Point of Beginning

Surveying Baja

July 19, 2000
The jobsite--deceptively beautiful


Imagine, if you would, receiving the following Request for Proposal:

"Please provide a detailed topographic survey of the Hotel Palmilla, a five-star resort located in tropical Baja California. Locate all palm trees, beachfront limits of tropical foliage, meandering walkways and ocean view hotel rooms. Detail the swimming pool area, including the palm-covered swim up bar, all water features and landscape edge conditions along the sand."

Interested?

l'll bet you are. I was interested, too, especially when our California-based firm of RBF Consulting (RBF) was given the notice to proceed. At RBF, I was the person in charge of all field surveying done in Baja Sur, Mexico.

Less than two weeks later I found myself on a jet airliner flying high above the 2,300 km long backbone of the Baja California peninsula. My survey crew, Marty Miller and Tom Washico, sat to my left, their eyes tracing the blue Pacific shore along Scammons Lagoon near the city of Guerrero Negro. Above my seat, a Geodimeter 610 total station (Spectra Precision, Itasca, Ill.) and a Hewlett-Packard 200 data collector (HP, Palo Alto, Calif.) were squeezed into the overhead bin.

Bill and Marty, umbillically connected to the temperate zone.

"All wrapped up in the problems of the day. Just remember that there's no rewind and no replay."

I knew those back home thought we had landed a dream assignment, but actually we were on the sharp end of a very long spear. It was our duty to deliver this very complex product on time and within budget. High levels of production were absolutely essential, and there would be no support from a friendly home office. There were no replacements and no rentals available to bail us out. And, as the flight director of the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon shot once said, "Failure was not an option." To add to the fun, we would be surveying in a foreign land where we did not speak the language well. On the plus side, we had the right friends in the right places.

This story really began nearly 10 years earlier when RBF was hired by Koll International to provide planning, civil engineering and survey services for their newly acquired properties in Baja California Sur. These holdings included over 4,000 acres of oceanfront land including the legendary Palmilla resort hotel, the Grand Dame of the Baja. Built in 1958, the Palmilla was originally a fly-in only get-away for famous Hollywood types and the occasional well-connected fisherman.

Only 72 rooms, the Palmilla nevertheless set the standard for decades in Baja Sur for the finest expression of traditional Mexican architectural charm coupled with first-class food and service. Besides the sun-drenched tropical setting, the Palmilla Hotel sits atop Punta Palmilla, a point of land protruding into what is arguably the finest big game fishing water on the planet.

On final approach to the Los Cabos airport, I could see the peaks of the Sierra de Laguna -- the Mountains of the Lagoon--overspread with luxuriant green. It was, after all, the rainy season in the tropics. This brought to mind something else I would need to consider: work delays--or worse--brought about by hurricanes or tropical storms.

"Where it all ends I can't fathom, my friend. If I knew I might toss out my anchor."

In over 30 trips to the Los Cabos area during the 1990s, I have logged a good deal of experience surveying this particular corner of the Baja. The changes along the Cabo corridor, a 30 km stretch of coast between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, during those 10 years have been staggering.

A dozen new major hotel developments sprang up along the once sparsely populated coastline. Names like Hyatt, Ritz Carleton and Hilton joined the old guard minions of Hacienda, Twin Dolphin, Hotel Cabo San Lucas and Palmilla. High rise condominium and time share projects share space with ubiquitous mini malls, complete with Pizza Hut and a drive-through McDonalds. This intense construction has exploded the local economy. The middle class, which struggles to exist in most of Mexico, is alive and well in South Baja. Third World indeed.

We clear customs. Next stop, the city of San Jose del Cabo and the office of my long-time local survey friend, Ismael.

Ismael Castrejon Borrego is officially recognized as the local perito en topografia. This means his word is essentially final in all matters relating to survey in or near San Jose del Cabo. He is indispensable to me in performing work in south Baja and is a valued friend. We meet Mexican style, with a hearty embrace. I introduce Marty and Tom formally. Ismael's engineer, Gilbert, provides translation duties, and we discuss project concerns such as the status of the local Zona Federal Maritima, which changes alignment every few years. Ismael will provide us with a support survey crew.

Ismael's firm, ITSA, functions the same for me in Mexico as lifelines do for contestants in "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire." If I forget anything while on the job a few thousand kilometers from home, all is not necessarily lost. Whatever we might miss can be obtained by his local crew and E-mailed back to the United States. "Sure, I can get that x, y and z for you, Regis. Just let me call a friend."

I think back to 10 short years ago when phone service to the United States was limited to just four analog land lines out of the Palmilla Hotel for the entire San Jose del Cabo locale. You've come a long way, Baja baby. We set a dinner date with Gil and Ismael, say adios and head south 4 km to the coast and the azure waters of Bahia Palmilla.

Tom Washico, somewhere below the Tropic of Cancer.

