The Rise of Cuixmala
Once a private tropical hideaway for Franco-British tycoon Sir James Goldsmith, Cuixmala is set to become the next hot resort on Mexico's Virgin Coast. Tom Austin steps inside the fantasy.
"Daddy would not have wanted Cuixmala to become one of those dead places, where rich people go only to drink cocktails." As the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean on Mexico's Costalegre, also known as the Virgin Coast, Alix Goldsmith Marcaccini is talking about the future of the mad castle in the jungle built by her late father, Sir James Goldsmith, the corporate raider, organic farmer, right-wing agitator, and iconic pirate of high-eighties flash. The dull roar of the swells pounding the beachfront ricochets around Sir Jimmy's former lair, the clifftop La Loma, which lords it over the 2,000-acre estate hidden within the 32,473-acre Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve. "Cuixmala means 'the soul's resting place,' and Daddy loved the idea of having his family around him in the jungle, where we could be surrounded by beauty," Marcaccini says. "My brother Manes first brought us to this part of Mexico in 1983, and it took forever to buy the land from different owners—and then two years and two thousand workers to build all the houses."
In the heady days of the late 1980's and early 90's, Goldsmith would fly into Puerto Vallarta on his silk-lined, India-themed 757, accompanied by friends on the order of Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, and Richard Nixon—along with a revolving cast of secretaries, mistresses, wives, girlfriends, and kids. For the 99-mile jaunt south to Cuixmala, they would all transfer to a prop plane, touching down on a grass landing strip as zebras, elands, and crocodiles scattered in the wake of the incoming glamour. No wonder some guests compared the experience to weekending with Dr. No.
Now, Marcaccini has turned her father's grand folly into a combination working farm, relentlessly hip eco-resort, colossal bed-and-breakfast, and politically correct watering hole for the neo-glitterati. One of her first guests was—who else?—Madonna, followed soon thereafter by Mick Jagger. Marcaccini's own lists, for her New Year's parties at Cuixmala (Simon Le Bon, Quentin Tarantino, Johnny Knoxville, Seal, Heidi Klum, and that crowd), also have a way of making the press. A devout environmentalist who loves Mexico, Marcaccini is also an international social figure, and there are people who would rent La Loma just to be in the Goldsmith family's orbit. Even after her father's death in 1997, Marcaccini was never tempted to move into the oceanfront splendor of the big house: "La Loma is the place everyone wants to rent." In the vicarious age of reality TV, it's perfectly acceptable even for the wealthy to inhabit a life that seems more interesting than their own. And the hype is still around Goldsmith, who would find the whole situation vastly amusing.
In many ways, Sir Jimmy continues to run the show: it's as if his ghost has just stepped out for a cigar. As it happens, this big, brash tycoon, who once observed, "vulgarity is to some degree a sign of vigor," grew up in the hospitality game. His father, Frank Goldsmith, a Rothschild relation and an English MP, was a manager of Hôtels Réunis—a European chain with classic spots like Monaco's Hôtel de Paris and the Carlton in Cannes—and the family lived like sultans in hotels. Some of his family's freewheeling style is evident at Cuixmala: two absurd life-sized bronze statues, a gorilla and a rhino, still guard the entrance of La Loma, and the two-tiered seating in the screening room has Indian pillow–topped settees the size of double beds. It's impossible to imagine Nancy Reagan perched like a couture canary in a room that brings to mind a determinedly groovy Peter Sellers farce, and yet the adjacent office boasts a commemorative White House bowl that she brought as a bread-and-butter house gift.
For a billionaire eco-warrior, Sir Jimmy had a remarkable flair for whimsy, and Cuixmala is fantastic theater. At the front gate, guards in shiny SUV's take visitors down a five-mile-long driveway that meanders to the top of a bluff overlooking grasslands, coconut plantations, mangrove swamps, and a river, then heads down past a bridge adorned with a pink crocodile sculpture. La Loma, a 37,342-square-foot affair that goes for $9,000 to $15,000 a night, is capped by an illuminated blue-and-yellow Moorish dome, which glows at night like a cheery, radioactive beacon. Included in La Loma's fee are seven guest cottages tucked into an overgrown knoll with views of the ocean and a dormant volcano. Each little villa is an exercise in pure charm, with more modest variations on the decorative theme —luminous walls, concrete built-in furniture, and white enamel floors, designed to make spotting scorpions easier.
For mere mortals, a reasonably priced, nature-driven vacation can be had in one of the cute-as-a-button rental casitas, originally built for Goldsmith's pilots, doctOrs, and support personnel; thesE coSt $350 a night and up. Three separate rental villas with vaulted brick ceilings are close by. Just below the bluff is a tiny restaurant open only to guests, and a boutique that stocks trustafarian hippie garb . Up above is Marcaccini's private house, where she lives with her husband, Goffredo, another devoted environmentalist, and their three daughters.
