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Photo of Loreto Bay OPEN SPACE

In Search of the Real Baja

by Lisa Selin Davis

The sleepy Baja California town of Loreto, population 12,000, sits about halfway between the seedy border city of Ensenada and the perpetual spring break that is Cabo San Lucas. It has remained miraculously free of tourism and development: There's nothing here but dolphins bounding in the water, hills that change from umber to indigo depending on the light, and the reassuring scent of frying tortillas. More than anything else, what a city girl notices is the glorious silence, save for the modest lapping of waves. But then a bell peals, and whoops and hollers break the silence. It's the sound of progress, or, more precisely, the sound of unmitigated joy as another American purchases a home in the $3 billion resort community called the Villages of Loreto Bay. The project is based on the small-town principles often called New Urbanist, such as clustering houses, promoting walkability, and rimming the development with organic gardens.

Multimillionaire green developer David Butterfield was so deeply bitten by the Baja bug that he decided not just to erect his own retirement home here but to build 6,000 of them. He has the imprimatur of Mexico's tourism agency FONATUR, which had once hoped Loreto would follow Cabo's lead. The agency paved the way -- literally -- for development 20 years ago, maintaining a highway and power lines that have waited all this time for homes and people to need them.

Butterfield, a self-confessed ex-hippie and former subsistence farmer, has a few green initiatives under his belt. As the founder and president of the Canadian nonprofit Trust for Sustainable Development, he created Shoal Point, a 425,000-square-foot mixed-use project in Victoria, British Columbia. Butterfield wanted to see the beauty of Baja preserved, so the Villages of Loreto Bay offers "authentic" Baja architecture, culture, and lifestyle and promises economic and environmental sustainability.

The homes, ranging from the low $300,000s to $2 million, are built with locally made adobe bricks called Earth Blocks. Butterfield hopes to power the Earth Block plant with oil harvested from tortilla fryers. A local organic farm will deliver produce to your door. The landscaped courtyards are passively cooled, and many plants are irrigated with brackish water from the Sea of Cortés. The golf course -- yes, there's a golf course -- will use saltwater as an herbicide. Butterfield expects to preserve 60 percent of these 8,000 acres of rocky desert hills and coastline. A biologist is supervising the repopulation of a mangrove estuary to convince wildlife to stay once humans descend. Butterfield has amassed an army of sustainability soldiers to sell the place, and they're so thoroughly enthusiastic that I felt some Pavlovian desire to snap up a home myself.

But it's the word authentic that I find so troubling. How can something so obviously a re-creation -- a theme-park version of a Mexican fishing village that calls itself a "luxury resort community" -- be authentic? Can it be an authentic landscape if the golf course, only a few months earlier, was a rocky field of cats' claw and mesquite? Loreto Bay's watered-down, easily digestible environmentalism transforms the very landscape that is supposedly the main attraction.

My tour guide emphasized that 1,000 mesquite trees had been saved in the creation of the golf course, but demurred when I asked how many had been lost. They're saving 60 percent of the acreage, yes, but some 3,200 acres have been permanently altered in the process.

I couldn't help thinking that the best way to respect the land and the lifestyle here would be to preserve them as they are today -- now that's the aging-hippie way -- but Butterfield dismisses that thought as unrealistic. "Profoundly altering the lifestyle that we Americans find so quaint is exactly what the government and people of Loreto want to do," he says. "We call it quaint; they call it poverty."

It's a valid point. Butterfield thinks that development is inevitable and says he'd rather do it his way than let others do it Cabo-style. The Villages of Loreto Bay would indeed be a lovely place to live, though the irony of retiring to Mexico only to live in a gringo compound -- and importing a north-of-the-border pace -- is inescapable. At this point only six flights a week rip through the skies and into the tiny, thatched-roof Loreto airport. It's such a violent sound, but so blessedly least for now.

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Brooklynite Lisa Selin Davis is a journalist, novelist, and creative writing teacher at New York's Pratt Institute.

Photo courtesy of Jackie Craven

OnEarth. Fall 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council