San Diego – San Felipe: two hours & two worlds apart

We’re on the beach in formal attire, gazing reverently west as the sun sinks into the Pacific. 

The surf is pounding, gulls shrieking, shallow tidal pools all aglow in sunset’s last light. 

Beside this stretch of shore lies the Windsor Garden, a storybook setting at the vintage-1888 Hotel Del Coronado. We hear the faint strains of a string quartet, the clinking of crystal stemware. A memorable evening of fine food, music and dancing awaits; later, the comfort of luxurious accommodations offering every conceivable amenity.   

San Felipe sunrise - Playa Bonita campo


We’re on the beach in athletic attire, gazing reverently east as the near-dawn sky lightens and luminous pink clouds appear on the horizon. The waves are lapping, roosters trumpeting, shallow tidal pools all aglow in morning’s first light. Along this stretch of sand, from the lighthouse to the peak of El Machorro lies San Felipe Bay, the Baja beach hideaway on the Sea of Cortez.  We hear the faint strains of the RV camps coming to life: generators humming, dogs barking. The aroma of fresh-perked coffee wafts through the warm, arid desert air.   

We’ve left cushy Coronado Island for an adventure into the unknown in a rented SUV with heavy-duty tires, relying on a bad road map, passable language skills, a roll of U.S cash and internet directions to some campo on a beach.  Packing two totally different trips into week and one suitcase- think strappy evening sandals and dusty hiking boots- we flew to San Diego for a family wedding, then drove into Baja California Norte—to the less-visited east coast, frequented mainly by off-road racers, spring breakers and right now, very many retired gringos in RVs.   

 Loading up the Avis 4-wheeler — the Baja is the only place in Mexico where you can drive a U.S rental more than 25 miles south of the border—we’d headed for Tecate, home of the brewery, just-renewed passports at the ready.   This border crossing is 40 minutes from the San Diego airport by way of California 94, along which the landscape transforms abruptly from suburban sprawl to barren hillside, devoid of habitation and vehicular traffic. Turned out land travelers didn’t yet require passports; in fact, on this Monday afternoon in February 2007 the border was completely unattended.   Entering Mexico involved about as much fanfare as driving through an automatic I-Pass lane.   

Descending from the mountain tollroad we drove through low desert in fading light. I’d heard the Baja described as otherworldly, spooky—a place where the line between reality and illusion blurs. It was definitely living up to the hype. We turned south at Mexicali to drive for what seemed like hours in the Baja’s driest desert. There was no evidence of life. To the west, the San Pedro Martir mountains, to the east, the Sea of Cortez, to our eyes, only sand. Endless, creepy nothingness.  This must be what Mars looks like, I imagined, continually checking the gas gauge and drinking water supply. As darkness descended, anxiety gave way to actual fear – random scary thoughts.  We can’t be lost, there’s only one road. People could die out here. Where are the people? Isn’t Mexico supposed to be overpopulated?  What’re those circling overhead, vultures? And so forth. 

 No other cars passed. We saw no lights, no houses, eventually, no vegetation; from the radio, we heard only static.   

Finally, much to our relief, we were stopped and questioned at a military checkpoint. A baby-faced, M-16 toting Federale  in desert-camo politely informed us that San Felipe was not far. (If you’re driving Mexico’s open roads, you will routinely meet up with the army. They are looking for guns and drugs, not payoffs).   

 Soon thereafter, billboards hawking real estate appeared.  

San Felipe lighthouse


The area was in the midst of a land rush of Wild West proportions. San Felipe has become a second home to thousands of American and Canadian retirees, some of whom made serious dinero on land deals.   

 “They’re trying to make this into the next Puerto Vallarta,” sighed Catalina Montalvo, the New York native who owns the town’s only bookstore.  “It’s great for business, but it’s ruining the aesthetics of the place.”   Mike, a white pony-tailed, black-leather jacketed Chicagoan who hadn’t been home in 30 years, agreed. He had cashed in big on a  deal. “I’m going to the islands,” he said. He didn’t mention which ones. “It’s too crowded here now.” Indeed, the town is overrun with pioneers, mainly from the West Coast, lured by easy accessibility to the border, cheap land, the chance to hold title to foreign property and the company of others like themselves who are moving here with plans to terraform the area. They see visions of golf courses, shopping malls, community theatre.    

But where will the water come from, we wonder.  

It’s Happy Hour at the Taco Factory along the Malecon, almost sunset. The tide is out; shellers are working the beach and the fishing boats are taking in their haul for the day.    

San Felipe- shelling along the Malecon


 We fell to talking with some recent transplants—a good-looking middle-aged couple, their entrepreneur daughter who makes deals happen, and a 30-something guy in real estate who’s wandered over from the bar to join in the conversation. The Californians are unfazed. The water comes down from the mountains, they say, gesturing to the lifeless San Pedro Martirs.

We’ll take their word for it. 

We’re from the Midwest, where basements flood, what do we know from the desert?   

Now we’re on a day excursion, 20 miles or so into deep desert, in search of the entrance to Sierra San Pedro Martir National Park. We’d gotten bum directions from a mean lady at the tourist office who was definitely in the wrong line of work. Site of the tallest peak in the Baja and home to cool forests of pine, cypress and fir, where hikers can climb waterfalls and view cave paintings, the park seems to be eluding us. The road—well, the pile of sand, rocks and rubble we’re following —stretches endlessly, frighteningly, to nowhere.    

Then we see it. 

Lago del Diablo near San Felipe- a true mirage


A beautiful lake, sparkling, shimmering blue in the distance. That’s where the waterfall flows into, we figure. We stop and take photos, driving onward to the shore. There we discover a dried-up expanse of sand, rocks and rubble,  animal carcasses, some dead tires.    

Turns out mirages are real. The digital camera was not fooled – but we were.  And we weren’t the only ones. When we got home, and found a much better map, there it was.

Lago Del Diablo.  

We never made it to the national park. We also never bathed in the geothermal springs at Puertocitos, having arrived at low tide, when the pools are scalding hot and you can’t go in.  

We found no evidence of  desert tour operators or fishing boat companies that the guide books mentioned.   

Valley of the Giants - home to the cardon cactus - the world's largest


We’re left to our own devices to explore this alien landscape where nothing green grows but cactus tops 75 feet, where road signage is a tire propped up in the sand, or a defunct air conditioner with an arrow spray painted on it pointing the way back to town.  

We wake up and fall asleep listening to the waves, with bay breezes wafting through the open door to our wraparound terrace overlooking the beach. 

The sky is always blue, the nights starry. We read good books, we eat great food, we see amazing sights, and we meet nice people. 

We retrace our route in daylight, amid all the construction that will convert the San Felipe highway from one lane to six. The return trip seems a couple hours shorter. This time we wait 25 minutes to cross back onto home soil—the U.S.A mans her borders, thank you— and take California 94 back through winding hills that had seemed so bleak, so desolate on the way down.  But now, after 5 days in the Baja these same hills appear lush, inviting, teeming with life.  It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

One response to “San Diego – San Felipe: two hours & two worlds apart

  1. Caryn,
    Your descriptions of the trip are vivid and compelling. I long to go there, yet don’t want to go — both emotions generated by what you’ve written. It sounds desolate yet beautiful, until the arrival of foreign money trying to change it into another Southern California. It’s sad that people don’t recognize paradise when they find it, but want to remake it into what’s familiar to them.
    Thanks for another lovely piece of writing.

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