Gringo Enclaves, or expat communities are common throughout Mexico. These pockets within towns where “birds of a feather” flock from the US and Canada to be together are on the rise. Ask any local and they will tell you…more and more gringos are coming.
Whether a gringo enclave is “good” or “bad” is in the eyes of the potential residente’. Some prefer blending with the local culture while having access to just a touch of familiarity, while others complain that the CostCo does not have all the same brands as it does back home. I recently read a post of someone complaining about an event list because all the descriptions of the events were written in Spanish. (ahem…We ARE in Mexico!)
While traveling through Baja, I experienced two gringo enclaves back to back, one which I would consider good, while the other not so good. Straight out of the pages of my favorite childhood magazine, Highlights, the two towns reminded me of an episode of “Goofus and Gallant.” (Please note: This is only MY OPINION as to what I feel makes an admirable and attractive expat community.)
As I worked my way around the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, my intention was to explore some new territory outside of last years itinerary, specifically the East Cape. This area is very difficult to explore without a car, as the Aquila bus system only goes as far as Los Barriles, a beachside town on the east side.
From there, I moved over to the west side to visit another gringo enclave, Todos Santos. I spent several days there last year enjoying the beach, surf community, and artist vibe. Unlike last year, this time around I had no set schedule. I stayed an entire week.
Visiting these two towns offered a stark contrast in experiences, prompting me to consider what I think makes a good expat community.
Both towns are of a similar size, with Los Barriles being a bit smaller. In both towns, taxis are scarce, as most everything is within walking distance. However, unlike Todos Santos, no one walks in Los Barriles. In the streets, a steady stream of four-wheelers buzz by outfitted with grocery baskets, luggage racks, and even a few “extreme” hood ornaments. Sidewalks are narrow, and often slant at a 45 degree angle, making rolling luggage next to impossible. Unlike other towns in the Baja, getting from the bus station to my hotel was a struggle. There had to be 50 ATVs pass me, many of them with only one occupant. One woman almost ran right over me. Do you think any of them would “help a sister out” and offer me a ride? Not one. Yet in Todos Santos, I wasn’t off the bus and down the street two blocks before two gringas stopped to offer me a lift.
This was particularly painful to watch these ATVers buzz by a Mexican woman alone whose car was stuck in the sand. Not one gringo flying down the beach stopped to ask if she needed help. I attempted, but then some locals showed up to help her out. But not until several ATVs sped by her without stopping to help. “Goofus” indeed!
In my opinion, the antithesis of the “Goofus” gringo enclave of Los Barriles is the “Gallant” Todos Santos on the western side of the peninsula. Yes, it’s a bit of a tourist locale to gringos and locals alike. But local culture and the arts are embraced equally by both, as are newcomers to the community.
Todos Santos, a Puebla Magico, or “Magic Town” is one of my favorite spots on the Baja. Touristy, yes, but tastefully so.
Los Barriles is a kite-boarding and wind surfing haven. Although I sat and watched for hours, not one person ever made eye contact, let alone engaged me in conversation. This was true for the local beach bar as well. The community felt very “cliquish.”
One of my favorite things about Todos Santos is the inclusive spirit of the surfer community. Just a 20 minute bus ride out of town is a famous surfer’s beach, Playa Cerritos. I visited three days a week while in TS, and each time, I met new friendly people on the beach. Not that I am looking for a pick-up, mind you, but being invited to a music venue in Todos Santos, or welcomed as a visitor at the local gringo hang-out, the Esquina Café, made me feel welcomed by the community.
Another way to gauge the health of a gringo enclave is in how they give back to the local community. Todos Santos has an active organic farming network focusing on educating the locals on organic methods for growing produce geared toward a healthy lifestyle. Their farms employee locals to run the produce stands and deliver to restaurants.
It’s always a good sign when local culture is embraced as a means of entertainment. During my visit, Todos Santos celebrated their 20th anniversary of the Festival del Artes. The only “entertainment” I could find in Los Barriles was Smokey’s Grill with menu prices in US dollars, eight flat screen TVs, and sports team brackets on every wall.
In the spirit of full disclosure, it’s not really a fair comparison. Todos Santos has been awarded the status of “Pueblo Magico,” or “Magic Town” a designation awarded by Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism to promote towns recognized for their scenic beauty and cultural or historical relevance… whereas Los Barriles has a long way to go to capture any magic. Arts versus Sports. Just one of the many factors to be weighed should one be considering life as an expat…