There is a saying that only 6 degrees of acquaintances separate each person on earth - would you believe me if I told you a tiny ex-mining pueblo in Baja shrinks the distance to one of the wealthiest people on the planet to only a couple of degrees?
It’s an interesting example of the distortion in local real estate (and I would imagine, local politics) when a billionaire comes to town.
A couple weeks ago I mentioned we had met Giovanni, an Italian developer in La Paz who collects cars from the 80’s. He has a historic house for sale in Triunfo, a tiny pueblo midway between Todos Santos and La Paz.
He spends every Sunday, even in the low season, at the house showing it to people looking to buy a house, or simply looking to look. Like us.
Triunfo was a mining town back in the day. This part of Baja saw quite a bit of mining and still has some controversial activity. For all the wealth that was extracted, the towns themselves were nothing special, basically just company towns for the workers. The mining legacy includes a couple of streets of old historic buildings and arsenic in the water.
Today Triunfo’s main drag and a street of shops a block over are being restyled for tourism, to catch some of the weekend traffic during the high season coming from Cabo and Todos Santos and La Paz.
We arrive and text Giovanni. He tells us where the house is; very close to the cluster of attractions that include a cafe and bakery Cafe El Triunfo. The cafe is owned by a man from LA who used to have restaurants in Todos Santos and closed shop there as he saw that tiny market become quickly over saturated. Giovanni tells me all this, he claims there are 60 restaurants open in Todos Santos during high season.
Right now the Cafe El Triunfo is pretty much the only game in town here. Giovanni describes it as a gold mine for the owner, I’m not so sure. Its cute and the bread we try from the bakery is delicious, but much of this area is very sleepy most of the year. Perhaps seasonal cash cow would be a better description. Having said that, I’m no expert at local economics, and even if I were, the market here is quite skewed as you will see in a bit.
We walk a block off of the main drag and come to the house, it sits on a corner. We meet and greet and say hello to Giovanni’s mom, a slender pretty older lady with even more Italian flavoring her Spanish than her son has.
They speak Italian with each other. Later, when he is referring to her in a conversation with me, he calls her “Mama”. It’s charming. It makes me want to go to Italy this afternoon and stay for a year.
Given that isn’t an option, we settle for the next best thing, which turns out to be quite a good thing, actually. Giovanni gives us a tour of the house and town. It’s everything you could want from an Italian tour guide. Knowledgeable, opinionated, good backstory and punctuated with lots of hand waving and shoulder shrugs.
It turns out Giovanni is a history buff. He hiked and camped in these old towns and mountains when he was a teenager. He furnished the interior of this house with many antiques that he found or has picked up along the way. He photocopied old photos of the house's original family from local archives and framed them for the hallway.
Our tour starts in the kitchen. Mama, perhaps thinking we are potential buyers, mentions how nice and cool it is in there, compared to outside which is 90 degrees in the sun.
I nod politely, as sweat trickles down my back and I suppress the desire to start panting.
The kitchen is adorable and overstuffed with new appliances crammed into an old layout from before the days of closet-sized refrigerators.
The house plan is a bit odd. One hallway off the kitchen has two rooms on either side. Giovanni has staged both rooms as bedrooms, showing the house as a 2 bedroom with a kitchen and no living area.
The backyard is beautiful, with stone paving, a trellis, native plants, climbing bouganvillea and, unlike the house, features an inviting sitting area.
I feel the pull of Italy once again. I'm hoping that Mama will appear with a jug of cold wine and a cheese tray. Isn't that what Italian mamas do? Alas, my dream scenario does not materialize and we continue with the tour.
At the back we visit an outbuilding he restyled as a bunk house. He mentions it could be a possible rental for the owners of the main house, saying it has been plumbed for a kitchen and bath.
I ask him if he has experimented with AirBnB in any of his other properties.
Si! he did, and No! he doesn’t like it.
We have a friend with a rental house in Cabo who feels the same way - the simplicity of a lease and monthly rent wins out over the extra margin you can make with AirBnB, where you have to spend a lot more time in coordinating logistics and pleasing your customer.
This is one thing some new AirBnB hosts with landlord experience don’t always understand. When you host via AirBnB, your guest is not a tenant. Your guest is a customer.
The traditional tenant / landlord dynamic is rooted in a foundation of haves and have-nots. Not so with AirBnB guests. Your AirBnB guest might be a multi-millionaire couple in town for a festival.
We once stayed in an AirBnB with a rock hard old bed. We were supposed to stay for a month. I asked the host to replace the bed or at least buy a mattress topper. He proposed we split the cost of the new bed.
I pointed out that we would be gone in a month, and that we were his guests, not his tenant, so how did it make sense that I help him buy a new bed for the next guests, and the next?
He didn’t see it that way, and we parted ways amicably after he refunded our payment. I’m pretty sure that house was haunted, anyway, I was glad to leave.
