SAN FELIPE, Mexico — As I opened the door of my room at the Chapala Motel on Avenue Mar de Cortez, the main street of this Baja fishing village, it was just past dawn, but already oven hot.
Beyond the rooftops of curio shops and cafes, small boats moved across the Sea of Cortez, and vendors spread their wares on blankets along the sidewalk.
Such days are rare here, for in winter it gets crowded. Still, even on off-season weekdays San Felipe is not the quaint and sleepy village it was decades ago. It's geared as much to tourism as fishing now, with English widely spoken. If you want to experience at least a vestige of San Felipe's past, you should do it soon. About 350 miles from Los Angeles on Baja's east coast, the town is on the brink of major development.
Several comfortable three-star hotels already overlook the Sea of Cortez. Estimates of the population range from 15,000 to 18,000 (including 3,000 Americans)--with hordes of tourists on certain holidays.
Condominiums are sprouting on the best sites; some motels have gone up so fast that they operate without formal addresses. And within the next few years, some developers believe, the tiny airfield south of town will be modernized and opened to international carriers, which could transform San Felipe forever.
Some charm and authenticity remains, however. At dawn, families push small fishing boats into the sea; they return hours later with catches for restaurants, where a few American dollars will buy a good meal.
Despite a modern harbor about two miles south, some fishermen still repair their boats in the small lagoon at the north end of town, waiting for the two yearly highest tides to come in and lift the boats so they can return to sea.
Also on the north end of the bay, squealing boys leap from an abandoned, rusty refueling contraption that extends high out over the warm, salty water. Above them, on a hilltop, a chapel--Capillita de la Virgin de Guadalupe--watches over the town, reached by a short hike that provides a spectacular view of the coastline and the mountains to the west. But to see the Virgin Mary painted on the cliff below you will have to take a boat; she faces out to sea.
For the active, there are sailboats and catamarans, jet skiing, windsurfing, water-ski parachuting and hunting (permits required). Reservations are needed for sportfishing tours through Tony Reyes (phone 011-52-657-71120), but half-day and day rentals are available at the north end of the beach.
For those looking for a rest, a thatched umbrella on the beach and a good book may be inviting enough, or some leisurely shopping for woven blankets, huaraches or other bargains along Mar de Cortez.
But set aside an hour or two to visit Playa El Faro about 12 miles south. Try to go at low tide and take along a basket for some remarkable shell collecting.
To reach El Faro, take the highway until you see the sign for El Faro Beach and the El Fiesta Hotel. Turn left and continue several miles until you see an arrow directing you to the beach.
Although a hotel and first-class recreational vehicle campground are being developed at El Faro, the owners allow day visitors. Admission is free and you may buy a drink at the bar. On a recent summer weekday I had the beach--and thousands of shells--all to myself.
The Mexican Government Tourism Office (10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067; (800) 262-8900) does not provide much hotel information for San Felipe, and the booking agency it refers you to recommends only the luxurious Castel San Felipe ($40 to $50 range in summer) on the ocean a mile south of town. The El Fiesta, 10 miles south, and the El Cortez, in town, are also ultracomfortable, but on the more expensive side.
My room at the Chapala ($22) was simple but comfortable, had air conditioning but no telephone or TV, and was in the heart of town. Third-floor rooms facing east have balconies with views of the sea a block away. Other motels were even cheaper.
Altogether, there are eight hotels and nine RV parks, many on the approach to town on Highway 5. If you arrive on an off-season weekday, it's unlikely you'll need reservations.
On Labor Day weekend and Easter week so many young people pour into town, overtaxing facilities, that some businesses close to avoid damage and confrontations with unruly tourists. The helpful Oficina de Turismo, where excellent English is spoken, is downtown at Mar de Cortez and Calle Manzanillo, phone 011-52-657-71155.
Among the better restaurants are El Nido, La Missiones (south of Castel), Posada de Cortes (in El Cortes Motel) and La Perla in the heart of town. George's is a favorite of Americans for breakfast.
There are also inexpensive taco stands. I had a good beef taco at John's restaurant, 150 Ave. Mar Baltico, the back street just east of Mar de Cortez. And the plain but friendly Rosita's, on the north end of the street, has a patio facing the sea, with simple fish dinners for about $3.