San Felipe shines. It sparkles...glistens...fairly gleams. It's a place so pretty you're almost tricked into believing you can just reach out and pick up each view like a postcard, fuming it over to see who sent you this little gem.
The water is the color of sapphires in the sun, soft white sand stretches as far as you can stroll, and palm-thatched palapas dot the beaches, rustling quiet offers of shade or perhaps a siesta.
Of the dozen or so glorious getaways gracing the shores of the long Baja peninsula, San Felipe has always been a special love for Baja buffs, even those living elsewhere on the peninsula. Sleepy, laid back, just perfect as it is. Accessible, but not too accessible. Comfortable in almost every sense of the word. A sportfishing beach town with the tantalizing smell of shrimp tacos in the air.
Despite its location (an easy four hour drive from the border at San Ysidro), this small Sea of Cortez city is still unspoiled and underdeveloped. There's a strangely gentle malaise in the air here that seduces the unsuspecting traveler quickly, turning muscles, mind and will to marmalade and making the best intentioned Type A forget to check for email.
Do it all, or do nothing: Eager newcomers usually arrive in San Felipe with an agenda, revved and raring to hike that mountain, dive the artificial reef, parasail, kayak, beach-comb, fish--all in a relaxed, three-day weekend.
Bah! The rest of us can tell you now: It'll never happen. Despite the dozens of energetic activities offered, this happy little hideaway seems made more for letting down and hanging out at all times, every day of the week, whether for a week-end or an entire winter. Unhurried is the pace. “Slow and easy” is the operative phrase. Nobody breaks sweat.
Indeed, the sailboats and paddle boats, and kayaks do seem to glide by effortlessly here. An air of serenity hangs over the tiny town, perhaps because the Sea of Cortez is so calm. And however the day has been spent, the sundown hours find visitors and locals alike drawn to the malecón (the seaside walk at the center of town), a cold something in hand, just watching the fishermen clean and mend their nets in the last of the day's golden light.
Oh sure, San Felipe has all the beach toys and scenic lures and tours of any great sunny sandy strip of prime coastal real estate, but nothing seems to be pursued as frantically as it is in Cabo or Cancún. Yes, you can swim, snorkel, sail, sport fish or easily spend an entire day just shelling. You can windsurf and even waterski on the flat, calm Sea of Cortez.
You can fly across the dunes in an open buggy, exploring for miles, or mountain bike the nearby hills. It’s even possible to climb Baja's tallest peak nearby Picacho del Diablo (The Devil's Peak) in the San Pedro Matirrange. At 10,156 feet, you'll be able to see both Baja coasts simultaneously---if such things are important to you.
Downtown, you can shop at the quaint curio stores without once being hawked by a vendor, but shopping is hardly an Olympic sport here. Nor is golf. But, you can swing a club on the free, "sand" golf course north of town, however, if withdrawal seems to be giving you hives.
Just a few miles to the south, the Valley of the Giants offers great photo ops and an "ooohahhh" stop for desert lovers. Called the king of all cactus, the mighty cardons grow profusely here, some as tall as 50 feet.
There are also waterfalls and fossil fields to explore, an obsidian field of "Apache Tears" to find, and more than 8000 pre-Colombian cave paintings to discover in the area, starting not far away in the mountain range that nestles almost up against the outskirts of the town.
PICTURE PERFECT---FOR MILES
Right downtown, at the end of the malecón, one small mountain climbs straight up beyond the northernmost curve of the beach and lifts the town’s gleaming white lighthouse skyward like a proud trophy, so picture-perfect against the Baja sky it looks like a prop. On the other side of the mountain, fish camps, RV parks, homes an the multifaceted El Dorado Ranch checker the beach as the city creeps north. There are still plenty of spaces between.
To the south of the malecón, a half dozen unobtrusive hotels in all price ranges hopscotch with homes along the beach for the first few miles, gradually giving way to an uncrowded fifty-two miles of here-and-there beach houses, camp grounds, palapas and RVs parked along the little dunes, all the way to Puertecitos. It is a magical stretch of white sand, small coves and gentle, curving shoreline, all shouldered by the stark sierras.
