D.T. Pennington

Writer – Photographer – Creative Coach

Tulum Trash

I had to nose the ATV gently through the gutter that had formed in the middle of the dirt road. I would have raced right through it, but Carly was hanging onto the back seat, and I could feel her clench everything down whenever I hit a bump. So, easy does it. We’re in Mexico on a road worn rough from hellacious rains, trucks, and then intense sun-drying the potholes and ruts into a concrete-like finish. This is where I could tell you that we were staying at a remote retreat deep in the jungle that required a four-wheel drive vehicle to reach, but we arrived here yesterday just fine in a Nissan minivan.

The downtown drag of Tulum is just a twenty-minute walk down this road. If you go two blocks over, the street is paved. Here, in the “newer developments” of Tulum, the jungle is divided up into real estate lots and driving along the construction roads you pass a block of jungle, then a block of condos, then a construction site, and then another jungle. The condos and hotels and homes built out this way all have that rustic eco-lodge vibe where the owners ask you to conserve power and water even though the filter pump for the pool is running around the clock.

Eco-lodge, even though right outside the front gate there is a landscape of garbage everywhere you look. Among the rattled streets, among the jungle of trees that have yet to be razed, blown into piles against walls. All of it, every single bit, is single-use plastic. Water bottles, food wrappers, packaging – all of it evidence of the means of modern imperialism: culture degradation thanks to Americanized capitalism.

I promise this isn’t going to be one of those posts. I think.

We’re in Tulum on the promise that so many of us are brought here with: a slice of paradise, a place to unwind and relax. And suppose it was, at one point, just that. Decades ago, Tulum was the village off the beaten path, a turn off the main highway and deep through the jungle to the coastal palapas where life was simple and organic. A haven of yogis and those looking to be one with the earth beneath their feet.

The thing about paradise is that we all think we want it. And for those who can afford to buy it they get their returns by leasing paradise to others. Couple this with the inevitable ruination at the hands of the social media influencers, and a palace like Tulum, just like thousands of tiny retreats all over the world, are eventually overrun by those looking to see it for themselves, or at least take the picture to prove they were there.

By the time we finally get around to visiting Tulum, the quiet beach-side resorts and clubs are all expensive resorts reserved for the few and worked by those who might never afford to stay there. Among the thatch roof buildings and poured concrete patios are members of local gangs looking to extort dumbass tourists who want to be a part of the nightclub scene.

But that’s the beach, and we never make it that far.

The pool outside the sliding door of our room is plenty. On the counter of our little rental apartment is a sign that suggests we keep the sinks filled with a little bit of water – otherwise, sewer gas may back up into the building.

The gas, the trash, the roads and traffic and wealth of people trying to make a buck anyway they can – Tulum is what happens when development outgrows the municipality. This isn’t a backwoods town, the main drag of Tulum is a very modern place with excellent food and accommodations. But this wasn’t meant to scale, this wasn’t meant to handle ALL tourism. Eventually things grow to the point of collapse.

Yet, we buy up new lots and keep growing, thinking the world around us might never fall apart. Meanwhile the public water and sewer systems are taxed with the increased demands for capacity. Overhead, power transformers buzz loudly under the strain of yet another dozen air conditioners coming online. And if you tell enough tourists they can’t drink the water, they’ll drink everything from the plastic bottles that, once empty, have nowhere to go.

Tulum can be nice, but it is trash. This is the consequence of our human condition: things are nice until we make them into trash.