Keepin' It Jungle
Austin company plans an eco-colonial retreat in Mexico
In the dense jungle west of the coastal Mayan ruins of Tulum, the temperature is moving past "steamy" and closing on "flop sweat" as Matthew Schnurr guides a visitor down a narrow, unfinished road. Crews have been using sledgehammers and machetes to hack out the trail, but construction is stalled by yet another permit snafu with the local government, Schnurr says, as he lists the wild orchids and sapote trees that cover the land.
"We're trying to keep it jungle," says Schnurr, gingerly stepping past a young palm. He points at the piles of rock and brush, in the middle of the path. "Everything has been cleared by hand," he says. "No fires. No pesticides."
When completed, the road will serve as the entrance to the first attempt at a large-scale, environmentally sensitive, master-planned residential "jungle hideaway" in the area, which is best known for the beach resorts and foam bars of Cancún. Dubbed Los Árboles Tulum, the project is the dream of Greg Schnurr and his family, longtime owners of an Austin paint and construction business, as well as Warehouse District restaurants Málaga, Cedar Street Courtyard, and Saba Blue Water Cafe. Los Árboles offers buyers a chance to build homes deep in the cover of the jungle, to follow detailed environmental development guidelines, and to live completely off the grid among the toucans and wild pigs.
In more ways than one, the Schnurrs are trying to break new ground. In the last year they've faced machete-wielding Mayan hunters, a slow and suspicious Mexican bureaucracy, and a skeptical real estate community. And some experts think they're crazy that international investors go to Mexico to buy condos on the beach, not to generate their own electricity and develop a natural wastewater system in the jungle.
But Matthew Schnurr, for one, is convinced the time is right for a housing project that shows respect for the jungle and the Mayan culture. "I know there are clients out there for this on a world level," he said. Schnurr often speaks about the property as a sort of crusade. "At the end of the day, this is going to say something," he said. "I just want to do it right."
Los Árboles encompasses 481 hectares (about 1,200 acres) of jungle land, located 7.5 miles inland from Tulum, where tourists can swim in a glassy lagoon underneath the crumbling Mayan temples. Despite the high-end construction to the north, Tulum still maintains something of a hippie vibe, with nude beaches and campsites on the beach. The site for Los Árboles is off the two-lane road that connects Tulum to Coba, a sprawling Mayan city where huge pyramids remain unexcavated, nothing more than mysterious green mounds rising out of the jungle. It's also a few minutes drive to the Sian Ka'an biosphere, a spectacular 1.6 million-acre nature reserve stretching down the coast.
The area around Tulum is a sharp contrast to the area to the north, which is often cited as the poster child for bad environmental planning, primarily due to the row of hotel towers in Cancún. Under the auspices of Fonatur, Mexico's tourism development agency, in 10 years Cancún went from a pristine peninsula to Miami Beach. Clearly stung by the criticism, in recent years the local governments have passed strict guidelines for developing the coast, include height restrictions and measures to protect mangrove, a key component in the wetlands ecosystems.
"They're using Cancún as a basis for development here [on the south coast]," said Randy Bowser, a botanist who tracks environmental issues in the area. "They're using Cancún as an example of how they screwed it up." Nevertheless, there's widespread skepticism about the government's environmental commitment, with exceptions to the nominal rules evident throughout the area. "There's just too much money coming here," Bowser said.
The strip south of Cancún, dubbed the Riviera Maya, is going through an explosion of resort development, primarily massive high-end, all-inclusive spa and golf complexes, luring investors and tourists from around the world. For one project, Mayakoba, Spanish developers carved canals through the limestone and mangroves to create a sprawling 100-acre complex that will eventually include five hotels.
But inland, on the west side of Highway 307, which parallels the coast, the jungle is still largely the land of the Maya, home to the hunters and farmers who have lived on the land for generations. One of the world's most unique ecosystems, there is no water above ground on the Yucatán Peninsula. But rivers flow under the hard rock surface, creating cenotes, cavernous sinkholes with deep spiritual significance to the Maya.
Control of the jungle of all land in Mexico, for that matter is a deeply emotional and symbolic issue, tied to generations of oppression and mistreatment of the indigenous people. From Zapata to Cancún, land has been a rallying cry for revolution and conflict, with many disputes still unresolved. Large swatches of land are controlled by ejidos, community groups, deeded the land by the Mexican government in an effort to make up for past sins. But it's often still difficult to track title to land, and abuses and landgrabs by powerful players are not unusual, making development a challenge for gringos.
The Schnurr family is already familiar with the quirks of trying to build in Mexico. Their first project in the area a fairly conventional development called Paraiso Tan-kah Bay, featuring 105 residential lots on the coast north of Tulum was almost completely sold out when the local government decided to do an environmental and zoning review of the area, delaying the project for several months.
But when the Schnurrs came across the land west of Tulum, they saw an opportunity to do something different. The property was relatively untouched, but it had once served as a ranch where gum resin was harvested from the sapote trees, which meant there was a clear title to the land. The Schnurrs were also able to buy two surrounding parcels, giving them control of a wide tract of pristine jungle, covered with 18 different forms of wild orchids, wild turkeys, and enough varieties of plants to keep a biologist happy for decades.
