Photo: Construction in a wetland, Loreto Bay development, Loreto, Baja California, Mexico

A development in Loreto, Baja California, Mexico.

Photograph by Ralph Lee Hopkins

By James Conaway

From the November/December 2008 issue of National Geographic Traveler

For good or ill, the development of nature-rich Baja California marches inexorably on. Traveler takes a look at the forces bearing down on this Mexican treasure.

Imagine a Galápagos-like finger of land nearly 800 miles long—and right next door to the United States. Or picture Florida in the 1940s, before all the coastal development—but without the fresh water. These are two descriptions I'm hearing of Baja California, the arid peninsula stretching from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, on one side the roiled Pacific Ocean and on the other the glassy Gulf of California. There flourish a dozen species of migratory whales, herds of mobula rays—the manta's occasionally airborne cousin—leatherback and other sea turtles, a healthy billfish population despite relentless overangling, hundreds of species of birds including the elusive blue-footed booby, and numerous other indigenous, even unique, aquatic and desert life-forms.

Into this Edenic world is now stepping the full force of coastal development. The tread is heavy at Baja's tip, known collectively as "Cabo." More conscientious but problematic is tourist and residential building outside the lovely former colonial outpost of Loreto, up the east coast. And farther up yet lies a beautiful, undiscovered gem of astonishing biological fecundity, Bahía de Los ángeles, where development is still mostly rumor. What's to become of Baja is an increasingly loud debate in both Mexico and the United States. Underlying the argument is the worrisome question: Will it end up being trashed because of its unique appeal? I've come down to see the situation for myself, and to listen to those who know this spare, haunting land best.

Cabo means very different things to different people these days: spring-breakers sucking down tequila Jell-O shots in El Squid Roe and the Gigglin Marlin. Wet T-shirt contests without the T-shirts. McDonald's, Häagen-Dazs, Costco. Hotels walling off the beach while sewage trickles into a crowded harbor. Golfers seriously paying to play in parched air, on unnaturally green signature courses. Gated communities with shotgun-slung guards and personal infinity pools. George Clooney and Gwyneth Paltrow in secluded über-resorts. Forests of rebar and embryonic condos swarming with laborers trucked in from poorest mainland Mexico—people who sleep in remote canyons without running water or services. Sun, fun, beauty, fame, oblivion, squalor: "Cabo."

On one side of the 20-mile development corridor is Cabo San Lucas, and at the other San José del Cabo and the so-called cape region, all of it ringing with the sounds of hammers and snorting diesels. A parallel American vacation dream is rapidly being created down here that's transforming one of the world's most remarkable maritime landscapes and raising questions about environmental damage.

"What environmental damage?" asks Johnny Vaughn, a partner in Grupo Questro, one of Cabo's big, multinational developers. We're tooling around Cabo San Lucas in his SUV to get some perspective on the real estate boom. "If somebody can show me how we're hurting the environment, I wish they would."

Many have tried, but that's another story. Plump and affable, Vaughn smokes a cigarette as he totes up the usual Cabo superlatives: fastest-growing resort community in Mexico; most expensive annual boat race; biggest charity events. He points to a lot facing the harbor, where a museum commemorating Mexico's culture and 1910 revolution is to be built. "This is the last open space on the waterfront. The museum's going to be a huge, beautiful monster." "Huge" is the adjective of choice here. "Look at those houses," he says, pointing to the stone palaces balanced on the ridge between the Sea of Cortés and the Pacific Ocean, in a literally over-the-top development called Pedregal. "They're huge." The biggest belongs—naturally—to the developer who put together this particular collection of conspicuous views. "They all belong to Californians, Arizonans, and Texans."

No one is on the cobbled streets other than maids waiting for the Pedregal bus. Vaughn grew up in Sonora, far to the north, and I ask him why all the projects here are built by outsiders. "The locals aren't very good at managing things," Vaughn says. "A lot of them are descended from pirates, you know." And ranchers along the coast never paid much attention to the sea, "until we discovered it."

"We" is Cabo's tight, seemingly autonomous, catalytic real estate community. The population of Cabo San Lucas has grown exponentially since 1976, when the Mexican government fingered it as the next big opportunity for tourist development. It now hovers between 60,000 and 100,000 residents, depending on who you ask.

