A Tree­top Night in Tu­lum

Tu­lum, which lies 90 min­utes south of Can­cun on the Yu­catan Penin­sula, was once a Mayan walled city serv­ing as a ma­jor port for the an­cient city of Coba.

World Travel Magazine - - Contents - By Sangeeta Kocharekar

Ever dreamt of wak­ing up in a tree­house? Travel to the hip­pie-luxe town of Tu­lum, Mex­ico for a stay at lux­ury eco-re­sort Azu­lik. No elec­tric­ity and bath wa­ter from lo­cal cenotes com­plete the ex­pe­ri­ence.

To­day, Tu­lum at­tracts visi­tors from all around the world, ea­ger to ex­pe­ri­ence jun­gle life, see its sea­side ru­ins and taste award-win­ning cui­sine.

Azu­lik s art gallery IK Lab opened in April with in­au­gu­ral ex­hi­bi­tion Align­ments fea­tur­ing works by Ta­tiana Trouvé, Ar­tur Lescher and Margo Trushina

In Tu­lum, Mex­ico, struc­tures made from be­juco vines, plants lo­cal to the area, rise from the jun­gle. A strip of villas skirt­ing tree­tops look out at turquoise sea. Frothy waves lap white sand be­low. This is eco-re­sort Azu­lik.

Its story starts 20 years ago with Ar­gen­tinean-born artist Jorge Ed­uardo Neira Sterkel. While on a sail­ing trip through the Caribbean, he dis­cov­ered the town of Tu­lum and de­cided to stay. He was a painter and, through the sales of his paint­ings, was able to pur­chase land. With­out any for­mal ar­chi­tec­tural train­ing, he be­gan con­struc­tion on Azu­lik.

“I never plan a thing. I never make floor plans,” he says. “A plan does not work if you want to re­spect na­ture.”

Struc­tures at Azu­lik are built with the same ma­te­ri­als Mayans have used for cen­turies, be­juco and wood, all col­lected from the area. The first few villas were built in the same ways too – oval-shaped and with thatched roofs.

“The funny thing of the process is that we never know what we will do. Even if I have a pre­vi­ous idea, na­ture im­poses her­self. If it can’t be done in a known way, then the an­swer is to play, to im­pro­vise.”

Sterkel works with a team of 200-or-so mod­ern Mayans and de­scribes them as play­ful and mis­chievous. ‘It must be some­thing never seen be­fore,’ I tell them, and they laugh as kids plan­ning a trick. When the idea ap­pears, they work to bring new an­swers.”

To­day, trees spring up from the mid­dle of wood walk­ways. In the villas, sun­light fil­ters through sliv­ers be­tween vine ceil­ings. There are no phone lines so room ser­vice or­ders are scrib­bled onto scraps of pa­per, which are then placed in wooden balls and dropped down a shoot lead­ing to the kitchen.

Sterkel’s plan – or rather, lack thereof – has worked. Na­ture has not only been re­spected, but it’s be­ing ben­e­fited from too. The wa­ter used through­out the re­sort comes from cenotes, sink­holes the area is known for, and is rich in min­er­als. No elec­tric­ity means calm­ing candlelight and no dis­trac­tions.

For guests at Azu­lik, a re­stored con­nec­tion with the en­vi­ron­ment, with oth­ers and with them­selves is in­evitable – ex­actly as Sterkel in­tended. “That is the pur­pose of Azu­lik: to re­con­nect in­di­vid­u­als and tribes,” he says.

This Page, A ramp wind­ing through con­tem­po­rary art gallery IK Lab Op­po­site, A stay in the Sea Villa brings guests a deep and en­rich­ing ex­pe­ri­ence Pre­vi­ous Pages from left, IK Lab’s be­juco vine and con­crete in­te­rior

Ta­tiana Trouvé s piece 250 Points To­wards In­fin­ity is of 250 weighted plumb lines point­ing in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions with the help of mag­nets in the floor.

Gallery di­rec­tor San­ti­ago R. Guggen­heim is the great-grand­son of famed art col­lec­tor Peggy Guggen­heim

For 20 years, Azu­lik has helped its guests re­con­nect with them­selves, oth­ers and the en­vi­ron­ment by do­ing unique and au­then­tic things.

In ad­di­tion to its three restau­rants and art gallery, the re­sort also has an apothe­cary, spa and cloth­ing store. An eye­wear shop is set to open later this year.

From eight villas in 2003, Azu­lik now has 48. The Jun­gle, Mayan and Aztec Villas nes­tle into green­ery while the Sea and Sky villas sit seafront. Though the re­sort is lux­u­ri­ous, it still re­tains Tu­lum’s free-spir­ited ethos with a cloth­ing-op­tional pri­vate beach and mo­saic bath­tubs re­plac­ing show­ers.

“The idea be­hind this is for you to take your time, soak in the tub with bath salts and re­lax. The shower is an in­ven­tion of rushed men,” reads its web­site.

A spa, hair sa­lon, cloth­ing store, apothe­cary and three restau­rants – Kin Toh, Tseen Ja, and Cenote – have also since sprouted up around the prop­erty. An eye­wear shop is set to open later this year.

It’s the re­sort’s con­tem­po­rary art gallery IK Lab how­ever that has gar­nered the most at­ten­tion. Opened on April 20th this year, it’s brought Azu­lik into the ar­chi­tec­ture world’s spot­light. And while it may have been the gallery’s di­rec­tor San­ti­ago Rum­ney Guggen­heim, the great-grand­son of famed art col­lec­tor Peggy Guggen­heim, who gave me­dia out­lets their head­lines, it was the ac­tual space that had peo­ple cap­ti­vated.

