This was my first trip back to Northern Baja since Calderon took office and a hardline on cartels and drug trafficking north of the border. Most of the violence and outbreaks occurred in Tijuana, with some problems in Rosarito Beach as well. Although the US media did tend to sensationalize the violence there (as they do with everything, sensation sells after all), there were some serious problems. With the arrest of one of the major Tijuana cartel kingpins last year, and a crackdown on the TJ police department (the federal government actually disarmed them for several weeks as they weeded out those who were potentially partial to the cartels), Northern Baja is now becoming touristed again, albeit mostly by folks from Mexico City and the mainland.
So without fear but forearmed with knowledge, we loaded our gear, hopped in the Jeep and headed east to the border at Mexcali. The drive beyond the border through Mexicali’s centro was bumpy, uncertain and a team effort due to heavy construction. Observant driving is definitely required to navigate the main boulevard through town as it was reduced in several locations (including a roundabout) from 3 or 2 lanes to a single lane. Eventually we made our way to Highway 5 South and headed on the 3-4 hour trek through the Sonoran Desert toward San Felipe.
We decided to get a house rental with the Sea of Cortez as our backyard. After some Internet research, we found San Felipe Beach Rentals. “Baja Juliet” offered several locations both in-town and south of town on the beach. We chose the main Beach House with three bedrooms, a back patio with fire pit and grill and steps away from the sea (though it was more like several hundred steps at low tide when San Felipe’s beaches recede famously as far as 100 yards out). We really enjoyed our beach rental as well as our hosts’ (Juliet and her husband Jesus) hospitality. Moving from East LA to San Felipe in the 60’s, Juliet is an old Baja hand and will warn you about the low tide (“It’s not a Tsunami”) as well as reassure you about the cartel situation (“You won’t get your head cut off”). Both her and Jesus were friendly and super helpful. Jesus hooked us up with his buddy Mike for fishing on the morning of our second full day in San Felipe.
A bit road fatigued, we hit the town and decided to have dinner at El Nido Steakhouse, our favorite Baja “chain” restaurant with locations in Loreto and Rosarito as well as San Felipe (we’d enjoyed their service, slow pace, Sonoran grilled beef and funky Mexican Ranchero atmosphere in all three locations during previous visits). El Nido has always been a favorite for the visiting Gringo. Since tourism is down, the food quality seems to have followed. Though our steaks were passable (Steve couldn’t finish his), the “Shrimp Special” consisted of frozen shrimp in a light, bland butter sauce, grilled in a piece of foil. Disappointing, yet it would be our only restaurant meal of the trip after our fishing adventure.
After a late night of tequilas and beers, I woke up early before the boys and decided to take a stroll down the beach into town. I had this entire 2 mile walk to myself…just some gulls and a stray dog or two. I really dug the old shrimping boats at the marina. Men were unloading their mornings’ catch from these old, decrepit and rusting behemoths, which somehow still floated and produced a decent catch. I was offered fresh fish a few times (“Corvina” a man indicated conspiratorially with a nod toward his plastic grocery bag full of 3 kilos of the stuff), but turned it down, anticipating success with our trip arranged for the next morning.
After Steve and Alan woke up and after a bit of touring around the very small town, we picked up some fresh shrimp and clams from the back of a truck on the Malecon (look for the Fresh Seafood placards on the sides of these trucks). We’d brought our own charcoal for the rustic patio grill, but found out later that you can get good mesquite at most of the local tiendas (small markets). Speaking of the tiendas, I know it’s been a while since I’ve been to Baja, but most of them now seem to be sponsored (or owned) by major beer brands. We shopped at the Tecate store and the Corona store, but gave most of our business to a small, family-owned tienda just south of town.
Steve threw the shrimp and clams down on the grill, assuring us that we’d know when the clams were done when the shells popped (“Nature’s oven timer” he dutifully tells us). The shrimp were succulent and fresh and put El Nido to shame (why aren’t they sourcing from the guys right down the street from them like we did?). The clams were all buttery goodness.
