High over the Tijuana-Ensenada toll road, in the midst of bald, colorless hills, the orange stucco bridge of Real del Mar stands in antiseptic isolation. Square towers and a multitude of purple flags give it the look of a fortress, as do its deserted roads that wind their way uphill through ghostly rows of auctioned, vacant lots. In its setting, it comes as a surprise. Peasant smallholdings thick with maize surround it. Yet this is not a remote secret barracks of the Mexican army nor the long-abandoned set of some gaudy science-fiction movie. This is merely the unfinished beginnings of what will be Baja’s largest golf course. The windswept lots, the rectangles of scrub are the sites of future villas for weary, city-hating Americans. The first signs of a future master-planned dream town to be called Las Quintas.
The roads have not yet been finished over this 100-acre site. But the tarmac rises as far as Las Quintas, or what will be Las Quintas. And there you find the developer’s office, perched amid baskets of rusted steel wire, Ingersoll-Rand machines, and incoherent fragments of luxury villas.
From this height, miles of glittering coastline are visible. An azure ocean edged with tumbledown chocolate cliffs. Coarse, treeless hillsides tip down toward the sea, unbesmirched by anything more than a thin scumline of development along the freeway. Wind howls around the offices of Radar Communications, SunCor Development, and the Frisa Group, and through the construction sites, the empty avenues of fluttering flags. In the office, a scale model of Real del Mar sits in a sunlit room. It shows an equestrian center, stables, a full-scale marina, swimming pool, barbecue park, and the masterpiece of “the great Mexican golf course architect” Pedro Giiereca Gurrola. At the center of the park will stand a colonial clubhouse designed by Marco Carrasco and built by craftsmen imported from central Mexico.
A lonely young sales rep, sitting nervously in what seems like a remote outpost of an alien civilization, spouts the party line for newcomers. “Real is being put together by Grupo Frondoso, which is Mexico’s biggest luxury residential developer, and the Frisa Group, who also did this charming development in Cancun, which you see here on the wall. Senor Gaspar Rivera Torres is the head of the Frisa family corporation, and they’re going all out to make Baja a showcase for Mexico’s economic renaissance. So here we have the plan for Real, which has about 100 empty lots that we’re going to sell mostly to Americans. Principally people from the Los Angeles area. We’ve sold about a third already.”
The scale model, if one looks closely, has gay little red flags crying SOLD outside the rows of Monopoly houses.
“We opened the golf course last week. We’re going to have 18 holes, 7 lakes, 51 bunkers, natural slopes on every fairway. It’s being managed by these people in Phoenix, SunCor, one of the mega-developers in Baja nowadays. And the equestrian facilities are going to be spectacular too. We think that people with money want their horses with them. And the people who are going to be here...are they going to be paupers? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all [he beams vindictively]. They’re going to be people with...well, horses.”
He blankly scans the sea view, the tawny, barren mesas studded with little agaves, the brutal, gorgeous sweep of land rolling down toward breakers in the distance.
“One day,” he says, “it’s going to be beautiful. Like La Jolla. The whole coast is going to look different. The Mexicans are opening an aquatic park at Puerto Nuevo to rival Sea World. It’s being built by a Mexico City consortium called Grupo K, who built the big McDonald’s in the Tijuana suburb of La Mesa.
“All the land around San Antonio and Rosarito is being developed. SunCor has about $400 million in assets, so they can afford to make it the best golf course in Baja. Look at that. Sculpted straight out of the mesas. They’ve even planned to incorporate the local wildlife into it. People in California will have seen nothing like it. And this is just the beginning. In a few years, the Baja coast will be unrecognizable. It’ll be the property boom of the next century. And it’s going to change the peninsula forever.”
Almost as soon as he finishes speaking, a tint-windowed white Mercedes sedan with Los Angeles plates crackles up into the parking lot, and two roundish, ursine fellows with reflecting shades disembark carrying tooled-leather attache cases. The visit is unexpected but obviously welcome. The rep closes our conversation abruptly, rushes out to greet them, and begins warbling like a frenzied mating bird. “Welcome to Real del Mar! A golfing man, eh?”
Three ties shoot up into the air, held horizontal by the driving wind. The men shake hands. And in a moment they are gesturing toward the four horizons, babbling excitedly.
Highway 1 south from Tijuana, as it cuts through cliffs encrusted with peeling shacks, is now one gigantic rollercoaster strip of real estate billboards for luxury homes along the coast. Their man-size letters are lit up at night: Bancomer, Century 21, Dream Homes, Costa Bella, Your Place in Mexico, LOTES SE VENDE. At Antonio del Mar, now a narrow resort village of pink-tiled villas spread out alongside the La Costa restaurant, the signs thicken as you near Rosarito. And one of the few free-lance American real estate agents working the “Gold Coast” between the border and Ensenada has her name raised resplendently high there: Diane Gibbs.
Diane has not been nativized. Dashingly and formidably un-Mexican in a pair of gold-studded sunglasses and alligator shoes, she bounces out onto Calle Roca with fearsomely blow-dried hair and an Oklahoma twang.
“The only Yankee gal agent here. But in the juiciest property market there is.”
San Antonio is only half built. Driving around its streets you see that it is peppered with narrow slots of dull, sand-colored grass, every one pre-sold. She explains, “The ownership laws in Mexico are very complicated. Since the Revolution, it’s been technically illegal for aliens to own land in what they call the Prohibited Corridor, the strip of land that runs 100 kilometers from all of Mexico’s borders and 50 kilometers inland from the coasts. President Salinas is changing the laws that govern this corridor for the first time in 70 years. This will allow foreigners to own property in the corridor. But right now, and up to now, they’ve been leasing the land, technically speaking. When you want to buy a house in Baja, you have to go through a bank trust and make a formal petition in Mexico City...it’s not title ownership. And some of the leases are only for ten years.