OK, guys — we’re going to the underworld,” says Gerardo Medina, a swashbuckling guide with a loose ponytail and a silver eyebrow ring. “But first we have to make our way through paradise.”
It’s a bright, sweltering day off the dusty main road of Tulum, Mexico. Medina has led our small group to the edge of a lush mangrove patch. An elevated path through the thicket leads to the Cormoran cenote, one of the Yucatan’s 6,000 natural swimming holes formed by the underworld, as Medina puts it, of sinkhole caverns around Tulum. Floating in a crystal-clear blue cenote is one of the area’s many Instagrammable attractions. Then there are the seaside Mayan ruins and the Ven a la Luz, a towering sculpture of a vined goddess, assuming you have the patience to wait in the 45-minute line to take a selfie with her.
But the group of millennials Medina is leading through the jungle haven’t come to Tulum for an artfully lighted dip in a tropical pool. They’re here for the WiFi. Assuming, that is, they could decipher the complimentary passwords scrawled on a wooden board at their hotel each morning. “Why do they have to make it so confusing?” said Monique Mascio, a marketing specialist from Seattle, thumbing her phone in mounting frustration.
Mascio isn’t some tourist here today, gone tomorrow. She’s in Tulum to stay. As with her fellow pilgrims to the underworld, she’s part of a growing movement of digital nomads, expats who have picked up and moved to some of the world’s most remote places, where they can live and work in actual paradises. The trend, long popular among freelancers and independent contractors, has been supercharged by the pandemic, which sparked a revolution in remote work and freed millions of Americans from the confines of their offices. According to a research report by MBO Partners, the number of digital nomads — defined as professionals who moved three times of their own accord in the last year — jumped nearly 50% in 2020. About 11 million Americans now identify as digital nomads, and over half are traditional full-time employees who’ve decided to do their jobs from the road.
Many places, desperate to revive their COVID-ravaged economies, have gone to extraordinary lengths to welcome the nomads. Countries from Barbados and Aruba to Estonia and Georgia are offering special work visas that permit foreigners to stay for as long as six months, often with an option to renew. And Tulum, according to Lonely Planet, is the “hotspot for digital nomads.” TikTokers, YouTubers, and Instagram influencers flock to Tulum for the sun, tequila, and ruins. Last year the number of visitors to the area soared by 23%.
With demand for housing on the rise, a new generation of developers have been popping up to create spaces tailor-made for the nomads. Selina, an international chain of nomad hotels, has 120 eco-chic properties in 20 countries from Argentina to Greece. “We’re building the future home for digital nomads and remote workers,” Rafi Museri, CEO and cofounder, tells me. Another startup, Outsite, promises co-living worktopias brimming with “spiritual energy, Caribbean beach life, and Instagram aesthetics all rolled into one.”
But as more and more foreigners settle in for a year-round Burning Man, Tulum is starting to look more like the next Fyre Fest. The troubles already plaguing the town — shoddy electricity, a crappy sewer system, polluted waters — are exacerbated by the flocks of Bluetoothed boobies. Unlike the hordes of tourists who come and go for a few days, nomads create a permanent strain on local infrastructure. They enjoy all the benefits of life in the tropics, but they don’t pay taxes. As property values rise, strongman developers move in — including a machete-wielding gang that tried to seize control of Uno Astrolodge, a Goop-like retreat that’s a favorite among the nomads. The problems aren’t unique to Tulum. In Thailand, the city of Chiang Rai is still reeling from a mini-NXIVM scandal, after two American hustlers who created a “campus” for digital nomads were hit with allegations of sexual assault and fraud.
“This is the problem with the influx of digital nomads,” says Heather Froeming, a project manager for a local environmental group called Red Tulum Sostenible. “They have no idea that their actions are promoting the destruction of the jungle. They’re going to pay whatever it takes to be able to live here — and that creates a lot of motivation for people to do the wrong thing.”
It’s morning in Tulum, and the nomads who live and work at Selina gather for breakfast on the outdoor patio. Some nibble on caramelized apple toast and green enchiladas under slow, swirling fans. Others lounge by the pool or do yoga on the powdery white beach lined with thatch-roofed bungalows and open-air massage cabanas. The vibe is that of a free-spirited commune with top-flight amenities. Nomads from all over the world cook meals together in the communal kitchen or wander over to the coworking bungalow outfitted with smooth wooden tables and sleek gray couches. “People can’t work on a hammock,” says Museri, Selina’s cofounder. “If you really want to work, you need a comfortable place with air-conditioning and proper WiFi.”