I continue to observe controversy about AirBnB in expensive, tight markets that have a steady flow of tourist traffic. People rail against the company when they should be picketing their city, county and state officials.
AirBnB, like Uber, simply magnifies existing dysfunction in the market. A community neglects affordable housing for decades and suddenly AirBnB is the devil. Hotels serve up boring, undifferentiated, expensive rooms, and then get upset when - surprise! - people would prefer to spend less on homier options.
In Cabo, the taxi drivers continue to protest Uber, while they also continue to extort tourists for $40 and $50 cab rides from the airport, provide substandard service, forbid bus drivers to let tourists ride from the airport, and generally act like a mafia.
Back to Triunfo, where Uber is not even a topic of discussion given that the town population is probably about 12 people.
After our short tour of the 2 bedroom plus a kitchen house, we move out on the town, so to speak.
As we walk out onto the street, I try to buy a beer with lime and salt from a street vendor selling Micheladas - which are beer with lime, salt and clam juice.
I don’t want the clam juice, so they say they don’t have any beer. This is one of those alternate reality moments I often run into in Mexico. There is beer in plain sight but we are all supposed to pretend like that is not the case.
My fried gringa brain does not connect that if I offer to pay full price for the Michelada and just tell them to omit the clam juice, the beer will magically flow, like a miracle spring in the desert.
At any rate, I don’t have time to process because our Italian guide has moved ahead, talking to the air and pointing out this and that.
What emerges from the tour is an interesting fact.
A few years ago, Christy Walton, John Walton’s (of the Walmart family Waltons) widow, one of the richest women in the world, started buying property in Triunfo as well as quite a bit of land in the mountains near here. What is it like to be able to buy a whole mountain, let alone two or three?
Her people are scaling up on a sustainable tourism resort nearby as well. A quick google of water issues shows that she has negotiated rights to water in the region as well. This, of course, is essential to running a resort in the desert and also makes long term business sense, too.
Some members of the Getty family own a house here and in La Paz as well. If this blog were my full time gig, I’d have a lot more factoids for you.
Giovanni, like his Papa before him, has been in real estate in the area his whole life. He acquired the house we just toured years ago. I think he had another small house or building in the area that he sold awhile back, too.
Today, he alludes to the challenges sourcing smaller deals when everyone around the table knows that a new buyer with limitless cash is investing in the area, and has bought several buildings in town as well.
We finish our circular tour of a couple of blocks and arrive back in front of the house. We say goodbye to Giovanni, and Mama, who had stayed behind.
I purposely didn’t look up the selling price of the house because I wanted to guess after I had seen it, the town, and learned some of the backstory.
One of the benefits of being in a place for awhile is the shine wears off and you see beyond the mirage sold to short term visitors who are escaping a stressful home base in the US. My rose-colored view of Todos is less rosy now, having spent two low seasons here staying in the local’s barrio.
Quick tip that I used to think was obvious but now I’m not so sure:
Everyone in real estate here has a story of the hapless American who lost it all. There is a lot of info out there about local conditions that can help people avoid a bad experience.
For one thing, many tourist small towns have local listserv on the internet and often a local print newspaper targeted at English speakers. You should definitely start reading those sources if you are interested in buying property here.
One recent article in the Gringo Gazette (real name, I am not making that up) profiled a development company that is clearly on the ropes. This is public knowledge to the expat locals, but the company is still selling land lots in a new development near here.
I visited Ajijic and Lake Chapala, the oldest and biggest expat community (Americans and Canadians) in Mexico a couple years ago. I saw (and stayed in) concrete homes with barren small lots on unpaved streets, selling for $200K - $300K in the gringo side of town.
Anywhere near town center was even higher. To me the prices seemed quite high given the drug violence in surrounding towns and the fact that the only way out, really, is one easily blocked road that goes to GDL and the airport.
There seems to be an unspoken expat belief that their money also buys a value bubble that settles over the property.
This is sort of is true in areas like Cabo where the entire infrastructure is tuned to a different standard and so the bubble is bigger.
It is less understandable in Todos Santos where gringos with a bucket of money buy houses that back up to lots full of trash on streets ruled by barking dogs. Or clusters of beach homes so far out of town you can't walk to anything other than the beach.
Having said all that, there is no upside for those who only blog about the risks, i.e. yours truly at the moment. The upside is in the action, right?
Like our American friends who live in Baja and have 3 rentals. They lost a lot of money, no, not in Mexican real estate, but in the 2008 stock market crash in the good ol' USA.
This was just as they were getting ready to retire, so they had to figure out a way to get some cash flow going. Three houses in Mexico (plus the one they live in) sounds to me like way too many toilets to keep flushing, but they are energetic, positive and smart even as they are approaching 70.
