How rich hippies and developers went to war over Instagram’s favourite beach
eviews of Uno Astrolodge, a boutique new age-style hotel on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, lean heavily on words such as “magic”, “paradise” and “peace”. When it opened in 2001, Uno Astrolodge was one of the first upscale hotels in the beach town of Tulum. Over the past decade, the once-sleepy town, 75 miles south of Cancún, has become the kind of spiritual oasis particularly favoured by the fashion industry and wealthy New Yorkers. Until recently, guests at Uno Astrolodge, set on an exclusive stretch of white sandy beach, paid up to $300 per night for a room in a candlelit bungalow with a view of the ocean. They showered under the trees in private outdoor bathrooms and ate fresh bread baked on site every morning. They could spend their time detoxing in Native American sweat lodge ceremonies or getting their Mayan astrology charts read. Wednesdays at the Astrolodge featured sound healing ceremonies; a “women’s circle” welcomed every full moon with ecstatic dancing.
But this other-worldly pampering was rudely interrupted on 17 June 2016. That morning Uno Astrolodge’s founder, Nuno Silva, a rangy Portuguese 45-year-old with a soft voice and long bronze dreadlocks, was at home with his wife and daughter. Just after sunrise, the hotel manager ran across the road to alert him to a problem. There were hundreds of men amassing in the street outside Silva’s beachfront property, the manager told him. Some of them were armed with machetes and big sticks. They were coming to seize the hotel.
Silva rushed across the street. He shut the hotel’s metal gates and listened to the group of men swarming over his neighbour’s property. It sounded, he recalled later, “like a medieval war” – shouting, stamping feet, a sense of fear in the air. Silva had an idea that this day would come. Tulum had been disturbed by evictions before, though hotel owners were careful to shield tourists from knowledge of the land disputes. But he was unnerved by the sudden violence of the scene outside his hotel.
Silva and his manager woke Astrolodge’s off-season guests and told them to gather their belongings and leave the premises immediately. The mob was moving nearer, working its way down just over a mile of coveted beachfront real estate, forcing people to vacate hotels, private homes and businesses, and padlocking the gates behind them. When one property owner refused the armed men entry, he was pepper-sprayed in the face.
There were about a dozen guests at Uno Astrolodge, and twice as many residents, masseuses and healers lived at the hotel, offering bodywork sessions and workshops in exchange for room and board. In its 16 years of existence, Astrolodge had developed into an odd fusion of commune and luxury hotel. It was not just Silva’s business, it was his home and the centre of his spiritual practice. He had met his wife, Katarina, at one of the Astrolodge’s African dance workshops in 2007, and they had raised their daughter, now seven, there. The couple had hoped that their twins – due within months – would be born there too. They were not going to leave the hotel without a fight. After the guests were ushered away, Silva parked a truck against the front gate to block the entrance to the property. Astrolodge’s anxious staff members gathered in a circle and began to sing the Hanuman Chalisa, a Hindu devotional hymn.
The raiders were accompanied by armed police officers, who were guarding a court official bearing eviction orders. Along with boutique hotels owned by foreigners, the properties being repossessed included Mexican-owned businesses, such as Dive Tulum, the resort’s longest-running cave diving tour operation, and the family homes of ordinary Mexicans, including Larisa Bolaños, who lived with her sister, brother-in-law and niece. Only one property on this stretch of land was left alone: Ahau, a luxury resort owned by Roberto Palazuelos, an actor with sharp cheekbones and slicked-back hair – known as the Black Diamond because of his dark tan and piercing blue eyes – famous for playing villains in Mexican telenovelas.
Silva’s makeshift barricade was no match for the mob, who quickly pushed through the gates. Silva argued with the court official: if this was an eviction, why had there been no warning? The man shook his head. The eviction notice had been signed by a judge. Silva, like his neighbours, was given two hours to vacate the property. Empty moving vans, rented to speed up the evictions, idled on the beach road. Dark clouds moved in and the wind picked up. A slow rain began to fall as Silva and Katarina began to move all their possessions – chairs and statues and cooking pots and photographs – into their small house across the street, which had not been repossessed.
Just before the two-hour deadline elapsed, Silva took the stairs to the top of a small watchtower, the highest point on the Astrolodge’s property. He looked out at the beach and offered up a brief prayer that he would one day set foot in his hotel again.
