Sustainable Tulum – Casa de las Olas and Chef Lulu’s Green Chilaquilles
Tulum lures eco-conscious travellers for whom the massive all inclusive resorts lining the Mayan coast are not an option. It lures them with the promise of secluded beaches, great food and commitment to sustainability. But do they deliver? Are the beaches still secluded? Are they truly committed to sustainability?
Tulum is off the utilities grid and hotels power up with diesel operated generators, wind power and solar panels, each with a different environmental impact. Similarly, no water is pumped into the area from town and no systemic drainage provided. Most local resorts rely on potable water brought in by the Agua Potable trucks distributing water collected from the extraction wells nearby.
Water is a precious commodity here. The Tulum ecosystem is based on rainwater permeating the limestone to the aquifer only a few feet below the surface, creating an intricate network of underground rivers and pools. Here and there the highly permeable limestone disintegrates, creating the cenotes this area is famous for. The Mayan civilization discovered these water resources and built their cities around them, and it is suspected that just as they came, so they left when the water supply dried out. Is this what’s lying in wait for Tulum? The rapid development over the past couple of decades and the millions of tourist that frequent this area are putting a strain on an already fragile ecosystem and development at this rate may not be sustainable ecologically. A lot will depend on how committed the hotels and resorts are to operating in a truly sustainable manner.
One unique place in Tulum that delivers 100% sustainability is Casa de las Olas, a 5 room former private residence now owned and operated by New York entrepreneur James (“Jimmy”) Greenfield. Jimmy left a successful real estate career in NYC to live in Tulum in a suite above the resort’s kitchen where he can walk to work bare feet. Meaningful sustainability is something he is passionate about and Jimmy operates the small hotel in a way that minimizes its footprint on the environment. His operation is Platinum level LEED reviewed (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, Platinum being the highest level that can be attained through this prestigious certification system).
On the eco-chic scale Jimmy, together his partner Samantha (“Sam”) are committed to deliver the eco first, and everything else comes second. That’s not to say they don’t deliver on the chic, quite the contrary, as evident in the beautifully appointed rooms, biodegradable toiletries and handcrafted linen and dinnerware, not to mention the first class cuisine.
Casa de las Olas master suite (link credit)
Casa de las Olas, (meaning “house of waves”) is a private property as the sign at the entrance clearly indicates, so don’t go there expecting lunch or a drink at sunset as you would at other Tulum resorts. The place is so exclusive that no directions to the property are given online. “The privacy of our guests is very important to us” says Jimmy.
I may be letting out a secret. Casa de las Olas is situated just before the gate of the Sian Ka’an natural reserve on the south end of the Tulum beach road. It is set apart from the busy stretch of Tulum hotels that are crowding the scene further north. To their south lies the pristine natural reserve, to their north an open stretch of beautiful beach that goes on for miles. If you are looking for seclusion, this is the place to find it.
The two story guest villa is set in a palm grove, a step or two from the sand and surf. The house itself is an engineering feat designed by an Austrian engineer more than 40 years ago. “By living here for 40 years he combined his Caribbean and Austrian knowledge to build proper structure to withstand this region.” Says Jimmy, “most of the structure is the original one”. Built with sustainability in mind the house was constructed to catch the sea breeze and circulate the air in and out the villa, keeping the rooms cool without the need for air conditioning. The house was also built with a water conservation system. They capture water from local underground source for their potable water and collect rainwater for irrigation of the vegetation on the property. “We have 20K litres of water that can last all year, depending on how much we use in accordance with the weather”. Even so, irrigation is done by hand. “We do all the watering by hand with buckets” Says jimmy.” No underground sprinklers here.
The house is powered by a state of the art solar system and utilizes a generator only as a backup when there is not enough sun to power the system, which is rarely the case. “We are the only place here that is 100% powered by solar” says Jimmy, “It’s a big upfront investment and the equipment needs to be maintained, which can be costly. We have top of the line solar system with panels up on the roof. Most resorts run by diesel operated generators.” TVs are of course non-existent but they do offer wifi internet connection and solar power to charge your electronics in your room but plugging in a hair dryer is a no-no and if you must use one you have to make special prior arrangements.
While conservation is important, authenticity is important too. Jimmy and Sam had the dishes and linen for the villa made especially for them from natural local materials by artisans in Oxaca. The stoneware is artful and beautiful and the linen is rustic in a sophisticated way. All the furnitures in the suites were made by local artisans as well, and, remarkably, even the biodegradable quality toiletries are locally sourced.
