At the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where the Gulf meets the Caribbean, is Cancun. For decades this resort town has been especially popular with pasty Americans fleeing the northern winter, and drunken college kids on Spring break. In the process it has become a mess of sweaty, overcrowded beaches, concrete-box hotels, thumping nightclubs, and cheap bars that all seem to be called Senor Frog’s.
But less than 2 hours’ down the coast is the small village of Tulum. Which compared to Cancun feels like a whole other country, if not a whole other universe.
Tulum was once a Mayan port. Its original name was Zama, or ‘dawn’ in the Mayan language – facing directly east it was the first place to greet the new day each morning (it was later renamed Tulum, or ‘walls’, in reference to its impressive fortifications).
At its peak, between the 13th and 15th centuries, about 40,000 people lived in Tulum – noblemen, merchants, soldiers, and farmers. But once the Spanish arrived in Mexico, newly introduced diseases ravaged the city’s inhabitants. Tulum was abandoned, left in ruins to slowly be reclaimed by the jungle.
That was until the 1970s, when travelers looking for peace, quiet and a taste of “real Mexico” ventured south from Cancun. Tulum became an off the beaten path getaway for the international backpacker crowd. Certainly, the first time I ever became aware of its existence was in the early 1990s, when a group of my university friends went there as a low-cost alternative to Bali. For three weeks they slept in a thatch hut on a beach, ate seafood, played volleyball, and smoked weed, all for less than $10 a day.
But then, about 15 years ago, The New York Times ran a few pieces on how Tulum was a new “it” place on the global tourist map. A couple of chic design hotels opened, pushing aside those rustic beach shacks my friends had stayed in. A few high-end restaurants opened too, and soon had waiting lists longer than most eateries in downtown Manhattan. Pioneering celebrities made the trek, to be photographed frolicking on the powdery beach, sipping cocktails by the ruins, or posing semi-naked in a hammock.
Next thing you know, Tulum exploded, and became hotter than hot. Every cool cat in Brooklyn suddenly dreamed of visiting. More boutique hotels opened; ditto more stylish restaurants; ditto more pressed juice cafes, minimalist boutiques, and fashionable beach clubs.
Roll forward to today, and Tulum’s metamorphosis is complete. The place has been transformed completely, from a chilled-out backpacker spot to a hipster heaven like no other.
Tulum is in fact so completely and unashamedly hipster my recent visit there felt a bit like participating in a real world social experiment. Namely, what would it look like if hipsters actually ran the world?
- Bikes would rule.
In ultra-hipster Venice Beach, where I spend a lot of my time, the preferred modes of local transport are bike or Uber – private cars are considered completely déclassé. But Venice is also a busy suburb in the middle of car-loving Los Angeles, so it is impossible to pretend automobiles do not exist.
Not so in Tulum, where the first thing you notice on arrival is that just about everyone gets around on bike. There is only one long street, running parallel to the beach, flanked by a bike path the whole way. And every hotel has a fleet of bikes on hand for guests to use. All painted in bright colors, and adorned with wicker baskets.
Just be warned: your bike will most likely be individually named. So collecting it will be a bit like picking up a date for the prom (as in: “okay Mr. Uliel, you’ve got Betsy Sunshine today, she’s the one in blue; make sure to have her back before 10pm please…”).
- Hair would not be a thing, but still a thing.
If Tulum is anything to go by, in a hipster-run world your hair, and the state of it, would be the most complex, nuanced aspect of your social expression.
On the one hand, it absolutely wouldn’t matter. It is just hair, and should always look wild, unruly, and unkempt. Why be constrained by unwieldy social norms?
But then on the other hand, hair should always matter, deeply. Men in particular should celebrate their natural hairiness, growing out their locks and not shaving more than twice a week. Although somewhat paradoxically, any excessive male body hair – chest, back, sack or crack – should be ruthlessly purged.
Bottom line: in the hipster world of Tulum, traditional hair tables are turned. Your body must be smooth, but your head hair unrestrained (albeit in an artfully coiffed I-woke-up-like-this kind of way).
- Body art would be compulsory.
Refer item 2 above, but replace every time the word “Hair” appears with the word “Tattoo”. Now repeat the exercise again, only substitute the word “Piercing”. You get the idea? In Tulum having a tattoo, body piercing or both is pretty much essential for any self-respecting member of the tribe.
Or to put it in a slightly different way, appearing as I did on the beach in Tulum without a single tattoo or piercing to show for myself was about as conspicuously out-of-place as if the Pope had come onto the balcony at St Peter’s Square to lead Sunday mass, dressed in lederhosen.
- Shabby would always be chic.
It may be a laid-back kind of place, but what you wear in Tulum is all important, always. Getting ready to step out in public – never mind that you might just be heading down to the beach – should take a long time. But no matter how long you prep, you should somehow manage to appear vaguely Bohemian, albeit in a well put together way. It is a delicate balance, and requires effort. I call it the “slightly homeless” look.
