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Mexico’s ‘Happy Coast’ Is a Beach Destination Like No Other You’ve Ever Experienced

I fell in love with Mexico from the back of my now-husband's motorcycle. In our early years, we'd spend weeks on end driving up and down the Pacific coastline around Puerto Vallarta, exploring its many secret beaches, sleepy fishing villages, and quiet coves.

18 December 2023
18 December 2023

I fell in love with Mexico from the back of my now-husband's motorcycle. In our early years, we'd spend weeks on end driving up and down the Pacific coastline around Puerto Vallarta, exploring its many secret beaches, sleepy fishing villages, and quiet coves.

My first brush with the Costalegre happened in 2017, on my 30th birthday, when we wobbled on two wheels down an unpaved, sandy road, emerging at one of the largest bays I had ever seen - a gentle arcing curve of sand backed by towering mountains, and not a single hotel or building in sight. It was the closest thing to paradise I had ever experienced. Snacking on freshly grilled fish tacos underneath a thatched palapa, I felt a pang in my heart knowing that finding these places in Mexico is like discovering buried treasure, and that they never stay a secret for long.

The Costalegre is that stretch of coastline that runs south from Puerto Vallarta toward Manzanillo. Costalegre translates to "happy coast," and it's not a far stretch of the imagination to see why. Churning Pacific waves crash onto miles of pristine, golden sand. Mountains creep back from the coastline, carpeted in lush jungle. Groves of palm trees spring up from low-lying creek beds, creating a landscape that looks more akin to the far-reaching corners of Hawaii or Southeast Asia. It's beyond dramatic and completely removed from everything you think you know about Mexico.

One of the protected beaches at Careyes

It sounds like the perfect recipe for the beginning of the end - a blank canvas for all-inclusive resorts, restaurants, and nightclubs. However, unlike other destinations in Mexico, the Costalegre has remained protected and purposefully low-impact for decades - yes, decades. But with the recent opening of the Four Seasons Resort Tamarindo and a second multimillion-dollar luxury development project called Xala opening in phases, the burning question is will Costalegre remain Mexico's “last coast,” or is it destined for a similar fate of overdevelopment?

Turtle release program at Careyes

The Gatekeepers of Paradise

What makes the Costalegre so unique is that this abundance of raw, wild nature is not a coincidence. It's not a part of Mexico that has yet to be discovered by glamorous hoteliers and deep-pocketed developers. Quite the contrary. A large portion of the coastline is owned by a handful of developers who control the surrounding area and, together with local governments and communities, have laid out rules and guidelines on how to keep the destination protected. Through their vision, Costalegre remains untouched on purpose and with the most intentional design. I call it Mexico's “last coast” because the Costalegre was developed to be undeveloped, and those who are the gatekeepers are ensuring it stays that way for as long as humanly possible. 

“Costalegre is a very unique area within Mexico because between five different developers, we control more than 40 kilometers of coastline,” said Ricardo Santa Cruz, founder and president of RSC Development and a founding partner of the Xala project. “All of us have this vision of ensuring Costalegre never gets overdeveloped. We want to be more than just sustainable. We actually are trying to become regenerative.”

A view down the Costalegre from Careyes

Costalegre's Early Beginnings

The Costalegre has always been there, but what put it on the tourist map was Careyes. Careyes was the very first luxury community that was developed along this stretch of coastline. It was developed by Italian banker and philanthropist Gian Franco Brignone, who first visited this part of Mexico in 1968. At the time of his visit, Costalegre was totally inaccessible. Roads had not yet been built and all that existed was unfiltered jungle. But through the forest he had a vision: He wanted to coexist with this land, making it a hideaway for patrons of art, music, poetry and, of course, Mexico.

A cluster of cliffside villas at Careyes

Today, Careyes has evolved to become a thriving residential and tourist community with more than 40 nationalities represented across its dramatic clifftop villas, cozy beachfront bungalows, and brightly colored hillside casitas. It's a community of artists, writers, designers, and creatives - all with money, mind you, but dressed down in a very approachable way. Homes may cost millions of dollars, and regulars may enjoy watching polo on Careyes' private polo field, but the dress code is decidedly T-shirts instead of tiaras. In addition, Careyes prides itself on protecting the local communities and natural environment. Some 20,000 acres of land are protected with a sea turtle sanctuary, a school for the local community, uninhabited coves, and secret beaches. In fact, you'd hardly know Careyes was there unless you knew exactly where to look, and that's exactly how its residents and owners prefer it. 

