Rocky Point Pizzazz

The battle of the beaches: Two seaside towns on the Gulf of California are tussling for tourists. Both promise sun, sand and serenity. But San Felipe is quaint. Penasco has more pizzazz. And they both want you.


Puerto Penasco Mexico

Once, it was enough to be Arizona’s beach, a nice wide patch of below-the-border shoreline where college kids could camp out and drink too much.

But now, it wants to be more than a mere party town. In less than a decade, more than three-dozen condo towers have risen in this town’s Sandy Beach area, surrounded by ever-widening waves of upscale vacation homes. It looks like a cellphone commercial by Samuel Beckett, all these rectangles of steel and glitz erupting at the edge of the barren, sandpaper-flat desert.

“Sandy Beach is like Maui. This is the happening spot,” condo sales specialist Mary Snyder told me as we stood in a model unit. “Out by the Mayan” — half an hour south of town — “is like Kauai.”

Because this is the desert and you can’t surf here, Snyder’s Hawaiian analogy is slightly imperfect. But it tells you something about Penasco’s ambitions.

Puerto Penasco (also known as Rocky Point) has been growing like a four-star weed, and it wants to steal visitors from Baja California — not only from San Felipe, its sibling across the sea, but also from the golfing-fishing-partying-and-real-estate-speculating juggernaut now known as Los Cobos.

The first flights from California started landing here Oct. 30 — three turboprop planes a week from LAX. A new airport, big enough to accommodate jets, is supposed to make its debut by summer 2009. And a new highway to the north is due to open later this year, shortening the drive from Southern California by about 100 miles.

So Puerto Penasco wants us. But do we want Puerto Penasco?

Some of us won’t. If you’re in search of cobblestone streets or colonial architecture or tropical landscapes or big waves, you’d be wasting your time here.

But if you’re looking for Mexican beachfront lodgings, fishing, watersports, off-roading and golf — well, many prices are lower here than in Los Cabos, and many penthouses are higher. And because this place has more than twice the population of San Felipe, it has more action as well.



A character study of two Mexican vacation towns

Sonora’s Puerto Penasco and Baja California’s San Felipe appeal in different ways to visitors from north of the border.



One day I found myself squinting at the sea from a Sonoran Sun Condo development, looking out a window filled with nothing but sky and sea. Far below, a lone couple strolled the chilly beach beside a row of palapas. This lavishly furnished unit, with three bedrooms, a kitchen and 1,600 square feet of patio space.

Meanwhile, just a mile or two up the coast lies the Reef, a beachfront restaurant, bar, RV park and convenience store that stands perfectly as a symbol of the older, grittier Penasco. It’s $5 a night to camp, the floor of the bar is concrete and the restaurant’s cuisine, according to its local advertising, is “gormet.”

For those who would rather skip 21st century civilization and commune instead with the stark natural landscape, there are the craters and lava fields of El Pinacate national park, 32 miles north of town. There’s a kayak rental operation by the old port, and San Jorge island, 27 miles away by boat, offers birding and snorkeling in the company of sea lions. The Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans, a local environmental group, organizes other day trips as well.

The year-round population, growing fast, is about 60,000, most of whom live on the dirt streets set back from the beachfront resort zone. To the north is Cholla Bay, where the first  American vacation rentals started taking shape more than a decade ago. To the south is Las Conchas, a newer enclave of vacation homes, many still under construction.

The Puerto Penasco area has two 18-hole golf courses, both completed in 2006. (Los Cabos has seven; San Felipe, one.) There are ATV and watersports rentals, sunset cruises and plenty of bars.

Looking upon the sea on the evening of my arrival, a single shrimp boat cruised along. The beach, vast and litter-free, was nearly empty, amid gusty winds and 65-degree temperatures, routine for January. And as I watched, the beach grew: The tide was going out on a full-moon evening, and the difference between high and low tide here can be a quarter-mile.

If you keep your eyes on the sea and sky, you can easily imagine Penasco’s days as a fishing camp in the 1930s, and its emergence as a party place after the paved road to Arizona went through in the 1940s. These days, it’s illegal to take the storied totuava, a now-endangered fish that was plentiful in the 1950s and ’60s. But the catch still includes plenty of big fish: bass, corvina, grouper, pompano, sierra and yellowtail from boats, trigger fish from the shore.

Every spring, visitors come flooding in, including thousands of spring-breakers from the  Arizona, New Mexico , texas and colorado.  Throughout the spring, the summer and fall, it’s the Arizonians who keep Puerto Penasco busy.

The tourism office counts more than 72 restaurants in town, along with 14 RV and camping facilities  and dozens of hotels, motels and condo resort developments, with perhaps 5,000 rooms. Though most of the condo buildings are huddled along Sandy Beach, some of the fanciest lodgings lie half an hour south at the 3-year-old Mayan Palace, which combines time-share units with short-term rentals — at $395 a night and up.

I stayed, with mixed results, at the Peñasco del Sol Hotel, which somebody is going to have to nominate as a historic structure pretty soon — after all, it dates all the way to the early 1990s, when it was built near the Old Port area under the name Plaza las Glorias. And there’s another reason the Peñasco del Sol stands out.

For More information check out Rocky Point Information

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