The Newest High-End Amenity
Houses That Come With Horses
In Mexico, developers are raising the luxury game by offering buyers a herd of polo ponies to go with the infinity pools and ocean views.
By Sarah Maslin Nir
Reporting from the back of a polo pony in Riviera Nayarit, Mexico
Plenty of luxury housing developments are built around glamorous perks: a manicured 18-hole golf course, a private beach club, even an exclusive on-site restaurant crowned with Michelin stars. Tucked in the coastal jungle of Western Mexico comes yet another hyper-luxurious real estate offering, this one banking on a novel perk: a pony named Karen.
Karen and 48 of her equine colleagues make up the centerpiece of Mandarina, a billion-dollar residential resort gamble currently being carved into a cliffside overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Riviera Nayarit, Mexico. Its Mexico-based developer is betting that the palatial, celebrity-architect-designed stables erected at its heart — where the skills of two polo pros and their herd of athletic beasts are available to all residents — will help put this luxury outpost rising from the jungle on the It-people map.
“With the ultraluxury market, this could be their fifth, six, seventh, 10th home — and it is touches that make the difference,” said Borja Escalada, the chief executive officer of the company developing the property, RLH Properties, which is banking on Karen the pony and her friends being that extra touch. “This is creating something. You could be walking the sea, or even trying to surf the waves, and suddenly you go back to the polo facilities and you’re in a different place.”
The resort’s 636 acres include a coastline that remains relatively untrammeled compared to its neighbor, Puerto Vallarta. Construction began in 2018. Phase One was a hyper-luxury hotel operated by One&Only, an international hotelier with retreats from Rwanda to Malaysia, and is now complete: 105 stand-alone bungalows, improbably hewed and hacked among the breadnut trees and bromeliads. Each comes with a butler and goes for between $1,300 and $31,000 a night for a suite. (The tennis star Maria Sharapova held a recent birthday bash in the top suite, her bill compliments of the hotel, according to management.)
Austere to the point of monastic, the cabanas are the model for Phase Two, One&Only Mandarina Private Homes, which has recently broken ground. Residences, offered for $5.3 million and up — very up — will also be operated by the hotel franchise, whose butlers will be on hand to remove wayward scorpions and other less exotic tasks as needed. Twenty-three of an available 55 homes have been sold so far, some on homesites that appear little more than sheer drops into the sea. These villas will be built on stilts, a complex process with the goal of disturbing as little forest as possible; their glass fronts and infinity pools look into, rather than over, the canopy.
They are the handiwork of the architect Rick Joy, who aimed to create the same seamless blend into nature as he did with another hotel project, the celebrated Amangiri resort, which appears to fade into the rocks of Canyon Point, Utah. Surrounding the semi-arboreal casitas are winding strangler figs, a type of parasitic vine that wraps itself around a tree; the resultant structure is stunning — even as it consumes its host.
In some ways, those figs mirror the development’s approach, which in an exceedingly aesthetically pleasing way has nonetheless overtaken a natural resource. Coati, raccoonlike creatures of almost unbearable cuteness, freely wander like stray dogs across the property, holdouts from the eviction from their habitat. The Sierra Madre Mountains overlook the site, which nearly abuts the home to endangered northern jaguars. Phase Three will be a Rosewood Hotel and that company’s own branded residences, available for sale later this year. Mr. Escalada, the chief executive said future phases include buying up more of the land and expanding.
Residential buyers can choose add-ons like a media room or Peloton gym and from a handful of ascetic décor packages, where even the coffee-table books are preselected. “Everything, down to the last tequila shot glass,” Catherine Martin, the residential sales director, said on a recent tour, holding a locally made crock in her palm. The purchased properties can be put into the hotel’s “pool” of available spaces and generate rental income when not in personal use.
Stepping over vines and between tree trunks, Ms. Martin next wended her way over a prime ocean-view plot she’d recently sold for $17.5 million. The future eight-bedroom chateau is owned by David Malm, an investor from Dover, Mass., known for going on what a Wall Street Journal headline described as a “nearly $100 million buying spree” of properties on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
Mr. Malm said he did not buy the property because he is interested in playing polo. The horses appealed as a “hook” for a future buyer, once he first enjoys his vacation home.