"Blue Skies and Ultra-Violet Rays"

Ah, the lovely Palmilla. Palm trees and foliage line the hand-wrought entry road. Marty, Tom and I discuss survey strategy as we walk the grounds. Visibility is a major concern, with 10 main buildings effectively walling off the Punta Palmilla bluff area from the hotel proper. Palm trees create postcard backgrounds everywhere but also shut off a good deal of our survey line of sight.

And it is hot--tropical summer Baja hot. Dehydration is a real concern. Last year we performed a two-day topographic survey of an undeveloped adjoining parcel during the summer. The instrument display had turned black even under cloth protection, and our bodies simply could not absorb water as fast as it was lost. Dizzy and slightly nauseated in the afternoons, we were forced to retire to our air conditioned rooms to hydrate as best we could for an hour or so. We then resumed work like two gringos muy locos without enough common sense to stay out of the midday sun. The hotel employees could only shake their heads.

Now, here we were again in very similar conditions, this time with a much larger effort ahead. We decide to proceed with two closed loop traverses to establish control: one loop outside the ring of buildings along the bluff and another just inside, along the service road and walkway. I have only budgeted one day to establish control and it certainly looks like a good deal more than that now.

We are the first at breakfast on the patio the next day, even ahead of the fishermen. Just after dawn, Marty and Tom meet with Chencio, Ismael's survey crew chief, and we make the tie-in to local control established by Sedue, the Mexican Department of Tourism and keeper of the federal zones. I go over tree locations and descriptors with Chencio. For the hundredth time I curse myself for not learning more Spanish. Fortunately, survey terms are nearly identical in both languages, and Chencio, who has worked with us before, understands my intent. I leave both crews to their work and set out to meet Rosalio, the chief of maintenance, for research on underground utilities. Document research in Mexico is interesting for two reasons. The first is that there historically has been a more, shall we say..."casual" view of record keeping than in the United States. The second is that many of these records are kept mentally. My job is to research all documents--mental or otherwise--that can be used to supplement our topographic survey. Rosalio is surprisingly organized and very cooperative. He has indexes of as-built plans for the most recent expansion, and the plans are right where the index says they should be.

The older portion of the hotel is less documented, however, and many of the utilities were abandoned but never removed. This means that vaults and other surface structures we will locate may not be in use. Also, certain emergency lines were installed without construction plans. I ask Rosalio to draft these as carefully as possible. Some of these lines transmit high voltage in rather shallow PVC conduit. I finally end up with a pile of plans and sketches to reproduce in town. I decide to hold off on copying these bluelines and go back to help Marty and Tom with the field survey. We work straight through until about 4:30 p.m. It is hot but we have enough shade to make survival possible. Nevertheless, we consume about a liter of water an hour per person. To my delight, we finish the control survey in one day. To my dismay, we have a large misclosure when we analyze the traverses back in the room. We suspect one of the shorter legs and decide to field check it. After an hour outside, we still get the same answer. I remind myself that patience is a virtue everywhere, but especially here in Mexico. Finally, Marty discovers a key in his HP 200 data collector is sticking intermittently. He runs the traverse again. It closes 1 in 70,000. We smile. After one day, we are still on schedule.

Data collection begins the next day. It is hot, sweaty, humid work made worse by the hordes of gnats that swarm up in the early morning mist. Fortunately, they retreat for a siesta as soon as the sun clears the horizon. I have a meeting scheduled with Ismael about the utilities and drive to his office trying not to stare at the two-meter high surf curling perfectly around the El Mirador reef. Ismael produces a disk which contains AutoCAD files of many of the utilities from the previous expansion. He has just saved us a fair amount of digitizing time. Muchas gracias, mi amigo.

For the next two weeks Marty and Tom collect survey data RBF style. They have thoroughly mastered their craft and their work ethic is amazing. Although I had decided to limit the field time to nine hours a day to avoid both heat fatigue and burn out, they perceive that we are a little behind schedule and work everyday from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. They are most creative in using the offset programs and changing the rod to HI constantly to deal with visibility problems.

In between research, mapping photographs and sending E-mail files back to the States, I try to help, but this is really their show. I am on the rod from time to time and try to stay productive, but I simply do not have a complete grasp of the collection procedures and descriptor menu. They are gracious in their tolerance of the office guy. After a week on the site, I belatedly make my blueline copies and fly home to tend to business while they remain to survey in the land of tropical dreams.

"It's a flashback kind of crowd. It's a cabaret sound. There's still some magic left in this tourist town..."

Three days later, I am back. We all go out to meet Ismael and Gil for dinner at the Tropicana in downtown San Jose del Cabo. What's nice about San Jose is that as soon as you get more than a half-block from the main highway, it retains nearly all of its original character. Although it is a Wednesday night, the Tropicana is bustling with the locals. Gil reminds me that it is September 15th, the night before Mexican Independence Day when everyone celebrates freedom from Spanish rule. After dinner, we make our way through a full-fledged street festival complete with fireworks and dancing. As far as I can tell, Marty, Tom and I are the only gringos in town. I feel privileged to be able to see such a celebration still untouched by touristas.

"Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season"

The next day brings a definite change in the weather as Hurricane Hillary tracks to within 100 km of our location. Two years before, also in the month of September, Hurricane Isis came ashore directly over the tip and dropped over 80 cm of rain in the nearby Sierra de los Laguna. The East Cape region near Los Barrilles received the brunt of the run-off as a massive flood that crested in the middle of the night. The damage was extensive and the effects are still evident today. In 1993, a tropical storm dumped nearly two-thirds of a meter of rain on San Jose washing out the water aqueduct and sections of the main highway along with hundreds of homes. Fortunately, Hillary decides to stay at sea and we work in a light rain, glad to be just a little bit cooler.

After nine straight days of work, Tom heads for home and Bill Madigan arrives to take his place. Bill is a veteran of work on the road and is boundlessly enthusiastic to be in Baja. Marty and I feed off of his energy and work very late. We can see the finish line now. Chencio has completed the tree locations for over 1,200 trees. We thank him for his sense of teamwork and positive attitude. I let Marty know that he has more than earned a day off. He made friends with the golf course manager of the Palmilla's gorgeous 18-hole Jack Nicklaus course and has a standing invitation to play. Incomprehensibly, Marty turns down the golf invitation to help us finish the job. Finally, after 10 sun-soaked hours, we finish in the field. Marty flies home while Bill and I back-up survey files and make sure we didn't miss anything. Marty and Tom had made a tremendous effort in difficult conditions and kept the project both on time and on budget without sacrificing detail or quality.

Bill and I get our boards and then head for El Mirador to ride waves until way past dark by the light of a full moon rising high over the warm tropical sea. The waves are fast and perfect, curling for a hundred meters around the well foiled rock reef. It is Fiesta night back at the Palmilla, and we dine outside on cebiche with tacos de camarones and vino rojo. Out past the rocky point, coruscating moonlight calms my mind. A sense of real peace steals over me.

In Baja over the years, I have come to regard this feeling as an old friend. I have felt it before and always wish I could take it with me for whenever I might need it. But it always fades away like a sunset somewhere along the way home. I take some time to reflect on the survey team, both Mexican and American, brought together by this effort. A connection has been made between people of two different cultures who, though they barely understand each other's languages, still manage to communicate through what they do have in common. I know that time will filter out the difficulties and discomforts and leave only a deep longing to return.

Changes in CADDitudes

During 1999, the emerging markets division of a large New York financial firm became the sole owners of the exquisite Palmilla Resort located at the tip of the Baja California peninsula near San Jose del Cabo, about 20 km easterly of Cabo San Lucas. The new owners had plans to upgrade the hotel complex into a world class resort while maintaining the unique character of this historic property.

Project architects required extremely detailed topographic information of the entire hotel parcel infrastructure to achieve this goal. RBF was requested to proceed with the topographic field survey in September 1999.

The selection of RBF as the civil design firm of choice was based on their extensive experience in Baja Sur as well as their unique ability to successfully turn remote project sites into digital reality. During the early part of 1998, the RBF team of Bill Cox and Gina Ciampaglia developed translation algorithms and LISP routines that enhanced field to finish data transfers for AutoCAD and Softdesk applications.

By taking full advantage of servo-driven, auto-tracking total stations and data collector capabilities, this custom suite of software produced remarkable results. Since the captured field data carried, in effect, its own editing commands, even the most intensely detailed topography could be delivered with minimal data processing.

Architects had received a version of what RBF referred to as 'reality capture" during the previous year and they were hooked. Throughout 1998 and 1999, RBF found itself increasingly in demand for this type of reality-to-digital database. Not for the faint-of-heart PC, these files often totaled more than 60 megabytes of information gleaned from thousands of survey shots, hundreds of descriptor codes, icons, raster images and research elements.

Topographic map of the Baja resort.

"Now we live in the age of computers. They run everything in the world. And I'm a little behind on this technical climb, and you are an Internet girl.."

We fly back to our office in California the next day where Bill Cox and his protegee, Gina Ciampaglia, have a good jump on the data processing. The layout in CADD is spellbinding, with hundreds of walkways and walls curling through buildings and staircases among thousands of trees. Utilities are X-referenced in and edited to fit surface features. Despite the sophistication of the software, it is still a lot of work.

Bill edits the DTM to exactly fit the walls, roadways, hardscape and buildings. This forceline work is usually both tedious and difficult, but his customized software really makes a difference and soon the edited contours look perfect.

Icons for the viewpoints of the photographs are placed from my hand-drawn map and converted into "hot points." These are referenced to the raster photo files so that by clicking on an icon the corresponding photograph appears on a view screen. Gina really has the most difficult job since she is blending elements from all the various data sources into one comprehensive final product. Everything has to fit. Everything has to be accurate. And it all needs to be understandable by the design team. Finally, it is complete. On CD, the topo file contains over 90 megabytes of information.