El Centro, Spanish for "the center", is the largest American city to lie entirely below sea level. In fact, at an average of 50 feet below sea level, it boasts one of the lowest elevations in the continental United States. From the I-8 freeway, passers-by can spot a line painted on a water tower proudly marking the negative elevation. Founded in 1906, El Centro holds the county seat for the Imperial County. Primarily a farming community, the area produces much of the state's winter vegetables including lettuce, onions, carrots, and tomatoes; in addition to cotton, alfalfa, and other produce. El Centro also has numerous cattle feed lots. The residing community of slightly over 40,000 people is primarily Hispanic and is significantly comprised of an agricultural migrant labor force. Apart from agriculture, two nearby prisons and the U.S. Border Patrol provide much of the area's employment.
The motto of the El Centro Chamber of Commerce is "Where the Sun Spends The Winter" - but the sun spends the summer here as well, with temperatures regularly exceeding 115°F. During the summer months, most residents understandably prefer spending their time indoors and generally only venture out for recreational reasons in the early morning or late evening. In the fall, winter, and spring, however, the climate is more moderate and much more pleasant.
While considered a "desert" community, El Centro is in fact surrounded by agricultural fields. The water used for irrigation, all of which originates from the Colorado River, contributes to the high humidity within the area- particularly in the summer months. Most tourism in the area is either business related or in the form of stopovers on the East-West bound Interstate 8; although there are "snowbirds" from Canada and other parts of the Northern United States who vacation here during the winter. The nearby sand dunes and desert areas offer many recreational opportunities to hundreds of thousands of people annually and have also served as the filming location for numerous Hollywood films including the Star Wars series, Jarhead, the Scorpion King, Stargate and Into the Wild. El Centro's proximity to Mexico allows for easy cross-border visits.
The nearby Naval Air Facility located due west of the city is the winter home to the Blue Angels in addition to being a dry-land practice area for Navy pilots.
Two major highway routes pass through or near El Centro. I-8 from San Diego (120 miles west) and from Yuma (60 miles east) in addition to Highway 111 from Palm Springs (90 miles northwest) and from Calexico (15 miles southeast).
Imperial County Airport (IATA: IPL) offers regional flights from San Diego and Los Angeles and other destinations as well as general aviation.
It may be cheaper to fly into San Diego International Airport (IATA: SAN) and then rent a car there or take a Greyhound bus to El Centro.
El Centro is served by Greyhound Bus from San Diego, Los Angeles, and Yuma/Phoenix.
The use of one's own personal vehicle is by far the preferred method of travel while in the Imperial Valley, and particularly within the city of El Centro. Nevertheless, the local transportation cooperative, Imperial Valley Transit,  does have routes connecting all cities in Imperial County. Perspective riders may purchase punch cards at City Hall. However, because of the limited number of buses in circulation at any given point in time, you may need to wait a few hours at some stops if it's your intent to travel locally in this manner. Public transportation by bus simply isn't very good, and it's even worse for spur-of-the-moment outings because it may be two hours before a bus actually comes. In addition, it may be a long distance between the stop and your actual destination. If you don't have a punch card, you should have exact change ready. Route and fare information is on the company's website.
For local transportation if you're within the city of El Centro and without a car, the use of a taxi is preferable to that of a bus. Rates are reasonable and because of the close proximity of most places in town, a one-way ride will generally be under $7. El Centro Cab at 760-352-7600, City Cab at 760-337-8570, and Yellow Cab at 760-352-3100 are three taxi options.
Because of extreme high temperatures during the summer months, and the overall general discomfort associated with walking from one place to another within the city of El Centro, commuting on foot is not a favorable option.
Drive by the local agricultural fields and cattle feedlots to observe first-hand what your food is like, how it is grown and processed, and where it comes from before it arrives at your table. Find an asparagus field and listen to it grow! If you can, find a local farmer who can show you the sights or speak with a local resident who can tell you what life in El Centro is really like.
