“Hola, Tacho? Somos los gringos. Tenemos el dinero, queremos la tierra!”
For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, that translates to “ Hello, Tacho? We are the white folk. We have the money, we want the land!” I was repeating that phrase loudly into a public telephone at the airport and I’m sure the other people waiting in the quiet terminal must have thought that sounded funny as I yelled into the phone to compensate for the language barrier and bad connection. Thinking back on it, I’m laughing too.
Rewind, five days before. My boyfriend Ryan and I were sitting in front of the computer at home, checking the swell forecast for the following week. We saw a big red blip in the Southern Hemisphere, promising to blast South facing beaches with the last solid swell of the season. Luckily for him, who has to hold down a Monday through Friday 8am to 5pm job, the swell was forecasted to hit on a weekend. What would we do, dawn patrol Lowers with everyone else in Southern California, charge Newport, fight the current at Huntington? None of that sounded too appealing, especially to Ryan. He suggested a couple of relatively unknown left point breaks in Mainland Mexico instead. That sounded good to me. The next step was to check plane ticket prices.
The first day we surfed double overhead reeling lefts with only two other people for hours. They weren’t world class. I never got barreled, but the drop was fun and the walls were long and rippable. That, added to the simple fact that it was so uncrowded that any wave was up for the taking, made it super fun. Driving back to the hotel after a long satisfying session, Ryan brought up the topic of buying some land as an investment, a place to visit, and maybe retirement location someday. He had first visited those waves almost ten years ago and had been offered a beachfront lot for $5,000 but hadn’t had the foresight to realize what a good deal that was. We decided to look into it and see how much the prices had gone up.
We happened to run into our buddy from home, the legendary Jack Cirritos
The next day on our way to surf we noticed a sign on a fence that read “lots for sale” then a phone number and the name Tacho. The lots were just South of the point, not right out front, but close enough to see the first half of the wave before it reeled into the next bay. Deciding to look into it later, we paddled out but the whole session I was fantasizing about going in, rinsing off with fresh water, having some juice and a snack, then paddling back out for more fun. I imagined relaxing in a hammock and watching empty lefts peel along the point. I decided we would buy one or both of those lots and build a home.
After the wind turned onshore we embarked on a mission to find this Tacho. We drove into the tiny town, bought a cold soda and some chips at the only market and enquired about the sign we had seen and asked where we could find Tacho. A man in a cowboy hat drinking a brightly colored liquid with a straw from a plastic bag pointed down the street and said to look for the house with the dollar sign painted on it. Following his instruction, we found a small white house with purple trim and a big black dollar sign spray painted on the wall. Tacho was home.
His wife set chairs out in the patio for us and seemed delighted that a pair of young gringos had come for a visit. She tried to offer us glasses of water and tamales but we declined, fearing for our health. Tacho was nearly impossible to understand. Ryan and I both speak pretty good Spanish. We don’t know every word and our grammar isn’t perfect, but we can competently carry on a conversation. Since we both learned Spanish in school, we speak the educated version. I have no problem conversing with people in the cities or professionals like doctors or lawyers, but the country folk present issues. Tacho spoke in slang and sounded like he had marbles in his mouth. He would rant in long paragraphs, making no effort to speak slowly and clearly for the gringos. We figured we probably only understood about half of the conversation but were pretty sure he said that he had inherited the land and was now trying to cash in. He insisted the two lots be sold together but informed us that the house in town was part of the deal. One house in town and two beachfront lots totaling 5 acres for $200k.
We threw him in the back of the Jeep and drove back down to the point to walk around on the lots. Most of the land was covered in overgrowth, but the view from the front was epic. After stomping around a while we dropped Tacho back at his house and drove back to the hotel excitedly, imagining the possibilities. We would even get a house in town! How cool is that? We considered holding the lots for a while, building a front house and then selling off smaller pieces to friends in order to have some cash for building. Eventually the front house could be a clubhouse in our own mini housing development, but that would all come years into the future. For now, it would just be our own secret escape.
The view of the lot, looking down the South side
Me, excitedly pointing to the takeoff zone from the lot while Tacho stands there patiently.
Unfortunately we were supposed to get on a plane that evening. There wasn’t enough time to make arrangements. So, we went to the airport, picked up the phone, called Tacho, told him we had the money and we wanted the land, changed our flight, then went back to the hotel to make more excited plans.
That morning in the surf we had met an educated Mexican surfer named Jose who also owned land in the area and spoke clear Spanish, not to mention perfect English. After the session he gave us his business card and suggested we visit his office if we wanted more information about the land in that area. The next afternoon after another super fun surf session, we made our way to the El Cid mega-resort of which our new friend was a manager in the financial department. He told us all about his experience in buying land in that area.
Of course because he is a Mexican citizen he can own the land outright, while we would only be allowed a 99 year lease. He explained that a Mexican corporation or bank would hold the title and that the lease would be repeatedly renewable so in essence we would actually own it despite the technical hurdles. We already knew all that but it was nice to have it explained by someone who could answer our questions.
Then he told us the bad news. All the land in that area is “ejido” land. Ejido land is given to a community to use communally. There will be some paperwork like a title with anywhere from a few to hundreds of names listed as “owners” or legal users. The right to use the land can be passed on to offspring who may not even have their name on the title. In 1991 the Mexican President eliminated the constitutional right to ejidos, allowing them to now be sold, however the process is still tricky. Jose informed us that the first step is to pay for the land to whoever is selling it. It then takes about 5 years for the paperwork to be turned into a real title. In that time, anyone can make a claim to the land based on having been a part of that community. They could either take the land back or demand money. Jose had purchased land like this and was in the process of waiting for the title to clear, all the while concerned that someone might show up and make a claim on his land. “Hopefully,” he said, “that doesn’t happen.”
Ryan, talking to a local who also offered us land for sale.
There is another way to take over land as well. If you can show for 5 years that you have been living on it and working it, it will be given to you. In Mexico, squatters do have rights! So, Jose was paying electricity bills and water bills even though there wasn’t even a structure built on his land yet. He also made a point of showing up and stomping around on his land often so that people could see him there. Either way, he said, at the end of the 5 years, the land would be his.
After hearing all that, we were less fired up than we had been. Instead of extending our trip another day, we went home to think about it. Once at home we sunk back into our familiar routines and slowly forgot all about Tacho and his beachfront lots. We still dreamt of owning land in Latin America however, and our second trip to Nicaragua rekindled our passion.
More to come…