San Felipe, called the ‘Jewel of the Sea’, is geographically isolated in its spot on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Cortez. Perhaps that’s the reason it has retained the charm and serenity of the small fishing village that it once was. Yet those who make the journey to this town — part of the Mexicali municipality — that is nestled between mountains and aquamarine-colored waters always want to come back. Why is it called a ‘jewel’? Those who visit claim that it sparkles and gleams, with diamond-bright shafts of sunlight bouncing off of the clear sea waters.
These same aquamarine waters brought explorer Hernán Cortés to the Baja California Peninsula in 1535, but it was ultimately one of his fleet captains who found San Felipe’s bay later that year. In 1536, Hernando de Alarcón and Domingo Castillo explored the region and mapped it, and bequeathed the name Santa Catalina on the area. But that really is all it remained – a barren area – for many years. It was not until 1746 that Father Ferdinand Konscak arrived and christened the bay San Felipe de Jesus and in 1772, San Felipe began to be used as a port by Lieutenant Governor of the Californias, José Joaquin de Arrillaga. Arrillage also established the first land route between San Felipe and Ensenada, through the Valle de la Trinidad (today, that road offers a short, 2-3 hour trip but one can only imagine the weeks of effort that cutting through the desert and canyons would have required then!)
The first fishing camps appeared in 1925, around the time that San Felipe began to incorporate, under General Abelardo L. Rodriguez. By the end of the 1920s, San Felipe had approximately 100 permanent residents. From 1926-1942, the area saw more growth, which was helped by sea transportation of people and cargo. The thrust to develop tourism in San Fellipe began in the late 1940s, underscored by the construction of the Mexicali-San Felipe highway which was completed in 1951. Hotels and motels began appears, and tourist camps flourished.
Throughout the later part of the 20th century, tourism saw a slow increase and then peaked in the mid-2000s. With an influx of Baby Boomers and retirees, particularly the winter months, San Felipe has developed a strong service industry. Today, the town’s income is largely based on tourism, shrimping and fishing. There is still a large fleet of small pangas, but the main industry is now retirement living and real estate. There are already approximately 20,000 full-time expatriate residents in the area, but this increases dramatically as American and Canadian visitors, ‘snowbirds’, converge on the town, beginning in November. True, populations takes a downturn in late spring as the temperatures in this desert-ocean environment climb, but even then it has appeal for those seeking sun ocean, desert or mountain activities.
As Baja continues to be a magnet for those escaping the colder winter climes of Canada and the United States, quiet little San Felipe is slowly changing. Today, San Felipe is evolving into a resort and retirement community, with its service industries – restaurants, hotels, golf and recreation opportunities – growing to meet consumer needs. Improved access by road and private plane (San Felipe’s International Airport has a 4850-foot runway) have helped motivate this gentle change. Another reason that the area is see a slow but steady increase in popularity is, quite simply, the stark beauty of the mountains and sea that surround this remote location, perched as it is on the Bahia San Felipe (where dramatic tide changes can encroach on the shoreline by as much as a half-mile). It is a place all about desert and water – off-road trails and white, shelly beaches.