You can’t go back again. Or can you?
Have you ever had a childhood memory settle deep in your senses and not let go? I can still remember the smell of the big, military canvas tent that my parents would pitch on the beach in Baja, Mexico. The long weekend trips began before I was in middle school. Most of the time we visited Ensenada and Rosarito which were relatively close to our Southern California home. Each time we returned the spot would change. Where there were once open beaches, campsites sprang up. Each successive trip led to new amenities. Now I don’t recognize the place with tall hotels and tony restaurants, giant beach clubs and neighborhoods thickly stretching east. I thought the Mexico I’d grown up with had vanished until I took a San Felipe vacation.
Set about 125 miles south of the border, the fishing village of San Felipe is an affordable, friendly and delicious destination. Unlike the Pacific side of northern Baja, with coastal towns famous for waves and ocean breezes, here at the western top of the Sea of Cortez the vast blue is calm with languid tides. It’s bordered by a stark land of salt flats, endless beaches and steep jagged mountains. The sea stretches wide and blue and everyone who lives in or visits San Felipe is impacted by that vast water.
Many come to relax, to fish or re-locate. A friend relayed how his family once took a San Felipe vacation when developers were promising free lots. You just had to make an appointment and the drive. Of course, they showed up to find that the land was away from paved roads or utilities. The sales switch was about how affordable other seaside homesites were. On my recent trip, we drove five and a half hours from San Diego and those developed homes popped into view near the base of the sloping red rock hillsides east of the highway. The ocean side of the road was sparsely peppered with rooftops too. No big hotels or ranches were in sight.
Here’s a short video about the San Felipe vacation scene:
Gringos still head south for a San Felipe vacation. Spring break lures the party crowd during the weeks around Easter holidays. When I visited, the giant dance clubs and beachfront restaurants were almost empty and few Americans were in town. At our hotel bar inside the Hacienda de la Langosta Roja we ordered from a menu full of Italian entrees and a few expats watched soccer in the bar. Over 200,000 Americans visit the region each year and the retiree community is growing as the price of living continues its climb in the United States.
The highway south was swift and we arrived by late afternoon. Downtown was quiet and divided by a slim meridian, the main street was lined with little shops. The Malecon at the end of the street was where the action was. After a delicious dinner complete with the owners’ house-made Limoncello, we walked down to the beach to find it packed. Families and musicians were out in force. Food vendors rolled carts through the crowds or parked near the sidewalk. The wide street was overflowing with bodies and a few cars rolled through slowly. Along the boardwalk people danced, kids fiercely raced their trikes, others sang for pesos, and a mysterious Mickey Mouse character popped up repeatedly. He disappeared before I could find out what his thing was.
I flashbacked to walking with my family along the original two-lane highway in Rosarito. How I loved watching women pressing tortillas by hand and grilling them in front of me. The same sense of wonder flooded my senses on this San Felipe vacation. Vendors offered mangos on sticks, street tacos and Micheladas (Beer, juice and tagine spice on the glass rim.) Once I loved the wide beaches and felt fearless playing in the forever shallows. I found the same freedom as a Boomer whether strolling downtown or dipping my toes in the water
San Felipe, 125 miles south of the border, attracts independent thinkers, those interested in living off the grid or looking for an affordable Mexican vacation. The Cow Patty Bar personifies that spirit with its paraphernalia, collages and cold drinks from a solar freezer. It was easy to imagine Easy Rider wannabes stopping by.
This trip was spurred by something more altruistic. San Felipe is a fishing village caught in an international controversy. I tagged along with a Baja-based Michelin Star chef interested in sourcing responsibly, a fishmonger from San Diego, a scientist from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, members of PESCA ABC – a Baja based sustainable fishing organization, and a representative of the World Wildlife Fund – all working to find solutions to the dwindling numbers of Vaquita dolphins. It’s complicated and conversations wound around how to make a living fishing, new gear, and the lure of illegal fisheries. I hope everyone, including the dolphins, finds a way to flourish.
Sunday night, we walked for hours. At the edge of town, we traversed a bridge, passed a small chapel and climbed the bluff to see the lighthouse. The city lay below, moonlight flicked off the water. I felt a reconnection with the Mexico I’d grown up with and smiled at how peaceful and gracious a San Felipe vacation can be.
Travel tips for your San Felipe vacation:
- Driving south from the US? Don’t forget your passport!
- Make sure you have water for drinking and a full tank of gas – there are few amenities between San Felipe and Mexicali.
- The closest border crossing is at Calexico/Mexicali.
- There’s an excellent road between Ensenada and the road to San Felipe.
- The Mexican toll road is a multi-lane highway with stunning views as you drop to the desert from the mountains. It runs from Tijuana to Mexicali.
- You don’t need a four wheel drive to drive to San Felipe but some parts of the highway south of San Felipe are gravel and under repair.
- Here another post full of border crossing advice if you’re traveling between San Diego and into Baja.
Special thanks to the World Wildlife Fund, NOAA and Catalina Offshore Products for making this trip possible. Gracias for stopping by. I’d love to hear from you, leave a comment and pin to share. Hasta la vista!