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!
I have never been to San Felipe, but it sounds wonderful! Childhood travel is so hard to replicate the amazing memories, so happy you were able to accomplish the challenge.
San Felipe is a modest place for tourists but I really did enjoy the visit. Thanks.
Loved this post! As an Arizona native, we spent many vacations on the Sea of Cortez, and I recall those days fondly. I often wonder if they have the same appeal today. I’m glad to see you found that they do! Looking forward to returning to Baja beaches soon. Thanks for joining us for #WeekendWanderlust!
Back in the 1980’s my husband and I used to trek into Baja and go to Ensenada and Rosarita. I don’t know that we’d even heard of San Felipe. I’ve often thought that I’d love to go back and see how much those two resort towns have changed. I’ll add San Felipe to my itinerary, too, if I do.
San Felipe seems like a great destination for a weekend getaway! I have never been to Baja, Mexico but I love how quiet and low-key San Felipe is during non-peak season. I don’t fish but would love to go horseback riding on the beach!
It is so nice to hear that people are taking notice of how to be environmentally sourcing their produce, and the impact it has on the environment. I also really was interest in how the people of Mexico received you so warmly, even despite everything our current President has said against them. This truly makes me want to visit this community
It’s sad to think that somewhere you cherished as a child is no longer as you remember it. I can think of a place right now (on the Gulf coast) that is that way for me. I love Baja, but I haven’t been to San Felipe. I will never forget my first time in the Sea of Cortez though, man it was cold! I would definitely prefer visiting when you did when the beachfront restaurants are almost empty vs full of spring breakers! Your tips for driving are very useful!
I also prefer small fishing villages over expensive coastal resort towns and San Felipe looks so adorable! I’d love to have local Mexican food, that’s probably one of the main reasons I want to visit Mexico, apart from the gorgeous beaches of course!
Love the small town feel that this place gives. The local traffic was quite amusing to note. Goes to show the pace of life here which is perfect to relax and enjoy a holiday. Seems like there are lot of hidden treasures around like that street art. I like the useful tips that you have shared at the end of the post. Makes it easy to plan a holiday
Believe it or not – I haven’t been to Mexico except on a cruise and I can’t really count it. I’d not heard of San Felipe but it looks super relaxing! I’ll definitely keep it in mind for when i finally get to our Southern neighbors 🙂
This reminds me of watching Rocky Point grow up before my eyes. We would take the kids down there and camp on the beach. Each trip brought a new wave of condos to Sandy Beach and less and less nature. I always wanted to go to San Felipe while we were in So-Cal, but she always eluded me. Reading your post has me pining for a return. I was literally just talking about mangos on a stick at work Monday and camping on the beach in Mexico.
Great to hear your story going to Baja. I too have spent lots of time going down to Baja and noticed how much it has changed every time I went. I just loved pitching a tent to camp out. Great to see that San Felipe still looks the same. Good information on places to stay and restaurants to eat at. I must take another trip down to Baja Thanks for sharing. Pinned for later use. #WeekendWanderlust
I’ve always stayed away from Mexico thinking that most places are too touristy, I’m happy to start seeing a few spots that don’t seem as crowded. San Felipe looks like a lovely spot for a short vacation and I am always tempted by local/regional food!
Your childhood memories spiced up the place a lot more. I have a few places in mind which I would like revisit. Guess I too will get similar feelings. I hope they get some solutions to save the dwindling numbers of Vaquita dolphins. Thanks for the great tips on San Felipe vacation.
It looks like you guys had a wonderful time in San Felipe. Personally, it’s not my cup of tea so I don’t know if I would visit. But it’s great that you shared all these tips for those who might look into traveling this area in the future.
I have never heard of San Felipe before, but I really enjoy reading your post and comparing San Felipe vacation to your childhood memories. it is such a blast to visit a place which brings our memory back
I’ve only been to San Felipe once. The beach was nice, although there were a lot of stray dogs wandering around. Our family prefers to go much further south — to Bahia de los Angeles. It’s even more pristine and off the beaten path. Very rugged and gorgeous, and that’s where we can see the whale sharks, too. But I do love your description of San Felipe at night with the moonlight reflecting off the water — sounds amazing!
It is inevitable that places you have been to as a kid will change. But horse-riding on the beach, authentic Mexican fare and easy vibes make San Felipe a winnner for me.
It’s really good to know that they are really making efforts to save the dolphins. That quick tour has full of information in, and gladly nice hearing about your childhood memories. It’s also tempting to see the food, Watching the video and reading this post makes me think that San Felipe is such a charming place.
I love how you describe your childhood visits to Baja; and how this trip to San Felipe evoked those memories of Mexico-past. I have never been, but I know I would love it – the hand-pressed tortillas, the warm people, and that sea that stretches on and on. I will add San Felipe to my list for when we finally get to visit Mexico.
Thank you, Hannah. There’s so much to enjoy in Baja.
It looks like such a lovely place to explore and a lot of fond memories you have! I haven’t really explored Baja California, even though I’m Mexican and live in Los Angeles. I’ve thought about cross the border via car to see TJ, Ensenada and other cities nearby. Hopefully with friends next time since I only go to TJ with family for catching the flight. Is there another city in Mexico that you would love to visit?
So many cities I haven’t visited. Mostly in the mid-west side.
Never heard of Baja, Mexico – thanks a lot for the introducing. It looks like a peaceful and relax beach town, I think I will enjoy my time there if I am ever visiting Mexico again 🙂 @ knycx.journeying
It is very relaxed and remote. A real getaway place.
How wonderful that you were able to rekindle a bit of your childhood vacation memories by visiting San Felipe. It looks like a beautiful area of Mexico. I’m sure learning about the fishing and the efforts to save the vaquita dolphins must have been really interesting.
It was a terrific and intense short trip. So glad I was able to tag along.
What a beautiful post contrasting the new San Felipe with your childhood memories of the place. I love the street art (aren’t people so incredibly talented??) on the buildings. The horseback rider on the beach looks especially peaceful. What a beautiful morning sky. #the WeeklyPostcard
Thanks, Sara. It was a great spot and really rekindled those memories.
San Felipe seems to have changed quite a bit since we visited it 20 years ago. I have pretty bad memories about this place. It looked like a s..t hole at the time. We drove there once during the summer (we should have known better!) because my husband wanted to go fishing. We arrived at night and checked into a shady hotel room with no AC. It was melting hot! The only relief from the heat was a small ceiling fan with a broken arm. I remember dragging our bed under it to be able to breath (leave lone to sleep). My husband woke up at 4 am the next day to go fishing. He returned victorious with two 12″ fish in his hand around 8 a.m. and we drove back to Los Angeles. I don’t think you could make me return to San Felipe even if you dragged me there!
You were so accommodating to go in the first place!! We had plenty of AC and a decent hotel. Other than fishing or just hanging out inexpensively, there’s not much to do.
I love fishing villages, so San Felipe sounds like a place for me! Good to know they have dance clubs too! Something for everybody. Hope to visit here someday! Thank you for sharing these tips! I am sure they will be useful!