Inside México talks with Karen Strass
By Inside México Original Print Publication: March, 2009
Karen Strass and her husband Kenn hail from Saskatchewan, Canada. They moved to Celestún, Yucatán on the Gulf coast, a spot famed for its flamingo population, where they built a beachfront guesthouse called Casa de Celeste Vida (Home of Heavenly Life). Three guest suites make up the ground floor, and their living space is upstairs.
The Celeste Vida guesthouse has three suites on the ground floor.
Inside México: How did you choose Celestún?
Karen Strass: For years I dreamt of running a guesthouse on a beautiful beach, but I never thought it would really happen! It had to be Mexico: I love this country. We chose Celestún because of the beautiful secluded beach, location away from hurricane paths, affordability of the land, and because Mexico is still close enough to home.
IM: What distinguishes Celestún from other areas of Mexico that you're familiar with? How would you describe it to an outsider?
KS: It is still a very real Mexican village. The people are wonderful, friendly, and welcoming. We have been included in weddings and birthdays. Good friends of ours recently had a baby and named her after me-truly an honor.
IM: Do you feel like you're living in a foreign country, or is there a strong English-speaking presence that makes you feel more "at home"? Who are your neighbors?
KS: When we sometimes struggle with legal issues or find our Spanish isn't good enough, then of course we feel like foreigners. But for the most part we are at home here. We mingle with the people in the town and see them as our friends. This is their country and it is we that need to adapt-we feel it is a privilege to be here.
Many of the neighbors are English-speaking, mostly from Canada or the US. Some speak better Spanish than we do but we get better day by day. Some live here full-time, some just for short stays. In the spring when the foreigners leave it can get very quiet and even a bit lonely. When you have a day like that it's time to hop in the car and go discover what the Yucatán has to offer.
IM: How did you develop the architecture, floor plan, and "feel" of the house?
KS: We chose a guesthouse instead of a B & B. We wanted guests to have utmost control over their vacation time here and not be tied into a breakfast-time schedule, so all three suites needed kitchen areas. We thought where to place windows for the best air flow, and how to best withstand a hurricane. We gave guests areas to mingle and visit, areas to relax, and provide them all with privacy. It had to look both good, like it belonged on the beach, and welcoming, so guests would remember their holiday and maybe even come back again. I drew up the plan over a two-week period: I have no training but I know what I like and what makes a home functional, and I think I have a good eye for details. Once I was satisfied, my cousin set it to architectural block form with just a couple of very small changes. Celeste Vida was built from the ground up by a Mayan crew who are the stone masters of Mexico.
Having the suites downstairs works great: the rooms are accessible and bringing luggage is so much easier with the rooms on the ground floor.
IM: What amenities did you want guests to have? What amenities did you want to have yourself?
KS: All the comforts of home. Self-catering and separate entrances, to give everyone separate spaces, and comfy beds were very important. Available maid service. Beautiful views from every room. A very quiet atmosphere. Of course we are happy to socialize if guests like: we want them to feel at home.
For us, privacy when we need some. Our home is functional but comfortable and when we sometimes invite guests upstairs we want them to feel at home. We live fairly simply but we are very happy!
IM: How long did it take to get the house in the shape you wanted?
KS: The first sand was turned on April 1, 2006 and we welcomed our first guests on December 27 of that same year. Two years later we are enjoying the yard as it matures and are still making improvements. We have plans for an outdoor patio/BBQ area for guests to enjoy, and possibly a pool, but that is still a few years away.
IM: What kind of daily, weekly, and/or monthly maintenance work goes into the upkeep?
KS: The reality of running a business like this means working almost every day. We rise early to open the gate, check the water cistern, water the yard, tidy the house, do laundry, and set up on the beach. Then we head upstairs to do our own chores. We check with guests to see if there is anything they need, like clean towels or maybe a lift into town. When we are very busy or when Kenn is working in Canada (at least four months each year) we hire a local lady to help out. The salt is hard on the building, which we clean by spraying twice a year, and we always seem to be painting something and performing maintenance. Two years in we are getting better at taking time for ourselves, and we do relax more than we used to. We moved here to have a wonderful life and more time together, and we do.
IM: How have you marketed Celeste Vida? Where do your guests come from, and how have they heard about you?
KS: We have designed a website, celestevida.ca, and we also advertise on other vacation rental websites. We have brochures and business cards to hand out when people stop in as they drive along the road, and word of mouth helps. Most guests come from Canada, but also from the USA, Europe, and Central America: all wonderful people and we feel so fortunate to share our dream with them.