Tulum, a town made for Instagram

Akash Ghai
5 min readDec 22, 2020


Searching for the Tuluminati, and experiencing the flip-side of travelling solo

I quit Instagram few years ago, just before relocating to China during my time as a photojournalist. It was a long time coming, I was addicted to social media and it was getting in the way of my productivity. I also felt that stories and images posted on platform were misleading to an unsuspecting audience.

People only saw the best highlights of a person’s life on Facebook and Instagram, and it wasn’t always the real picture of what was going down. In this piece, I want to give a real picture of solo travel, and it’s not always pleasant.

Raw mango with lemon and spice, Tulum

I arrived at the beach town of Tulum in high spirits. To me, it appeared to be the perfect mix of local street life and eco-driven, conscientious travel. There were local stalls selling all kinds of street food and boutique restaurants offering avocado toasts and cold press juices. It felt like a tourist destination built for millennials, with its co-working spaces, photo ops and jungle gyms.

I checked in to my Airbnb, rented a bicycle and started exploring my surrounding neighborhood. I found a place right in the middle of town, away from the beaches and hotel zone. Cheap places are hard to come by in Tulum, especially during the holiday season. I jumped at the opportunity.

Sand sculpture at Playa Paraiso, one of the few public beaches in Tulum

Booming Real Estate

From what I’d heard about Tulum, it used to be a hippie beach town with a very laidback vibe. Some of those aspects still hold true, but it feels very contrived. Even the real estate boom in the area has carefully expanded on the eco-chic vibe of the town. It is reflected in the decor, and the prices.

The backroads of the town leading to the beach are swarmed with new developments. The roads are extremely dusty and trucks haul construction material to build rows of living communities along the green forest zone. I was surprised to see several Sotheby’s placards promoting upcoming properties, it was like being transported back to Washington DC.

New developments in town

The idea of buying property can be really alluring on vacation, and its not always easy to walk away from a sales presentation in the region surrounding Riviera Maya. Especially ones concerning time share properties.

Developments like these make me feel like the golden era of the town is behind us. The best plots with ocean views are taken, property prices are inflated the town has become a money machine, than a laidback beach town. Developments like these help the economy, but absolutely kill the vibe.

Early History

My host, Alex Alvarez, has been a professional diver for over 20 years. He had moved to Tulum in the 90’s when it was truly a quaint, laidback beach town. He lights up when he talks about his early days and casually mentions that he was one of the divers who discovered a 13,000 year-old human skeleton during an underwater cave expedition around the region. These were the earliest known remains of a prehistoric teenage girl who had possibly fallen in the cave and injured herself. The PBS documentary First Face of America chronicles this expedition. He has partnered with National Geographic as well

Hearing this story and Alex’s passion for diving, I was convinced to go diving with him and document a day in his life. However, his house had burned down recently and he had his own construction to supervise. “In January we can try, maybe. I advice you not to dive with a camera the first few times, most accidents recently have something to do with photography,” he warned.

I was amazed at his humility and thought I’d leave him a token for new home, a painting of an underwater cave made during my stay; it’s still in progress.

Acrylic on plywood, chair for scale

Dog Days

I would be lying if I said travel is always fun, inspiring and exhilarating. That’s what pictures on Instagram and Facebook can make us feel sometimes. Even when we talk to friends who are on an excursion, we see the best parts of their trip while messaging them. However, travelling alone can often be boring, lonely and depressing. Not everyone likes to admit, or hear this.

A hookah; my last resort to boredom. It always gives me a headache

The only times in the year I feel the lack of not having a partner is usually when I’m travelling alone. The crazy thing is, if I do travel with a partner, I feel constricted to their ideas, whims and preferences. I tend to explore less, take smaller risks and find myself having a very generic travel experience. The last time I travelled with my siblings to Japan, I ended up ditching both of them and going off to a different town. It was partly my mistake, and I’m sure they had a great day without me.

This is a big conundrum for me, in travel and in life. To be with or without.

Morning swim at Cenoté Escondido, Tulum

Earlier today I felt quite low. I like to think it was something to do with the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn or the energies of winter solstice, whatever it was, I felt quite shit. I dived into a cenoté, ate fried plantains with condensed milk, a chocolate croissant and watched some tarot videos to feel good about the future. But I still felt sad and hopeless about the coming days; I was ready to book my tickets home and call it a day.

But as I’ve reached the end of today I’m realizing it’s okay to feel crappy sometimes. Not everyday is going to be fulfilling, exciting and awesome. Even in paradise.



Akash Ghai

designer with a love for storytelling