I had a sense of what Tulum looked like before I had ever been there, from glossy travel magazines and friends’ social media posts. The town’s distinct blend of high design, thatched-roof rusticity and beautiful seascapes looks great on Instagram; its upscale, neo-hippy aesthetic is right on-trend. Mayan temples nestling at the edge of the jungle add a spiritual element to holiday shots.
Budget visitors to Tulum can stay in the town proper, a busy little city of about 18,000 people. A two-mile road from the town to the beach passes a massive apartment development funded by real estate moguls, featuring a 40ft-tall “Pyramid of Positive Thinking”. Boutique hotels and beach clubs line the narrow beachfront strip, where the sand is white and fine. Walking along the road that divides the beach from the jungle, I had the option to purchase a $12 cocktail (bespoke, the menu reassured me), a $110 dreamcatcher, or a pair of $130 gold-sequined hotpants. I saw advertisements for vegan desserts, eco-chic cabins, “contemporary salads”, 10am yoga, a “sensorial holistic spa”, gluten-free cocktails and live gypsy jazz. Chalked signs issued vague commandments from self-help manuals: “Relax, Be yourself.” Even the drink menus elevated choosing a margarita flavour into an exercise in self-improvement: lemon for purpose; passionfruit for attunement; pineapple for liberation.
People don’t just vacation in Tulum – they embark on personal journeys. “There are still bragging rights to saying you were in Tulum,” Condé Nast Traveler’s lifestyle editor Rebecca Misner told me. “It’s an easy way to telegraph that you’re a certain type of sophisticated but laid-back person.” Tulum’s hotels and spas offer decadence with a sheen of spirituality, you can have your pick of ayahuasca ceremonies, Buddhist chanting and power yoga classes.
As self-righteous and spiritually scrambled as Tulum can sometimes seem, it’s also charming: its small shops and candlelit restaurants stand in marked contrast to the all-inclusive mega-resorts of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and much of the rest of the Yucatán peninsula. “My family does the Cancun deal,” Marshall Haas, a startup founder visiting from St Louis, told me. “But I like the small vibe of it here.”
eventeen years ago, when Nuno Silva first visited Tulum, there were only about a dozen hotels facing the ocean. The road that led from the town proper to the beachfront strip was unpaved, and few tourists made the bumpy journey. Silva was 28. He had a law degree, an apartment in Porto and an inkling that something was missing in his life.
“I thought the best way I could live my dream was to buy some property in a tropical area with some potential,” he said. He tried Brazil first, but while it was beautiful, it lacked that certain something. In Mexico, at the turn of the millennium, Silva felt he was getting closer to what he was seeking. In Tulum, a place where visitors could clamber over 11th-century Mayan ruins and the low jungle gave way to pristine beaches, he realised that he had found it.
Nestled between an archaeological site on one side and a national park on the other, Tulum was uniquely insulated from development. Silva paid $300,000 for a patch of undeveloped jungle land. “Tulum was very, very remote back then, but I could tell it had some potential in terms of growth, in terms of trends. I could feel it would one day become one of those high-energy, mystical, alive places,” he said. “Playa del Carmen was already getting big. Tulum was just about to get discovered. I understood it was a good investment.”
At first, the property that became Uno Astrolodge consisted of a handful of cabanas on the beach, occupied more by Silva’s friends who came to crash than paying guests. But Silva’s instinct that Tulum was about to become a hot property soon proved correct. He told me that around 10 years ago, “in a normal, organic way, Tulum started to be more expensive, attracting more of a high-end market with higher standards”.
Silva built up Uno Astrolodge, constructing “primitive luxury” cabanas out of palm branches and wood panels, based on traditional models. In 2006, the beach road was paved, making the town much more accessible to wealthy tourists. That year, Michelle Perlman, a Manhattanite who claims to have coined the term “eco-chic”, opened a lavish boutique hotel offering rooms for upward of $400 a night. By January 2012, the New York Times was describing Tulum as “a destination so popular with the fashion crowd this time of year that it almost feels like fashion week”.
Articles about the town routinely mentioned celebrity sightings: Demi Moore sunbathing, Jared Leto partying, Cara Delevingne and Michelle Rodriguez making out in the ocean, Justin Bieber drunkenly mooning people at the Mayan ruins. This year, Copenhagen’s celebrated Noma restaurant opened a pop-up branch in Tulum, serving meals for $600 a head.