Vaughn marches me through a partially completed mansion to view the surging Pacific far below. Concrete is being poured 24/7 down there, facilitated by a tunnel dug through the mountain to speed up logistics. The retaining wall of one new hotel looks like a mere line drawn in the sand. "They might have a problem with a hurricane down there," he says, without condemnation, for most anything can be attempted in Cabo.

I ask how southern Baja's going to provide water for all the multiplying thousands. "De-sal." He draws the word out. "It's a piece of cake."

And what about the briny by-product of desalination, and all the various runoffs? Vaughn just smiles. "Look at that ocean out there. I don't think we have a problem."

"I'm just one woman, and the developers have great power. If they want to squash you, they can."

Her name is Norma Sánchez, and she founded Angels of the Estuary, a grassroots organization that opposed the digging of a marina near San José del Cabo by Vaughn's Grupo Questro. It was dug anyway, part of the $1-billion Puerto Los Cabos development now in full swing. A bridge being built just upstream of the San José Estuary will bring the expected tourists and residents to four planned communities and what resembles a giant, boat-filled keyhole punched into the desert's green verge, where crops were formerly grown. The marina has berths for 400-plus boats, including, according to the website, "luxury mega yachts," and will have the usual suspects: golf courses, hotels, spas, beach clubs, condos.

Many of the town's former residents have sold out and moved to the outskirts, or away, as Sánchez has. Her soft brown eyes, under the brim of the straw hat, belie determination but also a touch of fatigue. She's been sobered by the loss of her particular development battle to a well-oiled legal machine and what she considers the government's inability, and unwillingness, to monitor the rising tide of concrete.

"There are better ways to build than by disrupting whole towns, using up a lot of scarce water, and creating huge waste issues. Why can't developers understand that they can still make money if they do the right thing environmentally?"

We're walking across a blindingly white beach on the west side of the estuary, through what amounts to a living mirage: fresh water, dense marsh grass, gallinules and other aquatic birds, and a distant row of palms that seem to sway in the rising thermals. "This is a very important place," she says. "It has fresh water where that's rare, and provides habitat for waterfowl and many other species," including people.

The effect of saltwater let in by the nearby marina is still an open question. Baja's small but tenacious Mexican Center for Environmental Law up in La Paz assisted Sánchez in opposing it, and several international organizations weighed in, among them Greenpeace, whose activists chained themselves to heavy earthmoving equipment in 2006 in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the marina dig.

The marina, and Puerto Los Cabos, had the early backing of the Mexican government's Fonatur (National Fund for the Development of Tourism), the powerful agency that identifies potential tourist spots and provides infrastructure, all at public expense. These projects are then handed over to the private sector, part of a strategy that has produced some economic benefits for the country but also led to social and environmental problems like those in woefully overbuilt Cancún and other well-worn tourist venues. "Fonatur," says Sánchez, "is a partner in all these developments."

Another spot in Baja was identified 30 years ago by Fonatur as a prime tourist destination, Loreto, 318 miles north on the gulf and the oldest permanent Spanish settlement in the Californias. Mission Nuestra Señora de Loreto was established there in 1697, and Franciscans under the well-known Padre Junípero Serra launched the chain of missions in 1769 that would extend far up into mainland California.

Loreto avoided much notice in Mexico City for about two centuries until, in the 1980s, Fonatur drilled wells into the one aquifer originating in the dry Giganta range, built roads on an undeveloped stretch of land 12 miles south of the town, and put in streetlights. The bay it faced was full of fish, could boast of six species of whales in season and beautiful islands just offshore in a sea alternately bottle green and cobalt blue.

It took years for a group of investors to come up with a workable plan for a new community, Loreto Bay, and to take over where Fonatur left off. This unusual development plan, still being put into effect, calls for a resort hotel, golf courses, 6,000 houses and condominiums of neocolonial design built largely of organic materials, walkable streets, shops, canals, and native flora: a "sustainable" vision on a grand scale. When complete, the community is expected to grow from 15,000 people to 120,000.

Sufficient water for all this, the developers say, will come from desalination plants, power to run them from windmills to be built on Baja's west coast, everything funded by investors from the United States and Canada. This enormous, new-constructed "old" Mexican village is meant to function as an upscale, new urbanist retreat in the unblemished air of southern Baja.

