When I set out earlier in the year on my adventure to find a new home, I chatted with nearly every single friend and stranger with whom I crossed paths to tap into the collective brain-trust of travelers to answer the question: where the hell should I go? We would sift through and list my many criteria for a locale for my fresh start and 9 times out of 10, the person would answer with complete clarity: Go to Tulum. The reasons were varied, but almost every single human gushed over the sheer beauty of the beaches and jungle, cited a thriving and growing expat community, claimed prices cheaper than living in Bali, and most appealing to me: a culture that focused on eco living and epic plant-based food. It sounded like my own little slice of heaven and trusting that so many people couldn’t possibly be wrong, I set off from Mexico City dreaming of my sunkissed beachside paradise.
Part 1: Housing Crisis and Ignoring My Gut
The day I arrived I was blindsided and got trapped in the most insane torrential rainstorm I had ever experienced for three f-ing cold wet hours. On a bike. On a long road in the middle of nowhere. With my camera, laptop, and phone all exposed to the literal flood. And as you continue to read you’ll soon find out, I should have taken this as a sign from the universe right then and there. But I’m admittedly stubborn and sometimes I don’t believe the signs until they smack me in the face repeatedly, so, soaked like a wet dog, with my electronics somehow miracles of miracles spared and the only casualty my beautiful new Oaxacan leather shoes, I dug in and got to know this “paradise”.
I had rented an Airbnb for a week, giving myself ample time to find a longer term rental so I could give the town a real shot for at least a few months. Unfortunately, I quickly came to realize that I had come to town at the absolute worst time of year and every slow traveller’s nightmare: the dreaded high season. Epic failure on my part. Now high season in a lot of towns means increased tourism, high hotel rates, and busy everything, but I’ve always assumed a long-term rental market for those who are not on vacation still existed. Well, my friends, not in Tulum. In a town where the only industry is tourism and those businesses that support it, there are barely any places for even the staff of restaurants and hotels to live, let alone wanderlusting Americans set on living out their working on American dollars living on Pesos dreams. And with the recent tourism boom in Tulum of recent years, the occupancy rate and rental rates are so wildly high that even homeowners that would normally sign you onto a long-term lease will not do so until February, since they can make more money in two months than all year round. High season in Tulum means there is literally not a single place available to stay, not even a shack in the jungle sans plumbing, for less than my rent in Los Angeles. So while I searched and searched, and moved from Airbnb to Airbnb (since nothing was available for longer than a few days at a time, and I had taken my previous booking failures from Bali and applied the lesson of not booking longer than a week initially to make sure the place and neighborhood were a good fit) my bank account quickly drained, my shoulders ached from constant moves with my overpacked bags (NEVER AGAIN! I promise I’ve learned my lesson this time), and my patience wore incredibly thin.
Part 2: The Real Tulum
Now, while I still held out hope that Tulum was the dream spot everyone claimed it would be and naively searched for a rental, I got to know this supposed “hippie eco chic” town pretty well. I spoke with countless expats and locals from all backgrounds, economic statuses, ages, and walks of life and deep dove to attempt an understanding of their Tulum. And the opinions wildly varied. Some loved the things I hated about the town, some hated the things I loved. But my takeaway from all the conversations and what I quickly realized, was that most of the people that sold me on the town prior to my arrival, and the ones that currently waxed poetic of the “magic” of Tulum, either:
A. Had an obscene amount of wealth and could create any Tulum life they’d like in their magical well-funded world (I also learned about the excessive amount of “secret billionaires” that call Tulum their home)
B. Have only spent a limited amount of time on vacation in Tulum while never venturing from the super glittery white sand beach road (I would if I could)
C. Were influencers that had their entire life in Tulum funded by airlines, hotels, restaurants, and clothing/lifestyle brands (I don’t hate on that one bit, it’s my dream)
D. Give zero fucks about the things that I care about, which is totally cool but not quite helpful to my decision making process (to each their own)
**Discalimer** I know a lot of readers that have vacationed in Tulum will fight me tooth and nail on much of what I’m about to write because you had the most beautiful times of your life there, and a lot of locals have intimate knowledge with a ton more of the nuance than I could gather in just a month, and there are obviously a billion different ways to skin a cat, but I’m going to give you my real-deal opinion regardless.
