By Felisa Rosa Rogers
I once had the pleasure of spending the night by a campfire, drinking mezcal on the roof of an abandoned hotel in Chamela, on the coast of Jalisco, Mexico. The rooms below were spectral, caked with bat shit, crumbling. Chunks of cement littered the stairway, and traversing it was no doubt incredibly dangerous. But I was 20, and I didn’t care, and up on the roof the sky was a vast, glittering starscape and the wind smelled of wood smoke and palm fronds and ship wrecks.
I have a long history of exploring the abandoned resorts that dot the coast of Jalisco. The habit dates back to my childhood, when my parents and their hippie friends used to party in a sprawling complex of abandoned condominiums not far from the aforementioned hotel at Chamela.
Recently, I revisited my wayward past in the form of a trip to El Tecuan, a once grand resort located on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean. The surrounding hillsides are dotted with private homes–walls streaked, windows gaping, bougainvillea like wild halos.
I stood on the cracked tiles of the vacant pavilion and stared into the sepulchral dimness of the once grand restaurant. I remembered El Tecuan from my childhood–family friends stayed at the resort, and my family drove from our camp spot at nearby Tenacatita to visit, a little appalled at the sentries in the guard house at the gates. Our friends Irv and Eileen, longtime fans of Mexico, weren’t impressed with El Tecuan. Yes, they said, it was luxurious enough, but the food was bad, and the whole experience felt isolated–the nearest restaurants were at Tenacatita, forty minutes away. They complained that all the meals at the resort were served with pan Bimbo toast instead of tortillas. The inadequacies in the food illustrated the basic problem: a cultural void. Culturally, the resort could have been anywhere. In the end, Eileen said, they missed Mexico.
Other visitors must have felt the same way, because El Tecuan faltered, finally closing its doors in the mid 90s. And the bats moved in, and the vines cracked the tiles, and the teenage vandals scuttled in with bottles of booze and spray paint.
The afternoon of my return visit was overcast, and the landscape was wild and empty—the beach below a stretch of blank sand. Because the resort is still private property, the only people who come to the beach are trespassers, like me.
My husband Rich looks out toward the abandoned beach.
Visiting ruins fuels thought. Questions about mortality, questions about the future of humanity…But the main question that lingered in my mind as I climbed into my van to leave El Tecuan that cloudy afternoon: If the coast of Jalisco is dotted with failed, abandoned resorts, then why are developers (and by association the complicit government) so hell-bent on building more?
A Little History…
The Mexican Revolution, which lasted from 1910 through 1920 and was the death of more than 1,000,000 Mexican citizens, was about land reform. The factions, motivations, and alliances are byzantine, but the gist of the story is that the poor people of Mexico were tired of being pushed to the margins of the vast haciendas of the wealthy, and at the urging of various charismatic leaders (some idealistic, some opportunistic) they took the matter into their own hands. The cost was great, but the victors, supposedly, were the people of Mexico.
Although reform was initially slow, real redistribution of land kicked in fourteen years after the end of the revolution, when Lázaro Cárdenas came into power and created a nationwide system of ejidos, or land cooperatives, which allowed peasants to appropriate lands that had once been ensnared by vast haciendas. Fifty million acres of land were put back into the hands of the Mexican people.
Emiliano Zapata, the man who spearheaded the fight for land reform, and one of the few truly virtuous figures in the entire swathe of world history, is still revered as a hero, and the ruling class has long paid lip service to the revolution. In fact the PRI, one of Mexico’s ruling political parties, is called, hilariously, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution. Giant murals of the revolutionary heroes Zapata, Villa, and Madero adorn government buildings in Mexico City, and November 20, Revolution Day, is a national holiday. But are these ideals really still reflected in the actions of the powers that be?
Wide-scale Privatization of Public Lands
It is illegal to own a beach in Mexico. A beach, defined as the tidal zone and any land within 20 meters of the high tide line, is part of the ‘patrimony of Mexico’ and technically the property of the Mexican people.
In reality, nearby landholders can apply to the government for concessions that allow the holders to control beach access. According to Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), 82 percent of the coast of the state of Jalisco is now held by private concessions.
In the vicinity of El Tecuan, the number of public beaches dwindles every year. In the district of Cihuatlan, which is adjacent to El Tecuan, the beaches of the peninsula of La Culebra are now privatized; an extremely elite resort occupies the once pristine shores of El Tamarindo; and Roberto Hernández, the former president of the bank Banamex, has built a monstrous private mansion on the headlands of Tenacatita bay, replete with a private golf course. The beach at Barra de Navidad is largely public, but hotels, built wall-to-wall, claim much of the space for their guests.
In the district of La Huerta, where El Tecuan is located, it’s more extreme. Boca de Iguana, Piratas, Cuixmala, Careyes, Careyitos, Teopa, Tepeixtes y San Andrés are private, and, according to one former employee, the so-called holistic resort at Punta Sirena is dumping sewage directly into the protected mangrove swamp.
The majority of these private concessions are held by resorts: if you have the money you can get in. But during the season the cheapest room at El Tamarindo is $685 USD dollars a night. At El Careyes the accommodations are a bit cheaper: $252 USD for a single. The minimum wage in Mexico is less than $5 USD a day. Which means that these beaches are effectively closed to the public.