The col­lab­o­ra­tion came about or­gan­i­cally. Guggen­heim had re­cently moved to Tu­lum and was walk­ing around town when he saw a prop­erty with a big round door from the road. In­trigued, he asked to meet its owner. The door was one of Azu­lik’s and the re­sult of their meet­ing was IK Lab.

“End of April, in the heart of one of the most ex­clu­sive lo­ca­tions in South Amer­ica, an un­prece­dented art gallery project will be launched,” Guggen­heim an­nounced on his Face­book page at the time.

In the Mayan lan­guage, ‘ik’ means wind – a fit­ting name for the gallery’s un­du­lat­ing floors, walls and ceil­ings. Guests en­ter through a 4m-high round glass door and, once in­side the cav­ernous space, are re­quested to re­move their shoes. Sun­light spills in through round win­dows, warm­ing the wood floor. In other parts, the floor is cold and con­crete.

“The space is the per­fect con­ver­sa­tion be­tween na­ture and hu­man-made, the smooth sur­face of the con­crete al­ter­nated with the curves of the raw be­juco,” says Gallery Man­ager Valentina Biz­zotto. “It re­minds me also a bit of An­toni Gaudi.”

The gallery is made from wood and fiber­glass and has a live tree in­cor­po­rated into its struc­ture. Ev­ery­thing is hand­made This Page, All villas are equipped with hand­crafted mo­saic bath­tubs Op­po­site, Aztec Villas are fo­cused on the Fire el­e­ment, said to be ac­tive and re­ju­ve­nat­ing Pre­vi­ous Pages from left, Ta­tiana Trouvé’s 250 Points To­wards In­fin­ity, part of IK Lab’s in­au­gu­ral Align­ments ex­hi­bi­tion; The ex­te­rior of IK Lab fea­tur­ing a round glass door

Azu­lik, with its wind­ing path­ways, was pur­pose­fully de­signed with the idea that you need to get lost to find your­self.

It has 47 rooms rang­ing from Jun­gle Villas to the Moon Villa, the only villa with two floors and pri­vate ac­cess to the beach.

None of Azu­lik's rooms have elec­tric­ity and there­fore, elec­tric light. The ob­jec­tive is to re­spect the tur­tles that spawn on the nearby beach.

and, as a re­sult, sus­cep­ti­ble to na­ture’s el­e­ments – like rain.

“Of course we might have some wa­ter com­ing in from the door. Or some­times the wood ex­pands with the hu­mid­ity and cracks the fiber­glass so we might have a bit of leak­ing,” says Biz­zotto.

“But then the day af­ter, we fix the fiber­glass and it’s not a big deal. But it’s very beau­ti­ful be­cause the rain here lasts usu­ally one hour and is very strong. You feel so safe in the gallery and the noise is amaz­ing.”

The gallery’s in­au­gu­ral ex­hi­bi­tion Align­ments fea­tures 20 works by in­ter­na­tional artists Ar­tur Lescher, Margo Trushina and Ta­tiana Trouvé that ex­plore the hu­man jour­ney through phys­i­cal and meta­phys­i­cal realms. The art­works seem to be­long to the space. So much so that walk­ing through the gallery, it’s dif­fi­cult to dis­cern where the gallery ends and Align­ments be­gins.

It’s some­thing Tu­lum as a whole does well – blend­ing art with its sur­round­ings. Less than two decades ago, the town, lo­cated 90 min­utes south of Can­cun on the Yu­catan Penin­sula, was only a small hip­pie com­mu­nity. The hash­tag­ging of its creative, colourful restau­rants, en­vi­ron­ment-em­brac­ing ho­tels and jaw-drop­ping cenotes has helped to grow it to what it is to­day.

Its down­town Pueblo area, filled with taco joints, sou­venir stalls and dive shops, sits in­land. Cenotes dot its side streets. A 15-minute drive to the coast takes you to the town’s ritzier re­sort zone where you’ll find Azu­lik. Sprawl­ing, sea­side ho­tels sit on one side of the wind­ing road lead­ing through the jun­gle. Restau­rants and shops, seem­ingly carved into the jun­gle, are on the other.

With the stream of tourists mul­ti­ply­ing ev­ery year, the town is ex­pand­ing rapidly as it tries to keep up. It’s a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion within Azu­lik. On his 126-hectare slice of jun­gle, Sterkel says he has plans to add a mu­seum, a record­ing stu­dio, artist res­i­dences, a spa ho­tel and a well­ness ho­tel.

It cer­tainly seems as if for Sterkel, the sky is the limit. It’s ironic then that his only ob­sta­cle is buried deep into the ground. “The one and only rule is not to cut any trees,” he says.

This Page, The Aqua Villa has in­door plunge pools, a mas­sage deck and 24/7 but­ler ser­vice Op­po­site, The Moon Villa is the only villa with two floors and pri­vate ac­cess to the beach Pre­vi­ous Pages

from left, Tseen Ja, one of the re­sort’s three restau­rants, serves fu­sion Ja­pa­nese, Mayan and Mex­i­can cui­sine; Sea Villas on the first floor and Sky Villas on the sec­ond floor sit ocean-front

The re­sort, which is re­stricted to guests 17 and over, has a cloth­ing-op­tional pri­vate beach.

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