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Spending a lazy afternoon in the sun with pool-side cocktails or an ice-cold beer might still be an accurate depiction of a Mexico vacation — but that’s changing. Increasingly, travellers looking to experience authentic, high-design destinations, are flocking to the warm North American country and discovering a new side of Mexico’s diverse and evolving architectural traditions along the way.

After the jet age spurred a boom in international travel in the 1960s, Mexican architects found new opportunities to express local aesthetics and culture through a wave of large-scale hospitality projects. Throughout the late 20th century, a budding era of mass tourism translated into designs for upscale hotel chains across the country, from the colour-blocked minimalism of Ricardo Legorreta’s Camino Real in Mexico City to the earthy, organic curves of Sordo Madaleno’s Westin Regina in Los Cabos, to name just a pair. Today, the rise of experience-oriented tourism — driven in part by online home-sharing platforms and social media — is propelling the industry’s luxury segment in a new architectural direction, enabling the development of design-driven boutique hotels such as Alberto Kalach’s Casona Sforza, in Oaxaca, and Manuel Cervantes’s Rosa Morada, in Nayarit.

On Mexico's Pacific Coast, the Litibu bungalow (a 2020 Palma MX project) combines a vacation home with a dedicated yoga space.
On Mexico’s Pacific Coast, the Litibu bungalow (a 2020 Palma project) combines a vacation home with a dedicated yoga space. PHOTO: Luis Young

According to Marc Bowers, founder of CasitaMX, a booking platform for architecture-forward vacation rentals in Mexico, travellers are now choosing to visit certain destinations based on the attractiveness of the accommodations available — whether the property that caught their eye on Instagram, Pinterest, Airbnb, or elsewhere. “People travel to a specific home now,” he says. “That’s something that rarely happened in the past.” And the new wave of tourism isn’t only benefitting large, well-established architecture firms, as it largely did in the past. Just as digital platforms create opportunities for mom-and-pop investors — in 2023, direct foreign investment in vacation homes surpassed hotels, recording $303 million (USD) in the last quarter of the year — smaller design practices are increasingly taking part in the transformation of the Mexico’s hospitality sector.

On Mexico's Pacific Coast, the Litibu bungalow (a 2020 Palma MX project) combines a vacation home with a dedicated yoga space.
Litibu PHOTO: Luis Young

A case in point is Palma, an emerging architecture studio based in Mexico City, whose work increasingly focuses on hybrid typologies blurring the distinction between hospitality and residential spaces. Founded in 2016 by a group of young practitioners — Ilse Cárdenas, Diego Escamilla, Regina de Hoyos, and Juan Luis Rivera — the team has designed eleven vacation homes scattered along Nayarit’s Pacific coast. Several of these projects are located in Sayulita, a laid-back surfing town (better known for its consistent swells than for its architectural prowess) where the firm now maintains an office.

From street level, Sayulita’s five-storey Chiripa presents a two-storey frontage. PHOTO: Luis Young

Palma’s distinctive aesthetic is evidenced in Chiripa, a striking six-unit complex — catering to both permanent residents and visitors — completed nearby in 2022. The architects experimented with an undefined typology, where the boundaries between home and hotel blend in a minimalistic setting; the two-volume complex integrates shared amenities (including a pair of rooftop hot tubs) with flexible, generously proportioned suites. “You’re creating something that reflects it’s someone’s home, but it also needs to cater to guests,” says Cárdenas, one of the founders, about the firm’s design process. “It’s an interesting way of looking at a project.”

Chiripa’s individual suites are carefully contoured to balance privacy and open views. PHOTO: Luis Young

NICO Loma Alta, Palma’s most recently completed project in Sayulita, exemplifies the opportunities unlocked by the uptake of digital technologies, and incorporates the lessons learned from previous hospitality projects. Initially conceived as a home-away-from-home for Nicole Johnson and Robert Humble, founding partner and design principal at Hybrid, a design-build-develop architecture firm based in Seattle, Palma’s program for NICO evolved from a typical vacation home to a five-bedroom micro-hotel designed in collaboration with Hybrid.

Chiripa PHOTO: Luis Young

“We were in a position where we had some money to invest,” Humble says. “So instead of building an apartment building in Seattle, we thought, ‘Why don’t we develop something income-producing in Sayulita?’” The 280-square-metre project wouldn’t have been possible without home-sharing platforms, he notes. “Airbnb enabled us to create a product type that maybe wasn’t entirely feasible before.”

