Puerto Peñasco is a small town located in the northwest portion of the state of Sonora about 62 miles from the Arizona border. It is located on the small strip of land that joins the Peninsula of Baja with the rest of Mexico. The area is part of the Altar Desert, one of the driest and hottest of the larger Sornoran Desert. Because of the lack of water, this area had no permanent settlements until the 1920s. In the 30s and 40s, the construction of a railroad line connecting Baja to the rest of Mexico passed through here and allowed for the development of a permanent town. For most of its history, the area has been associated with fishing, which is still a major source of income. However, since the 1990s, there has been a push to develop the area for tourism, as it is already heavily visited by people from Arizona and California. Puerto Peñasco is often called “Rocky Point” in English, and has been nicknamed “Arizona’s beach” as it is the coast closest to the major cities of Phoenix and Tucson, and many Arizonans spend weekends here.
The city is known by two names, one in English (Rocky Point) and one in Spanish (Puerto Peñasco or “Rocky Port”). In 1826, retired Lt. Robert William Hale Hardy of the British Royal Fleet was sailing in this area searching for pearls and precious metals. He named the area Rocky Point and it was identified as Rocky Point on marine maps until Lazaro Cardenas changed it to Puerto Punta Peñasco (Port Rocky Point). To simplify pronunciation, the English name lost the word “Port” and the Spanish name dropped “Punta.”
Prior to the 1920s, the area was just one of the safe harbors for wandering fisherman who worked the upper Gulf of California. During fishing seasons, fishermen from Guaymas, Bahia Kino, Puerto Libertad and Puerto Lobos began to come here to camp out. The main attraction for these fishermen was a fish called Totoaba, which was fished not for its meat but its use in medicine. At this time the area was known as Punta de Piedra o Punta Peñasco. The name comes from a large quantity of solidified lava that hit the Gulf. Even as early as the 19th century, fishermen from Arizona came here. Since there was no source of drinking water, it was not settled permanently. The first residents are considered to be Victor Estrella, Benjamin Bustamante, Melquiades Palacio, Luis Mercado, Juan Mercado and Tecla Bustamante, the last considered to be the first permanent resident. Many of our streets are named after the founders.
In the 1920s, John Stone from Ajo, Arizona came here to build a hotel/casino to take advantage of people coming over the border to escape Prohibition. He drilled a well, and set up flight service from Phoenix and Tucson to bring in tourists to drink, gamble and fish. It is said that Al Capone frequented the place. Posada La Roca has pictures in the lobby of this quaint hotel located by the fish markets. The business did well until Stone and the locals began to quarrel. Stone burned down the hotel and blew up the well before he left.
In the 1930s, a railroad was built to connect the Baja California to the rest of Mexico, passing by Puerto Peñasco. The town began to grow again, adding a police delegation in 1932, as a dependency of the nearby municipality of Sonoyta, even though the town was part of the municipality of Caborca. The railroad line created new population centers and the initial layout of the city and port of Puerto Peñasco was begun in the 1940s. During this same time shrimp fishing was having an impact on the local economy. By 1941, the village had 187 inhabitants who made a living by fishing or working for the Sonora-Baja California railway.
In 1952, Puerto Peñasco separated from the municipality of Caborca and comprised the localities of Sonoyta, Bahía La Choya, 21 de Marzo and Cuahtémoc. Sonoyta was the second largest population center at the time, but it had been a settlement since 1694 when Jesuit missionaries established a mission with the name of San Marcelo de Conoitac. In 1989, the municipality of Plutarco Elias Calles was split from Puerto Peñasco.
