Yucatán Man

Model Nicolas Malleville is Mexico’s hottest hotelier.

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Yucatán Man
Nicolas Malleville at the perfumery.

Yucatán Man

Model Nicolas Malleville is Mexico’s hottest hotelier.

Nicolas Malleville, a six-foot-two, sandy-haired model, has shown the world nearly every part of his chiseled physique. For Burberry he posed with Kate Moss, his unbuttoned shirt exposing a sculpted chest. In a Tod’s campaign he flaunted his buff arms and well-manicured nails while tracing model Anja Rubik’s navel. And through his editorial work here and in Europe, the public has been treated to pictures of him in bathing suits and tight trousers. But there’s a part of Malleville’s body that even the most voracious magazine readers haven’t seen—one that casts him in a surprising new light.

A guest room (complete with hammock) at Coqui Coqui Tulum.

No, naughty readers, it’s not what you’re thinking. The area in question is his left ankle, which bears a simple tattoo of a palm tree. “When I was a child, I used to sit in the square of my little town and stare up at the palm trees and dream about the beach,” says Malleville, who grew up in the landlocked Pampas region of Argentina. “Palm trees are the most beautiful trees in the world. They represent paradise to me.” And now, at 32, the model is living out his childhood fantasies, spending most of his time amid the sand and palms of Mexico, where he’s building a mini hotel empire. Just five years in the making, his brainchild, called Coqui Coqui, already includes two chic hotels and spas (with a third on the way), as well as a perfumery, a café and a store. One might call him the André Balazs of the Yucatán Peninsula. Just don’t tell him that.

The lagoon in Coba.

“The funny part is that I never wanted to be a hotelier,” says Malleville with a laugh. “I just wanted my dream house on the beach.” Wearing a white cotton shirt and seersucker pants, he’s sitting in the breezy wood and stucco lobby of his beachside hotel in Tulum, which he originally built as a getaway for himself in 2001. He started hosting paying guests at the property—his friend Jade Jagger was his first client, in December 2003—because “taking care of a big house is expensive. And I wanted more than just one.”

Like his other hotel and spa—about a 90-minute drive northwest, near the Mayan ruins of Coba—Coqui Coqui Tulum is a tiny, rustic-chic property with only seven rooms and resembles a private residence more than a resort. Malleville’s girlfriend, Francesca, his sister Coni, his cousin Julieta and his childhood nanny, Silvy, are the main staff members, creating an intimate, familial atmosphere. All guest rooms have plush bedding, hand-carved stone bathtubs and traditional Mayan hammocks. It’s the kind of place that feels a million miles away from civilization: The entire operation is run on 12 volts of energy from solar panels on the thatched roofs; cell phone reception is dodgy at best; and guest rooms have no Internet access, air-conditioning or electrical outlets.

Malleville’s famous friends don’t seem to mind. Sienna Miller, model Daria Werbowy and nightlife queen Amy Sacco have vacationed here, and Kate Bosworth and her boyfriend, singer-songwriter James Rousseau (who knows Malleville from his modeling days), have been repeat guests. “You hardly need electrical lighting at night because Nicolas and his staff fill the hotel with candles,” says Bosworth, who’s planning to return this summer. “It feels like you’re on a magic island.”

“I was superimpressed that a model so young was taking such bold chances,” says Sacco. “And he’s not tough to look at either.”

The exterior of Coqui Coqui Coba.

Last December Malleville invited a gang of friends to Coqui Coqui Coba, which was then still under construction. Eva Mendes and Alexis Bledel were among those who camped out in tents and took part in his candlelit New Year’s Eve fiesta.

The son of a bank officer and a schoolteacher, Malleville, who is of Basque, French, Italian and Austrian descent, grew up on a 25,000-acre ranch outside Córdoba, Argentina. While on a family vacation in Uruguay in his last year of high school, he was approached by a model scout from Paris. The scout, recalls Malleville, “kept talking about Kate Moss—I didn’t know who she was!” At the time, he wasn’t interested.

At the University of Córdoba, Malleville majored in landscape architecture and wrote his thesis on—what else?—palm trees. A couple of years after graduation, he moved to Paris to take landscaping classes at the famous Bagatelle Gardens. Two months after landing in the city, he decided to give modeling a try. At his very first casting—for a Paul Smith campaign shot by Mario Testino—he booked the job. “I was very lucky and kept getting very lucky,” he says. He quickly became one of the industry’s most in-demand male models and a Testino regular. The photographer went on to book Malleville for four Burberry campaigns and a Gucci campaign.

Malleville in his store in Valladolid.

All the while Malleville pursued his interest in landscape architecture. Between modeling gigs he took more classes and eventually designed the gardens of more than a dozen houses in London. He also traveled whenever he could. His close friend Mariacarla Boscono, another model, frequently joined him. As she recalls, he could never resist tweaking his hotel room: “He would move the bed, put scarves over the lights, set up candles—and it would be a cheap version of the Four Seasons.”

Malleville made his first trip to the Yucatán Peninsula in 2001. Upon arriving in Tulum, he says, he immediately fell in love with the region: “It was like paradise.” That December he purchased the beachfront where Coqui Coqui Tulum now stands for $170,000. Soon afterward he bought a house in the slow-paced city of Valladolid. On its ground floor the plant lover opened his first Yucatán business, Coqui Coqui Perfumer, in 2003. At the still-thriving shop, Malleville sells pure extracted oils of local botanicals as well as scent blends and soaps. (Renée Zellweger is a fan of his Floplum blend and bought it in bulk when she visited the shop last year.)

Coqui sounds like the Spanish word for coconut. “When I came down here, everyone thought I was nuts,” Malleville explains. “They said I was coqui coqui.” Before long, however, Malleville developed another reputation: the foreigner obsessed with Mayan handicrafts and traditional building techniques. In Valladolid, where his third Coqui Coqui hotel and spa will be completed this fall, he recently opened a small café and a shop where he sells scarves, baskets, ropes, hats and housewares. At first, area artisans “kept making what they thought an American would like,” says Malleville. “But I didn’t want that. I wanted what they had in their own houses.” In all of his Yucatán ventures, Malleville strives for some measure of authenticity. He used 500-year-old tiles for the floor of his café, for instance, and his design for the Coba hotel was inspired by the nearby Mayan ruins.

Although availability at his hotels is extremely limited, the Coqui Coqui empire is definitely growing. Last fall Malleville and another model pal invested in a property on the French-Italian border, where they plan to build a spa. And Malleville says he hopes to open a hotel back in Argentina one day.

Meanwhile, he’s still very much in demand in the fashion firmament (that was him sandwiched between Jessica Stam and Erin Wasson in last fall’s Roberto Cavalli for H&M ads), with no immediate plans to retire. “Modeling has served me well,” he says. “It’s taken me all over the world, introduced me to amazing people and made me good money.” However, what he says is most fulfilling to him these days is what he’s doing in the Yucatán. “It’s the most important thing to me,” he says. “Quality of life, nature, authenticity, something real.” And that’s not just posing.