The most refreshing experience you can have on Planet Earth is to dive into a cenote. In the blistering heat of the Yucatan Peninsula, particularly amidst the mega-scale tourism and traffic of the Mayan Riviera, to hurl yourself into ice-cold crystalline waters is to be reborn into a much more exhilarating universe. If you happen to belong to one of those denominations which still baptise their congregations by dunking them in water, get your budding new believers on a plane and there’ll be yours in this life and the next.
95% of tourists who visit Mexico go no further than the northwest corner of the Yucatan Peninsula. You can see why, but it shows. On our visit to Cancun we bypass the city entirely, but we do get a sense of the over-development around it, with its mammoth hotels and trumpian golf resorts. We go straight to Playa del Carmen. The bit where we’re staying is surprisingly pleasant: lowrise, backpacky. The following day we get to see the real, authentic Playa del Carmen, which is basically a gringo shopping mall with warehouse-sized discount souvenir outlets piled high with Chinese-made tat. I’m not sure how this works at the level of meaningful present-giving:
-Hey man, thanks for the gift!
– F*ck you. It only cost 20 cents.
I buy some fake Crocs, and then ten minutes later fall over and nearly break my ankle. Pinche fayuca de la chingada! I exclaim, feeling pretty sure I’m getting the swearing right. I hobble back to the sea where we get chatting to some Americans from the Midwest who are affable, chatty, and very big. I get the impression that if I ask them about the election later in the year I might start to hate them, so I don’t.
Just off the beach there’s a huge amount of commerce but on it there are, unusually for Mexico, no vendedores ambulantes. It’s quite a contrast from when we went to Playa Condesa in Acapulco in February, where we were approached by vendors every ten seconds. It was rather like the metro in Mexico City. They were selling beach gear, clothes, cold drinks, full meals, massages, and an hour with a massive bass-heavy speaker (thankfully there were no takers for that one). They were unceasingly polite and not particularly insistent. We know that they were taking a risk. Two weeks after our visit one was shot dead on the same stretch of sand*. The fact that there were heavily-armed (and, bizarrely, jungle-camouflaged) squadrons of soldiers running around the promenade was hard to tally with the whole lying-on-the-beach thing. A useful tip for visiting Acapulco is: Don’t talk to taxi drivers if you want to enjoy your visit, but do ask them questions if you’re at all interesting in getting some sense of how f*cking dangerous the place is if you’re not a tourist.
The fact that on the beach in PDC there are no vendors means it’s actually hard to get hold of a beer or a bottle of water. Along the beach there are chain hotels where you can’t get anything to eat or drink unless you’re a guest. Entire stretches of beach are wholly-owned. Everybody we talk to agrees that it’s a safe place to visit. It is, for tourists, mostly. The fact that the locals are absent suggests that it’s not so for everybody. They depend on tourists for their economic survival, but have limited access to them. The situation puts me in mind of promotional photos of the alcoholic folk-punk band The Pogues in the late 1980s, where all bottles, glasses, spliffs, crack pipes, etc would be removed from the scene. (I see that in relation to cigarettes this phenomenon is known as ‘tobacco bowdlerisation’.) Frantz Fanon wrote about the ‘invisibility of the colonial subject’, but he could just as well have been talking about tourism. Most holiday brochures feature no images of the local people, except those in a servile capacity, pouring drinks or dancing their wacky dances. The roots of modern tourism do, after all, lie in colonialism, in taking possession of what we see, which is why John Urry called his classic study of the field ‘The Tourist Gaze’. This partly explain why we spend so much time on holiday taking photos, like the ones I’m showing off here.
To travel down the coast we hire a small car, a Volkswagen. I can offset this from my personal carbon budget because I’m not the one who’s driving. My wife drives it to another cenote, while I sit in the passenger seat tutting and shaking my head.
