Dreaming the Real Tulum

A few changes in town since Maya Tulum was built nine hundred years ago
A few changes in town since Maya Tulum was built nine hundred years ago

“We went in the early 90s,” my sister Joyce said. “Twice. I remember the ocean views and the gorgeous beach, the ruins and the single road. It wasn’t that busy, maybe forty people walking around. I don’t remember seeing any restaurants or hotels.”

Tulum blinked on our radar in the 80s. But our bare feet didn’t touch its white sands until January of 2017 when Magellan said, “Let’s get out of this dismal rain and go somewhere warm for a week.” It took us almost that long to decide where to stay.

Choices, choices, choices. Tulum, on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, sports 300 hotels, a third of them on the beach. The town is a foodie’s mecca so for that reason (and others) we ruled out all-inclusives. Described as an ”eco-friendly retreat with a style best suited to those looking for a travel experience that’s more independent than pampering,” Casa de las Olas (House of the Waves) gave us a taste of what Tulum used to be. If we return, I can’t imagine staying anywhere else.

Location, location, location. Jimmy’s email directing us how to find his place heightened our anticipation. Leave town and drive south down the pot-holed beach road to the very last of the hotels, bars and shops. Continue for a ways until you see an ocean wave hand-painted on a wooden post, turn in and head toward the beach. If you get to the gates to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve at the end of the road, you’ve gone too far. Turn around and Casa de las Olas is the first right.

In jungle darkness we arrived about 10:30 pm, exhausted from navigating conflicting speed limits—50 km/h for half a hundred metres, 100 km/h for a slightly longer stretch then 30 km/h, six blocks later it’s 70 km/h. For no logical reason we could see other than to frustrate drivers and enrich the police, if they were inclined to stop you.

“Hi, I’m Bear, I’ll take those,” said an athletic looking guy in beach shorts and T-shirt, lugging our suitcases down a path bordered by coconut shells. Voices filled the air from a group of people gathered in the dark at a long table between the property’s two houses. Sobremesa time. “Join us,” Jimmy welcomed.  “Want a beer? Did you have dinner? There’s still ribs, maybe some corn and salad. We had a potluck here tonight. Let me introduce you,” he said, naming the guests at his seven-suite B&B, including two couples who were repeat-repeat lodgers. “Vancouver, you’re from Bear’s country,” Jimmy announced. A former hockey player, “Bear” lives in Bella Coola during the summer and in exchange for helping out around Casa de las Olas, sleeps rent-free at Jimmy’s during tourist season.

Before the night was over, the communal group helped define/refine our holiday plans. Although some of our new suite-mates had already been to Tulum’s hottest restaurant that week, we’d all eat at Hartwood the next night. Our friend David, a connoisseur of good food, had raved about hanging out with Hartwood’s chefs around the wood-fires on which they cook everything. “Best steak I’ve ever eaten,” he said, “I almost ordered a second.”

I’d read about Chef Eric Werner and Mya Henry, New Yorkers who revolutionized Tulum’s dining scene with local produce, freshly caught seafood and riffs on Yucatán cuisine. “Wait ‘til you taste his ceviche.” someone (Monica?) said. (Fish caught that morning, wild ginger, avocado slivers and pink grapefruit zinged with mezcal: sublime.) “We have to order the roasted beets with avocado crema.” “My favourite is the jicama salad.”

Eyebrows climbed when the club-like congregation discovered we didn’t know Cetli’s. “Saturday after your Coba trip. I’ll arrange it,” Jimmy said. Our cred returned when we mentioned Chamico’s. “I’ll draw you a map because there are no signs,” one of the young husbands (Dean?) said. “It’s not that easy to find. Don’t worry about the fence, the security guard will let you in. When you see a wrecked ship on the shore, you’re there. You know it’s cash only?”

Gitanos on Tuesday and we had to have the brisket tacos and mezcal margaritas with rosemary and cucumber. “Don’t miss happy hour with the locals at Eufemia just down the beach,” Jimmy said, naming a place we hadn’t heard about.

La Eufemia

“Since you’re walkers, you should go to the fish shack, too,” someone else piped up.

Mezcal? “Talk to Alberto at El Grifo. Here, I’ll show you where his little shop is.” “And since you like mezcal let me give you a shot from one of my favourite bottles,” offered Jimmy, “I should have noticed you weren’t drinking much of that beer.” Heads nodded at our plans to see the ruins at Coba, Ek’ Balam and Maya Tulum itself.

Shopping advice was dispensed. “We need a party of four to book a boat tour at Sian Ka’an so we’ll wait and see if the couple coming tomorrow want to go,” Jimmy suggested.

