San Felipe de Jesus, Yucatan
Called San Felipe for short, this fishing village was populated several centuries ago by villagers from farther east (around Dzilam del Bravo) lured by good fishing and the existence of a freshwater spring. It was named for Mexico’s first saint, martyred in Japan in the 16th century. This feisty Franciscan acolyte had a short but interesting life. He was shipwrecked in Japan and subsequently hung on the cross along with a group of unpopular Christian missionaries in Nagasaki on February 5, 1597.
San Felipe de Jesús celebrates its namesake martyr the days preceding February 5. The rest of the year, the most noteworthy thing about this village of several thousand people is its location at the western entrance to the much-loved Río Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. The majority of tours, booked in Merida and elsewhere, depart from the larger community also called Rio Lagartos, 11 kilometers to the east.
But San Felipe is a lovely little community with sandy streets and pretty wooden homes, their bright colors perfectly faded by the strong tropical sun. Mainly small and one-story, these are different than the round adobe dwellings popular with the Maya of yesteryear and the cement block houses commonly built today. Although a number of these traditional houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, San Felipe retains its distinctive and charming appearance. It is also one of the most pristine towns we’ve seen anywhere in Mexico, with a brigade of cleaning ladies patrolling the streets.
Often overlooked in favor of Rio Lagartos, San Felipe offers several seafood restaurants and the humble Hotel San Felipe de Jesús for overnight stays. Fishermen take visitors on boat and birding tours through the mangroves and estuaries of the biosphere reserve to see flamingos, pelicans, and other birds, or to the long, deserted sand beach across the estuary from town. You can also go snorkeling or arrange night expeditions to look for crocodiles. Fly fishing is popular, too. If you want to settle in for a day or more in a safe, tranquil and friendly town for fishing or birding, San Felipe is a great choice.
On a Tour
If you’re staying in Valladolid, MexiGo Tours (www.mexigotours.com) leads guided tours out of that town. Most Merida travel agents can set you up as well.
If you have your own transportation, San Felipe de Jesús is 266 km (156 miles) from Merida. Take Highway 180 and then 180D (the toll road) to just north of Valladolid; then head north through Tizimin on Highway 295. From Rio Lagartos, head west eleven kilometers (6.5 miles). San Felipe sits the edge of the Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve.
From Merida, take a first-class but to Valladolid (104 km/64.5 miles) from the CAME station at Calle 70 between Calles 69 and 71 (tel. 999/924-8391), where you’ll change to a second-class bus with stops at Rio Lagartos and San Felipe. You can also get a bus originating in Valladolid, the most important city in the area, or Tizimin, a ranching town about halfway between Valladolid and Rio Lagartos.
Where to Stay and Eat
Hotel San Felipe de Jesús ($$, Calle 9A between Calles 14 and 16, tel. 986/682-2027) is a modest but pleasant hotel. The topmost rooms have balconies overlooking the estuary, and the restaurant has been recommended, though we haven’t tried it. Fishing and fly fishing trips can be arranged here.