"Okay," says Peter Clark, squeezing lime juice into his can of Tecate, "here's the sustainability story."

He's the director of sustainability for the Loreto Bay development, and he obviously loves his job. "The gnarliest problem," he confides, "is the social one."

The Loreto Bay Company imported thousands of men from the impoverished mainland to do the manual labor. But they clashed with townspeople and contributed to already chronic housing, trash, sewage, and water problems. To address them all, Clark says, "we had to be flexible."

For instance, the development was making its own adobe bricks that unfortunately absorbed moisture, held in the heat of 110-degree summers, and required 2,000 additional workers to create and install. "So we came up with walls made of panels of recycled Styrofoam that cut the price, shortened production time, and reduced by half the number of strange workers swimming in their underwear and chasing local girls."

One contribution the Loreto Bay Company made to the sustainability debate was to seriously put forward the idea that it could be done on such a massive scale. But Loreto Bay has yet to fully emerge. Distant cranes stand against droughty mountains, and in the foreground partially completed streets and man-made "lagoons" snake among new foundations in the Agua Viva neighborhood, lending it, according to a salesperson, "a Venice feel." The completed houses are close together even by new urbanist standards. Local plants—mesquite, palo blanco, cordon cactus, and other species—provide the community with what Clark refers to as "a native palette." Some brackish water from the estuary is being used on the golf course.

Clark's intense gaze matches his enthusiasm. I want to believe that sustainability can do all this, but every claim gives rise to questions similar to those in Cabo: Can desalination really provide the vast amounts of freshwater required to augment the aquifer? What will be the effect of various sorts of runoff on Loreto's fragile bay and the whales that swim there? Taking tourists out to watch the whales has become one of few new economic opportunities for Loreto's fishermen.

The development uses, and pays for, treated waste water from the town of Loreto, Clark says. Although a sewage treatment plant is nearly complete, there's still no desalination plant. Ditto the landfill. The Loreto Bay Company currently recycles cans, but it trucks garbage as far as Tijuana for disposal, at great expense. These questions have occurred to others. So far only 788 homes have been sold, and of those only 294 sales have actually closed.

This evening, the Inn at Loreto Bay has lots of happy American guests drinking margaritas out of frosty fishbowls, paddling in kayaks near the beach, and loudly playing ping-pong under the palms. The view out to sea is hard to beat. "We have to make this work," Clark says. "In the end it's all about caring. It's about love."

Last year the Loreto Bay Company ran into financial difficulties because early investment in the new houses lagged, so Citigroup Property stepped in and assumed controlling interest. Now the question is whether a major multinational will continue to back the original, expensive vision in hard economic times. As a member of Loreto Bay's management team later tells me, "Loreto's going to be the next big thing. It's going to be the next Cabo. But Citigroup has pointed out that sustainability must also extend to the corporation."

"There's a spout!...two!" Winter whale-watching season is officially over, but there they are, making rainbows with mighty exhalations of seawater, two dark, glistening finbacks sleekly cleaving the surface, apparently indifferent to our presence. Then, as effortlessly as they have appeared, they sound, leaving telltale slicks on the surface where their flukes have driven them toward the bottom. "Ah," adds Fernando Arcas, "they're gone."

I've come to Arcas for another point of view on the impact of development in Loreto. He wears a padded windbreaker and two pairs of glasses on strings looped around his neck: one pair for seeing up-close, the other for blocking the Baja sun that bounces off an undulant sea like intermittent strobes. Slightly ominous against a cottony pink sky is the dark profile of Carmen Island, one of five off the coast of Loreto in the 1,300-square-mile Bahía de Loreto National Park, established in 1996. The park was initially patrolled by only one agent of Profepa, the government enforcer of environmental law, and Arcas was instrumental in hiring two more with funds from the nonprofit Grupo Ecologista Antares (GEA), of which he's the executive director. GEA was established with help from various environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy and Wildcoast, and works for the preservation of marine and desert ecosystems.