Until the 1990s, there had been little tourism here except for campers, fishermen and those looking to take advantage of Mexico’s legal drinking age of 18. The municipality’s pristine beaches with clear waters stretched for a hundred miles north or south with almost no development. The push to make Puerto Peñasco or Rocky Point a major tourism center was initiated in 1993, with the government joining with private investors to build condominiums and other facilities. The goal has been to take advantage of the area’s proximity to the United States and Arizonan’s preference to spend beach weekends here. Much of the inspiration for the effort came from the success of Cancun, which nearly virgin beach before a government/private venture developed it. Another reason to look to tourism was the declining catches of fishermen here, due to overfishing and pollution. The federal government contributed two billion pesos in infrastructure, especially roadways and an Airport and the area was declared a free zone, meaning foreigners could visit the area without a visa. One of the first condo/hotel complexes to be built was Plaza Las Glorias in the early 1990s. More condos and hotels, as well as restaurants, supermarkets and bars began to appear. The last major development has been the Mayan Palace, a condominium, hotel and golf course complex. There was some economic instability in 1994 and 1995, but it did not derail development here for long, coming back by 1999. Between 2002 and 2007 economic growth here was at twelve percent. The real estate market started to go bust here in 2007 due to the economic slowdown in the United States. 99% of condominium buyers were from the U.S. and many condo owners were trying to resell. The government is still negotiating with companies such as Marriott and Carnival Cruise Lines to build facilities here.
The airport has started receiving planes from the Los Angeles International Airport and the new highway shortens the drive from California by 100 miles after fishing, tourism is the most important economic activity for the city. Development to date includes seventy restaurants, forty two hotels and motels and fourteen RV facilities.
The oldest part of the town was founded between the edge of the sea and Ballena Hill. The base of the area is volcanic rock; much of it solidified lava flows from when ancient eruptions met the ocean. To promote tourism here, the city was declared to be part of the border “free zone” although it is about 100 km from the U.S. This means that foreigners can drive from the U.S. to Puerto Peñasco without obtaining visas. This makes the area attractive to visitors from Arizona, California and Nevada. In a relatively short time, Puerto Peñasco has become a major tourist center. It contains numerous hotels as well as RV and primitive camping sites. Many consider Puerto Peñasco to be “Arizona’s beach” with Tucson and Phoenix closer than the Mexican cities of Mexicali and Hermosillo. Most visitors come for the beaches and to fish. The annual fishing festival occurs in June starting on Navy Day on June 1. These celebrations feature Mariachis, folk dance and a festival queen. Another fishing tournament is sponsored by the La Choy Bay Club. Beaches here include El Mirador, La Cholla, Estero Morúa, Las Conchas, Playa de Oro and Playa Bonita. Bonita is noted for its sand which is a light brown color. One attraction of the beaches is the tidal pools. Tides here can raise and lower the sea on the relatively flat land from dozens to hundreds of meters. Low tide reveals a large number of tidal pools in the craters of the rocky coast. In these pools are large numbers of crabs, starfish, and other marine life. There is also an estuary by the name of Morúa east of the community of Las Conchas. Here live thousands of birds, including migratory species.
A large number of beachfront condominiums have been built in this area including Las Conchas, Sandy Beach Resorts, Costa Diamante, Las Palomas Beach and Golf Resort, Sonora Sea, Sornoran Spa, Sonoran Sea, Bella Sirena and Las Palmas. The first condos, Las Conchas and Bahías Choya, were built in the far southeast and far northwest respectively. Interest in property here has been unexpectedly strong prompting further developments such as Sandy Beach. This development has plans for a golf course, malls, marinas and more condos.
Crafts for sale here include shell jewelry, iron pieces and carved ironwood. The airport is a joint government- private enterprise project which was inaugurated in 2008 and has a daily capacity of 2,000 passengers. Puerto Peñasco is a popular destination for Spring Break, especially for high school and college students from Arizona and California for both its proximity and its 18-year-old drinking age.
The Universidad de Sonora has its Centro de Investigaciones Cientificas y Tecnologicas (Scientific and Technological Research Center) as well as its Centro de Estudios del Desierto (Center for Desert Studies) here which are open to visitors. These institutions started as a joint project with the Laboratory of Atmospheric Sciences of the University of Arizona in 1963 to develop methods of desalinization of sea water. In 1973 and 1974, the Unidad Experimental Peñasco was founded to research the raising of blue shrimp or Penaeus Stylirostris. This project has been the leader in the development of shrimp farming techniques in Mexico.
