Saturday, Sep. 23, 2023

From Polo Ponies To Infinity Pools



My horse was crossing the vast expanse of the most beautiful polo field I’d ever seen. But in that moment my eyes couldn’t take in the vibrantly green and perfectly manicured grass or the mountains that loomed in the background. Instead I was laser focused on one thing: the little white ball now just a few feet ahead and getting closer by the second.

At exactly the right moment, with mallet raised, I leaned over the right side of the horse and swung at the ball. I hit it. It bounced ahead of my horse with a satisfying thwack, and we chased after it again. It was hard to believe this was my first polo lesson, and I was having this kind of success.

Lisa Slade (left) and Kat Netzler enjoy a polo lesson at Mandarina. Photo Courtesy Of Lisa Slade

And that’s because, well, I wasn’t really. My mount Malbec was indeed crossing this stunning field, but he was doing it at a steady walk. And the next time we approached the ball, I took a big swing—and completely whiffed my mallet right over top of it. Oops.

“No worries!” rang out the cheery voice of polo professional Emi Ayala, who was given the unenviable task of taking this polo newbie and trying to instill a modicum of skills in her during my lesson at the stables and the Mandarina Polo & Equestrian Club in Nayarit, Mexico. Emi steered his own horse over to my deserted ball and hit it back into our path so I could try again.

After an hour of this—missing the ball almost as much as I hit it but still having a great time, and especially enjoying the canter around the field that didn’t involve nearly as much hand-eye coordination—we called it a day and took our horses on a hack around the property. As we strolled along the sandy bridle paths, our two guides, Emi and his brother Choncho Ayala, explained some of the native plants to me and my travel companion and photographer, Kat Netzler. They led us over to the paddocks, which were being irrigated as the climate in Nayarit is dry outside of a late summer rainy season, to see some spindly legged 3-week-old foals—part of Mandarina’s expanding polo pony breeding program.

Once we arrived back at the stables, we let our mounts sip from the large water fountain in the center of the two immaculate barns and then offered them the handfuls of carrots that were left on white plates, cut into perfectly bite-sized pieces, before unzipping our borrowed polo boots and wiping our faces with the cold towelettes provided.

After that? It was off to the beach club.

The Mandarina Polo & Equestrian Club is home to 49 horses and includes a tournament-sized polo field designed by Argentina’s Alejandro Battro. Photo Courtesy Of Mandarina

The Perfect Blend

Time for a confession: I don’t usually like to ride when I’m on vacation, or at least I don’t want riding to be the focus of my vacations. For me, traveling is a way to explore other interests and truly relax, which I sometimes find difficult if I’m slipping into breeches and climbing aboard some unknown equine, who might either decide to ditch me at first chance or plod along at such a pace that I fall asleep out of boredom. I know many people who enjoy spending 12 hours a day in the saddle. I’m not one. But if every horse-related vacation is like the one I enjoyed at Mandarina, I will happily reconsider the concept of a riding trip.

However, I expect the property is unique in this way. For starters, how many resorts house both a top-class equestrian program and a restaurant, Carao, curated by one of the world’s best chefs, Enrique Olvera? At how many resorts can you take a polo lesson before immediately jumping into an oceanside infinity pool? It might just be this one.

Chef Enrique Olvera creates innovative dishes at Carao. Lisa Slade Photo

This contrast was what I initially found alluring about Mandarina—the idea that the horse-related activities could be just a small portion of everything there is to enjoy, and that could you spend an hour or two at the barn before doing something completely different. It sounded like a win-win. And spoiler alert, it was.

Solitude And (Impeccable) Service

One&Only Mandarina is about an hour from the bustling Puerto Vallarta airport, and we enjoyed our ride in a comfortable SUV, passing pineapple farms and some delicious looking taco stands along the way.

Upon arrival to the resort, staff members welcomed us by the reception area, hands over their hearts. This was just the beginning of the impeccable service we experienced during our stay. Next we were greeted with an offering of tequila, mezcal or champagne, plus a selection of juices, as we checked in before we were given a golf cart ride to our gasp- and squeal-inducing ocean-facing villa.