This is Tulum through my lens and my unique set of experiences:
1/3: The geography of this “beach” town leaves much to be desired
Tulum is basically three separate towns, with wildly different vibes. Think about the layout in the shape of an H. The left side of the H is the beach road, the right is downtown, and the center of the H is the road that connects the two.
The Tulum you see on Instagram is the beach area, a roughly 10km strip of stunning white sand beaches, turquoise waters, chic boutique hotels and beach clubs all hidden from the road by a thin strip of dense jungle. On one side of the H there’s some really cool ruins, a couple of hotels, and some public beaches. On the right side of the H is where everything you see on Insta happens. It’s really ridiculously cool. By day, you sip coconuts and float in the bathwater warm sea surrounded by some of the most beautiful people you’ll ever lay eyes on and by night you’ll dine at incredible restaurants and dance the entire night away at some of the sexiest jungle clubs with world-renowned DJs spinning to crowds filled with models and billionaires. It’s sexy. It’s primal. It’s next-level fun. And it’s expensive as fuck. Like I’m talking $25 covers and $20 drinks. $150 dinners. $10 coconuts. $500 a night minimum hotel rooms. You may as well be back in the states.
Then, there’s the 4km connecting road with a nice little bike path (about a 20-minute bike ride, but only during daylight hours- it’s pitch black and dangerous at night) and jungle on either side of you (where I got caught in the torrential rainstorm on my first day). About 2/3 of the way to town you can exit into a bustling expat community of condos and boutique hotels. People, a ton of Americans and Canadians, are buying or building condos for 200k cash, then turning around and renting them on Airbnb and making crazy amounts of money. It’s still a couple years away from completion, but when it’s done it will be an entirely new city of its own. Right now, it’s pretty much no-man’s land.
Then, there’s downtown Tulum. Downtown is where all the reasonably priced hotels, hostels, and airbnb’s exist, and where all of us who don’t have unlimited bank accounts reside. It’s not pretty, it’s pretty dirty, and there’s exactly one cool two-block street where you want to hang out at night. But the main issue is that it is a pretty far ride to, and a world away, from the beach life described above- it’s approximately a 30 minute (from closest point downtown to closest point on the beach road) to a 1.5 hour (from furthest point to furthest point) bike ride to the beach fun. You can also get a $2 collective van each way during the day or a $10 cab ride each way at night. Don’t even bother driving a car- the road is narrow and congested and parking is horrible. A scooter is doable, but watch out for the random police stops. With that distance and the lackluster vibes you may as well be in landlocked Mexico. Or in Silverlake.
2/3: The produce situation is dire.
My biggest struggle with Tulum was the lack of the fresh and varied produce that I had lost my mind over in Oaxaca and Mexico City. When everyone speaks of Tulum, they gush about this Bali-esque heaven with beautiful healthy organic vegetarian and vegan food in abundance, and it is from that set of expectations and perspective that I write all this from (I promise, I’m not the a-hole that needs it when I travel, but if I’m going to settle in and LIVE somewhere, the quality of food is a #1 priority).
Now, the veg/eco vibe may be the case at a extremely tiny percentage of the highest-end restaurants that have their own suppliers and farms, but it is most decidedly the opposite in the grocery stores and regular restaurants. On the whole, organic and sustainable ingredients are nearly impossible to find and plant-based options are few and far between.There are no local farmers’ markets save for an extremely tiny and infrequent one where you can buy produce from one tiny stall (see my giant sweet potato). I only found one single market (Mayan Market- it’s everything) that gets a daily delivery of incredible greens, a couple tiny organic markets for dry goods, and some cool fruit markets in town with hit or miss quality items. Mostly, there’s a giant supermarket (Chedraui) and a medium sized local produce market (Pool) that get their produce trucked in from Mexico City (quite a long ride) where everyone, including most of the restaurant owners and chefs I chatted with, shop- and the quality and variety leaves quite a bit to be desired. When I asked the chefs I met as to WHY?!?!, they cited two issues: there is no infrastructure to get the produce from the farms of the Yucatan through the dense and wild jungle to the coastal and still newly developing Tulum, it is too expensive for their margins to buy outside of the supermarkets, and that the few farmers’ markets that tried to start over the years failed due to lack of customer demand.
