San Felipe, 1948

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

This article originally appeared in Desert Magazine, May 1948--

The day is not far distant when motorists will be able to roll along a smooth highway to a remote little village on the gulf shore of Baja California and spend their winter vacation days boating and fishing and bathing in the hospitable atmosphere of Old Mexico---at San Felipe. Here is a progress report on the new highway to a locale many Southwesterners have long wanted to visit.


If those geologists who read the history of this old earth in the rock formations and the alluvial deposits have guessed correctly, the space now occupied by thc Desert Magazine office in El Centro, California was once many feet below the surface of thc Gulf of California. This was a very wet spot.

But that was many years ago. The water is now gone, and Desert's staff is warm and dry –52 feet below sea level. Paradoxically, it was 0’l Man River---the turbulent Colorado ---who did the engineering job necessary to convert the great Imperial Basin, in which El Centro is located, into one of the driest places on earth.

The muddy river with its delta on the eastern shore, poured so much silt into the middle of the gulf a great dam of sediment was formed creating an inland sea on the upper part of this long slender arm of the Pacific. After a few hundred years the salt water in this newly formed sea evaporated, leaving the dry below-sea-level plain to be discovered by Spaniards who came to the New World in search of gold.

Then in the 1890's an American engineer, C. R. Rockwood, came upon the scene and saw the possibilities of converting this inland basin into farms, watered by the same river that had created it. Today a half million acres in the Imperial Irrigation district bear evidence of the soundness of the idea. The 1947 production from this former gulf bed was $96,000,000.

Before the lighthouse

But the gulf---or what is left of it---still occupies a very conspicuous place on the maps of North America's west coast. True, it is growing smaller year by year as the Colorado continues to pour its burden of silt into the delta at the upper end. But it remains a sizable body of water and one of the best deep sea fishing places accessible to American fishermen.

When the boundary lines were set up between Mexico and the United States, the shorelines of those gulf fishing waters were allotted entirely to Mexico, and Americans who would hook the 300 pound tutuava which are so plentiful there have to travel many miles through a foreign land, and one of the most arid desert regions in the Southwest.

There are three roads from the Untied States to the headwaters of the gulf. The best one is the oiled highway that runs south from Ajo, Arizona to Punta Peñasco on the Sonoran coast. Increasing numbers of sportsmen are following this route each season.

A second road goes south from Yuma, Arizona through the port of entry at San Luis to Puerto Isabel near the mouth of the Colorado. This is a sandy road and it is recommended only for the more adventurous traveler.

The third road starts at Calexico on the California border and winds south across the delta to the fishing village of San Felipe, 130 miles away on the Baja Califonia side of the gulf. This story is concerned with that road. It is a tortuous trail for an automobile. It is used mainly for trucking the totuava (sea bass) and shrimp caught in gulf waters to Mexicali, for reshipment to southwestern markets. The trip involves 10 to 12 hours of punishing bumps and ruts, with no service facilities along the way. Only the hardiest of the sports fishermen ever attempt it.

But a new highway is being constructed from Mexicali to San Felipe. It was for the purpose of giving Desert Magazine readers a report on the new road that I made the trip early in February. For, with a hard­surfaced highway to San Felipe, this primitive little Mexican fishing village 130 miles south of the border is destined to become a popular mecca for both fishermen and tourists.

We had perfect equipment for such an expedition---three jeeps. Arles Adams, my companion on many a desert exploring trip, carried Larry Holland and Mike Thaanum as passengers. Luther Fisher of the U. S. border patrol was accompanied by two other patrolmen, Bill Sherrill and Harry Nyreen. My passenger was Glenn Snow, manager of the Automobile Club of Southern California office in El Centro.

It was still dark when we passed through the Calexico-Mexicali port of entry at 5:20 a. m. Tourist permits had been arranged in advance. There is no restriction on American visitors crossing the line to Mexicali for a few hours. But for an overnight trip beyond the municipal boundaries a permit must be obtained either at the Mexican consulate in Calexico, or at the Mexican immigration office at the international gate. The cost of such a permit is 10.5 pesos, or $2.10.

Two routes are available for the first half of the journey from Mexicali to San Felipe. The Laguna Salada route is 18 miles longer than the direct road by way of Cerro Prieto and El Mayor. But when the Laguna Salada lake bed is dry, the longer route is less punishing to man and vehicle.

We chose to make the southbound journey over the Laguna. A glow of light was beginning to show on the eastern horizon as we bumped along over the dirt road through Mexican fields of alfalfa, cotton and grain stubble. Fifteen miles out we left the cultivated lands of the Baja California delta and climbed a low summit pass through the Cocopah mountains.

Beyond the pass the road turned south across the level sand bed of the lake, and for the next 68 miles we rolled along at speed unlimited. This road over smooth baked earth is a temptation to the driver. But occasionally there are treacherous pockets of alkali and sand to trap the unwary. Speed with caution is the rule across the Laguna.

