A couple of weeks ago, I got to spend two blissfully relaxing days in San Felipe, Mexico, a chilled-out seaside town on the eastern shores of Baja California that’s lined by the Sea of Cortez, which boasts some of the warmest waters in this part of the world. It’s not one of those destinations where you fill your days with back-to-back tourist attractions and activities. With a population of just 20,000 people, it’s more dialed down than that. Water sports and fresh seafood are the main draws, but the notion of a margarita in hand, chips and salsa by your side, and a view of the sea ahead of you is the real charm behind San Felipe.
The town has been known as a vacation and spring break hub, but due to the economic problems that plagued much of Mexico in the 2000s, San Felipe is slowly getting back on its feet. Developments are on the rise, including golf courses and condo buildings, and there’s a renewed interest, spearheaded in part by SeaPort Airlines‘ decision to start direct flights from San Diego to San Felipe.
San Felipe is the kind of place you go to walk a little slower, sip a little slower, and decompress. And given the proximity to San Diego, it’s an ideal weekend trip.
Here’s my guide for exploring this sweet Mexican ciudad:
Though there’s a slick new highway that makes driving the 240 miles from San Diego to San Felipe easier, the Portland-based carrier SeaPort Airlines launched flights from San Diego to San Felipe in December. The plane seats nine, which is good news for thrill seekers. Our departing flight was so breezy, I actually fell asleep. On the way back, turbulence made for a very bumpy flight, but in general, I was impressed with how smooth of a ride that teeny little plane offers. And the views of the ocean and mountains were superb.
We stayed at the San Felipe Marina Resort & Spa, one of the premier digs in town. The family-run hotel, which offers 68 suites, is situated on the beach and decked out in the most vibrant orange hue. (You can actually spot the resort from the plane!) When building the original structure, the owner wanted it to feel like a part of the landscape, rather than a monstrous building. So he envisioned what it looks like when you pour sand on the ground; it falls like a pyramid. That’s just how he shaped the layout for the hotel, and it does feel seamless. The property is dotted with bougainvillea, straw beach umbrellas, a pool, restaurant, and soon-to-open spa. They also offer ATVs, tennis, volleyball, and kayaks. (Pretty soon they’ll add kitesurfing and stand-up paddleboarding, as well as a golf course.)
Spring and fall are the best times to visit, but with steamy triple digits in the summer, water sports become a savior. Unfortunately our trip was plagued by crazy gusty winds and an unusual chill, so our plans to go fishing were nixed. Instead, we spent a lot of time around town—and getting the most amazing massages in our room. My masseuse, Lucia, ironed out all sorts of knots in my back and twisted my spine in the best way possible. Definitely ask for her if you’re hitting up the spa!
San Felipe is an extremely laid-back and lazy town, so when looking for the hub, there’s one place to go: the malecón, a waterfront promenade that stretches a few blocks and is filled with open-air bars, restaurants, and shops. Locals frequent the malecón, but you’ll also see a lot (and I mean a lot) of American retirees who now call San Felipe home. (They all seemed to know a decent amount of Spanish, and I do recommend knowing at least a bit of the language, or at least bringing a phrase book when visiting.)
Since the weather precluded us from water sports, we spent a good chunk of our stay on the malecón, a perfect place to sit and stare at the ocean. There were drinks at The Sweet Spot, a vacation rental and BBQ bar-restaurant started by former San Diego Charger D’Andre White, ice cream, and amazing fish tacos (more on that below). We even hit up a nightclub, Rockadile, which was quiet that Friday, but judging from the loud music, and many, many bras tacked on the walls and ceiling (?), it certainly has a colorful history.
Being a coastal town with an emphasis on fishing, San Felipe is obviously big on seafood. Fish tacos, ceviche, shrimp—they’re all there in spades, especially along the malecón. I made a point to visit Taqueria Adriana, which is rumored to be the oldest stand in town as well as the inspiration behind Rubio’s, the U.S. fish taco chain based in San Diego. The tacos completely lived up to the hype. Adriana’s sweet grandma tried to overcharge us for our meal, but from what an expat told us, pretty much everything, including dinner, is negotiable around town.
I loved this breakfast at La Cabana, which served some of the best chilaquiles I’ve ever had. I think I could eat chilaquiles every day; I had another delicious round on day 2 at the San Felipe Resort’s hotel, El Secreto, and gosh, I’m still thinking about those chilaquiles. Need more chilaquiles in my life.
The last meal of our trip was a more white tablecloth affair at La Vaquita Marina, a restaurant off the malecón known for its fresh seafood. The ambiance is casual, but on the scale of fancy in San Felipe, La Vaquita Marina is definitely the special-occasion restaurant in town. Just look at that tostada starter.
Like I said, gusty winds kept us from fishing or kayaking, but we did have time to go shell-hunting at the beach and visit the awe-inspiring Valley of the Giants, a 200-acre park just 14km from town that’s filled with enormous cacti, some of which are 2,000-years-old! When I first heard about the Valley, I thought it might be the case where you see one and you’re done, but no. You must go! Not only are the cacti beautiful, but the entire park is eerily serene, too. It sounds a bit cliche, but you really can hear the silence. Camping there is popular, too. (The entry fee is $5-$10.)
And about 85km from San Felipe are the Puertocitos hot springs. That’s what’s so fascinating about San Felipe: There’s the Sea of Cortez on one side, the desert on the other, and flowing hot springs just a short drive away. It’s that varied landscape—OK, and the seafood—that make it such a cool getaway.
Also to mark on the calendar? The Baja 250 (an off-road racing event in January), ceviche festival (August), and shrimp festival (November).