What was once an extremely popular vacation destination, Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico — more commonly known as Rocky Point — has seen a sudden drop in visitors because of the recession and the fear of violence. Travel writers, bloggers, Arizona journalists for years have been using the beach town as subject matter and in the past 15 years, the city on the Sea of Cortez in northwestern Sonora, had been gaining enormous growth. But in the past two or three years, since the Mexican government began heavy drug cartel crackdowns, the border towns have been hurting, after witnessing higher levels of violence, primarily along the Texas border. With the exception of rather isolated violence in the border entry of Nogales, Sonora, most of the Arizona border towns are relatively quiet. Puerto Penasco, like other municipalities within close proximity of the border, has also seen sharp decline. But things may be changing. Rocky Point is just beginning to see an increase in tourist activity as more and more Arizonans are beginning to feel more secure about traveling to Mexico. On our trip this month, we spoke to business owners, resort workers and restaurant staff that have said they felt tourism starting to improve.
With Rocky Point’s development of the area just north of town, known as Sandy Beach in the past 10-15 years, tourists are reminiscent of beach-lined resorts in other parts of Mexico, like Cancun or Puerto Vallarta. Building after building of high-rise condominiums line up along the water, from the edge of the commercial fishing marina to the northwestern land’s end, known as Pelican Point. The Reef, with its bar and camping/RV park, is still there, a well-known reminder of spring breaks past and a time when Sandy Beach was more for campsites than condos. While the units of these condo resorts are almost all privately, individually owned, many are investment properties rented like hotel suites. They provide golf discounts, fine dining and nightlife opportunities – even spa, fitness and business center amenities.
So if you’re in Arizona, no doubt you’ve been watching the heavy boost of Mexico tourism-sponsored TV and print advertising, and perhaps now you’re thinking about returning to Rocky Point. Before venturing back to Puerto Penasco, here’s a few travel tips:
1. Travel during the day. It’s a good idea whether you’re crossing the Arizona desert or the Sonora desert. As a group of three couples, the six of us — all from the eastern Phoenix-area suburbs usually depart in the early morning hours, driving from Chandler to Maricopa, then take State Route SR 2387 to drive to Gila Bend, where we usually make a breakfast stop. From Gila Bend, it’s a straight shot on State Route 85 through Ajo (watch your speed on this stretch) and then on to Lukeville.
2. Be prepared when crossing the international border; there’s a few changes. When crossing the border, the Mexican authorities will now stop motorists and ask if they are transporting firearms. I have heard they have also questioned drivers about vehicle registration, passports or auto insurance. In addition, your vehicle may be randomly selected for a thorough search, so it’s important to know what you can and cannot bring. One website which has comprehensive travel information is the RPTimes site, but there are many numerous Rocky Point travel websites now, so it’s a good idea to check several to see which ones are up-to-date.
3. You might want to bring some loose change for charity donations. Periodically as you drive through Sonoita, just south of the border from Lukeville, and the north end of Puerto Penasco, you will encounter children and adults standing in the middle of the street, holding a can asking for donations for various charities. Popular ones could be Red Cross, the local fire department, a senior living home, an orphanage, etc. If you feel you want to donate, please do, and that’s why we always travel to Rocky Point with some loose change or pesos leftover from a previous trip. After you pass through Sonoita, it should be smooth sailing until you get to Rocky Point.
4. Buy your food and drinks for your vacation in Puerto Penasco. Except for your favorite wines, craft brews, apples and chocolate, you will find most everything else you will need for your vacation in Rocky Point stores and markets. Shrimp is best when purchased during the season, which is usually April-May or October. Find the wide assortment at the markets on the malecon. But many other seafood varieties are available throughout the year. In addition to the souvenir vendors at Rodeo Drive, there are many nice newer stores, selling high quality silver, pottery, T-shirts, cotton dresses, leather products, metal sculptures, glassware — much more. The blankets I bought in 1978 for $6 each, are still used today and in fantastic shape. Additional groceries stores are opening up in many neighborhoods. We particularly like the one called Super Ley, a kind of mini warehouse-type grocery and variety store.
5. Some of the best deals are found at places you’d likely least expect, such as these “Puerto Penasco” mugs I found at one of the local pharmacies. Many of these drug stores, have much more than prescriptions — they also carry sundries, beach toys, cosmetics and a few even stock sodas and frozen fruit treats.6. One of the first things we do when we arrive to Puerto Penasco is pick up several of the English newspapers, featuring listings of many of the activities and events and current real estate classifieds, which often include news of new residential developments, businesses and tourism services. Three of the free newspapers we have found reliable are the Rocky Point Times, Join Us Here in Rocky Point, Rocky Point Weekly, plus there are probably more. Check your resort’s front desk, restaurant or in front of the nearby pharmacy for a display rack.
