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An eco-lodge in Baja California Sur teaches guests how to live sustainably. Can it survive rising seas and storms? » Yale Climate Connections

Driving to La Duna Ecology Center, you typically lose cell connection before turning off Mexico’s coastal Highway 1. You’re bound to question some turns and follow one or two wrong forks in the road weaving between towering cardon cactuses that reach for the sky. La Duna’s rustic welcome sign and palm-frond-topped casitas remain invisible until you arrive. Once inside the gate, you’re tucked into a lumpy blanket of shrubs, earthy shelters, and the namesake wall of dunes.

These sandy coastal barriers of the Baja California peninsula buffer the wind and keep the lapping waters of the Gulf of California at bay. On a windy day at La Duna, the temperature shift is dramatic when you cross from the retreat center to the waterfront side of these mounds of sand.

Founder and director of La Duna Gabriela Flores has been living out here on and off for nearly 20 years. She can speak volumes about the dunes’ geological history, ecological vitality, and increasing vulnerability to rising sea levels and human development. Her dedication to this small blip of land has generated a ripple effect in a network of environmental advocates. But none of it started with a grand vision.

“I just had a love for nature,” Flores said, recalling when she bought the 2.5-acre plot of land some 30 years ago. “[At that time], I hadn’t seen how much damage nature had received from human beings.

La Duna has served as an eco-education center for youth, a field station and research hub for scientists, a sanctuary for climate activists, and an incubator for nonprofits. The operation recently helped secure grants for two research studies evaluating the state of the region’s dunes. Most of these efforts and expressions unfolded gradually and naturally as Flores listened to the land and the people who show up here.

“This zone is a transition between land and sea,” she said. “But it’s become a transition for much more.”

This stretch of coast along the Bay of La Paz — some three hours’ drive north of touristy Los Cabos — has changed in recent years. For starters, deep tire treads from recreational off-roading have become commonplace along the beachfront. A developer built a new waterfront hotel on neighboring dunes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Then Hurricane Norma made landfall in Baja Sur as a Category 1 storm in October, one of four tropical cyclones that struck Mexico’s Pacific coast in a one-month span. Flores describes these variables as a perfect storm: Seas are rising, storms are increasing in frequency and intensity, and dune integrity is deteriorating due to human activity.

She said the storm in October created a one-two punch with the new hotel built on a dune and near an arroyo, which is a natural desert channel that is typically dry — until a major rainstorm occurs. Torrents of runoff swept through the arroyo, waves lapped against the destabilized dune and ocean water and debris filled the hotel pool. From her vantage point, it was a prime example of poor development choices meeting the realities of climate change. “The waves reached into the desert more than I had ever seen,” she said.

Flores said what is needed is more government support to protect the dunes. “Irresponsible human development is true, but a lot is [a] lack of knowledge and inefficient regulations and enforcement by the local, state, and federal governments,” she said. For now, Flores does what she can to increase awareness about the ecological and economic value of the dunes.

Sand dunes, along with mangroves and coral reefs, have long played vital roles in coastal land protection against the steady force of ocean waves. In simple terms, picture coral as underwater breaker walls and the dunes like natural dikes, while mangroves and other plants stabilize the sand and limit erosion. As global sea levels rise along with more frequent and intense storms, this system of terraced buffers becomes all the more important. This is especially true in Mexico, a country that claims nearly 7,000 miles of coastline that borders the Pacific, the Gulf of California, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. One 2022 study calculated an annual economic loss of nearly $6.5 billion caused by the disappearance of dunes and other coastal ecosystem services in Mexico alone.

Baja California Sur itself has more coastal dunes than any other state, with 1,324 miles of coastline sandwiched between the Pacific and the Gulf of California. As such, Flores has channeled her love of the dunes into much more than a retreat destination. “We’re trying to raise the consciousness on how to care for the coastline,” she said.