Imperial County Midwinter Fair (Usually held in late February or March.)
The Brawley Cattle Call Rodeo (Held annually in November.)
The Algodones Dunes Drawing hundreds of thousands of people annually, this site is mainly for off-road driving.
Le Tour de Manure Bike Ride A 50 mile bicycle ride through the flat country roads of the Imperial Valley. Typically held in March.
Bowling With lots of special pricing and good bowling alley food- knocking down some pins while knocking down some beverages is a great local time.
Imperial Sand Dunes Recreational Area Sand, sand, sand!
Friday Night High School Football The Central Union High School Spartans have periodically been among the best high school football teams in the state. Their high school band is one of the best in the nation.
Mount Signal (Monte Centinela in Spanish) Desert Recreational Area. If you're feeling energetic enough to climb to the top of the area's most distinctive landmark, however, you'll need to cross the port of entry into Mexico.
Saturday Morning Tennis The best local tennis players convene Saturday mornings at the Southwest High School Tennis Courts. Play is social yet competitive and typically starts between 7 and 8 AM.. Several of the older players hold national rankings.
Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Located at the southern end of the Salton Sea and 227 feet below sea level, this wild life refuge is also part of the Pacific Flyway which is an important migration route for birds. Over 400 species of birds have been recorded. The greatest number of species can be seen between November and May.
The Salton Sea Mudpots and Mud Volcanoes A geologic anomaly as a result of geothermal activity and plate tectonics resulting from the movement of the North American plate to the east and the Pacific Plate to the west. (Located on the corner of Davis Road and Schrimpf Road east of the Salton Sea.)
The Motor Vu Drive-In One of the last outdoor cinematic experiences in the state. Located on the corner of Highway 86 and Aten Road.
Go Fishing El Centro is one of those rare inland destinations where you can angle for fresh water fish without necessarily doing so in an actual body of water. Impressively sized catfish and small striped bass can be found within the miles and miles of irrigation canals used for agricultural purposes which run alongside many of El Centro's country roads. In addition to the canals, fishing hotspots include Sunbeam Lake, the Sunbeam Lagoon, the Central Main Canal, the Fig Lagoon and the Sperber Reservoir.
Frog-Gigging With no seasonal designation or limit on bullfrogs, catching them downstream of drainage ditches, at the Imperial Wetlands or alongside country roads is easy with a light, spear, gig, paddle or your hands. Lightly battered frog legs cooked in clarified butter and served with cold slaw and french fries is a local delicacy in many homes.
The Blue Angels Air Show Created in 1946 for the purpose of representing the United States Navy and serving as goodwill ambassadors, the Blue Angels are the center attraction of an annual air show typically held in March at the Naval Air Facility. Filled with fast-paced maneuvers and unmatched aerial acrobatics, this is a highly anticipated show that is always worth watching.
Imperial Valley Mall The Imperial Valley Mall is the newest shopping destination in the southernmost part of California. Contains over 100 shops including Dillard's, JCPenney, Macy's, Sears, Cinemark, Gymboree, Express, Hollister Co., PacSun, Victoria's Secret, The Disney Store, GameStop, Kay Jewelers, Forever 21, Papaya, VANS and more. Open Monday-Saturday, 10am - 9pm and Sunday, 11am - 7pm. 3451 South Dogwood Avenue
The food in El Centro tends to be inexpensive, high in calories, and primarily Mexican. The local population serves as evidence of this as rates of obesity and diabetes in the area are well above the national average. The city's main thoroughfare, Imperial Avenue, is dotted with the typical fast-food restaurants you'll find in any city; however, there are a few local restaurants that are worth visiting. Be sure to try a "special quesadilla" at one of the local eateries if the opportunity presents itself. This deep fried treat is said to have been invented locally. Carne-asada burritos are also a staple of the local diet.
