The Accidental Hotelier

Dev Stern had always wanted a second home. She didn’t realize it would mean employing a village and opening a hotel.

By Marion Winik
Photograph: Photo: Brian Doben

Magic Dwarfs

You can’t always get the Weather Channel in the jungles of Mexico, but by the time the rain started on September 23, 2002, Dev Stern had been warned.

"It’s coming," Miguel Faller told Stern that morning. "Fill up the car, shut off the power, and put away anything that’s not nailed down." At 2 p.m., the neighboring hacienda owner called again. "This is it," Faller said. "Take cover."

As Hurricane Isidore battered the Yucatan that night, leveling million-dollar properties and mud-walled villages alike, Stern remained barricaded in a guest room at her luxury hacienda, not yet open for business. For hours, wind-driven 50-foot hardwood trees pounded the property. "I was convinced that we’d lost the main house," says Stern, 49. When she emerged the next morning, she was astonished. "The storm had splintered stone columns," she recalls, "but the $50,000 worth of landscaping we’d just completed and the 18th-century Moorish arch were intact." Two trees that had fallen over the main house and the adjoining building she’d taken shelter in had landed in each other’s arms, sparing her life.

As she surveyed the damage, the groundskeeper, Marcelino, came up behind her. "It is Los Aluxes," he said. "They have protected you."

Since she’d arrived in the Yucatan some two years earlier, Stern had heard the magic dwarfs of Mayan folklore blamed for everything from robberies to construction screwups, so she was relieved that they’d finally come around to her side. With her first paying guests coming in a matter of weeks, she was going to need them.

A Lifelong Dream

In 1999, Stern sent her only child, Evan, off to college. After years of Cub Scout meetings and PTA committees, the full-time mother suddenly had a lot of time on her hands. She devoted much of it to volunteer work, and a long-awaited empty-nest project: finding a vacation home in Mexico with her husband, Chuck, the CEO of a software company in Austin, Texas. "We both grew up on the Texas Gulf, so we spent our family vacations south of the border," Dev Stern explains. "Having a home in Mexico was a lifelong dream for us."

A friend focused their search on the Yucatan, a state known for its wealth of archaeological sites and the tropical delights of the Riviera Maya. But in the less-traveled interior, there was an abundance of abandoned Spanish plantations for sale. "As soon as we saw the ‘befores and afters’ of the tumbledown estates," says Chuck, "we got serious about doing it ourselves."

In May 2000, the Sterns found one that they loved — and could afford — a half-hour from the capital of Merida. Hacienda Petac’s 17th-century buildings lay in ruins atop the remnants of an ancient Mayan settlement. Surrounding the 80-acre property was a ruin of another kind — the dusty village of Petac, where residents had drifted along on government handouts since the demise of the sisal industry.

"When Mom and Dad brought back pictures of this pile of rubble, I was a little concerned," recalls their son. "When they bought the place, I thought they needed to get checked into the Texas State Hospital." Equally skeptical were residents, who called the new owners by the feudal titles Don Chuck and Dona Dev.

For two years, the Sterns funneled their savings into the hacienda, but progress was slow — and they were quickly maxing out their $400,000 construction budget. "We kept saying we would sell," Stern says, "but by the time we hired an architect who knew what he was doing, we were hooked."

In the spring of 2002, Chuck quit his job so he could help Dev supervise the project full-time. The afternoon the Sterns arrived in Mexico, their phone rang. It was a technology company in Houston with an irresistible job offer for Chuck. "He left the next day," Dev sighs. "A couple of hours in the jungle and he already missed the office."

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