7. Develop a vacation tradition. As soon as we arrive in Rocky Point, the smells of the sand and sea, roasting chiles and simmering frijoles get our mouths watering for our favorite meals. One of our first stops we make after arriving in Rocky Point is for lunch, at Flavio’s (Aqui es con Flavio). This waterfront restaurant at the malecon (waterfront esplanade) is a favorite among locals and visitors alike for the fresh seafood dishes, well-equipped margaritas and real pina coladas. Each person in our group has their special favorite, whether it’s fish or shrimp tacos, an meal-sized shrimp cocktail, a whole fish dinner or a combo plate. Flavio’s is just one of several excellent restaurants along the Malecon. We like it not just because of the food, but also the excellent friendly service provided by the parking attendants, wait staff, bartenders — even the strolling musicians. Other visitors find their vacation tradition watching the sun set over the water at one of the hilltop restaurants with the best views like Casa del Capitan. Some find their tradition with a visit to JJ’s Cantina in Cholla Bay. Start a tradition for your family reunion group or circle of friends.
8. Find your own getaway niche at Rocky Point. This destination can be equally accommodating to any leisure pursuit, whether it’s a fiesta or a siesta. The resorts may be bustling at times, like late in the afternoons when everyone’s checking in to their suites and excited to be headed to the cafes or cantinas, or they can be calm and relaxing, such as the early morning, when only a few guests get up early to take a stroll along the beach, or simply sit in the common areas to enjoy the shaded pool areas or finely manicured gardens.
9. Beach it! I always have to chuckle when people come to the beach but then don’t go near the beach. Well, I guess some folks just want to “view” the beach. Too sandy? Too wet? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. But I know I want to be on the beach, especially Sandy Beach! The sand is really fine and smooth and except for a few deposits of coral which you can easily locate when the tide is out, most all the sea floor is perfect for wading, swimming, splashing, whatever. Indeed, there are times of year when jellyfish are more prevalent; those are usually when there seasonal weather changes, or windy conditions exist, such as during late summer monsoon time or occasional spring storms. I keep a spray bottle of white vinegar just in case of jellyfish sting. Then there are stingrays, so it’s best to do the shuffling of feet through the shallows. it’s good to know there is now an outpatient medical clinic on Sandy Beach.
10. Come ready to play on the beach! Bring the cooler full of lots of water, snacks, etc. Those backpack coolers work great, even better than the ones with the wheels, I think. For the kids, bring kites, sand castle construction equipment, frisbees, and plenty of other water toys. Of course, you’ll need the obvious sunscreen; plus maybe some wet wipes, which will come in handy after the kids eat those fresh dripping mangos on a stick. Many resorts have their own palapas — those grass covered canopies — but you may want to bring your own beach umbrella or other portable canopy with plenty of sand anchors. Nothing destroys a brand new beach umbrella more than the wind blowing southwest from the Sea of Cortez in late spring or early summer. We like our screw-in beach umbrella anchor.
11. Sandy Beach can often be the best place to shop. Why take away from valuable beach time when the jewelry, silver, pottery, hats, sunglasses, sundresses, etc can come right to you under the shade of your umbrella? Relaxing on the beach is the best time to shop for all those souvenirs you really don’t need. Why? Because the vendors are coming to you, of course. These vendors have no overhead costs, and every incentive to unload some heavy merchandise they’ve been toting around. Many of the items probably can be found almost anywhere in town or at the Rodeo Drive shopping district, but occasionally you will find something new or unique on the beach, and the deals on the beach are better than anywhere else. Remember these vendors can be very enthusiastic, so if beach shopping is not your thing, a simple shake of the head and a smile, or a polite, “no, gracias” will suffice to keep the vendors moving along.
Rocky Point has something for everyone. It can be a perfect place for a time of meditation and reflection, to take advantage of the tranquility of sunrise or sunset walks at water’s edge to relax. Or it can be a perfect place to recharge, energize, take part in some exciting challenge like parasailing, ultra-light flying, jetskiing or kite-surfing. Maybe there’s something in between or even a little bit of everything.
Are you a first timer to Rocky Point? Do some research. There are many websites to look at when you google Rocky Point, Mexico or Puerto Penasco. Read the reviews on tripadvisor or virtualtourist websites. Check out youtube for some videos of activities and events. Get to know Rocky Point. If you have been meaning to return to Rocky Point, I’d highly recommend it. Get to know Rocky Point again.
Here is the official Rocky Point tourism website
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