You won't find them on a topological map, but these American settlements dot the coasts of Baja, from San Felipe down to Santiago, around the bend and back up to Ensenada. Their names bring to mind the American West of 145 years ago, when brave and greedy men descended upon Nevada and California.
In Baja, camps can be found on every link in the housing food chain — from four-bedroom, 2.5-bath, American-style ranch homes, topped off with satellite TVs, maids,* and lawns, down to camps populated exclusively by ancient 8' x 12' travel-trailers, where the first beer is cracked at 9:00 a.m.
It’s cheap, but it’s not that cheap to live in Mexico. You can’t legally work in the country, so you’ll have to bring money with you or find a way to hustle it on the side. You’ll wind up shopping in the U.S., because you’re used to American food and American grocery stores. And you’ll need to do banking and assorted rum-dum chores.
While you’re in Mexico you’ll want indoor plumbing, a phone, electricity, and American television. At regular intervals you’ll get tired of living in a foreign country and crave a break — to visit friends in the States or go to an American movie or maybe just gobble a Baskin-Robbins double-dip hot fudge sundae. At the end of the day, taking all of this into account, living in Mexico is cheaper than living in America, but not fantastically cheaper.
When you cross the border into Tijuana, take the toll road to Ensenada. South of Rosarito you’ll see, but probably won’t recognize, a string of camps on the west side of the highway. Once past La Fonda look closely, very closely, and you’ll spy, on the road’s shoulder, a milepost no more than two-feet high discretely announcing “Km 74.” There’s no paved turnoff here, but the highway shoulder breaks, allowing you to exit onto a dirt road. This is the entrance to Angel’s Camp. It’s been here for 40 years.
Drive down the dirt road until it Ts, turn left and then right. Dead ahead are 80 shacks built on a point that ends at the Pacific Ocean. Actually most of the houses are clean and well put together, some look new, so the word “shack” is misleading. But I can’t say they’re houses either, it’s more like walking into a village built to five-eighths scale, like a vast HO train set minus the train and tracks. The homes are small (one story, 20' x 20 ); the majority seem to be built with whatever was at hand at the time. All are unique. One toy ranchero is constructed of black lava rock, another uses 50 surfboards as a picket fence, a third has a sailing ship’s figurehead jutting seaward from the front door. Street signs, smuggled in from the States, are posted throughout camp: “Ramp Closed” “Road Narrows,” “No Parking Between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m.” The alleys—they’re too small to call roads — that separate the toy houses are dirt and never laid in a straight line. I find the intersection of three such lanes, park, dismount, and stroll Km 74. The place appears deserted, and this is Saturday afternoon. After a good 20 minutes, I spot, behind a garden fence, a man sitting on a redwood deck set to the rear of a two-story dollhouse. I call out, “Hello!”
Mark Atkinson is 43 years old, 5'10”, comes with a broad, clean-shaven Irish face and a stocky weightlifter’s torso. He’s dressed in standard Baja gear: a baseball cap, T-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes. Atkinson is a sales representative for the Beach Reporter of Manhattan Beach, California. I’m invited to take a seat and quickly served a cola. We chit and chat for a bit, and then I begin: “How did you find Kilometer 74?”
Atkinson speaks in a hushed tone, as if every syllable he utters is confidential. “I started coming down when I was 16. We camped at Km 55 for years. Km 55 was a great surf spot in the ’60s; it used to be a premier winter beach break. The beach was destroyed by the storm of’74. Then we found another place and camped there until they closed that one. The very next trip I found out about Angel’s Camp, what you call Kilometer 74.
“I was working at the Easy Reader newspaper. One Friday I described, more or less, where I was going, and somebody in the office said, ‘Why don’t you stay at Ron Long’s trailer?’ I asked, ‘Where’s that?’ And he said, ‘Long has a trailer at Angel’s Camp.’
“Ron’s trailer was right on the water. I rented it for three years. I wanted to buy something here, so I gathered three partners. The plan was to get a fourth partner and buy the last place left on the water. The price was $4000, so it would have worked out to $ 1000 each. But we could never make it work, that place sold, and then I looked at the house next door. That was $2000.
“By then it was me and one guy left over from the first deal. He was a Baja fan — in fact, he used to be vice president of Baja Adventures, ran tours down here. We had no money, nothing, so we negotiated loans. I borrowed $500 from my dad and $500 from my grandmother. Then my partner and I got in league with another couple who were my friends. The four of us decided to buy the $2000 house. We gave this couple our money.
“A few days later they called me and said, ‘We can’t go this weekend.’ The clutch had gone out on their car, and they needed their money to fix it. So they returned our money. My partner and I decided to buy it anyway, but we didn’t get back down for six weeks. The weekend we were going down, I told another friend that we were heading to Baja, and he said, ‘That’s interesting, I have a friend that’s going too.’ “I went, ‘Really, where’s he going?’