The CET-MAR Aquarium is a marine research center open to the public with displays of marine life such as turtles, octopus and numerous fish species. The aquarium is small but well worth a visit
Many residents here are American, most restaurants offer menus in English and most business accept dollars. Puerto Peñasco is popular with retirees, especially those from the United States who have trailers and RVs. However, there are retirees here from all over the world. The town has an English language newspaper as well.
As municipal seat, the city of Puerto Peñasco has governing jurisdiction over 27 other named communities, which cover a territory of 9,774.45 km2. The municipality has a total population of 57,342 inhabitants, of whom all but 586 live in the city proper. The municipality borders with the municipalities of San Luis Río Colorado, Plutarco Elías Calles, and Caborca. To its north-northwest is Yuma County, Arizona, in the United States and to the south is the Gulf of California.
The land is generally flat with the small mountain range of Sonoyta to the north and east of the area. Most of the territory is the Altar Desert, which extends north and east of the city, and a volcanic zone called Sierra El Pinacate. The municipality has 110 km of beaches. Near the city are fields of sand dunes of the Altar Desert, which is one of the driest in the world. ATVs and motocross are permitted on the sand dunes. Its climate is dry and hot with an average year round high temperature of 28.7°C, but temperatures as high as 50°C are not uncommon in the summer. The rainy season is July and August, with an annual precipitation of 90.6 mm. Most vegetation and animal life is typical for sandy deserts, scrub brush, reptiles (including the Gila monster) and small mammals.
Farming and livestock is nearly non-existent due to the dry conditions. Some industry exists, associated with fishing such as canning and freezing. The commercial sector of the economy support 57% of the population selling food, clothes, pharmaceuticals and other items to both the local population and to tourists. The second most important economic sector is fishing, especially shrimp fishing. Tourism drives most of the commercial sector. The municipality receives about 1,000 visitors a day, with about 85% coming from the U.S. state of Arizona.
El Pinacate is a volcanic region and a biosphere reserve that covers 714,556.6 hectares which covers parts of the municipalities of Puerto Peñasco, San Lius Rio Colorado and Plutarco Elías Calles. This area has been considered one of the most arid and inhospitable of the Sonoran Desert. In spite of this, the area contains a wide variety of wildlife and evidence of human habitation from ancient times, which has attracted the attention of both tourists and researchers. It contains 553 species of plants with cactuses such as Saguaro, Cholla and Ocotillo dominating. With the rainy season, the area explodes with short-lived wildflowers. The area also contains 41 species of mammals, 237 species of birds, forty five of reptiles and four types of amphibians. It was declared a protected biosphere reserve by the Mexican government in 1993. The entrance to the biosphere park is located 50 km from the city of Puerto Peñasco. The nucleus of the biosphere consists of the Sierra el Pinacate, Adair Bay and Sierra del Rosario which cannot be developed under any circumstances. The main attraction for tourists is the volcanic craters. The major ones are named Badillo, Molina (or Trébol), Mc Dougal (the largest) and Caravajales. In addition, there is the Grande Volcano which stands at 3,200 feet tall and has a depth of 950 ft.
San Jorge Island, also known as Bird Island, is really a small group of rocky outcroppings that are just above the surface of the ocean about 40 km southeast of the city. The rocks are capped in white like the Alps, not with snow, but with the guano of innumerable sea birds such as seagull and pelicans, which live here. Below the birds live approximately 3,000 sea lions very close to the water. It is the largest concentration of sea lions in Mexico. It is possible to kayak and/or snorkel here.
Nine native cultures can be found in the municipality. The Guarijíos have a wide variety of crafts such as figures made with natural materials such as palm fronds and clay. They also make hats from a variety of natural fibers. The Mayos, who call themselves the Yoreme, have a rich oral tradition. Other groups include the Opatas, the Papagos, the Pimas, the Seris, the Yaquis the Cucapa and the Kikapu, all of whom are noted for basketmaking using desert plants