In 1968, an Italian banker and businessman named Gian Franco Brignone flew over a remote stretch of Pacific Ocean coastline south of Puerta Vallarta, and bought 20,000 acres sight unseen to create a Mexican sanctuary for himself and a coterie of simpatico cohorts. So begins the swashbuckling origin story of Careyes, Mexico. Brignone hired local workers to hack through the dense jungle, then engaged Mexican and Italian architects to build the free-spirited oasis where like-minded bon vivants could gather to express joie de vivre in any way they saw fit, or not at all.
Five decades later, Brignone’s vision of a nonconformist refuge bordered by jungle and ocean includes nine miles of beaches spread between craggy outcrops. There are now 40 casitas and 65 villas, many of which are open to the air under soaring palapa roofs, including his own home: Mi Ojo, or My Eye.
The seclusion of Careyes has made it a popular escape for jet-setters and A-listers like Mick Jagger, Audrey Tatou and Kylie Jenner. Seal and Heidi Klum got married on the beach way back when, and Richard Gere was rumored to be lurking around during my stay. But fear not — you don’t need a Grammy nomination or even an Instagram following to stay. Families are frequent guests, and many were splashing in the infinity pools when I arrived at the beachfront El Careyes Club & Residences, whose 71 suites are just right for a quirky Mexican holiday.
I flew into Puerto Vallarta and then drove three hours south, out of the city traffic, through the serpentine wooded mountain roads, and down the desert-coated coast. I’m not going to lie — it was work to get to Careyes, which I suppose was Brignone’s intention too, but not difficult. There were places to stop for leg stretches and roadside tacos, which made it an adventure of sorts. Eventually, around kilometer 53, I spotted the unassuming sign: Careyes ?! FYI, that punctuation isn’t a typo. “?!” is the Careyes logo, which I translated as Curiosity (?) and Wow (!). I was spot on.
Turning off Highway 200 and into Careyes was like finally entering Oz after leaving Kansas. After two hours of burnt sienna and sepia-toned landscapes, life hummed in technicolor again. The pink bougainvillea looked practically neon, as did the well-watered green grass and Volkswagen-sized broad-leafed bushes waving in a persistent sea breeze.
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Use the “r-word” around Careyes and they’re quick to declare that Careyes is not a resort: “It’s a community.” OK, so this non-resort community is still a resort for visitor purposes, but it’s a pivot from the unimaginative, all-inclusive, elbow-to-elbow compounds you might find in other Mexican beach locales. About 60 creatives, professionals and wellness gurus actually live here full-time. Other property owners (a blend of mostly Europeans, Mexicans and North Americans) rotate in and out, especially for the offbeat events that dot Careyes’ annual calendar, such as Ondalinda, a small and exclusive annual art and music festival that blends the mystery of the Venice Carnival with the unbridled debauchery of Burning Man. A Chinese New Year celebration is held in January; professional polo matches run from late November through the end of April, including the worldly Agua Alta Cup, held during Easter week.
The Careyes Foundation is an integral part of the community, and visitors can stop by the headquarters in the pueblo plaza to check the works of international artists-in-residence and area schoolchildren. Travelers can also arrange to visit some of the surrounding villages that benefit from the foundation’s community empowerment programs.
Careyes now spreads over 36,000 acres dominated by nature, where only 3 percent of the land is developed. Step away from the guacamole dip and you’ll find prehistoric-looking iguanas and raccoon-like tejones scurrying up trees and crossing the sand. Four species of sea turtles lay eggs on the beaches of Careyes.
In fact, the name Careyes means tortoiseshell in Spanish, and the cute-as-can-be creatures are protected by the active Careyes Foundation, which, since 1983, has helped more than 1.7 million just-hatched baby sea turtles pad their way to the ocean.
Brignone died a couple of years ago at the age of 96, but his children continue to propel his vision and legacy, part of which is a cheeky set of rules for those who want to live or visit Careyes. “Speak more than one language” makes the list, as does, “Have will, love and fantasy in your life.” I was slightly disappointed no one vetted me upon arrival.
I met one of Brignone’s sons, Giorgio, at Mi Ojo. Our encounter was brief, but he called Careyes “primitive luxury,” and I found that to be a great descriptor. Careyes is big enough to have options but off-path enough to feel like you’re a part of something special.
I found my personal primitive luxury at the Copa del Sol, the cup of the sun, yet another quirky whim of Brignone’s. He built the 88-foot-wide cement bowl perched on a cliff overlooking the sea as an ode to a woman. I climbed in at sunset and lay still on my back for an hour, eyes closed, while a sound healer worked her magic. Unusual? Yes! Luxury? Absolutely!
That luxury in Careyes isn’t defined by Michelin stars, beauty-branded collabs, and 24/7 room service is precisely the point of the community. Here, in a visionary’s paradise hewn from the Mexican jungle, the ultimate luxury is that every day is yours to create and define.
You’ll find nothing more “?!” anywhere in Mexico.
You don’t have to own a home in Careyes to enjoy it; many are rented out and appropriate for families, such as the one-bedroom casitas. Careyes has gobsmacking clifftop castles with moat-like infinity pools and half-walls to tumble over, which doesn’t make them safe for very small children or intoxicated adults. Most appropriate for families are the El Careyes Club & Residences, a gorgeous beachfront collection of private condo-like accommodations from 1-bedroom suites to 4-bedroom penthouses, all with fully equipped kitchens and dining areas. Most of the residences have outdoor living space too.
There are a total of seven dining outposts in Careyes, found either on the beachside or in the pueblo, a 5-minute drive (or a walk through the jungle and across the road) from the El Careyes Club & Residences. Mexican meals at casual La Duna Restaurant, open daily, are easy for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and just outside your door here. Playa Rosa Restaurant on Playa Rosa beach is within walking distance. It’s the signature restaurant of Careyes but remains casual enough for sandals and a sundress. It’s also the place to gather for fresh juice in the morning and evening cocktails in the sand.
Casa de Nada on Playa Teopa is super casual, with a menu that ranges from easy tapas to vegan dishes. Punto Como in the pueblo prepares excellent steaks and grilled meat, brick-oven pizza and pasta on the plaza. Verify opening hours for all restaurants.
Having a car makes getting to various destinations around Careyes and farther afield a lot easier. But transfers can be arranged, and taxis from nearby villages can be ordered.
WestJet, United, AeroMexico and Alaska Airlines fly into Manzanillo Airport, 90 minutes south of Careyes. Private charter flights also operate between Puerto Vallarta and a grass landing strip in Chamela, 20 minutes outside Careyes.
Editor’s Note: Kimberley was a guest of El Careyes Club & Residences in order to review the property for families. All opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. All photos courtesy of Careyes.
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