“The new Tulum”, they call it, this distant corner of the Yucatán Peninsula. Of course, Tulum itself is “the new Ibiza”, which at some point must have been “the new Marbella”, or Palma, or Benidorm. For North Americans, it’s “the new Cancún”, “the new Acapulco”. A timeless dance of discovery and ruin
I arrived here via Mexico City, on a Modelo-doused voyage through this deep and esoteric country. Twenty years ago, the island (which is really more of a headland) was barely inhabited. Now it’s a booming spot on the international lifestyle trail. This wasn’t cartel ‘n’ cactus Mexico, nor was it Mexico as an all-inclusive yank Disneyland. This was Airbnb advert Mexico, Insta Stories Mexico: safe, semi-authentic and perfectly manageable.
My reasons for coming here were anodyne enough; it was warm, superficially affordable, and it wasn’t Tulum. Plus it seemed like a good place to decompress after a chaotic weekend in the most populated city in North America. While many beach resorts around the world are still dominated by open air superclubs and jet ski rentals, here they were trying something different (think meditation retreats, coffee roasters, cooking courses and callisthenics camps). All of which makes it ripe for a certain kind of person: the young, comfortable, well-travelled and extremely well-documented.
As a certain breed of British male, I like to do my research before I go anywhere – so I knew they were here. I’d seen them on the hashtags, geolocations, Tripadvisor photos and Youtube travel reviews; all script-tats, yoga poses, wide-brimmed hats, floaty dresses and Ukraine solidarity posts.
These are the people who look like influencers, dress like influencers and run their socials very much like influencers – yet have neither the follower numbers nor cash transaction at the other end to really call themselves professionals in that field. You could say they were the amateur influencers, the post-influencers, the influencer disciples – those who have been influenced by the influencers.
This wasn’t my first experience of them. For a few years now, I’ve developed a bad habit of over-researching any trip I had in the diary – an issue which peaked during lockdown, when I spent hours a day on Google Earth, dawdling around Shanghai industrial zones and flicking through the menus at lonely St Petersburg sushi bars. This obsession with travel brought me to a subculture of people who seem to be slowly surveying the planet via GoPros, restaurant reviews and copyright-free tropical house. They’d probably call themselves ‘adventure punks’ or ‘planet hackers’ or something, but what they really are, are semi-professional travel influencers.
Most fall into a bland mass, but some have stayed with me: a bigoted Russian aristocrat complaining about the smell and the “dark people” in Athens, a tedious Australian couple in search of the best Italian food in Mexico, a well-known British parent-vlogger declaring that the best thing about New York City is “the Netflix”.
It was these sorts who had taken over the island. As usual, I felt like I’d covered every grain of sand before I got there, but the internet couldn’t prepare me for the reality of it. They were everywhere; in long, snaking queues for fruit platters and acai oat bowls, hanging their legs off the wooden jetties at sunset, clinking mocktails and frolicking in the tides.
Their presence on the island had created a two-tier society based mostly on income, but also on enthusiasm. Many of the major attractions on this tiny strip of land had been booked out and queued to shit before I even had the chance to think about them: the boat trips, the upscale taco joints, the bougie cocktail bars. Like generations of Brits before me, I had been fucked over by the latest incarnation of the towel on the sun lounger.
So I was resigned to places that didn’t quite fit the brief, like establishments frequented by the locals (which luckily, are the best places to go), or naff hotel bars packed with middle aged, Midwest couples, too sloshed on pre-mixed Margaritas to book anything in advance, seemingly running away from the puritan instincts of their homeland.
Soon enough, I began to study the people who were beating me to the spoils of the island. I started to pick up on their habits, their murmurations, their peccadilloes. I watched them queue for brunch in 30-degree morning heat like it were an overcast day in Montmartre or the Northern Quarter, rather than a potential health risk. I watched them eat their dinner on swings, scroll endlessly through head-sized iPhone 12s and set up elaborate photo opps. I particularly enjoyed their doomed attempts at capturing the perfect “ASOS beach kimono flapping in the wind” shot.
I noticed how they liked to craft moments of fuck-it-and-see spontaneity, only to immediately drop their fun faces and sprint behind the camera to approve the image, like some cartoonish French Vogue editor. I admired how they rarely touched alcohol and how they seemed to disappear after sunset. They were nearly all couples, with an almost primal attraction to street art, hammocks, oats, berries and anything made out of bamboo. In the rare instances they stepped out of their culinary comfort zone and sampled the local street food, they’d document it with a “here goes nothing!” expression – as if it were some death defying bungee stunt.
Although, perhaps they had some right to be worried. Because this whole status spectacle was taking place in a country where you can’t drink the water. A country that has serious issues with poverty, corruption, femicide, sewage spills, the occasional subway collapse. Occasionally you’d be reminded of this when a unit of stocky teenagers in paramilitary police gear made their twice-daily patrol down the beach, replete with assault rifles, balaclavas and all-terrain pickup buggies.
Still, the influencers didn’t seem to lose any sleep over it. Indeed, I began to wonder what did keep them awake at night, beyond the few scattered allusions to there being “too much hatred in the world” or “going through challenging times” on their socials. Perhaps there were fully rounded people beyond all the status symbols and artifice – but from my position, they all just seemed like children. They were frustrating children at that: stroppy, demanding, prone to major disappointment and mood swings. From time to time I caught them having little tiffs about out-of-focus pictures, or quietly seething at each other when they ended up at the wrong lunch spot. Often, they were entirely silent, seemingly more comfortable with whoever was on the other end of their posts, rather than their immaculate life partners.
Quite who was paying for all this remains a point of mystery. Seemingly without a swimwear startup or juice brand to pick up the bill, I imagined them to be the children of German washing machine exporters or Argentinian corned beef tycoons, the occasional war criminal or asset stripper in the mix. They certainly weren’t super rich – they wouldn’t be here if they were – more likely they were the scions of the manufacturer class. The bored, vain spawn of 20th century success.
Perhaps what struck me most, is that “influencer“ isn’t really a job description anymore, nor is it some distant grotesque, confined to Dubai skyscraper bars and pastel-coloured Notting Hill mews houses. You could say it was a subculture, a tribe – but it’s also just the standard behavioural model for many international travellers now. Those old cliches about sunburn, karaoke, shagging Spanish waiters? They’ve perhaps been replaced by this strange, cosseted, hyper-affected way of tackling the world.
It’s very easy to feel depressed by it all, by the shallow, infantile, international safety blanket it seems to create; entire continents and cultures smoothed into one big super sweet sixteen party. But when I look at my own friends’ travel posts, which are loaded with images of smoky techno dives, toilet mirror selfies, weird shop fronts, “difficult“ local cuisine, I wonder how different we actually are.
Because, really, we’re all products of an age of perpetual documentation, where the LCD screen has become both mirror and window. It’s just that some of us are a little more aloof than others.