The nomads don’t consider themselves the same as remote workers, which suggests people toiling away at home. Nomads, they will tell you with varying degrees of evangelism, are an extended family, a way of not only experiencing the world but spreading a new model for living that in many ways resembles that of the old — immigrants from all over living communally and working side by side to make the world a better place. “We’re all guided by our intuition and this principle of oneness,” says Mascio, the marketing specialist who relocated from Seattle.
My visit to Selina, which coincides with the height of COVID, feels like a trip to an alternate reality where everyone’s super chill and pandemic-free. When I comment on how no one is wearing a mask, the buzzkill is palpable. “The rest of the world is, like, you need to be careful,” says Valentina Massi, a 27-year-old who moved to Tulum from Italy last summer. “Here, we see people coming with just loads of positive energy.” Kiya Knight, a 40-year-old from Alaska, credits Tulum’s mystical geology with keeping the nomads safe. “Between the cenotes and the crust, there are these giant crystals,” she says. “They have a different frequency. So when people come down here, they feel their more healthy selves.” Locals have taken to calling nomads “the Tuluminati.”
Despite the lavish trappings of Selina, the nomads who flock here aren’t rich. Many live on a bartering system to cover their rooms: Massi leads tour groups, Knight teaches fitness classes. “I’ve lived in New York City, I’ve lived in LA, Chicago,” Knight says. “But I’m definitely a different human being when I’m out here, mostly barefoot, minimal clothing, wind, sun — you feel it.” To lure a community of nomads to Tulum, Selina offers a range of prices, from $20 for a dorm bed to $700 for a luxury suite, something for the barista or the baby billionaire alike. “We hate five-star hotels and hostels,” Museri says. “We love the democratic approach to accommodation. You will never know who is rich or who is not.” At Selina Tulum, that’s pretty much true. The nomads look like regular people who happened to score a pass to the VIP section at Coachella.
The idea of living in Instagramaritaville isn’t new, but it took COVID to make these pop-up communities viable. “I look at a pandemic as the biggest opportunity in the world,” says Museri, who runs Selina from his home in Panama. As remote work untethered employees from their desks, many decided to relocate to places with a better view. But life on the road can be lonely, with friends and family thousands of miles away. So millennial nomads are seeking out accommodations packaged with a sense of camaraderie. “Community is the most important thing for a digital nomad,” says Steve Satoru Naito, CEO and cofounder of Anyplace, an online travel agency for remote workers. “It’s the human connection.”
Despite the hype, coworking and coliving in the heart of Tulum is not for everyone. At Selina, the party pretty much never stops, even when you’re trying to work or sleep. Each morning, I walk out on the balcony to see a half dozen leftover partiers dancing to whatever beat remains in their heads. “It’s wild here,” Knight tells me, laughing. “You need a strong
practice and nervous system.”
For a more laid-back scene, some nomads are moving to La Veleta, a neighborhood about 20 minutes inland. La Veleta teems with cafés, hostels, and corner markets, a sort of mini-Brooklyn complete with hipsters on scooters. A coworking space called Digital Jungle, which opened in November and says it has the fastest WiFi in town, serves as a lively hub for the young and wireless. Ron Dulisse, a furniture maker who moved from Toronto with his wife and young children, tells me how happy he was to live in a place where they don’t have to wear masks or pay attention to the pandemic. “We’ve kind of aligned ourselves with this positive movement,” he says, “without being bombarded by the news.”
One night I head to an oceanfront restaurant for dinner with two of Tulum’s best-known nomads. Luke Mackley, an ambitious 27-year-old with a manbun, and Tyler Whitworth, a 25-year-old former ballet dancer, have been dating since they met a decade ago back home in England. But they’re not just nomads — they’re a self-styled brand who have dubbed themselves “The Two Bohemians.” Just don’t call them influencers.
“We don’t like that word,” Whitworth says.
“We see an influencer as someone who is sharing every little detail of their lifestyle,” Mackley adds. “They’re sharing all the clothes, all day.”
“Like when you see beauticians on Instagram who literally just showcase the products they use,” Whitworth says. “That’s an influencer, because they’re influencing you to use their products or whatever kind of thing.”