The diversification means their overall cap rate is 7% even with one tenant who is not paying full rent and hasn’t for months. They talked to their attorney about eviction, she said it would take a year to go through the process and once you serve notice, tenants will quit paying rent and there is nothing you can do until it is resolved.
Her advice was to slow walk repairs. I’ve seen the house, it’s too bad because it’s a sweet house with a beautiful small pool area. It must be hard for them to watch it deteriorate. But if they keep up with repairs, the current people may never leave.
Suddenly, AirBnB seems more attractive once again. At least with AirBnB, if you have a vampire guest, they will be leaving soon, if not, they have no legal recourse if you hire your large primo from La Neza to go forcibly evict them.
If you have a vampire renter, they get their hooks into a lease and hang around as long as possible. To get them out you have to pay an attorney (one source paid $110 an hour) and navigate the Mexican courts.
On the way back to the car, we stop at the C store to buy a Corona, with no clam juice, to share in our air conditioned car. I tell Sergio OK, my guess is that the house is about $250,000. His eyes get wide. I googled the listing (oh the wonders of google).
I’m nowhere even close.
The asking price is $349,000.
Sergio said, wow, I could live on that the rest of my life.
And with that, we toast to Giovanni’s future and head back to Todos Santos.
I’m 53 years old and for the first time in my life, I’m heating water on a stove to take a bath.
The water heater for the apartment is tiny; the old bathtub, big, cast iron and chilly. Sergio helped me fill the biggest pots we have with water, they now crowd the tiny gas stove whose size matches the miniature water heater. Add to that the half size cute fridge and I feel like I’m playing in a grown-up dollhouse kitchen.
We are staying for a month near the city center. The apartment is in a pretty remodeled Art Deco building, built in the 1930s when the Colonia Juarez was the bees knees and home to many upper class Mexicans.
The area suffered heavy damage in the 1985 earthquake; you can still see some of the old abandoned buildings that were too expensive to repair. Now the area is experiencing a renewal and is home to a growing number of trendy restaurants and apartments for young people. This apartment is part of that renewal, and retains a lot of charm - tiled floors (which I love), a small patio, original hardware, rounded doorways, big windows, folding french doors, and a real rarity in Mexico City apartments - a bath tub. I have stayed in dozens of places in Mexico, this is one of 2 bathtubs I have come across in all that time.
Well, make that 3. In reading about Mexico City right before the Spanish came, I learn that water has been on the city agenda for thousands of years. Even though the ancient city was built in the middle of a lake, apparently that water wasn’t great for drinking. The Aztecs built aqueducts to bring water from the mountains. The water flowed through elaborate pipe systems to hundreds of public fountains. Some of the upper classes had running water in their homes.
The famous Aztec king Nezahualcoyotl piped water through elaborate gardens and ended in filling an outdoor bathtub positioned to give the him an incredible view of the countryside, his domain. You can visit the tub today, where the view is still available even though the water is not.
Today in Mexico City, drinking water filtering systems in homes are expensive and rare. Most of the populace buys their drinking water and carts it home; we are no exception. A 5 gallon garrafon costs 35 pesos - about $1.80 - and lasts us about 3 days.
I notice every glass of water in a way I never did living in the US. The garrafon weighs about 45 lbs. This building has no elevator; Sergio carries every ounce we drink from the corner store and lugs it up 3 flights of stairs.
Sergio doesn’t like to waste water, even if its not for drinking. He takes short showers in even shorter bursts, turning off the water to soap up and rinsing off as quickly as possible. Before he gets out, he brushes the excess water from his body in sharp motions with the flat of his hand. I asked him why once. He laughed as he said, "Force of habit - you dry off faster this way if you don’t have a towel, and sometimes there was no towel."
I am a child of U.S. suburbs, to me this all seems as primitive and exotic as the Little House on the Prairie stories I read in my room in a tract house built on a prairie outside of Houston. Laura Ingalls Wilder described the weekly bath routine that started by heating water on the stove and ended with taking turns in a wooden tub in the kitchen.
In our 70’s house growing up, the hot water seemed to flow endlessly; well, as long as my older brother didn’t get the shower first. When that happened, I would give up and go to bed because he would drain the jumbo sized water heater for sure, even though his long showers sent my dad through the roof on a regular basis.
The tub in this apartment reminds me of one in my mom’s childhood home in a small town in Iowa. Her parents lived in the family home of my grandfather, built by his father. By small town standards, it was a big Victorian with fancy details you might expect in a home for the family that owned one of the town’s two lumberyards.
Family lore maintains that the house had the first fully plumbed bathroom in the county. I still remember that bathroom; the size of a small bedroom. The tub was cast iron with claw feet, similar to this one.
There were also two freestanding sinks, one of which often had a glass of water where, much to the shock of my cousins and I, my grandfather’s teeth spent the night. I never saw my Grandpa Buck without his teeth, but I did see his teeth without him.