Less Is More
The idea behind Los Árboles Tulum is to offer customers a lifestyle far removed from the spring-break, lay-at-the-beach experience popular on the coast. They are selling 261 2-hectare (about 5-acre) lots. Buyers will be able to design and build their own custom-designed homes on the lots, which currently sell for about $55,000 making the land a relative bargain compared to the prices on the coast, where anything close to the water can command $500,000 for a single hectare.
"It's not going to be all millionaires in the Riviera Maya," said Jason Schnurr, Matthew's older brother. While their father, Greg, oversees the company, Jason focuses more on the day-to-day business issues, and Matthew is the construction supervisor. Jason focuses on economics; Matthew can talk for hours about the species of orchids on the property. Jason believes the project makes sense from an investment perspective. "We saw a need for this in the market," he said. "It's literally a value-driven decision."
But there is a catch actually a few catches. Buyers will be able to build on only 5% of their property. And with no electricity provided, they'll have to generate their own power, most likely using solar generators. Water will come from wells reaching 13 meters below the rocky service, where underground rivers flow through the Yucatán. Wastewater will be treated by a natural sealed system that uses plants and evaporation to filter black water.
The Schnurrs expect some nice homes to be built on the lots, but owners will need to deal with providing electricity, water, and the other simple necessities of living in the jungle. "If somebody thinks they are going to come in and want more, it's not going to happen," said Matthew as he checked messages on his BlackBerry, a reminder that the project is not completely isolated from the world.
Buyers will be encouraged to build up, into the trees, to capture both the sun's rays and the cool ocean breeze. "The biggest challenge is going to be trapping natural air and letting it cool your house, so you can lose your need for air conditioning," Matthew said. Air conditioning is allowed, but it will eat power. "It's a design issue," he said.
From the beginning, the project met skepticism and, at times, open hostility. Matthew, who has lived in Mexico off and on since 2001, often found himself facing angry locals. In one case he confronted local Mayan workers using chain saws to cut down trees. But he began to win over the trust of the local villagers. He lived on the property for two years, in a sparse, small cement building without wired electricity, using water from a well. He recruited local villagers and developed relationships with the families in the area. He now speaks passing Mayan, a language in danger of extinction, even in the Yucatán.
The Mexican bureaucracy proved more difficult. Developers often talk about the frustrating inconsistency and notorious petty graft of working in Mexico, but with their attempts at a jungle development, the Schnurrs were sailing into unknown waters. Construction has been halted for months while environmental plans have been reviewed over and over again. "What we've found is the Mexican government really wants to do right by it," Matthew said. "They've put a lot of biologists to work."
Extensive surveys helped identify the different plants and fauna that would have to be protected. There are at least three endangered species of orchids on the property, as well as several varieties of rare palms. "All palms in the jungle are sacred," Matthew said. They agreed to move or replace every endangered plant. With every plant that needs transplanting, they take a photo of it, move it, and then photograph it in its new location, where they will track its progress for three years. In a small nursery, they're growing striplings to replace plants that have been cut down. "Implementation is the most important thing," Matthew said.
At this point, though, construction remains stalled while the project awaits its final approvals from the government, a process that has taken months. Plans for the area keep changing, including development of a new international airport, which may or may not be built a few miles from Los Árboles. But after years of battling to move the project forward, the Schnurrs are confident that final approval is close. "We're rounding third base," Matthew said.
A Small Step
Convincing the real estate community might be more difficult. International buyers typically "look for blue or green" ocean or golf courses said Bruce Greenberg, a real estate consultant and appraiser specializing in Mexico. Los Árboles is competing for eco-colonists with places like Costa Rica and Panama, with long track records of jungle projects, he notes. "I would have my concerns," Greenberg said. "Marketing a jungle project will be challenging, unless they can provide a special lifestyle to attract that particular kind of buyer."
But timing might be on the side of Los Árboles. "There's been a frenzy in Tulum of people buying and selling," said Shawn Bendick, a real estate agent based in Playa del Carmen. "There are clients who want a little jungle paradise, and they've had enough of urban living."
The Schnurrs say they've already presold 40 lots to buyers like Stephen Vernstrom, 60, and his wife, Mona, of Maple Grove, Minn. Vernstrom runs a rock-climbing school in Minnesota and often leads ecotours in Mexico, but he says, "I'm not that eco-crazy." The Vernstroms simply want to get away from the crowds. They plan to build a house in the project as a second home and eventually retire there. "We were searching for a larger parcel where people weren't stacked on top of each other," Vernstrom said. "When you're on the coast, it's a whole different lifestyle."
The Schnurrs are convinced that people will see the rustic setting and the environmental controls as a plus. "Part of the sexiness of Mexico is the getaway," Matthew said. He recognizes that some environmentalists will simply see it as another jungle-damaging development, regardless of any mitigation attempts. But he still feels the project can send a message. "The area is getting developed," he said. "If we don't make a baby step now, then we're never going to have a big step."