Arcas's deep-keeled fiberglass panga, Rebelde (Rebel) II, is fitted with a ten-foot observation tower bolted to the forward deck. For 26 years he's been studying marine mammals, not as a biologist, but as a devoted amateur: sperm whales, finbacks, blues, humpbacks, orcas, dolphins, and most things living within this broad, blue view. All of them are, in his opinion, threatened by too many people. "Only 15,000 live in Loreto now," he says, indicating the green line of palms in the distance. Old Loreto's picturesque traditional stucco houses face the malecón and the little marina. "In ten years there could be 120,000. Imagine what this coast will look like then."

Arcas's office in Loreto, a modest structure a few blocks from the playa, is an enthusiast's careful collection of local marine flora and fauna and exhibits explaining the life cycles of sea organisms. Schoolchildren are regularly taken to GEA headquarters to be introduced to the wonders of the bay, and broader educational programs are undertaken there. Putting visitors in close proximity to sea mammals is both a growth industry and a way to bring more support to GEA and Loreto's national park.

Whales move people emotionally by their mass, majesty, and apparent indifference to boats and brightly dressed observers bristling with cameras. The whales' aura of invincibility, however, is an illusion. "There were once many whales in San Diego Bay, and they're all gone," Arcas tells me. The colossal drop in the populations of fish and other species in the Sea of Cortés, including sardines and plankton upon which whales feed, he estimates at 80 percent. "It's a problem of overfishing and pollution."

Any large-scale resort affects the quality of wild waters, he adds, and that includes Loreto Bay south of town, in Arcas's view. "What they're doing with the estuary is more like a Disney water park. Desalination won't solve their long-term freshwater problems. For one thing, de-sal is very expensive to run, and they're not talking about electricity from windmills anymore. Even if that worked, what would they do with all the brine from desalination? Dump it in the water and the bay will die."

Loreto Bay is just one of many new resorts on the drawing boards. Add to those proliferating cruise ships that already stir up the bottom of the bay. "I'm not a scientist," Arcas says, "but I collect useful information," like the acoustical monitoring of whales' heartbeats to gauge their reaction to the number and proximity of boats. "The number of heartbeats rises in direct proportion to how close we get. That's an indication of stress. We have only a few pangas on the bay now. What's going to happen when there are a thousand?"

Some seven hours north of Loreto, about halfway to the U.S. border, a new, empty highway leaves the main road and shoots eastward toward a gap in the Giganta range. It crosses a high valley dotted with blooming ocotillo and the weirdly drooping cirios trees that grow nowhere else on Earth. And suddenly there it is: a bay of such luminous blue that it seems lighted from beneath. This is the Bahía de Los ángeles, up to 3,000 feet deep and backed by huge Guardian Angel Island, floating on its surface like a sea-weary leviathan.

Bahía de Los ángeles struck John Steinbeck as mysterious when the author passed through on a scientific expedition in 1940. Discovered by Francisco de Ulloa in 1539, on the last expedition financed by Hernán Cortés, it has been declared a Biosphere Reserve by the Mexican government and is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The close to one million acres include a rich maritime diversity—fin and killer whales, yellowfin, halibut, corvina, roosterfish, dolphins, whale sharks, and the threatened and endangered eastern Pacific green turtle—and are referred to as Baja's Yellowstone.

Four species of sea turtle are doing better in these waters than elsewhere in Mexico. "We still catch 50-year-olds in the nets," says Antonio Reséndiz, a voluble, barrel-chested marine biologist who has done research in Bahía for 30 years and on whose beachfront ramada locals and ex-pats often gather at sundown for a beer or a glass of wine, among them two Californian expedition leaders involved in turtle protection who founded Baja and Beyond Tours. It was Reséndiz's tagged loggerhead turtle, captured off Bahía de Los ángeles, that swam from Baja to Japan in 1999, proving the sea turtle's formidable homing capabilities. But many turtles caught hereabouts, either incidentally or intentionally, make their way to the black market in Ensenada. And onto plates in Bahía. Despite the ban on taking turtles, some Bahians still consume them as an antidote to colds and respiratory problems, and as a spiritual connection with the deep.

