Bruce F. Barber
For many, residents and returning visitors alike, they are a long-awaited sight. Whether it is absence that makes the heart grow fonder, the hustle and bustle of a trip to the city, or the two-hour drive across the desert, that first sighting of San Felipe’s Alabaster Arches is a heart-warming experience.
For the newcomer, it is an unexpected surprise. Who could imagine such a beautiful creation standing so far from… ? But there’s much the newcomer doesn’t know for he and she, like many of us, tend to take their surroundings for granted.
The instant you crossed the international border, not only did you set foot on the other California—one of the world’s most magnificent geologic creations—you also stepped (or drove) upon the world’s last frontier which is bordered in the east by its richest salt water aquarium!
Assuming you continued south from the border, two hours later, you came upon a structure that was designed to welcome you to the region, a structure that a) announces that magnificent body of water, b) graces the seaside pueblo of San Felipe, and c) is the official GATEWAY TO THE SEA OF CORTEZ.
Built in 1980, the Arches are the result of a four-state commission created to promote tourism through a continuing program of international public awareness of the unparalleled beauty to be found but a few short miles south of what may be your regular stomping grounds. Those four states, Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora and Sinaloa, are the states whose shores enclose the enchanting Vermillion Sea (the original name given by Hernán Cortez in the year 1535), the rewarding Sea of Cortés (the name given in 1549 by Francisco Ulloa, the first to sail its length and breadth), the incomparable Gulf of California (a name given by an international body of cartographers).
NOTE: Although many maps still show it as the “Gulf of California”, Mexico has officially adopted its second name, “Mar de Cortez”.)
Although there were many sites to choose from, owing to its close proximity to the sea and the close proximity of the population density of Southern California, the tiny fishing village of San Felipe was selected to become the portal through which tourists would discover a land and sea so inviting, so different, so rewarding, they would want to become a recurring part of it.
The Arches: its form is dramatic; its lines clean; its alabaster presence awesome. Bathed in the rays of low-pressure sodium by night, The Arches stand tall and proud as they beckon to tourists seeking new adventure. And, as with many of the world’s monumental creations, The Arches have an interesting story told, in part, by Adolfo Padilla, the man whose idea they were, by San Felipe’s merchants and by Ismael Soto, the project’s Resident Engineer.
Conceived in 1978 by Adolfo Padilla Padilla, a powerhouse of conceptual design, The Arches were created under the guidance of Roberto de la Madrid and designed by Arquitecto Díaz Olmos, the Director of Baja California’s S.A.H.O.P.E. (the equivalent of an American Department of Public Works).
The original design was of an all-steel structure with the same general appearance as today. What’s more, because they were to be the gateway to the Sea of Cortez, their original location was at the beachfront terminus of the Mexicali-to-San Felipe Highway where they would lend themselves to a startling first viewing of that sea.
Ground was broken in May of ‘79 in the space separating the Ascolani family’s Marino Liquors and the Alvarez family’s Miscelanea Azteca. A short while later, however, when the site was determined to be too soft, soil compaction tests were conducted at several other sites, emergency conferences convened, discussions held, new decisions made and the original hole filled. San Felipe would still have its arches but they would have to sit on solid ground a half-mile west of the sea they introduced.
In addition to the Arches, the revised plan included construction of a palm-lined, four lane boulevard (now known as Calzada Chetumal), the construction of a Malecón (the beachfront drive paralleling San Felipe’s principal business district), and an altered flow of traffic by making the Malecón one-way to the north and Avenida Mar de Cortez one-way to the south.
Meanwhile, as these plans were presented, contested (only one merchant showed up at the meeting) and voted upon, another problem arose. When the original design of The Arches was determined to require an excessive amount of steel, contractor Alejandro Escobar Huet recommended a change to pre-stressed, steel reinforced concrete which would involve less material, less time to construct, a reduction in construction hazards, less money and substantially greater longevity.
With a reaction to this new recommendation like, “Why didn’t I think of that?” approval was granted, the ground was dug, the soil prepared and a two-inch bed of concrete poured. Anchored to this bed, the foundation for each leg of each arch is composed of one block of steel reinforced concrete six meters square by three meters thick.
Each leg is one and a half meters wide by three meters long. The outside dimension of each arch is ten meters while the inside is seven. Each of the four columns is hollow but one of the four, a center column, contains a circular stairway leading to a connecting bridge near the top. Measuring twenty meters in height, the north arch is two meters taller that the south and the view from the top is spectacular.
The street jobs were undertaken as The Arches neared completion. A forty foot wide, two lane street suddenly became a four lane divided boulevard. Its palm trees were purchased and trucked to San Felipe from Palm Springs. Placed twenty five feet apart, each tree originally bore two colored spot lamps illuminating an area of adjacent roadway. With alternating colors of red, green and blue, evenings brought a beautiful sight to behold.
Next came the Malecón and the widening of Avenida Mar de Cortez which was closed for two months. Since these were jobs undertaken during the slowest business period, July and August, affected merchants suffered less than they might have during other months. Finally, it was October 29, 1980 and President José Lopez Portillo led the inauguration ceremonies during a four-day Fiesta del Mar de Cortez.
Conducted on land now occupied by George’s and Puerto Padre Restaurants, the fiesta included a twenty-foot high replica of The Arches. Special coins were minted and sold with the monies realized going to each of the four states as a partial payment for the newly completed project.
A few years later, in 1984, the world’s western hemisphere was hit by a blight that killed a formerly unbelievable percentage of its magnificent palms. San Felipe lost as many as most but those few palms that survived made an ugly appearance until, about three years ago, they began to grow again. In the interim, the Chetumal’s red, blue and green spotlights were replaced by modern street lights incorporating low pressure sodium, a superior, more economic lamp yielding at least twice as many lumens as fluorescent, mercury vapor, halide or high pressure sodium.
Eight years later, eight years of diminishing participation by all, La Fiesta del Mar de Cortez saw its final days and is now a thing of the past. Although this is a story of a dream, it is also a story of change thrust upon an unprepared community. Today, seventeen years after the fact, this former fishing village—still geopolitically a part of Mexicali—finds itself almost entirely dependent upon tourism. Owing to an unpredictable recession, tourism has been down and merchants can do little more than pray for recovery.
Remembering a quarter million visitors annually and an unwanted project thrust upon it, this distant desert community seeks autonomy believing it has the ability to govern itself. And so, the question becomes, will merchants who refused to attend the meetings convened to create the Malecón (et al) attend to the organization and administration of a place destined to become a thriving tourist resort? The answer to that question may be likened to the palms that lived through the blight: Only time will tell.
Twenty meters tall, The Arches are visible from twenty miles at sea, from the fishermen’s shrine in downtown San Felipe, and from ten, fifteen and twenty miles into the southern desert. Originally hated by merchants who wanted to be left alone, The Arches are not only the Gateway to the Sea of Cortez, the are, many years after the fact… The pride of San Felipe!