Trendy Tulum hotels and businesses that appear to be ecological are not always as sustainable as they seem, director Rachel Appel is revealing all in her latest documentary.
We can all remember a time when we were pushed just beyond our comfort zone and experienced the thrill of a new and sometimes daunting experience. A moment when the complete unknown went from scary to wonderful, and it was the sudden shift that made it special and memorable. For Rachel Appel, the 26-year-old New York-native and documentary filmmaker, most of those moments took place in Mexico.
“The first time I visited Tulum, I remember there was only candle light after sunset and I thought, ‘Wow, I need to be apart of this!’” Appel reminisces. “Coming from New York, the idea of not having electricity at any point in the day seemed crazy.” Tulum, the trendy beach town on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula that sits on the Caribbean Sea, was quieter back then. Smiling as she continues recounting her first visit to a place that has since become her off-and-on home, she says, “I realised I didn’t need electricity. Tulum provides everything that you need.”
Nearly a decade after that first visit to Tulum, Appel is making a documentary about the grave threats facing the region’s breathtaking ecosystem and what can be done to save it.
Growing up near the city, Appel reveled in weekend camping trips with her family, ‘far away from the chaos,’ and she says environmentalism runs through her veins. Her father works in renewable energy and her whole family is very nature and science oriented. Appel majored in environmental studies for her bachelors degree and then international journalism for her masters.
Her family travelled to Mexico every few years and it was always the wildlife and beautiful landscapes, so different from back home, that stuck with her the most. Appel says, “I remember horseback riding on completely deserted beaches, walking through jungles that were so thick it was more of an obstacle course, and climbing steps at Mayan ruins like Chichen-Itza. You’re not allowed to climb up anymore, there are too many people now.”
"Some people like the veil in front of their eyes — it gives them that sense of ignorant bliss. I prefer to tell it like it is."
Appel was a teenager when she first visited Tulum and since then she has lived there various times. “I worked as a tour guide for a while and really fell in love with the place as I learned more and more about it.” She spent much of her early 20s showing tourists the natural marvels of her favourite place on earth.
It was during this time that she saw the tourism industry up close and noticed how unsustainable Tulum really was. The lies that tourists were being told angered her and it is her desire to reveal the truth that has really cemented her commitment to this documentary. Appel laughs, “Some people like the veil in front of their eyes — it gives them that sense of ignorant bliss. I prefer to tell it like it is.”
Green-washing in Tulum
Tulum, Mexico is sold to tourists as the ‘hippie version’ of the other nearby hotspots like Cancun and Playa del Carmen. It attracts young people and families alike that are looking for something “greener”. Walk along the beach road and you’ll pass sign after sign boasting the word “eco” and “green.” The area has carved out their corner of the market: people looking to visit and connect with pristine nature and don’t want to feel they are harming it.
And creating an eco-haven to attract conscious consumers is a noble pursuit, but in fact, many of those “eco” signs are baseless as the region severely lacks proper regulation for development. Just 30 years ago, the town had a little over 500 residents. Today there are close to 35,000 and last year Tulum hosted more than two million visitors. What many of those visitors don’t know is that the area is largely powered by diesel generators, sewage leaks directly into the freshwater river system beneath their feet, and there is massive landfill only miles away from beaches they pay upwards of 500 USD per night to stay. Unfortunately, this growing garbage dump is filled with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste, rotting on top of the jungle floor and contaminating the fragile ecosystem.
“Tulum has the resources, the money, and the international community and support to be a real ecological haven."
Appel says she doesn’t understand how it has reached this point and explains that there’s a lot at stake, not just the environment but economic interests as well. “Tulum is a hotspot right now and many of the people profiting from it obviously fail to realise why it is so popular — it’s the environment. People come from all over to witness the natural beauty of Tulum, so it’s confusing as to why people who have invested their money there don’t want to sustain it. Pretty soon, Tulum won’t be as beautiful as it once was and profits will begin to fall,” she explains.
But Appel and her dedicated team, full of environmental-focused artists from all over the globe, believe that Tulum’s tourism and its development does not have to destroy the delicate environment that visitors come to enjoy.
“That is the point of this documentary,” Appel stresses, “To show that change is possible. There are so many amazing solutions these days for sustainable development. It’s not a matter of how we are going to solve the problems in Tulum, it’s a matter of when and if. When people realise it’s finally time to act and if people care enough to do it. We already know how to solve these issues, but too few are taking the initiative to actually do it.”
