As the pandemic rages, L.A. influencers flee to Tulum for workout photos
How far are you willing to go to get in a good workout? If you’re one of Los Angeles’ top fitness trainers or social media influencers and you’re willing to flout public safety recommendations, the answer might be nearly 2,800 miles.
While the country is grappling with masks and lockdowns and COVID-19 vaccination queues, a tiny beach town in Mexico appears to exist in a world outside the reach of the pandemic, at least on Instagram. Nestled along the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is the town of Tulum.
A once quiet and off-the-beaten-path destination, Tulum has gone through somewhat of a tourism roller coaster in recent years. That’s in part because of Tulum Jungle Gym, where its owners have staged an Instagram-worthy workout oasis, with plenty of floor-length mirrors and scant crowds, luring in visitors who need to feed their social media streams with bare-chested and bathing-suited selfies.
Tourism is quickly recovering in Mexico, as Americans flock south for an easy escape. But it’s also bringing an uptick in COVID-19 cases.
Masks? Not here, said Alastair Carter, a former member of the United Kingdom’s Royal Marine Reserves, who founded the gym alongside his partner in fitness and life, Katie Davies, who said masks aren’t required in outdoor fitness facilities in Mexico.
But Carter insists the gym is doing its part to fight COVID-19. Upon entering Tulum Jungle Gym, there are temperature checks and hand-sanitizing stations. Equipment is spaced out long before the pandemic, making social distancing easy, especially now that the gym is kept well below its max capacity. The gym’s Instagram account has more than 213,000 followers, and many heap on the hate as much as the love.
“Never, never … no one is using a mask, disgusting,” said one comment left on the gym’s Instagram account.
First, Tulum was the “it” place to be around 2017 when the community frequented by yogis and mystics trying to find their zen was replaced by hoards of Instagrammers snapping images for all the world to see of Tulum’s gorgeous crystalline waters, seemingly endless cenotes, adorable shops and perfectly plated acai bowls served in dugout coconut shells.
The social crowd took so many images that the town appeared to quickly jump the shark when it came to cool factor.
According to recent data, more than half a million people from the U.S. went to Mexico in November, traveling to beaches on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. L.A. visitors who recently spoke to The Times shared a perception of feeling safe while visiting Mexico despite the raging pandemic, fears about travel and ongoing safety warnings.
“A friend of mine sent me Tulum Jungle Gym’s Instagram account, and I told my boyfriend, ‘That’s it. We’re going,’” said Melody Yadegar, an L.A. attorney-turned-accountability coach, about why she jetted off to Tulum to see the gym in person late last year. “We ended up extending our stay in Tulum for 10 days and we went to the gym twice.”
She posted about her trip on Instagram.
Tulum Jungle Gym opened its doors in 2017, although “opened its doors” is a bit of a misstatement because the gym is set entirely outside and sits directly on the sugar-sand beaches for which the town is so beloved. Over the years, the gym has made for a rather inviting bikini workout, and it’s this open-air environment that has attracted some of L.A.’s fitness elite.
With the initial shutdown last March, gyms were required to close their indoor operations, and among the closures, the storied Muscle Beach in Venice put up its “closed” sign, leaving workout buffs out in the cold. However, once gym rats caught a glimpse of what was possible in Tulum, they flew south to taste gymnasium normalcy.
Beyond its natural setting, Tulum Jungle Gym’s equipment is made from Mother Nature’s finest wares too. Almost all of its equipment — from dumbbells to its bench press, monkey bars and battle ropes — are made from locally sourced wood, bamboo or stone. The gym has been referred to as “The Flintstones” dream come to life on more than one occasion.
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“We were living on the beach under palapas and just this really beautiful setting, and we wanted to see if we could make the equipment with good carpenters,” Carter said during a recent videoconferencing chat.
“And to see if it would work with wood,” Davies added.
And work it did. Soon after opening, tourists began to flock to the space for a workout and a photo op. The couple quickly found their inbox flooded with emails from Instagrammers asking for freebies in exchange for posts. However, Carter and Davies have always maintained a firm “no” when it comes to this arrangement, charging the same $30 for a single-session pass to everyone.
“You need them for business, obviously,” Davies said. “That’s how the gym has taken off because everybody was posting on Instagram, and then their followers saw the gym. And they wanted to come.”
“But I think that is more valuable, that when they recommend it, they’re not doing it as a collab,” Carter added. “They’ve not got anything out of it. The fact that we don’t give it to them for free means that whatever they post is a genuine recommendation, which is worth 10 times more.”
All of the recent social media posts are adding up to free marketing for Tulum Jungle Gym too, especially from word-of-mouth posts from people including Matt Daspin, a personal trainer who works with clients in Hollywood and has 2,400 Instagram followers. “I found it from different fitness influencers, and it just looked so cool,” Daspin said. “Candidly, it’s really what drove our decision to go to Tulum.”
Daspin said that his clients and followers were enthralled with his Instagram posts of the gym during his New Year’s Eve trip, especially his posts with his wife trying out the basket lift at the gym. It’s the most Tarzan-meets-Jane of all the equipment, allowing one partner to hop in a basket made of bamboo while the other attempts to lift them off the ground.
“The reason for going is most certainly the Instagram factor. I think everyone is aware of that while you’re there,” said Daspin. “Everyone that was there was so excited to be there.”
It’s a feeling Angeleno Divinity Gaines, a former NBA dancer and founder of Divinity in Motion, said she experienced firsthand during her trip to the gym late last year.
“I was able to use all the gym equipment I’ve been missing so much,” said Gaines, who took photos and made a video about her Tulum trip. “I felt totally comfortable in the space. I felt really empowered. It made me feel so strong.”
Other fitness centers and gyms have tried to duplicate the social media success of the Tulum gym, some going as far as reaching out to Carter’s carpenters to ask them to create the same equipment, Carter said. Those with more business scruples have sought to franchise the brand.
For now, Carter and Davies say they are set on keeping their business a true Tulum original. Their only expansion plans include a second Tulum Jungle Gym, opening sometime this year, located in the heart of town so locals can experience the fitness as well.
Sole Folks is a boutique that offers space for Black entrepreneurs to sell merchandise and for aspiring fashion designers to learn about the industry.
“It’s our baby,” Carter said. “I don’t want to relinquish what it is. A big focal point for us is helping the local community. It’s free for members of the Mexican military, police and fire brigade.”
While debates over the ethics of traveling during a pandemic rage elsewhere, the gym’s Instagram account is brimming with comments from people planning to go, wishing they could go or making plans to return. As to why the gym has become a pandemic hot spot, Carter kept his answer simple.
“I just do stuff that I want and that I think is cool,” he said.
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