Antojitos Como En Casa 425 Desert Gardens Drive (Off the west corner of 4th Street and Desert Gardens Drive.) 760-482-5621. With hand-crafted Mexican cuisine typical of that of Central Mexico, this small establishment offers an assortment of dishes you will find no where else locally. A worthy stop if you're a "foody" or just enjoy new culinary experiences.
Fortune House Located at 1627 West Main Street in the Valley Plaza, this Chinese Restaurant was voted one of the Top 100 Chinese restaurants in the United States a few years ago. A variety of dishes and very reasonably priced combination plates are what this place is known for. 760-352-3888.
Puerto Nuevo 215 N Imperial Avenue (Located on the corner of Broadway and Imperial Avenue.) 760-352-2757. This restaurant specializes in Mexican seafood dishes. The shrimp cocktails and ceviche are highly recommended and are actually comparable to what you'll find across the border in Mexicali, but without the drive.
Mexicali Tacos Mexican food served fast and conveniently located off the I-8. Any of the burritos on the menu are worth a stop. 2003 S 4th Street, 760-353-4505
R&B Cyber Service1535 W. Adams, 760-353-7400 Not a restaurant, but an Internet Cafe where there is always a computer available for use. The place is run down and a bit of a dive, but you can surf the Internet in air-conditioned comfort, have a drink, or even have your computer repaired.
Camacho's Place, a few miles southwest of town, Camacho's is well known for family-style Mexican food and a favorite among farmers. It originated in 1949 as a pool hall for local farmhands. 796 West Wahl Road, 760-352-5810
Grasso's Italian Restaurant 1902 West Main Street, 760-352-4635. Try the Pollock Pizza (named after the owner), or the tomatoes-and-sweet-onions when they're in season. Open Wednesday-Sunday in the evenings. The place is a bit run-down and the sparse wine list leaves much to be desired; nevertheless, the food is hand-crafted and there is a "back room" which is less formal and better suited if you're dining with kids. Call to make a reservation if you want to be sure you'll get a table due to the popularity of the place.
Celia's Restaurant Serving Mexican-American style food, this restaurant has been extremely popular among local residents for years. 1530 West Adams Avenue, 760-352-4570.
Japanese Restaurant Kyoto 1560 Ocotillo Drive, 760-352-7469. The food is quite good, authentically Japanese, and it's rarely ever crowded. The menu includes sushi of many varieties, teriyak chicken, tempura, and sake/beer. Open Monday-Saturday.
Burgers & Beer There are two El Centro locations: one at 260 North Imperial Avenue (760-353-4431) and one at the Imperial Valley Mall (760-353-0007). This is a popular local place. Although they serve mainly American style food such as hamburgers and french fries, there are some Mexican items on the menu as well. In addition, there is a large selection of brews found no where else locally- some of which are on tap. With televisions mainly showing sports in every corner and small televisions which you can control at most of the booths, you'll find it difficult not to watch what's on T.V. while enjoying your food.
Lucky Chinese Restaurant It's best to reserve a table if you're going at noon or on Sunday because it can get very busy. 500 South 4th Street, 760-352-7680.
Mah's Kitchen 290 North Imperial Avenue, 760-352-8713. Good food and even better value. With numerous combination plates for around $5, the food you order is freshly prepared in large woks right within your view. Most people order for takeout, but they have plenty of tables if you'd rather eat there.
Junior's Cafe Serves huge portions and known for their open-face sandwiches. Open only during breakfast and lunch. 1791 Adams Ave, 760-353-9556.
China Palace Steak House Located on Adams Avenue and a great place to eat some of the best food in town. Slightly "pricier" than most local restaurants, the China Palace Steak House has won the "Best Food in Imperial Valley" award several times. 760-353-1510.
