Sewage in ParadiseBut from the beginning of our trip, I began picking up on some clues that something was off. My dude commented on the near constant sound of chainsaws up and down the beach road at construction sites, and the trash lining the road. Indeed, there was a sickening amount of discarded water bottles and other refuse. And sometimes the smell of sewage would waft by at odd moments. Near the end of our stay, when we closed out the dance floor at a popular jungle restaurant and bar at 1 AM. As the music ceased, suddenly the roar of a generator hidden back in the jungle became apparent. "Is that generator powering the whole restaurant?" I asked an employee. "Yup," he said. "There's no electricity past the main town. Almost everything is powered by generators." I thought back to the hundreds of businesses lining the beach road, imagining their diesel generators gulping gas and belching emissions and particulates into the formerly pristine air. And then, I sat down to write this post and started doing some research, and I found this Newsweek article on the rampant government corruption and mass pollution of Tulum. It made me sick to my stomach. Some excerpts:
An estimated 80% of Tulum’s hotels lack proper water treatment. “The hotels advertise themselves as being ‘eco-chic,’” says Juarez, a recent evictee. “But they don’t care at all about the ecosystem. They throw their sewage water straight into the ocean.” A 2013 study of Tulum’s underground river system published in the Journal of Environmental Protection found that many hotels “dump sewage directly into mangrove swamps or inject the improperly treated wastewater into saline water just below the freshwater.” As a consequence, “fecal contamination is widespread.” ...wastewater, even when treated for solid contaminants, increases the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in the ocean, which produces algae. The algae competes with the corals for nutrients and causes disease and bleaching in the reef. “When combined with climate change,” he says, “the result is disastrous.” “There is no garbage system,” says Xavier Peralta, an environmental activist. “It’s all just dumped in the jungle.” Some 6 miles west of town, the city’s dump is a sprawling, towering mass of waste. “Imagine what happens when it rains, and that rotten broth is filtered underground.” He adds, “Tulum is a ticking time bomb.”And a commenter added:
This article doesn't mention the fact that many properties that aren't connected to municipal water and don't pay for agua potable truck deliveries rely on groundwater well pumping. This means a property can have a septic tank leeching [sic] human excrement directly into the ground water and 5 feet away a well for water needs of the property such as bathing, dish washing, toilets, garden etc.That's right, if you stay at the wrong resort, you could be taking a shower in water contaminated with human fecal matter. Don't open your mouth.
Should You Boycott Tulum?I felt duped and conned. I'm a sustainable journalist and blogger, and I had trusted in Tulum's promise of providing me with a eco-friendly yet incredibly hip experience. Instead, it seemed, I was part of the problem, driving up property prices and putting $$$ into the eyes of unscrupulous developers, adding to the contamination with my waste, and partying with the aid of diesel fuel. Does that mean the next time my friends all head down to Tulum, I should boycott the trip? Do I need to send this article around to everyone I know, urging them not to go? No, I don't think that is the solution. Tulum's nonexistent infrastructure is a problem, but there are resorts and restaurants and people who are truly striving for sustainability in creative ways, and they should be supported. If you educate yourself, you can enjoy and direct your dollars to the truly eco-friendly and conscious aspects of Tulum, while avoiding the aspects that are devastating to the environment. Here's how:
Understand the basics.First, there is Tulum pueblo, or the town proper. It's a typical Latin America town, filled with tourist shops and restaurants. It's on the grid, though according to the Newsweek article, its handling of waste is highly suspect. We stayed in town at an AirBnb because we went last minute for New Year's even and there was literally nowhere left to stay. But the bougie area of Tulum, with beach clubs and high-end resorts, is the beach area, comprised of one long road sandwiched in between the beach and jungle. Addresses of businesses are given to you via kilometers. For example, if they say KM 8.2 Carreterra Tulum Boca Paila jungle side, that means go down the beach road 8.2 kilometers and look to your right. During high season, many tours, restaurants, and spas requires advance reservations. I know, I hate planning out my entire beach vacation in advance as well (especially knowing how we would run into friends and want to be flexible). But we got turned away from restaurants, spas, and even the Sian Ka'an Reserve for not having a reservation. So schedule your must-dos before you arrive. Maybe do a morning massage at a spa, the Sian Ka'an tour, then dinner at a popular restaurant. Wifi is spotty AF. We went 12 hours at a time without service, which normally could be a great thing, before checking in at a café and playing Facebook messenger tag with our friends who were trying to meet up. I highly recommend you write down exact addresses of all the places you want to visit beforehand. The locals do this thing where they perpetually tell you your destination is only a 15-minute walk away, until you find yourself collapsing at the door 45 minutes later! Another important thing to share is that you need cash (in pesos) for everything. (You need electricity to run a credit card machine!) The Cancun airport has a terrible exchange rate, so get just enough to pay for your car transfer to Tulum. The only place you should get cash from in Tulum is the large grocery store in between town and the beach area, called Chedruai. The ATMs on the beach road, of which there are many, don't work, and are rumored to lead to fraud.