It is a delightful trip in the early morning as the sun comes up over the Cucopahs on the east and brings into sharp relief the rugged escarpments of the Sierra Juarez on the west. Juarez range is slashed with deep canyons where two species of wild palms grow in luxuriant forests along little streams which head down toward the floor of the desert but always disappear in the sand before they reach their destination. The desert escarpment of the Sierra Juarez is a virgin paradise for the explorer, botanist, geologist, archeologist and photographer. Its approaches are too rugged for low-slung cars and picnic parties. One needs a jeep or a hardy pair of hiking legs to get far into the canyons of that little known range.

As we neared the lower end of the Laguna we saw a low embankment across the pass ahead of us. When we arrived there a few minutes later we discovered this was the grade of the new San Felipe highway.

The new road, costing millions of pesos, is under construction for 70 miles south of Mexicali. Part of the way it is a graded embankment across the overflow lands. At one place it leaves the floor of the delta plain and cuts through a pass in the Pinta mountain range.

We followed the incompleted roadbed a few miles, but below El Mayor a half dozen construction crews are working on different sectors and continuous passage on the new roadbed is still impracticable.

Leaving the new grade we headed south across the great salt flat which lies around the head of the gulf on the California side. This flat is composed of Colorado river silt highly impregnated with salt and alkali. Imagine a great salty plain so arid not a bug or a blade of grass lives there, and so vast the curvature of the earth prevents your seeing across it---and you have a good picture of the terrain we are covering. It is as level as a floor, and when wet becomes a bottomless quagmire.

Little rain has fallen on that area for three or four years, and the road across the flat is in the best condition I have known in 15 years. However, there are high centers in places and it is never possible to roll across this plain at high speed as one does on the bed of Laguna Salada.

Once, many years ago, Malcolm Huey and I tried to cross this salt desert too soon after a rain. We plowed along in our pick­up for miles and finally bogged down near the middle of it. Then the motor quit and we were not mechanical enough to fix it. We ran out of water, but had a bag of grapefruit in the car---and that is mostly what we lived on for two days until a fish truck carne along and hauled us into port.

A hundred miles below Mexicali we left the salt plain and rolled along over the coastal bench which borders the gulf at this point. Here we caught our first glimpse of senita (old man cactus) and elephant trees which grow thickly in the Baja California desert. Desert vegetation is prolific here, and most of the trees and shrubs are the old friends of the Lower Sonoran zone with which we are familiar in the deserts of Southern California and Arizona---ironwood, palo verde, ocotillo and creosote. We saw salmon mallow, chuparosa, locoweed and lupine in blossom. Mexicans call this coastal plain Desierto de los Chinos--- Desert of the Chinese. A tragic story lies at the back of that place name.

According to well-confirmed reports, the captain of a Mexican power-boat many years ago picked up a load of Chinese at Guaymas on the Mexican west coast. They wanted to go to Mexicali where many of their countrymen were, and still are, in business, and paid him well for the passage. At San Felipe bay the captain put them ashore and motioned inland. "Mexicali is just over the hill," he told them. It was rnidsummer and the Chinese started inland practically without water or food. Days later two of them stumbled into a cattle camp many miles to the north. The rest perished from heat and thirst. Occasionally one comes across an unmarked grave in that region.

Driving through the dense growth of ironwood, palo verde and elephant trees one catches an occasional glimpse of the blue waters of the gulf three or four miles away to the east. On the west the San Pedro Martir range rises to an elevation of more than 10,000 feet, capped by Picacho del Diablo, highest peak on the Lower California peninsula. Three times I tried to climb that peak from the desert side, and finally made it to the top with Norman Clyde in 1937. The story of that rugged adventure in unmapped mountain terrain will be told in a future issue of Desert.

Ten miles before reaching San Felipe a side road takes off down an arroyo to the golf shore at Clam Beach. The sandy water­line here is strewn with sea shells, tons of them extending along the shoreline for miles. I know little about the classification of shells, but I am sure this place is a paradise for collectors. We gathered some of the prettiest conches for souvenirs, and then drove the last leg of our journey into San Felipe.

before the real estate rush.
Before the real estate rush.

It was 3:30 when we arrived at the little shack on the edge of the settlement which serves as a customs house, and passed inspection. The Mexican officials were friendly, but were sorry to inform us that the water in the gulf was too rough for fishing just now. They could not understand why anyone would come to San Felipe if not for fishing. We explained we had driven down to learn about progress on the new road, and about the million dollar resort which, according to American newspaper reports, has been under construction for some time.

