By Costas Christ
Originally appeared in Virtuoso Life's December 2013 issue
I’m flying 200 feet above a string of sand dunes along Mexico’s Costalegre, sitting in the copilot seat of a single-engine prop plane as we angle over a large sunlit lagoon ringed with dark mangroves. Below us, more than a dozen crocodiles warm their bodies in the morning sun, while hundreds of roseate spoonbills and black-necked stilts wade daintily in smaller ponds nearby. While I snap photos, the pilot points offshore and exclaims, “Look, a mother and baby!” as a right whale and her calf breach with a spectacular splash. We circle overhead several times to watch the synchronized pair swimming under the clear sea before setting down on a narrow gravel strip between forested hills where endangered jaguars still roam.
, the private 25,000-acre estate and nature reserve that’s my destination, is one of just 34 biodiversity hot spots left on the planet, places of rare wilderness teeming with endemic species. Locals call this region the Virgin Coast, and veteran Mexico travelers will tell you it’s the country’s most beautiful. Best of all, it’s just a 25-minute private plane ride from Puerto Vallarta.
Originally the family home of the late businessman and conservation philanthropist Sir James Goldsmith, the estate is part of the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve, one of Mexico’s most ecologically diverse areas. Today, Alix Marcaccini, Goldsmith’s daughter, and her husband, Goffredo, continue the family legacy of protecting the environment while welcoming travelers looking for a rejuvenating escape. No two of Cuixmala’s 38 meticulously designed suites are alike, and Casa la Loma, the fantastical Moorish palace that was once Goldsmith’s private residence, has entertained celebrities from Mick Jagger to Madonna.
Ecotravelers take in the setting through features such as open sky-villa terraces perched above acres of forest and beach, and fresh food harvested daily from the on-site organic farm. “Each of us has a responsibility to help protect nature, and we take that responsibility seriously,” Marcaccini explains as we stroll the farm’s narrow footpaths. “Cuixmala is about celebrating the fun, beauty, and harmony of life, and showing how that can translate into an inspiring vacation that is also good for local communities and the planet too.”
It may sound like lofty idealism, but the estate walks the talk: Cuixmala’s ecological foundation sponsors environmental education programs for villagers, and a local primary school that the resort built teaches sustainable living as part of its curriculum (during my visit, the kids held a fashion show for parents, modeling plastic dresses and tinfoil suits made from materials once destined for the trash heap).
Resort guests can also visit a ranger field station tucked at the end of two miles of pristine beach to learn about sea turtle conservation. Four species of sea turtles nest here, and Cuixmala has released more than 500,000 hatchlings and protected more than 10,000 nests, helping to turn the tide for the local population of endangered olive-ridleys – I spotted 23 during a guided boat trip to nearby Bird Island.
The organic farming team works with local growers to share knowledge about pesticide-free agricultural techniques, and meals feature seafood sustainably harvested from local waters, including line-caught albacore and yellowfin tuna. The entire estate doubles as a private nature reserve to explore on horseback or on foot, with indigenous wildlife such as wild boars, coatimundis, and ocelots, as well as some rare exotic species like eland, native to Africa and the largest antelope in the world.
While its eco-cred is central to all Cuixmala does, so is its guest experience. Days are spent practicing yoga, mountain biking, swimming, and bird-watching (some 400 species are found in the area), while nights are dedicated to sampling wines and dining on farm-to-table meals. Dinner on the beach for two around a campfire with chilled Champagne? Consider it done. Tequila tasting and dancing to a mariachi band, with fireworks at midnight? Just ask. A surfing lesson on crowd-free waves? Count me in. Or perhaps cruising old-growth mangroves in an electric eco-boat, sundowner in hand, as tropical birds come home to roost against a backdrop of brilliant pink and orange sky – one of the highlights of my stay. Then again, the vast natural landscape surrounding you – free from billboards, highways, and urban sprawl – may be the most precious experience of all.
“We take pride in immersing our guests into the slower rhythms of the natural world around us,” Marcaccini says, after introducing me to a couple from New York City who had returned for their fourth stay at Cuixmala in as many years. “What motivates us is making a direct connection between conservation and tourism,” she explains. “It’s what travel should be.”