The history of the town of San Felipe spans over four and a half centuries. It has proven itself to be a fairly elusive spot, being discovered and forgotten several times, and has worn many different hats, highlighting as a mining town, a supply post for religious missions in Baja, a port, a fishing village, and a tourist getaway.
The prelude to the story of San Felipe began on May 5, 1535, when the Baja California peninsula was discovered by Hernan Cortés.
Four months later, in September of 1535, Cortés assigned one of his captains, Francisco de Ulloa, to navigate and chart the coast of the Sea of Cortés, which was at that time referred to as “The Southern Sea”. Interestingly enough, it was on this voyage that Baja California was discovered to be a peninsula, rather than an island, as was previously believed. Records show that Ulloa reached the area around San Felipe, though the bay was not truly discovered until the following year.
In 1536, Don Domingo del Castillo, Ulloa’s cartographer on the previous voyage, returned to the Baja peninsula with Don Hernando de Alarcón, on a expedition to accurately map the peninsula. It was on this expedition that the bay of San Felipe was discovered, and was first named Santa Catarina.
Years passed and the discoveries faded from memory until 1701, when Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, an Italian evangelist, rediscovered the Baja California peninsula. Again time slipped by, this time, until the Jesuit Padre Juan de Ugarte, sailing in the first Baja-built ship, found his way into the bay, landing in what is now San Felipe, on July 5, 1721. This day was the saint day of San Felipe de Jesus.
In 1746, twenty-five years later, Jesuit Father Fernando Consag, while mapping the area, landed in San Felipe, and formally proclaimed the bay San Felipe de Jesus, in honor of the date Padre Juan de Ugarte made his landing there. Consag Island, the small rocky island that can be seen from San Felipe was named after him in recognition of his contribution to the cartographic records of the area around San Felipe.
1766 marked another landmark expedition to reach San Felipe. In this year Wenceslaus Linck became the first recorded person to reach San Felipe by way of land.
In 1772, San Felipe was officially named a port by José Joaquín Arrillaga, Lt. Governor of the Californias, and by 1794 ships were being sent out. Arrillaga was also responsible the organization of the terrestrial route from San Felipe to Ensenada through the mountains.
In the later 1770s, the Dominicans, a religious group attempting to convert Baja’s indigenous peoples, tried to establish themselves in San Felipe in order to supply materials and provisions to their missions in northern Baja. They were, however, halted by the Yuma Indigenous, who reacted strongly to their presence by launching attacks on the supply trains and buildings.
In the middle of the 1800s, prospectors came to the San Felipe area in hopes of discovering a rich gold yield. Mines were established, and at one point plans were made to build on San Felipe’s potential as a mining town. These were later dropped as the production of the mines proved to be disappointingly less than expected.
In 1855, a man named Guillermo Andrade came into possession of 30,000 hectares around the San Felipe bay, and in 1876, an agreement was forged between the Mexican Federal government and him that involved the colonization of this area. However, these aims were never fulfilled due to Andrade’s death.
A fishing camp was established in San Felipe in 1904, though for many years, development in San Felipe was limited.
In the beginning of the 1900s, the capital of Baja was changed to Mexicali (It had previously been Ensenada). This was the work of Colonel Esteban Cantú Jiménez. He was determined to develop a transportation system between San Felipe and Mexicali, and starting in 1916, he began a journey to San Felipe. Although at first he was unsuccessful, he eventually reached San Felipe on his third attempt, and under his direction, the first road accessible by car between the two cities was constructed. However, Cantú’s development plans for San Felipe failed due to lack of funding, and again San Felipe was overlooked for years.
Nevertheless, by the late 1920’s San Felipe had a population of almost 100, a number which swelled to 287 in 1940, the first year that it was included in the census. Finally, in 1925, the first sub-delegation was formed, with Octavio Vega Ruiz placed as sub-delegate and under the territorial governor, General Abelardo L. Rodriguez, organized development began to occur in the little community of San Felipe. San Felipe was officially founded on February 5, 1925. In 1928, the first fishing society was formed and the first school opened in 1929.
In 1947, Abelardo L. Rodriguez’s brother, José María Rodríguez Luján, had his company, Compañía Industrial del Golfo de Cortés, buy the land that Guellermo Andrade had previously owned and had passed down through his family. Rodriguez’s goal then was to develop an international tourist facility.
In the same year, the Hotel El Cortés opened for business, and construction on the highway from Mexicali to San Felipe also started in 1947. The highway was finished in 1951.
In the 1960s there was an upswing in development, particularly in the tourism sector, as Hotel Riviera, Arnold’s del Mar, Arco Iris, and El Pescador, along with campos Costa Azul, Las Arenas, Miramar, Playa Bonita, Playa de Laura, and Rubén’s were opened.
1963 saw the arrival of electricity in San Felipe, followed by piped drinking water in 1967.
In the 1970s development rose to a crescendo as the Malecon was established, the airport was built, a sewage system was implemented, and many bars, restaurants and other small businesses opened as well as the four star hotels Playas de San Felipe and the Fiesta Hotel.
From 1985 to 1986 The National Pen Company held a contest, giving away lots in what is now El Dorado Ranch. El Dorado Ranch itself was legitimized around 1987, when Pat Butler bought the development.
Also in 1987, the Rockodile opened for business.
The La Hacienda opened in the 1980s, followed by the Marina Resort in 1993.
In 1996, Internet arrived in San Felipe, in an “Internet Weekend” demonstration organized by Telnor, CETYS University, and Tony Colleraine. This later resulted in the formation of “The Net”, and introduced San Felipe’s official website, www.sanfelipe.com.mx in 1997.
September 1997 saw the little town of San Felipe battered by the tempest that was Hurricane Nora. Huge amounts of damage occurred in San Felipe, the road to Puertecitos was washed out, and recovery was slow and painful.
In 2001, our little town of San Felipe was featured in the June issue of Time magazine.
Now, San Felipe has grown into a small Baja getaway, its population peaking around 25,000 during the winter. It boasts world-class sport fishing on the magnificent Sea of Cortez; amicable, welcoming people; miles of pristine beaches and the allure of a little Mexican town. It has clearly endeared itself in the hearts of its many visitors, foreign residents, and snowbirds, and has been described as a “paradise” by those who call it home.
-by Anita Net