Here are some specific fashion pointers for a trip to Tulum:
- Jeans should always be rolled at the cuff, cut-off, and / or precisely ripped in various spots around the knee, or not worn at all. Also, you can never pack too many vintage t-shirts and thrift shop sourced “hidden treasures”;
- Bikinis are the only acceptable form of swimwear for women, preferably with the tops and bottoms carefully mismatched. Orlebar Brown swim-shorts are the only acceptable form of swimwear for men (and if you don’t know what Orlebar Brown swim-shorts are, don’t bother – Tulum is not a place for you);
- Bonus points are awarded to anyone able to pull off a look that involves kaftans or loose flowing tribal clothing. Triple bonus points are awarded to those who can credibly find a way to wear faux-fur at a beach resort;
- Shoes are always optional – not for nothing is Tulum called the “barefoot chic” capital of the universe. Birkenstock sandals are tolerated, but generally frowned upon. Teva sandals, on the other hand, are grounds for immediate deportation; and
- Cargo shorts worn by men are an offence punishable by death.
The only exception to Tulum’s strict shabby-chic dress code is what you wear when doing yoga (which you absolutely must do – refer item 9 below). In which case skin-hugging Lulu Lemon active-wear is required. And it should be so cutting-edge you look like a refugee from the Starship Enterprise.
- Hyphenated adjectives would double as restaurants.
In Tulum, everything you put in your mouth will be a “fusion”, not just of tastes, but of words. Meaning every Tulum restaurant and drinking den worth its salt will offer a hyphenated experience of some sort.
Think terms such as Mexican-inspired, certified-organic, agro-artisanal, hand-crafted, farm-to-table, small-plate, gastro-bar, chef-tasting, locally-sourced, and fair-trade.
- Regardless, KFC would be the only food available.
No, not chicken. Rather, in Tulum we are talking kale, fermented tea, and cocktails.
You see, Tulum’s street-side taco shacks have long since been replaced by wood-and-stone designer restaurants offering chef-created menus redolent in kale. Such that in a village in the deep south of Mexico it has become nearly impossible to find straight up Mexican food. Trust me, we tried. But in a whole week the closest we came to eating anything local was a bowl of guacamole. And even then it was not served with corn chips, but instead a mound of hand-fried kale crisps doused with rosemary-infused sea salt.
Then there is kombucha, a hipster favorite which is available everywhere in Tulum, whether in bottles or on tap. It is so prevalent that by the end of the vacation I estimate our body composition was about 14% fermented tea ….
And finally there are cocktails, which are, like, the new water. At any Tulum eatery or bar your beverage choices will invariably be one of (a) a brilliantly constructed margarita – it is Mexico, after all, (b) a mixologist-developed cocktail (note the hyphen), or (c) a spiked kale, cucumber and mango creation (cold-pressed and organic, naturally).
- Vegan would be a religion.
And while on the subject of food, another thing you will notice in Tulum is that while carnivores are accommodated, vegetarians are revered. Every menu will have an extensive veggie selection – usually most of the artisanal-locally-sourced-small-plate selection. But then within that there will be an even more elite menu of strictly vegan dishes. Because in the pyramid of available eating styles, veganism is the hipster’s holiest of holies.
And for anyone on the path to enlightenment who may find themselves unable to commit completely, you will be pleased to know there is something called vegan-sympathetic (seriously, this is a real thing – think a vegan burger, but also with bacon, go figure …).
- There would only be four types of available work.
If Tulum is anything to go by, in a world run by hipsters there would only ever be four legitimate forms of gainful employment: artist, musician, performer or techie. Although within these would be many acceptable sub-occupations, like internet-marketer, graphic-designer, sound-engineer, screenwriter, and aspiring anything.
Of course being a doctor is OK (otherwise we’d all die). And barista / waiter are also OK, although only as a stepping stone towards one of the aforementioned employment categories.
But financier, banker, lawyer? In a hipsters-only world, these don’t exist. And from first-hand experience I can tell you that admitting to being an “oil executive” would be only marginally more objectionable than confessing to being a devilworshipper who eats live babies.
Oh, and work, if it does actually ever happen, is conducted only on Apple laptops, at communal tables, in fashionable cafes.
- Also, yoga would be considered work.
In Tulum, yoga (and to a lesser extent, pilates, reiki and drum circling) is not considered exercise, or relaxation, or a form of taking time-out. Rather, it is an essential part of the everyday, no different to taking a shower, or eating, or breathing. In other words, it is something a human needs to do to stay alive. So basically, work.
Thus almost every hotel in Tulum has a designated yoga area. There, a lithe and super-attractive young lady, originally from Brooklyn (obvi), will be on hand to lead you through a session. And she will of course be decorated with artful tattoos (refer Item 3 above), and decked out in Lulu Lemon (refer Item 4 above).