My Dad grew up in an even smaller Iowa town on a tiny rented farmstead. He is the youngest of 9 children born to loving, strict, and likely fatigued Methodist parents who themselves had married in their teens. They were intelligent and worked harder than most of us today can imagine. There was never much money in the mix. I think their main obstacles in life were a lack of advancing social connections and a surplus of children at all times.
My dad remembers, with his older brother, helping their mom on laundry day, which started with heating water on the stove early in the morning. Indoor plumbing was finally installed in the 1950’s when my father was in high school and all the other kids had moved on.
I’m thinking about my dad’s mother, very far away in time and distance, staring out her kitchen window at the flat Iowa landscape, waiting for water boil.
I can’t relate at all to my grandmother’s life, the reality of raising 9 children in a tiny cold water house. With this bath I’m looking for a shred of common experience with her and countless other women in the world, some in Mexico City today, that raise families without hot running water. But let's face it, one bath from water heated on a stove is more like a tourist experience than a real hardship.
I leave the kitchen to check on the bathroom. The recent remodel did not include running power to the bathroom. I run an extension cord from the bedroom across the hall and put a small space heater in the dry tub to take the chill off of the cast iron.
Sergio has some superstitions about electricity. When he was growing up, it was not a given that wiring was correct, or safe, or that there would always be “luz” (lights) available 24/7. No one left anything plugged in all night (see first point of “safe” wiring). When we were first together, I had to get used to finding everything in the kitchen unplugged in the morning.
True to form, after several minutes I come back into the bathroom to find he has unplugged the heater and relocated it to a safe distance under the sink. I plug it back in to build warmth in the room where air seeps in around a large single pane glass window.
The cleaning lady who works for the people that live here has recently come. She is a very sweet older lady, and her employment seems to be more a form of trickle down economics than an actual cleaning arrangement.
Her first chore each time she arrives is to make herself a coffee. I would, too, if I were her. She brings the bus in from a colonia about 2 hours from here. The lure of a 300 peso ($15) gig once a week makes the trip worth it. I wonder how many children she has raised; I imagine she and my grandmother could swap some stories over that cup of coffee.
However, her customary cafecito doesn’t seem to have inspired much gusto with tub scrubbing. I clean the tub, rinse it out, plug the drain and open the hot water tap all the way. The water spills out nonchalantly for about 4 minutes before it turns tepid.
Sergio brings in the first, and then the second, pan of steaming hot water and empties it into the tub. This gives me about 3 inches of hot water. It is my first hot bath in weeks; I’ve been taking hurried tepid showers to avoid a final chilly rinse as the hot water runs out. I’m also fighting off a cold and the hot water is like steam therapy. Its heaven for about 10 minutes.
Even though I pre-warmed the tub, the tiny heater fan was no match for the cast iron and the metal quickly leeches out the warmth. This first batch of water cools quickly.
I also feel a little silly sitting in this big tub alone, so I call Sergio and say, “How about you bring the rest of the hot water and yourself and join me?”
He says, “Really? "
I say, “Yes, of course, baby.”
This is how he is - cheerfully enabling my high maintenance bath without any promise of participation, his generous willingness to give me my space, even though the concept of needing personal space is foreign to him.
Growing up in Mexico City in the 60s and 70s, he did not have bathtubs, or abundant hot water, or personal space, for that matter. He lived with his dad and they moved frequently, often staying with family. Some houses had a shower, but often he grew up bathing, and later bathing his sons, standing or squatting in a round plastic tub.
One day we were in the Colonia San Felipe, where he lived for a bit as a teenager. We passed some public baths; not fancy, but respectable, where they provide towels, soap and other toiletries. Sergio said, “Look - I used to go those baths sometimes!” He is fastidious about his appearance; I smile as I imagine him as a young man, spending his hard earned pesos on a hot bath on Friday afternoon before heading out for the evening.
Back in this tub, the water heater has recovered enough to contribute another dose of hot water. Between that and the rest of the hot water Sergio brings, the bathroom finally starts to feel warm and a bit steamy.
He joins me, sitting behind me, sponging water over my shoulders, rubbing my back and chatting in Spanish. I’m feeling almost too warm now and start to sweat; a core of tension I’ve been holding on for a few weeks loosens up and dissolves. Its a sweat lodge mini- reaction - there are a few tears in the release, I just let them come, melting into the steam and heat.
My thoughts float like steam - undefined and foggy. I’m reminded how much I value this current lifestyle of few possessions and easy mobility, learning life lessons from new spaces, this time, about the precious resource of water in a city that rests on the ghosts of ancient lakes.
YouTube Video about Tetzcotzingo, The King's Bath (Baños de Nezahualcóyotl)
article about Colonia Juarez revival
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