San Felipe, February 2011

by Michelle Michaels

Squinting and showing his toothless smile, "Diablo" motioned us onto his boat. I wondered what he had been like in his youth to earn him the nickname "Devil." But today he looked relaxed, with a begrudgingly friendly manner. For one hundred pesos (less than 10 U.S. dollars), Diablo took us from the dock, through the surrounding mangroves, past the anchored fishing boats, to the white beaches. We glided through smooth, sparkling ocean, past giant birds perching and preening on posts. To get to the beach requires a five-minute boat ride across the still river to where the ocean truly begins. Diablo waited on the dock, chatting in Mayan with the other fishermen there as we explored and played on the beach, and then brought us back to the dock of San Felipe.

If you're looking to get away from the masses of floppy hats and Hawaiian shirts and want to escape that overwhelming smell of sunscreen that wafts off the large groups of tourists at places like Xcaret and Xplore, then a trip to San Felipe is what you need. Anything but a "Spring Break" destination, San Felipe is far enough away from the desperate vendors of Playa del Carmen yelling, "Bonita! Come in!" as they try to sell you a sarong, or maybe some drugs. San Felipe, located three hours away from Cancún in the state of Yucatán, has yet to see the type of partying and shopping tourists who frequent the Riviera Maya. Yet it still provides the comforts of beautiful beaches and cenotes, and nice hotels and restaurants. However, it should be noted that San Felipe is not for the faint of heart. The reason it has retained its language, its customs, and its beaches is the same reason that makes it difficult for tourists to get around there. English is very rarely spoken; Spanish is hardly spoken (though everyone there will understand and speak it). There are no souvenir shops, no big signs pointing to hotels, and no nightlife. But for the slightly more adventurous traveler, it makes for a great escape from the resorts and a rare chance to see a beautiful, small fishing town.

As you walk down the streets lined with little houses painted bright turquoise, sky blue, all types of greens, and pastel pinks, you will hear the locals speaking a mix of Spanish and their native lilting, staccato Mayan. The dock is home to a scattering of seafood restaurants where they serve what's been brought in that day from the sea. We entered a restaurant on the dock called La Vaselina. We ordered a few beers and they brought out delicious ceviche and other botanas (snacks) such as bean dip. The snacks are free with the drinks. It makes for an incredibly cheap lunch or snack.

The water is different from the Riviera Maya's bright blues; San Felipe's is a mix of dark greens. But it holds an enchanting beauty as we glide through on Diablo's boat. We get to the beach on a Thursday morning so we're the only visitors (though as we were leaving, a boat full of a Mexican family carrying towels and food was getting ready to embark). The beach isn’t pristine—a few beer caps can be found mixed in with the thousands of seashells sprinkled along the sand. But its charm lies in its white sand and calm, dark-green water that stays shallow for what seems forever, perfect for swimming children. Palapas (a wooden structure with a thatched roof made out of palm leaves) providing shade and the occasional table are the only manmade constructions to break the natural scenery. San Felipe's beach has no overpriced restaurants (the best option is to buy fresh food and bring it with you) and no one renting beach chairs, forcing you to pay for shade.

After swimming and relaxing on the beach, there are various options of other activities. San Felipe is a great area for fishing. Fish, lobster and octopus are their primary targets. The small fishing boats have long poles tied on to either side—making them look oddly unbalanced—that are used to catch the octopus. The fishermen hang out right on the dock where you can go tell them you want to go on a fishing trip or you want a ride to the beach. Right next to the dock, there is a small but pretty cenote for a refreshing freshwater dip to rinse off the saltwater. Río Lagartos, 11 kilometers from San Felipe, has a lagoon famous for the giant flocks of pink flamingoes that congregate there. On the way home you may also want to stop in Temozón as you drive through it to taste some of their famous smoked meat which you can either eat there at one of the restaurants on the main street or buy in a packet to take home with you.

San Felipe, three hours from Cancún and three-and-a-quarter from Playa del Carmen, makes a great day trip or overnight trip. There are a few luxury hotels in San Felipe itself, but I think it would be worth the while to stop overnight in Valladolid (on the road to either destination). Valladolid is a beautiful colonial city next to the famous ruins of Chichén Itzá. Get a cup of coffee and explore the main square, lit up with lights.

Akumal Villas

Villas Flamingo