Holiday in Tulum: Hipster Edition

When I announced to my college students that I was going to Tulum for fall break, I followed up with “It’s the Williamsburg of Mexico” to provide further context. One raised her hand and asked “Williamsburg, Virginia?” That was a fair question and entirely amusing to imagine. I explained Williamsburg was once a regular neighborhood in Brooklyn until Hipsters colonized it and made everything hilariously expensive. Like just to be expensive, to prove to themselves that they live in an expensive part of town, by creating one.  I’ve never been to Mexico but my travel companion, Esmeralda Holiday, has been to Tulum several times over the past fifteen years. To find out why her name is Esmeralda Holiday, you’ll have to read this memoir. The Tulum she remembers was a remote place of natural wonder, home to entire meals for mere pesos. 

Before we get into all that, first we have to get through security at the airport. I was listening to this podcast once about how quirky human brains are when you get into the neuroscience part of things, then extrapolate back to our perceptions of reality. One example was airport security. Those of us who had the luxury of air travel before 9/11, will remember the good old days when literally anybody could go hang out at the airport, on the inside, including homeless people, and Hare Krishnas. Nothing bad happened. We didn’t spontaneously start murdering each other. Everything was pretty much the same as it is now. Except for that terrible awful thing that happened that one time. Paolo Coelho wrote a beautiful story about The Alchemist wherein he said “Things that happen once, happen only once.” The podcast went on to introduce various counter-terrism  experts, who say that we, as a society, created airport security in order to feel safe. It does not increase our safety, only the illusion of safety. WTF? We’ve been doing all this for nothing? Anyhow, I feel this is an important backstory to what happened next.

Slightly out of character, Esmeralda and I arrived at the airport on time. We breezed through the lines and waited our turn in the 3D x-ray machine. I was an old pro at this. No wearing metal, hold still, arms akimbo. Same old, same old. Until the guard pulls me aside to share the visual evidence that will now necessitate a groin search, as in the pelvic region is all lit up on the x-ray image of me standing starfish. Esmeralda comes through the 3D swirling machine, sees my evidence and starts pointing and laughing at my fire crotch. The guard  then asks if I’d like a private room. What I really want is to get on that plane to Tulum. So I asked what I felt was a reasonable question, “Do I have to take my clothes off?” To that she responded no. She didn’t seem to be getting any more joy out of the prospect of this groin search than I was. So I figured let’s go with it, right here, right now. I’ve birthed children in front of complete strangers. A fully clothed public feel up doesn’t feel comparatively significant. And then, Aha! The tables had turned, and now Esmeralda too was convicted of fire crotch and was also sentenced to a groin search. What are the chances?

Let me just say that the search was impressively thorough, more so than I would have anticipated, or maybe exactly as advertised–it was after all a groin search. Esmeralda and I both thought it was hilarious that we were each accused of fire crotch, having never even heard of it before. Then a couple days later, I got to thinking. What would cause the groin area to illuminate? Guns? Drugs? Explosives? I guess what I’m delicately trying to say is that, if I were a bad guy and I wanted to sneak contraband onto an airplane, why would I put it on the outside of my vagina? It has this whole secret compartment where you can put things on occasion. So, that was an especially odd event when you further contemplate that the only purpose of airport security is to provide the illusion of safety. 

The rest of the flight went a little more predictably. We landed, rented a car and drove on to paradise, a cozy beachfront ‘Palapa’ in a beautiful cove. It was truly heaven on earth. And also, the Tulum that exists now has condo developments springing out of the jungle, pharmacies that sell prescription drugs for recreational use, and restaurants that were being expensive on purpose. 

Worry not! We are resourceful travelers and found our way to the natural beauty and authentic food–the mountain of ceviche and local taqueria that cost mere pesos. But, as anthropologists by hobby, we thought we might first immerse ourselves in this new cultural phenomenon we encountered: The Tulum Hipster. Common things being common, many of them are American, but also European, Middle-Eastern, and a little bit of everybody from everywhere–or at least those with piles of money to light on fire for pleasure. They could light their money on fire in a variety of ways: rebirth ceremonies, raves, exclusive places that are exclusive because they say they are. One such location was the inauthentic Japanese restaurant: Tseen-Ja, best known for its Swiss Family Robinson-inspired design aesthetic, complete with sunset nests, or baskets on the roof, which you could go sit in, for anywhere between $50-$2,700, depending on the ambition of the waitstaff. According to Instagram, this is the ‘It’ place to prove you are living your best life to your audience, the only metric by which you rate your self-worth. That is, if you choose on purpose to go there and part with your piles of cash. 

The first clue that this place might just be the epitome of what’s wrong with western civilization was the fact that Tseen-Ja had more 1 star reviews than usual, for places that remain in business. But these weren’t your typical reviews, they often began with “I’ve never written a review before…” followed by some genuinely captivating literature.

Let’s start by setting the mood:

If pretentious and unwelcoming energy from staff is what you look for in your dining experience then look no further.

A place for people without taste, culture, or sense. This is one of the most distilled down groups of crass, low-class clientele I’ve yet encountered. It aspires to be disappointing. 

So if you want to spend an exorbitant amount to take Instagram pictures, yeah you can do it here. But what do you do after that?

That’s a fair question. Well, it is a restaurant. Perhaps you’d like to eat?

Probably the worst sushi i have ever had. If you like to pay double the london prices at a toilet smelly location for barely edible sushi this is your place 😉

The food was absolutely terrible and insanely disappointing. The sushi tasted extremely fishy and expired- it was basically inedible. 

