The price of paradise isn’t negotiable, so bring a machete and heed the warning of Certified Public Accountant Susan Bohlken.
“Before buying, come and live in paradise for six months to discover if you’ve really left the pressure of Wall Street world behind,” says the tan and trim Bohlken, who in 1986 with her husband fled the San Francisco office of PWC ancestor Price Waterhouse LLC to carve out a “dream life” in the coastal jungles that canopy Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
“We didn’t follow our own advice,” chuckles Daniel McGettigan, Bohlken’s 62-year-old husband and co-owner of the 18-room Zamas hotel and restaurant a few miles outside the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum in southeastern Quintana Roo. “It took us 10 years to realize it takes constant work to keep the dream alive.”
Cashing in the chips to pursue a fantasy isn’t new, of course, nor is saying good riddance to the pressures of the executive suite to go decompress in a faraway retreat. Such dreams rage on many fronts. There are Mediterranean super yachts and Canadian fishing lodges, Tuscan wineries and Argentine cattle ranches, and a plantation spread within a three-iron shot of the Augusta National Golf Club.
Indeed, hedge-fund maestro Stanley Druckenmiller earlier this month shut the doors on Duquesne Capital Management LLC for a fresh start. At 57 years old, Druckenmiller gave up overseeing $12 billion of client money in favor of philanthropic endeavors, his golf game and an estimated $2.8 billion bank balance to underwrite his new life.
Yet Bohlken and McGettigan say it doesn’t take a billionaire to pull off the great escape, so long as those with shallower pockets realize that the decision comes with a fresh and often unexpected set of new responsibilities. The couple says ingenuity, character and an ample dose of spontaneity are more vital to survival than cash flow.
“We first came to Quintana Roo on our honeymoon in 1986,” McGettigan says, stroking his walrus moustache as the summer sun begins to peek over the Tropic of Cancer. “Tulum was a backwater town that had just stepped into the 17th century. There were fewer than 600 people living here and only 30 hotel rooms in the entire region. We immediately decided to build a hotel and a restaurant.”
A few weeks later, McGettigan returned to his one-acre patch of paradise on the palm-tree-lined Punta Piedra strip, toting a backpack stuffed with a $10,000 down payment on a $37,000 chunk of beachfront. They named the place Zamas, Mayan for “sunrise,” and were quickly blasted with a hurricane.
“We’ve survived two hurricanes, but the real struggle is waking up one morning with the realization that paradise has its own set of non-stop pressures,” McGettigan says of the 15-hour days required to maintain Zamas and negotiate the rapid growth of a city that now has 20,000 inhabitants. “There are a lot of dream seekers who burn out. The beach is littered with those who never understood that a dream must be built from scratch.”
“Zamas was ultimately a $600,000 project,” McGettigan says of his total investment now worth around $5 million in an area that today boasts more than 1,000 hotel rooms, five retirement communities and dozens of mega-resorts along the 120 kilometer highway from Cancun to the 3,000-year-old Mayan port village of Muyil.
“The problem with any paradise is growth,” reckons Pablo Carrero, commercial director of the 2,600-room Gran Bahia Principe Riviera Maya Golf Club and Resort, a project of the Spanish tour company Grupo Pinero. “It’s changing too fast, though all of us are intent on preserving the environment and outlawing high-rise buildings because that’s what attracts people to this area. I arrived here 23 years ago. Despite inflated land prices, I’m still a dreamer.”
Lucky Lindy, Dead Heads
One of the earliest known dreamers to survey the wild coconut groves and zapote chewing-gum sap trees along the Yucatan coast was U.S. aviator Charles Lindbergh in the late 1930s. Lucky Lindy landed his plane on a beach not far from Soliman Bay, where San Francisco restaurateur Andrew Field in 1998 first set foot with former members of the Grateful Dead to help stage a concert with Mayan musicians.
Twelve years later, the 59-year-old Field is president of Ammx Construction, a regional construction and design company building everything from Subway sandwich shops to private homes for a closely held coterie of word-of-mouth clients from North America and Europe.
“The Dead and I had the same accountant and the concert was a good excuse to get away,” says Field, relaxing with his dogs and a shot of tequila at his three-house Soliman Bay vacation resort Casa Corazon. “I was 47, disenchanted with America and felt it was a good time for a mid-life crisis.”
As Field tells it, he met a Mexican named Carlos, who was selling 30-by-50-meter lots for $35,000. “I gave him $1,500 cash as a down payment,” Field recalls. “He gave me a receipt on a wet paper towel. I returned to San Francisco to liquidate my assets and everybody said I’d fallen for the oldest scam around.”
Casa Corazon is today worth $2.2 million and Ammx Construction bills more than $1 million annually. Lots on Soliman Bay, a kilometer stretch of beach protected by a coral reef that’s home to abundant families of lobster, snapper and grouper, start at around $600,000.
“I wanted paradise, found it and now work 60 hours a week to maintain it,” Field says. “I’ve had offers, but we are a reckless, selfish and arrogant species, so it’s hard to find someone who understands paradise must be developed and expanded -- as long as it’s done right.”
For Field, a committed environmentalist whose homes feature solar power and captured rain water, his next paradise lies up the road in the house he’s building on the sixth hole of the Robert Trent Jones championship jungle course at Riviera Maya.
“The truth is that all men will at some point in their life discover golf is paradise, but this will always be my office,” Field says, inhaling the fragrant jungle, dipping his hand in the natural aquarium of Soliman Bay. “The business of dreams is effortless, certainly when compared to working in another industry. It adds years to your life.”