The town wasn’t necessarily prepared for the rapid influx of visitors. There were still no power lines to the beach. Instead, thrumming generators provided electricity for nearly 100 hotels that crowded along the seashore by early 2016. During high season, the narrow road between the ocean and the jungle became clogged with traffic. Neighbouring hotel owners got into screaming matches about noisy beachfront raves.
Silva had paid $60 per sq m for his land, a price that was considered high in 2000. By the time of the evictions, the going price was closer to $500 per sq m – an increase in excess of 800% in less than two decades. For all the talk of energy fields, it was clear that the real force powering Tulum was money.
hen Silva purchased the property, he knew the ownership was unclear, but at the time, the issue didn’t seem particularly pressing. This stretch of coast was off the beaten track, and Tulum was underdeveloped. As the area became fashionable, however, the value of land rapidly increased, and as developers began to circle prime sites, the question of ownership became more urgent.
The dispute began with a government initiative to redistribute land to the needy, but it has turned into into a land grab by the rich.
In 1973, the Mexican government designated 25,000 acres around Tulum as an ejido or collective farm, under a policy to provide land for impoverished peasants and encourage settlement in unpopulated areas. The Tulum land was divided among about 20 families who, over the years, have leased their plots (under the terms of collective ownership, they were not permitted to sell). Silva, like the other hotel proprietors along the beach, has a financial arrangement with the ejiditario or member of the land collective, who was allocated the land under the terms of the 1973 agreement. But a wealthy family from Monterrey, near the US border, believe that they have a prior claim.
The question of ownership erupted in 2002, when members of private security teams registered as guests in several beachfront hotels. The next morning, they used radios to call for backup, and evicted the owners and guests. These property confiscations troubled the neighbours, but did not necessarily shock them: everyone in Tulum knew that there was uncertainty about ownership of the land. Over the next 15 years, more than 30 hotel owners along the strip were evicted without warning, under threat of violence. The confiscated properties were then sold to the highest bidder and redeveloped under new names.
The shaky land rights and threat of evictions, ironically, became part of the reason the town had retained its charm – Tulum had escaped large-scale development because major hotel chains did not want problems with security.
Over the next decade, Tulum’s moonlight raves and yoga classes continued, as did the sporadic evictions. In 2014, a group of armed men seized four hotels; when bystanders attempted to film what was happening, the police confiscated their cameras. (They were later returned.)
Nuno Silva’s Uno Astrolodge was enjoying a busy high season in early 2016, when Silva was invited to meet with two men who wanted to make a deal. They were representatives of the Mexican entrepreneur Mauricio Schiavon, who claimed to be the rightful owner of the land on which Silva had built the Astrolodge. At that meeting, Silva told me, the representatives politely proposed that he buy his land from them for around $1.5m. They even offered to let him pay in instalments. No one made an explicit threat of eviction, but Silva suspected it lurked behind the offer.
Silva did not have that kind of money to hand, but the Astrolodge was so profitable at this point that he considered taking out a loan, or finding a business partner to fund the deal. But when he talked to his neighbours, many of whom had received similar visits, he was assured that Schiavon’s claim to the land was baseless. His lawyer agreed, and Silva refused to pay. Nothing more was heard about the offer until the dawn raid on 17 June.
Luis Parada, who was also evicted that day, lived in a small house facing the beach. He ran Casa Geminis, a small guesthouse adjacent to his home. Hours after the gates were locked behind him, he visited the courthouse in Playa del Carmen and tried to find out what had happened. Mexican law required a certain number of pre-eviction warnings, and he had not received a single one. “I went myself, with my papers and my employees and my lawyer. I told the judge, ‘Look, we bought this land 17 years ago, we have been living there, these are my employees. Can I see the file?’,” Parada told me. “He said ‘No, you cannot. Because you are not the one being sued.’”
It turned out that property owners had not received notice of their eviction because, curiously, the notices had been served against a dolphin trainer from Cancún. According to court filings, the dolphin trainer, a woman called Yibet Arsapelo, was renting the entire 1.8km stretch from Schiavon, and it was she who was being thrown off the beach.
The day after they were evicted from their properties, the dozen hotel owners were called to a meeting at Ahau, the resort owned by Roberto Palazuelos. Ahau was one of the very few hotels on the same strip of beach that had not been forcibly repossessed. Palazuelos, the telenovela star, had put himself forward as mediator. He has a fiery reputation, and is known around town for leaving furious voicemails for people he is feuding with – at least one of which has been remixed into a dance track. “He’s ambitious. He’s like Trump. He thinks his life is an action movie,” said Fernando Jiminez, whose beach club, now closed and locked, sits directly next to Ahau. Palazuelos is not well-liked in Tulum. A few years ago, he had to abandon his VIP seat at a boxing match because people in the crowd kept throwing things at his head.