All night long energetic winds powered the waves, pounding the white sand, the breath of the ocean a mantra, the Caribbean warmth a welcome cocoon after the endless days of torrential downpour we’d escaped.

The continuous drone of generators that followed us as we walked the strip the next day made us even more appreciative of the precious quiet at Casa de las Olas.

“We’re the only place here that’s 100% powered by solar,” says Jimmy. “Forty panels on the roof. There’s no electricity beyond town so most resorts on the beach are run by diesel generators.”

Eco-designed by an Austrian engineer named Carlo Shuber more than 40 years ago, Casa de las Olas, thanks to Jimmy who fell in love with the place in 2006, is a Platinum LEED-reviewed property (the only LEED property in Mexico). Who needs diesel generators grinding day and night for AC when there’s a ceiling-to-floor sliding door and rounded walls to lull the air flow? Water is sourced from underground streams and the cenote across the road and rainwater is collected in a 20,000-litre tank. Bear waters the plants by hand—no underground sprinklers here. Kitchen and landscape waste is turned into plant food. The dishes and linen were custom made from natural local materials by artisans in Oaxaca. Local artisans crafted the furniture in the suites, ditto for the biodegradable toiletries. In 2019 Condé Nast Traveller awarded Casa de las Olas the #1 eco hotel in the world.

Magellan and I stayed in one of the two suites without kitchenettes. Less expensive and a wise choice because Chef Lulu’s (complementary) breakfasts could keep a Mexican farmer sated until afternoon. A different main every morning: huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, yucca hash, breakfast sopes or banana pancakes and always, a plate of fresh fruit, her homemade granola and yogurt, and freshly squeezed juices. Breakfasts are a communal-table gabfest starting at 8 am, a fine time for our new millennial friends but for jubilados like us who have been up for two hours, prefer an earlier start.

Naturally we wanted to hear Jimmy’s story. Of an indeterminate age, relaxed in his T-shirt, baggy shorts and bare feet yet acutely perceptive of his guests, Jimmy (Greenfield) left a successful real estate career in NYC to buy this place and live in Tulum with his partner Samantha (Sam) who was away during most of our stay. He summers at his home in California’s Redwood country.

We were also eager to get Jimmy’s take on troubles in Tulum that we’d read about.

The previous June, hundreds of men armed with official court orders and machetes forced tourists out of seventeen hotels and demanded that owners vacate their properties. Jimmy told us pretty much what Reeves Weidmann reported two years after our visit in her much-quoted article “Who Killed Tulum?” Subtitled “Greed, gringos, diesel, drugs, shamans, seaweed, and a disco ball in the jungle.” She writes that “Mexican journalists reported that some of the evictions may have been among numerous suspicious land deals potentially involving the then-governor of Tulum’s home state, who has since been arrested on various corruption-related charges.”

Reeves gives the background:

In the ’70s, the Mexican government designated 25,000 acres around Tulum as ejido land, a system meant to distribute underused property to landless farmers. Over the years, the landowners, many of whom were local Mayans, had sliced and diced individual properties, sometimes selling them to multiple buyers — one in Cancún, another in Mérida, a third flying in from New York. No one spent much time cross-checking records for what was largely uninhabited jungle, but as tourists and their money arrived, several powerful families from elsewhere in Mexico began claiming that, in fact, the land was theirs. The paperwork was questionable, but some Tulum hotel owners ended up buying their properties two or three times, just to be safe. Others were kicked off their land. In 2012, a lawyer contesting the evictions was shot to death in his office.

That explained why we’d seen a guy sitting on a rattan chair at the edge of a boarded-up beach-front property, a rifle resting on his blue jeans.

Joyce and Arnold wouldn’t recognize the place. When they visited, Tulum had a population of about 2,000 residents and was still quite like its early days of tourism in the 1970s: quasi-mystical, laidback, love-beaded hippies with backpacks and machetes cutting their way through the jungle to the beach, a counterculture hangout for the spiritually-minded. Its first hotel was a fishing lodge.

In the 1980s, it was mostly campers and divers and “Pablo Escobar occasionally ducking and diving in a white-terraced villa folded into gnarled thickets of trees.”

In 1999 after a local decree branded the region Riviera Maya, developers came, followed by wealthy jetsetters, influential fashionistas, hip yogis and serious money.

By 2018, there were 40,000 people (expected to be five times that by 2030!) and 2.5 million annual visitors. In December last year the President announced a new airport in Tulum “to stimulate the economy.”

All that takes a toll.

