El Centro

El Centro is the largest city in Imperial County in California.


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.

Get in

By car

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).

State Route 78 from Julian and Borrego Springs to Blythe (through Glamis) is an option if you are coming from the north.

By plane

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.

By bus

El Centro is served by Greyhound Bus from San Diego, Los Angeles, and Yuma/Phoenix.

Get around

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.




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.


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.

Stay safe

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.

Go next

Routes through El Centro

San Diego El Cajon  W  E  Yuma Casa Grande
Indio Imperial  N  S  END
Palm Springs Imperial  N  S  Calexico Mexicali via

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, May 10, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.