The Dark Side of Tulum
Appel and her team are set to finish the documentary by the end of this year and they already have something of a small cult following on social media. She says, “The positive response so far has been overwhelming and really moving. It’s gratifying to see that people care as much as we do. Of course we have critics who doubt our intentions, such as those who are upset with the title of the film. Some who are outraged we’ve named it ‘The Dark Side.’ People are funny that way — they are more offended by words and titles than the actual environmental devastation.”
The characters in the film are a group of people, both locals and foreign expats, that are fighting to preserve Tulum’s natural habitat while maintaining a healthy tourism economy, one which they all financially depend on.
Olmo Torres-Talamante is both a central character and scientific adviser to Appel and her production team. Originally from Mexico City, he has made Tulum his chosen home; the home he fights fiercely to protect. Torres is a Mexican biologist and for the last 15 years he has been studying the cenotes of Tulum, the deep natural sinkholes that serve as an entrance to the ancient underground river.
“We already know that what happened to Cancun and Playa del Carmen has had a tremendous impact on the ground waters and the coastal waters.”
A key tourist attraction and host to a very complex ecosystem, these cenotes are a central character in the film as well. What worries Torres the most is the area’s faulty infrastructure and the sewage that is leaking directly into this freshwater aquifer. “We already know that what happened to Cancun and Playa del Carmen has had a tremendous impact on the ground waters and the coastal waters,” Torres warns, in reference to the mismanaged development and pollution caused by the bigger and more established tourist destinations down the peninsula from Tulum.
Torres explains that this river system is comparable to “Mount Everest and the Amazon,” as Tulum and the surrounding area is home to the largest network of subterranean rivers in the world. This river also leads into the ocean creating contamination at a global level, and just off the coast is the world’s second largest coral reef — everything is connected, and it’s all at stake.
Appel’s film sets out to portray all the beauty and wildlife that is under threat, all the ways in which we are all royally screwing it up, and finally, the ways in which we can still fix the mess that has been made.
For a large part of the documentary, they plan to present solutions to each of Tulum’s most pressing issues. None of these innovative technologies infringe upon the community’s thriving tourist industry, however, many of them would require significant investment and a completely new approach to development.
The film will feature solutions such as compostable toilets and onsite wastewater treatment plants, small enough to fit in your backyard but big enough to accommodate small hotels — addressing the area’s major sewage crisis.
Appel and her team will explore how to manage the massive amount of solid waste that Tulum produces by implementing large-scale composting and efficient recycle programs, all of which Tulum currently lacks. On average, each person in Mexico produces one kilogram of solid waste per day, and in Tulum, the average person produces two to three kilograms of solid waste per day, largely because of the demanding tourism industry.
"We must work with the jungle and the wildlife if we hope to save Tulum, not against it.”
To address the high use of diesel generators as a primary source of energy for many businesses, the film explores a myriad of alternative energies such as solar micro-grids. One fascinating alternative is a waste-to-energy solution that essentially mimics the earth’s process to turn carbon-based material into oil, solving not only the energy crisis, but the waste crisis as well. Appel says “with this technology, not only does it create renewable fuel, but you can turn excess amounts of trash into clean energy. It’s an incredible win-win.”
Addressing all of these issues and implementing the solutions will take time. Appel stresses that a crucial first step is tighter regulation on development and less corruption within the municipality. “If all of Tulum followed the current rules and regulations, we wouldn’t have so many issues,” Appel says. “However, money talks and that’s why we are in this situation. We must work with the jungle and the wildlife if we hope to save Tulum, not against it.”
The excitement and determination from Appel and her team in setting out to make Tulum as sustainable as its visitors are led to believe is contagious. They are calling their audience to action by showing drone images of landfills and sewage seeping into the groundwater, all of which makes the presented solutions seem so tangible and achievable.
“Tulum has the resources, the money, and the international community and support to be a real ecological haven. It’s time to stop talking about a sustainable Tulum and actually make one,” Appel finally says. And that’s what’s so appealing about this documentary and the team’s vision: we can all relate to the fear that we’re ruining our earth beyond repair. This film will bring you the answers you’ve been looking for and the confidence that we can still fix things.
This article was published in The Beam #6 — Subscribe now for more.