Excellent article by Mike Hale

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Escrito por ZihuaRob desde (dsl-189-147-136-190.prod-infinitum.com.mx) el día lunes, 28 de enero, 2008 a las 11:32:04 horas :

In case you missed this on my Local News page, there is an excellent article in the Monterey County Herald written by Mike Hale about Zihuatanejo and La Barra de Potosí including our concerns about unchecked greed and development and... well, I'll let Mike tell his story.

¡Muchísimas gracias, Mike!


Paradise lost: Greed and development threaten idyllic villages such as Barra de Potosi on Mexico's famed La Costa Grande
Herald Features Editor
Article Last Updated: 01/28/2008 02:04:29 AM PST

Mexico's beachfront tourist mecca Ixtapa sprang to life in the early 1970s at the feet of the Sierra Madre, borne of government greed in exchange for a fistful of pesos. A former coconut plantation, the remote region was quickly transformed into a playground of high-rise hotels, bars, discos and Americanized sensibilities.
This is the Mexico promoted in glitzy travel brochures and immortalized in photo albums of crimson-faced gringos everywhere.

Those resistant to such tinsel found true paradise 8 miles south in Zihuatanejo, a vibrant, seaside fishing-centric city with inherent culture and charm. Serviced by a nearby international airport, Zihuatanejo (150 miles north of Acapulco) became a winter respite for senior snowbirds and those who craved a slower pace.

But over the past few decades, Zihuatanejo has suffered growing pains, and now groans under the weight of a burgeoning population that has overloaded the old city's infrastructure.

Sadly, it is now a municipality burdened by growing crime, increasing pollution (most notably during the rainy season when waste and garbage from those living on the surrounding hillsides flow to the bay) and the restlessness of its people. Tourists who visited "Zihua" just 20 years ago can describe the differences in vivid, heartbreaking detail: a slew of land grabs by international corporations; large, sprawling new resorts such as Intrawest, the garish hotel that climbs its way up into the coconut palm-dotted hillside from the pristine sands of Playa la Ropa below; and grand cruise ships blotting out the view of the Pacific through the tiny outlet of Zihuatanejo Bay (a controversial project to build a giant commercial pier to service more, even larger, floating hotels is currently under review).

Throughout 10 years and a dozen trips to this troubled yet still charming Old World city of 120,000 people, we found ourselves branching out during day trips in an effort to find the proverbial paradise lost.

Four years ago, through a well-clicked, tourist-friendly message board on the Internet site www.zihuatanejo.net (run by an American ex-pat named Zihua Rob), we discovered the sleepy fishing village of Barra de Potosi. Marked geographically by the strikingly beautiful island mountain of Guamiluli just offshore, Barra is named after a giant sandbar that at certain times of the year closes off from the Pacific a meandering sweetwater lagoon, home to thousands of waterfowl, migratory birds and other wildlife, even some crocodiles.

This is a remote, close-knit community, with a population of a few hundred souls, most living in poverty, but still thriving and happy. Locals fish for sustenance and a small profit, uniformed children attend school, and a local angel, an American who gave up her life in California for this unspeakable beauty and solitude, collects books and school supplies and distributes them to children through her modest biblioteca.

Fondly called Do a Laura by the locals, Laura Kelly owns and operates the small and personable bed and breakfast Casa del Encanto, but spends most of her time with niños encantados de la Barra de Potosi (charmed kids of Barra de Potosi). A search on Youtube reveals several heartstring-tugging videos of their exploits.

Do a Laura also has helped empower local women, urging them to take advantage of new government programs that dole out microloans to enterprising mujeres. Kelly's housekeeper, a lovely woman named Mu e, applied for such a loan, for just $50, (filling out the paperwork is not an easy task for local women because many do not even possess birth certificates), and Mu e now roasts and sells her organic Songbird coffee beans to local inns and off-the-path tourists for about 70 pesos per kilo.

Reading online about Do a Laura's world prompted our first visit to Barra, a journey that began seven years ago at the downtown Zihuatanejo bus station. We had left the cozy confines of our exclusive resort on Playa la Ropa with a large duffle bag full of school supplies for los niños. A dozen or so locals, and two wide-eyed gringos, climbed into a ramshackle bus, our toll roughly 6 pesos (about 60 cents). The last to board was a bare-chested teenager who, much to our horror, slid behind the wheel as the driver. With the dashboard Virgin Mary guiding him (divine intervention required because much of the windshield was painted dark blue), our young driver pointed the bus south, shouting out the rural stops in Spanish. When we heard the words "Los Achotes," signifying a small town next to the rural highway, we descended the steps into another world.

