Americans Flocking to Baja in Land Grab

By: Jeff Shelley

Once considered one of the most desolate places on the North American continent, Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is slowly becoming a colony of the United States. Acre by acre beachfront properties are being snapped up by Americans. English is gradually becoming the primary language, and the dollar has supplanted the peso as the monetary unit of choice.

The reason behind the southward push is the Mexican government’s desire for foreign investment and an increasingly American desire to live elsewhere. Even though the Mexican constitution prevents foreigners from directly owning land beside the Pacific Ocean on Baja’s west side and the Gulf of California on the east, the land grab is proceeding at breakneck speed as Americans want to live in a home on the beach.

According to an October 26, 2003, story in the New York Times by reporter Tim Wiener, the American migration to Baja was greatly aided in 1997 when the Mexican government changed its beach-home law to allow foreign ownership through locally administered land trusts. Since that change the land rush has been fueled by billions of dollars in investments by tens of thousands of Americans in hundreds of miles of Baja coastline.

“Everything’s for sale, every lot you can imagine,” Alfonso Gavito told Wiener. Gavito is the 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.”

Americans have been primarily responsible for the massive development in and around Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo on Baja’s southernmost tip. The area still booms with new resort projects. The edges of the four-lane highway linking the two cities – located 32 miles apart – are gradually being filled in by homes, hotels, golf courses, stores and tourist facilities. But the development north of Cabo (Spanish for “cape”) is unprecedented.

The number of Americans now living in Baja is unknown. But evidence suggests there are more than 100,000 – probably far more, and growing fast since the September 11 attacks and the downturn in the U.S. economy over the past two years. There are an estimated 600,000 Americans living in Mexico – an acknowledged undercount based on government records, by far the largest number of U.S. citizens living in any foreign country. In Rosarito, an hour’s drive south of the U.S. border, about one-quarter of its 55,000 residents are American.

“An increasing number of Americans are moving here to escape the (U.S.) government’s policies and the costs of living,” said Herb Kinsey, a Rosarito resident with roots in the U.S., Canada and Germany. “They find a higher standard of living and a greater degree of freedom.”

The influx of Americans to Baja has a broad demographic, with young families, professionals, and retirees alike planting roots in Mexico. Rita Gullicson told Wiener, Americans “want to claim Baja as part of the United States, and they always have.” Another Rosarito citizen, Ed Jones, injected, “And now they are doing it with money.”

Living in Baja is not as easy as many Americans assume. Most roads are unpaved, social services are often nonexistent, and the reliability of utilities is more hit than miss. The peninsula’s desert climate generates only 5 inches of rain a year or less, with water a rare and costly commodity. According to Wiener, a barrel of water is now worth more than a barrel of oil. There is no drinking water in Loreto – it is piped in from 16 miles away. Desalination plants are becoming the norm in Cabo, which offers the only drinkable tap water on the peninsula.

Abetting development is Fonatur, the Mexican agency that promotes tourism and which conceived and built mega-resorts such as Cancun. Fonatur is finalizing plans for Escalera Nautica, a massive project that will transform both sides of the slender peninsula and forever alter Baja’s seclusion from the civilized world.

Comprised of marinas, four-star hotels, golf courses and resort facilities, Escalera Nautica (“nautical ladder”) involves paved roads linking Baja’s east and west coasts to enable easier portage of yachts, presumably those owned by wealthy Americans. The Mexican government has committed $210 million in public money and anticipates another $1.7 billion in private funding to bring the project to fruition over the next couple of decades.

“The whole premise of 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 business called Baja Expeditions.

Despite the sentiments of Means and others, long-time American expatriates and Baja natives may have no other choice but to adapt to the realities of their rapidly changing world.