The Ghost Harbor at Santa Rosalillita - Pacific Standard

The Ghost Harbor at Santa Rosalillita

Foundering development plans for a yachters' paradise in remote Baja have created opportunities for conservation groups.
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Voyage of Kiri blogger Kristian Beadle visits a development where plans for a yachters' paradise failed, opening up opportunities for conservationists.

Location: At the beach in Punta San Andres, two hours south of Cataviña. Although the last 10 miles driving here were bumpy and dusty, the majority of the road was freshly paved (and widened) to accommodate the influx of fancy yachts that would have been transported on the road across the peninsula. Yachts ... on a road? I also thought it was a strange idea.

Conditions: Our shack with three walls is remarkably good shelter from the buffeting wind outside, which is a sure sign of springtime. The Pacific Ocean looks enticing and turquoise, but it is chilly — the cold California current is close to shore in this part of the peninsula.

Discussion: From the vantage point of a wood-trimmed office in Mexico City, the plan must have looked great. Like an arid Mediterranean dream: Modern and sparkling marinas would line the coast of Baja, wealthy yacht owners would sip margaritas in picturesque towns that sprouted from fish camps. The dream is part of the Escalera Nautica, a "stairway" network of harbors along the Mexico coastline, a mega-tourist project created by Fonatur, the federal government developer that produced Cancún and Los Cabos. For now, the Baja stairway is missing a critical rung: The Santa Rosalillita harbor is hibernating.

The goal was to entice American yachts to sail 300 miles south of San Diego to the new harbor in Santa Rosalillita, load their nice boats on a truck and get dropped in the water again at Bahia de Los Angeles, a prime location for exploring the incredible Sea of Cortéz. Somewhere between the recession and the sand that naturally fills the dormant harbor, the plans were shelved. The local town was disappointed, of course; they thought they'd won the lottery by being a key spot for the Escalera Nautica.

However, some people are finding some peculiar silver linings in the clouds.

George, an American ex-pat and his wife, Sandra, live in the only house at Punta San Andres along the coast north of Santa Rosalillita in Mexico.

George, an American ex-pat and his wife, Sandra, live in the only house at Punta San Andres along the coast north of Santa Rosalillita in Mexico.

"It created a new spot," I was told by George, an American ex-pat who with his wife, Sandra, lives in the one and only house at Punta San Andres, on the lonely coast north of Santa Rosalillita. "A new surf spot, I mean. It's the best thing that came out of that harbor."

Surfers, not boaters, are now visiting the town to ride the newly formed wave created by the harbor's unplanned sandbar — which brings the town a meager trickle of tourism. Not exactly significant returns for the millions of pesos invested.

Even if the marina becomes functional in the future, water scarcity will likely continue to stunt growth in the area. George and Sandra said that after being here five years, they saw rain for the first time this January. It filled their rainwater tank and lasted them three months.

Normally, they have to truck in water, since the wells in the area are too salty; they pay $1 for 30 gallons of fresh water (for washing) and $1.50 for 5 gallons of drinking water. Land speculators were trying to hype the situation by claiming that water could be piped from higher altitude wells — until the marina folded and they walked away. That's when another unforeseen source of income came into town: land acquisition by conservation groups.

Local ranchers and ejidos (community-owned and managed properties) who were salivating over possible land deals with developers are now talking to conservation groups who have "cash on hand and are ready to deal," WildCoast's Zach Poppler told me when I met him at the group's office in Ensenada. He explained that the organization, which works to protect Baja's last remaining wild coasts, wants to conserve the 70 miles north of Santa Rosalillita, a coastline known as the Seven Sisters for its multiple headlands of good surfing and fishing. They have already acquired 14 miles of this coastline, within the Valle de los Cirios protected area, and hope to double that next year.

"It's a key opportunity right now. People are disillusioned with the promises of mega-tourism, and we can help them maintain their livelihood," explained Poppler. The group often purchases conservation easements, which means ranchers can continue to live and work on the land, with some restrictions on further development.

Click here for more posts from the Voyage of Kiri

Click here for more posts from the Voyage of Kiri

According to experts such as professor Ileana Espejel Carbajal from the university in Ensenada, the protection of coastal ecosystems should be an important element of climate adaptation. As the meeting place of the marine and terrestrial boundaries, the coastal zone fosters a huge array of habitats — sand dunes, rocky bluffs, wetlands, tidal pools, reefs — which makes it popular for wildlife to feed and breed. Protecting this special interface ensures the resilience of the whole regional ecosystem in adapting to climatic changes.

But coastal zones aren't only popular with wildlife — they are a popular place for humans, their boats, and their condos. Who will end up with more beachfront territory, humans or wildlife? For extremely dry places like the Valle de los Cirios coastline, wildlife will continue to be the stewards for the foreseeable future.

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