Last updated: 04:25 PM ET, Tue August 04 2015

Opinion Home | Magic of Mexico

  • Jane Custer | August 4, 2015 4:25 PM ET

    Royal Lineage, a Divorce and the CostAlegre

    Royal Lineage, a Divorce and the CostAlegre

    Photo by Greg Custer

    Walking through Guadalajara’s open-air antiques market “El Trocadero” on a recent Sunday, I happened across a 1990 issue of Architectural Digest. The cover photo of smooth pastel stucco and tropical foliage featured Las Alamandas, a tony resort associated with two families that have shaped a giant swath of Mexico’s Pacific region.

    I took the magazine as a sign. My husband and I had just driven from Puerto Vallarta south to Manzanillo, passing Las Alamandas and through the elusive and shrouded CostAlegre. I decided to do some research about this stretch of Mexican shore. What I found reveals a region shaped by the caprices of European Royalty, an epic divorce, a Bolivian mining fortune, and zeal to protect a tropical wilderness few have experienced.

    Exiting Banderas Bay en route to Manzanillo, the CostAlegre (or Happy Coast), comprises a 280-kilometer (174 mile) stretch of mountains, valleys and rivers. Civilization’s handprint is mostly restricted to mango, papaya, banana and coconut plantations. Numerous side roads meander west to reveal beaches, bays, lagoons, and tiny fishing villages. For the few fortunate to hold a room reservation, there’s access to some of Mexico’s most opulent homes and boutique resorts.

    With all this beauty so close to Puerto Vallarta, it begs the question, “why is there so little development?” Here’s where the whims and family travails of the rich and (not so) famous give Mexico one of the hemisphere’s most unique regions of luxury and protected wilderness.

    The story starts in the 1930’s. In France in 1931, the Bolivian mining millionaire, Antenor Patiño married Maria Cristina de Borbón, a descendant of Spanish royalty. She was 17 and he was 35. They had two daughters. The younger of the Patiños’ two daughters, Maria Isabel, followed a path similar to her mother. At 19 she became pregnant and married Anglo-French financier James Goldsmith. In 1954, at seven months pregnant, Maria Isabel died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The infant, Isabel Goldsmith-Patiño, was born via Caesarian section and was raised by her father, James Goldsmith. More later about this famous father and daughter.

    Years later Don Patiño sought a divorce, moving to a country he’d never visited: Mexico. Wife Maria Cristina wrote to Mexican President Ruiz-Cortines, and begged him not to grant the divorce. In spite of this, in 1957 the divorce was finalized in Mexico. According to Mexican writer Carlos Tello Diaz, “The marriage was one of convenience, and their long, litigious divorce, will go down in the annals of International divorce law.”

    Why did the Bolivian Don Patiño move to Mexico to settle a divorce? In exchange for a Mexican divorce, Patiño promised then-president Ruiz-Cortines, he would invest heavily in Mexican real estate and luxury tourism projects. Patiño kept his word by building what is still the largest hotel in Mexico City, the Maria Isabel Sheraton, named in honor of his late daughter. He then began construction on what would become one of the Pacific’s most iconic resorts, Las Hadas.

    But Patiño’s real estate legacy in Mexico was not complete. He married for the second time in 1960. He and his wife, Spaniard Beatriz de Rivera, chose to live in Mexico. Beatriz de la Rivera’s niece was married to Italian banker and world traveler Gian Franco Brignone. After experiencing the beauty of Jalisco’s coastline (perhaps during a visit to Las Hadas), Brignone decided to purchase some seven miles of Pacific beaches and coves, today known as Costa Careyes.

    Word of Mexico’s Pacific coastal beauty eventually reached James Goldsmith (now "Sir James" after his knighting in 1976). As happens with European family entanglements, Goldsmith (Don Patiño’s ex-son-in-law and father of Isabel Goldsmith-Patiño) purchased 9,000 hectares (over 22,000 acres) of land including the ex-coffee estate (Hacienda de San Antonio, near Colima) and Cuixmala on the Pacific coast. Cuixmala blossoms to become a cluster of villas, casitas and the grand Casa Cuixmala. It’s been #1 rated by Robb Report among the Best 45 Hotels in the World.

    Up the coast, Isabel Goldsmith-Patiño (Sir James’ daughter) inherited a wild and beautiful 1,500-acre tract of land from her grandfather, Don Patiño. She created the Hollywood getaway Las Alamandas. When not in her homes in London, Paris and Los Angeles, Isabel shares in ecological conservation efforts throughout the region.

    The region’s ecological legacy was cast in 1993. After some colossal and high profile failures in the world of corporate raiding (Good Year Tires), newspaper publishing and British politics, Sir’ James had a rebirth of sorts. The man who was Oliver Stone’s inspiration for the corporate raider, Sir Larry Wildman (Wall Street), decided to leave his business persona behind and dedicate his considerable wealth and energy toward furthering the debate on environmental and humanitarianism causes. Sir James’ efforts, and those of daughters Alix, and Isabel, and the Brignone family resulted in a set aside of 32,000 acres of the CostAlegre. A protected area named the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve was born in 1993.

    Sir James died at age 64 in 1997. His daughter Isabel’s Las Alamandas, Gian Franco and Giorgio Brignone’s Costa Careyes, the villas at Cuixmala, and the spectacular Hacienda San Antonio, are a luxury legacy unsurpassed in the Americas. The European enclave today offers but 118 rooms in the form of deluxe bungalows, homes, villas, and castles, along 100 miles of coast.

    Map courtesy of

    There are private airstrips, a Polo Field frequented by the European one percent, and (as one would expect) a very negligible human footprint. Today few of us can afford to stay at these exclusive properties, but everyone can enjoy the spectacular natural scenery, knowing a bit of the history that conspired to save it. New development has started, with Cheval Blanc, One&Only and Four Seasons announcing groundbreaking. There’s also a highway widening project underway, and talk of a CostAlegre international airport.

    Here are some links for those who want to immerse themselves in this pristine beauty:

    Learn about the CostAlegre at

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Jane Custer Magic of Mexico

Jane Custer Jane Custer is fluent in written and spoken Spanish and has traveled internationally for more than 35 years. She has conducted training workshops about Mexico in North America, Mexico, and Latin America. She is the mother of three amazing adults and coauthor (with husband Greg Custer) of the “Magic of Mexico” travel agent study guide. Jane is currently the elearning Editorial Manager for Mexico & Latin America for travAlliancemedia.
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