Cabins in the Sky: For a rustic retreat in Baja’s wine country, Gracia Studio perches a series of cubes on a hill, offering panoramic views of the fertile valley below.
Sun-splashed beaches have long been the main draw for vacationers in Baja, Mexico. In recent years, however, an inland wine region two hours south of San Diego has increasingly attracted tourists seeking an alternative to the sand and surf. With verdant fields ringed by hills and mountains, Valle de Guadalupe harbors some 60 wineries scattered among colorful shops, modest dwellings, and a handful of quaint inns. Untouched by commercialization, the area often elicits comparisons to the early days of Napa Valley.
- Steel: Grupo Metalco
- Moisture barrier: Dupont (Tyvek)
- Glazing: Vidrios y Aluminios El Tigre
Hotel Endémico, a striking newcomer designed by Tijuana architect Jorge Gracia, blends with the milieu while catering to the sophisticated traveler. Opening in July, the resort features 20 Modernist cabins on pilotis—all nestled within a rural setting teeming with flowering shrubs, sculptural boulders, and desert wildlife. “I conceptualized them as camping tents with all the comforts of a luxury hotel,” Gracia says while giving a tour of the grounds. “They're sealed boxes in this aggressive nature.” The 232-acre site is also dotted with small vineyards and includes a 19,400-square-foot wine-production facility (designed by Gracia) that, once complete, will house a tasting room and restaurant.
Endémico marks the 13th property in the portfolio of Grupo Habita, a Mexico City–based hotelier that offers fashionable establishments for the jet set, such as the Enrique Norten–designed Hôtel Americano in Manhattan that debuted last year. Given its earthy atmosphere, Endémico is a departure for the group; guests are best advised to leave their stilettos and slim-cut suits at home. “It's not about 1,000-thread-count sheets,” says Rafael Micha, Grupo Habita cofounder. “The luxury here is sitting outside on the terrace, enjoying one of the wines you selected that morning.”
While operated by Micha's company, the rustic getaway was developed by Grupo Metalco, a steel manufacturer, and is owned by several investors. The consortium acquired the site years ago with an eye toward creating a winery, resort, and housing development (collectively referred to as Encuentro Guadalupe). When it came time to hire an architect, they turned to Gracia. “We called him immediately,” says Juan Yi, one of the investors, noting that the ambitious young designer is gaining renown in northern Mexico. Since launching his studio in 2004, Gracia has completed dozens of houses and Tijuana's Culinary Art School, among other projects. All of his buildings share a similar vocabulary: clean lines, simple forms, and low-cost (often salvaged) materials.
For Endémico, Gracia's overall strategy was to create singular architecture that would catch the attention of motorists winding through the valley. He succeeded. While some cabins are tucked out of site, others jut from a hilltop overlooking a main road; drivers often pull over to examine the curious boxes perched overhead. The guest experience also played a key role in the site layout. “We focused on views and privacy,” says Gracia, who positioned the cabins between 30 and 600 feet apart. Sixteen units contain one bedroom and encompass 200 square feet; four have two bedrooms and total 240 square feet. Each has a small deck with chairs and a clay fireplace.
Though the cubes appear to be clad in wood, it's not the case, says the architect: “It's so warm during the day and so cold at night. Wood would crack and deteriorate very fast.” Instead, Gracia used rusted steel panels that he coated in flaxseed oil to slow further rusting (Cor-Ten was too pricey). Still, he doesn't mind if the exterior walls show their age. “They will grow old with dignity,” Gracia says.
The panels are affixed to steel frames that were precut at the client's manufacturing facility in Mexicali, located 130 miles away. Hovering over each cube are angled corrugated-metal canopies that provide shade and mitigate solar heat gain. “The sun hits the roof, not the box,” Gracia explains. In order to preserve the environment, he lifted the structures off the ground. Steel stilts of varying heights are anchored to a layer of granite several feet below the earth's surface.
Inside, the rooms are notably restrained. White or black plastic laminate walls are paired with concrete floors and minimal furnishings. Bathrooms, while stylish, offer the bare necessities. A tight budget “pushed us to be more creative,” Gracia says. To wit: The architect crafted bedside lighting fixtures of steel pipes and Edison bulbs—a clever, inexpensive solution that adds industrial flair to the pared-down space.
The architect faced numerous challenges throughout the project: a rugged topography, dearth of water, lack of on-site electricity, and searing summer heat. Moreover, Gracia was determined to protect the landscape throughout construction, which meant working without large cranes.
Patrons, too, will be asked to tread lightly. No cars are allowed on the grounds; instead, staff members will shuttle visitors around in all-terrain vehicles. Upon check-in, guests will be given a radio to call for a ride, along with a flashlight and emergency whistle. They won't forsake all creature comforts, though. The property boasts an infinity pool and Jacuzzi, wireless Internet, and built-in stereo systems in each cabin (and, yes, the units have heating and cooling systems and hot water). Still, “this hotel is not for everybody,” admits Gracia. “It's for people who really want to be in nature.”
Local residents seem impressed with their stunning new neighbor. “It's something completely different,” says Luis Pelayo, who runs a charming café with his mother in the valley. With overnight accommodations hard to come by, Hotel Endémico could help draw more tourists to this idyllic wine country. Perhaps someday, Baja will be more revered for its merlots than its margaritas.
6151 Progressive Ave. Suite 200
San Diego CA. 92154
T (619) 795 7864
Gross square footage: