There tend to be two schools of thought when addressing Tulum, Mexico as a destination: those who have been there and done that, and those who dream of the tiny hotel-lined street sat between calm seas and a dense jungle. Remarkably, Casa Malca, situated along Carretera Tulum Boca Paila (aka Route 15), should appeal to both. For the former, this unique Design Hotels-certified destination offers 180 meters of beachfront property relative to only 35 rooms (at present), so there’s no crowding. Of equal importance, it’s the first and only art-centric hotel in town, and after one is greeted by a KAWS in the lobby, an array of contemporary artworks are visible shortly thereafter. For the latter type of traveler, whether you’re looking to sit on powdery white sand, enjoy Mexican cuisine or explore the Yucatán Peninsula, it’s an embodiment of Tulum’s spirit.
Hotelier Lio Malca, primarily known for his NYC gallery and storied expertise on Basquiat and Haring artworks, fell in love with Tulum almost by accident. “I first came here in 2012, the last year of the Mayan calendar. I was exploring the different cities of the area,” Malca explains to CH. He ended up becoming ill a few towns away just before arriving to Tulum. When he woke up, recovering, after his first night in the seaside town, he says, “I stepped out of my cabin and touched the sand and I was like: ‘Where am I? Where have I been?'” He extended his trip through New Year and began looking for property.
“I saw many different properties but I kept asking about this one,” Malca continues. Casa Malca is situated upon an estate that once belonged to Pablo Escobar. The Mexican government ultimately seized the place—though roughly eight years ago, over a decade after Escobar’s death. Because of this, Malca kept getting told no, it was impossible. “Then I found a broker who told me it had been returned to the original owner [before Escobar]. I asked around to lawyers and government workers and learned that I could in fact buy it.” And so he did, with initial plans to keep it as a vacation home.
“I purchased the property because I thought it was insane,” he adds. “I could not believe that in this world, a property like this still exists and hasn’t been taken over by a corporation.” A regular entertainer, Malca found that many of his friends and colleagues were coming to visit. In 2015, he turned his home into a nine-bedroom hotel and now it has just increased to 24 rooms (thanks to an expansion constructed in the same style as the original building) in order to allow more people to come and view his art and live the Tulum lifestyle.
I could not believe that in this world, a property like this still exists and hasn’t been taken over by a corporation
The modern, spacious rooms all feature works from Malca’s collection and many of them are about 20 or so paces from the water. Hammocks hang from trees along the vast property. And a restaurant, Haring-themed bar and Haring-themed events space all provide further indoor exploration. This isn’t an all-inclusive resort but it is a universe of its own, defined by relaxation and wonder. But it’s also close enough to freshwater cenote swimming holes and the famed Tulum ruins, that it allows access to other areas of the town.
From the rain shower-heads in guest room bathrooms to all-glass sliding doors as entrances, Casa Malca aims to deliver a sensory experience attune with its surroundings. (That said, there is air conditioning and WiFi everywhere, so all creature comforts are taken care of.) While visiting at the tail-end of peak season, despite the hotel being heavily occupied, the spaciousness of the property lent a sense of freedom and quiet. The staff is as attentive as you want them to be. For anyone looking to stay on the premises for the entire duration of a trip, the restaurant’s fare is light, local and occasionally spicy. There are also refreshing, signature tequila and mezcal cocktails on the menu.
As for the establishment of an art-centric Tulum hotel, Malca says, “I don’t know if Tulum needs to be a destination for art, but I think every place around the world can be one. There is culture everywhere. There are artists everywhere. Tulum, for the past 15 years, has been attracting a lot of international travelers who are very cultured and could benefit from further artistic exposure.” Malca has been very selective with the pieces he houses on site. “We are going very carefully because of the weather,” he adds. “It’s very important to make sure the pieces are OK with the humidity and heat. We put out pieces that will not suffer.” Malca rotates the pieces with frequency as he wants regular visitors to be surprised and intrigued each time. And it certainly is surprising to head to a beachside hideaway and be moved by art as much as by a quiet moment with a cocktail overlooking a moonlit ocean.
Rooms can be booked at Casa Malca online, with rates starting at $490 a night for a garden view junior suite and $550 a night for a beach view junior suite.
Images by David Graver