By Paul Feinstein
The Roaring ’20s! Gatsby! Flappers! We’re hearing these nostalgic terms a lot these days as people anticipate the end of the COVID-19 pandemic ushering in a bacchanal that rivals our centenarian ancestors. People are going to party, travel, eat, shop, and party a lot more. Only, the pandemic isn’t over. In fact, it’s raging like wildfire, crippling countries around the world while mask and vaccination debates burn brightly right alongside.
There are a lot of parallels between the 2020s and the 1920s. The 1920s kicked off after the First World War and the end of the 1918 Pandemic, which infected around 500 million people, killing 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in the United States. Our 2020s kick-off at the end of the 20-year U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and a pandemic that has infected 194 million people and killed more than four million (probably a lot more) with more than 600,000 dead in the United States. Sound familiar?
For some reason, I decided this was the right moment to travel to Tulum on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. If you’re like me, you’re religiously following charts and graphs of cities, states, counties, and countries to see where COVID is peaking and where it’s laying low. My trip to Mexico fell right at the beginning of a spike, but that wasn’t going to stop a plane filled with 20-somethings wanting to burst out into their own rendition of the Roaring ’20s with little to no consequence.
I spent 72 hours in Tulum and I saw a lot of things: some good, some bad, some weird, and some concerning. About two hours south of Cancun, Tulum is a small, former pre-Columbian Mayan walled city that is (or was) a hotbed of spiritualism, mysticism, steeped in culture, and laden with cenotes, Mayan ruins, and a to-die-for culinary scene.
But Tulum is dichotomous. For every healer promising salvation, bars are playing “oontz oontz” music late into the night. While the beaches are stunning, they’re lousy with dead, rotting seaweed that piles five feet high and employs locals with the Sisyphean job of cleaning it up. Next door to a fine-dining restaurant with crudo and lobster tostadas, you can fill up on a $5-foot-long at Subway.
One long road wends through Tulum that is half paved and half pockmarked. Everywhere you look, boutiques sell scantily clad, influencer-favored clothing that is anchored by pharmacies shucking pain killers, HGH, and boner pills, that are next to pop-up antigen testing sites promising 24-hour COVID results.
Where am I?
The hotel I stayed at epitomized all of Tulum’s polarizing nature. Casa Malca feels like what would happen if a 16-year-old horny, goth art student came into a lot of money. It’s weird and it’s exceptional. Rumored to be built out of a mansion that once belonged to drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, the hotel is a fantastical treat for the eyes with stunning works of art mixed with 30-foot palms and an endless white sand beach.
Everywhere you look, you’re flanked with epic sculptures and original paintings from artists like Keith Haring, Yue Minjun, KAWS, Mark Ryden, and more. On the beach, a headless chairman Mao faces a hypnotic, 10-foot-high bronze woman’s face, entranced by the morning sun from artist Ravinder Reddy.
The priceless collection is a breeding ground for influencer culture, where thonged goddesses and hairless, six-packed gods duck-face for the camera and strut the beach for that perfect “thirst trap” photo. The duality continues with a breathtaking pool blaring techno, a zen-like underground grotto that people think was an Escobar hideaway (it wasn’t), and ocean-facing rooms with jaw-dropping vistas.
Casa Malca mixes sex, death, and culture while also being family-friendly (I’d use the shrug emoji here if my editor would allow it). The outstanding restaurants are appropriately named Ambrosia (elixir of the gods), Filosofia/Philosophy (love of knowledge), and Head of a Mad Man. Ambrosia is an Asian-fusion standout with A-5 Wagyu and freshly caught toro, while Head of a Mad Man is a beachside barbecue with some of the best octopus tacos in town. The property describes its philosophy as unique, romantic, and sarcastic–that tracks.
The true highlight of the stay was the Calma Spa, where they feature a four-hand signature massage that makes you forget about the pandemic, even while all three of you don masks for the 80-minute exercise. It’s splurge-worthy in every sense. Stay at this hotel–if for nothing else–the sensory overload.
Tulum, meanwhile, is tailor-made for influencer culture. It’s an entire town that’s camera-ready, featuring towering, impressive, often priceless works of art and picture-perfect natural settings where vapid, snap-happy, surface-level stunners can grab more followers while learning nothing about the artists and history and heritage.
