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How a couple of artists created a luxury retreat deep in the Mexican jungle.
VERANA IS A HOTEL built into the mountains above Yelapa, an isolated fishing village in Jalisco, Mexico. The only way to arrive is by boat. Or at least it’s the only way you would want to arrive, I’m told. There is one road through the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains above Yelapa, but it is rough and twisty, made of dirt and rocks. It can take four hours from where the boat launches, and once you get there, you have to hike miles down a jungle path that is only passable part of the year due to the river.
I depart by boat from Boca de Tomatlan, a small town an hour south of Puerto Vallarta. The single pier is bustling with people coming on and off little fishing boats tricked out with outboard motors. The small crowd is a mix of tourists — almost exclusively Mexican nationals — and people who live in the towns south that are inaccessible by roads. They carry packages, everyday shopping, and larger purchases, including a refrigerator being transported by several strong young men.
The road that cuts down from the highway is called Calle Pelicanos, and as I wait for the boat, at least 30 giant, dark gray pelicans are fishing. They fly 50 feet straight up and then turn suddenly to drop into the water, becoming bullets led by their giant bills. I watch them chug through the water with their throat pouches to find fish, tossing them into the air before swallowing them whole.
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For its owners, Verana has clearly been a labor of love, and an expression of it.
The Verana boat arrives in the midst of this scene — the pelicans, the people toting appliances. It is a small blue and white boat with the hotel’s name painted on the side, and the captain helps me aboard before pulling out into the bay. Within minutes, the dock has faded and we are zooming through choppy water down the coast. The mountains to our left are dotted with little inlets where boats are delivering tourists to secluded beaches for day trips, as well as a smattering of eyebrow-raising houses. I am looking the wrong way when the captain begins signaling to me, drawing my attention to the pod of dolphins breaching next to our boat.
The coast becomes wilder as we continue south, and the beaches disappear. The mountains are higher, covered in dense, green jungle that runs straight down to the sea. It ends at the rocks that are being pounded by the waves, a few of which have white statues of the Virgin Mary affixed to their highest points.
After about 30 minutes, the captain points the nose of the boat toward a pier, and I see Yelapa off in a small bay. Waiting on the pier is Joel, Verana’s hotel manager. He greets me warmly and gives me a hand off the boat, as one of the porters hoists my 50-pound camera case onto one shoulder as if lifting a pillow. Joel tells me the porters will carry my bags, but I should get ready for a long walk up.
Veronique Lievre, who owns Verana with her husband Heinz Legler, will later tell me about the first time she visited the land in the late 1990s. “Heinz went looking down the coast and he found this place. There was no road. When I saw it for the first time, some boys from the village cut a path ahead of us through the jungle with machetes. I was skeptical. I thought, Yes, this is beautiful, but how will we ever get anyone to come here? I thought we would have to build a tram or have a team of donkeys to get people up the mountain.”
The hotel staff does, indeed, include four donkeys, team members that Joel points out to me as we begin to climb up the stone stairs zig-zagging through the jungle. (The Verana website tells visitors that these mules are available to take them up the mountain if they feel too “tired or lazy.”) Most of the work of getting everything through the jungle to build the hotel, and everything needed for its continued operation, is done by men. On the way down I look at my step counter: 3,500 steps, a little over a mile and a half.
Coming up the stairs through the jungle, the path finally opens onto an enormous vista, with all the distance traveled to get there laid out before you: the sea, the mountains with Yelapa carved into a cove, and Puerto Vallarta, off in the distance on the other side of the Bay of Banderas, visible only at night by its twinkling lights.
(The porter who carries my bags is called Conejo. Later, he will ask me to guess his age, smiling proudly when I gasp in disbelief that he is 58. He tells me he is in good health because he doesn’t smoke, although he allows that he does drink cervezas, of course. When I tell him how beautiful I think the property is, he says thank you, as though I have complimented him personally. Which, in a way, I have — he has worked at Verana for 21 years and has taken part in building much of it himself.)
“We call Verana ‘the handmade hotel’ because it really was built entirely by hand. When we first arrived of course there was no electricity, and even once we put in solar panels, there wasn’t enough power for tools, so everything was done with hand tools. All the land was cleared by hand. The entire pool was dug out with shovels,” Lievre tells me.
Lievre, originally from Paris, is a set decorator, and Legler, who is German, is a set designer. For the past 24 years they have split their time between Los Angeles, where they met working in the film industry, and Verana, where they have slowly built the 10 independent rentals that currently make up the adults-only hotel property. Each one is unique and stylistically different, reflecting both the eclectic taste of the owners, and the talents and skills of their respective careers.