Chiripa suite interiors. PHOTO: Luis Young

Rising amongst copperwood trees, a deciduous variety endemic in the region, NICO’s exposed structure in concrete and cinder blocks offers a tranquil respite for the architecture connoisseur. “We wanted to make it feel tropical, a little whimsical,” says Cárdenas, who led the project’s design. “We really wanted it to be like something that you start discovering.” Situated on the side of a gully, adjacent to the Sierra the Vallejo biosphere reserve, the site’s topography facilitated the creation of an unassuming façade that conceals the building’s five-storey massing, respecting the scale of neighbouring structures.

NICO Loma Alta integrates tropical warmth and comfort within a brutalist grid. PHOTO: Luis Díaz Díaz

Upon entering, guests are led to a textured-concrete staircase, which is flanked by a variety of social spaces across the five levels. Open to the elements on two sides, the building’s sunken main floor contains a living and dining area with expansive views of the Banderas Bay, as well as a plunge pool sheltered by a tropical palm tree garden. On the rooftop, meanwhile an open-air kitchenette and another plunge-pool share an expansive view of Sayulita. 

NICO Loma Alta PHOTO: Luis Díaz Díaz

Each of the levels is laid out to maximize the building’s flexibility, and intuitively convey guests through a gradient of privacy conditions and environments. “The way the concrete grid is laid out allows for thresholds between the very private and serene, and a party-inducing atmosphere,” says Cárdenas, emphasizing the contrast between the social areas on the main and top floors, and the quietness of the suites. “You have this possibility of being super social, but you can also go to the lowest suite and have a more intimate vibe.”

NICO Loma Alta PHOTO: Luis Díaz Díaz

This flexibility also allows NICO to be rented out as a single dwelling, or to multiple guests at a time. Neither configuration feels contrived or awkward, since the building’s grid structure seamlessly connects and divides spaces. Moreover, views into the ocean, forest, or the adjacent neighbourhood, provide each floor with a distinctive ambiance, while finishes in clay brick, wood, and blush-tinted stucco maintain a cohesive, Brutalist-inspired aesthetic.

NICO Loma Alta PHOTO: Luis Díaz Díaz

Breaking away from clichéd preconceptions, Palma’s work successfully melds vernacular construction methods — including mampostería (clay masonry) floors, wrought iron window frames, and cinder block walls — to inform their own take on tropical minimalism. “Sometimes our clients are from the U.S. Or Canada, and they have an appreciation and a want for Mexican architecture,” Cárdenas says. “With NICO, we really tried to divert away from the Mexican clichés… We’re completely in love with our materials, with our traditions, with our identities — but how do we translate that into our current moment?”

NICO Loma Alta PHOTO: Luis Díaz Díaz

For decades, hospitality design in Mexico has relied on an aesthetic that, albeit appealing, has limited the visibility of the country’s expansive architecture, catering instead to the tourist gaze. “We’ve been working [in Sayulita] for five or six years now,” says Diego Escamilla, one of Palma’s co-founders. “In the beginning, it was something we struggled with — the clients asking us to build in Mexican hacienda-style; what they might imagine Mexican architecture should be.” 

NICO Loma Alta PHOTO: Luis Díaz Díaz

While thatched roofs, Spanish tiles, pergolas, as well as stucco walls painted in intense colour palettes and clad with Talavera tiles can still dominate outsider perceptions of Mexican design, boutique practices like Palma are reinvigorating hospitality architecture with greater sensitivity. This generation of young architects — which also includes Aranza de Ariño (Casa Cosmos), Delfino Lozano (Casa Liquen), as well as Carla Osorio and Mario Ávila (Casa del Sapo) — are quietly transforming Mexico’s lush Pacific coast.

Although the region’s popularity is undoubtedly creating new challenges for local communities — nearly 50 per cent of all dwellings in Sayulita are listed as vacation properties in the latest census — home-sharing caters to a more diverse variety of long- and short-term guests than traditional tourism. According to Escamilla, this hybrid of permanent and temporary residencies can help maintain a lively town year round. “We tried to find a way not to have a ghost town during the low season,” he says, pointing to the flexibility of Chiripa as an example. “We often see people using the terraces, going in and out, this isn’t a dead building — we don’t like to see that.”

A New Typology — and Design Language — Shapes Mexico’s Pacific Tourism

For boutique practice Palma, the rise of experience-oriented travel translates to hybrid architecture combining home and hospitality.

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