But not every beach is the district of La Huerta ia lost. Not entirely anyway. Around the point from Punta Sirena is Tenacatita, one of the most popular public beaches in Jalisco. Access had been controlled by the ejido of the village of el Rebalsito since the 1940s, and the area was once an oasis for Mexican and foreign travelers who couldn’t afford (or didn’t want to visit) generic all-inclusive resorts such as the neighboring monstrosity of Blue Bay.
But that changed on August 4, 2010, when Tenacatita was violently seized by a development group called the Rodenas Corporation, which is toying with plans to turn the beach into a private golf resort. The Rodenas Corporation was aided by 200 state police, who evicted the residents and business owners using force, blocked access to the beach, and bulldozed buildings. Twenty-seven local people who resisted were arrested. Three prisoners ended up in the hospital, including a 75-year-old man, and teenage prisoners who were released August 6 sported black eyes and wounds from rubber bullets. Although residents were able to secure a temporary stop-order from a district civil court judge in Guadalajara, state police have so far ignored it. Rumors swirl that the Rodenas corporation has friends in high places, and that someone more powerful than the judge issued an order to the state police to continue their blockade.
Support poured in to aid Tenacatita residents, fishermen, and business owners, who are cut off from their source of livelihood: the beach of Tenacatita. Canadian and American fans of the beach sent money to help local people buy food and basic supplies, and neighboring communities donated cash, as well as a bus to help take protestors to the capitol (a big deal, since the neighboring communities are not wealthy). On August 16, 1,000 people marched in the capitol to protest the seizure of Tenacatita. Supporters include neighboring ejidos, union leaders, tourists, faculty from the University of Guadalajara, and even political leaders. As the Guadalajara Reporter noted, PRI State Congressman Gabriel Ponce Miranda became the de facto leader of the protest, stating, “We don’t want to fight, we want to talk, we want to solve this by legal means, but, if the police carry out abuses, we’re not going to let them humiliate us just because they have more strength.” Unsurprisingly, many of the speeches and comments overheard at the protest referenced Emiliano Zapata.
I grew up at Tenacatita, or rather, it has been a beloved vacation spot for all of my life. As a child I camped on the beach with my parents (travel writers) for 6-8 weeks of every winter. I attended first grade in El Rebalsito, the nearby village, where many Tenacatita business owners and fishermen live.
I remember when there was only one cement building at Tenacatita (Restaurante El Puerquillo). The rest of the structures were huts: the homes of fishermen, modest seafood restaurants where locals and tourists could eat the catch of the day, and palapas where foreigners, local daytrippers, and tourists from Mexico City and Guadalajara would pay for shade.
We loved Tenacatita not just for the pretty coral reef or the sunrise lighting up the cliffs at the end of the beach, but because it gave us a chance to live, for a time, in the heart of Mexico. The people we knew at Tenacatita were not an ever-shifting population of subservient resort workers, but rather Cuca and Mosca, whose daughter Patty showed me the ropes at the Rebalsito school, or Lola, a tough, curly-haired matriarch who played a mean game of volleyball, or Chely, who raised her daughter single, worked from dawn till dusk at the restaurant she owned, flirted like a rock star, and taught me to drink El Jimador. They were people who watched me grow up, and, in turn, I watched their kids grow up.
As the years passed, the beach became more popular. On weekends and holidays, the surf was full of screaming children, and vendors roamed the shade of the ramadas, hawking fluorescent floaties to the scions of sprawling families from the nearby towns of Cihuatlan and Autlon. The restaurant owners began to build kitchens of cinder block.
We hated the first hotel, and we resented the second hotel, and we rolled our eyes at the trailer park, but eventually we came around to the idea: we saw that these small, affordable developments, were in keeping with the spirit of the beach: they were, as my parents would say, muy Mexicano, and they attracted the sort of people who had always come to the beach: giant families from Guadalajara for Christmas, sunburned beach bums from Calgary, wanderers in search of a cold cerveza and a restaurant that served a decent tortilla.
At Tenacatita, we ate in the restaurants and we paid to camp. Friends from the States came to stay at the Hotel El Paraiso and they hired our friends from Tenacatita who owned boats to show them around. We bought our groceries in the local stores, and we drank our piña coladas at Chely’s or Lola’s. And we were happy knowing that our money was not going to foreign investors or corporate lawyers, but rather to our friends, 200 families, hardworking Mexican business owners and fishermen.
As I read the updates about the blockade at Tenacatita, I think of the swanky private clubs that dominate the coast, with their guard towers and their $500 dollar a night price tags. Places where you will never find local kids playing in the surf, places where the man serving your food would never in a million years expect to see you at his daughter’s quinceañera. I also think about their shadow sisters, failures like El Tecuan. And I wonder: why end a profitable, truly Mexican beach community, when there are so few places left, and when the chance for failure is high?
I don’t condemn people who stay in resorts, and I’m sure that there are nice people who are shareholders in resorts, and that some resort employees are satisfied with their jobs, but my point is this: just as a rustic beach like Tenacatita wouldn’t appeal to a high roller, resorts are not for everyone. And I wonder if the state government, with its great reliance on tourist dollars, realizes that some of us don’t come to the coast of Jalisco to swim in chlorinated pools and eat from never-ending buffets of Americanized food. I wonder if they realize that some of us won’t come back anymore when there’s no place left for us to go.
Unless listed, all photos are the property of the author and her husband, Richard Peterson.