“For us, our platform is not used to sell,” Mackley adds. “It’s used to — “
They prefer the term digital nomad, Mackley says, because it “signifies the person is into traveling.” For the past three years, these bohemians have been globetrotting, sharing photos, travel tips, and city guides. “We weren’t fulfilled doing this traditional 9-to-5 grind,” Mackley says. They didn’t expect their sun-kissed selfies to get the attention of a product marketer who wanted them to shill for a water-ionization filter. “That was the moment we realized we could actually do something with this,” Whitworth adds. Last year they made about $120,000 from their network marketing, hawking everything from CBD oil to coffee.
Driven by Tulum’s influx of digital nomads, gang warfare has broken out as drug cartels fight for their business.
The couple came to Tulum in January, to flee the British lockdown and began building their business from a hostel in La Valeta. But as with many nomads accustomed to modern amenities, it didn’t take long for the downsides of life in Mexico to sink in. The WiFi, they lament, is spotty and the electricity frequently uncooperative. “The whole neighborhood goes out right when Tyler’s team calls,” Mackley says. Even snail mail is a problem. “We waited a month and a half for one package,” Whitworth adds, “and we’re still waiting on another one.” If that’s not enough to cramp a nomad’s SEO optimization, there’s also the flak they’ve been getting on Twitter about touring the world during a pandemic. “They make you feel inferior,” Whitworth complains. “Like you shouldn’t travel.”
As with many digital nomads, they stress how much they care about the environment. In Tulum, they promote their values by sharing Instagrams of themselves picking up trash on the beach. “We take our eco-conscious ideals with us wherever we go,” Mackley says.
Nomads also like to talk about how much they’re doing to boost the local economy. Back at Selena, I meet one who’s actually doing that: Ritesh Patel, the founder of an online music ticket company called The Ticket Fairy. He’s on the patio drinking fruit juice and fielding emails on his phone. “My average screen time is 19 hours a day at the moment,” he says. It’s half grievance, half boast.
Ritesh left his native England in October, looking to connect with other nomads in the music business. “I can be on the beach here having lunch, and the person sitting next to me is a festival producer from Atlanta,” he says. “It happens almost every day.” Now he has a full-time staff of five local employees and plans to hire more. “We’re adding value to the local economy, which is amazing. You can actually create jobs and salaries.”
But many nomads don’t stay around long enough to reckon with the long-term effects of their lifestyle. Along the main road in Tulum, construction crews are tearing down row after row of mangroves to make way for hotels and restaurants. Without mangroves, which act as a natural filtration system, all the contamination created by visitors — sewage, bacteria, chemicals — flows right into the waterways. The Mexican ministry of environment and natural resources has found that 80% of all cenotes are now polluted, and divers have posted footage of feces from the spillover floating in the water. “People want to take pictures in the cenotes,” says Diego Llamas, a volunteer with Red Tulum. “But they don’t really care about the nature. They don’t really care about the culture and the environment.”
As the waterways are destroyed, the wildlife suffers. Sea turtles, which are losing their natural habitats, end up being crushed on the roads as they seek other places to nest. The dunes that once lined the coast are all but gone, making hotels and homes more vulnerable to hurricanes and erosion, and the beaches, once known for their white vistas, are covered with mounds of rotting brown seaweed. The seaweed is generated by a rise in untreated sewage and fertilizer runoff. Satellite monitoring earlier this year revealed a seasonal increase of 1.4 million tons — four times as much as the year before. On the beach next to Selena, teams of workers spend their days futilely raking the smelly seaweed into wheelbarrows and carting it away, only to have the ocean dump more of it at their feet.
Beyond the environmental damage, the influx of nomads has also contributed to a spike in gang warfare. The conflict, as I discovered one night at Selina, is over drugs. Hundreds of nomads flock to the beachside bar, where a DJ from Spain drops apocalyptic beats. A line of hipsters snakes around the corner, awaiting the elaborate security check required to get in. When it’s my turn, the guards not only have me empty my pockets, they go through every compartment in my wallet checking for drugs.
The more nomads flock to Tulum, the more the drug cartels battle for their business. In late March, a few weeks before I arrived, gunshots rang out in the heart of the city. Police, who arrived in armored trucks to find four cars riddled with bullets, arrested four members of a drug cartel. A week later, the severed body parts of a gang member were found strewn near a popular swimming area called Laguna Kaan Luum. Last Halloween, at a crowded bash at the Vagalume Beach Club, gunshots erupted between rival gangs. Two people died, and there was a stampede of some 1,500 partiers.