Beach combing is a competitive sport in San Felipe, an almost addictive occupation, probably because of the area's unusual tides. Tide swings as high as 23 feet cause the sea to recede as much as a halfmile at times. There are constant chuckles and tales told about unsuspecting, first-time visitors who parked their pickups at the tide line to dig clams, then wandered away down the beach for a lengthy walk. Many, it’s claimed, have returned to find the old Chevy abob, or gone completely.
Unsuspecting sport fishermen from elsewhere pull their boats onto the sand at high tide and walk a few steps across the street to refill their coolers. If they linger too long, caught up on the final innings of some game, they may find their boats beached, no longer anywhere near the sea. Regardless, the tides make the beach ever new, every hour.
San Felipe is seafood heaven, home of the famous "Big Blues"--shrimp so huge they seem like a separate species. It is a town built around glorious gifts from the sea. The malecón alone is dotted with almost a dozen fresh shrimp and fish taco stands, which also specialize in fresh seafood cocktails and freshly dug, steamed clams. At any stand, you can mix and match your favorite blend of octopus, scallops, shrimp, squid, clams and whatever else the shellfish gods give forth that day. Seafood cocktails are priced by size and mixture and are ridiculously inexpensive. A platter of 20 steamed butter clams, accompanied by a big hotfudge-Sunday-size glass of melted butter, is $4. Batterfried shrimp, fish or shark tacos are $1 anywhere in town.
MAGICAL MOMENTS ON THE MALECON
The beach and its downtown seaside walkway are the heart of this town. Late afternoon or sunset in San Felipe means time out on the malecón, feet up on a rail, watching the calm, quiet world of a fishing village as it finishes its chores. Individual clusters of fishermen now join together to push their colorful wooden pangas up the beach, one by one, beyond the rising tide. Little children stand tiptoe at the seawall watching.
Up and down the malecón, others are scattered at tables or perched on railings, sipping, snacking and watching too. A Rube Goldberg dune contraption putts past and parks nearby. The distinguished looking, but barefoot owner doesn’t lock it but simply unstraddles and wanders a bit down the street, settling at an empty table on the little porch of the restaurant Rice and Beans. He joins the gallery of those who gather to watch the daily ritual of the tides. Hemingway would have loved San Felipe and probably would never have left.
There are no highrises, no skyscrapers yet. No Club Meds or Sandals or Sheratons. No sequined Tshirts. It is a city built by working fishermen, that now attracts sport fishermen and families, lovers and late bloomers, the silver set and the college crowd. It is Cabo San Lucas as it was 10 or 15 years ago. Gentle, still.
Right now, San Felipe is one of the only soothing cities I know---an oxymoron! How can any city be soothing? But this one really is. It lays across your shoulders with the comforting feel of a cut aloe-vera leaf on sunburned skin.
But, it will not remain untouched forever. Go soon.
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW:
BEST TIME OF YEAR:
Anytime. The climate is near perfect with a medium annual temperature of 71! Delightful in spring and fall; hot and dry, but bearable in summer, with temps over 100 from June until September; pleasant all winter. 300 days of sunshine a year. November's water begins to take on a chill, but a light wetsuit will keep you comfortable through the winter months. The summer and fall seas are bath temperature. High season is mid March through October.
None. Credit cards are taken at most major restaurants and shops; English is spoken almost everywhere in the main tourist areas; dollars are accepted everywhere.
DON'T MISS: The natural hot sulfur springs at Puertecitos, about 60 miles down the road. There are no facilities here so take a cold six-pack, a picnic lunch, and plan your visit to coincide with the day's high tide when breaking ocean waves cool the steaming individual pools to manageable temps. Despite the rustic surroundings, this is heaven! And the one hour, desert-and-sea drive is as beautiful and relaxing as the pools.
By Paula McDonald, “Tourist Guide”, July 1999