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Finding Paradise: How a Former Olympian Built a Dream Resort in Puerto Escondido

Cary Mullen, CEO and developer of Vivo Resorts
Cary Mullen, CEO and developer of Vivo Resorts | © Vivo Resorts
Former Alpine Skiing World Cup champion Cary Mullen created a “fall-down plan” to develop one of the world’s best vacation spots. Nestled in between a mountain range and the Oaxacan Emerald Coast, Vivo Resorts offers affordable luxury rentals.

Many thrill-seeking surfers go hunting for a dream wave far away from hotspots like Hawaii or California in the little-known, laid-back Mexican town of Puerto Escondido.

Near the southernmost point in the state of Oaxaca, Puerto Escondido is one of the best surfing locations in the world. Dangerously massive swells and warm, clear waters characterize the coast, enticing adventure seekers from all over. But many also visit the area to take in its tranquil energy and artisanal spirit. And it’s that search for paradise that brought former Alpine Skiing World Cup champion and Olympian Cary Mullen to a 12-mile (19 kilometers) stretch of untouched Pacific coast.

Aerial shot of the infinity pool at Vivo Resorts © Vivo Resorts

Situated down a long dirt road through the countryside, Vivo Resorts offers a reprieve from the hustle of the expat surf town 10 miles (16 kilometers) away. The community of condominiums, with wide-angle views of the ocean as well as private villas, launched sales in 2009 and completed its first 100 homes and guest suites in March 2018. But unlike other luxury resorts around the world, the one- to three-bedroom beachfront condos are relatively affordable. (Studios start at around $275,000 to purchase, and vacation rentals average around $150 per night.)

The view out from the property’s Mexican hacienda-style lounge shows a mix of locals and foreign tourists dotting the perimeter of the infinity pool. They’ve come from all over Mexico with their families, as well as from Canada and the United States. And due to the scope of new construction heading into 2019, the resort employs more locals than any other business in Puerto Escondido. “I had this vision for Vivo where you could live your best life, a place that could impact and enhance people’s lives,” says Mullen, the resort’s CEO and founder.

Villa Delfin © Vivo Resorts

The beachfront site was originally owned by local farmers, but the land was untenable for crops and consisted mostly of scrub. Mullen purchased 75 acres (30 hectares) from the farmers, brought in miles of electricity where there wasn’t any before and began construction on the site. With a backdrop of mountains and a pristine beach, Mullen’s dream of building a sustainable vacation resort was coming to fruition.

At the young age of 19, Mullen, a Calgary-based downhill skier, knew his time in the spotlight on the world’s athletic stage had an expiration date. An ever-entrepreneurial spirit, Mullen wanted to create an adventurous “fall-down plan” for his future, so he began taking real estate classes. And real estate was already in his blood: he describes himself as a “third-generation real estate developer.”

His grandfather was a farmer who realized buying up farmland and flipping it to developers was a much more lucrative enterprise. His parents would later carry on the same tradition, and Mullen spent his childhood “painting suites and vacuuming hallways” in an apartment building the family owned in Canada.

Two-time World Cup champion Cary Mullen Courtesty of Vivo Resorts

Fast-forward to 2006. Mullen, who became a two-time world champion at the age of 28, now had a new dream. Drawing on his real estate experience, he set out to build a luxury beachfront resort and residential community where families could make the most of their two-week vacation periods or purchase an investment property for retirement. But first, he had to find the right location – and location was everything.

“I think that as more and more travelers get more savvy, checking out statistics and looking online, they’re going to say, ‘If I only have a week or two weeks, where can I go that I’m guaranteed great weather?’” Mullen says. “What’s awesome is the stats can assure that in the Puerto [Escondido] area.”

Mullen researched destinations in 30 countries, then did scouting trips to over a dozen of them. He drove the coastlines, met with countless real estate agents and ended up compiling a list of 44 factors to determine which spot on the map was ideal for his vision. The factors included a low-risk hurricane zone, low humidity levels, good weather, warm water and lush vegetation, an extremely rare combination for any beachfront property.

At first, the island of Maui, Hawaii, seemed like the perfect spot, but Mullen felt that it was “too late” from an investment and timing standpoint. “I also felt that I was late from a culture standpoint because it was becoming so Westernized, so over-commercialized,” he says. “So I began searching, thinking: ‘Where’s the next Maui?’”

Vivo Resorts condo © Vivo Resorts

He finally took a trip to Mexico and something just clicked. “When I came to Puerto Escondido, my gut and my heart just said, ‘This is it!’” he says. “There were a few things that really drew me to the area, and one of those was its authenticity. The beautiful culture and people [who] are there, the cuisine and just the friendliness of the people. Also, statistically, it’s a safer area than most major US or Canadian centers.”

Puerto Escondido has basically an ideal climate, with a year-round average temperature of 80F (27C), loads of sunshine and minimal rain – not to mention lush flora, beautiful mountains, lagoons and, of course, a warm ocean. “They call the Pacific side the Oaxacan Emerald Coast because the water has an emerald visual to it where it has that kind of turquoise,” Mullen says. He was also drawn to Puerto Escondido’s “youthful, athletic, international” feel. “I heard six different languages out in the water [one day while surfing], and thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ It has people from all over the world coming there.”

After only a few minutes with Mullen, who’s tall, with an athletic frame and a childlike sparkle in his blue eyes, his earnest optimism is apparent. He’s not your average developer: his sincerity actually feels like the real deal. “As an athlete, I wasn’t the most naturally talented; I wasn’t the young prodigy,” he says. “I was hard-working and would figure out what the key variables were, train for them and, over time, figure out how to win.” (He even wrote a book called How To Win, 2009). So he took the lessons from training as an athlete for over 20 years – strong work ethic, dedication, conviction – and used them in his next big investment.

Cary Mullen, CEO and developer of Vivo Resorts Courtesy of Vivo Resorts

Once fully complete, Vivo Resorts will include 114 private homes and roughly 600 condominiums. Offering Spanish lessons, regionally sourced cuisine and Oaxacan-chocolate spa services, the five-star resort provides guests with a refreshing blend of international and local flavor. “I tell people to just come and feel it,” Mullen says. “When you walk the Adoquín at night and see the little kids playing soccer, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is different than what’s in the headlines.’ The authenticity, the wonderful culture – you can feel that when you meet the people there.”

For more stories on Mexico, check out this art-centric, sustainable hotel where artists are encouraged to use the interior space as a creative canvas.