Mexico’s gated communities are providing sweet relief for weary Americans

April 4, 2021, 1:06 PM UTC
Banyan Tree Mayakoba's spa pool villa.
Courtesy of Banyan Tree Mayakoba

Peter Hechler’s daily commute involves a languorous boat ride through an emerald green lagoon. Iguanas sun themselves in the mangroves along the banks of the water; blue herons stretch their wings and call out their version of a song. But on a recent Monday morning, Hechler keeps his senses attuned for other phenomena: hard-hatted workers, jackhammers, the sound of steel clanging. Even in paradise, Monday morning brings new urgency.

Hechler, Banyan Tree’s head of regional operations in the Americas (as well as several other regions), is overseeing a $50 million expansion of the brand’s resort in Mayakoba, a gated community in the Riviera Maya, on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. The expansion includes 34 beachfront villas with soaring ceilings and private pools. I meet him at villa No. 1 four days before the first guests are scheduled to arrive. The mattresses are still wrapped in plastic. The two story staircase is missing a railing. There’s a bulldozer blocking what has been billed as an unobstructed ocean view.

“It will get done,” Hechler says, putting on his own hard hat and surveying the scene. “It has to.”

The lagoon at Banyan Tree Mayakoba.
Courtesy of Banyan Tree Mayakoba

Here, as in several resort communities throughout Mexico, business is booming. Weary of the pandemic, over the past year, millions of Americans have ventured south of the border, despite the inherent risks currently associated with travel. Quintana Roo, the state that includes Riviera Maya, Cancun, and Tulum, received 961,000 tourists, nearly half from the U.S., over the Christmas and New Year holiday, according to its tourism secretary, a drop of only 25-percent from pre-COVID times. While Tulum may curry favor with influencers and those who wish to be them, for families with young children and professionals newly able to work from anywhere with reliable WiFi, gated communities like Mayakoba offer a special allure: seclusion and infrastructure, plus all the comforts of a 5-star hotel.

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Take, for example, the conference room that the Banyan Tree converted into a COVID testing center in January, on the eve of new C.D.C regulations. It’s around the corner from the breakfast buffet. It takes appointments by email. It features an English-speaking medical professional in hazmat-style P.P.E. The best part: it’s free.

“It’s already a burden for guests to interrupt their time in paradise,” Hechler says. “By covering their antigen test, we’re saying, ‘We got you. We’re going to take care of it.’”

Banyan Tree Mayakoba’s beachfront pool suite.
Courtesy of Banyan Tree Mayakoba

Over the past six months, many guests from the U.S. and Mexico City who intended to come for four to five days significantly extended their stays, according to Hechler. That’s also the case in Punta Mita, a gated community on Mexico’s Pacific coast, on almost exactly the same latitude as Mayakoba (Punta Mita is 0.09 degrees north). Like Mayakoba, which includes three resorts besides the Banyan Tree, Punta Mita is comprised of two resorts—a Four Seasons and a St. Regis—and private residences. In the wake of the pandemic, the latter proved so popular on the third party rental market that, in October, Punta Mita launched a proprietary version of Airbnb with 50 plush estates and condominiums. Long term rentals are up 89-percent since 2019, and one particularly coveted villa, Casa Tesoro, has been booked solid for a year (it’s where John Legend and Chrissy Teigen spend the month of July).

“We’re looking at doubling the amount of homes on the site,” says Carl Emberson, Punta Mita’s director of marketing and operations. “The last six months were recording breaking, in terms of real estate. At the moment, we have a lack of inventory of new product. People have bought up all the new construction that was available. We’re working urgently to get new places built.”

The rainforest vitality pool at the spa in Banyan Tree Mayakoba.
Courtesy of Banyan Tree Mayakoba

In 2020, Punta Mita did approximately $170 million in residential sales, about the same as 2019. “You have to take into account that sales completely stopped for four months in 2020,” Emberson notes. “When they kicked up again, the demand skyrocketed.”

On top of what one would expect from a high end resort community—cushy restaurants and bars, Jack Nicklaus designed golf courses, tennis courts and swimming pools galore—Punta Mita boasts its own hospital (it also offers free antigen testing for guests) as well as a socially-distanced grade school (in person classes convene at one of the many beach clubs). The combination of logistical necessities with luxury perks has bred a critical mass of younger professionals from companies like Accenture and American Express.

“Before, a lot of our residents were retired or semi-retired,” says Emberson. “Now, we have a lot more families who are here to live and work. The average age is much younger.”

When surfing might also count as networking, word spreads fast. “I have friends from San Francisco that are about to buy here,” says Carla de la Mora, a mother of two who moved her family from León, Mexico, to Punta Mita in August. “They’ve been renting for months, now they don’t want to go back.” For now, mornings here are marked by the squawk of chachalacas. But in the distance, as in Mayakoba, construction whirrs, anticipating the next batch of newcomers ready to trade pandemic mundanity and general urbanity for gated bliss.