Sometimes you have to learn to leave it all behind.
I’m always in search of that perfect luxury experience, be it a hidden paradise in the West Indies or an architectural haven in the Cayman Islands. But what is luxury, exactly? The first thought that comes to mind is probably amenities — a world class spa, Michelin-starred restaurant, state of the art gym, and the sort of service that seems to predict your needs even before you know what exactly those needs are.
There’s another kind of luxury, however, to be found in tranquility. Deceptively simple in theory — surprisingly hard to truly find. But I did find it last weekend in Tulum, Mexico, when I had the opportunity to jet away for four days for a mini vacation. If you’re looking to unplug, get ready…or rather, don’t. Because it turns out that at Casa Malca (formerly Casa Magna), the only thing you really need to bring is a small carry-on and the desire to relax in a laid-back atmosphere.
Located on a sandy beachfront of the Yucatán peninsula, Casa Malca’s history is as wonderfully weird as its current art-inspired revamp. Once a property belonging to infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, government seizure and controversy over ownership rights following Escobar’s death in 1993 meant a period of disuse until, according to Dezeen, 2003, when the property was returned to its original owner.
Prominent art dealer Lio Malca discovered the place in 2012. Given its complicated legal history, acquisition of the land was difficult, but Malca eventually succeeded. Thus began a project of renovation and re-invention. The property would become not just a hotel, but a gallery space for Malca’s vast collection of modern and contemporary artworks. His vision was not to simply build a hotel with a gallery space within it; the entire hotel would become the gallery, with an ever-changing display in the rooms, lobbies, and common areas. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kaws…it’s a little like staying in a well-curated retrospective.
The property was redesigned by architect Alejandro Bahamón and designer/landscape designer Fernando Clamont, the founder and partner, respectively, of Latinta. I happened to meet Bahamón in the restaurant during my stay, and we got to chatting about the architecture and its inspiration. The design, I had noted from my arrival, was simple: everything from the floors to the beds to the bathroom vanities were an uncomplicated polished concrete. The choice behind this simplicity was to direct focus to the artwork; the hotel serves as a canvas.
Curating the artwork for the hotel was a challenge in itself. Malca’s collection was largely works on canvas, which would never have survived this type of display in Tulum’s climate. And so the team began to search for sculptural pieces and artwork in other mediums to bring the artistic vision of the hotel to life.
The original house had seven rooms, with no rhyme or reason to the layout. The architectural challenge was to create hotel rooms from a disjointed space with no corridors or common access points. The building was reconfigured to ensure that each new room would have private access to the outdoors. The rooms somehow have nothing and everything at the same time — they’re raw and rustic, yet refined and with an abundance of character, a quality that has been carried throughout each new structural addition.
The thing that struck me almost immediately about Casa Malca was its tranquillity and the general sense of privacy. Aside from the lobby reception desk, I saw no one; as far as I could tell, the place was empty. But it wasn’t, and far from it. The ingenious of the hotel’s design is that it provides guests with the feeling of solitude, which makes this a favoured retreat for high-profile celebrities (just last month, I was told, Leonardo DiCaprio had stayed there).
That’s not to say that the hotel is without customer service; it’s there, and it’s excellent. It just appears only when you need it.
Besides — as Bahamón explained in our conversation, Casa Malca isn’t just about having the best of everything. It’s about the ability to sit there and eat the best food, experience the best service, and enjoy the glorious scenery, all while having your bare feet in the sand.
The vibe of Casa Malca, much like Tulum, is casual and authentic. It’s a place where you don’t need to put on airs or hide behind a persona. It’s all about being you, and about providing guests with the anonymity of an even playing field. Despite the fact that Tulum has some of the best restaurants in North America, there’s no real dress code here. You don’t need to bring much, and if you do, you’re likely to forgo evening wear for the comfortable, breezier options in your bag. I packed a full suitcase and ended up only wearing five things the whole time I was there. This isn’t the Ritz Carlton, and that’s ok. In fact, that’s the point.
That rawness is echoed in the exterior of the gated resort. Walking from my room to the beach, it felt as though I was transported to Gilligan’s Island. It was almost as though someone had simply taken the wild land and raked it clean, but otherwise left it untouched. The sand, the trees, the waterline…everything felt simultaneously immaculate and wild. It’s the sort of beauty that makes you content and appreciative of the little things. For instance, I had a simple but amazing breakfast in the beach restaurant each morning: granola with coconut milk and fresh fruit, which I enjoyed while relaxing in the sunshine.
Casa Malca is well situated in Tulum. Most of the region’s highlights—the Mayan ruins, the Grand Cenote underground springs, and beautiful nature reserves—are a manageable cab ride away. But I really think the best way to explore the city is by bicycle.
Some of the restaurants in Tulum are world renowned, and there’s a huge culture of healthy vegan eating in the city. (There was actually a vegan festival taking place while I was there.) Posada Margherita is a great restaurant situated right on the ocean. Wherever you go, though, be sure to make your dinner reservations ahead of time. It would be a shame to miss out on the fine dining experiences of Hartwood or Gitano, popular spots with global reputations, which are often booked well in advance.
For all the gourmet cuisine at my fingertips, though, one of my favourite things to do was stop at the fruit stands on the side of the road, where colourful mangos and dragonfruit are expertly cut so that they’re easy to enjoy on a beachfront stroll. A simple pleasure, and that’s the beauty of Tulum.
It’s also the beauty that Casa Malca has emulated so well. It’s a place without bells and whistles, and if you’re the sort who can’t imagine a vacation without slippers and a bathrobe waiting at the door, you probably won’t find what you’re looking for here. But if what you’re looking for is the best scenery, the best people, and the best food, then you’ll find it at Casa Malca.