The infamous Mexico 5. I’ve never been down her way before. But this trip down to Baja was going to be different. We were departing from New Mexico and a good pal – a real Baja aficionado - informed me that all but the last 20 miles of the Mexico 5 hookup to Highway 1 was newly paved so why not traverse her route in getting to Southern Baja for our usual annual getaway? See something a bit different. Done. Spending time in the seaside enclave of San Felipe was the first order of business for our winter weary souls and with it just a few hours from the USA border, it’s the perfect getaway if you only have a short amount of time to soak up the sun and relish in the joys of coastal Baja cuisine.
The Calexico/Mexicali border is a wonderful study in order, especially for first time drivers into Baja. The agents gently flag you in and ask you if you’ve got your tourist card. If not, scoot on over to the side waiting area, fill out some paperwork and pay a fee to get your FMM. Mostly likely it will be a friendly gent name Jorge that will walk you through the steps. If there is any question about whether or not to purchase this temporary card, it’s necessary, just do it. They need the job security and it’s the law. Plus, with Jorge working the desk, it’s an awesome reminder of why you are driving into Mexico in the first place. You are leaving behind the banal doldrums of America’s never ending winter and entering the world of eternal sunshine. Rescue dogs included. Nobody asks for the animal’s paperwork. Ever. But have it ready, just in case.
Our first pit stop is the outdoor sports mecca of San Felipe. We happened to hit up this deep sea fisherman’s utopia the night before the Baja 250 off-race happened. Now, this Mad Max style enterprise is all business. But, the best kind. High dollar sponsors hawking their goods on the sides of bright pickup trucks and pretty girls in tight t-shirts. Every restaurant in town is fired up, packed to the gills – happy folks chowing on fried fish tacos, fresh ceviche and charred BBQ served right out of the roadside pit. The smells drifting down every road were downright intoxicating. Hotels are jam-packed with racers and support teams. Camping sites are laced with long time fans, ready to rise with the roosters at the crack of dawn to cheer from the sidelines. Everyone needs a hobby, they say, but for me, it’s actually food that’s the draw.
The first place to shore up for a proper meal is La Vaquita, one of the best sit down, table cloth restaurants in town. This family owned outfit specializes in locally sourced seafood and steaks and since shrimp in Baja is some of the freshest we’ve had around the world, almost prawn like in their taste, we immediately order up bacon wrapped shrimp (covered in charred onions, green peppers, and fresh garlic and then smothered in gooey melted cheese). Talk about a flavor bomb. The rice soaked up the juice from the bacon and shrimp like a rag and we were stabbing forks for the next buttery bite. But, the biggest surprise was how tasty the whole fried fish was. The neighboring table raved about it and I was literally drooling watching them eat it so, that was next up. It was just a whole fried white fish, but when doused with loads of lime and stuffed into a just made, hand slapped tortilla – it reached next level status. You literally needed nothing else added to it. That said, an array of salsa’s brought out with the chips were quickly put to good use and slathered on everything our mouths came into contact with. The vibe here is very Baja fresco style, and when the sun starts to drop and a live band gets jamming with some blues, there’s just no better place to be chilling. Passing time on their veranda with our canine companion on one side and a frozen, wonderfully thick, piña colada on the other and watching the townies and tourists pass by is one of life’s greatest joys.
For digs, if you can score a room at The Sand Dollar Hotel, this is your best bet, especially if traveling with dogs. Clean as a whistle, with a ping-pong table to boot, this ocean front gem is the hotel that road weary Baja cruisers dream of. You can cook up your own meals at the BBQ (and if other guests are doing so, they will probably invite you to join their impromptu party), there is a pool table ready to be dominated near the swimming pool, ice is for sale at the front office, the security gate goes down after dark and it’s perched south of town, so when you are ready to tear out at 4 am, you have no traffic to contend with. As for the doggies, the front row beach access is the big draw. They can roam unleashed for miles and witness dolphins jumping, locals helping rescue sand trapped trucks and chase pelicans for hours.
Oh, and the mandatory late night taco run is made super easy because Asadero El General is just a few minutes away. This famous taco joint is lauded by the locals and a must do for anyone looking for a great bite of succulent carne asada before hitting the hay. But, it’s also an easy pit stop if you are blasting through town non-stop and don’t want to have a sit down. A sack of tacos and house cut fries has made many a car happy, mine included. And, if you can sit a spell and watch the behind-the-scenes antics reveal themselves with the staff, you will wish you worked there. Who knew there was this much joy behind a road-side taco joint catering mostly to off-road ATV lovers?
When it’s time to hit the road, gas up at the in-town PEMEX with a cup of hot coffee, a cold Red Bull and some spicy nuts as needed. It’s going to be a spectacular, no-mans-land drive down Mexico 5 until you hit Gonzaga Bay, one of the most pristine ocean side spots in all of Northeast Baja. While the dogs are flip-flopping on the beach for their morning run, I traipse down the beach leading to Alfonsina’s Restaurant and Hotel and get some café con leche with a mess of breakfast burritos to go (as they don’t allow dogs). My mind was blown to see some very chilled champagne pulled out with fresh squeezed juice – they were already getting busy with mimosas for the early risers! Served out of enormous mason jars, it made me wish I was staying in their hotel with nothing to do but wander the beach with a guitar (as I witnessed one guest doing) and drink early morning sparkly drinks.
The busy kitchen expertly whips up the perfect rendition of a Mexico breakfast – a small homemade tortilla packed full of bacon, eggs, potatoes and cheese and then bags it up with a whole vat of spicy salsa. They seem to understand that no meal is complete without the holy grail of Mexican kitchens accompanying it – which is why I arrived back on our stretch of beach with close to a pound of salsa to go with six baby burritos. After hours of playing on the beach, it’s nearly impossible to pull away from the gorgeousness of the calm bay, but we know that there is more glorious food onward down the peninsula. And, you know what? I kept that excess of dreamy salsa and made good use of it for an entire week afterwards. Baja – the food lovers land that keeps on giving.