Formerly a sleepy fishing village, the “Gateway to the Sea of Cortez” has grown into a destination that offers everything from rest and renewal on its pristine beaches to ATV adventures atop its dusty hills. It is also home to unique natural gems including the tallest and oldest cacti in the world at Valle de Los Gigantes, a natural preserve where eagles, roadrunners, coyotes and flora dwell. And at the nearly halfway point between San Felipe and Rocky Point in the Sea of Cortez is Konsag Island, a massive white rock formation surrounded by the shores of San Felipe. Charter a boat and take a 45-minute trip to watch the seals, sea lions and birds that call Konsag home.
Wild San Felipe
Don’t be fooled by the tranquility of the surrounding desert, sparkling beaches and gentle gloss of the sea: That’s all just to steady the wild pursuits of San Felipe – the nightlife, festivals, rowing and off-road racing competitions that draw visitors to this town of 20,000.
1. The Baja 250, a spinoff of the Baja 1000, the San Felipe 250 and King of the Baja (ultra4racing.com, May 16-18) are SF’s biggest racing events of the year.
2. It’s not all about the rough-and-tumble. La Plazita, Mar de Cortez 615, San Felipe (“the yellow building across from Bancomerica,” as the locals say) offers local art galleries, clothing boutiques, a beauty salon and fine dining in the heart of downtown.
3. Owner Michele MacDonald runs San Felipe Salt Shop (sanfelipesalt.com), where you can buy natural spiced salts from the Sea of Cortez. It’s so tasty, you might toss your salt and pepper back at home. MacDonald also raised funds to open and now operates a nonprofit breast cancer clinic where education, detection and treatment are available to locals.
Meet San Felipe locals and get a peek behind the scenes with Tara Hitchcock and her husband/photo assistant, Kenn Francis, and art director Mirelle Inglefield on their San Felipe adventures.
Glamping/Resort Road Trip
If you’re serious about adventure, check out the five-day Across Baja package, which spans the peninsula from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Cortez. You’ll start out glamping in Valle de Guadalupe on the west coast in a restored, vintage Airstream, hosted by Glamping at Ruta de Arte y Vino. Following morning surf lessons, you’ll take a tuk-tuk to Baja wine country, with tastings at AlXimia, Vena Cava and Sol de Media Noche wineries. Then, you’ll make your way across Baja to San Felipe Marina Resort for a private, panoramic beachfront dinner beneath a palapa and relaxation in some of the peninsula’s finest accommodations, designed by architect Gonzalo Gomez Palacio. Enjoy a relaxing sunrise on la playa and rest up for a horseback ride into the sunset with Horses in Baja (horsesinbaja.com, pictured left), followed up with dinner on the ranch. Finish your five-day Baja walkabout by paddling a kayak around the secluded and serene Gonzaga Bay. $1,509 per couple. sanfelipemarina.com
3 Must-Visit Restaurants
This eatery serves the best huevos rancheros, (pictured, below) and machaca on the malecón. Mar de Cortéz 381, Costero, 21850 San Felípe, Baja
Third-generation fisherman/chef Alexis B. Lopéz García (pictured, right) prepares authentic SF spreads of fresh-caught seafood with regal accompaniments. The photo-worthy scallop ceviche is a favorite. Calle Mar de Cortez, San Felipe, Baja
Hit Rancho Alegre for a low-key bite (think: casserole-like shrimp molcajete) and copious pours of tequila. 37600 San Felipe – right off the Highway 5, hidden behind Market Otro
Grab a deck of cards and try your hand at Mexican poker (a variant of five-card stud) while swigging a Baja Fog. PHOENIX photo assistant Kenn Francis instructs: “You get a bottle of Corona and [slowly] pour José Cuervo Gold Tequila and a squeeze of fresh lime on top.” Then chug. Ribbit.
San Felipe Wildlife
The upper Sea of Cortez is the only place in the world to see the endangered “little cow” of the sea, the vaquita. Conservationists estimate there are only about 30 alive today due to the use of gillnets for fishing and the porpoise’s unusually long gestation period. Spotting one is rare, so grab your binoculars, take a boat ride and buy a lottery ticket if you see one.
More of a beach bum?
Rent a beachside campsite complete with a ramada, barbecue pit and an ATV course just a few minutes from the malecón and Valle de Los Gigantes (pictured right). $40/night. puntaestrella.com
San Felipe Arches
The undeveloped, sweeping landscape is worthy of a photo session alone. There are miles of festively ornate yet dilapidated shells of structures and gritty textures to populate your Instagram feed for days. But these iconic, towering arches as you enter town are obligatory.
How to Get There
No direct flights from Phoenix, so why not drive? Take the I-10 west to SR-85 south, hopping on the I-8 west in Gila Bend and crossing into California. Just before you hit El Centro, take SR-7 south to the border crossing in Mexicali. Hang your first right and follow Ave. Rep. de Argentina to Calz. Manuel Gomez Morin and head south on Highway 5 all the way to San Felipe. Don’t forget your passport.