Each villa at One&Only Mandarina offers complete seclusion—including a private plunge pool. Lisa Slade Photo

The 636-acre property is the lowest density ultra-luxury resort in Riviera Nayarit, and each villa is set off on its own. In practical terms that means that every villa at the One&Only property feels more like a secluded house, offering complete privacy; they’re tucked into the jungle foliage so that all you see from your patio are palms and the other lush greenery, plus the occasional coati (an adorable mammal that looks like a cross between a raccoon and an anteater) wandering through—and for us, the sparkling blue Pacific Ocean below our heated private plunge pool. The entire time we were there, I didn’t see or hear another guest from the villa.

The inside of the spacious villa was as stunning as the outside. Ours featured a store of amenities so amazing I now consider my everyday life inadequate without them, like the small motion-activated lights that subtly illuminated the floor when one of us would  pop to the bathroom in the middle of the night—no fumbling with lamps or phone flashlights. And in that gorgeous bathroom, we could choose from mesh curtains or blackout curtains, both of which operated with a push-button switch. The polished concrete floors were heated, and our villa had plenty of bottled water, plus welcome gifts of a dessert shaped like a mandarin orange, insanely delicious fresh tropical fruits, and a small bottle of Coyote Vibora Sotol, with, as our host Jordanna explained, just a hint of viper venom. (Kat declared it pretty good, and I declined that treat but helped myself to the dessert.)

We could choose from the indoor or outdoor shower, and the large closet allowed us to fully unpack so our space remained uncluttered. Each villa has massive sliding doors that open to the plunge pool area and allow you to fully experience the jungle atmosphere if you desire—but we quickly learned to beware the cute coatis, who were eager to sample the contents of our well-stocked mini bar and not above inviting themselves inside.

The view from the restaurant Carao is nearly as amazing as the innovative dishes conceived by chef Enrique Olvera. Lisa Slade Photo

Since the property is so sprawling, almost every trip to a restaurant, pool, beach club, spa, gym, or other amenity or activity requires a golf cart shuttle, easily summoned via your “host” through WhatsApp or the in-room phone. Our first such summoning on our first night in Mexico took us to Carao. There we watched the sun slowly dip into the ocean from our outdoor seats and enjoyed the innovative dishes paired with margaritas. We chose to stroll back along the winding jungle road—an attempt to “walk off” some of our fullness, which was only a little successful.

Once back at our villa, we took a quick dip in the plunge pool before rolling ourselves into our beds, eagerly anticipating the activities of the next day.

The Pursuit Of Relaxation

One&Only Mandarina offers a host of activities—from zip-lining to surfing lessons to guided hikes to mountain biking to exercise classes and more, and there are the polo lessons and trail rides on the equestrian side—but I was happy our schedule wasn’t overloaded so we could soak in the atmosphere of the resort. Because the other, perhaps more important, pursuit at One&Only Mandarina is relaxation, which is easy to find in the private plunge pool, in one of the many infinity pools, or while simply looking out over the ocean. It’s more of an art than an activity, really, and one we quickly started learning as we enjoyed a rather leisurely trip to the gym before a delicious breakfast at Alma.

The restaurant Alma welcomes guests with a selection of fresh fruit juices. Kat Netzler Photo

In addition to the main menu offerings—if you go, don’t skip the scrambled eggs or the chilaquiles—we devoured a selection of the most delicious fruit I’d ever tasted plus some Mexican breads with a selection of housemade jams with unique flavor combinations, and then fresh juices and espresso or cappuccino to drink. (Every mango in my life from now on will be compared to the ones at Mandarina, and I already know they’ll be found wanting.) Our rookie mistake on Day 1: We ate so much at breakfast we didn’t get to fully enjoy lunch. But there are worse problems.

At One&Only Mandarina, guests can choose between any number of infinity pools, all with stunning views. Kat Netzler Photo

There are two beach clubs at One&Only Mandarina—Jetty and Canalan, each with their own distinct vibe—and on our first full day we spent some time at the Jetty Club, which features an outcropping that creates a break from the waves, perfect for wading and enjoying the warm water. (If you’re not an ocean-loving person, there are also infinity pools at both beach clubs and throughout the property—including a massive one at Alma, and then there’s an adults-only pool at Carao. Plus there’s the pool at your villa as well.)

