Ruth and I recently embarked on an 8 day circumnavigation of Isla Espiritu Santo, a UNESCO world heritage island off of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. It’s off the beaten path and a bit of a haul getting there from Toronto, so we decided to fly in and out of Cabos to break up the journey, stay in a decent hotel, eat some good Mexican food, meander aimlessly for a couple of days before heading out to the water and sleeping in tents.
One thing that struck me right away was the cleanliness of San Jose del Cabo. It had an abundance of upscale restaurants and shops, and million dollar properties for sale overlooking the Sea of Cortez. Many people I had spoken to before going who had been there as far back as 20 years ago said how desolate the place was. Not any more. Our consierge at the boutique Casa Natalia (highly recommended) said the transformation of Baja has been full on and has made it almost unrecognizable. She said it wistfully, as if she missed it terribly.
On our bus ride to La Paz we drove past the (new) resorts of Cabo San Lucas and through the city of San Jose. To my surprise, Home Depot, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dennys and all the other typical American franchises lined the highway. San Jose? Or San Diego? As we approached La Paz, it seemed to take forever to get through what seemed to me, a more typical Mexican town. Lots of people milling about the street with plastic bags lifted with the heat and diesel fumes pouring out of dilapitated trucks. Not such an ideal place to eat al fresco. When we got closer to town, things transformed again to a nice downtown area with great restaurants, a fabulous malecon and outdoor art – and countless new hotels being constructed on the outskirts.
This is progress, of sorts. The reality is, the people moving in to the new condos and seaside mansions are not Mexican, they’re Americans who found some good cheap real estate. As investment properties go, some Americans are making good coin here. Is it trickling down to the lives of Mexicans? Obviously, new jobs are being created; there’s more money to line the pockets of local politicians, er I mean improve infrastructure; and an increasing disparity between the lucky few and those “without”.
Americans who are here insist of course that it might take a little while to “trickle down”, but in my experience traveling through the Yucatan a few years ago, the same disparity exists just outside the resort area of the Mayan Riviera – which has been well established and developed many years before Baja.
There is little doubt that capitalism creates much wealth, but when you venture into developing nations like Mexico you find out quickly that it doesn’t distribute it very well. It’s not difficult to comprehend why they want to be wealthier, but it’s much harder to imagine that the people I met in the small Mayan village of Ek Balam care much about yoga stretch pants made of seaweed fiber, leaf blowers or electric toothbrushes that have had more apparent research put in to them than the human genome project.
Progress is tricky business. We get the impression we’re getting ahead because we can buy more new shiny objects, and bigger houses to store them in. Ronald Wright author of A Short History of Progress, called these “progress traps”, when we believe we’re “getting ahead”, but in the end that short term gain is just an illusion that is not sustainable. And like it did for the Mayans, it ends badly. Our species seems to be built with short memories and unwilling to learn from history.
As for the kayak trip, it was stark contrast to the development going on in Baja. Pedro and Chino, our guides for the trip knew profoundly what was going in La Paz, and as environmental stewards, passionate about the natural history of their domicile, even at their young age, are nostagic about the past and upset at where things are going.
The video below is testament to the natural beauty of this place. I’m happy for the sea lions, dolphins, whale sharks, blue boobies, sea turtles and countless other species on land and in the sea we bore witness too. Their little habitat is protected. Despite all the development in town, nothing will change on Isla Espiritu Santo. It is as it was hundreds of years ago, and will remain. There is some comfort knowing there are a few places here on Earth that will be immune from progress. My hope is that one day we’ll learn to be more mindful of the places we choose to live.