In my entire month in Tulum, because I rarely could find the ingredients of the stunning markets of Mexico City and Oaxaca City that I began my trip with, I was rarely inspired to cook, and until I found a few local restaurants off the beaten path that work with homegrown ingredients, I rarely loved the food. (Now obviously, this cycles back to the “I don’t have endless amounts of money thing”, for if I did, I would have eaten at Hartwood, CoConAmour, Humo, The Real Coconut, Casa Jaguar, etc every meal and lived like a glowingly healthy organic queen!) But alas, I rarely cooked and rarely took out my camera (unlike the other regions of Mexico where you had to pry my knife and camera out of my hands even as I fell asleep).
3/3: There is some dark, dark, energy floating around.
The more I explored, the more I just couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Where the promoted vibe is this light hippie beach energy, I found it to be almost completely the opposite. Whether it was the jungle vibes, the type of people visiting the town (it feels pretend most of the time, like travelers are trying it on for a week in their $2000 caftans and then going back to Wall Street), the Tuluminati that run the place (oh yes, that’s a thing I became familiar with quite quickly, but I’m honestly too scared to talk about it here), the ancient shaman and sacrificial energy from the Mayan history, the government and police and cartel corruption (also afraid to talk about here), or the shit you’ll read about next…I just did not feel the carefree energy I had imagined this paradise would hold and that I was so badly looking to find again after feeling it so authentically in Bali.
Now, with all three of those things steering me away from setting up a home base in Tulum, I on the flip-side also saw a massive amount of business opportunity there, I was having a lot of fun in the sun, and weeding through the mess listed above to meet absolutely incredible people. I explored the town with an awesome Aussie, Pete, I met while in Mexico City and then as soon as he left my friend Lindsay from San Francisco joined me for a week, so I had a solid stream of partners in crime. I told myself that if I was meant to stay something good would happen, an apartment would open up, a business opportunity would present itself, I would fall madly in love with a Finnish prince building a vegetarian eco resort on the sand, you know- all equally plausible paths. So I stuck it out. For a bit.
Until things started to go horribly wrong.
Part 3: The Downfall
Enter: The Snake.
After three weeks of hunting for a longer-term home and failing spectacularly, exhausted and dreaming of just sleeping the same bed for more than four days in a row, I threw in the towel. I wasn’t ready to give up on Mexico, so I booked a one-way ticket back to Mexico City with the plan of waiting out the high season in a cheaper, albeit colder, place and perhaps return to Tulum when I had a better chance of finding a home. I had spent a week there between Oaxaca City and Tulum and the best wildly oversimplified way I can think of to describe the layout and energy of the city is it’s as if New York and Los Angeles had a baby and it speaks Spanish – and I left LA for a reason and I get panic attacks every time I enter Manhattan, so it definitely wasn’t a place I could live long term. BUT, it did have the modern conveniences I had been missing from back home (uber! food delivery!), incredible food and markets, beautiful parks and amazing culture, and a fabulous apartment I could feel at home in for a solid month so I decided it was a solid plan.
Three days before was set to hop on the plane, I went on a terrible Tinder date with a man who spent the entire time telling me all about his endless list of red flags all while being oblivious that they were big flashing warning signs. But, he happened to manage a boutique hotel and was determined to help me find a place to live so I could stay in Tulum (so much so that he spent half our date texting or calling people mid sentence- the best of intentions can be ruined by lack of awareness and timing). The next morning I received this text from him:
“Hey, wanna live on a farm composting projects, greenhouses, chefs, and sometimes me naked in rubber boots?” (Grammar and sentence structure was not a strength).