From the water, we watched giant prehistoric-looking pelicans dive for fish and looked back at the jungle landscape. You can see a few of the villas perched up on the hillsides, though thanks to the preservation of the original plants as the One&Only Mandarina was constructed, every building blends into its surroundings.


The villas at One&Only Mandarina were designed to blend into their jungle surroundings. Photo Courtesy of Mandarina

And I quickly learned the lovely sense of solitude I experienced in our villa extended to the entire property, including beach clubs. (Even the KidsOnly Club was designed by famous art director Brigitte Broch, the set decorator for Baz Luhrmann’s film “Moulin Rouge,” with the same calm and uncrowded atmosphere.) The resort opened in November 2020, during the height of COVID-19 restrictions, but since it offers social distancing by design—and the restaurants are all open air anyway—it didn’t suffer any ill effects of launching during that tough timeline. During my stay, no restaurant or beach or pool ever felt remotely crowded, all part of the intelligent layout of the property.

After some time at the beach, I felt refreshed to take on some activities. Which was perfect because it was time to tour the stables.

Enter: Gustavo

Our guide to the stables was polo manager Gustavo Mejia, and though that’s his official title, we quickly learned that the dynamic young Mexico City native is the brains—and in some cases the brawn too—behind many of the resort’s activities. He rattled off a list of his creations, ranging from the organic garden and pop-up restaurant El Huerto (more on that later) to the Argentine Asado Chukker dinner (more on that later too).

Gustavo Mejia, originally from Mexico City, manages the Mandarina Polo & Equestrian Club, and he competes in polo matches as well. Kat Netzler Photo

But despite his many side hustles, Gustavo’s main responsibility is coordinating the equestrian program, including helping establish the polo field, designed by Argentina’s Alejandro Battro, from the beginning. It was completed in January 2021, shortly after the resort’s opening. A polo club at a resort is an unusual thing, and Gustavo explained the thinking behind it.

“One of the things they’ve said to me is, we already have [One&Only Los Cabos in Mexico],” he said. “We have a golf course over there. For Mandarina, they were aiming higher—so something more exclusive. The thing they thought about was having polo and an equestrian center. Their thought was also about show jumping and dressage, but with me here we were able to focus on polo, and we’ve created so much around polo now. As far as I’ve been able to research, it’s the only hotel that has a polo club at this level in the world.”

One of those polo-centric concepts, Gustavo explained, is the Chukker dinner, which is hosted adjacent to the field on Friday and Saturday evenings.

“The concept worked out perfectly,” he said. “Chukker is thought of as: Once you’re done with polo, one of your friends has stayed behind and has been cooking the meat for six hours or so. You come out after the game, with the players, and enjoy the dinner. Now we’ve turned it into a huge success. From 4 p.m. people start arriving, and then up until 11 p.m., they’re here having dinner.”

The first polo match took place on the field in February 2021 and now they’re held three weekends a month from November through May. All matches are hosted as exhibitions, and Gustavo helps find players from neighboring areas of Mexico, but he also draws some from other countries, including England.

The polo ponies at the Mandarina Polo & Equestrian Club were trained to excel at the sport but also to serve as safe mounts for any guests. Lisa Slade Photo

“Usually polo is played four versus four, but we realized from watching around the world, there is one guy who is just chilling—doing nothing,” Gustavo said. “So here we play three versus three, and we manage to have a faster and more open game, which is more interactive for the players and for the spectators. It never stops.

“We also are going back to the roots of the game, which is as a gentleman’s sport, so we took out the referee. ‘You take care of me. I take care of you. I’m not going to do anything that puts you at risk. You’re going to do the same for me.’ Usually during a polo match [somewhere else], you’re going to see a lot of fouls, people stopping, and the penalties, and they move slowly over there, and no one understands what’s happening. Here? It’s just back forth and back and forth. It just happened that taking out the referee works beautifully,” he continued.

