New York Times Havens | Puerto Escondido, Mexico
Fishing Boats, Surfboards and Not a High-Rise in Sight
By Beth Greenfield
January 11, 2008
Puerto Escondido, a tiny fishing village turned surfer's hub on the Pacific coast of Mexico, certainly has the hallmarks of a tropical paradise: wide beaches, hidden coves and rocky cliffs that soar above crystalline waters.
But the many American homeowners there - perhaps intent on not unveiling their coveted hideaway - are quick to point out that Puerto Escondido is not for everyone. It's remote, they warn, with terrible roads and few flights. Then there is the inefficient culture and the legal vagaries involved in buying land.
"You don't come because it's cheap," said Richard Malmed, an Albany native who happened upon the place with a buddy in the 1960s when their camper van got stuck in the sand. "You come because you love Mexico."
He was captivated by the location, and he and his wife, Mimi, have returned every winter since - first camping, then staying at an inn and then living in a friend's house. In 1999 they bought a pair of adjoining lots for $40,000 and in 2000 finally built a house for $75,000. It's topped with a palapa (an open-sided structure with a thatched roof) and sits on a bluff that overlooks the sea. They stay from October through April these days, before returning home to the Adirondacks.
"It was the end of the road," Mr. Malmed said of his impromptu arrival nearly 40 years ago. "We had to ford rivers to get here, because there were no bridges."
Now there's a small airport and a steady stream of foreigners who often wind up buying because, among other reasons, it's so affordable. Prices have nearly doubled in the past year, local real estate agents say, but the average house is still around $250,000. Waterfront lots, though there aren't many left, can be had for $80,000.
And Puerto Escondido is still relatively unspoiled, with no chain stores, resorts or waterfront high-rises.
"It takes a special-personality person to live here," said Vicki Cole, co-owner of Zicateca Properties, who came to town in the 1980s. "Kind of a wayward hippie-ideals person who has maybe lived through the yuppie deal in the States and has come out on the other side. It's not for the person who needs to have everything in order."
A stretch of attractive beaches is dotted with white fishing boats, clusters of palm trees and bars that serve Coronas and shots of mescal. The waters of Zicatela Beach are known by surfers from around the world for huge swells.
"It's just really laid-back and super casual," said Marla Cornejo, who lives in Queens and who discovered Puerto with a friend 30 years ago. In May, she bought a house just feet from the beach with her husband, Jorge. The couple, who own the 5 Burro Cafe Mexican restaurant in Forest Hills and have two sons, paid $250,000 for a new palapa-topped three-bedroom house a few miles out of town.
"When I was in Puerto for the first time, there were unpaved roads and one public telephone," Ms. Cornejo said. "Although it's developed since then, it's still a place where you can go out without shoes."
Puerto Escondido is a free-spirited community. The town attracts an intriguing mix of people, from retired Americans and Canadians to young European backpackers. And there is plenty to keep active types busy, from surfing and kayaking to horseback riding along the beach.
Plentiful seafood is a gustatory perk. "My favorite part about Puerto," said Norma Rollins, a Manhattan fund-raising consultant who bought a two-bedroom condo unit there five years ago, "is getting up early and going down to the beach when all the fishermen have just pulled in, and buying your fish right from them."
Puerto Escondido lacks many comforts of home. "There's no organic food, and it's hard to find fresh milk," said Christine Tompkins, who relocated from East Hampton, N.Y., three years ago with her husband and two children.
And sometimes a new house is off the grid. "Even buying a lot in a neighborhood where there is electricity does not guarantee that you will have a hookup," writes Barbara Schaffer, an American expatriate, in her thorough online guide to buying property in Puerto Escondido (www.barbaraschaffer.com).
Perhaps most difficult is the red tape that comes with any real estate transaction - the result of a Mexican law that prohibits foreigners from owning property within about 32 miles of the coast. Strategies for getting around that include buying property in the name of a Mexican citizen (technically illegal) or, most commonly, through a bank that holds the land in trust for the buyer. But sometimes land disputes between developers and natives can lead to the freezing of all deals, leaving foreign purchasers with nowhere to turn.
"They say the way you know you own something in Mexico is that someone hands you the keys," Ms. Rollins said.
The Real Estate Market
There is no Multiple Listing Service in Puerto Escondido, and no official record kept of how many homes are on the market at any time. But a drive around town reveals no shortage of for-sale signs.
And there are no mortgages here. "Everything we sell is cash," Ms. Cole said.
Most second homes are clustered in subdivisions at the western end of town or just out of town, to the east. That's where corporations like Puerto Escondido Habitat are beginning to create oceanfront developments with names like La Foresta and Los Naranjos.
At the average home price, you can find a two- or even three-bedroom house with a pool and palapa. A bit more - $350,000 to $450,000 - would add a bedroom or two, plus a fine ocean view. Less - say, $120,000 - could snag a two-bedroom house on a small lot that's set back from the water.
But exceptions are the rule here, and prices vary wildly and widely, depending on the whims of the individual seller. Empty oceanfront lots at La Foresta, for example, start at $200,000. And it's not unusual to find a house on the market for more than $1 million.
"Some Americans will buy at high prices," said Aaron Lachman of Coco Realty. "They are people who fall in love with the area, and prefer it to being in a building in New York with a limousine."
Lay of the Land
POPULATION 33,682, according to the Mexico Tourism Board.
SIZE Puerto Escondido is 128 square miles.
WHO'S BUYING American, Canadian and European retirees and professionals, from their 30s to 50s, who are drawn to waterfront bargains and a low-key lifestyle.
GETTING THERE Flights from New York go nonstop to Mexico City, connecting with Click Mexicana, which flies to Puerto Escondido in the southwest of the state of Oaxaca. Or you can fly to Houston and connect with flights to Huatulco, about a two-hour drive from Puerto Escondido.
Original article at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/11/travel/escapes/11havens.html