Spring Break in San Felipe
San Felipe is a small Mexican town, located about 200 kilometers south of Mexicali, on the Gulf of California. The permanent population is about 15,000. It is well known for endless sandy beaches and desert scenery. In the late eighties, when I was in my early twenties, I made three trips there. At that time I was not as financially endowed, but my friends and I had a great time camping near clam beach, north of town. For years I've been meaning to go back. After about twenty years since my last visit, I finally made it back.
Unfortunately, the only convenient time to go was my kids' Spring Break. About six months ago, when I booked the lower floor of this condo, "Baja Juliet" warned me that between the Spring Break and Semana de Santa (Easter week), it would be very crowded. I hate crowds, but had no choice in the timing.
As our departure date of April 4 drew near, media reports of the drug wars in Mexico were a regular feature in the news. However, the actuary in me resisted the urge to be scared off. The probability of an American being killed in an act of crime or terrorism is miniscule, compared to that of heart disease or cancer. Meanwhile almost everybody who knew I was going said I was loco. As an example, here is an e-mail I received from a friend who agreed to watch my cat,
"And for the record, I do not approve of your Mexico trip. I think it is too dangerous and a really stupid thing to do. Think of your family!"
I'm not an expert on crime statistics in Mexico, but from my understanding the violence is concentrated in major border cities, and mostly confined between competing gangs and the police. Juliet also wrote to me many times, insisting that San Felipe was very safe.
Making the trip was my wife, three children (girls age 2 and 11, and boy age 6), mother in law, and I. It was a long ten hour drive between Vegas and San Felipe. Most of the time was spent on 2-lane highways. We crossed the border in Mexicali, avoiding any run in with the Tijuana drug cartel. About 20 kilometers of the Mex-5, north of San Felipe, was closed for repairs. Traffic was diverted onto an old road to the side, in very bad condition, adding about 30 minutes to the drive. Overall, we made it there without incident. My 2-year old daughter, who normally screams her head off after four hours in a car, was surprisingly and fortunately perfectly behaved.
We arrived at about 6:00 PM. I found Baja Juliet and she showed me around the condo. It was a nice 3-bedroom 2-bath unit, with a porch leading right to an endless sandy beach. The location was south of downtown San Felipe, in a small condo community called "Villa de las Palmas." Much to my chagrin, the beach was full of ATV's and dune buggies, none of which had a muffler, parading up and down. Some were racing and doing wheelies. Juliet was apologetic about the noise, saying it was normally not this bad.
There were three rules posted on the condo wall: no ATVs, no fireworks, and no littering. That evening the second rule was broken, with abandon. A big ATV group in a condo close to us shot off bottle rockets, and other noisy and visually unimpressive fireworks, until about midnight. I might add that the violators of both groups all week long were obviously Americans. You could hear them speaking English. Every vehicle hauling around ATV trailers had California or Arizona license plates. I felt embarrassed and ashamed to see and hear so many fellow Americans acting so obnoxiously and rudely.
The following day I went for a walk along the beach and noticed plenty of spent firework packaging in front of the ATV condo. All least they are consistent in breaking all three of the rules. For lunch we went into town in part to enjoy one of the finest features of Baja, the taco de pescado, or fish taco. There is nothing that beats an authentic Baja fish taco. Even better is enjoying them in a small restaurant, overlooking the ocean. Remember to bring your own cerveza, because the smaller restaurants usually don't serve alcohol, and only the small taco joints make a proper fish taco. I've been searching for 25 years for a decent fish taco north of the border, and my quest is still unmet and ongoing. Even south of the border it can be tough. Only in Ensenada and San Felipe have I been satisfied. Seafood is not as popular in Tijuana, and in Cabo San Lucas the fish tacos are too Americanized. In the mainland of Mexico I've also come up short. I think it is just a Baja thing.
With a happy tummy we set about accomplishing the next goal, to book a fishing trip. My six-year old son has been asking to go fishing his whole life. Vegas is not exactly a great fishing spot, and San Felipe is a former sleepy fishing village. So this was an opportunity not to be missed. It is not difficult to find someone to take you fishing in San Felipe. The beach in town has no shortage of small boats and pescadors (fishermen) offering their services. I happened upon Pio, who in good English told me to come back the following morning.
The next morning my wife, son, and I showed up bring and early, asking for Pio. It turned out Pio was more a boss over other fisherman. A pickup truck was busy dragging boats out to the water, because it was low tide. San Felipe has a huge tidal variation. When it was our turn we hopped in the back of the pickup that dragged out boat to the water, jumped in the boat, and off we were.
A fisherman I had not met, who spoke almost no English, took us south of town, about 100 yards off the coast. After about an hour and catching about four fish, 6" to 12" in length, my wife started puking. I did not even know she was feeling sick. She stoically said nothing, not wanting to ruin the trip. I of course offered to call off our half-day trip early, but she refused. About half an hour later I was starting to feel uncomfortable myself, and my son said he had a headache, so we unanimously decided to head back.
Later that afternoon, back at the condo, another fisherman named Leonardo approached me on the porch, because Juliet told her I expressed an interest in fishing. I explained that we already went, and it didn't go very well. He said he had a much bigger flat-bottomed boat, and that the weather at the time we went was rough. According to him, the weather on Wednesday was supposed to be much better, and he guaranteed a good time for all. So after I lobbied hard, we decided to give fishing another try as a whole group.
Tuesday was a much nicer and quieter day. The obnoxious ATV group had gone home, and the overall noise level was down about 80%. For lunch we returned to town for more fish tacos. The rest of the day was spent enjoying the beach and playing Connect Four and Settlers of Catan at night.
