At the Valley of the Giants, visitors can see how the saguaro cactus measures up. // © 2013 Mark Rogers
San Felipe’s tourism is getting a shot in the arm due to a much-improved Highway 5 connecting the beach destination to the border town of Mexicali, which lies 150 miles to the north. Since San Felipe receives most of its visitors via self-drive trips originating in California, Arizona and New Mexico, this is a huge boon for the town’s tourism prospects.
San Felipe got its start about 100 years ago as a small fishing port on the Sea of Cortez. The Mexican government gave the town a boost when it brought in water and electricity. San Felipe began attracting sport fishermen from the U.S. who initially made do with RV parks and campgrounds. As their numbers grew, hotel construction followed.
The town is well-known for the quality of its blue shrimp, and small pangas (fishing boats) can still be seen plying the waters of San Felipe. The annual Shrimp Festival, held each November, is one of San Felipe’s most popular events. For several days, the malecon is lined with booths offering regional cuisine and crafts. Early evening cooking demonstrations and folkloric performances eventually give way to live music on the bandstand, with expatriates and locals dancing into the night.
Unlike some coastal towns, San Felipe doesn’t pump its sewage into the sea. Instead, it is piped into a facility in the desert. This decision is a real credit to the town’s planners; there are many beach destinations in Mexico presently wishing that they had been similarly farsighted.
San Felipe has its share of snowbirds and retirees from El Norte and the tourism scene is predictably laidback. Activities include strolling along the beach or malecon, kayaking and taking lazy meals at seaside restaurants. A must-do excursion is driving out to see the Valley of the Giants, an outdoor garden featuring the towering saguaro cactus. These desert plants reach a height of 55 feet and have a root system that can probe 100 feet down into the desert in search of water. Visitors can hike along a one-mile trail within the park, but bring some bottled water. Don’t attempt to drive the trail unless you have a 4x4 vehicle.
Where to Stay
San Felipe has about 1,000 hotel rooms available, with additional accommodations in condos, and plenty of space for RVs to hook-up. While many of the hotels offer very basic services, there are a handful of properties delivering a resort experience.
Hotel El Cortez was founded in 1959. The beachfront hotel has a devoted clientele who come for its welcoming atmosphere. Harrison Ford was a recent guest at El Cortez and reportedly spent a lot of time walking from the hotel along the malecon without security. Jim Carrey is also a regular guest, usually riding his motorcycle across the border at Mexicali and down to San Felipe. Unlike some celebrities, Carrey doesn’t always keep a low profile; during his last visit, he allegedly entertained guests by diving through a bar window and doing a shoulder roll on the sandy beach. The Hotel El Cortez serves a nice breakfast in its al fresco restaurant, with such eye-opening items as shark machaca on the menu.
The beachfront San Felipe Resort & Marina offers sophisticated accommodations in an upscale setting. The resort has an ideal beach location that allows guest to enjoy both sunrise and sunset views. It also has its own marina and, in the spring of 2013, construction will start on an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus golf course. It’s expected to take from four to six months to complete construction of the course.
El Dorado Ranch lies seven miles out of town. This is more of a real-estate development than a resort, although it has a lot going for it. Spacious beachfront condos can be rented and El Dorado is the site of the only golf course in the San Felipe area. The 18-hole Las Caras de Mexico (Faces of Mexico) course was designed by Robert Trent Jones. A whimsical touch is the statues at each hole, representing 19 celebrated Mexicans, from Pancho Villa to Frida Kahlo.
While the great majority of visitors are self-drive, San Felipe has its own airport about seven miles outside of town. A recent expansion allows the airport to receive international charter flights.