If resort guests or private homeowners have polo experience and want to join in the games? That’s welcomed. One of the best things about the equestrian program at Mandarina is you don’t need to bring anything with you to enjoy a world-class riding experience; the resort provides you a well-trained horse, all the tack and gear you need, and even boots, a helmet and socks.

Polo is the main discipline practiced and taught at Mandarina, but riders can also choose a more basic arena lesson or a trail ride to the beach if they desire. Kat Netzler Photo

“We’ve had guests that show up, and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, polo. I played back in Denmark. Can I play?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ We had a guy who wanted to buy one of the private houses here, a former five-goal player, a really super player. He quit polo like 10 years ago, but he came here, and he played every single day,” said Gustavo. “He was here for six days, but he extended his stay another four days just to play polo. He loved it.”

Today the stables are home to 49 horses, including the two foals. Mandarina also uses a facility near Guadalajara for its breeding program, thanks to help from Emi and Chancho, and that facility welcomed an additional eight new foals this year. Emi and Chancho start all the young horses, slowly teaching them the skills needed for a fast-paced polo match—including the requisite speed and agility—but also ensuring they’re quiet and sensible enough for guests.

“The concept with the breeding program is that within the next five years, every horse here is going to be born, raised, trained, everything, by Mandarina,” said Gustavo. “That way we can ensure whatever you get on, we guarantee 100%. That way we ensure safety for everyone.”

Pop-up restaurant El Herto uses vegetables and herbs from the adjacent Mandarina organic farm, and then all the dishes are cooked over fire. Kat Netzler Photo

That included my safety, which I was a little concerned about for the polo adventure the next morning. But we still had a dinner at the organic farm pop-up restaurant, El Huerto, to enjoy, and Gustavo led the way there from the stable, showing us all the plants in his organic garden, ranging from massive stalks of kale to vibrant purple cauliflowers, plus fruit trees and lots of herbs, all of which are used by the restaurant.

We dined al fresco under massive ficus trees at El Huerto, and I enjoyed the best trout of my life. Everything there—from vegetables to flatbreads to this unbelievable fish—was prepared simply, over fire and with basic seasonings, and because of that the natural flavors shone through. Kat and I both declared it one of the best meals we’d ever had, and we enjoyed another nighttime plunge pool soak before again taking our too-full selves to bed.

The next morning? It was time to ride.

As much of the natural foliage as possible was preserved when One&Only Mandarina was built, and the result is a verdant jungle atmosphere. Kat Netzler Photo

No Falling Allowed

Time for another confession: I arrived in Mexico with an injury. Just about six weeks before the trip, I fell and sprained my back, ending up on bed rest for two weeks and then with another month of very limited activity. The end of that “very limited activity” period coincided perfectly with the first day of our trip to One&Only Mandarina. A coincidence? Or stretching doctor’s orders? Who can say?

So while I’d usually consider myself a competent enough rider, for this trip I had just one major goal: Do not fall off and reinjure yourself. And we all know how well that mindset works when you’re riding. Thanks to this, I was carrying a little fear, if I’m being honest.

Lisa Slade Photo

I shouldn’t have worried. My assigned mount Malbec, an adorable little gray with perpetually pricked ears, was keen but never pulling, steady, and clearly familiar with ungraceful humans hanging off his side while trying to hit a little ball.

By the time we put our horses away, I was, as you read before, not exactly a polo pro. But the introduction was enough to whet my appetite for the sport, though I’m not planning on jumping into any matches anytime soon. Maybe after another five (or 50) lessons with Emi.

After a polo lesson or trail ride, treats are provided for riders and horses. Lisa Slade Photo

Next on our agenda was more relaxation, this time at the Canalan Beach Club, which featured beautifully tiled infinity pools overlooking the crashing waves, and lunch at its adjacent restaurant, Allora. Allora’s specialty is Italian food, so we took our post-ride and post-swim hunger and dived into salads made with the freshest vegetables, pastas and pizzas.


After that it was time to rest (after our already fairly restful day—clearly leaning into resort life), and Kat got a massage and explored the spa, declaring its various saunas, pools, grottos and private treatment villas “a bonkers jungle wonderland of relaxation.”

