaurants run by immigrants, in jungle yoga shalas, and in morning walks on the beach.
A fun activity – albeit not one that many tourists likely do – is to go downtown in the evening to the basketball court near the zócalo. Here you see the “Tulum dream” in full force. Workers, both men and women, relaxing after a hard day’s work by playing basketball. Laughing, joking, smiling. Their friends and family cheer them on while they eat tamales, roasted corn, or fresh fruit.
When you talk to these recent immigrants, they are bursting with excitement at the opportunities they see coming to them and their families with the Maya Train and Tulum airport. I must admit that I often miss the tranquility of the old Tulum, but I am inspired by the positive outlook on life and the future from many of its new residents.