There are hundreds of sinkholes and caves connected to underground rivers all across the region. They allowed the Mayan civilisation to survive for several thousand years, given that the northern part of the peninsula has no rivers or major lakes. Their existence is now threatened by urban expansion and the direct commodification of the cenotes themselves, which means we’ll be to blame should they get poisoned or dry up. For the Mayans they had a sacred and symbolic role, representing the entrance to a mythical underworld (they probably didn’t call it a ‘mythical underworld’). After the Spanish arrived they were also used to hide sacred objects and other items that Catholic priests forbade, like first-generation ipods.We drive on to Akumal. The people selling snorkelling tours and turtle visitations are numerous and quite insistent. As we drive in, pass the tourist kiosk, get out and walk across the car park, walk onto the beach, and sit down, we are badgered (or perhaps, under the circumstances, turtled) by nine or ten touts. There are snakes of pink and orange lifejackets all round the turquoise bay. I start to apply suncream but a friendly person comes along immediately and tells me not to as it damages the coral. There are kindergartens of fish in the shallows of the water, and feeling a bit sun-addled I try to compensate them for our intrusion on their habitat by giving them some money, but there’s a translation problem. The setting reminds my wife of the Comoros Islands, which are nonetheless undeveloped and very poor. We are all here to see an unspoiled environment while trying not to think too hard about the fact that in doing so we are ourselves spoiling it.
The beaches in Tulum are similarly paradisical; in fact, they are even more lovely because they have bits of a ruined city hanging over them. Tulum is also, thanks to people exactly like us, overdeveloped, but on a different scale. Beachside bungalows cover every square inch for about ten miles. They’re called things like Shalom, Ecochic, and Happy Hour. I see the word ‘spa’ so many times I start to feel like I need to lie down, shut my eyes, listen to the waves and forget about the word ‘spa’. As for the prefix ‘eco’, it loses a bit of meaning when followed by the term ‘quad bikes’. There’s also a bungalow resort called My Way, which to me makes it sound a bit like Dignitas, and actually it might be, given that this would not be a bad place at all to die.We avoid the suggestively-named Azulik, which is ‘clothing optional‘. Once again my brain is bothering me for words to describe the colour of the water, so I trick it by taking this photo:
In the evening we go to a friendly German-run bar and I pick up the local newspaper. In addition to gruesome images and macabre details of those who’ve been shot dead for selling drugs to tourists, there’s an article about Akumal. A group of ecologists has reported that the coral reef is on the brink of collapse. Officially the site is only allowed to receive 250 visitors a day; it’s currently welcoming around 5,000 of us. On the other side of the main street of Tulum there’s a party taking place in the headquarters of a taxi sindicate called Tiburones del Caribe (Caribbean Sharks). The building is festooned in PRI banners and balloons and there is reggaeton blasting out. Like any Mexican town there’s a lot of competition for customers, but the notion that competition automatically leads to better efficiency is once again disproven by the fact that at the end of the night it takes our taxi driver 25 minutes to find our hotel, which is five minutes’ walk away. Later I read about a number of assaults on tourists, and the smashing-up of cars from opposition companies. Mexico provides a lot of support for the argument that war is a continuation of capitalism by other means.
In Tulum we find it hard to track down anywhere interesting to eat. Being British in Mexico and complaining about the food is perhaps a bit incongruous, but we are, after all, kind of double foreigners here in that we live in Mexico City and the range of restaurants on offer in Tulum doesn’t begin to compare. The first question people ask us about DF (as everyone refers to the capital) is ‘is it dangerous’. Not for us it’s not, we say, smugly. Not in terms of crime, at least, although in environmental terms the city is some ways hanging por un fío. Mexico abounds in confirmation that cities can collapse, whether thanks to invasion or a range of factors. The Mayans in Yucatan were nearly wiped out by a massive prolonged drought. Although it’s not politically correct to say so, their climate changed and so their civilisation collapsed**. That can happen. In Mexico the term ecocidio is increasingly being used to describe events like that in Cancun, when an entire Mangrove forest was destroyed to make way for more tourist developments. Jared Diamond dedicates a substantial portion of ‘Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed’ to the fate of the Mayans, who hung on for several centuries when the natural resources they had relied for millennia could barely sustain them any longer. The lifespan of their civilisation may have been shorter had they had millions of Volkswagen-driving hypocrites like us to provide for.
*I don’t know if it was the guy walking up and down with the speaker.
**Yes, I’m aware that I’m challenging the notion of ‘politically correct’ is. Here’s an experiment: ask the next human being you see ”How worried are you about climate change?’. They’ll almost certainly change the subject very, very quickly.