Travel & Living

A Guide to Celebrating the Spring Equinox in Tulum

Combining New Age ethics, arts and electronic music, and sustainable agriculture, Ontopo is an ongoing series of site-specific retreats. Photography by David Brandon Geeting
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Tulum is a beachy destination on the aquamarine Caribbean Sea for lovers of yoga, dream catchers, and glamping. A two-hour drive from Cancun along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, it’s a paradise of sublime tropical vistas pervaded by the good vibes of sustainable development and new-age mindfulness.

In March, I joined a group of about a dozen folks there for a five-day retreat-cum-artist-residency part of Ontopo, a larger series of site-specific curated experiences. In the midst of this pseudo-summer camp for adults, we snacked on ceviche, swam in cenotes, and listened on psychedelics to synth drones. All the while we critically discussed tourism, global inequality, and colonialist quests for authenticity, provoked by a love-hate reaction to Tulum and its development.

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Ontopo self-describes as a series of performative and participatory projects. Established in 2015 by New York-based designer, DJ, and adjunct professor Jon Santos, it evolved from an intimate up-state music festival, The Last Weekend, which started with artist Peter Coffin in 2012. While Santos thinks of Ontopo firstly as an art project, the project fits the travel trend of curated and intimate “experiences” — Habitas organizes invitation-only small-scale dance music fests around Los Angeles; Clos19 offers catered adventures in Antarctica and exclusive winery tours in France; and of course, there are plenty of destination yoga and wellness retreats around the world.

The next Ontopo is happening Memorial Day weekend at a Buddhist temple in the Catskills. At the core of the project is the question: Where is the space for ritual in contemporary life?

Much of the crystal-loving crowd that flocks to Tulum seem driven by the same question. The desire to carve out space for ceremony manifests in healing circles at fancy hotels and ayahuasca camps marketed at tourists. Santos joked about all the “fake shamans.” But we talked seriously about what we had in common with the Tulum set while acknowledging a knee-jerk resistance to drinking the charcoal-infused Kool-Aid. The culture of transplant Tulum — while some will no doubt find its aesthetics obnoxious — is proof there’s a crisis of meaning plaguing many living under late capitalism. And this is the same angst that drives the demand for curated tours, fests, and retreats around the world.

Central to Ontopo is the aim of creating a temporary community out of a group who generally come into the experience of not knowing one another. The first morning Santos led an opening ceremony, and each morning we repeated a similar ritual coming together and sitting cross-legged in a circle sharing our reflections from the day before. Santos set the tone for a loose nonhierarchical interpretation of ceremony that inspired everyone to bond in a short period of time. He also established a palatable balance of new-age openness and self-aware cynicism.

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Over the course of the five days, we took turns leading different workshops and exercises — one of the principles of Ontopo is dissolving the distinction between producer and consumer so everyone is encouraged to participate by sharing a skill, giving a performance, or making artwork. A designer in the group led a wood-block printing workshop and a musician and yoga instructor guided us through a psychic sleep session. We went on ecotourism excursions and cooked meals together. On the evening of the Spring Equinox, two of our posse gathered flower petals and encouraged us to write down on them our intentions for the new season, then to throw these inscribed petals in a bonfire. Throughout the week, I found myself contemplating how ritual is the fabric of community and community is the best antidote to alienation.

 

The magic of Ontopo is that because the experience depends so much on the individuals’ contributions, it’s impossible to repeat. But if you’re headed to Tulum, here are some highlights from our itinerary you can enjoy:

Sian Ka’an Bioreserve

Over a million acres of turquoise blue water as far as the eye can see, it’s hard to believe this fresh-water wetland isn’t the ocean. The biosphere preserve made up of marshy beaches and sprawling mangroves became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. The mangroves are incredible for managing climate change — they sequester huge amounts of carbon and protect coasts from hurricane storm surges. On low-impact tours led by locals, you’ll be taken out by boat and dropped off for a “lazy river ride” through the scrubby wetland brush. As you float along through a gentle path carved into the mangrove plants, their twisted roots reaching through the crystal clear water, you’ll likely wonder “is this even real life?”

Chamico's at Soliman Bay Beach

Come hungry to this restaurant on the beach with a distinct locals-only vibe. Before your meal, take a dip in the bay — the shallow water is calm and warm like a bathtub. Then camp out on plastic chairs branded with Corona logos and dig your toes into the white sand while enjoying heaping plates of fresh seafood and deep-fried fish. If you’re as lucky as we were, while you eat, you’ll be serenaded by a ten-year-old crooner in black-and-gold Mariachi regalia. With charisma and flair beyond his years, he belted out Mexican classics while the man at the table next to us sang along.

Cenotes Dos Ojos

Cenotes are natural sinkholes exposing reserves of fresh groundwater. At the Cenotes Dos Ojos, you can take your pick of several different stalactite-decorated caverns to explore with a local guide. First, you’ll be fitted with a wetsuit, fins, snorkel, and lifejacket — or whatever combination of gear you prefer. I forgo the wetsuit but regretted it a little because the water in the shady caves is pretty chilly. There were both Mexican and international visitors on cave tours, adults as well as families with kids. The whole experience was touristy but in a quaint sort of way. Cenotes seem to be everywhere in Tulum — there’s even one in a nightclub! After visiting the Cenotes Dos Ojos and Sian Ka’an, I meditated on whether Tulum’s spiritual draw has something to do with all the fresh agua. After all, water is life.

Hartwood

Hartwood restaurant on the main beach road first opened in 2010 and is an early adopter and influencer of today’s hipster Tulum. People often divide Tulum into the beach and the town, and while the town is still pretty down-to-earth, the playa is a luxury twee Xanadu for Williamsburg and Silver Lake gentrifiers with boho-chic shops hocking $4,000 ponchos and deluxe beach tents for $300-a-night. We mostly stayed away, but Hartwood was an exception I’d recommend making. If you can get a reservation, you’ll find everything is delicious, locally-sourced, and cooked over an open-fire wood-burning oven. Renowned for their gourmet fare and environmentally-conscious approach, they compost all waste and the restaurant is run on solar power. While the white-fish ceviche and grilled octopus were to die for, vegetarians can rejoice because the most divine dish was truly the roasted beet with avocado-habanero crema sauce.

Ruins of Tulum

When I arrived, the man in the admissions booth asked me: English, Spanish, or Mayan? While sites like these ruins might reinforce the misinformation that Mayans are some sort of lost civilization, in fact, that’s an erasure of the people and culture very much alive today — i’s pretty common in Tulum to overhear people speaking Mayan rather than Spanish. After the long walk from the parking lot to the entrance gates, a stunning vista of grey stone walls and temples will emerge into view. To get to the beach you first must stroll through the resilient pre-Columbian structures marked with educational signposts. Then you’ll arrive at an oceanside cliff. The steep drop down is embedded with stairs descending to the sandy shore. We visited over the weekend and it was crazy busy, but also cool to see that the site is a popular destination for locals.

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