Now, besides the horrible image of “him naked in rubber boots” thing he definitely caught my attention. After further digging, I learned that his colleague, a chef and environmental activist, had recently launched a start-up with the mission to tackle the looming garbage crisis in Tulum (it’s an infrastructural disaster). The majority of waste in the dumps serving the town consist of organic restaurant waste, and this guy’s company had created a business collecting the organic waste from some of the best restaurants in Tulum, bringing it to his farm 45 minutes north and into the jungle, composting the waste, growing beautiful produce through permaculture and sustainable farming practices, and then turning around and providing quality produce back to the town. I immediately got all fluttery and excited, as one of my dreams over the past few years has been to learn about farming so someday I can have a plot of land, a tiny house, and a sexy little vegetable garden. I met with the chef, we hit it off, and he offered me a place to live in return for helping them out with their social media, sales, and marketing, with the potential for a long term part of the company. I planned to see the farm on a Monday, and if I liked it, I’d ditch my Wednesday Mexico City plan, pull on my overalls, and move on in. Now, Monday arrives, and I get a tragic call that his dog has ran from the farm, was hit by a car, and died. He and his entire team were obviously devastated, and my heart broke for him in a million pieces, so I agreed to just take a leap of faith and move into the farm Wednesday sight unseen.
In the words of my soul-sister Vivian/Julia Roberts: Big mistake. Huge.
Within 10 minutes I knew I had to leave. If I were 22 and backpacking and someone that had not become accustomed to some creature comforts like hot water and a clean bed, it would have been perfectly fine. But the one thing in my life that has always been non-negotiable for me is that my home is my sanctuary. And without speaking ill, this was never going to come close to being a sanctuary for me. Plus, it was 10 minutes into the jungle, only accessible by car, so unless I got up at 6am to join the garbage collection and came back late night, I was stuck. I cried myself to sleep, my last-ditch effort an epic failure, having forfeited my plane ticket and apartment in Mexico City, and knowing that this meant I likely had to return to the states. The next morning, with my tail between my legs, I broke the news that I had to go, booked a room in Playa del Carmen (a party city, filled with tourists, and none of the magic of Tulum) for a week since it was half the price of renting in Tulum, and set out to leave the next day.
That night, they moved me to a private room and exhausted from sleeping only an hour the night before, I slept the sleep of the dead. Until, at 6am, through my earplugs and white noise and sleeping mask I feel my dog, Bug, start jumping around on the bed growling. I swat at her to quiet, but she won’t stop. I suddenly feel pressure on the top of my head, and move my hand to investigate.
Now, I’ve never touched a scaly reptile before, but somewhere deep down in my primal brain I immediately knew that was what I was touching: SNAKE.
I immediately screamed like I had the devil inside me, grabbed my dog and shot like a rocket out of the room, waking the entire farm. When the lights came on and I was a good 100 feet away, the boys discovered a damn BOA CONSTRUCTOR curled up on my pillow. Yup, a snake. On my pillow.
Everyone on the farm couldn’t believe their eyes, they hadn’t seen a snake in 6 months of living there, let alone had one visit them in the house, and I had been there for just about 24 hours and one found my bed. The prevailing opinion was that it was a good omen, that snakes symbolize a huge change looming in your life, an upcoming shedding of old skin and beginning of a new more authentic life. My prevailing opinion? I’m scarred for life and would never sleep again.
When I finally was rescued from the Snake Pit later that night, my friend, a Mexican guy who had lived in Playa and Tulum for years, drove me to my new Airbnb in Playa del Carmen. As we arrived in the neighborhood of my new temporary home, he immediately lost his shit and told me that under no circumstances would he let me stay there, that it was a stupid dangerous neighborhood and as a man he wouldn’t even spend the night let alone a week. Great. There went my plan and my rent money for the week. I spent the night on his couch, cursed my luck, and then booked a tiny room back at the hotel in Tulum I had been staying prior to the farm until the following Saturday when I could find a cheap flight back to the US.