“It is an amenity that people aspire to, a lifestyle,” Mr. Malm said. “Even if you don’t ride, they want to be part of that club.”
He added: “It’s not like I’m going to take riding lessons, but who knows.”
The company makes clear it is not trying to lure only polo players to the homes, though there are stalls for rent if you bring your horses on vacation or to live. There are other amenities, like a taco omakase by Enrique Olvera, a chef whose Mexico City restaurant regularly ranks among the best in the world, a butterfly and mantis sanctuary with a resident biologist, and a lush tropical spa with a cistern of mud for slathering.
All of it comes suffused in the over-the-top obsequiousness that is a One&Only brand hallmark. Staff press their hand to their heart each time a resident or guest passes, and scuttle out of the way to give them right of way at all times. If a sun hat drops at dinner, someone may sprint over bearing an entire hat stand.
On weekends, the stables, also designed by Mr. Joy, host exhibition polo matches exclusively for residents and guests. They can watch each inning, called a chukker, while sipping Mandarina-branded Syrah pitchside at an Argentine-style restaurant also called Chukker. There is a library of loaner riding boots and helmets and professional players to teach lessons. A breeding program is also in development: The program’s firstborn foal, named Mandarino, just turned two.
On a recent cloudless day, with the Sierra Madres as a backdrop, a gray horse named Triton toted a first time polo-player and longtime rider (this reporter) around a pitch the size of six football fields. Instruction, from how to hold the mallet or hit a ball off the side of a galloping horse, was minimal.
“I am pretty sure I want to be a Mandarina horse,” Gustavo Mejía, the manager of the Mandarina Polo and Equestrian Club. “They have it better than anyone I know.”
But right now, the polo horses do not earn their keep, according to the company. Guests have not come in large numbers to play polo. Some polo ponies have been drafted into more humble work as beach-trail horses, a sharp learning curve for typically high-strung horses. The equines took on their new roles bravely, Mr. Mejía said — particularly considering their route from the barns to the resort’s Canalan Beach Club passes over a lagoon filled with Morelet’s crocodiles.
“The polo, we didn’t expect it to have a return on day one — and we don’t,” said Kappner Clark, RLH’s marketing director. “But at this level of the market, which is ultra luxury, people are looking for unique experiences. And the polo, it fits into that vision.”
That is not to say that the $2.6 million dollar stables in the middle of the jungle are a boondoggle: For residential plots without an ocean view, overlooking the manicured polo pitch and club, with its pleasing geometry reminiscent of a vineyard, is a selling point for RLH. It is also not without precedent: About four hours south is Costa Careyes Polo Club, inaugurated in 1990 into a patch of what had been raw, roadless jungle. Now it is a polo circuit destination, hosting International Federation of Polo playoffs, in a thicket of new high-end real estate development.
Polo in Mexico enjoyed a heyday in the 1980s when several Mexican players rose to international prominence, but the level of play and breeding of top ponies has since lagged behind places synonymous with the sport, like Argentina. In recent years its governing body, the Federación Mexicana de Polo, has made efforts to increase participation.
And just a few miles away, near the hippy-and-spring-breaker-filled village of San Pancho, La Patrona Polo and Equestrian Club is also trying to use polo as a draw for a future housing development — just without “ultra” prefixed to its version of luxury.
Maggie Marinaccio, 44, an antiques dealer from New York, and her husband Jason Reilly, 45, a Fire Department of New York lieutenant, understand the draw of polo. They found the sport on a lark last year, while visiting their family vacation home nearby. Now the couple have seven polo ponies between them, and spend half the year in Mexico. The monthly board bill at La Patrona for their herd is not cheap. But it shakes out to what they would pay to keep and train just one horse at an equivalently high-end stables near Ms. Marinaccio’s antique shop in Hudson, N.Y., they said.
“I would never want to go someplace and live on a golf course,” Lt. Reilly said, drinking a pint of the club’s branded “Galope” beer poured from a tack-room keg. “But I’d want to be here.”
As polo ponies clip-clopped through the architectural stables at La Patrona around him, Horacio Garcia, the chief executive officer of Tierra Tropical, the internationally backed company behind the Patrona development, said ground had not broken on any of the planned luxury homes that will eventually surround the polo club, and there was no timeline yet.
The polo comes first, he said. The rest would follow.