On Wednesday morning Leonardo showed up to say that the weather forecast was rough, and he was calling off the trip, knowing my concern about seasickness. So we enjoyed a repeat of Tuesday.
On Thursday morning Leonardo showed up on time, rip roaring and ready to go. It was our plan to go to Consag Island, a rock outcrop about a 30 minute ride out to sea at high speed. The journey there was pretty rough, despite the good weather. However, when we finally arrived we were greeted by about 100 seals and lots of seabirds. The fishing was outstanding, as we caught fish at a rate of about one every 5-10 minutes between three fishing poles.
While I was happy as a clam, the rest of the family was not. My 11-year old daughter was the first casualty of seasickness. She tried resting on the front of the boat, but began puking anyway. Then my wife could no longer sit upright and had to excuse herself to the sick bay at the front of the boat. Then my mother in law started puking. Although we had only been at the island about 20 minutes it was clear that the trip was an abject failure, so we went back.
After dropping the women off right in front of our condo I asked my son if he wanted to go back out, but he said he had another headache. I don't think Leonardo had enough gas to get back to the island, so the two of us headed to pretty much the same spot Pio's guy took us to two days before. I had paid for a whole day, so why not keep fishing?
The fishing was a lot slower, but at least I could enjoy myself. Leonardo was catching most of the fish, for some reason. Once you dropped your hook into the water it was just a matter of waiting for a fish to fall for the bait. When I finally caught something, a pelican that had been sitting patiently alongside the boat for at least an hour, suddenly made an aggressive move for my fish just as I pulled it out of the water. I thought he was waiting for a handout of bread crumbs, like a duck. He quickly had the fish in his mouth, but I grabbed the fishing line with my hands and got into a tug of war with the bird. Instincts from ancestors who lived 10,000 years ago suddenly came to me, and I was not going to lose the fight for that fish against a pelican. After a short fight I yanked the fish out of the pelican's mouth and quickly and victoriously brought it into the boat. While I felt I had just achieved a symbolic victory against a wild animal Leonardo did not seem impressed. He probably has seen the scene played out hundreds of times with other Gringos. The pelican did not seem embarrassed, and stuck around as if nothing had happened.
Later Leonardo said the boat was not really his, and relayed that he had to pay most of what I was paying to the owner. I asked if he could get a bank loan to buy his own boat, but he scoffed and said, "Not in Mexico." He related some stories about getting close to getting a boat of his own before, but some bad luck always came in the way. I could tell he was hoping I would offer a loan myself, but I tried to change the topic when the pitch came on too strong. At about 2:00 he got a call and said we had to back.
Later that day on the beach things were getting even noisier than when we first arrived. Juliet had warned me to do all my shopping by Wednesday, because the whole city would be become swamped with Mexicans. Cities of tents were cropping up at every available spot along the beach. The crowds I can cope with, but a new batch of ATV riders had also arrived. Despite the beaches being crowded with children, they still raced up and down the beach, which I thought was not only belligerent but unsafe. Due to the deteriorating situation, my wife put it up to a vote to go home a day early, on Friday. I opposed it. The only other vote cast was by my son, who missed playing the Wii, and voted with my wife.
So around noon on Friday we headed home. It was our plan to have one last fish taco lunch on the Malecon, the beachfront street in San Felipe, but traffic was very heavy, and the police diverted us away from that direction. So we decided to try a random roadside restaurant, which turned out to be the "Mi Casa es Su Casa." Let me back up and explain that I took along two bicycles, which were placed in racks on the top of our minivan. I found a nice spot along a busy street, which I assumed would be safe. Once in Barstow, with the bikes on top, we stopped a park, and within five minutes I noticed teenagers with wrenches hovering around my car. They evidently didn't notice yet the bikes were locked to the carriers, as they were in San Felipe. However that was in a secluded area, and we were parked on the busiest street in town.
After a few minutes the owner of the restaurant advised me in Spanish to re-park my car, because of the bicycles in plain view. She advised moving the car to a parking lot next to the restaurant. I'm fairly decent with Spanish, but I didn't know the word for "locked," so I humored her and moved the car. As I pulled into the parking lot I completely overlooked the awning next the restaurant, which ripped down one of the bicycles (the better one of course), destroyed the carrier on that side, and put a big dent in the roof of the minivan. At least the awning was still standing.
The rear bicycle wheel was completely bent out of shape, and the front brakes had some minor damage. I might have taken the bicycle home, but the carrier was now barely attached to the car. It wasn't worth risking a bicycle flying off a car at 80 mph into traffic to save a broken bicycle. There was no room for the bicycle in the car so over my wife's objections I gave it to our waitress as our tip. This was a very nice women's off-road bicycle mind you, and almost brand new. You don't see bicycles like this every day in Mexico. At first the waitress tried to refuse it, but I explained why I really didn't have a choice but to give it away to somebody. She seemed very happy when she agreed to accept it.
Getting back to the issue of safety, the government of Mexico spared no expense to make San Felipe a safe place for the holiday. Never in my life have I seen so many police officers, army, and the navy. I would estimate that one vehicle in ten was either a police or army vehicle, the latter of which had machine gunners in the back at the ready. On the way into and out of town, just south of the intersection with the highway leading to Ensenada, there was a military checkpoint where every vehicle was searched. My only encounter with law enforcement was at this checkpoint, which went smoothly both ways.
The drive home was also uneventful. No news is good news when it comes to traveling. I'd like to close with a poem my six-year old son wrote.