Sunday, June 23, 2024

How Costalegre, Mexico is leading sustainable beach living

We can all agree that Mexico’s beaches are the stuff of paradise — and it’s that dream of paradise that brought so many of us to Mexico in the first place. We are not alone in thinking this, as Mexico attracted almost 20 million tourists in 2023. While tourism can do a lot of good for a destination, it is often difficult to ignore the issues it creates, particularly for the environment and the social inequities it can cause. 

Wouldn’t it be great to visit some of Mexico’s most beautiful beaches with the full confidence that where you are visiting is truly taking care of the environment and the people who live on the land?

That destination is the Costalegre, and if you have yet to hear of it, you certainly will in the coming year.

I live in Puerto Vallarta, and while I could not imagine living in another beach destination in Mexico, it’s very difficult to gloss over the environmental and social toll tourism has taken.

Where is Costalegre?

Las Rosadas, Mexico. (Meagan Drillinger)

Costalegre is a coastal area in the state of Jalisco that extends south from Puerto Vallarta to Manzanillo. It’s a roughly 150-mile stretch marked by wild, undeveloped beaches, hidden coves, thick jungle, spiny mountains, and small towns and villages. For me, it is the most spectacularly beautiful place in Mexico and one that I needed to see to believe.

Mexico has its fair share of destinations that have allowed tourism to spiral at the demise of the local communities and environment, though many are working to correct what has gone wrong. This is a global issue. 

But what I love most about Mexico’s Costalegre is its attempt to stop that toxic pattern before it can even begin, prioritizing sustainability as it slowly, but surely, grows in popularity. It’s a destination that makes me feel truly good, in all senses of the word.

Costalegre and sustainability

With a dramatic landscape bookended by two international airports, one can’t help but wonder why dozens of developers have not snapped up this land. The answer lies in the hands of a few select families who have owned parcels of land for decades — and have promised to protect them.

Sustainability has been a buzzword for many years, but it often gets lost under the guise of greenwashing. Resorts tout sustainability efforts like the removal of single-use plastics, an onsite herb garden, and lower-flow showerheads. Those are all parts of being sustainable but can be rather surface-level when it comes to actually benefiting local communities and the environment in the long term. 

This is where Costalegre is an exceptional example of how tourism can grow but with deep care, intention, and mindfulness. 

It started in the late 1960s when Italian businessman Gianfranco Brignone flew his tiny plane over the coast of southern Jalisco. Then the landscape was raw, wild, rugged, and untamed. It was crashing surf thundering down on golden, crescent-shaped bays, with thick jungle-covered mountains climbing off into the distance. Brignone knew he had to create something beautiful here, all the while keeping it as close to pristine as the place he fell in love with. That vision became Careyes, a quiet, secluded posh playground of cliffside casitas, beachfront bungalows, and private villas, fostering an off-beat community of art, wellness, and creativity.

Now almost 60 years later, Careyes boasts a thriving social scene among well-heeled jet-setters. But what has remained is the pristine landscape and the integrity of the small villages surrounding it, which have stayed almost entirely untouched. This was by design. In 1994, Careyes became part of the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve, a 35,000-acre protected natural area. Part of this agreement meant that 93 percent of the land within the compound was to be protected, and to this day it has stayed almost entirely untouched.

Careyes is a quiet, secluded posh playground of cliffside casitas. (Meagan Drillinger)

Brignone set a remarkable precedent, and those who purchased land after him followed. One co-founder of the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve was Sir James Goldsmith, an Anglo-French financier and politician who, like Brignone, became enamored with Costalegre. He, along with the National Autonomous University of Mexico established the reserve and Goldsmith constructed a spectacular 40-room estate on one of its many beaches.  

Today the funky, golden-hued Cuixmala resort, known for its quirky onion dome, is one of the leading hotels in the Costalegre. But it is also one of the trailblazers of sustainability in Mexico. As far back as 1988, it launched the Cuixmala Ecological Foundation to bring both educational programs to local communities and protect the land from over-development.

In the wake of Careyes and Cuiximala followed the smaller-scale Las Rosadas, a nearly 400-acre ocean villa community along the Bahia de Chamela, with five clifftop villas, one beachfront bungalow, and a secluded stretch of gorgeous beach with palm groves, palapa-topped open-air living rooms, and a barefoot luxe vibe. A large portion of the land at Las Rosadas is part of the biosphere, as well. 

International brands arrive in Costalegre

The latest resort to open along the Costalegre was the buzzy, splashy Four Seasons Resort Tamarindo, which made its debut in 2023. Its opening set a different tone for the Costalegre. Four Seasons was the first international brand to open there and with that came the beam of the international spotlight, something which many of the already-established resorts along the corridor have tried to avoid. 

But with the globally recognized name also came the promise of commitment to the ethos of the area. The resort sits on 3,000 acres of nature reserve, only 2 percent of which can be developed. Much more sustainably than an on-site herb garden, Four Seasons Tamarindo has a 35-acre low-impact farm. Helmed by culinary director Nicolas Piatti, Rancho Ortega has planted more than 8,000 plants, has a 1,300-square-foot greenhouse, raises its livestock sustainably, and has a zero-food waste policy that consists of both worm composting and the help of some resident garbage disposal units in the form of pigs.

Lastly, there is Xala, the latest development to slowly stretch its roots along the Costalegre. From the same developers who opened One&Only Mandarina in Nayarit comes a 3,000-acre, $1 billion development. But like its Costalegre predecessors, one of the primary focuses of Xala is the local community and the environment.

The project is still in development. When it is completed it will be home to residences, a brand-new Six Senses resort, estates, and even a hostel. But what has already been established at Xala is programs and infrastructure to enrich the local community. These programs include mango farms, a skate park for local kids, mental health facilities for schools, a reforestation project, and year-round potable drinking water for homes in the region.

The future of Costalegre

I have to stop myself before I make Costalegre sound like Utopia — although for me, compared to most other beach destinations in Mexico, it is one. But I cannot help but be skeptical as we watch destination after destination succumb to over-development. Part of the expansion programs in Jalisco include a Costalegre international airport and an expanded highway. How can things not become more crowded? How can this quiet coastline not get a little bit louder? 

Granted, these plans have been in discussion for at least the 15 years I’ve been covering Mexico and have yet to come to fruition. According to Gabriel Cardona, tourism director for the Costalegre, the airport is finally ready to open in mid-2024. When, and if, it does, let’s hope that Costalegre continues to lead by example and that other developing destinations in Mexico follow.

Meagan Drillinger is a New York native who has spent the past 15 years traveling around and writing about Mexico. While she’s on the road for assignments most of the time, Puerto Vallarta is her home base. Follow her travels on Instagram at @drillinjourneys or through her blog at drillinjourneys.com.

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