We visited the hotel site, on a bluff overlooking the bay of San Felipe. It is an imposing site, with an airplane runway along the beach below. But the only construction work in progress is a substantial adobe dwelling which we were told is to be the home of the engineer who is to erect the hostelry. San Felipe residents --there are about 1000 of them---were divided in their predictions as to the hotel. Some were confident it would be built. Others were skeptical. My own conclusion was that it hardly would be a feasible project until the new road to San Felipe is completed­--probably in another year.

Located in a cove on the shore of the bay, the sprawling village hasn't much to boast about in the way of architecture. But it is a lovely site, and despite the primitive conditions of their existence I am sure there are no happier people on earth than these Mexican fishermen and their families.

Fishing is the sole industry. Trucks from Mexicali haul ice on the southbound trip, and bring back fish packed in ice. The fishing season lasts through the winter months, and when it is over many of the families return in their boats across the gulf to their permanent homes in Guaymas and other Mexican west coast ports.

Jose Verdusco, owner of a truck, was having a day off because there were no fish to haul, and he volunteered to serve as our guide. We paid a courtesy call at the home of Francisco Benjarebo de Chica, former police chief in Mexicali who is now the law in San Felipe. Then we went to the two town wells, dug in the sand along the bluff back of the village.

Nature has been kind to the housewives in this remote hamlet. In one well the water comes to the surface warm. This is the laundry well, where the women do their washing. A half mile away another well has cool water for drinking.

All day long the men of the village may be seen trudging to and from the well with two 5-gallon gas cans strung on a palanca across their shoulders. To them it is no hardship that every drop of domestic water must be carried from the well, perhaps a mile away, along a sandy trail. Perhaps it is because the chores of everyday living require constant and arduous labor that San Felipe has seldom needed the services of a doctor.

San Felipe is a town practically without glass. And after you have driven over the only road by which glass might be transported, you will understand this. The buildings are mostly adobe, with variations of wood and sheet iron, hauled from Mexicali or brought across from the Sonora side in boats.

Parties of sportsmen who wish to charter a boat for fishing are charged from $40 to $50 a day for power boat and crew plus expert information as to the where and how of totuava fishing. There is no fixed fee for individuals who go out as passengers on the regular daily fishing trip. They settle for a generous tip to the skipper.

Jose Verdusco took us to the top of a rocky point which flanks the village on one side, to a little lighthouse which serves as a beacon for fishermen caught out on the gulf after dark. The acetylene lamp was located in a tiny cupola over a shrine where a wax figure of Guadalupe, patron saint of the San Felipe pescadores, reposes in a setting of candles and other altar symbols of the Catholic faith.

Forty-one fishing boats were anchored offshore. There is no wharf. They were waiting for better fishing weather. The fishermen loafed on the sand, or repaired their nets. Wood-cutters with burros make excursions into the surrounding hills and bring in firewood.

San Felipe lives at peace with itself and the world---untroubled by lack of such things as running water, window panes, inside toilets, street lights and motor cars. In American communities we regard such things as essential---and often overlook the price in spiritual values we have to pay for them.

We camped that night a few miles out of San Felipe near a little forest of elephant trees. We used some of the dead branches for firewood. This was my first experience cooking a camp dinner on this species of wood. It made a brisk warm fire with a pleasing aroma.

On the return trip we followed the same route through the desert of the ghosts of hapless Chinese and thence across the great salt wasteland. It was midday and mirages simmered on the horizon in all directions. Often we were completely surrounded by "water." Spurs of the Pinta mountains projecting out into the flat appeared to be floating islands. A tiny bush appeared as big as a tree. A car coming from the opposite direction went through strange contortions. At one moment it resembled a fat squatty house and the next moment it was as skinny as a telephone pole.

Below El Mayor we climbed to the newly constructed roadbed. It has been topped with rock, and although not finished, it already is a much better road than the old trail the fish trucks have followed along the Cocopahs for many years. El Mayor is a little settlement of three or four crude buildings on the banks of the old Hardy channel. Since the completion of Hover dam, the delta is not subject to the annual flood overflow which spread over the entire delta in former years. Mexican farmers are bringing more and more of these fertile delta acres under cultivation, and farms line one side of the road far below El Mayor.

We wanted to follow the new road all the way back to Mexicali, but when we reached a point opposite the volcanic crater of Cerro Prieto, a bridge was out and we had to detour to the old road to Palaco and thence to the border gate.
Our log showed 136 miles to San Felipe by the El Mayor route, and 154 miles by way of Laguna Salada. One may reach the fishing village by either of these routes, but it is a punishing trip for a good car. At a later date when the new highway is completed this will be an inviting excursion for desert motorists seeking new landscapes.

Perhaps San Felipe will then have hotels and window panes and water hydrants and service stations. These civilized inventions will remove much of the physical discomfort and mental hazard of a trip to San Felipe. But I am not sure they will either add to or detract from the charm of this remote little fishing village on the shores of the ancient Sea of Cortez.