Rocky Point – Mexican resort is growing but still greeting touristas with open arms

Rocky Point – Mexican resort is growing but still greeting touristas with open arms

Rocky Point – Mexican resort is growing but still greeting touristas with open arms

Published: Sunday, March 9, 2008 12:09 a.m. MST
PUERTO PENASCO, Mexico – Nestled in the upper corner of the Sea of Cortez, the once sleepy fishing village of Puerto Penasco, or Rocky Point as it’s known by touristas, continues to transform itself into a major Mexican vacation destination.

But now that the hotels, luxury condos and time shares are being constructed at a wicked pace, what city leaders, merchants, restaurant and club owners hope for most is that tourists will keep coming.

Three years ago, I traveled to Rocky Point and witnessed firsthand a major hotel and recreation boom. In January, I returned to the resort city in the state of Sonora.

A host of new hotels and condos sits along the shoreline from Cholla Bay through Las Conchas and North Beach. A drive through Old Port shows there is even big construction in Rocky Point’s oldest regions. Across from the Sunset Cantina, older hotels such as the Penasco Del Sol have upgraded to compete with the newer, more modern high-rises on Sandy Beach.

Large new homes in Cholla Bay are being built, many of them costing six figures.

Tourists can now bring their golf clubs as the first 18-hole golf course in Rocky Point, Las Palomas, is open and ready for visitors to try out the green links in the middle of the arid desert.


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There were 44,875 residents in Puerto Penasco as of the 2005 census. The large majority of them live within relatively close proximity to the coast. Puerto Penasco is actually a large area, nearly 3,800 square miles. But the farther inland into the Sonoran Desert one goes, the less populated the region becomes.

A sunny getaway is almost always guaranteed in Puerto Penasco, an area that receives an average of 2 inches of rain per year. In the summer, day temperatures can rise into the ’90s. During the winter months, the highs are still well above freezing.

But some merchants and cab drivers say they have noticed a decrease in American tourists in recent months. One cab driver, who didn’t want his name published, said he knows a regular visitor from Boston who used to travel to Puerto Penasco almost monthly. Now, it has been several months since his last visit.

The cab driver blamed the tourism slowdown on America’s mortgage crisis. An article in the January edition of Join Us, a Puerto Penasco monthly tourist paper, agreed U.S. financial woes in 2007 were felt south of the border.

Epifanio Salido Pavlovich, head of the Sonora Commission on the Promotion of Tourism, told the paper the economic situation in the United States “had a strong impact” on Penasco. But he also noted Rocky Point had 1.7 million foreign visitors in 2007, up 11 percent from the previous year. About 80 percent of those tourists were from Arizona, he said. Not a surprise, considering Penasco has also been referred to as Arizona’s beach getaway. The drive from downtown Phoenix to Rocky Point is about 3 1/2 hours.

Add the American visitors with vacationers from other parts of Mexico, and Penasco had about 2.1 million tourists in 2007, Pavlovich told the paper.

Still, the cab driver told me that American dollars are needed in Rocky Point.

“It’s not about one being better than the other,” he said. “We need each other.”

Mexico needs the money tourists are willing to spend. And Americans need a place to get away, he said.

Another possible concern is the ever increasing rules at the border, including the new passport law expected to go into effect later this year. Penasco was located for decades in what was known as the “free zone” between Mexico and the United States, meaning those driving into town did not need a special car permit, visas or a picture ID with proof of citizenship, although it was always recommended to carry those items as a precaution.

The free-zone laws, however, are about to expire as the U.S. government tightens security around the Mexican and Canadian borders. Exactly when that will happen keeps being postponed as the federal government tries to prepare itself for an inevitable avalanche of passport applications.

The latest word was that as of Jan. 31, tourists re-entering the United States from Mexico will need to have a government-issued picture ID, such as a driver’s license, and proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate.

As for passports for people crossing the border on the ground, some reports say the government will delay that rule as late as June 2009.

While tourists can get into Sonora with relative ease, the lines to get back into Arizona, especially on Sundays or after a holiday weekend, have become increasingly longer in recent years because of more careful questioning by border patrol agents. Some trying to return to America could find themselves waiting more than an hour on some days, and probably longer if they don’t have the documents required as of Jan. 31.

All of the people I talked to in Rocky Point did not believe, however, that the new passport rules would have an effect on tourism. Some, in fact, weren’t even aware of the new rules.

One merchant named Jose, completely unaware of the upcoming law, claimed there was no passport rule.

People flying into Mexico and Canada are already required to have passports. That hasn’t been a problem for Penasco, which only has one general aviation airport. Currently, only small planes use the airport. But the plan for the city was to expand the facility into an international airport, possibly within the next year.

The majority of tourists who visit Rocky Point can be broken into two groups: older visitors or people with families looking for a relaxing getaway on the beach, and college-aged party revelers in town for spring break or a concert.

The semiannual marathon concerts delivered by Tempe rockers Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers have become anticipated events for Penasco. The shows attract several thousand people from all parts of the United States and Canada each May and October.

The band held a special concert in Cholla Bay in January at JJ’s Cantina. I was invited.

During a normal May or October show, known as Circus Mexicus, Penasco overflows with Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers fans to whom most merchants and bar owners cater. On this trip during the “off-season,” the crowds were significantly down. It didn’t take long, however, for word to spread among bar and restaurant owners about another show.

“Are you in town for the concert?” becomes a common question asked by employees at hotels, restaurants and bars. At the club Around D Corner, the owner greets each person who walks in the door. It’s not long before he tries to attract more business by playing continuous Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers and Refreshments (Clyne and drummer PH Naffah’s previous band) on the club’s sound system.

In addition to the friendliness and laid back atmosphere of the city, one of the biggest draws to Rocky Point may be its affordability. As opposed to some of the other, better-known Mexican resort cities, lodging and food can be found at reasonable prices. Most restaurants serve food in generous portions. El Capitan, The Lighthouse and Crow’s Nest sit atop Whale Hill, offering patrons both excellent Mexican food and a spectacular view of the Sea of Cortez. Manny’s, a popular nightclub, especially during spring break, also serves great meals with generous portions in a more laid-back environment. For breakfast, there is the quaint Max’s Cafe, serving excellent food in a friendly environment.

For those looking for just a quick bite to eat, there are also $1 taco stands throughout the city that offer some of the best food in town.

Not only do many establishments in Rocky Point accept American currency, but they give U.S. dollars in change as well. Shops are plentiful throughout Puerto Penasco. Many are tourist traps that sell the same T-shirts in each store. But there are also several that offer handmade Mexican metal-work or glassware.

Despite the booming tourist and vacation home industry, a lot of work is also being done to help infrastructure keep up with the growing resorts. The road to Cholla Bay is still dirt, as are many of the side streets between each hotel. But more and more roads are being paved each year. Rodeo Drive was affectionately known by tourists as “The Dirt Mall” for many years because of the stores that lined the dusty street. Now the road, which also leads to a new condo development, is paved.