Pick a (really truly) eco-friendly resort.Please, whatever you do, don't stay in a condo or megaresort. Condos are big buildings built overtop a fragile ecosystem by corrupt developers. They are the antithesis to the eco-friendly side to Tulum. Why stay in an antiseptic box when you are in such a gorgeous paradise? As you search for the perfect resort, here's what to look for:
- Sewage: Concern number one! Composting toilets are best, and an on-premises filtration system that puts out the almost pure water to a garden. Otherwise, they should be able to talk about how they handle it and whether they are cognisant of the risks of having a leaky septic tank.
- Electricity: How do they generate it? Solar and wind are best. Find out if they have rules for electricity usage - limiting your usage of air conditioning to certain hours is a good thing! Traditionally, resorts and beach residents used candles at night, and some still do.
- Water: Do they have a special purification system and what kind is it, or do they buy potable water from trucks that haul it in? The former is preferred.
- Physical footprint: Are the buildings on stilts above the sand? Or do they plunk heavy buildings down on top of sea turtle nesting grounds?
- Food and sourcing: Where do they source materials, furniture, decor, toiletries, and food from? It should be locally, from organic farms and artisans.
Faye of Sustaining Life recommends Cenote Encantado, a supremely affordable campground near the reserve in the beach area. The tents come with a mattress, lights, and a fan, she says, and the campground has compost toilets, recycled greywater, a communal kitchen, hammocks, a fire pit, a yoga/event room, and a temazcal sweat lodge. They have a generator that runs at night to power the lights and fans.
Sanara. This beautiful resort is built with sustainably sourced materials, with structures raised above the sand to allow nesting turtles. It has rainwater collection systems, grey water recycling, and a microbe-based septic system. (They say they are currently investigating other systems for waste management.) They have solar power supplemented by generator power when needed, and source local organic produce and free-range eggs and meat whenever possible to supply to the cafe and restaurant (which I also recommend, below). They avoid the use of toxic cleaning products (unless required by law), and providing non-toxic beauty products dispensed from recyclable glass bottles and jars in the spa.
Casa Xixim is another eco resort that is located outside of town, but still within a short drive to the town and the main Tulum beach area. The home is solar-powered, but tied into the grid – it's the first grid-tied, net-metered home on the bay. They have rainwater harvesting, composting wetlands, a green roof, hire local labor, purchase from local farmers, furnish with local crafts and use locally-made, earth-friendly cleaning supplies.
Rent a bike.Most resorts and even our AirBnB have bikes for rent for 100 pesos ($5) a day, and a lovely bike path borders the road from town leading to the beach area. We took our bikes everywhere, all the way down to the reserve and back. If you are going out at night, I might recommend a taxi, however. One night we rode our bikes from the beach area back into town at 1 am. When we got to the bar in town, our friend who lives in Tulum was aghast that we had done so. "Because of the panthers," he said. Seeing our faces, he backpedaled. "I mean, it's as likely as getting attacked by a shark. But yeah, you aren't really supposed to do that."
