Walking through Guadalajara’s open-air antiques market El Trocadero on a recent Sunday, I happened across a 1990 issue of Architectural Digest. The cover photo of smooth pastel stucco and tropical foliage featured Las Alamandas, a tony resort associated with two families that have shaped a giant swath of Mexico’s Pacific region.
I took the magazine as a sign. My husband and I had just driven from Puerto Vallarta south to Manzanillo, passing Las Alamandas and through the elusive and shrouded CostAlegre. I decided to do some research about this stretch of Mexican shore. What I found reveals a region shaped by the caprices of European royalty, an epic divorce, a Bolivian mining fortune, and zeal to protect a tropical wilderness few have experienced.
Exiting Banderas Bay en route to Manzanillo, the CostAlegre (or Happy Coast), comprises a 280-kilometer stretch of mountains, valleys and rivers. Civilization’s handprint is mostly restricted to mango, papaya, banana and coconut plantations.
Numerous side roads meander west to reveal beaches, bays, lagoons and tiny fishing villages. For the few fortunate to hold a room reservation, there’s access to some of Mexico’s most opulent homes and boutique resorts.
With all this beauty so close to Puerto Vallarta, it begs the question, “why is there so little development?” Here’s where the whims and family travails of the rich and (not so) famous give Mexico one of the hemisphere’s most unique regions of luxury and protected wilderness.
The story starts in the 1930s. In France in 1931, the Bolivian mining millionaire, Antenor Patiño, married Maria Cristina de Borbón, a descendant of Spanish royalty. She was 17 and he was 35. They had two daughters. The younger of the Patiños’ two daughters, Maria Isabel, followed a path similar to her mother. At 19 she became pregnant and married Anglo-French financier James Goldsmith.
In 1954, seven months pregnant, Maria Isabel died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The infant, Isabel Goldsmith-Patiño, was born via Caesarian section and was raised by her father, James Goldsmith. More later about this famous father and daughter.
Years later Don Patiño sought a divorce, moving to a country he’d never visited: Mexico. Wife Maria Cristina wrote to Mexican president Ruiz-Cortines, and begged him not to grant the divorce. In spite of this, in 1957 the divorce was finalized in Mexico. According to Mexican writer Carlos Tello Diaz, “The marriage was one of convenience, and their long, litigious divorce will go down in the annals of international divorce law.”
Why did the Bolivian Don Patiño move to Mexico to settle a divorce? In exchange for the divorce, he promised Ruiz-Cortines he would invest heavily in Mexican real estate and luxury tourism projects. Patiño kept his word by building what is still the largest hotel in Mexico City, the Maria Isabel Sheraton, named in honor of his late daughter. He then began construction on what would become one of the Pacific’s most iconic resorts, Las Hadas.
But Patiño’s real estate legacy in Mexico was not complete. He married for the second time in 1960. He and his new wife, Spaniard Beatriz de Rivera, chose to live in Mexico. Beatriz de la Rivera’s niece was married to Italian banker and world traveler Gian Franco Brignone. After experiencing the beauty of Jalisco’s coastline (perhaps during a visit to Las Hadas), Brignone decided to purchase some seven miles of Pacific beaches and coves, today known as Costa Careyes.
Word of Mexico’s Pacific coastal beauty eventually reached James Goldsmith (now “Sir James” after his knighting in 1976). As happens with European family entanglements, Goldsmith (Don Patiño’s ex-son-in-law and father of Isabel Goldsmith-Patiño) purchased 9,000 hectares (over 22,000 acres) of land including the ex-coffee estate (Hacienda de San Antonio, near Colima) and Cuixmala on the Pacific coast. Cuixmala blossoms to become a cluster of villas, casitas and the grand Casa Cuixmala. It’s been rated No. 1 by the Robb Report of the best 45 hotels in the world.
Up the coast, Isabel Goldsmith-Patiño (Sir James’ daughter) inherited a wild and beautiful 600-hectare tract of land from her grandfather, Don Patiño, where she created the Hollywood getaway Las Alamandas. When not in her homes in London, Paris and Los Angeles, Isabel shares in ecological conservation efforts throughout the region.
The ecological legacy was cast in 1993. After some colossal and high-profile failures in the world of corporate raiding (Goodyear tires), newspaper publishing and British politics, Sir James had a rebirth of sorts. The man who was Oliver Stone’s inspiration for the corporate raider Sir Larry Wildman (Wall Street), decided to leave his business persona behind and dedicate his considerable wealth and energy toward furthering the debate on environmental and humanitarianism causes.
His efforts, and those of daughters Alix and Isabel, and the Brignone family resulted in 12,950 hectares of the CostAlegre being set aside. A protected area named the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve was born in 1993.
Sir James died at age 64 in 1997. His daughter Isabel’s Las Alamandas, Gian Franco and Giorgio Brignone’s Costa Careyes, the villas at Cuixmala, and the spectacular Hacienda San Antonio are a luxury legacy unsurpassed in the Americas. The European enclave today offers but 118 rooms in the form of deluxe bungalows, homes, villas, and castles, along 100 miles of coast.
There are private airstrips, a polo field frequented by the European one per cent and (as one would expect) a very negligible human footprint. Today few of us can afford to stay at these exclusive properties, but everyone can enjoy the spectacular natural scenery, knowing a bit of the history that conspired to save it.
New development has started, with Cheval Blanc, One&Only and Four Seasons announcing the breaking of ground. There’s also a highway widening project under way, and talk of a CostAlegre international airport.
Writer Jane Custer is co-author with her husband Greg of the Magic of Mexico blog at TravelPulse.