When I visit a new place, I like to wake before dawn, then set out to explore the area when no one is around. It’s a great way to get your feel for a town and orient yourself to your surroundings without the pressure of traffic, screaming kids, or sometimes inclement weather. I usually tell my wife I'm headed to get her Starbucks and use that as an excuse to head off the beaten path a bit, and see where I am.
Recently, I took an opportunity to do just that in the Mexican beach town of Puerto Peñasco, about four hours south of Phoenix, Ariz.
Phoenicians and folks from the region have been flocking to Puerto Peñasco (or as Americans often refer to it, “Rocky Point”) for vacations seemingly forever. My father-in-law tells stories (as fathers-in-law do) of traveling there since the 1960s, where his family would camp along the miles of pristine beach in this mostly desolate desert region. Since then, this area at the northernmost spot along the Sea of Cortez has transformed from a sleepy fishing village to become a vacation mecca for Americans who mostly reside in the southwestern U.S. The draw to Rocky Point is simple: affordability; clean, sandy beaches; the Latin culture; and recreation opportunities such as off-roading, deep sea fishing, and other water-related activities. Often referred tongue-in-cheek as “Arizona’s Beach”, thousands of U.S. visitors flood the city over nearly every American holiday. Streams of American families in yacht-like SUVs can lock up the border crossing for miles in each direction. In fact, according to the Puerto Peñasco Convention & Visitors Bureau, more than 33,000 Americans traveled to Rocky Point over the July Fourth timeframe in 2022.
Large exoduses such as this means most of the town's restaurants, bars, shops and stores all cater somewhat to Americans and most people who work in these establishments speak English fluently, making the trip an easy "overseas" destination for even the most sheltered American. While there are plenty of hotels to stay at during the trip, most Americans who travel to Rocky Point either own a home there, or stay in short-term rentals. These homes typically include high-rise condos to houses in one of the beachfront tourist areas such as Sandy Beach or Las Conchas. Most of the houses would be considered upper middle class in the U.S., with a few palatial rentals available at a hefty cost. The condos, however, are typically luxurious with 5-star amenities and all provide stunning views from their balconies.
Aside from the resorts and condos which line the beach front around Puerto Peñasco, the town itself is quite humble and is by no means fancy. You will regularly witness is shattering juxtapositions such as viewing one of the many opulent resorts with their shimmering glass and stark-white facades while local mothers usher their barefoot children along stained, dusty sidewalks searching through trash bags for empty bottles and cans to collect money. And while this does not describe most of the town’s 60,000 residents, scenes like that tend to inspire introspection and stimulate perspective for those who care enough to pay attention.
Central to the city’s life, the port of Puerto Peñasco is littered with fishing and tourist boats, some in great shape and some showing their age in the way of faded paint and rusted hulls. There are city blocks next to the port where boats are on stands in dry dock, with origins displayed on them ranging from Bellingham, Wash., to Mazatlan. As you leave the port for two blocks in any direction, you reach one of the two primary nightlife tourist districts. To the southwest of the port sits the Malecón, where the streets are lined with small seedy hotels, repetitive trinket shops, dozens of pharmacies, shockingly good restaurants, and bars whose disrepair is only visible during daylight.. To the north of the port sits Calle 13, or 13th Street, where more restaurants and bars call home, as well as a few adult entertainment establishments. These two areas is where you'll find most visitors on any given day when they're not at the beach.
But there's more to Puerto Peñasco than just margaritas and souvenirs, and I intend to share those other aspects in future posts. For now, I’ll share photos from that one morning I woke up early enough to trek downtown and explore the Malecon before most people were even awake.
What would you like to know about Puerto Peñasco? Shoot me a note, and I’ll cover that topic in an upcoming post.