Americans Stake Claims in Baja Land Rush
New York Times Sunday Addition
By Tim Weiner
Slowly but surely, acre by acre, Mexico's Baja Peninsula is becoming
an American colony.
"For Sale" signs are sprouting all over the 800-mile-long peninsula,
offering thousands of beachfront properties. Americans are snapping them
up. They have already created communities where the dollar is the local
currency, English the main language and Americans the new immigrants
transforming an old culture.
"Everything's for sale, every lot you can imagine," said Alfonso
Gavito, director of a cultural institute in La Paz, the capital of Baja
California Sur, a state with 400,000 citizens and some of the last
undeveloped beaches in North America. "It's like 20 years of changes
have happened in three months."
This new land rush, involving billions of dollars, tens of thousands
of Americans, and hundreds of miles of coastline, is gaining speed
despite the fact that Mexico's Constitution bars foreigners from
directly owning land by the sea.
Mexico's government wants foreign capital as much as Americans want a
house on the beach — maybe more. So it worked around the Constitution.
In 1997, it changed the law to allow foreign ownership through locally
administered land trusts. A Mexican bank acts as trustee, the foreigner
It took about four years before that new system worked smoothly. But
now, most often, it does. One result has been a boom in migration,
speculation and permanent vacation. "It's human greed — it's human
nature," said David Halliburton, who owns a hotel outside Cabo San
Lucas, on Baja's southern tip, where uncontrolled growth already strains
the social fabric. "The amount of money coming in here through
overzealous developers and buyers is staggering."
Baja is closer by land and air to the United States than it is to the
rest of Mexico; state officials recorded more than 30 million trips by
Americans who spent well over $1 billion last year. They say they have
no idea how many Americans are living in Baja today, because a certain
number are illegal immigrants who never register their presence.
Anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests that the number is more than
100,000, probably far more, and growing fast since the Sept. 11 attacks
and the souring of the economy in the United States two years ago.
"Since 2001, we have seen a boom in real estate sales, and the
full-time population of Americans is growing rapidly," said Tony
Colleraine, an American in San Felipe, about 160 miles southeast of San
Diego. He said about one-quarter of the town's roughly30,000 residents
were Americans, many of whom want to "get away from the regulations and
rhetoric, and get out of the bull's-eye" in the United States.
In Rosarito, an hour's drive south of the United States border, about
one-quarter of the 55,000 residents are Americans. "An increasing number
of Americans are moving here to escape their government's policies and
the costs of living," said Herb Kinsey, a Rosarito resident with roots
in the United States, Canada and Germany. "They find a higher standard
of living and a greater degree of freedom."
At least 600,000 Americans — again, an acknowledged undercount based
on government records — are permanent residents of Mexico. That is by
far the largest number of United States citizens living in any foreign
Americans living throughout Baja say their new neighbors include
professionals in their 30's and 40's putting down roots, not just
retirees in recreational vehicles. In Rosarito, the new home buyers
include lawyers and members of the military who commute across the
border to San Diego, where housing costs are about five times higher. A
pleasant house by the Pacific in Rosarito can cost less than $150,000;
property taxes are about $75 a year.
The Americans living in Rosarito set up a municipal office in April.
Two members are Ed Jones, an entertainer, and Rita Gullicson, a teacher.
Americans "want to claim Baja as part of the United States, and they
always have," Ms. Gullicson said. Mr. Jones finished her thought,
saying, "And now they are doing it with money."
Baja's future, Mexican officials say, lies in American land
investment. The government strongly promotes foreign direct investment,
which is the only reliable source of economic growth in Mexico.
The site of a failed government-backed tourist development, Nopalo,
which means "place of vipers," lies just outside the town of Loreto,
founded in 1697, population 11,000. American and Canadian developers
plan to build 5,000 new homes for 12,000 fellow citizens.
Their master plan depicts a particularly affluent suburb, with houses
selling for up to $2 million each. The developers plan to break ground
in January. They envision a $2 billion investment over 15 years.
"People will come by the hundreds of thousands" to Baja, said one of
the developers, David Butterfield. "Mexico gives you an opportunity to
build something you cannot build in the U.S. or Canada today. You cannot
build great things in America today. Regulations and litigation prevent
There are limits to change in Baja, too. They are set by nature. It
rains five inches a year or less in many parts of the peninsula. A
barrel of water here is effectively worth more than a barrel of oil, and
it takes many millions of gallons to sustain a golf course, much less a
There is no drinking water in Loreto, it is piped in from 16 miles
away, and no place for thousands of construction and service workers to
live. Many Mexicans wonder if the new community will truly be the
"sustainable development" its backers promise. "I'm not sure there's
anyplace in the modern world that's sustainable," Mr. Butterfield said.
"I hope we're going to create one."
Homero Davis, Loreto's mayor, supports the project, somewhat warily.
"The quality of life is a moral issue here," he said. "The culture is at
stake. We don't want to be like Cabo San Lucas," where hotels and
condominiums have swamped what was once a little village.
But that scale of development is precisely what Fonatur, the federal
agency that promotes tourism in Mexico, has in mind for Loreto and the
rest of Baja.
Fonatur, which conceived and built mega-resorts like Cancun,
envisions marinas for American yachts, four-star hotels and fancy golf
courses ringing the peninsula in a plan called the Escalera Nautica, or
Nautical Ladder, which involves $210 million in public money and hopes
for $1.7 billion in investment from developers.
"The whole premise of the Escalera Nautica is to create a land rush,
and I'm not sure that's good for anybody," said Tim Means, who has lived
in La Paz for 35 years and runs a respected ecotourism outfit called
Baja was isolated from the outside world until the government paved a
road through the peninsula in the 1970's and 80's. The road connected
Baja more closely to the United States than to the Mexican mainland.
That connection is deepening as more and more Americans move here. So is
a sense of remoteness, of difference, from the rest of Mexico.
"People on the mainland don't know we exist," said Doris Johnson, the
daughter of a Mexican mother and an American father, who runs a hotel in
Mulege. "They ask, `Do they speak Spanish in Baja? Do you need a
passport to go there?' "
Ms. Johnson wonders what will become of Baja as it becomes more and
more of an American place. "We have our own culture here," she said.
"But we don't have much influence over what's changing our culture."