Captain Mike arrived right on time…5AM…the next morning. We followed him down to the Malecon, where several pickup trucks were hauling the fishermen’s pangas into the water. We hopped in ours with Mike and our tackle and were on our way. Mike as it turns out, is 64 years old, and has been fishing these waters since he was 14 (50 years). We went down the coast a bit and stopped in a couple of places, but no bites, partially due to the presence of some net fisherman in those spots. Then, we hit the jackpot.
I got a bite and reeled in a calico seabass. Alan and Steve did the same almost simultaneously. For the next two hours, this was the trend. In total, we caught over 40 fish that day. Mostly seabass, but also 2 Trigger fish, 1 Donkey fish (so called due to it’s buck teeth) and 1 red snapper. To-date, this was the most successful day of fishing that I’ve ever had. The fishing adventure ended as we got stuck in shallows during a heavy fog bank on our way back to the Malecon beach. Captain Mike jumped from the boat and pulled us off the sandbank, waving back our offers to help.
Upon arrival back at the Malecon, we sat on the seawall with Captain Mike drinking Carta Blancas and taking nips of his El Jimador Tequila (conveniently stashed in his hoodie pocket). He recommended that we take some of our freshly caught fish to “Tacos Brenda”, where she could fry up the ORIGINAL San Felipe fish taco for us with sides and tortillas for just a little money ($6 total). These were the freshest fish tacos I’d ever had and they were perfectly prepared in large battered chunks. And best of all, it was OUR fish! We happily ate and drank as we were serenaded by street musicians. One guy even went electric and belted out a version of CCR’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain?”. Fantastic day.
I prepared the Red Snapper (Huachinango as the Sea of Cortez variety is referred to) Vera Cruz style. Grilled in foil with onions, olives, salsa, tomatoes and garlic. Alan got to work preparing Chilean style Ceviche for our adventures on the road the next day, mixing a delicious concoction of fresh seabass, lime, cilantro and avacodo. The simplest and the best ceviche I’ve ever had in my life. We also had another meal of fish tacos which Alan prepared on our last night at the house. This fish went a loooong way and we even gave a pound or two to the guys working on the next house over on the day we left.
On our final day, we decided to hop in the Jeep and head south on the road to Puertocitos, a scattered and ramshackle encampment (campo) about an hour or so south of town. We considered visiting the Valley of the Giants, home of a large patch of giant Saguaro cacti, but were assured by our host Jesus that our 2-wheel drive Jeep would not play nicely with the sandy road to get there. Instead, we ended up exploring Puertocitos and ended up at another campo where we devoured our fresh ceviche, picnicking on black lava rocks. The scenery south of Puertocitos really opens up. There is a beautiful bay with a number of islands and apparently, the new road connects further west with the Transpeninsular Highway, which could be a boon to the region once tourism and trade begins to normalize.
We left the next morning, making our way north through various narcotics checkpoints, branching off this time on Highway 3 through the desert mountains toward Ensenada. This is an area most gringos probably don’t take the time to see. There’s not a lot of attractions, per se, but miles of beautiful rugged Baja scenery and the occasional small village. We stopped in Ensenada for a quick lunch (we ate at a touristy joint on the main drag. I had the Marlin tacos, which were surprisingly smoky and good), then headed through Santo Tomas and the Guadalupe Valley wine country.
We caught the owner at Liceaga Vineyard in Santo Tomas just closing up for the day. He let us in for a quick tasting and we picked his brain a little on the state of the region’s tourism (picking up…a little, but not too many gringos these days). We enjoyed their wines and this quick visit set me up for my next trip to Baja this July.
If you’re looking for a perfect getaway with not much to do but enjoy the sea, it’s bounty and a small, friendly fishing community (20,000) of local and expat folks, consider San Felipe for your next trip south of the border.
Your Gringo in Mexico,
Interested in visiting San Felipe? Check out our Travel Resources page for hotels, restaurants, attractions and activities.