Starting with just two concrete platforms, the couple camped for the first several years under a palapa (an open-sided structure with a roof made of woven palm fronds, a traditional building technique of western Mexico). Each year they added something else to the property: Casa Piedra (a two-bedroom stone house tucked under a cliff, filled with antique Mexican furniture and walls hand-plastered in various jewel tones); the Tea House (inspired by Japanese tea houses, its two connected wooden platforms are suspended above the jungle canopy, with sliding bamboo panels instead of walls); and the Library (a brutalist cube of concrete, painted yellow, which sits on top of the stone house and offers a lending library filled with a selection of novels and design books). Although they cleared the plants from the jungle floor, everything was built without cutting down a single tree.
The original structure is one of the property’s rentals now too — called, of course, The Palapa. It has been upgraded since those early days, outfitted with luxurious beds covered in traditional, handwoven linens. The beds are encased in mosquito nets, which the staff turn down each night, tucking the edges in tightly underneath the mattresses. While it can’t quite be called camping anymore, it is still entirely open to the surrounding jungle, with low stone walls that end at hip height, and a terrace overlooking the sea. “In those rooms you are still sleeping outside,” Lievre says.
The path on the grounds winds its way up through a series of terraced lawns and landscaped moments. Tall grass gives way to reveal a lily pond, and native bushes explode in orange flowers — a color palette that informs the many orange umbrellas that cover the pool and restaurant areas. The restaurant serves three meals a day and the food is excellent. The ingredients are fresh and hyper-local, and the simplicity of the dishes on the menu (chicken enchiladas, cold roasted tomato soup) belie their complexity. Each item feels like the best possible version of itself (Oh, so this is what fajitas are supposed to be). I have the sense of being the guest in the home of a Mexican grandmother, who is feeding me with recipes passed down and perfected through generations of women (I don’t know who is actually doing the cooking, but the food is that good).
For its owners, Verana has clearly been a labor of love, and an expression of it. Lievre tells me that they started this project in the early years of their marriage, with the property feeling both deeply personal and completely shared with their guests. Since building Verana, the couple has founded a company called Boutique Homes, a curated resource for very small, very special hotels, and rental properties around the world that are similarly unique. “We wanted to feature the kind of properties where we would like to stay. So many rental properties and hotels feel anonymous, and we like to stay in the ones where you can feel the human touch of the person who designed them,” explains Lievre.
It is this tension between the personal and the shared that makes Verana feel so special, along with the juxtaposition of its incredibly considered luxury and the wildness of the jungle. The room I stay in is called the Studio. It is a modern box with two walls of glass windows hanging over the side of a cliff. The walls opposite the windows are treated with a distressed concrete, and appear blue or gray depending on the time of day. The air conditioner feels like the greatest indulgence. The bathroom and shower are outside; the former in a little room with a door, the latter open-air. Inside the shower are seashells filled with handmade soap and an herbal sugar scrub, each topped with a freshly picked plumeria blossom. Coming out of the shower, I encounter a stick bug on the wall, its body longer than my hand.
I visit in the summer, which Lievre apologizes for when we speak afterward, but I assure her that I knew what I was getting into, having lived in this part of Mexico. There really is no bad time to visit, just very different times. The summer is the low season; the weather is unrelentingly hot and humid, the kind of weather that asks you to adjust yourself and move your body more slowly. It is also the rainy season, which means that the jungle is an especially vibrant shade of green, growing at a rate that makes you feel small under the incredible power of nature. At night, there are massive thunderstorms that move through, with thunder cracking so loudly it shakes the walls, torrents of water dumping down from the sky. Roads wash out, the electricity cuts; if you're lucky, it flickers back on.
(For those less interested in storms and oppressive heat, the weather in the area during the late fall, winter, and early spring — high season — is what most consider to be perfect: hot and dry during the day, cooler at night, and with no rain from November to June.)
Unfortunately, my stay at Verana did not include a storm, but I imagine it must be an incredible show to watch from the inside of one of its rooms, lightning bumping across the sky like strobe lights. At sunset, the trees around my room twinkle with fireflies, echoing the candles the staff has lit both inside and outside while I eat my dinner.
I wake in the dark to the sounds of the jungle. The chorus of cicadas is so loud that I sit up in bed, listening, amazed at how alive the night is here. By dawn the cicadas are finished, replaced by stillness, which is then replaced by the stirring of birds — and a strange thumping sound, which I determine is coming from a large frog who found its way into my room. It is trying to escape by repeatedly throwing itself against the glass, only to slowly slide back down the slick windows each time and land on the floor. Once I am able to catch it and put it outside, it hops away quickly, disappearing back into the jungle. The staff has silently placed tea and muffins outside my room (the muffins in a hanging bird cage to protect them from racoons), and I eat my breakfast while watching the sun come up over the mountains.
Skye Parrott is the editor-in-chief of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor-in-chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.
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