Enter: The Attempted Murder/Suicide
Back at the hotel, I accepted my fate that my Mexico dream just wasn’t going to work, at least right now, settled in to have a final fun week, and shook off as much of the evil snake juju as I could. I gave up sleep to stay up all night with my Polish lover, drank head-sized beer topless on the beach, swam and let the sunshine dry the saltwater from my skin, temporarily fell in love with a Belgian man who was Liam Hemsworth’s identical twin at a cenote full moon party, explored restaurants I wouldn’t let myself dine in before because of my long-term Mexico plan budget, danced the night way to incredible DJs at epic jungle and beach parties, and became close friends with the amazing people from all over the world that worked and lived at my hotel. The waking nightmares of the snake soon faded and I only jumped out of my skin five times a day instead of 20, and I began to see some of the magical fuss was about in Tulum when you don’t care about the future or money. Things were looking up.
A few days in, I went out and had an incredible night with some new friends from Portland, and arrived home filled to the brim with mezcal and happiness at 3am to some very bad shit.
Just prior to my entrance, a guy that had been staying with us at the hotel for a while, and who I had just chilled with the afternoon before, had snapped, grabbed a knife from the kitchen and attempted to kill himself and take our other friend with him.
After chasing friend #2 around the property with the knife, screaming that he wanted to die and that he was going to kill friend #2 too, and being fended off by friend #2 with a lit piece of firewood from the campfire, friend #1 turned the knife on himself and set himself to die in the pool. Now, friend #2 does not know how to swim, and was terrified of friend #1 following through on his promise to kill him, so he called friend #3 who lives across the street for help and also emergency services and the police. Friend #3 runs to the hotel, jumps in the pool and drags friend #1, who no longer has a pulse, out of the water and proceeds to perform CPR while the police stand around doing absolutely nothing, and somehow brings friend #1 back to life. The ambulances had just left before I walked in the door and friend #2 was left alone, terrified, and in complete shock. As if this wasn’t horrible enough on its own, I have a deep and complex relationship with suicide. My father’s father took his life when my dad was 15 and left him, my grandmother, and my two uncles damaged beyond repair in many ways. My father attempted to leave this world several times throughout my life, and finally succeeded in an violent end this year after choosing not to live his life as a vegetable due to his rare terminal illness. This moment in Tulum broke my soul open into a million jagged pieces, and sent me to bed with my family’s trauma brought back clear as day and with the heavy heart that the lives of my friends 1, 2, and 3 would irreparably be damaged in some way from what had happened that night.
As the sun rose on a sleepless night for all, I emerged from my room to a dark and devastated place. But wouldn’t you have it, for better or worse, I was set to move on that very morning. A few days before, I had met a friend of the hotel owner, an obscenely wealthy, kind, and cool Mexican gentleman who owned a beach mansion just outside of Tulum- and to make a very long story short – he was looking for a chef for his guests, offered me a sick ocean-view room, a salary, and thus a way to stay in Tulum for a couple of months. Unfortunately, his guests were not as into the vegetarian thing as he was, so I didn’t get the gig, but he still offered a free room for a couple weeks until his guests arrived while he helped me find a new spot and some work. And who am I to turn down this, for free??? I mean there was a pool in the middle of the living room!
So with long hugs and a heavy heart, I bid farewell to my traumatized friends as they power-washed the blood from the concrete, moved in a trance to the beach, and hid under the covers of my new bed the entire day.
How was I to know that I should never have left?
Enter: The Witch
Around sunset, my friend arrived home and invited me to the roof to watch the sun set over the miles of jungle to the west of the home. We climbed the 4 flights of stairs of the dark house to the roof with my little Bug in tow, listened to a beautiful chanting mantra of healing and renewal, and try to re-center me from the horrific events of the night before. But, within a few minutes I realize that my dog is no longer with us. We guess that my pup must have wandered down from the roof, but my friend gets a strong bad feeling so we set out down the stairs to find her.
