Like many communities, Costa Careyes, Mexico, has a few conditions that prospective buyers must meet to purchase a house—27 of them to be exact. I expected the list to include items like “no overnight street parking” or “exotic pets prohibited”. The first condition took me a bit by surprise: “You must have will, love, and fantasy.” As I read further down the list it was more of the same. Instead of landscaping regulations, were things like “Admire the sunrise and the sunset” and “Have a sense of humor”. It was clear to me from this unusual list of conditions that Costa Careyes was not your average holiday destination. While I wasn’t in the market to buy a house, I was in the market for a vacation.
The “27 Conditions for Owning a House in Costa Careyes” were written by Gian Franco Brignone—the founder and creator of Costa Careyes. Gian Franco—an artist and entrepreneur from Torino, Italy—dreamed of creating an ideal community and resort. In 1957, Gian Franco lost vision in his right eye. There was no accident or illness; his vision just disappeared. He claims that his right eye’s sight was replaced with an inner sense or feeling that guided him to create Costa Careyes.
In 1968, while flying over a stretch of undeveloped Pacific Coastline just south of Puerto Vallarta, he discovered the perfect location for his dream—a location he called “heaven on earth.” He purchased the land, named it Costa Careyes—which means “turtle coast”—after the giant sea turtles that nested on the beach, and set out to build a utopic retreat that married the best of Mediterranean and Mexican culture with the area’s pristine natural environment. Instead of erecting the architectural blemish of an oversized resort, Gian Franco brought in famous architects, such as Marco Aldaco, Diego Villaseñor, and Jean Claude Galibert, to build innovative castles and villas that combined modern design with traditional thatched palapa roofs.
Gian Franco’s story intrigued me. He sounded more like a visionary than a resort developer. But I was skeptical. It sounded almost too good to be true. I felt like the dramatic origins and “27 Conditions” were a little too staged and I was concerned that Costa Careyes would turn out to be just another tacky tourist resort.
Costa Careyes is an hour’s drive from Manzanillo, Mexico. As my traveling companions and I approached our accommodation we passed by two of Costa Careyes’ castles: Sol de Occidente and Sol de Oriente. From this first glimpse of Costa Careyes, I knew I would not be disappointed; this was not just any resort town. The buildings were stunning, and unlike anything I had ever seen before. The castles are matching designs except for their colour—Sol de Oriente is bright yellow and Sol de Occidente is olive green. These six-bedroom castles each feature a 10,000-square foot infinity pool that encircles the house. Perched atop facing cliffs, these architectural marvels sit like sentries overlooking the turquoise blue bay below.
The levels, or styles, of accommodation in Costa Careyes are not exactly straightforward. In fact, it’s downright confusing. Costa Careyes isn’t just a resort; it’s a multi-faceted community with castles, villas, casitas, and two hotels. And to make it more confusing, the properties are no longer owned exclusively by the Brignones. There are both commercial and private owners. Trying to understand the relationships in Costa Careyes made me feel like I was trying to sort out the specifics of a complicated family tree just before the family reunion.
The first member of this family I was introduced to was my hotel: the El Careyes Beach Resort. Although built by Gian Franco, the El Careyes Beach Resort is one of the commercially owned properties. It’s part of Starwood Hotel’s Luxury Collection. But Starwood hasn’t betrayed Gian Franco’s vision. It’s clear that Starwood meets all of his “27 Conditions”.
Framed by mango trees and little bushes of horn-shaped yellow flowers, the hotel is as beautiful and colorful as its natural surroundings. The unimposing horseshoe-shaped building, painted in a vibrant blend of orange, yellows, purples, and blues, overlooks the lagoon. And a blue tiled pool winds its way through the hotel courtyard like a lazy meandering river.
I indulged in everything El Careyes had to offer. I spent time lounging on the beach with a margarita. I had a rejuvenating facial at the El Careyes Spa. And I gave horseback riding a try—a big feat given I am terrified of horses. But at El Careyes they do everything right. My guide Ramone gave me a sure-footed gentle horse named Vaquero, who was more than enough cowboy for both of us. Vaquero led me along the jungle path, past thick clumps of Lantana vines, clusters of floating yellow butterflies, and gangs of purplish-red land crabs that all simultaneously threw their claws up in a “don’t shoot” manner when we got too close.
The next day I visited El Careyes’ sister property, El Tamarindo Golf Resort. Located within a nature preserve, El Tamarindo has carefully built the resort to exist harmoniously with its natural surroundings. And it does. Wildlife is everywhere, and not the least bit put off that it shares its sub-tropical rain forest with vacationers. Wild boar, raccoons, and white-lipped coati wander the grounds at their leisure. In each of the resort’s thoughtfully designed intimate bungalows—complete with a private sink pool—are hand-drawn pamphlets and nature kits that explain the nearby ecosystems.