The La Duna way of life is one of showering under bags heated by the sun, rationing water, sweating and bundling through the highs and lows of desert temperatures, and maintaining dry-compost toilets — here, even human waste is reclaimed to feed a permaculture forest. Flores embraces the discomfort without losing the contagious spark in her eyes. This especially shows when she’s speaking about the feminine nature of the dunes. “There’s this softness about the energy here. Even though dunes are super strong — protectors like the mountains — sand is super soft and permeable and flexible,” she said. “It’s a different way of being.”

La Duna operates with 100% solar energy and a water supply that is both hauled in and captured and treated on-site. Any given weekend you might find yogis or a meditation group gathered for a workshop.

Inevitably, along with their breathwork, they will be learning things like the interdependence of native plants with vital roots that stabilize the dune ecosystem. They’re also asked to use a fraction of the water supply that most people are accustomed to in the city. Such activities align with Flores’ devotion to intimate, mindful connection with the Earth — the lure that first drew her. “Dunes are the most sensual features,” she said. “And they’re guardians.”

The setting played a pivotal role in her own life before it became a retreat center for others.

Born in Mexico City, Flores lived in Mexico through her college years in the mid-80s, completing a bachelor’s degree in international relations. Following graduation, she moved to northern California with a partner to experience life across the border as an educated woman. “It was a time in Mexico where there was a lot of oppression against women,” Flores said. “I didn’t feel that I fit into my society, so I left.”

The Bay Area introduced her to the environmental movement firsthand. She also encountered sustainable gardening and permaculture, ambitious volunteer efforts, and the potential of large-scale community advocacy.

After a few years, she returned to Mexico via La Paz to help her brother start a business. That relocation led to a stint in the service industry, working on a private yacht playing the roles of tour guide and hospitality support while contributing to a local newspaper. A friend introduced her to the coastal land in the desert.

photo of the backs of two women standing on a beach. One woman is pointing toward the sea. photo of the backs of two women standing on a beach. One woman is pointing toward the sea.
Flores showing a guest the sand dunes that protect La Duna from storms. (Photo credit: Tree Meinch)

Though she bought the property in the ’90s, it sat mostly quiet for years after she relocated to San Diego, California. There she married, had two children, and dedicated herself to nonprofit work, serving on the board of the International Community Foundation. Visits to her Mexico property with her young children grew into longer stays. But a series of life events, including divorce, created a crossroads. She thought she might have to sell the land while raising her kids. Ultimately, she invited friends for a multiday women’s retreat and tuned into the environment. That experience sealed her commitment to protect the space and share it with like-minded people. “I wanted to receive people who are working on a deep connection with nature,” she said, “and who care to contribute to the local community for the benefit of all.”

Since then, these dunes have particularly supported environmental workers in need of sanctuary and recovery. “Gaby is a climate worker by protecting the Earth, and also defending its protectors,” said Pearl Gottschalk, an international peace worker originally from Canada. Gottschalk spent four consecutive winters at La Duna recovering from PTSD and burnout after a 15-year career in environmental advocacy.

The land and Flores, she said, generated a shift that months of traditional therapy had failed to achieve. “After the first winter there, I was able to sleep. I felt my nervous system reset,” she said. “Very rarely in the world are there places like this where humans can find solace coming back to the natural world.”

For her and many visitors, the land reminds them of why they dedicate themselves to protecting the Earth. And it plugs them into the desert’s timetable for change. Baja’s endemic and iconic cardon cactus, for example, is touted as both the world’s tallest cactus and an extremely slow grower. “That’s the whole thing of it, the slowing down,” Flores said. Tapping into that ecological rhythm can feel profoundly juxtaposed with the daily demands of our 21st-century lives.

In light of the environmental reality, Flores has recently noticed another shift at La Duna since the pandemic began in 2020. More and more people keep showing up asking to learn about permaculture, regenerative practices, and sustainable technologies. Given her many related efforts already in place on the property, sustainable education might just become the focus of La Duna’s next chapter.

“La Duna has had a story of her own, attracting or repelling what it needs. I get to be the guardian so far,” she said. “But a collective has been forming to help each other care for the land and sea.”

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