The police have responded with violence of their own. On March 27, a Salvadoran refugee named Victoria Esperanza Salazar died after an officer knelt on her back, which sparked angry protests. Two weeks later, video surfaced of a handcuffed man being beaten by officers after being shoved into a police van. The government responded by pulling all officers from active duty in Tulum and replacing them with state police. “When there’s no trust in the municipal police, the state government must step in,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said. “That’s what they’re doing in Tulum to guarantee the safety of the people, to guarantee that these unfortunate events are not repeated.”
As I head down the main street of the hotel zone after meeting with environmental activists, I pass armored police trucks. In the doorway of one hotel, a man in jeans and a T-shirt is holding an AK-47.
The sudden rise of remote work, accelerated by the pandemic, isn’t the only thing driving digital nomads to places like Tulum. Nubia Younge, 43, decided to travel the world after she was abruptly laid off from her job as a corporate event planner in Fairfax, Virginia. Her kids were all grown and she wanted to go abroad for the first time. “I decided to go on a one-way-ticket adventure,” she tells me over lunch at a seaside restaurant. But there was a problem: She couldn’t find any community online catering to Black travelers. Pre-COVID, the nomadic scene catered almost exclusively to white travelers, not people of color.
Some nomads in Tulum are already moving on to new paradises, in search of high-speed internet and unspoiled beaches.
Last May, after a few years of wandering, Younge landed in Tulum. It was here, quarantined in her rented apartment with the TV on, that she saw the news of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests. “I found myself crying a lot more than I wanted to be crying,” she recalls. Searching for community, she posted a brunch invitation on Facebook for other Black nomads in Tulum. When she arrived at the restaurant, she found 25 of her fellow travelers waiting to meet her. “That’s how Black in Tulum started,” she says.
Today the group has grown to 20,000 members. Younge hosts events every month, from Sunday brunches on the beach to dance parties in the jungle. Every other week, the group gathers for a seafaring excursion called the Black Yacht Experience. As Younge sees it, she’s creating a refuge for Black Americans who feel more at home in Mexico than in the country they’ve left behind. “As I navigate this world, I’ve always had a sense of, do I belong?” Younge says. “But one thing I knew for sure is America was not where it felt like I belong.”
Still, whatever the mix of motivations attracting nomads to Tulum, it’s driving the local infrastructure to the breaking point. “We don’t have even the basics to sustain the population we have,” says Froeming, the environmental activist. “And that goes from water treatment to electricity to trash management to land protection.”
On a blistering hot morning, the Selina nomads take a day trip to the centerpiece of another culture that ended in collapse, the Tulum Ruins, one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Mayans before they were overrun by Spanish invaders in the 15th century. The nomads amble around El Castillo, the crumbling watchtower high on the cliffs, as leathery cat-sized iguanas sunbathe on the steps. Eventually, they identify the best spot for selfies, along the cliff wall overlooking the sea. They pose in singles and doubles, in groups, hands in the air, hands on hips, shades on, shades off, a variety of angles and attitudes before posting on Instagram.
As remote working continues to gain acceptance, it’s only a matter of time before these New Age conquistadores spread to other New Worlds. This time, though, what draws them is not gold or land, but the lure of high-speed internet. By next year, Elon Musk has vowed to bring WiFi access to every place on earth, from the depths of the Amazon to the heart of the Sahara, through Starlink, his satellite-internet company. Musk said his ambition was to expand the internet so that anyone, anywhere, could be online whenever they want, whether in the ruins of an ancient civilization or aboard a space station.
For digital nomads, there’s already a new coworking, co-living space dedicated to Musk in one of the most remote locales, the Himalayas. The destination, WorkationX, overlooks the mountains of the Kangra District at Rajgundha and can be reached only by a four-hour hike. It features six suites, yoga classes, and a large mural of Musk and Iron Man, with Musk’s hands clasped in prayer.
Some nomads, meanwhile, are beginning to lose interest in their original destination. “Tulum is hell … because of the people,” says “Nomadic Matt,” a popular blogger in the local community. “There are just too many tourists behaving badly here, acting as if they weren’t guests in someone else’s country. And it kept rubbing me the wrong way. Travel is a privilege — and the people who come here don’t seem to appreciate that.”
Museri, the cofounder of Selina, tells me he already has his sights set on Isla Holbox, a quiet island of laid-back restaurants and unspoiled beaches a couple of hours north, off the coast of Cancun. “If you want to go to the next Tulum and you want to have the best time of your life, go to Holbox. It’s what Tulum used to be.”