Guadalajara's Restaurant Mexican-style seafood is what this restaurant is known for. The shrimp cocktail, fajitas and aguachile are recommended. 1427 Adams Ave (Off the southeast corner of Imperial Ave and Adams.) 760-336-0430. www.guadalajaras-restaurant.com
Exotic Thai With fresh spring rolls, red and green curry, brown rice and tofu, this restaurant is an anomaly in El Centro in that its menu has a large variety of healthy dining options. Moreover, the food is also very good. 1461 S 4th St. 760-353-0008
El Centro is a relatively safe city. However, it's best to avoid areas east of 4th Street and north of Adams Avenue after dark. These areas are often filled with desperate characters and there isn't very much to see there anyway. Main Street near 4th Street and North 5th Street are also best avoided after dark as drug-related crime in these areas has been on the rise. In addition, the area of Adams Avenue should also be avoided late at night as this is home to most of the city's prostitutes. Nevertheless, in most other areas of the city and despite the fact there is an average of only three police cars patrolling the entire city at any one time, it is generally safe to walk around at any hour of the day or night.
Car doors should always be locked as theft is common- largely due to the desperation of the impoverished and unemployed. El Centro's unemployment rate typically hovers around 30% and is consistently among the highest in the nation.
Summers in El Centro are notoriously hot. It's common for temperatures to reach over 120 degrees in July and August. If you're not used to this sort of heat, it's best to stay indoors, avoid being outside, wear sunscreen, and stay hydrated. Even some locals still get heatstroke. The heat can be deadly. If you're going to rent a car, make sure it has a fully-functioning AC.
Like other areas in California, El Centro commonly experiences earthquakes. Most of these are so minor (registering less than a 2.5 on the Richter Scale) you may not even feel them. Because of strict building regulations, most buildings are built to withstand major earthquakes. Major earthquakes are not common, so it should not be a concern.
Avoid bringing up the topic of illegal immigration. El Centro is overwhelmingly Hispanic and most people are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Illegal immigration and immigration in general can be a sensitive subject.
In recent years, the number of residents originally from other parts of the state with known gang affiliations has increased. This is a result of these individuals moving into the area from Los Angeles, Salinas, and other distant cities due to the lower cost of living. Avoid staring at any individual you think might be affiliated with a gang as he or she might construe your unintentional look as "mad-dogging" which could provoke an altercation.
Avoid "Your Momma" jokes. Mexican families are often matriarchal. Such jokes could lead to immediate altercations.
Because a significant number of El Centro's residents are employed by one of the area's two penitentiaries, the U.S. Border Patrol or by some form other form of law enforcement, many of these individuals in this line of work carry concealed firearms. As a result, any altercation in general with one of these individuals due to a disagreement in humor or opinion could be deadly. Reports in the local newspaper of such occurrences are not uncommon.
As a result, it's prudent to mind your own business despite the friendly nature of many local residents.
Because El Centro isn't exactly a popular tourist destination, good hotel rooms are cheap and easy to find. Reservations are not necessary. Rates range from $50–$60 a night. Some hotels around Adams Avenue are even cheaper, but these hotels are rather seedy and not located in the most desirable parts of town.
- Best Western John Jay Inn, 2352 S 4th Street, ☎ , fax: +1 760 337-8693.
- Fairfield Inn & Suites El Centro, 503 Danenburg Drive.
- Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites, 350 Smoketree Drive, ☎ .
- Motel 6, 395 Smoketree Drive, ☎ , fax: +1 760 337-1123.
- Mexicali, Mexico Gateway to Baja California and also its capital. Great restaurants, hotels and more is just 12 miles away.
- San Felipe, Mexico This small but growing fishing port boasts some of the best seafood on the planet. An approximate 2 hour drive from El Centro.
- Los Algodones, Mexico Located in Baja California, Mexico, Los Algodones is about an hour drive east of El Centro on Interstate 8. It's recommended that you park on the USA side and then walk less than one block to get there through the port of entry. Catering mainly to seniors and offering a variety of medical services and open-air places to eat, Los Algodones is a very small town and one of those rare areas within Mexico that is recognized by the American government as a safe tourist destination.
|Routes through El Centro|
|San Diego ← El Cajon ←||W E||→ Yuma → Casa Grande|