At the meeting, Palazuelos served as go-between for the evicted hoteliers and Schiavon’s men. He explained that he had come to agree that Schiavon was the rightful owner of the land. He had paid the family and recommended that everyone else do the same. “I got tired of fighting … I want to sleep in peace,” he said at a later public forum about the evictions.
When Schiavon’s lawyer named his price – around $1,000 per sq m – the mood in the room became tense.
“My property was quite small. I paid less than $50,000 for it,” Parada told me. “And now I have to pay them more than $1m – when they didn’t develop it, they weren’t living in it? It was ridiculous.”
But the evicted hoteliers were in a tough position. Some of the owners of land that had been expropriated previously had counter-sued, but before their cases could be heard, their properties had been sold to other developers. The odds were very much against them – at this point, no one who had been evicted from a property in the past 15 years had managed to return. And though there were some high-profile hotels in this round of evictions, most of those affected ran relatively small operations and didn’t have the funds for a prolonged legal battle.
“A lot of people on this part of the beach didn’t have resources,” Jiminez told me. “Three of my neighbours just had houses — they weren’t, like, entrepreneurs. That made [the evictors] think, ‘Oh, they aren’t really going to do anything.’ These were hippies, people that were taking care of nature.”
he locked-out residents weren’t quite ready to give up. Later the same week, around 10 of them hosted their own meeting – without Palazuelos. They were determined to find a way to regain possession of their properties, even if their chances didn’t seem good.
Over endless cups of coffee at a dive shop in the centre of Tulum, they discussed strategies. Nuno Silva surprised his neighbours by revealing that not only was he a trained Mayan astrologer, he also had a law degree. The group consulted attorneys and pooled information at subsequent meetings. “We never really knew each other before. People were in their own worlds, you know?” said Silva. “[After the evictions] we started to get organised. We created a Tulum resistance.”
The hotel proprietors joined forces with the farmers, whose ownership of the land had been summarily dismissed, and the aggrieved parties presented a united force. A group of members of the collective, made up of mothers and daughters, flew to Mexico City to lobby their representatives. The group also realised they could use Tulum’s international reputation to call attention to their plight. The evicted hotel owners from abroad reached out to their home embassies. In July, the French, Portuguese, Italian and Dutch embassies all issued statements condemning the property seizures.
That same month, two Mexican journalists, Mariel Ibarra and Silber Meza, wrote a scathing account of how previous Tulum evictions relied on corrupt tribunals and apparent collusion by the state’s governor, Roberto Borge. Borge, who was voted out of office shortly after the evictions, is under investigation for the mismanagement of more than 300m Mexican pesos ($16m) during his term. He denies any wrongdoing.
In early August, Silva heard heavy construction equipment operating on the seized properties. It was impossible to see behind the tall bamboo walls that had been erected around the land, and he imagined he could hear the expropriated buildings being bulldozed. He and the other hotel owners worried that the demolition of their properties would make their cases harder to prove. “They don’t want to have the evidence that it is my house, so they tear down my house,” Larisa Bolaños told me. “Now there is no evidence.”
One member of the group suggested using a drone to film of the destruction. The footage showed the elegant stonework of Coqui Coqui, a hotel owned by a former Calvin Klein model, reduced to rubble. The group drummed up publicity by sending the video to local politicians and the media, and the demolition was halted. Luz María Beristain, state senator, picked up the group’s cause and gave a press conference saying that the sudden evictions “smelled bad”.
The campaigning group welcomed the publicity. But others in Tulum were not at all keen on the attention that the evictions were receiving. The town’s economy is largely driven by tourism, and a quote from one hotel owner saying she was “living in a climate of terror” did nothing to persuade people to visit. Nervous tourists cancelled their reservations and asked “is Tulum safe?” on online travel forums.
In November 2016, when I met with Adolfo Contreras Grosskelwing, president of the Tulum Hotel Association, and his son Richard Contreras, in the air-conditioned chill of the association’s office, both were at pains to stress that the evictions affected only about a dozen of Tulum’s 120-plus hotels. This left their organisation in the tricky position of trying to help the evicted hotel owners while continuing to promote Tulum as a tranquil and safe destination. “For the tourists [getting turned out] can be an inconvenience, it can be a frightening experience, it can leave them with a bad taste in their mouth,” said Contreras. “But it’s not dangerous. They are not in any way being targeted, they’re not in any way under threat. The threat is a purely legal one over property rights.” (The hotel association guarantees that it will find accommodation for any tourists who are caught up in an eviction.)