Checking in at home, there are whispers of American hospitals preparing for onslaughts of Delta patients. News hits that COVID is exploding in Mexico, but the party here won’t stop and no one seems to notice or care. Only the local workers are masked.
At night, Tulum comes alive, pulsing with energy. String lights and jazzy tunes beckon decked-out travelers to restaurants named Karma and Taboo and Tantra. Sex is everywhere (see: Cialis for sale). The single road jams with cars in both directions. I witness a barely clothed 19-year-old eat it on her scooter as dogs fight for scraps amid world-class dining outlets spraying citronella oil to stave off mosquitos. The waitstaffs and hostesses, and bussers are masked and invisible to the troves of tourists flocking the downtown scene.
You can feel Tulum’s nocturnal energy through the revelers who have been cooped up in their homes for over a year and are here to let it all out. The drinking, the drugs, the smoking, the sex. It’s all here. Sweaty, beautiful, young (but also family-friendly!), and ravenous describes Tulum’s bacchanalians as the sun sets and the heat blankets the street, cut off from cooling sea winds.
As the pre-drinks settle in, Tulum’s focus turns to food. You can’t come to Tulum without experiencing the culinary scene, and without question, the restaurant to dine at is Arca. The eatery is helmed by chef Jose Luis Hinostroza, a Mexican American chef who has subtly worked at the best restaurants in the world, including Alinea in Chicago, De Kromme Watergang in the Netherlands, El Cellar de Can Roca in Spain, and Noma in Copenhagen. His Tulum masterpiece features ingenious creations with all local ingredients. There’s the sourdough made from a starter fed with pulque, grilled octopus in a recado negro terrine, soft-shelled crab taco that defies gravity, sea bass belly ceviche, and roasted bone marrow over that perfect crackling bread. The food stuns, amazes, and challenges your taste buds. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my entire life–and I’ve had a lot of good meals.
I do shots of mezcal with the chef, with the bartenders, the waitress, and the busser. With my head throbbing and stomach full, I walk back to the museum-cum-hotel-cum-den of iniquity and witness a million stars to the soundtrack of crashing waves. This is the first time things have felt even a semblance of normal in the past 18 months; however, in the back of my mind, I can’t stop thinking, “I hope I don’t get COVID.”
Because I’m not just in Tulum for the Tik-Tok content, I take a two-hour drive to experience one of the true wonders of the world. Chichén Itzá is a Maya temple complex with soaring pyramids and structures that rival Ancient Egyptian sites. The history here is awe-inspiring, shocking, and fitting alongside Tulum’s duplicitousness. The complex is ripe with contradictions. There’s a stadium here where the Mayan priests and elite would look down on sports teams vying for supremacy; where the winning team was sacrificed to the gods.
There’s a temple dedicated to a rain god where human sacrifice was the only form of appeasement. Between ancient ruins, mindboggling architecture, and lush green manicured lawns are tchotchke stands selling $7 magnets and knockoff pieces of the Mayan calendar. My Mayan guide explains to me that nothing changes. The rich exploited the poor back at the height of Mayan culture, and they continue to do so today. I think about this sentiment on the entire drive back to the hotel. It’s jarring and inevitable.
Do you know how the Mayan civilization collapsed? It was a combination of foreign invasions, collapsing trade routes, epidemic diseases, and drought. Does it sound familiar as we deal with a pandemic and catastrophic climate change at the same time while the disparity between the haves and the have-nots grows exponentially by the day?
Tulum is a metaphor for the world right now; it’s maybe the saddest metaphor of all. The wealthy, unmasked tourists indulging in life’s great pleasures while masked, low-wage workers tend to their every need. All around them is a swirling pandemic, a threatening climate, and an evident caste system. But it’s also a metaphor for the Mayan civilization. An elite class convinced its subjects that human sacrifice would appease the gods and bring rain and prosperity for all, but it was only the poor who were sacrificed while their wealthy leaders continued the con.
My Mayan guide was right. Nothing actually changes. The wealthy tourists are exploitative. The locals can only survive on their largesse. If it doesn’t rain, it’s the poor people who will suffer, and if a pandemic comes, the wealthy travelers don’t have to wear masks.