The billionaire, his Mexican hideouts and me


About 10 years ago, when I lived in Mexico, I went to a party at a beach house that belonged to a friend. It was a cloudy afternoon on the Pacific coast, but there is a moment at the end of the day when the sun hides beneath the clouds and floods everything with light. It was then that we all saw what was not visible before: a mansion, in the distance across the bay, sitting alone on its own beach, with a blue dome and deep orange walls that suddenly glowed in the dark forest. that surrounded her. Someone said it had been built by billionaire corporate raider Sir James Goldsmith in 1989. There were zebras and African antelopes on the land; Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger had been guests.

“Who's there now?” I asked.

“It's a hotel,” someone else said, adding that I could stay there too if I wanted.

That kind of ostentatious luxury seemed too much like Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug trafficker, at the time. But I'm also a curious person who in the last decade has seen the rise of a billionaire class that fades into retirements like that. I even admit that I fantasize about what it would be like to enter that “Great Gatsby” universe that exists parallel to our own, sometimes so close that you can see it across the bay: a blue dome illuminated like a flickering light in the distance. Would it be what I imagined? After pondering for years, last spring I made reservations to see how the billionaire lived and learn a little about him.

Goldsmith's 1997 obituary in The New York Times describes him as “a flamboyant British-French financier who supported three families, homes in four countries and used his billions to fight the European Union.” He died at the age of 64 in Spain from a heart attack. It was a sudden end to a troubled life, which he first devoted to corporate raids against companies like Goodyear, then to politics, when, presaging Brexit in about two decades, he formed his own political party whose sole objective was a referendum on the future From great britain. in the European Union. Along the way he bought two properties in Mexico: Cuixmala, the mansion I saw on the coast of the state of Jalisco, and Hacienda de San Antonio, a former 19th-century coffee plantation in the nearby state of Colima.

“He was one of a kind,” said Alix Marcaccini, Goldsmith's daughter with his second wife, Ginette Lery, who currently runs both properties and whose memories of her father have less to do with his politics than with his obsession with details. how to track drills. Cutouts of the pools in the ground with chalk. “My father had this childlike quality; he was constantly amazed by the simple beauty of things. He always said, 'If you've built something that's not pretty, don't keep it, because your eyes will get used to it.'”

My journey into the aesthetic world of Goldsmith began at Hacienda de San Antonio. In the landscape of Mexico there is no shortage of plantations from bygone eras that are now in ruins as if taken from an Edgar Allan Poe story. But not this one: the road to the hacienda, at the end of a well-maintained path on the property, ends at the main house, which stands in pink and black, as if it were built yesterday.

Tropical birds sang in the mid-afternoon sun as I walked to see the place. There was a winding garden with fountains and geometric hedges that evoked Spain's Alhambra. A pool with a checkerboard bottom was reminiscent of Hearst Castle in California. But the towering volcano in the background made it clear that it wasn't on any of those other Xanadus: Colima Volcano, one of the most active in Mexico, is just eight miles away and can often be seen belching puffs of smoke. .

My room was a large chamber with ceilings that rose four meters high, wooden beams in the ceiling, and a fireplace beckoning just steps from the bed. I opened the closet expecting to find a cupboard, but inside I found a minibar, filled with cocktail shakers, wine glasses, and a kind of grappa made on site with mango: mangrappa, they called it. I opened the bottle, lay down on the couch and opened a book. It couldn't have been more welcoming.

After dinner and a quiet night, I set out the next day with Eliceo Ramírez Castellanos, a property guide nicknamed Chito, toward Rancho Jabalí, the 5,000-acre working ranch that abuts the plantation house. Mr. Ramírez began the history of the ranch with his own. His family, he said, had cared for the ranch even before Goldsmith purchased it, having settled in a town of several hundred people that was founded to manage the sprawling estate. The first owner was a German coffee magnate named Arnold Vogel, who planted Arabica bushes in the 1870s. According to legend, coffee from the plantation was served to the German imperial family.

Mr. Ramírez parked the car and entered the stables, returning with a couple of horses that we mounted and began to ride towards the forest. It was the dry season in Mexico and the forest was parched; The leaves crunched under the horses' hooves. Mr. Ramírez continued the history of the hacienda: Vogel died in the 1920s, he said, and after a few decades of disrepair, the plantation was acquired by a Bolivian mining magnate, Antenor Patiño, known in the press by his nickname , the King of Tin. . Goldsmith, Ramírez said, had married a daughter of Patiño and later bought the hacienda after acquiring the land to build Cuixmala, his other Mexican property.

Coffee, mining, Wall Street finance: the commodities of this plantation varied with the times, I told Mr. Ramírez. We had gotten off our horses and were looking at the landscape around us: a waterfall, a lake, and towering trees. Mr. Ramírez made a gesture. “This part doesn't change with the owners,” he said.