The association has also avoided taking an official stand about who the disputed land actually belongs to. “The farmers claim they own the land. The other party claims they do. There’s a possibility that neither is correct and it’s federal land that was never titled in the first place. It’s totally unclear, and there is no consensus,” said Contreras. That said, the association maintains that the proper way to sort out the ownership conflict would be through an above-board court case, not a series of surprise evictions.
“The things that are being presented as facts in this case are so utterly preposterous that no reasonable person who spent even the smallest amount of time looking into it would believe it to be true,” said Contreras.
In November 2016, five months after the evictions, at the start of high season, Nuno Silva drove slowly along the beach road, dodging tourists on bikes. After a few miles, we reached a part of the strip that felt more subdued. “This is all evictions,” Silva said. He looked out of the window, ticking off the properties as we drove by: “Thrown out, thrown out, thrown out, thrown out, thrown out.” The closed hotels were largely invisible behind bamboo walls: dead zones on this otherwise bustling road between the beach and the jungle. We drove by a property shielded by a tall wall; a guard sat out front, checking his phone, looking bored. A dark look crossed Silva’s face. “And this is what was Uno Astrolodge.”
According to Silva, there is some room for hope that this round of evictions might be the last. The new state governor, Carlos Joaquín González, who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, has expressed his willingness to pursue criminal charges against some of those involved in the evictions. In November, a judge allowed five people – including Larisa Bolaños and Fernando Jiminez – to return to their properties while the court case over the land’s ownership was pending, a process that is likely to take years. Bolaños returned to find her family home had been demolished; Jiminez’s beach club had also been bulldozed. The Tulum Hotel Association is asking the governor to step in and push the courts to resolve the land dispute once and for all. Should this happen, there is one catch: with the question of land ownership finally settled, larger developers may decide that it is finally time for them to build in Tulum.
At one of Tulum’s elegant, outdoor restaurants, over a meal that managed to be both vegan and decadent, Silva’s wife Katarina tried to describe what made Uno Astrolodge such a remarkable place. She told me about the fresh-baked bread, the beachfront breakfasts, the time Sting came to her yoga class. “We haven’t looked back at it yet,” she said, gazing at her husband. “We haven’t been talking about how special it was. We just had to go forward.”
The evictions forced the couple to confront the rapid changes that had overtaken Tulum – changes that they, in part, had facilitated. “We were living in our golden bubble. It was happy, it was relaxed, it was mañana,” Katarina said. “Now we walk down the beach and see so many buildings and say, Tulum is getting so big! Before, we were protected.”
Silva told me that Uno Astrolodge has already been bought by the owner of a Cancún football team, even though that sale could be deemed illegitimate if the evictions are proved illegal in court. Silva recently met up with the property’s apparent new owner for lunch. “I asked him, you like my cabanas?” Silva said. The man politely told Silva he planned to bulldoze them and build timeshare apartments.
Both Katarina and Silva fought to maintain their optimism under the stressful circumstances. “Life is perfect,” Silva told me at the end of the evening, looking exhausted. “We have no doubt about it.”
After the violence, and the evictions, the threats of bulldozing, the legal wrangles, the heartbreak and bitterness, it was disconcerting to see Tulum’s remaining businesses doing everything they could to promote the town’s image of relaxation and wellbeing. But as much as I felt the need to resist Tulum’s spiritual indulgence, its insistent, self-satisfied aesthetic, I still felt myself succumbing to its beauty: the volcanic rocks speckled with snails, the train of puffy clouds lined up along the horizon. On my last day there, I went to the beach. The ocean smashed itself against the rocks with a furious, comforting consistency. Little white birds tottered by. I could see that, given the chance to buy a piece of this paradise at a discount, someone might view any future complications as a risk worth taking.
Later that evening, I spoke with Pablo Domínguez, a builder from Mexico City who first visited Tulum in 1996 and recently decided to move there permanently. He was a specialist in eco-friendly construction, and business was booming. Like nearly everyone else I met in Tulum, he was eager to talk about the fate of this beautiful, precarious, precious place.
“It’s like the world,” he said. “It’s paradise. But it’s fucked up.”
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