Reviews of Uno Astrolodge, a boutique new age-style hotel on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, lean heavily on words such as “magic”, “paradise” and “peace”. When it opened in 2001, Uno Astrolodge was one of the first upscale hotels in the beach town of Tulum. Over the past decade, the once-sleepy town, 75 miles south of Cancún, has become the kind of spiritual oasis particularly favoured by the fashion industry and wealthy New Yorkers.
Until recently, guests at Uno Astrolodge, set on an exclusive stretch of white sandy beach, paid up to $300 per night for a room in a candlelit bungalow with a view of the ocean. They showered under the trees in private outdoor bathrooms and ate fresh bread baked on site every morning. They could spend their time detoxing in Native American sweat lodge ceremonies or getting their Mayan astrology charts read. Wednesdays at the Astrolodge featured sound healing ceremonies; a “women’s circle” welcomed every full moon with ecstatic dancing.
But this other-worldly pampering was rudely interrupted on 17 June 2016. That morning Uno Astrolodge’s founder, Nuno Silva, a rangy Portuguese 45-year-old with a soft voice and long bronze dreadlocks, was at home with his wife and daughter. Just after sunrise, the hotel manager ran across the road to alert him to a problem. There were hundreds of men amassing in the street outside Silva’s beachfront property, the manager told him. Some of them were armed with machetes and big sticks. They were coming to seize the hotel.
Silva rushed across the street. He shut the hotel’s metal gates and listened to the group of men swarming over his neighbour’s property. It sounded, he recalled later, “like a medieval war” – shouting, stamping feet, a sense of fear in the air. Silva had an idea that this day would come. Tulum had been disturbed by evictions before, though hotel owners were careful to shield tourists from knowledge of the land disputes. But he was unnerved by the sudden violence of the scene outside his hotel.
Silva and his manager woke Astrolodge’s off-season guests and told them to gather their belongings and leave the premises immediately. The mob was moving nearer, working its way down just over a mile of coveted beachfront real estate, forcing people to vacate hotels, private homes and businesses, and padlocking the gates behind them. When one property owner refused the armed men entry, he was pepper-sprayed in the face.
There were about a dozen guests at Uno Astrolodge, and twice as many residents, masseuses and healers lived at the hotel, offering bodywork sessions and workshops in exchange for room and board. In its 16 years of existence, Astrolodge had developed into an odd fusion of commune and luxury hotel. It was not just Silva’s business, it was his home and the centre of his spiritual practice.
He had met his wife, Katarina, at one of the Astrolodge’s African dance workshops in 2007, and they had raised their daughter, now seven, there. The couple had hoped that their twins – due within months – would be born there too. They were not going to leave the hotel without a fight. After the guests were ushered away, Silva parked a truck against the front gate to block the entrance to the property. Astrolodge’s anxious staff members gathered in a circle and began to sing the Hanuman Chalisa, a Hindu devotional hymn.
The raiders were accompanied by armed police officers, who were guarding a court official bearing eviction orders. Along with boutique hotels owned by foreigners, the properties being repossessed included Mexican-owned businesses, such as Dive Tulum, the resort’s longest-running cave diving tour operation, and the family homes of ordinary Mexicans, including Larisa Bolaños, who lived with her sister, brother-in-law and niece.
Only one property on this stretch of land was left alone: Ahau, a luxury resort owned by Roberto Palazuelos, an actor with sharp cheekbones and slicked-back hair – known as the Black Diamond because of his dark tan and piercing blue eyes – famous for playing villains in Mexican telenovelas.