Andrea Emmerich is the ultimate jack of all trades: former stewardess, restaurant manager, yoga instructor, Ayurvedic practitioner, repurposed cashmere intimates mogul (check out our piece on her venture Afterlife).
Her free spirit and curious nature make her one of the most well-travelled women we know and she's brilliant at uncovering hotspots long before they're on anyone else's radar. Who better to tell us about Tulum and how it's changed over the years than one of our favorite Germans.
3 Days*: You seem to have jet fuel running through your veins. Tell us about your upbringing and how it has influenced your impulse to travel?
AE: My father was an entrepreneur in Germany, where I grew up, in the 70s. He travelled a lot worldwide for work and brought us back exotic gifts and stories from the places he visited (i.e. kiwis from New Zealand long before they were commonly available in Germany, tribal fabrics from Ghana, etc).
I have always been a daydreamer with a great imagination so those stories and artifacts he brought to us sparked my own wanderlust. We as a family also travelled extensively from an early age on (I think my first flight was shortly after my first birthday).
My dad wanted to expose us to different cultures and to broaden our perspective of the world.
I fondly remember a Christmas trip to Kenya at the age of 15 where we did a 2-week safari in the national parks, visited Maasai villages and then spent another week at the beach in Mombasa. Trips like that made me hungry to see more of the world and experience things beyond the familiarity of Europe.
3 Days*: When did you first go to Tulum? What was it like?
AE: I first went to Tulum in 1986. Me and and fellow Lufthanseat (Lufthansa steward) Pierre flew to Mexico City to explore this fascinating city for a few days and then continued on to Cancun to travel through the ancient Mayan areas.
We knew Cancun was not for us upon arrival as we were more “ off the beaten path“ kinda travelers so we ventured down to Playa del Carmen, a picturesque fisher village back then.
It was hard to believe upon my return about 5 years ago what it has turned into, but that’s a story for another time. We continued our journey down to Tulum where we climbed the ancient pyramids on the beach (this isn’t possible any longer).
Back then there were no entrance fees or organized tours. We rented a Volkswagen Bug and drove the 360+ km to Chitzen Itza on a road full of “topes” bumps to slow down the traffic. By the time we arrived there I thought had a concussion.
We ate many roadside tacos (now fancifully labeled ‘street food’) and never got sick until we spent our last night at a fancy 4-star hotel in Cancun where I got food poisoning from the buffet. Back then the beach in Tulum was hardly developed. The few accommodations available were small cabana hotels and the night cost around $15.
3 Days*: A New York Times article recently described Tulum as the Williamsburg of Mexico. How has it changed over the years?
AE: I have returned 4 times since my first visit in the ‘80s and have noticed the progressive transformation of the area. At first the roads became more developed but it was still charming.
You’d only find few commercial businesses, shops, small hotels and restaurants. Then came the boutiques, more tourists and then the Yoga community discovered Tulum. There are a ton of yoga retreats offered in the area now.
The beautiful beaches and pristine caribbean waters haven’t lost their charm. But easy direct flights from the East Coast have attracted many New Yorkers and recently it became the buzz. The gypsetters and influencers shared their experiences so more people caught on...
Many have since relocated there, opened restaurants and boutiques and are searching for ways to sustain their lives in paradise. Most of them had good intentions of living an authentic life and even now the vibe is still mindful and respectful.
3 Days: Do you know how these changes have effected the local population or the environment?
AE: There have been problems. Tulum’s beach is located on indigenous land and controlled by the government. Things became a bit messy when ownership issues arose last year and the ‘federales' came and raided and closed down some of the hotels, claiming the proprietors didn’t own the land they built on.
It was a convoluted, corrupt move which brought a bit of a dark cloud over the bright blue skies. Coqui Coqui, one of my personal favorites was one of the hotels that was affected.
3 Days*: How do you think Tulum could make its tourism boom more productive/ sustainable?
AE: I spent last Christmas and NYE there and the town definitely seemed overwhelmed by the crowds. Hotel service was not up to standard for the increased price tags and things seemed to run a little bit chaotic. Table reservations at restaurants were difficult to attain and often jumbled.
Also, anything along the beach is solely powered through generators and fresh water has to be delivered in big H2O trucks every day. The waste disposal system is questionable and I hope they are practicing sustainability in that area.
3 Days: Is Tulum still worth visiting? Are there any 'off-the-beaten-path' places to see or things to do that you can recommend to someone traveling to Tulum right now?
AE: First of all: Don’t go during high season and wait for the holidays to pass when everything calms down again and locals aren’t so stressed. It is still beautiful and the beach is gorgeous.
Yes, it’s become more of a scene now but there are still plenty laid-back people around who just want to scuba dive in the cenotes or explore the rich Mayan culture.
The bio reserve at the south end of Tulum beach is beautiful and so is a paddle board session in the lagoon. A day trip to Valladolid an old colonial town is a fun alternative if you want to explore beyond the city limits.
I highly recommend having tacos at Tulum beach’s La Eufemia which has managed to preserve its laid back hippie vibe and delivers fresh and quality food for a fair price.
Cenzontle is a wonderful restaurant on the beach and run by cool locals. Casa Jaguar and Gitano are fun bars that play good music and serve delicious mezcal. In the town center - the ‘pueblo’, try the fresh tuna at Los Aguachiles. Also get some tacos and don’t forget to try all their awesome sauces!
Buy Copal, a resin used in Mayan ceremonies for purification at in little fruit and veggie shops called Pool. And of course you should visit a shaman or indulge in a sound healing, a sound bath or any other Mayan ceremony.
3 Days*: You're known for being somewhat of a travel prophet. Can you let us in on what hidden gems are next on your list?
AE: There are a few places, one of them I will share with you, it’s also in Mexico: I’d like to go to Huautla up in the mountains of Mexico’s Oaxaca state. The region is home to the curanderas (spiritual healers) such as Maria Sabina.
The local villages are home to many different tribes that often still have their own language and to this date they perform ceremonies that are intended to cleanse your spirit and send you on a vision quest. Who wouldn’t want to try that?