Cuixmala was a singular vision, accomplished by Robert Couturier, the brilliant architect of Goldsmith's dreamscape. Only 25 at the time he began it, Couturier would spend years working on Sir Jimmy's properties: El Jabalí, a Spanish colonial hacienda in the nearby mountains of Colima; the New York town house; the 1640 château in Burgundy; even his private 757. From the start, La Loma was meant to be a universe unto itself, obeying its own dizzying logic. With so much white paint, and the octagonal floor plan revolving around an open courtyard, it's easy to become disoriented there and spin about in a peculiar, self-immolating orbit, like the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey. To Couturier, the house is "a completely artificial creation, but not pretentious: Jimmy was not a hypocrite or a liar. He envisioned a formidable palace that would make the estate subservient to his house. The circular form abstracts the sense of time and space, and the central courtyard and the white inspire spirituality."
By the time Cuixmala was finally finished, in 1989, Goldsmith had become obsessed by apocalyptic worries (globalization, nuclear energy, pesticides, genetic engineering, and so forth), and his estate doubled as the world's most profoundly opulent survivalist camp. La Loma, all steel and poured concrete, could weather Armageddon—it has already been through an earthquake or two. Goldsmith also maintained his own private army of security officers, who still patrol the grounds, mostly on the lookout for poachers (they prey on sea turtle eggs, pumas, and wild boars). On paper, Cuixmala has remained pretty much the same since Goldsmith died.
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.
The Costalegre, the area that stretches along the Mexican Pacific coast from Manzanillo to Puerto Vallarta, has two seasons: dry (November to June, when the foliage turns desert brown) and wet (during the summer and fall months, when it's green and even hotter). Cuixmala is between the two cities, off the Carretera Barra de Navidad–Puerto Vallarta (Highway 200). There is an international airport in Puerto Vallarta (99 miles from Cuixmala), as well as a smaller one in Manzanillo, 43 miles away. Since Cuixmala is so large, guests might want a car to travel around the grounds. The resort can arrangetransportation; it's cheaper, however, to rent a car at the airport.
WHERE TO STAY
Cuixmala CASITAS FROM $350; VILLAS FROM $1,500; LA LOMA FROM $9,000
KM 45 CARRETERA BARRA DE NAVIDAD–PUERTO VALLARTA, JALISCO
El Careyes Beach Resort DOUBLES FROM $305
KM 53.5 CARRETERA BARRA DE NAVIDAD–PUERTO VALLARTA, COSTA CAREYES, JALISCO
800/325-3535 OR 52-315/351-0000; www.elcareyesresort.com
El Tamarindo Golf Resort DOUBLES FROM $375
KM 7.5 CARRETERA BARRA DE NAVIDAD–PUERTO VALLARTA, CIHUATLAN, JALISCO
Las Alamandas DOUBLES FROM $320
KM 83.5 CARRETERA BARRA DE NAVIDAD–PUERTO VALLARTA,QUÉMARO, JALISCO
WHERE TO EAT
La Palapa at Las Alamandas
All bright colors and charm to burn, this chic little restaurant overlooks an epic stretch of pristine beach.
DINNER FOR TWO $120
KM 83.5 CARRETERA BARRA DE NAVIDAD–PUERTO VALLARTA,QUÉMARO, JALISCO
A tastefully decorated Italian restaurant on a secluded bay, close TO El Careyes Beach Resort.
DINNER FOR TWO $175
KM 53.5 CARRETERA BARRA DE NAVIDAD–PUERTO VALLARTA,COSTA CAREYES, JALISCO
Restaurante Caleta Careyes
On a harborlined with battered fishing boats and dryingnets,& three generations of Mexican women serve up cold beer and fresh fish in a tin-roof shack.
LUNCH FOR TWO $38
KM 51 CARRETERA BARRA DE NAVIDAD–PUERTO VALLARTA, COSTA CAREYES, JALISCO
Restaurante Caleta Careyes
La Palapa at Las Alamandas
El Tamarindo Golf Resort
With only 29 villas on 900 acres, El Tamarindo Beach & Golf Resort is exceptionally peaceful and intimate. Private casitas—three of which are waterfront; the others are scattered throughout the ground’s lush jungles—are examples of superb regional architecture: all incorporate local hardwood walls and thatched palm roofs as well as decorative items like colorful Mexican tiles and fabrics. Guests are greeted with fresh fruit and bottles of wine, and amenities include L’Occitane bath products, Egyptian cotton linens, outdoor Jacuzzis, plunge pools, and terraces with hammocks. Additionally, rooms have flat-screen TVs and public areas have free Wi-Fi. Also on-site: a spa hut for massages near the waves and La Higuera restaurant, where diners order grilled local fish beneath a fig tree strung with lanterns.