Kat Netzler Photo

On our final evening, Gustavo wanted us to experience the Chukker dinner, but since we weren’t there on a Thursday or Friday, the usual event wasn’t available. No problem; he simply made our own private Chukker event on the side of the polo field—under another massive ficus tree—and chefs prepared a medley of meats right next to our table as we sipped Mandarina wine.

Last confession: I’m a pescatarian. But when Kat bit into a piece of steak (one of the three different cuts of steak they’d grilled just for her) and was nearly moved to tears by the flavor, I had to try a piece. Maybe you shouldn’t take advice from someone who’s not a meat expert, but it was delicious. If I return, I’ll again abandon my food restrictions for the Chukker dinner.

After eating entirely too much (Are you seeing a theme?), we accepted a ride back to the villa and spent our last evening again appreciating the plunge pool before it was time to fall into our beds.

A Sad Departure

On our last day, we had time for one more activity: a hike to La Abuela, a 500-year-old ficus tree located in the jungle surrounding Mandarina. Kat and I both hike a lot in the Pacific Northwest, but the climate and foliage are completely different in Nayarit, so it was a different experience, made better by our guide explaining all the plants we passed along the way, including strangler trees, agave plants and a terrifying acacia tree with spikes that house red ants inside of them. “Do not fall on this one,” he said, and we did our best to obey. The hike also took us by several ancient petroglyphs, which were all carefully noted and then preserved during construction of the resort.

Some of the plants on display during the hike to La Abuela—a 500-year-old ficus tree—include massive palms and strangler trees, but the highlight is La Abuela herself. Kat Netzler Photo

Even though the climb to this ancient tree only covered about 1 mile, Kat and I agreed it was a surprisingly strenuous—or at least fairly sweaty—walk, partially thanks to the humidity, to which we were completely unacclimated. La Abuela is the star of the hike, of course, and once we reached the destination, we spent a few minutes in her shade, staring up at the impossibly high branches and wandering around the massive root system.

A golf cart met us out by end of the road after the hike so we wouldn’t miss our flight, and then it was time to say goodbye to Mandarina and climb back into an SUV for the ride back to the Puerto Vallarta airport.

“Is this real life?” I asked myself at regular intervals while at Mandarina, beginning during our check-in and concluding with the check-out process. And, no, it isn’t my real life exactly, as I returned to a home that’s full of dog hair and a messy kitchen with sadly no room host or turn-down service. But in the end it was an experience even better than real life: one where you can lean into relaxation with the perfect portion of activities on the side—and eat the best mangos the world can offer.

Don’t Want To Go Home?

If you visit Mandarina and decide you simply cannot leave—very understandable—you have the option to do just that: stay forever. You can make the property your new home, or at least a second home to which you can retreat whenever you’d like.

Architect Rick Joy designed the One&Only Mandarina private homes, and all feature verdant surroundings and stunning views. Kat Netzler Photo

The Mandarina Private Homes collection includes 55 villas—some of which are already built, with others either planned or already under construction—scattered throughout the property. All sit on unique plots and feature spanning views of the ocean, and they offer the same privacy and sense of seclusion as the resort’s villas. The villas were designed by architect Rick Joy, and he wanted the spaces to blur the line between indoors and out, so all homes feature the same massive glass doors—walls, really—that allow for perfect harmony with the natural environment.

Thanks to the care going into the homes and the topography of the Nayarit property, there’s no indication that there’s construction occurring on the property. When the houses are built, as little greenery as possible is removed, and the result for each one is a gorgeous view that’s perfectly framed by gigantic trees and other plants.

The private villas are three-, four- or five-bedroom houses, while the estate villas offer eight bedrooms. Owners can choose to enter their home into the facility’s rental pool if they don’t want to live there full time, though they must purchase the house furnished to choose that option. Residents can access all the resort’s amenities, from dinners at Carao to polo lessons at the stable.

Home prices begin at $5.25 million.

If you’re interested in learning more, visit

Want to stay at this property? Learn more at This feature was created in partnership with Mandarina, which funded the resort stay.

This article originally ran in the Summer 2023 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse Untacked.

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