Using our broken Spanish, we figured out we needed to board what is called a combi, which is nothing more than a covered pickup truck. We hopped aboard, our fellow travelers this time a young mother with an infant, a teenage boy sipping milk from a coconut, and a weathered old man, shirtless, impassionate, gripping a large machete.

The bumpy ride to Barra put things in perspective. This was real Mexico. Rural Mexico. Pigs, chickens and stray dogs darted across the road, naked children played in what the locals call ojos, or eyes, large, muddy potholes that fill with rainwater. The sweltering heat consumed us, our white faces covered in sweat and dust.

Do a Laura was a delight, inviting us onto her shaded patio for a cool drink and some revelations; greed, it seems, has taken a foothold, she said, and everything the local people hold dear is in jeopardy. Like any other small community on the edge of big tourist resorts, Barra is in danger of losing its traditional identity, as outside investors and developers seek to exploit its locat1on and natural beauty.

After depositing our well-traveled supplies at la biblioteca, we made our way back into town. We spent the last half of our day eating fresh fish and drinking cold cervezas at a few of the wonderful seafood shanties called enramadas, palm-thatched, open-air restaurants run by local families. We swam in the gentle surf, rented a lagoon kayak to explore what in the United States would surely be a protected wildlife sanctuary, and interacted with the kindest people we've ever encountered — las amables.

We've returned several times since, most recently in October, and we found Barra just the same: utterly charming, vibrant and gracious. We spent time venturing north along the seemingly endless, unspoiled 11-mile stretch of beach from Barra to Playa Larga, home to a scattering of small inns and private homes. A beach where an hour walk in either direction often brings nothing but introspective solitude; not a soul in sight.

We discovered Playa Calli, also known as Bernie's Bed and Breakfast (www.berniesbedandbreakfast.com), an ultraquaint, six-room adobe inn owned by Berndt Whitstock, a charismatic, irascible innkeeper of Mexican and German descent. His modest yet well-appointed rooms go for around $90, and include breakfast and Bernie's unsolicited but fascinating opinions of how someone needs to save Mexico from itself. Una revolution, quizas?

A vigorous walk north is Hotel Las Palmas, upscale but no less cozy, with all the amenities, including air conditioning, a pristine pool and a quality, guests-only restaurant. Owned by Scott and Shari Crawford from Phoenix, Ariz., and operated with a keen attention to detail by a local couple, Josefina and Ricardo, Las Palmas offers luxury with personal, homestyle touches. Rooms in the high season are $225 (www.hotellaspalmas.net).

One day, lounging by the pool at Las Palmas, we exchanged pleasantries with an American businessman from Texas, at least three Pacificos into his afternoon. He told us he was there on business, hired as a consultant by an international firm to study the feasibility of building a resort and marina south of some little town called Barra de ...

"Barra de Potosi?" we inquired, holding our breath.

"Yes, that's it," he said. "There's a s---load of money to be made there."

We excused ourselves, went to our room and actually cried. For Mexico. For Do a Laura. For los ni os. For us.

Realistically, we figure we have another five to eight years left to enjoy this unspoiled stretch of Mexico. Already, condos are sprouting, acre-sized lots have quadrupled in price in just a few years, and massive development awaits (with eager approval of the government).

Perhaps the old innkeeper was right. Short of una revolution, it seems there is nothing left to keep this sandbar from breaking.

How to help The Children's Library Project in Barra de Potosi is run by Do a Laura Kelly, an American living locally. Here's how to help: · Donations: Tourists can drop off books, pencils, erasers, notebooks, white-board markers, art supplies, crayons, rulers and the like at Kelly's bed and breakfast Casa del Encanto (www.casadelencanto.com). · Volunteers: Kelly accepts volunteer librarians or those interested in teaching workshops and classes for the children (fluency in Spanish not required). You can also volunteer throught the Web site www.volunteerabroad.ie/ mexico.htm.

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