This Low-Key Mexican Destination Is a Design Lover’s Dream
Fifty years ago, on what some mistook for a whim, Italian banker Gian Franco Brignone bought 25,000 acres of Pacific-fronted tropical dry forest reserve between Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta after a flyover. It was like Jurassic Park sans dinosaurs—and to some extent it still is. Brignone enlisted men from local villages with machetes to hack through thick foliage and devise a road for access, and hired Italian architects along with one local, Marco Aldaco, to build his dream home, dubbed Mi Ojo (which means “my eye”). His jet-set friends flocked there in the ‘70s and development in Careyes continued, with coastal castles painted in rainbow pigments accessible by funicular. Parties on Mexico’s Pacific Coast hidden gem were epic. Still are. Fishermen traded their catch of the day to the chef at original restaurant Playa Rosa for pages he ripped from Playboy. Now money changes hands, but it seems almost an afterthought. Everyone’s too busy joining forces to celebrate the joy of being alive in such a beautiful environment.
Though it retains the spirit of the ‘70s in many ways, the recent opening of El Careyes Club & Residences and debut, in November 2017, of the hyper-exclusive Burning Man–esque Ondalinda festival are signs of the development’s consistent evolution. There’s a private landing strip expected to be completed later this year. The artsy bohemian energy is alive and well—something Brignone, who still dresses up for annual Chinese New Year blowouts and presides over the Arte de Careyes film and art festival (April 25–29 this year).
He also still holds court in his Mi Ojo manse, where the Mediterranean influence that pervades all of Careyes is most evident in a minimalist sweeping balcony and pergola where Bruce Weber shot a CK Obsession campaign. “It’s designed for the sunset only, like in Mykonos, in the perfect position for the most perfect moment of the day,” says Brignone’s son Giorgio. (Cindy Crawford posed for Herb Ritts at Careyes in the ‘80s.) Also notable: the grandiose two-story palapa imagined by Aldaco, with perfect acoustics and constructed without any heavy equipment.
The fantastical construction that followed, and continues to this day, follows no exact edicts or rules. But there are guidelines (and Brignone and his children oversee all) such as ensuring the architecture frames the landscape instead of simply exposing a view. Elements of surprise are in great supply. Structures are all curvilinear and beyond vibrant—Technicolor, even. “There are no corners,” says Giorgio. “Everything is rounded, very organic.” No trip is complete without an impromptu tour of the enclave’s architecture, ideally by someone in the Brignone family. It would actually be harder to avoid. Careyes’ caftan-clad cast of characters are endlessly friendly, likely to pull up a chair or invite strangers to a sunset cocktail party or late-night gathering in a traditionally handpainted yurt. It’s all part of the magic of Careyes.
El Careyes Club & Residences
Soft-opened in November, El Careyes is the total reimagining of a circa 1976 hotel that occupied its same beachfront perch, designed this time by Mexican architects Gabriela Carrillo and Mauricio Rocha and constructed over the last few years. Five infinity pools butt up against golden sand—facing west for epic sunsets—and a terra-cotta horseshoe-shaped collection of one- to four-bedroom condominiums (35 rentable, others for sale) wraps around it. Hammocks and views abound. Inside the large units is plenty of local rosa morada wood, rattan, and green tropical plants. Refreshing Agua de la Casa, made with cucumber, pineapple, lemon and chia seeds, flows at the open-air restaurant, where the guacamole and tortilla chips à la minute are easily Jalisco’s best. elcareyes.com
Ocean Castle Sol de Oriente
From inside this sunburst-shaped yellow castle, one’s gaze falls on on five unique water bodies, extending to the east like layers—following the Careyes edict that framing the view is of the utmost importance. This also jives with Brignone’s affection for curves, built on a circular 10,000-square-foot infinity pool. Though it was constructed in 1996, it uses similar materials to homes built in the ‘70s, when times were simpler and maintenance and longevity were top of mind. Beds, tables, and floors are of cement, uniformly painted a bright, sparkling (and always pristine) white. “We couldn’t find enough decor stores, so we basically had to create our own furnishings,” says Giorgio. The six-bedroom, fully staffed house has a tower and a private funicular to get down the cliff; its mirror is the slightly more masculine and green Sol de Occidente, sitting directly across the bay and facing the west. careyes.com
Ocean Castle Tigre Del Mar
Like Oriente and Brignone’s own Mi Ojo, the seven-suite Tigre Del Mar is made up of lots and lots of cement, in a plethora of textures—rough, polished, cracked like elephant skin. Its vibrant colors also pop against a mostly white interior, which makes the blue-on-blue ocean horizon views all the more surreal. It’s a grand estate with panoramic views and plenty of stargazing and whale-watching perches. For a more intimate rental, there are also colorful hammock-studded casitas and bungalows dotting the coast. careyescastletigredelmar.com
The menu—written on a large chalkboard—at the first restaurant in Careyes is the very same today as it was in the ‘70s. The hot pink open-air structure, shrouded in palapa thatching, is a hot spot both day and night. Lunchtime sees a regular crowd of Careyes locals carousing over sashimi, ceviche, and tortilla soup. By night the starlight and torches illuminate long tables on the grass behind the sand, where diners trade invitations and figure out where the night will lead.
With just 24 seats, Pueblo 25 is not really a restaurant, it’s a culinary experience. The advance reservation–only destination with romantic lighting and jungle-y foliage has no menu. Its dishes—served family-style in sizable courses until some guest puts an end to the culinary stream—change every day based on what the fishermen bring in and what’s freshly picked from organic and hydroponic farms. Paired with the highly creative, memorable bites are wines from around the world; don’t even think of asking for soda.
Casa de Nada
Casa de Nada, or “house of nothing,” is the latest addition to Careyes’ seven-restaurant-strong dining scene. It opened last year on the beach in one of the oldest structures for miles, a former stopover for travelers before there was even a road. Tapas are served on primary-colored tables alongside mezcal and margaritas at sunset.
The restaurant features fresh vegetarian-friendly cuisine, including healthy smoothies and juices along with a full bar and homemade ice cream. It’s a a great stop in the main square for breakfast, lunch, or dinner with a side of shopping.
?! Careyes Foundation
The five-year-old philanthropic ?! Careyes Foundation, founded by Brignone’s son Filippo, is an integral part of the community, and a stop by the headquarters in the square is worthwhile to check out works by artists-in-residence who’ve visited and collaborated with local children (there’s also a gallery next door with rotating exhibits) and learn about its many positive programs. Travelers can visit the surrounding ten villages’ schools, where Foundation staff and volunteers teach English using a special curriculum, or go on bike rides with the kids on weekends. careyesfoundation.org
Sea Turtle Release
The oldest Careyes Foundation program is also the cutest: baby sea turtle release. “Careyes” means tortoiseshell, and as a massive protected reserve and nesting site for four species of endangered sea turtles, it’s a significant operation. Some 3.4 miles of coastline are patrolled 24/7 to rescue eggs from predators. Since 1983, 1.5 million just-hatched sea turtles have been released by Careyes helpers into the Pacific during golden hour, a life-changing experience.
Like an artist colony, Careyes is full of awe-inspiring and sometimes puzzling creations, best described as “wonders.” Take the giant flying saucer–like cement and glass Copa, perched like a bowl on stilts at the edge of a cliff and used for meditating (while lying inside it) or taking in sunset or sunrise (from the top rim). A pyramid carved from rock in the distance lines up perfectly during the solstice. There’s a meteorite that’s been given its own shrine-like structure. Talk to enough strangers and you’ll discover endless sights.