By Andréa R. Vaucher
International Herald Tribune
COSTA CAREYES, Mexico Approach Costa Careyes from the sea, and the vibrant colors of the houses pop out at you. The indigos and ochres echo the plumage of the exotic birds that inhabit this jungle paradise; the purples and vermilions are as dazzling as the birds of paradise and ginger lilies.
Architecturally, the villas are as audacious as their exterior tints and seem to sprout from the vertiginous cliffs as organically as the lush vegetation.
At the beachfront restaurant where the conversation is in half a dozen languages, Gian Franco Brignone, his white hair and caftan flowing, chatted with a bikini-clad beauty and a dashing young man in mud-covered polo clothes.
Thirty-five years ago, Brignone, now 79, had the foresight to buy a swath of rain forest and sandy coast along 13 kilometers, or 8 miles, of this deserted stretch of Mexico’s Pacific coast between Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta, in the state of Jalisco, even though no road connected the towns.
This luxury development now (2005) consists of 42 villas, 40 smaller casitas and a 48-room hotel.
An artist and entrepreneur from a Turin banking family, Brignone came to Careyes on a tip from Antenor Patiño, the Bolivian tin baron who developed Las Hadas, one of Mexico’s first luxury resorts. Brignone hired a plane and flew over Careyes’s dramatic ramparts, which rise steeply out of the sea. Then he packed up his family in Paris and moved.
His son Giorgio Brignone, who runs the Careyes real estate operation and its polo club, said: “My father wanted to go to a country that had good weather all year round, a place with a stable political system that was close to an important market. Europe was a little narrow for my father, because he had a broad imagination.”
The bungalows that Gian Franco Brignone built on the beach became a place for friends, like the Fiat tycoon Gianni Agnelli and the British financier James Goldsmith, to don pareos and Speedos and take a break from the European hustle. In 1973, as the Manzanillo airport opened and a road linked Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta, Brignone began to build his dream.
Inspired by Gloria Guinness’s Acapulco villa, which featured curved stucco walls and open-air living areas, Brignone pieced together his Careyes aesthetic.
He combined elements of Mexican modernism – specifically the vivid colors and interplay with nature espoused by Luis Barragán, winner of the 1980 Pritzker Architecture Prize – with his own European sensibility and eye for detail.
The first house – the eight-bedroom, bright blue Casa Mi Ojo, with its dramatic hanging bridge suspended 30 meters, or 100 feet, over the crashing waves and connecting the house with a private island – was a collaboration with a Barragán disciple, Marco Aldaco, and set the standard for future Careyes residences.
If the Careyes house has signature details, they are the infinity pool, seemingly suspended over the sea, and the open-air great room.
The windows have shutters, but never screens, and frame breathtaking views. The floors are made from hammered concrete and marble chips, and much of the custom furniture is built of the same “elephant skin” stucco as the walls. Cabinetry is carved from local woods to look like Moroccan moucharabie screens and to allow the air to circulate throughout the rooms.
“My father made a marriage of Mediterranean and Mexican architecture, mixing the European sensuality with the Mexican daring, colors and openness,” Giorgio Brignone said.
“And in doing so he enriched both styles. This became the Careyes style – a very human architecture, which has been copied up and down the coast.”
Gian Franco Brignone began selling land in 1976, shortly after he built the hotel, the El Careyes Beach Resort, which is now managed by Starwood under its Luxury Collection brand. To purchase land, buyers had to respect his strict architectural and ecological requirements.
Giorgio Brignone said: “We don’t use bulldozers here. If there’s a rock or a tree we build around it.”
There is also a slightly tongue-in-cheek list of 27 emotional, spiritual and practical qualities that the founder expects Careyes homeowners to possess. (See “What to bring,” at right.) These include living in the present, respecting the heritage of Mexico, being polyglot and having committed most of the seven deadly sins, especially sloth.
The first person to buy land in Careyes – an American widow who lived in Switzerland and Punta del Este, Uruguay – epitomizes the current Careyes community.
It is an urbane crowd that has done the Costa Smeralda and St. Bart’s and has at least a second home in places like Manhattan and Montevideo, Uruguay. A young Mexican steel magnate recently bought the adjacent property, the old Club Med Playa Blanca, and plans to turn it into a vacation compound for family and friends.
Initially, life in Careyes was hardly what such sophisticates were used to; there was no phone service until the mid-1990s. Kari Ardissone, the wife of the former inventor and plastics tycoon Alberto Ardissone recalled driving down the coast to a little town and waiting in line with Henry Kissinger to use the only phone for miles.
Since 1988, the Ardissones have spent the Christmas-to-Easter polo season in Careyes; the rest of the year they divide between London and Lake Maggiore in Italy. Like most Careyes homeowners, who come from 27 different countries, both speak several languages.
Alberto Ardissone calls their villa, Agua Alta, a “Moroccan hacienda,” which covers 1,000 square meters, or 11,000 square feet, and includes nine bedrooms and two pools.
Describing the huge appreciation in value at Careyes, Giorgio Brignone said: “We originally sold the land here for $2 a square foot. Now it’s $20 a square foot. Originally four- or five-bedroom villas in Careyes went for $600,000 and now they are $2.5 million.”
“But the people who bought didn’t buy for the investment,” Brignone added. “They bought for pleasure and it ended up being a good business.”
Some Careyes villas cost even more. The twin 930-square-meter ochre “castles” – as Gian Franco Brignone calls them – positioned on promontories on either side of the bay, are for sale at more than $10 million and rent for $5,000 a night.
Built in 1996 by Brignone and another Barragán disciple, Jean-Claude Galibert, Sol de Oriente and Sol de Occidente are named for the directions that they face.
Each has eight bedrooms and a 930-square-meter infinity pool that surrounds the house like a moat. These are the accommodations that have been favored by Giorgio Armani, Francis Ford Coppola, Silvio Berlusconi and Stevie Wonder.
Residents say Careyes is seductive.
“It’s a place where you can have a dinner party with fantastic people every night or run off to a deserted beach and feel the power of the sea and the nature,” Kari Ardissone said.
“The closest gas station is one hour away. There’s no Sam’s Club. You still have to be a romantic, daredevily kind of person to love it here, CNN notwithstanding.”
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