It's a cliché to describe Baja beach towns as sleepy. Then again, naps did punctuate my four days here.
Rest and relaxation are primary selling points of San Felipe, a fishing village set along a quiet bay on Baja's eastern coast, far away from the masses in Ensenada and Rosarito. In many ways it's classic Baja, low key and low cost. A no-frills beachfront bungalow was our gateway to a long weekend of sunshine, seafood dinners and kayaking on calm, warm Gulf of California waters — just the things for backpacker-types like us.
My boyfriend, Aaron, and I drove from L.A. to San Diego, then followed Interstate 8 east to the border crossing at Calexico one Thursday last month. Our mandatory Mexican car insurance, bought at one of the roadside stands in Calexico, cost about $35.
Over the border, Mexicali gradually vanished as we drove south beyond its congested traffic circles toward open desert on bumpy, two-lane Route 5. About 360 miles and seven hours from L.A., we rolled into San Felipe. The town's few paved roads led to the Hotel El Cortéz, at the southern end of the main tourist drag, Avenida Mar de Cortéz. Its rust-colored stucco buildings stood out, even in twilight, along the shore.
We checked into one of El Cortéz's bungalows ($75 a night), set apart from the main hotel building and furnished simply with two double beds. All units have a view of the water, and some have kitchenettes, though ours didn't.
The pool, beachside bar and restaurant were nearby. Little concrete squares — like individual patios — lay in the soft sand, shaded by palapas. Around us lazed young families and middle-aged couples, most of them Californians if license plates were any indication.
As pinks and purples splashed clouds at sunset, we explored the vast tidal flats barefoot. The gentle gulf water in San Felipe leaves hundreds of yards of sandbars and pools at low tide. The shallow 60-degree water and mucky sand gave off a salty, sulfurous smell, but we still enjoyed spying birds' wet footprints as a breeze wrinkled the water's surface in the fading light.
San Felipe held diversions beyond lounging and nodding off. Our first day there — cloudless and warm — we ambled along the malecón, San Felipe's oceanfront avenue, in search of the kayak rental place we had found on the Internet. Fish taco stands, cantinas and shops selling straw hats, beach towels and ceramic souvenirs lined the inland side of the street. On the other side, signs advertised fresh camarones (shrimp) by the kilo, hawked by locals from car-trunk coolers. But no kayaks.
That morning I passed a score of small fishing boats, or pangas, parked on the sand or bobbing in the shallows. Enterprising vacationers can rent one and try to catch dinner with the help of a guide. There were no takers at the time, just nattering gulls and brazen pelicans perched on white boats. A few tourists did mosey on horseback up and down the beach, where half- buried crabs lay among stingrays washed ashore.
At the north end of the bay, a lighthouse rises from an outcropping of rock. One afternoon we climbed the weathered stairs to a whitewashed chapel of the Virgin of Guadalupe, filled with flowers and candles.
Wandering back toward the hotel, we passed a sunburned man mumbling something about kayak rentals. Here was Roger Aubuchon, the man we had been looking for (and accidentally had passed twice).
Roger, 54, and his wife, Teddi, 56, are expats from Southern California who have called Mexico home for seven years. The couple ran a Rosarito surf shop for six years, then left that tourist town in search of calmer waters.
"No restrictions," Roger said of life in San Felipe. "It's just true freedom."
Now they rent bikes, paddleboats and other watercraft here — $15 an hour for our two-person ocean kayak (or in our case, $20 for 80 minutes).
Aaron and I paddled past indifferent pelicans and a boat of fishermen and around a rocky bluff. The glassy water glittered with sunlight, and the only sound was the splish of our paddles.
ATVs, available for rent on street corners for about $30 an hour, were another option. We saw them rumble down the main street and up over nearby sand dunes. One company leads ATV and dune buggy tours through fossil beds, turquoise mines and cactus gardens for $30 to $35 a person. (We passed.) The staccato bursts of fireworks, rocketed by locals from the beach at night, were enough excitement.
Freshest of fish We ate several meals in Hotel El Cortéz's restaurant, where the food was decent — especially the fat, juicy jumbo shrimp — and the service relaxed, in true San Felipe style. Breakfast was the most memorable. From the restaurant patio, I watched sky and sea shift shades of blue while I devoured a Mexican omelet and a stack of buttermilk pancakes — plus a bite of Aaron's stingray scrambled eggs.
One night over cold Tecate beer at Rosita's restaurant, we enjoyed tacos made with handmade tortillas and fish so fresh they were almost flopping.
The highlight Saturday was a sumptuous meal at Baja Mar, which our hotel clerk had recommended as the best dinner in town. The place was packed with boisterous tourists. Linen tablecloths and strolling guitarists were a far cry from the plastic beach chairs of Rosita's. The breaded crab claws, tender lobster and cheesecake were outstanding, though relatively expensive.
No visit to San Felipe would be complete without a stop in Rockodile, the colorfully tacky, bass-thumping, gringo-friendly dance club and bar on the malecón. It served overpriced drinks and hip-hop hits interspersed with Latino pop. The crowd, a mix of locals and tourists, was young and relaxed. A burly, excitable waiter ushered us to our table, brought my gigantic, potent margarita in a flash and blew a shrill whistle by girls at another table to cajole them into drinking shots.
Beyond the downtown tourist area, dirt roads lead past tiny beauty shops, cut-rate electronics stores and grilled chicken stands. A quick shopping trip down Avenida Mar de Cortéz — which has a modest art gallery, sports bars and Internet café (open weekdays only) — produced bargain hand-painted pottery. (Larger restaurants and hotels such as El Cortéz accept credit cards, but many smaller businesses take only cash, and dollars are widely accepted.) Mostly, though, we wiled away our time simply napping, reading and staring out to sea.
By Sunday we had all but exhausted San Felipe's possibilities. Well rested and full of fresh seafood, our final endeavor was to rise early and catch San Felipe's sunrise, a stunning vermilion sky that silhouetted palm trees out our window.
Budget for two
Expenses for this trip:
Hotel El Cortéz, three nights with tax $219.83
Kayak rental $20.00 Dinner
Hotel El Cortéz $31.90 Dinner
Rosita's $21.00 Drinks
Rockodile $10.00 Breakfast
Hotel El Cortéz, two days $33.13 Dinner
Baja Mar $56.79
Other meals, snacks $44.63 Mexican car insurance $34.99 Gas $79.97 Final tab $552.24
Hotel El Cortéz, Avenida Mar de Cortéz, San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico; or P.O. Box 1227, Calexico, CA 92232; 011-52-686-577-1056, firstname.lastname@example.org, www .sanfelipe.com.mx/business/el_cortez /index.html.
San Felipe Kayak and Paddle Boat Rentals, on the malecón, kayak@sanfelipe .com.mx.