The night felt cold, which never ceases to surprise me in the tropics. “It's the altitude,” said the woman who came to light the fireplace in my room; After all, we were where coffee used to be grown, almost 4,000 feet above sea level. I still couldn't resist looking at the stars, so I put on a sweater. You could see Sagittarius, shaped like a teapot, and the Milky Way coming out of its beak. I walked to the small chapel dedicated to San Antonio, which gives its name to the hacienda, where a couple of candles were burning. I had been told before that it was built when an eruption saved the plantation after Vogel's wife prayed to the saint. In the distance, the volcano remained silent in the moonlight.

The next day I was on my way to Cuixmala. The trip is all downhill, first through the state capital of Colima and then along a fast highway until you reach the ocean, where the air suddenly becomes humid and coconut plantations stretch for miles. Two hours after leaving San Antonio, I turned left at a nondescript sign. A man with a clipboard put up a barrier and told me to follow his colleague, who was waiting for me on a motorcycle.

Five minutes down the dusty road, the man on the motorcycle stopped and pointed to the lagoon we were passing. A crocodile slipped into the water and then another. There was something else moving in the distance, so I squinted. It was a herd of zebras grazing in a field beyond the water. It turned out that Cuixmala dwarfed the size of the hacienda: some 36,000 acres in total, most of which serves as a nature reserve for a menagerie of African animals, along with countless native species such as jaguars and ocelots, and is tended by a staff of around of 400.

I had seen Goldsmith's mansion at that party years before, but that fleeting glimpse didn't prepare me for what it would be like to see the place when it filled my field of vision. The dome, which had been just a small dot from afar, was now a huge tiled rotunda with blue and yellow chevrons above the roof. Two bronze statues, a rhinoceros and a gorilla, playfully guarded the entrance.

I walked up the grand steps, feeling a bit like a prince, passing fountains and more sculptures. It was golden hour and the wind was blowing in through a window curtain. I looked out: about a hundred feet below, stretched a secluded beach a mile long, with waves crashing in from the Pacific.

Goldsmith's architect, the Frenchman Robert Couturier, had opted for an almost imaginary mix of Mexico and Morocco. There were Moorish-style lattices on the doors and hallways filled with handcrafted ceramics from Michoacán. The scale was enormous. I passed a whitewashed library full of books and red couches to read them. I passed through a ten-sided courtyard with a fountain and entered my room, one of four in the mansion, where I was greeted by a dragon alebrije, a colorful Mexican figurine that tourists often take home in their suitcases. This one was standing on his hind legs and was as tall as me.

Cuixmala has two private beaches and the next morning I headed to the second. The captain of the estate boat was waiting to take me to see what was north along the coast. Apparently there were no zebras or elands: the Goldsmith Reserve quickly gives way to a series of other luxury mansions, each with its own dock. (Marcaccini spent years fighting his neighbors, including Mexican billionaire Roberto Hernández, to block the development.) We passed an abandoned fishing village on an island; Encouraged, we threw out a fishing line, but the fish weren't biting that day.

On my last night in Cuixmala, Efraín Saucedo, the house manager, revealed a surprise: “All the other guests left today, so the house is yours tonight.”

He knew he wasn't likely to get that chance again, even if he returned. Where would she start? First, I ordered a margarita and went out to watch the sunset over the ocean. The drink was strong; the reds and purples in the sky swirled like Diego Rivera’s “Evening Twilight in Acapulco.” Then I headed to the reading room, pulled out a copy of the first book I found (a thick tome with photographs of ancient Mesoamerican pottery), and pretended the entire library belonged to me.

What was it like to feel like a billionaire for one night? I will say he was a bit of a loner. The most beautiful places in the world should never be the domain of just one person: they should be shared.

While I was falling asleep I thought I heard a party in the distance at another house on the beach. And I imagined someone looking at the mansion, like I once did, wondering who was there.

Both the Mexican states of Jalisco and Colima currently have State Department warnings against travel due to crime and kidnapping, something that should be seriously considered before traveling.

Get there: The main airport that serves both hotels is the Playa de Oro International Airport in Manzanillo, 90 minutes from Cuixmala and two hours from Hacienda San Antonio. The hotels also organize private flights from various points in Mexico.

Cuixmala: Suites in the main house cost between $880 and $2,200 per night during the summer and early fall; from $1,100 to $2,750 during winter and spring. The property also features private villas that cost up to $7,700 per night and smaller casitas for around $600 per night.

Hacienda San Antonio: Rooms range from $760 to $1,300 per night during the summer; from $980 to $1,900 during winter.

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