•REPUTATION: Travelers identify Tulum as a place where anything goes. The town caters mainly to young people, partygoers, or those willing to trek the off-beaten path. The Covid-19 pandemic has only raised its worth in the eyes of the usual visitors. Heavenly beaches, international darlings, and lax rules are all part of the mix. Recent violence in the area, like the death of two foreign tourists in October, has pierced through the familiar glitzy headlines, underscoring the change in local criminal dynamics. Visitors can still enjoy the destination but should be aware of the conditions that surround their trip.
•SPOTLIGHT: Tulum offers both seaside and wellness tourism that has been in high demand during the pandemic. This industry is one of the essential drivers of the Mexican economy (tourism represents 8.7 percent of the country’s GDP). The Baja Peninsula and the Mayan Riviera attract the most international visitors. Mexico’s Minister of Tourism, Miguel Torruco, reports that from January to September 2021, Cancún International Airport (the regional hub serving Tulum) saw the arrival of 4.3 million passengers. During the same period, 9.3 million travelers arrived in Mexico via aircraft; 76 percent were Americans. Tulum has found a niche with this audience, successfully reorienting its tourism portfolio. For example, since 2017, it has strived to be known by the seal “Tulum World Capital of Yoga.”, wishing to snatch visitors away from other renowned destinations like Thailand or India. It seems to be working, as evidenced by the well-arranged pictures and English language captions on more than 15,000 Instagram posts with the hashtag #TulumYoga.
•DISRUPTION: Two women bystanders died during a shootout in a restaurant in Tulum on October 20. One of them was an Indian national and travel vlogger living in the U.S., Anjali Ryot, and Jennifer Henzold was a German national. Three others were also injured (two German men and a Dutch woman). Authorities immediately declared that the tourists did not have known ties to criminal activities. This is relevant given that recent academic research has shown that the Mayan Riviera has long been a haven for foreign nationals linked to transnational crime. In the aftermath of the October shooting, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately issued a travel warning regarding the Tulum and Playa del Carmen; the Canadian and Dutch Governments also updated their advisories following the event. The U.S. has not updated its travel recommendations for Mexico. Violence in Tulum is not new, as reported in this column in March when a refugee from El Salvador died while in police custody. Authorities reported the arrest of 15 members of a criminal gang allegedly involved in the shootout on October 29.
•CRIME: During the past decade, Tulum has become one more stop along a drug-trafficking corridor that spans the Mayan Riviera connecting producing regions in South America and markets in the Northern Hemisphere. It has been reported that criminal organizations, like the Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) or the Sinaloa cartels, fight over control of the trade and the territory that goes with it in the Yucatán Peninsula. Criminals have taken advantage of the sudden influx of real estate capital and newer businesses into Tulum to exploit other illegal businesses such as extortion. Expressions of violence are affecting local inhabitants and tourists alike, even if they are not the targets of these actions. Local businessmen have alerted of increasing high rates of drug consumption and drug dealing activity in the Mayan Riviera. In Tulum, harder drugs are mainly found in clandestine raves or in the hands of dealers wishing to extract dollars or euros out of the hands of foreigners. Illicit drugs are reportedly most expensive in Tulum as well. While consumption of marijuana is still in legal limbo in Mexico, authorities tend to turn a blind eye to drug use by foreigners in specific areas like beaches, whether by deciding not to affect tourism or because of a lack of resources for enforcement. In response to the October 29 shooting, the Mexican federal government deployed of 200 additional members of the National Guard to Tulum, bringing the number of military troops to 450.
•POLITICS: Like other cities and tourist destinations in Mexico, Tulum deals with a public security crisis. Mexican citizens and businesses have had to learn how to navigate through the circumstances. The tourism industry is no exception, and local governments recognize its importance for their economies, creating incentives for not dealing with the problem head-on. For example, Abelina López, the mayor of the Pacific Coast resort of Acapulco blamed the media for “scaring tourists,” which would affect the livelihood of the port’s citizens. She called on reporters to do as in Cancún, where, according to her, the media remains silent about violence because they have learned that “people must eat, somehow.” Mrs. López belongs to Morena, Mexico’s ruling party, as the mayors of Tulum and Cancún do. It is still to be seen the effects that the recent deadly incident could bring to the international reputation of Tulum and the larger Mayan Riviera.
•PRECAUTIONS: Despite the context, Tulum is still a viable option for travelers in Mexico. Visitors should remain in their resorts as much as possible. Avoid crowded establishments and clandestine gatherings (authorities have been unable to curb hidden parties in the jungles outside Tulum). Use your hotel’s transport when possible or the orientation of tour guide’s if heading to visit Mayan ruins. Do not disclose your plans, places of stay, or money matters with strangers, locals, and foreigners alike, even if they appear friendly. Carry out your hikes or activities during the day, and try to remain in your resort or recommended restaurants after sunset. Respect local laws and guidelines, such as those related to consumption of drugs or Covid-19, to avoid grabbing the attention of police or the National Guard. Be aware of your surroundings at all times, especially when taking pictures with your phone, as criminals might take advantage of your temporary distraction.
•TRADITIONAL CANDLES FOR THE MEXICAN DAY OF THE DEAD: Día de Muertos is one of the most important festivities in the Mexican calendar. With origins in syncretism, it coincides with the Catholic All Saints’ Day in November. For some families devoted to traditional crafts, planning for the celebration is a year-long endeavor. The Fresno Bee shares a publication by Mitzi Fuentes about how a Mexican family produces thousands of beeswax candles daily that will make their way to altars in many homes in southern Mexico.
•TEXANS LOVE QUESO, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ORIGINAL QUESO FUNDIDO? Texas Monthly food critic José R. Ralat writes about the history of queso fundido (Spanish for “melted cheese”) in the state. The dish traditionally consists of soft Chihuahuan or Oaxacan cheese melted on a cast iron skillet with chorizo or green chilies. It is then eaten on flour or corn tortillas. Queso fundido is popular around Mexico, but it has gained popularity north of the Border for decades, with reviews, such as one by El Paso Times, appearing in print since the 1980s.
•PAN DE MUERTO: The symbolism of the Mexican Day of the Dead extends to sweet foodstuffs. A sugary bread, which takes the form of a large, round bun topped with small bone shapes, is one of the culinary stars of the season. Traditional bakeries, and even supermarkets, top their shelves with it during the first half of November. Every Mexican baker offers their interpretation without deviating too much from the classic shape and the hints of orange blossom in the traditional recipe. It is another example of how death is viewed in Mexican culture, in jest and always-present. This bread is a delicious expression of Indigenous and Spanish-Catholic traditions. In Los Angeles, you can buy pan de muerto in your neighborhood Mexican store or look for places like La Monarca Bakery. You can accompany it with a drink of cinnamon-infused Mexican coffee or Mexican hot chocolate. ¡Salud!
* Spotlight by Sergio Mendoza, a freelance writer and consultant specialized in strategic development and geopolitics. He writes the Mexican Memo, a bilingual newsletter on Mexico-U.S. culture and politics. Twitter: @Sergistan