Rumor has it that the late Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar, set up shop in Tulum sometime during the 1980s. Notorious for cocaine trafficking and countless private properties around the world, Escobar’s Mexican megamansion was said to have bulletproof walls and a secret tunnel in the event “Don Pablo” needed to make a timely escape. The former hideout was left vacant following his death in 1993, when Escobar was gunned down during a shootout with security forces. Over two decades later, the beach property now stands as an art-centric boutique hotel owned by famed New York gallerist, Lio Malca.
During a trip to Tulum in 2012, Malca, who was looking to buy real estate, stumbled upon the Escobar compound which had since been abandoned. It was to his surprise that no person nor corporation had tried to obtain the property prior to him, as it was seemingly untouched by time. After numerous failed attempts at purchasing the property, Malca came to learn that it had actually belonged to the original owner before Escobar, due to the fact that the house was seized by the Mexican government after Escobar’s passing. With a little legwork, Malca managed to acquire the land and begin the restoration.
While maintaining the feel of the landscape, Malca incorporated additional structural elements that give the home its architectural feel. With help from Alejandro Bahamón and Fernando Clamo of Latinta—the interior, while minimalist, is characterized by broad proportions, high ceilings, wide walls and polished cement flooring. Initially, Malca planned to use the space as his personal vacation home but after word got out, more and more people wanted to visit. Today, the original nine-room main house has expanded into a 41-room luxury hotel known as Casa Malca.
Sitting on the coast of Caribbean waters, Casa Malca is not just another resort. As the first art-inspired accomodation in Tulum, it is just as much a design destination as it is a five-star getaway. The site rests just beyond the the Sian Ka’an reserve, which translates to “heaven’s gate” in Mayan. It consists of tropical forests, mangroves and marshes which give Casa Malca its remote, dreamlike illusion. The hotel is burrowed between a dense, verdant jungle and azure seas—filled top to bottom, inside and out, with Malca’s own art collection. Consider it an extension of his personal galleries, but one that you can pay can to stay in.
In the early ‘90s, Malca embarked on his journey through New York’s art scene. He was one of the first people to see the potential in Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, before the two were officially acknowledged amongst critics. Malca’s moment in the sun came in 1997, when he orchestrated an exhibit titled ‘In Your Face.’ At the time, the Whitney Museum of American Art was hosting a Haring retrospective and Malca organized his own showing right across the street which featured work not only by Haring, but also Basquiat and Kenny Scharf. After becoming the trio’s key lender and advisor, Malca has found the best way to express his passion for contemporary art is through his Tulum hotel.
By the looks of it, no one would ever guess this property was once owned by a former drug kingpin. But we are sure that Escobar himself would’ve loved to call this newly-renovated, private playground his own. Welcomed by velvet draping, a floating couch and KAWS sculpture in the lobby—Casa Malca defines itself as “a home for thinkers and dreamers who believe in the liberating powers of creativity and self discovery.” Combining the ancient materials and artisan craftsmanship of the Mayans with contemporary paintings, sculptures and photographs, it is clear from the very start that Casa Malca is unlike anything else you’ll see in Mexico.
White stucco walls make up the property’s exterior and its façade is made from oversized tree trunks, stacked one on top of the other. Tiered curtains made from vintage wedding dresses frame each side of the entryway, and antique furniture hangs down, suspended by rafters (the fanciest swing set you’ve ever laid eyes on). Below, the forecourt is lined with large-scale Persian rugs and a double-helix staircase leads guests up to the panoramic roof deck. The hotel acts as a canvas, and Malca is its curator.
Inside, rooms are both sparse and abundant at the same time. Raw, rustic-looking materials give Casa Malca its sustainable status while leaving guests no other option than to focus on the hotel’s simple pleasures—its art. Every corner boasts some sort of work whether train traffic lights, old dental chairs, shoe lasts or heirloom dolls, to name a few, and the pieces on display are regularly rotated in and out. That way, no matter when you visit, you’re guaranteed a different viewing experience every time. Part of Malca’s personal success has been bringing emerging artists into the spotlight and with his hotel, it’s an opportunity to dictate who deserves recognition.
The property offers usual hotel-like amenities, but in a way that speaks to its unique personality. The steam room, for example, has a James Turrell-inspired installation which lights up with alternating colors. Did we also mention that it’s located underground? The Keith Haring-themed bar area, while totally Instagrammable, was also exclusively designed for Casa Malca, and features a custom black and white patterned wallpaper head-to-toe.
The “Malca Suite” which can be considered the hotel’s crème de la crème boarding option, is located on the second floor and wishful thinking will have you believe that this is the room in which Escobar himself slept. This is also where Malca’s personal art collection is displayed most prominently.
Tulum, while a tropical paradise, bares no resemblance to its resort-driven neighbors. It is full of myth, magical realism and now, Malca’s home-turned-hotel which is worthy of a museum. Not only is it filled with art, but Casa Malca is a work of art. Resurrected from its glory days as Escobar’s elaborate villa, it has redeemed itself in fairytale-like fashion—born out of discovery, where beach meets jungle and art meets nature.