By Carla White
Thinking about heading to charming San Felipe? Here are a few hints for making your experience the best it can be.
When to go:
The best time to visit San Felipe is in the fall, winter or spring, unless what you are looking for is the hot summer sun for which Baja is famous. Then, you’ll want to immerse yourself in the aqua-colored waters of the Sea of Cortez, perhaps perched on some whimsical inflatable with a margarita in your hand.
Each season has its own personality, but the real change in San Felipe happens in November with a major natural phenomenon: The ‘snowbird’ migration (the influx of American and Canadians seeking to avoid the winter climates of the north) takes place. This migration is so real that there are actually kick-off events to mark the natural phenomenon.
Algodones, on the Mexico side of the international border (famous for its bustling pharmacies, dental and doctors’ offices), near Yuma, Arizona, holds a major snowbird event and there is also a special fiesta hosted by the mayor in San Felipe to welcome the visitors. During this period and through March, traffic increases dramatically in San Felipe, with SUVs and mobile homes swooping in like flocks of seabirds.
Easter week and the “spring break” weeks in March and April, when college students from schools around the southwest USA invade San Felipe, are the busiest time in town. Best to make hotel reservations early, particularly if golf is your thing.
What to do:
San Felipe bears no resemblance to other Baja waterfront tourist towns—certainly not to Rosarito Beach, La Paz, Cabo or Ensenada. Although a walking tour is easily doable in under an hour, you really don’t need to tour. Although there are plenty of shops with curios, shell art, and t-shirts, shopping is not the main event. The goal is to simply be there and relax.
Among the nearby spots to visit is the Neri Chruch, built in 1712, which represents the city’s mulatto population. It has artisan work of that century, gilded walls and ornate decoration. Also, a must-visit place is the famous Virgin of Guadalupe shrine situated near the malecon. From it, there is a lovely view of the city and the sea, and the fishermen as they head out or back from their travails.
Along the Avenida Mar de Cortez, the main drag running parallel to the beach, you’ll find taco stands, restaurants and shops. The malecon is ideal for picking your favorite bench and just watching the gentle waves lapping the shore.
Eating is no challenge in San Felipe, especially if your taste runs to fish. La Hacienda de la Langosta Roja on Chetumal is actually an Italian restaurant (the hotel won the 2007 Outstanding Host award by Baja’s Secretary of Tourism), but it features excellent dishes including the marlin carpaccio appetizer, calamari, and more. On the malecon, is Rositas with a big and simple menu abundant with clams, lobsters and all of the sea creatures you might want to eat. Baja Mar Sea Food Restaurant is also located on the Malecon, as are Rice & Beans and Rockodile, where you can munch down upon a ‘taco-dile’. The Sweet Spot is one of the newer, more popular bar/bistros that offers a side order of television sports viewing.
Where to Stay:
The options for accommodations are many, ranging from vacation rentals to hotels, motels and camping. One popular choice is to rent a house or condo with ocean and/or golf course views at El Dorado Ranch, just north of town. Between El Dorado and San Felipe, the highway is lined with reasonably priced motels, and fishing camps where rentals are often available. In town, there are a variety of nice hotels including La Hacienda de la Langosta Roja, Club Habana Resort and Spa, and the El Cortez.
Sea of Cortez Activities
The Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, is the body of water that separates the Baja California Peninsula from the Mexico mainland. The gulf is believed by many to have opened up 5.3 million years ago, redirecting the flow of the Colorado River. Today, the Sea of Cortez provides a rich and varied ecosystem, and welcomes migratory species such as the humpback and grey whales, and endangered sea animals, such as the very rarely seen vaquita (little cow), which is currently the focus of preservation efforts by the World Wildlife Foundations and other organizations.
At the northern end of the the gulf, San Felipe has more than 50 miles of shoreline to explore, much of it relatively desolate, and a vast expanse of open sea where anglers can practice their skills at surf fishing, charter and sport fishing and even panga fishing.
From late November through March is the best time of year to fish. Fishing licenses are required for boat fishing (not shore fishing) and are checked by the local warden. Fishing licenses are sold in the Port Captain’s office at the local marina.
ATVs zip on beaches and dunes, and seashell-hunting along many of the pristine sandy beaches is a popular pastime, as are kayaking (bring your own kayak) and taking the banana boats that can be accessed at different locations. During shrimp season, it is not uncommon for small pangas to run up on local beaches, chock-full of wriggling, large pink shrimp that are sold for a shrimp of a price.
Valley of the Giants
Located about 15 kilometers south of town, the San Felipe-Puertecitos tourist corridor has a singular beauty and offers something for everyone, from spectacular sunsets to incredible hiking trails in desert terrain. This is where you will find the Valley of the Giants—gigantic cardon cacti, 40-50 feet-tall and estimated to be more than a thousand years old, that stand as towering sentinels in the desert. They are unique in the world, and have become a source of pride for Baja Californians. Also in the region are the skinny ocotillos, palo verde, palo fierro and other types of flora.
San Felipe is sandwiched between the sea and the dramatic Sierra San Pedro Martir mountains, the tallest in Baja Calfiornia. The highest point is Cerro de la Encantada, 3096 m (10,158 ft).Also known as Devil’s Peak, this is the highest point in the state of Baja California, as well as the entire peninsula, and is often scaled by rock climbers. The park is known for its pine trees and granite rock formations, and for animals—including wild sheep—that can often be seen. The National Astronomical Observatory, built in 1971 on a neighboring peak, is home to Mexico’s largest optical telescope, with a diameter of 2.12 meters, and a weight of 40 tons in total.
Established in 2004, “Las Caras de Mexico” (The Faces of Mexico), is an 18-hole, waterfront links course located in the La Ventana del Mar beach and golf resort, part of El Dorado Ranch, at kilometer 177 on the main Highway 5. This links-style course offers broad vistas, and utilizes a grass called Seashore paspalum (SeaDwarf®) that thrives on lower water usage and higher saline content in the water. Developer and owner Pat Butler hired golf course designer Bradford Benz to create a course that exists in harmony with the natural environment—hence, even though the course weaves among new home-sites and condominiums, there is a constant awareness of blue water, mountains and desert.
According to Sharry Appleyard, director of golf for Las Caras, “The course is named ‘Faces of Mexico’ to give it a distinct archaeological, historical and social Mexican character. At every hole, you’ll find one of the great men and women who have been important to shaping Mexico.”
When Appleyard says “find,” she means that visitors will tee off next to life-sized sculptures—each a spectacular work of art in its precision—of figures such as Hernando de Cortes, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Mario Moreno Cantinflas, Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, Lee Trevino, Lorena Ochoa and many others.
The Diamante Golf Course designed by Jack Nicklaus is currently under construction in San Felipe. Part of the San Felipe Marina Resort & Spa, this course will have 18 championship holes, as well.
San Felipe is considered one of the most popular strategic places for off-road races in both the American and Mexican series. These include racing events such as Baja 250 and San Felipe 250, the former a spin-off from the Baja 1000 and the latter similar to SCORE’s Baja Series by hosted by CODE, an off-road racing organization based in Mexicali. Currently, CODE holds two races in the San Felipe desert: CODE McMillin 500 in March/April and the CODE Race Ready 275 in November/December. The first is a loop from Mexicali to San Felipe and back, while the other is a one-way race from Mexicali to San Felipe at the end of the season. There is also the world famous Jeep Jamboree event organized every year by the Jeep Jamboree of the USA,
Are any of your favorite San Felipe activities missing from this list? Let us know!
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