Limit your electricity usage.You might have noticed in the resort descriptions that the eco-conscious ones try to completely power themselves with solar energy. But they might switch to a generator if they run out of power, or if it's been particularly cloudy. So be being mindful with your energy consumption. Don't run the air conditioning unless you are unable to sleep without it – try opening the windows for a cross breeze instead. Charge up your phone and other electronics with this portable solar tab. And look up to appreciate what the night sky looks like without a ton of light pollution. Remember that magical feeling before you switch on a light at night. Also, big parties with big speakers require generators – if you're not into electronic music, you might check the schedule before booking to verify there are no parties going on.
Be careful about the cenotes.Cenotes are one of Tulum's biggest draws. These beguiling sinkholes and cave systems are deep, mysterious turquoise pools surrounded by rainforest. We visited a cenote called Santa Cruz way outside of Akumal, a privately-owned cenote that's more of a long cave than a sinkhole. Our private spelunking tour was a magical experience, quiet and contemplative, complete with a candlelit private concert at the end by two global musicians (that last part was provided by our resort, Habitas). But after reading about the ghastly blackwater management, I would think twice about visiting a cenote close the the town or beach area. Many are contaminated with human excrement. Resorts and towns inject their blackwater deep into the ground (or sometimes just dump it straight into the ocean or a cenote). The ground in the Yucatan is like swiss cheese, and that water flows on through the underground river network into neighboring cenotes. You can absolutely get a stomach bug from swimming and snorkeling in them. (A a forum commenter pointed out, most people blame the food for their stomach woes. It's not that.) This is a great video outlining all the problems of development that you should absolutely watch before you go. I very clearly remember getting water in my mouth at the private cenote Santa Cruz and I don't have a stomach virus, so that one must be OK. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a guide to the cleanest cenotes, so the best advice I can give is to visit a cenote that is far away from any resorts or towns. In my first draft of this post, I said to go upstream, but apparently the water flows the other way, too. More slowly, but it flows. Contamination in one place can contaminate everywhere. Which is why it is so incredibly important to be careful about where you, excuse my French, take a shit when you visit Tulum. Do throw your toilet paper in the trash instead of the toilet, because the septic systems are so fragile. Before you use a bathroom, ask the business how they handle the waste.
Be a low-waste traveler.Tulum's waste management system is virtually non-existent. As a commenter says below, there is no recycling in Tulum – businesses have to take plastic and glass bottles to a center, which then sends them to another state every few months by truck for recycling. Most hotels and restaurants don’t both with that, and just trash them at the dump outside of Tulum. Coca-Cola bottles and other glass soda bottles can be given back to the distributor and to be refilled. High-end glass water brands like Agua de Piedra and Hethe, plus beer bottles, cannot. So just bring your reusable water bottle and drink tap water, right? Well, no. (See sewage problem, above.) Only refill your reusable bottle at resorts and restaurants who have a good purification – not just filtration – system. REI has an excellent guide to purifying water, but in short: any filter bottle will take out particulate matter, protozoa, cysts, and bacteria, but not viruses. For the latter you need a purifier. (Believe me, I picked up a virus in Costa Rica and it wasn't fun.) If you are staying at an AirBnB apartment with a stove, you can boil water at night and fill a large water bottle with it for the day. Also get a purifying water bottle, like this one, this one, or this one for when you are gone for the day. You might also get a SteriPen, which you can dunk in your glass of water at the restaurant just to be sure. Also engage in other law-waste strategies. Most cafes and restaurants are sit down, so you don't need to worry so much about disposables. (Why care about convenience when you're on vacation?) But refuse to accept or buy anything with disposable packaging, and carry a camping utensil and handkerchief with you. Here are some suggestions for no-waste items to buy.