View down the Costalegre from one of the villas at Careyes

The New Players

While preservation and conservation are the mainstays of the Costalegre, the area is anything but stagnant. Mexico is developing at a lightning pace, and the Costalegre, while highly regulated, is certainly part of that. Newest to the scene are the brand-new Four Seasons Resort Tamarindo and Xala, two projects that will bring a higher influx of tourists, but are also committed to maintaining the spirit of the region.

That’s not to say they’re not luxury destinations. Xala, for example, has housing lots going for millions and already three resident billionaires. An anchor hotel has been signed for 2024, bringing one of the most recognized luxury brand names in the world to Mexico for the first time. There will be wellness, gourmet cuisine, infinity plunge pools, and all the trimmings. But there will also be a fierce commitment and loyalty to the communities that have always existed here.

For example, in order to bring water to Xala, a waterway that would travel through local communities had to be organized. Xala has worked with the communities to ensure they’d have year-round access to this potable water. Bringing clean water to these places where rainfall is scarce throughout the year allows over 200 local families of farmers and cattle ranchers to grow more value-added crops. This translates directly to more cash in the pockets of locals.

But the impact doesn't stop there. Xala has implemented a community center for kids to have after-school activities, a skate park where Olympian Johnny Schillereff leads skate clinics with the local communities, and even a psychologist for children in the area to have someone to talk to about their mental health. Environmental projects include reforestation efforts, an organic mango plantation, and the list goes on. 

“You always have to listen to the community,” said Santa Cruz. “Developers come in and tell [the community] what [they] need and say ‘let me help you.’ In reality, it’s the community that knows better than any of us what their needs are, and the order of their priority.”

Aerial view of Four Seasons Tamarindo

Perhaps the biggest 2022 news on this coast was the opening of the Four Seasons Resort Tamarindo. And although the name Four Seasons is far from boutique, this particular property was designed and developed with the spirit of Costalegre in mind. 

“Imagine you are the first person to arrive on this land. You come off the boat and you will first be completely impressed by the natural richness of the area. The spirit, the service, the quality - that’s the feeling when you come to the Four Seasons for the first time,” said Felix Murillo, the hotel’s general manager.

View from a guest room at Four Seasons Tamarindo

The resort sits on 6,000 acres of land and has been thoughtfully designed to camouflage into the natural environment. While its design is pristine, materials top of the line, and service five-star, the intention was for nothing about it to be flashy. Nothing is to take away from the natural environment.

“Our dream is that things will come into the resort, but we won’t let waste go out,” Murillo added. “Anything we consume, we send to an organic compost. We brought pigs in to eat the compost. We actually have farms of compost, so we prepare everything to go back to the land again.”

Mexico's “Last Coast”

Costalegre is not new. A hunger for the next “undiscovered” destination is not new. What is new and refreshing are developers who aren’t interested in high density developments. This united vision offers hope for this coast to stay as close to pristine as possible.

Playa Mayto is the beach the writer visited that made me fall in love with the Costalegre

“[These families] are visionaries. They saw it before others,” said Zach Rabinor, CEO of Journey Mexico, a locally based curator of ultra high-end trips. “The consumer interest has come around to this because of the post-pandemic mentality. This type of interest existed before the pandemic. Everyone wanted to know what the next Tulum was - low-rise, small-batch, boutique feel. But the pandemic turbocharged the desire for remote, low-density, secluded destinations even more.”

Still, nothing can ever truly stay the same forever. Development is happening. The airstrip near Xala is ready to accept private airplanes in 2023, cutting the transfer time from Puerto Vallarta to the Costalegre down from several hours to 20 minutes. The plan is, eventually, for that airport to accept commercial airlines. Puerto Vallarta is also working on expanding its airport to accommodate a dramatic increase in visitors. The people are coming, and the landscape is changing.

But, and this bears repeating, Costalegre is no other place you've ever experienced in Mexico before, thanks to those who hold the keys. And once you do experience the Costalegre, it will be very difficult to go back to anything else.