There were cockroaches!!! 

if there were ZERO stars , this place would have taken it… disgusting inedible food and to top it off, a sneaky un-respectfully scammer waiter who tried to charge for things we did not order. Don’t waste your time or money. I highly do not recommend this place.

But surely, there is some recourse? Perhaps you could ask to bring your concerns to management?

Cherry on top was the server spilling soy sauce all over my girlfriend’s romper and accusing us of lying about it when we brought it up to him. Manager observed all of this and didn’t offer us any sort of compensation.

… At this point, I asked to speak to a manager and she tells me no, calls me a “bitch”, and tells me I need to leave.


So, the Tulum Hipster must enjoy that sort of customer service experience for some reason. Despite being in their natural habitat, sightings were rarer than you’d think. There were several establishments waiting to help the Hipster light his, or her, or their money on fire, but the Hipster only emerged late afternoon, on bicycle or scooter. We concluded they must be nocturnal. And Esmeralda and I are very diurnal indeed. Our kind of holiday involves bringing our own french press and kettle for hot coffee at sunrise. We work for a few hours (we learned this is called being a Digital Nomad, so that’s what we were doing). Then we go off to explore the extremely interesting stuff that this part of the world has on offer. Cenotes, sea turtles, Ancient Mayan Civilization. 

Ancient Mayans did a lot of cool things. We visited Coba, where one is required to hire a certified tour guide, because there are no signs anywhere and it is the jungle. Our tour guide low-key hated us, perhaps mistaking us for the Tulum Hipster. Nonetheless, we eked as much information as we could out of him. According to our tour guide friend, Mayans built huge pyramid structures, they engaged in agriculture, sea-faring trade, created a network of cities with interconnected roadways, they invented their own version of math, a calendar wheel, with multiple timekeeping mechanisms of different sizes interlocking in a gear-like fashion. You know what they didn’t invent? An actual wheel. Our tour guide goes on to reveal the ruins of a pristine white road, which was completely flat, and exactly 1 meter wide and 100 kilometers long. So, I asked, if the metric system was invented in France in 1795, how were the Mayans using it one thousand years earlier? He didn’t like that line of questioning and instead decided to show us some howler monkeys.

One of my favorite reasons to travel is that you get to ask more interesting questions. There is something about visiting another culture that helps you open your mind to how things could be. From that visit, Esmeralda asked an utterly fascinating question: ‘I wonder what our wheel is? I wonder what invention is staring us in the face and we just can’t see?’ It’s an interesting thing to ponder. What is within our grasp, but invisible to the minds that haven’t had the thought yet?

Perhaps you are like me and majored in history but managed to learn absolutely nothing about cultures outside of western civilization. This is sort of embarrassing, but I’m attempting to rectify this gap in knowledge. One might imagine a civilization this vast and advanced would have suffered some cataclysmic event in order to collapse into obscurity: Natural disaster, disease, colonization. Nope. They just cut down all their trees. They cut down so many trees to keep on biggering and biggering, that they changed their climate, ran out of food, and died. It’s sort of like The Lorax, or, you know–us, now. Our civilization is cutting down all the trees. The Mayans could tell us what happens next if we are interested in predicting the future. Which brings me to my question: Are hipsters ruining ancient Mayan Civilization?

I suppose you thought I was speaking philosophically. Perhaps you hoped I was leading with a provocative question designed to open your mind before I drop some profound social commentary. No. I mean literally. On a visit to a biosphere, we floated through an ancient canal built by early Mayans. Off in the distance, it looked as though they were filming a reboot of Apocalypse Now.  We asked our tour guide why bombs were exploding in the forest. He said “Dynamite for aeropuerto for tourista.” This made enough sense. What seemed to be happening all around town were explosions, followed by endless supplies of human labor removing the pesky limestone with shovels and buckets. To make way for luxury condominiums, selling the idea that things will be better if you part with even more piles of money. Behind the modern Mayans removing rubble were large signs, selling the concept of creating a brand new life with cash, with such marketing ploys as “You deserve nothing less than paradise” or “Shifting the paradigm of a new reality” or this particularly long-winded pitch about nothing: “ELEMENTAL symbolizes the union and balance of various components that, by themselves can’t reach their full potential, but together represent something much larger and create something unique.” Apparently, the Tulum Hipster enjoys using words in a purposeless manner to fill a void so deep that an entire condominium can fit inside. 

Luckily for me, I have a real anthropologist friend who studies cultural sustainability by profession rather than by hobby. So I asked her for a walk to discuss my concerns. She conceded that traveling can feel sinister, when you see how globalization interacts with local customs. But she also reminded me that although ancient Mayans have plenty to teach us, expecting modern Mayans to live in some sort of utopian Disney version of their ancestors’ culture was equally ridiculous. Maybe they want to eat at McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Who am I to judge? Besides, they used to play some weird version of basketball where the winner died. That probably wouldn’t translate well in today’s athletic arena. I’d 100% take the L every time. 

So, at the end of the day, when I ask whether Hipsters are ruining Mayan civilization, what I really mean is that if less than 2% of Mayan Ruins have been explored and preserved, then are the buckets of rubble literally dismantling ancient wisdom one shovelful at a time? Doomed to repeat history, are we knocking down the same forests to make way for our pyramids, disguised as all-inclusive resorts? Or might we learn from our shared histories, speak for the trees, and discover our wheel?

Thank you for reading this post. You may enjoy reading Lady Garland Tames Her Dragons available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.

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