After calling Bug’s name for a few minutes, and getting no reply, we hear a bloodcurdling scream from the dark stairs below. From two levels above, we see the cook holding a bundle in white, screaming “Esta muerto! Esta Muerto!”…”It’s dead! It’s dead!” over and over and over in Spanish. I quickly realize that what she is holding in her arms is my dog, and I immediately collapse screaming on the cold floor. My friend immediately begins screaming to her in Spanish to urgently find out what has happened, she is hysterically screaming back in Spanish, all of which I can’t understand a word of other than “DEAD”. This continues for what seems like a lifetime, where she will not let us come close to her, and I’m trying to get them to speak in English and let me have my dead dog.
From two levels above, we see the cook holding a bundle in white, screaming “Esta muerto! Esta Muerto!”…”It’s dead! It’s dead!” over and over and over in Spanish.
After a while on the floor, I muster the strength to climb down the stairs to get close enough to the bundle and suddenly see that Bug is moving her eyes and most certainly still alive and my thoughts shift from death to we need to get her the hell to the hospital.
The cook keeps telling me not to come close, and I am convinced that Bug has fallen down the stairs or was hit by a car and she doesn’t want me to see her mangled bloody body covered by the towel as she dies. Finally, in survival mode and after much pleading I get close enough in the dark to realize they are both curiously soaking wet. I ask why, and my friend finally explains that Bug had fallen into the pool into the middle of the living room, was drowning, and that the cook had jumped in to save her. I finally breathe a deep sigh of relief, release the bloody mangled body theory, finally convince the cook to let me have Bug, unwrap her, see that she is soaked and shaking but otherwise unharmed.
The cook then explains to me in measured Spanish that she has saved my dog by giving her her spirit, and that my dog has in turned saved her life because the house and the people in it are evil and my dog almost dying has shown her her path, sealed the deal that she should leave, and she’s quitting. With the two of us sobbing on the stairs, she finally lets go of my dog, thanks me, runs to pack up her things, and continues on to scream with my friend for what seems like forever in incomprehensible Spanish while I sit in bed holding Bug and thanking everything in the universe that she is alive.
Later, my friend comes to tell me that he does not believe that Bug fell in and was drowning, but that in fact he had suspected that his cook was a dark witch for weeks now, and that she had tried to drown my dog, but when we came down calling her name in the midst of the act, she came up with a cover story and flipped the script to paint herself as a savior.
Because the entire course of events happened with only the cook/witch/savior/devil as witness, and the entire story thereafter was only told in a language I couldn’t comprehend, I will never know what really happened. But what I did immediately know, deep in my bones, was that I needed to get the hell out of Mexico before I was the one floating belly up in a body of water.
The next morning, I woke up and booked a ticket home to North Carolina. I believe in signs, and I believe that when you are meant to be in a place life flows, and when you’re not, well, you have a snake, a murder/suicide, and a witch come in your life to tell you to get the hell out.
Part 4: Home?
I am saddened and a bit red-faced that my Mexico plan crashed and burned and I’m home so soon, disheartened to be back in the states with no better idea of what’s next than I had before I left a couple months ago, and really damn cold. So, here I sit, safe in a hipster café in semi-rural North Carolina, drinking a coffee next to my mom, with the ability to flush toilet paper down the toilet, drink the tap water, an epic bounty of produce at my fingertips, surrounded by love and family, and with the blessing of not worrying about where I’ll lay my head tomorrow. And that my friends, while completely devoid of adventure or intrigue is a welcome temporary respite from the darkness and chaos I narrowly escaped.
Ideas on where I should head next? Is your home one I should consider? Been to a place that fits my dream criteria of a new life? Want to meet up with me somewhere in the world? Comment below and weigh in!
And here’s some tips for your VACATION to Tulum, where to go, stay, and eat to avoid the darkness and only see the light side of town.