What about the food? “Food has become part of the operation only recently” says Jimmy. “We started to serve food in the last year and a half and it has become an important part of the operation and tied everything in.” Breakfast is served at a communal table set in the middle of the palm grove near the kitchen. The chef, Lulu, prepares breakfast and stays on until 4:00 pm available to take orders for lunch and snacks for guests who didn’t venture out of the property. For dinner you have to go elsewhere, and there is no shortage of places to eat.
Jimmy is a foodie himself and cares a great deal about the quality of the ingredients he buys. A Mayan vendor provides produce (“I would send back a single tomato if it’s not right” says Jimmy, “they know if its for Olas it has to be perfect”). They get their hand crafted cheese from Veracruzano, a cheese store in Tulum, bread from Pan Comido in Tulum, eggs from their transport company who also own a small organic chicken farm. “We source locally and buy the best products we can find” he says.
We were invited there for breakfast (jealous?) and I can testify to the quality of the food. Chef Lulu prepared chilaquilles in green tomatillos sauce with a fried egg on top, preceded by fresh fruits with home made granola and yogurt. Coffee (from Chiapa) was served in a French press and fresh orange juice was squeezed from local sweet oranges. Sam said that she first tasted chilquilles at Las Olas and after that conducted an informal chilaquilles research ordering them around the Yucatan wherever they were offered. She says that Lulu’s chilaquilles are the best to be had and I tend to agree. I haven’t tasted chilaquiles all over the place but have enough of a culinary palate to say that a subtle tangy flavor and perfect balance of spice made these chilaquilles very special. I had a chance to speak to Lulu on the beach and get her oral version of making the sauce. Although she didn’t give me an exact recipe (I don’t think she cooks with recipes) I made it at home and loved it, so I am offering this version below. Her secret is in boiling the tomatillos, rather than roasting them.
This is not the end of the culinary pursuits at Las Olas. Twice a year they offer a week long culinary workshop “Eat Retreat” with Chef Eric Werner of the famed Hartwood restaurant in Tulum. If you know about food you must have heard of Hartwood’s fabulous cuisine and the long lineup forming at their gate an hour or more before they open. I broke my rule of never waiting in line to have dinner at Hartwood and it was worth the wait. Chef Werner, together with chef Claudia Perez Rivas of the super authentic Cetli restaurant in downtown Tulum (best mole sauces, made with 29 separate ingredients) teach 4 classes and host a finale dinner at Hartwood restaurant. Accommodation, breakfasts, lunches and dinners are included and the workshop is limited to 12 guests staying at Las Olas. The next workshop in May 2015 is already sold out. Because of the overwhelming response to the Eat Retreat they are considering offering additional workshops and I look forward to hearing more about it and hopefully joining one of these workshops in the future. The theme is sustainable food and sustainable accommodation. For more information on these workshops see here.
So, is the Las Olas operation going to remain 5 rooms? Expansion plans are limited to two additional suites to be constructed above the residence. These tree-top level rooms will be constructed in the same sustainable manner as the main house, will have a view of the water and a sea breeze cooling them down. This is a “big” as they will get.
“Casa de las Olas is not for everyone” says Jimmy. If you are looking for a resort with thick cushions on the chairs and beach staff replenishing your drink every hour this is not the place. Although they will make you a drink if you ask (Jimmy apparently is quite the bartender), this is not the scene they want to promote. “People like that this is small, remote, intimate and private. They can really relax” says Jimmy. “Olas’s guests are forward thinking, eco-aware, travelers not tourists. Those are the people that we are looking to attract.”
Count me in.
Adapted from what Lulu told me on the beach.
2 teaspoons butter
2 handfuls of corn tortilla chips, preferable home made from corn tortillas
¼ cup Mexican crema
¼ cup queso fresco, crumbled, or feta in a pinch
Salsa verde – Green tomatillos salsa:
1 small Serrano chile
2 smallish garlic cloves
A handful cilantro, leaves and tender stems
Place tomatillos, Serrano chiles and garlic in a pot and cover with water.
Bring the water to a boil and simmer for a few minutes until the tomatoes soften but do not fall apart.
Remove from the water and drain.
Place tomatillos, Serrano chile and garlic in a food processor or blender and process until smooth.
Add the cilantro and salt to taste and continue processing until smooth.
If the sauce is too thick you can add just a little bit of water.
To make the chilaquilles
Warm up the green tomatillos sauce in a small pot or a skillet.
Add the tortilla chips (Lulu’s are home made).
Warm up the tortilla chips in the sauce but don’t let them disintegrate.
Cook one or two eggs per person, preferably sunny side up.
Spoon the tortillas and some sauce onto each plate.
Top with the fried egg.
Drizzle with Mexican crema and scatter a little queso fresco over if you wish.