The highlight of El Tamarindo is the golf course. I am not much of a golfer. In fact, I often find golf courses to be blemishes on what would otherwise be a lovely forest or field. I became a convert with the El Tamarindo course. For the first time ever, I appreciated a golf course as a work of art. The 18 holes blend perfectly with the stunning natural environment and Pacific views.
El Tamarindo’s other unique feature is the Temazcal—a pre Hispanic spiritual tradition also called a sweat lodge. The Temazcal is a clay dome that is heated by hot rocks—similar to a sauna. Coming from Canada, I never imagined I would take a sauna in 90-degree weather. It seemed ridiculous. Saunas are for cool evenings or winter. But then I remembered Gian Franco’s condition #13: “Live in the present every minute of the day, and be aware of the magic of life. Life changes every minute.” If I wasn’t willing to try something out of the ordinary, then I wasn’t willing to fully experience Careyes. So I did it. Led by a gregarious Mexican named Rodulfo Salomon, I explored the connections of the spirit and the earth through singing, conversation, and, of course, intense heat. I’m not much into the new age sort of healing, but afterwards, I felt admittedly refreshed.
The following day, I met the remaining members of the Costa Careyes family. I had visited the two hotels, now it was time to see the castles, villas, and casitas. I was taken on a tour by Tayde, a warm-faced woman who manages the Brignone family’s properties. The coastline is dotted with these houses—called castles, villas, or casitas depending on the size—that are for rent and sale. Each house is unique in design, has a palapa roof, and is painted a vibrant color: blue, green, pink, yellow and navy striped. And the colors change often so the bouquet of hues on the coastline is constantly renewed. There are no white houses allowed. Even after a house is sold, the new owners aren’t allowed to paint it white.
I was brought to spend the afternoon in a bright blue villa called Casa Nido de Amor, or the Love Nest. After a quick nap on a bougainvillea-covered bed and a dip in the infinity pool, it was time to meet Giorgio Brignone—Gian Franco’s son, and the director of Costa Careyes—for lunch.
He arrived late. Dressed in a short-sleeved white linen shirt, he exuded confidence and a likeable arrogance. As he pointed out the different details of the house’s design: the mosaic tiling on the edge of the floors, the palapa roof, the furniture built into the walls fashioned from polished concrete, he explained “You have to put in bricks what people dream.”
Just after lunch, an old man in his seventies, holding a polished three-pronged walking stick entered the room. This was unheard of. Gian Franco rarely met with journalists. He brought into the room with him an excited twitter, as though a celebrity had just sat down at the table. And for me, one kind of had. I had spent my time in Costa Careyes, trying to experience and understand Gian Franco’s vision. And now the creator of this paradise sat before me.
He refused to speak English unless a woman asked him the question. And even then, he only took three or four English questions. Condition # 4: “Be a polyglot, or at least one member of the family be fluent in two languages.” Struggling to remember my high school French, I translated my traveling companions’ questions. (Fortunately, he seemed not to notice when I asked him “Comment est-ce que vous perdez ton oiseau”, which means how did you lose your bird? I meant to say oeil, which means eye.)
When I asked him why he chose this location to build Costa Careyes. His ever-present smile momentarily disappeared and he said, “It was God’s program.” His smile returned and with a flourish of his hands declared, “I’m allergic to tourists. Je veux les grandes voyageurs.” (I only want the great travelers.)
He was with us for less than ten minutes. He said his goodbyes shaking each of our hands, and then was gone. But the air of excitement he brought with him lingered. After lunch, I noticed a framed copy of his 27 Conditions next to a framed photo of him wearing a long white robe. He clutched a book with one hand, his other hand in the air and his mouth open, as though he were about to make a proclamation.
I looked out at the bright colored houses dotting the coast and realized Gian Franco had achieved the impossible. He had taken a naturally beautiful coast and actually made it more beautiful with human development. He had built something extraordinary that he wanted to share with people who would understand the true value of his creation. I believed, however, even if visitors came to Costa Careyes as “tourists”, after a few days in this unique community, regardless of which family member they stayed with, Costa Careyes had the ability to turn them into “les grande voyageurs.”
Sitting on the airplane on my way back to Vancouver, I had another look at Gian Franco’s 27 Conditions. After only five days in Costa Careyes, I had learned to appreciate the area so much, that I felt when I one day had the money, I was ready for condition # 27 “Kneel before mother Earth and ask for permission to own a house.”