Although Bahía's coastal waters and bordering desert are officially protected, several years ago Fonatur picked Bahía as one of the launching points for another of its grand visions, Escalera Naútica. According to this plan, American yachts would be trucked from the Pacific across the peninsula on a "land bridge"—that new, empty road I drove in on—to the Sea of Cortés so the long, difficult sailing and cruising passage around the southern cape could be avoided by deep-pocketed vacationers. If this becomes reality, Bahía and little towns like it all down the coast will have new harbors, docking facilities, and hotels.

However, despite Fonatur's long-lived determination to see its projects through, Bahía de Los ángeles may avoid becoming the next next big thing. That's because the local ejido, one of thousands of landholding cooperatives set up after the Mexican Revolution for the redistribution of property to the rural poor, opposes it. Ejidos have controlled vast acreage in Mexico for almost a century, and in 1992 the Mexican Constitution was amended to allow individual members to sell. This caused an upheaval in the national real estate market, and in the ejidos, too, as people clashed over who owned what.

"A plan already exists, agreed upon by everyone in town, that buildings will be no more than two stories high. Also, people have agreed that we want the town to remain as it is. We live here."

Raúl Espinoza is Bahia's delegado—mayor—and he has taken time off from his duties to drive me in his dusty truck to visit a family of fishermen. "Since the bay and much of the coast are already protected, many restrictions already exist." A purposeful figure in a polo shirt, Espinoza headed the ejido in 1993 and oversaw the successful division of more than a million acres among 86 members, without major rancor.

"We set an example for the rest of the country." And Bahía de Los ángeles has a common view of what this fragile shore should look like, he adds. When representatives from Fonatur and other government agencies came to Bahía to talk about large-scale development, "they saw that we oppose it. The harbor here is too shallow for a big marina, for one thing. I don't think Escalera Naútica will happen."

We get out in front of a house whose rocky yard overlooks the bay. Three pangas parked out front are piled with nets. Two men sitting on the porch, Fermín Smith and his grown son, Eduardo, are said to be descended from a British sailor who made his way up the coast from Peru in the late 18th century, and they have blue-green eyes to prove it. Both men are fishermen. On occasion they catch octopus and squid, still plentiful, although no one goes fishing every day anymore.

The Smiths have adapted to the decline of the fishery here, as their counterparts have elsewhere, by taking out sightseers. But the Smiths also have a rudimentary camp out of sight behind Pescador Island, called La única. It has beds, hammocks, and meals for adventurous guests interested in close-in nature and the absence of amenities—a true Baja experience. Last year, when a developer tried to buy the land from the Smiths to build a resort, Fermín, acting on the advice of environmentalists in Mexico and the U.S., applied for a conservation easement on a portion of the property. It was granted, a first in Baja and maybe, says Espinoza, in all of Mexico.

I ask Fermín why he gave up outsize profits on a proverbial beach in paradise. A man of few words, he fixes his turquoise gaze on Pescador, and says simply, "The place is very beautiful."

The closest thing I find to a high-end, sustainable resort is about 12 miles south of Loreto Bay. It's called Danzante, after one of the islands visible offshore: nine little rooms with a view, a common patio and rustic, round dining room of wood and stone, windows from floor to palapa roof with 180 degrees of visual access to Baja's extraordinary geologic and biologic treasures. The surrounding cacti, yucca, and other flora, and the broad expanse of mesquite-dense coastal dunes below, support many of Baja's 200 species of birds, among them the ubiquitous hooded oriole. The mountains behind offer hiking, the few kayaks on the unpopulated beach a means of exploring other unpopulated beaches and guano-streaked rocks offshore.

Guests get three good but simple meals, interesting conversation, and some solitude, while those wanting golf, a spa, "Zen" water features, and electronic nightlife go elsewhere. That's just fine with the owners, Lauren and Michael Farley. They took great care in creating what seems to me a kind of third order of tourist destination, the first order being the low-end, high density chaos of a Cabo, the second the high-end, sealed off, resource-intensive leisure of a Loreto Bay.

By contrast, Danzante's bathrooms are serviced by wheezing pumps, drinking water comes in big plastic bottles, and battery-free flashlights require shaking to work. Local women and men have worked for years on this rocky perch, with its zero landscaping and one tiny swimming pool without an infinity edge. The night is heavy with mere stars.

"We're about unplugging," Lauren says to me. "No phones, computers, television. Just this."

I can't help thinking, shouldn't that be enough?

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