November 04 2010
Does Mexico, as its tourism board would lead us to believe, have everything? Consider the evidence: ancient ruins and colonial towns; sprawling modern cities and tiny archaic villages; deserts and jungles; nature and culture in equal, wildly abundant measure. It also has beaches – rather a lot of them, and some of the world’s most beautiful. In the UK, only one version of Mexican beach life is diffusedly familiar, and that’s the Riviera Maya, connected by direct flights. But there’s another side and another ocean. For years, the beaches of the Mexican Pacific have been accessible stamping grounds for North American tourists of all conditions, yet the distances involved (an 11-hour schlep to Mexico City, followed by another hour or so’s flight to the coast) and the typical hospitality profile (charm-free masstige resorts, all-inclusive packages) have conspired to keep it largely off the radar of discerning travellers east of The Pond.
In truth, the two coasts of Mexico are as different as cheese and chorizo. The sublime beaches of the Caribbean side, the dazzling blue of its calm waters, the historical treasures of Tulum and Chichén-Itzá are hard to top. But the Pacific coast makes a powerful case with shorelines that, though not as domesticatedly pretty as those of the Caribbean, have few equals in terms of scale and low degree of spoilage. It compensates for its lack of vanished empires with a superb natural environment; the tropical interior is densely wooded and hugely biodiverse, and in winter sightings of turtles and humpback whales are practically routine. And, though various enclaves of tourist development have kicked in with verve, huge swathes of Pacific coastline remain in their pristine state. That, regrettably, is not something you can say for the Riviera Maya.
As I stepped off the plane at Puerto Vallarta, the heat and humidity hit me like consecutive slaps in the face. From the air, the view is of skeins of sand and white breakers all along the coast, neat squares of farmland pushing up to hills layered with lush greenery. On the ground, the reality is a little different. Vallarta is a thronged resort on a wide bay peppered with condo developments and high-rise hotels. The interesting stuff is happening above and below it.
On the four-lane highway north out of town, a billboard welcomed me to the “Riviera Nayarit”. Thereby hangs a tale. The state of Nayarit, one of the smallest in the Mexican union, had little to offer international visitors until the government came up with a $1.5bn master plan for the greatest of its few resources: an enormous stretch of hitherto undeveloped beach. The brand name it concocted, inspired by the world-beating success of the Riviera Maya, refers to an 80km stretch of Nayarit’s coast, from Nuevo Vallarta in the south to the colonial town of San Blas in the north. By 2008, Nayarit state boasted the second-largest amount of private tourism investment in Mexico. High-end properties range from the St Regis and the Four Seasons at Punta Mita (the latter opened in 2000, in the soft-edged Four Seasons manner) to Haramara Retreat near the surf village of Sayulita, where well-heeled bohos from LA come for vegetarian food and meditation in palm-roofed pavilions lit by oil lamps.
But the place to be these days on the Riviera Nayarit, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is Imanta Resort. The history of this hotel, which opened in March, tells how the hotelier, Juan Mario Sahagún, was inspired by luxury hotels in south-east Asia and set about hunting for a wild beach on which he could create a similar project. The site he found is a microcosm of the Mexican Pacific coast at its most stunning. The “wows” come thick and fast. First, there is the setting, a remote crescent of stone and sand just on the northern rim of Banderas Bay. Then, the accommodation: seven villas built in the pinkish local stone, so beautifully integrated into the surrounding jungle that it is already beginning to reclaim them, looking for all the world like pre-Hispanic structures discovered and restored rather than new-build scenarios for the collision of nature and luxury. Pathways wind through immaculately tended jungle, among brutalist sculptures carved from the same pink stone. I bathed languidly in my own slate-walled infinity pool, peering down at the big waves pounding the shore a few yards below. I’d then admire the same view, the wild beach strewn with granite boulders, rising up to a headland dense with greenery – all untouched and empty of humanity – from the high-ceilinged calm of my Mexican-minimalist palazzo.
I dined one evening with Sahagún, who told me how at first he lived in a cabin by the sea – cheek by jowl with armadillos and boa constrictors, like some modern-day Aguirre – as his dream redoubt in the wilderness gradually took shape. From the start, he said, the project was intended to be sustainable and low-impact, but with a staff-to-client ratio of 3:1. If all goes to plan, another Imanta will make its début near Tulum in a couple of years’ time.
Meanwhile, though, this is far from the only haute hideaway on the Mexican Pacific. Between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo to the south lies a string of them, each more exclusive than the last: from Verana, that prodigy of ultra-exclusive cool, reached by donkey track, to Hotelito Desconocido, famous for its luxe beach-shack accommodation in funky, hippie-Mexican style. (The Hotelito is currently closed for renovation and due to reopen in December.) There is Las Alamandas, Isabel Goldsmith-Patiño’s colourful, flawlessly tasteful shore-side retreat; and there is her late father’s immense Cuixmala estate, where guests are welcomed at prices befitting the scale of the enterprise.