Learn about Mayan culture.What sets Tulum apart from other tropical retreats is the fact that it is steeped in respect for the Mayan culture. Quick history lesson: At the height of Maya civilization between 250 and 900 AD, the Maya dominated Latin America, practicing a nature-based religion, pottery, math, astronomy, hieroglyph writing, stone architecture, agriculture, trade, and sport. It collapsed around 900 AD, likely due to drought, overpopulation, and warfare, retreating from the vibrant cities to agricultural villages. Tulum's mayan civilization rose up while these other large cities declined, in the 13th century. The Mayans are still alive today, their culture guarded from Spanish influence by the relatively isolated and resource-poor Yucatan Peninsula. And you can learn about it not only from ruins, but from the Mayan people themselves. So the most important thing to keep in mind is to sign up for Mayan-led tours! Also, watch this video, which puts the Mayan culture and history in the context of the environment. Reserve a tour at the Sian Ka'an Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage Site, before you arrive, if you can. (This website will help you book a tour that is put on by the best local operators.) This six-hour tour floats you peacefully down the ancient mangrove channel, built by the native Mayans more than 1,000 years ago as a trade route, past a Mayan temple. You'll see butterflies, migratory birds, orchids, and maybe even a crocodile or manatee. If the timing is right, catch the sunset from Cesiak inside the reserve gates, which is supposed to be spectacular. The Tulum Ruins is a must-visit, but gets hot and crowded during the day. So we took the advice of a friend and showed up right after it opened at 8 am after a full night of dancing by the beach. At that hour it is fairly peaceful. However, I wish we had done a guided tour, because the placards are repetitive and not very informative, and we would have loved a history lesson. We brought our bathing suits for the beach, but the danger flag was up that day. And do heed the warning flags – an acquaintance told me she was nearly swept out to sea by the rip tide and doesn't know how she survived! We didn't have time, but for our next visit, we'll take a day trip to Valladolid, a small town an hour's drive away, with Le Casa de los Venados art museum, it's own cenote, the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam, the Coqui Coqui perfumery, the Chocolate Maya museum/factory/store, and plenty of opportunities for buying a traditional huipil, a beautiful embroidered blouse.
Eat at restaurants that source local and organic ingredients.The Yucatan peninsula is a tropical bread basket, so push yourself out of your comfort zone and enjoy locally sourced fruits and fish prepared in the traditional Mexican/Mayan style for all your meals. (Also, if you visit some of these, please ask them about how they handle waste and how they are powered, and report back!) Sanara has The Real Coconut (KM 8.2 on the beach road), a beautiful little restaurant whose glass front is throw open to the sunny deck and sea breeze. I didn't have one of the organic herbal cocktails that day – I was sweating mezcal out of my pores at the point – but we split several plates: coconut flour quesadillas with coconut cheese and organic chicken, hemp plaintain lettuce sliders, grilled local sardines, and a kale salad with tahini dressing. After we ordered, a friend and DJ walked in with his parents and we enjoyed a boisterous lunch with them. It's a destination. Ahau has Raw Love (KM 7. 5), a relaxing, hippie-style cafe nestled inside a jungle-y setting, serving their famous vegan bites and smoothie bowls, which you can eat while seated on a swing seat or in a hammock. Hartwood (KM 7.6) is the most famous one. It's like the Per Se of Tulum, with a crazy wait for reservations and a fancy hardback cookbook that I got as a gift last year. But it might be worth the wait, not only because it's delicious, but it's also incredibly sustainable. It's fully powered by solar panels. They compost and cook everything over an open fire with a handmade wood-burning oven and grill. All fish are spear-caught within the Caribbean , and the produce is sourced from organic communal Mayan farms called Milpas. (No word on their blackwater management strategy. Please report back if you know!) My friend sent me these instructions for getting in:
- Go to line up at 3-3:30pm
- Line opens up to take same-day reservations starting at 5pm
- Dinner is served at 6-11pm