- No-one would need electricity.
I have to say this: the majority of hotels and shops and restaurants in Tulum are masterpieces. They are wonderful spaces to experience, bringing together light, nature and design. And it is all so “out there” in conception: a massive swing outside the front door of a smart hotel that was once Pablo Escobar’s Mexican bolt-hole; a boutique consisting of a series of rooms built through the root system of some mangroves, so that it feels like a fashionista rabbit warren; a restaurant in the tree-tops accessed by swinging rope bridges and nets; or even a simple wooden bench perched just-so on a rock overlooking the Caribbean.
Although the one thing that everywhere in Tulum seems to have in common is an unnatural reliance on tea lights for illumination. Once the sun sets each day just about everything is candle lit. There will be candles lining the footpath, and candles to light up your dining table, and candles scattered around the entry to your room, and on the bedside table.
Indeed, one hotel we visited for dinner one evening had taken things to the point of doing away with electric light bulbs completely. Which according to a couple of guests we wound up chatting with was very romantic and lovely. “Only we can’t ever find our way back to our room at night,” one fellow said. “Yes, and I haven’t been sleeping all that well because I worry that the whole place will go up in flames at any moment,” his boyfriend added.
- Life online would be real life.
One of the more interesting “sights” you will see in Tulum is about half of the people constantly posing in all manner of weird and wonderful ways. Meanwhile, the other half of the people will be busy snapping endless photos of the posers on their mobile phones (#boyfriendsofinstagram).
This bizarre ritual will occur anywhere, at any time, and seemingly all of the time. Like at the water’s edge, or in the water, or on poufs in Moroccan-Mexican inspired restaurants; or while holding a gleaming cocktail in silhouette against the setting sun. And the object of all of this photographic activity is pretty simple: to capture an image that looks effortlessly spontaneous, despite all the meticulous preparation, posing and preening that went into it.
And once obtained, these perfect pics must be instantly splashed all over carefully curated Facebook and Instagram accounts, all around the world. Such that on a planet as run by hipsters, the distinction between real life and life online will disappear completely, merged into one carefully composed collage.
- Money would grow on trees.
Tulum poses an interesting paradox. It might feel like a laid back beach hideaway, but it certainly isn’t cheap. Hotels start at $400 a night. Beach shacks fetch double that. A main course at a barefoot restaurant on the sand will set you back at least $50. Cocktails are $17 a throw. Most Tulum boutiques sell clothes that look like they are from the 1950s, but cost like they are from the 2050s. And so on.
In short, Tulum is the kind of place that only the relatively well-off can afford. The nouveaux-riche of the world (ie: Russians et al) couldn’t be bothered – it is way too rustic for them. And the old-riche couldn’t be bothered either. I mean, why on earth would anyone in their right mind pay good money to stay in a hut without a TV and functioning mosquito nets, just because it “has a vibe”….
So like the rest of the hipster universe, Tulum is made up 90% of white, tech-savvy, trend-forward, affluent, 30-somethings. Meaning that a place built around the hipster paradigms of diversity and inclusivity is perhaps one of the most homogenous spots I have ever been. Did I mention they aren’t short on paradoxes there?
- Everyone would deny being a hipster.
This last one can be especially confusing / amusing.
Take for example a couple from New York you might meet (they live in a warehouse loft; both work “in the creative space”). Dressed in shabby-chic splendor, with tattoos and piercings on full display, they will order jicama cocktails and share a Mexican-inspired chunky kale broth for dinner. They will then proceed to tell you all about their vinyl record collection, and cat named Windermere.
And then, when you ask the couple how they like Tulum, they will enthuse about how marvelous everything is. They will regale you with a vivid description of their sunrise yoga session that morning and their chanting on the beach as the sun set. But then one of the couple will eventually look at the other knowingly, and say in a low conspiratorial whisper: “Tulum would be absolutely perfect if there weren’t so many hipsters everywhere.”
I guess I am giving hipsters a hard time – it is hard not to poke fun at a sub-culture when everything about it is exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that they just don’t care.
But Tulum was, in truth, a wonderful place to spend a week. Sure, some of it was a bit over the top and ridiculous. But unlike so many wonderful beach spots around in the world that have been completely wrecked by tourism, the demands of hipster tourism have created something really special in Tulum, and unique.
Everything there remains resolutely low-rise. The beach remains pristine. Everything is tasteful. Nature matters. Art matters. Your health matters.
In Tulum the quality of the food served – even if just to a tourist passing through – is important. Everyone accepts that it is part of their job to protect and preserve the environment, even if it means inconvenience while on holidays. Pollution and urban clutter is under control. Strangers will smile at you as you pass them in the street.
So maybe a world run by hipsters wouldn’t be such a bad thing, after all. Only please, if it is going to happen, get rid of the damned kale.