The Apprenticeship of Jeffrey Alan – where a villa developer changes his life and discovers the challenges of building a Mexican villa.
“There’s no such thing as paradise,” says Jeffrey Alan, which is an odd statement coming from someone who has gone to great lengths to build an oceanside Mexican paradise for his guests. His villa on the Riviera Maya’s Isla Mujeres offers sun-bleached white sand at its feet, and Mexican colors and traditional architecture inside. The phrase is meant more as a Post-It note to himself, a lesson he learned from his bold three-year ongoing experiment as a gringo developer and a parent who wanted his daughter to gain an alternative world view.
There’s a 1965 book by Herman Wouk called Don’t Stop the Carnival, where, after suffering a heart attack, New York City publicist Norman Paperman seeks a fresh start through the purchase of a Caribbean hotel. The fictitious country where he transplants himself is both beautiful and volatile, and the hotel becomes a merry-go-round of disastrous events for the uninitiated hotelier.
Jeffrey Alan is a modern-day Norman Paperman. The turning point for the 46 year-old was neither a heart attack nor ennui with the Broadway scene, but rather a life in Seattle where he and his wife Bridget, 50, had attained financial security after 20 years in their respective careers as developer and realtor, but wanted something more. “I found myself still driving on the same roads, in the same rain falls and still running in a rat race,” he explains.
Not yet ready to retire, they began thinking about developing a destination wedding property, stand-alone villa or a small hospitality bungalow. The two had been visiting Mexico’s Riviera Maya for nearly two decades and were looking for a place that offered the kind of activities they loved in the area, namely boating, snorkeling, swimming and scuba diving.
A missed flight and a knack for spotting up-and-coming destinations led them to Isla Mujeres, two hours from Playa del Carmen up the eastern coast. They discovered the fishing community after missing their vacation flight from Cancun. They decided to drive north and happened upon a ferry and headed to the island for a night. Their improvised trip along the coast reignited their love for the country and got them to think about developing a property on this particular island. Isla Mujeres has a thriving tourism industry and boasts a turtle sanctuary, underwater coral sculptures and historical ruins, along with beautiful scenery.
“It’s a small Mexican town that had its roots in fishing,” says Jeffrey, adding that when you arrive by ferry, the port is littered with small fishing boats, many of which take tourists out on the water. He recognized this location as just the type of up-and-coming destination that the more developed Playa del Carmen had once been. Its proximity to Cancun (13km by boat and 19 by car) helped convince Jeffrey that this was the place to build.
The couple and their young daughter Coco moved onto the island three years ago and began to plan out their new rental villa. They were aware that some people were against tourism development. “You’re going to have the ‘wants’ and the ‘not-wants,’” he says. “A successful developer figures out how to softly integrate into the culture.”
The island was moving slowly towards becoming a tourist destination and this project would join three other waterfront rental villas on the island. Jeffrey designed the home himself and worked with a local architect and engineer on the new build. He found it difficult to match skills on the island with the tasks he needed, and had to oversee the construction to make sure standards were being kept up. He would also need to travel to find the finishes or have other things custom-made, such as his tiles. There was a language gap to work around and, as he puts it, “some cultural idiosyncrasies” that made it difficult to schedule the parade of tradespeople.
During this time, he says wife Bridget was losing patience with the process, and with her lack of Spanish felt as if she was “living in a silent world.” She wondered if this was all worth it. He convinced her that they were building a legacy and they needed more time to do it.
The silver lining during this time was Coco’s integration. She arrived on the island when she was 5 and is now 8. She was becoming fluent in Spanish and being exposed to the Mexican way of life. “She was gaining a wider perspective on how the rest of the world is living,” says Jeffrey. “She would walk along the street and look into the houses. She would see how little they live with compared to where we come from.”
She also closed that language gap for the couple, made friends with local children and was recently enrolled in a very small school called Familia Cooperativa that Jeffrey and Bridget started after they brought in a Mexican-born American woman as its sole teacher.
The three-story Villa Encantada was completed last year, and its arches, open spaces, vivid reds and thatched roofs give off a very Mexican vibe. Its infinity pool, rooftop terrace and modern conveniences add to its comforts.
Jeffrey and Bridget have been hands-on with their guests, greeting each one in person, and offering valuable local advice, such as when the colorful local carnival dancers are blocking the intersections of the car-free island.
Jeffrey has mitigated some of the challenges by learning to be ready for any contingency. He has read the Herman Wouk novel and can relate to the scene when the hotel’s fresh water reservoir cracks and loses its contents just as the water barge pulls out of port. He says he makes a Plan B, C, D, and E and has made sure everyone at the villa can perform multiple roles. “My chef knows how to reset the water pump,” he says.
Jeffrey says he could have chosen to spend a year as a beach bum, but his family would never have experienced as much as they have by putting down roots in Mexico. Bridget has come around and learned to love the life that includes lots of time in the ocean. Jeffrey already has his eye on a second Isla Mujeres property.
Jeffrey has met several guests who have told him that he’s living their dream. While this conversation might be taking place in front of an ocean sunset, he makes sure to give them the whole story and tell them the truth about this particular paradise.
Find out more about Villa Encantada