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The Rise of Cuixmala

Max Kim-Bee Caleta Blanca, one of three Beaches at Cuixmala.

Photo: Max Kim-Bee

Mexico's Costalegre was a remote and perverse landscape for a palace in the sun, and Goldsmith—no doubt spurred by the usual impulses of conviction, self-interest, and posterity—did his best to maintain the natural beauty of the coast. He donated much of the land for the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve, a foundation formed in cooperation with the National University of Mexico: after a life of being immersed in the rough-and-tumble of commerce, including selling wilderness holdings in New York's Adirondack Park to developers, he performed a lasting good deed . The protected area features 1,200 resident species of plants and trees; zebras, elands, and endangered jaguars; and the rare and venomous Mexican bearded lizard . Two uninhabited Galápagos-like islands are full of frigate birds, snowy egrets, great blue herons, and yellow-footed boobies, which perch on top of enormous cacti like eerie sentinels.

On the grounds of Cuixmala , biologists monitor sea turtle eggs and lead electric-boat tours through a wildlife riot of pink flamingos, parrots, black ospreys, chachalacas (wild fowl named for their endless squawking), mosquitoes, and 400 or so migratory river crocodiles, which, while perfectly capable of swimming out to the ocean and moving on to fresh territory, generally prefer to stay in Cuixmala. Marcaccini has lost a couple of dogs to the crocs, but she is devoted to her father's work: "In a few years, this may be the only dry rain forest left on this coast," she says. "The poor farmers burn the vegetation on their property to raise cows, and the rich are worse, with their big hotel developments—only seeing the green of the dollar."

Long before it became fashionable, Cuixmala was an estate devoted to green culture, and it still operates according to ecologically sound dictates. Palm fronds, for instance, are ground up for horse-stall liner and then used as fertilizer. La Loma itself has no air-conditioning, though the thick walls and high ceilings keep the house cool. None of the four bedrooms has a television, and at night, the sound of the ocean and the jungle becomes a kind of lulling sound track. The well-stocked library contains two of Goldsmith's self-published tomes, The Trap (1995) and Counter-Culture,  Volume Five (1993), which detail some of his social notions . "The belief that all economic activity is productive is at the heart of the problems that society faces," he wrote . "Our foundation has helped peasants move from pesticides to organic farming." Inevitably , every tycoon fancies himself a statesman, and Cuixmala vaguely smacks of  Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, retooled for the granola age and the frank pleasures of laissez-faire capitalism.

In one sense or another, Mexico has been a constant in the Goldsmith family drama. During the fifties, Sir Jimmy, then a young and dissolute gambler, eloped (amid a din of playboy-and–runaway heiress headlines throughout Europe) with his first wife, Isabel Patiño, daughter of the Bolivian "Tin King" Don Antenor Patiño, who also developed Las Hadas (setting for the movie 10), in nearby Manzanillo. Isabel died giving birth to their daughter, also named Isabel, and Goldsmith successfully fought her maternal grandfather for custody. Many years later, the younger Isabel inherited 1,500 acres of oceanfront land from Patiño and, in 1990, transformed the property into the elegant boutique hotel Las Alamandas, a half-hour drive north of Cuixmala. In the reception area at Las Alamandas are brochures outlining the family history, along with a photo gallery of grinning actors, starring tabloid darlings Brad and Jen in happier days. Despite having owned a few publications at various times, Goldsmith—given to criminal-libel lawsuits and conservative political campaigns that often didn't play very well in the media—pretty much thought the press should be regularly horsewhipped or, at the very least, kept out of the house. The prospect of a journalist like myself sleeping in his bedroom would have sent him around the bend. Yet in the new Goldsmith epoch, two of Goldsmith's daughters are exalted innkeepers in Mexico who can't stop attracting publicity .

Goldsmith's old grass landing strip at Cuixmala is still used by the elite; the rest of us book commercial flights into Puerto Vallarta or Manzanillo and immediately confront the weird and wonderful road movie that is this part of Mexico, a country that never stops being real. Bimbo Bread delivery vans on Highway 200, the thoroughfare that follows the coast from Manzanillo to Puerto Vallarta, barrel past donkeys riding in the back of rickety trucks, cattle feeding on smoldering grass, and scruffy towns dotted with glitter-and-tinfoil shrines to fallen road warriors. On the grounds of Cuixmala, within sight of the casitas' swimming pool, is an almost too real village surrounded by luxury. An abandoned car engine and collapsed tin-roof shack are juxtaposed with flowers in plastic buckets, Mickey Mouse towels, and the inevitable satellite dish. Inside a tiny convenience store, workers are chomping on Doritos, falling silent in the presence of a stray gringo. The owner of the village refused to sell the land to Goldsmith, although the residents now have free access to Cuixmala-monitored water and security.

To my taste, the eternal strangeness of Cuixmala, the raw strength, quiet, and breathing room, is what makes it interesting and authentic. When viewed from a horse's back, on a trail ride led by a machete-wielding, gaily singing caballero, the property has a way of meandering through the surreal. Just off the graceful expanse of the coconut plantation, vultures are hovering in the dusty nothingness, waiting to feed on kitchen scraps too small for the pigs. Fields of bright sunflowers and marigolds suddenly jump-cut to dank paths with ominous termite nests in spiky acacia trees, loitering crocodiles, and scampering tejones —a cross between a ring-tailed cat and a giant raccoon with the climbing chops of a monkey. On the open plain are Indian antelopes, forever elusive, jumping straight up and vaporizing when spooked, but to charge through a herd of surly zebras at the Cuixmala corral is pure joy.

El Careyes, a few miles north on Highway 200, is a more traditional resort that has always functioned as a social nerve center for the area. It's now a Starwood Luxury Collection property and encompasses a low-slung assortment of Mediterranean-style buildings, polo grounds, a restaurant, a bar, and an expanse of Midwestern flesh baking in the sun by the pool or bopping along to the pop refrain of "I Believe in Miracles." In the hills above the beach is a reservation-only restaurant; a collection of villas; and a few grand castles featuring three-story turrets and such. On the opposite side of Cuixmala is another Starwood property, El Tamarindo. As neighbors, the three resorts have an uneasy symbiotic connection: some Cuixmala guests play golf at Tamarindo, and the Goldsmith brigade stayed at Careyes before Cuixmala was built. One international sort describes the scene then as "a leftover sixties set, going from pleasure to pleasure."

The downside of luxury resorts is a kind of psychic sink, a reluctance to engage with ordinary life and go from, well, pleasure to pleasure. At every hour of the day—from the minute the sun rises over the lush mountains to the moment it slips into the yawning maw of the Pacific—Cuixmala is an endless delight: the food is almost entirely organic, there's a cheeky "margarita maker" button on the room phone, and the resolutely helpful maids are given to spreading flowers and good cheer throughout every room. In fact, the deepest and most complicated relationship I've had in years was with Goldsmith's bedroom, a 1,700-square-foot creation with 18-foot ceilings, suspended in the ether of money. On that first moonlit evening, it was all about willful delusion, lolling around the terrace Jacuzzi with a cigar and pretending to be a player. By the second night, the battle to rise up to the spectacular level of the room had been lost amid the cold, hard rebuke of being a hopelessly middle-class upstart tormented by a big-league poltergeist . But with the first light of dawn, every dark thought would be washed away amid the ocean's thunder and the convent-white walls, and I half-expected castrati to herald my awakening. When Goldsmith retired from business and devoted himself to environmental causes, he found a "new virginity," and Cuixmala was his final testament to that transformation. Just like Goldsmith, I woke up each morning feeling clean, reborn in the embrace of his jungle paradise.

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