On the narrow road traffic-jammed between the beach and the jungle, diesel generators competed to out-noise raucous music emanating from the proliferation of bars and hotels. Starbuckers lined up at Maya Tulum. You must pay in pesos, many ATMs on the beach road don’t work, or spit out US$ that businesses exchange at outrageous rates, and the machines are rumoured to be fraudulent. But comparatively, that’s nothing, as Reeves wrote:

The beach has no adequate sewer system, and waste has been leaching into the water supply beneath Tulum and out to the ocean, killing the coral reef. Tulum’s old landfill, a few miles outside of town, is full, and last summer it burned in the heat for three months straight. The new dump was supposed to last five years but was already overflowing after 18 months. The beach and the jungle stretching away from the coast are dotted with construction sites, and small hotels started by hippies chasing a dream are being pushed out by large developers who seem to anticipate no end to the growing number of tourists hoping to see what Tulum is all about.

In 2018 the government announced Tulum would be “Mexico’s first sustainable tourism zone” with “stricter building regulations” and “financial support for wider sustainability programs.” We’ll see.

Would we return? Who knows, especially with COVID-19 trimming twenty-four months out of our remaining years of travel. Lulu’s shrimp and fish tacos, Alberto’s choice mezcals, dark sultry nights when the sea seduced us to sleep; to these experiences in our dreams we will always return.

The website for Casa de las Olas looked different and I wondered if Jimmy was still there. Here’s the answer to my query (and the title Jimmy assigns to himself that I’d forgotten):

Jimmy is still the owner. My name is Abby and I have been the Curator of Experiences for the past three years here at Olas. So nice to e-meet you!  I must have just missed your last visit.
A few changes since last time you were here. Sam took another opportunity and is no longer with us. Lulu also had a few happy new life changes occur that involved moving from Tulum…we miss her dearly. But we have a new chef, Fernando, who is killing it with his amazing food.
We are happy to report that Olas is alive and well – even despite having been closed for almost 8 months last year due to Covid.
We’d love to host you for another visit. When are you thinking of coming?
I look forward to hearing from you!
Warm regards,


Casa de las Olas. A very special place, naturally, when you’re named the #1 eco hotel in the world and lauded by the likes of CN Traveller and Tablet Hotels.  If you want a pool, pampering and pretension there are hundreds of other choices in Tulum.

Weidman, Reeves. “Who Killed Tulum? Greed, gringos, diesel, drugs, shamans, seaweed, and a disco ball in the jungle.” New York Magazine. February 20, 2019.

Gordinier, Jeff. Hungry. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019.”…yoga-matted magnet for man-bun-and matcha devotees” is how Jeff describes Tulum and of Hartwood he says,  “wild, primitive elegance.”

6 Responses

  1. Loved seeing Tulum from your pictures and the description of the food and the eco resort etc. Your room looked so beautiful and reminded me a little of what we had in Fiji. Don & I were in Tulum in the late 70’s when it was very quiet and untouched. This brought back many memories of both Tulum and Akumal. At that time we were not able to visit Coba but stayed in the early adobe places that the excavators stayed in at Chichen Itza, and in a little hotel on the site of Uxmal.

    1. What wonderful memories Karol. How smart you were to go back in the 70s. Still, many good things continue with a good curator of experiences, a car, a hearty appetite and a dose of curiosity…

  2. We love Mexico, not every place is the high rise zone, as you found a gem in the rough. Love it, would think of going there in the future. I find that going to the East coast of Mexico more time consuming. But not out of the question. The ruins at Telum were amazing, and as stated..not a lot of touristas..So much culture, I would find the hum of the compressors annoying to say the least, but so far we have not encountered that..And to think..an airport at Tellum…sounds crazy..Thanks for the top to Mexico..we miss gong there this year..but are book for a month next year..

    1. I just found a raft of sunset and sunrise photos we took at Casa de las Olas—such an endearing place. Oaxaca is blinking rapidly on our Mexico radar…lucky you, a month to look forward to.

  3. Well this is interesting.
    Armed people standing guard, Diesel engines running around the clock, no A/C in a normal temp of say average 28-30 C, no supported water system, suspect unattended garbage landfill, sewage system that is possibly direct dump into the ocean.

    This does not seem like a place that I want to visit let alone take a vacation too.
    This has to be like a slap in the face to anyone that enjoys nature as this is exactly why I live where I do.
    Of course anytime countries are catering to tourists they through all sensibilities and common sense away for of course the mighty dollar, sad, very sad.
    My opinion only, take no offence, but think about it.🤬🤬🤬🤬🤬

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