The two-hour drive from Cancún International Airport to Tulum unfurls on a single, well-paved highway. I watched as jungle gave way to all-inclusive resorts and condo developments, a scene that turned my post-flight excitement into a bit of a stupor. But just as I started to lose interest, a series of three signposts came into view:
I started to pay attention, and for the next four days, I didn’t stop. I was in Tulum for its inaugural Art With Me*GNP festival, a multidisciplinary event that brought together more than 25 businesses to put on art installations, music performances, pop-up dinners, and wellness programs. After years of hearing about the stylish enclave on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, I thought I had a clear idea of what I’d encounter in Tulum. And while there were the fashionable crowds, New Age adages, and Instagram-ready spaces, there was a deep sense of place that I didn’t expect.
The town’s restaurants, shops, and hotels sit idly along a small coastal stretch of the state of Quintana Roo. As I made my way from one venue to the next, I was struck by how organic the process felt. There was the ease of a ground-up festival, where tents, stations, and outlets are arranged in an easy-to-navigate circuit, but there was also the gravity of being in a real place.
Setting off from the boutique hotel Ahau, I walked along the beach to arrive at Gameltron, an art installation that, from the outside, looked like an elongated thatched hut, but from which produced a symphony of sound. I found myself on a bed with a stranger, being slowly drawn through the structure by a pulley operated by a few other strangers outside, as hundreds of Indonesian gongs and cymbals, called gamelan, played around me. From a central motherboard below the installation, American artist Aaron Taylor Kuffner composed the music. The impromptu, give-and-take of the experience may have invoked images from Burning Man, but the playful rallying of pulley-operators followed by a sound bath shared with someone just as in awe as I was, felt serendipitous.
A few minutes south along the beach, a towering wooden sculpture of a female figure by South African artist Daniel Popper, marked the entrance to the Pavilion, a food market where chefs such as Noma alum Jose Luis Hinostroza of local favorite Arca (and the soon-to-open Natal) served up tacos of soft-shell crab and tuna. We gathered around the structure, as the festival’s founders — David Graziano of the boutique hotels Ahau, Alaya, and Villa Pescadores, Eduardo Castillo of Habitas, and Rob Garza of the electronic music duo Thievery Corporation — discussed the event’s environmental agenda. In addressing Tulum’s rapid crowd, Graziano spoke to topics such as garbage treatment and the use of organic and inorganic waste in its management of black water systems, a practice that he’s introduced in his own properties.
After a midday swim, I made my way to the Moroccan-inspired hotel Nomadé to see Mexican artist Alejandro Duran’s site-specific installation “Washed Up.” Hung throughout the hotel’s jungle-like entryway were Duran’s photographs of color-coded installations of trash, from which actual arrangements of trash spilled out onto the sandy floor. As we made our way to his on-site studio, he described how he salvaged them from a single stretch of coastline in Sian Ka’an, Mexico’s largest federally protected reserve, a few hours south of Cancún. In using the trash to mimic the natural forms around them, he hopes to highlight how consumerism has permeated our environment to the point of being a part of our visual landscape. Just as I was beginning to wonder how the locals were feeling, Duran explained the reality of Mexico’s coastline, where resort workers clear the debris-filled shore every morning.
The next stop was the newly opened art gallery, IK Lab, at the tree house-style hotel Azulik Resort. The space, created by the hotel’s founder Jorge Eduardo Neira Sterkel and the gallerist Santiago Rumney Guggenheim (yes, that Guggenheim), is made up of undulating surfaces of woven vines, polished concrete, and circular windows that looked out onto the surrounding jungle canopy. The crowd sipped cocktails and chatted against works from Brazilian sculptor Artur Lescher and Italian visual artist Taitana Trouvé. As the sun set, we made our way up a series of passageways to Kin Toh, where Chef Paolla Della Corte served a fresh seafood dinner within the restaurant’s nest-like, open-air dining room. Looking out over the unbroken canopy, the surrounding area looked untouched. It made sense that the residents I’d met today had share the same hope for Tulum — to preserve it now so they don’t have to save it later.
And that was just day one — the next few days saw a dinner-turned-party at the stunning hotel Habitas from chef Tomás Bermudez of Mexico City’s La Docena, visits to the playful light sculptures of Olivia Steele (the artist behind the conceptual signposts), a meditation session with healer Bobby Klein, and late-night sets from electronic music duo Thievery Corporation to reggae artist Mike Love. It had all the makings of a world-class event, and consistent throughout was a sense of community and creative expression that felt true to the locale and the people inhabiting it.