To the south, on a lovely sickle-shaped bay, is Zihuatanejo, which has followed the timeworn path from one-donkey village to artists’ colony to expat refuge. It has shed the last of its rough edges and become rather fancy in recent years, with the opening of La Casa Que Canta (which is still a magnet for the great and good of the movie and TV worlds). A newer contender here is The Tides Zihuatanejo, part of the glitzy Viceroy Hotel Group, in a prime position on the beach at Playa La Ropa, with a nice retro feel owing to its original 1970s building. It’s not for those seeking either total seclusion or challenging design; but for ease and well-geared, smiling service that’s equally generous towards cavorting young families and taciturn singles, it is eminently recommendable. Beyond “Zihua”, as the locals call it, the development peters out again. The further south of the big towns you progress, the more “undiscovered” the coast becomes.
Until you get to Acapulco. Nowhere in the world of tourism is there anywhere more “discovered” than this, a historic port that’s been a sprawling tourist factory town for so long it’s fallen out of fashion and cannoned back into it several times. In the 1940s, Hollywood stars of the calibre of Errol Flynn, Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth began to pitch up in their yachts. On into the 1970s, there was full-on glamour, with wild parties and all kinds of jet-set naughtiness; Acapulco was Ibiza spliced onto St Tropez with some Monaco thrown in for good measure. Then, in the 1980s, it did a slow dive into oblivion once more, becoming a cheap and cheerful haunt for Mexico City escapees, who hightail it down here on Friday nights on the toll motorway. Foreigners currently represent just a fifth of visitors.
But that may be set to change. While the city is indisputably a more frayed and forlorn version of its golden-era self, for the past few years there has been a growing glint in its eye. The southern part of town is, of late, home to some high-class action, up on the corniche road that sweeps round the end of the bay. This is where you will find the restaurants of the moment, such as Becco Al Mare and the “Mex-Thai” fusion specialist Zibu, glossy nightclub Palladium – and, more tellingly, a couple of blue-chip hotels, both opened in the past 12 months.
En route to the Banyan Tree Cabo Marqués, the newer and more traditionally luxurious of them, is the first, the Hotel Encanto. What I experienced there fairly took my breath away. The Encanto is a grand pavilion in ruthlessly minimalist white, with a view of the sweeping bay – the green-clad mountains around it, the islands, the glittering sea – that lends Acapulco a Rio de Janeiro-like scale and glamour. Conceived in uncompromisingly, one might almost say Starck-ly minimalist style, this astonishing boutique hotel was opened by the Aragonés family last November. The less-is-more décor of the Encanto’s 44 rooms and suites – dazzlingly bright, white spaces, supremely chic and comfortable, with black Oaxaca marble in the bathroom and freestanding monoliths containing TVs and sleek iPod docks – plays second fiddle to their wide-screen views of bay and ocean. These can be soaked up alfresco on one of the hotel’s wide travertine terraces, with sitting areas seemingly floating in the cerulean infinity pools at their borders.
Further south, at the tip of the hitherto undeveloped Cabo Marqués, is one of Banyan Tree’s newest offerings. A series of “villas” are set into a craggy slope with cinema-screen views directly out to sea. Golf buggies ferry guests around the property on steep paths through sylvan groves, where the wildlife appears not to have twigged that it now inhabits a world-class resort: coatis and iguanas prowled the woods behind my villa, plume-headed birds squawked in the treetops, and pelicans made impressive flybys just below my private infinity pool. Such is the Banyan Tree’s all-enveloping comfort, its charming merger of the Zen and local style, and its isolation from the Sturm und Drang of downtown Acapulco that you could easily spend a few days without leaving the premises.
But part of the fun of Acapulco lies in teasing out the whiff of glamour that lingers, like traces of some cloying, old-fashioned perfume. A prime site on the nostalgia trail happens also to be a standard bearer for the revival currently under way. The Hotel Boca Chica is on the Playa Caletilla – one of the bustling city beaches that were the heartbeat of early Acapulco tourism. Trust the people from Groupo Habita, the most visible signifier of contemporary style in Mexican hotelkeeping, to see the point of the place. When they stumbled on this 1950s jewel by architect Antonio Peláez in 2008, it had fallen into disrepair, but enough of the original structure remained to make the project a restoration rather than a total refit. The walls painted lime green, turquoise and avocado, the white polished concrete floors and the curvy space-age furniture will delight fans of funky design.
On a weekend afternoon as hot as jalapeño, the bay of Caleta swarmed with holidaying Mexican families. The background noise of shrieking children and thumping music from the tripper boats was a symphony in human happiness, if not recommended for anyone who likes beach experiences of hermetically sealed serenity. I retreated to my white-on-white room for a siesta on cool cotton sheets. When I woke at sunset, the bay had quietened and a cooling breeze was coming off the sea. Taking my place at the bar, I could see all along the coast, to the white glow of lights in the far distance. Between the soul music, underlit pool, dynamic angles of the hotel above me and the lime-salt-sugar tang of the evening’s first Margarita, I could see how Boca Chica has breathed a bit of vibrant new cool into this part of Mexico. If Acapulco aspires to be a second South Beach, and the jewel in the crown of a Mexican west coast devoted in heart and soul (if not percentage of occupied real estate) to upscale tourism, the truth is it’s not there yet. But the Boca Chica’s pitch-perfect tropical retro-chic is a promising start.