Super thrilled to have helped Rick enjoy his visit to Paradise (in Penasco)!!
Need an escape? Puerto Peñasco offers beachfront living and coastal cuisine
Veteran band tour manager Rick Marino drives us to Rocky Point for clam cocktails, lava fields and ATVs.
Rick Marino, DESERT magazine.
When you think about the landlocked state of Arizona, the beach really doesn’t come to mind, does it? Sure, there are some fancy resorts that have a beach-type pool, or maybe the shore along the Colorado River chain of lakes, but this month’s road trip took me to Puerto Peñasco, or Rocky Point on the Sea of Cortez. This small town is just four hours away from Phoenix, as a matter of fact! And it is the most beautiful, clear, clean ocean beach I have found without having to get on an airplane!
The best way I have found to drive there is through Mexicali: From Palm Desert, it takes about five-and-a-half hours (including a stop for some tacos!). Google Maps is an excellent navigator, taking you through Mexicali and some farm towns to the newer coastal route that ends at Puerto Peñasco. The drive crosses over the Colorado River before it empties into the Gulf of California, and then through some sandy dunes with mountain and sea vistas. There is a small fishing village, El Golfo de Santa Clara, which has a gas station if you need. I have explored it a few times but never really found anything to come back for.
After a couple hours through the desert, a skyline of tall buildings emerges on the horizon as I near my destination, and it is quite different from what I have come to expect from a remote Mexican beach town. Passing a large windmill, I make my way to the Sandy Beach area where all the resorts are. Located a few miles from downtown, Sandy Beach is the first certified “clean” beach in the Mexican state of Sonora and does not disappoint.
The resorts here are condo/hotel-style rentals with ocean view balconies, kitchens and laundry rooms. They are excellent for families or groups of friends who want an affordable stay. Prices range from $100 on up per night. The Sonoran Resorts are my personal favorite, as all the units are within 100 yards of the water. Each has its own front desk and an onsite restaurant/bar – some even have swim up bars in the pool! The spas and grounds are meticulously maintained. The Sonoran Spa was the first one built in 2001 and, since then, they have added the Sonoran Sea, Sun and Sky.
I made a new friend when I booked my room online. Denise Ackerly runs paradiseinpenasco.com, which is easy to navigate and full of all the information you need before driving here. After I called to find out more, we hit it off with our love of Mexico. Denise and her husband discovered Rocky Point in 2012 and ended up buying a place of their own. They rent it out when they go home to the states, and she was able to turn it into a business renting out other condos. Best of all, when you call she helps figure out what is best for you or your family. I like good service. And YES, I’ve been thinking about buying a condo there every day since I have been back! Errrr.
Check-in is easy at the front desk of the Sonoran Sun. Condo 801e has a balcony that wraps around the building for a 180-degree view of the beach. No sooner did I put my things down did I get my trunks on and head to the beach. The sand is perfect as is the water – crystal clear, no waves or rocks, and warm! Perfect for kids, and me, too! The water temperature here in the summer can reach up to 90 degrees and it slowly cools down into December, making a fall visit the perfect time of year to chase the endless summer and avoid the crowds. There are vendors on the beach that offer massages, piña coladas and more – best of all, they do not hassle you.
I’m off to explore the “touristy” part of town – the Malecon, which is basically a seaside “boardwalk” in Latin American countries. I make my way downtown and grab some lunch at Mariscos El Calamar Gigante (the Giant Squid) after a tip from the front desk. This place is so good, I end up coming back three times for the clam cocktails served in their giant shells, and shrimp tacos – my favorite. Past the port full of shrimp boats, the docks are lined with pescaderias, or fish markets. Stop into any one of them for all kinds of fresh shrimp in different sizes, as well as other fish and seafood. It’s easy and cheap to buy a big bag and cook in your condo!
The Malecon is all restaurants, bars and gift shops. I find it best to park the car and walk around, see the El Camaronero statue (“The Shrimp Fisherman”) and maybe get some ice cream. Whale Hill, above the Malecon, is where I grab a sunset drink and some snacks at Fish, which is perched on a cliff under the lighthouse.
The beaches and estuaries south of the city are home to several oyster farms and are a great place for shelling. Continuing past the Las Conchas area and taking the main road toward the airport for about 10 minutes, I turn off onto a dirt road for about a mile before it ends at an oyster farm, or ostionera, and a restaurant called El Barco, “The Ship.” It is, by far, my favorite place to hang out in Peñasco. Located on the sand at the edge of the water, they serve up fresh-shucked, to-order oysters, seafood and ceviche. Sit down, and order several dozen – served with hot sauce and fresh lime – then kick back!
There is no shortage of even more good food to be had in town. Mariachis y Tequila has excellent Mexican food and margaritas, and is located on Rodeo Drive, a souvenir strip where you can find blankets, gifts and pottery. I love to barter with the locals for them. Pollo Lucas is under a large palapa, and its marinated char-grilled chicken served family style with rice, beans and homemade tortillas is possibly the best char-grilled chicken I’ve ever had.
For tacos at night, I found Tacos El Poblano and Tacos Brissa. I like the caramel style with cheese and carne asada in flour tortillas. Combo Taco is great for seafood tacos during the day – theirs are huge, so keep that in mind when ordering! For breakfast, try Rosy’s and Kaffee Haus, or the restaurants at the resorts are great, too. If you want to cook in your condo, there is a Sam’s Club in town as well as several markets to choose from. Another tip: Tequila is much less expensive, even for the good stuff! For dessert, I found Churros Peñasco lit up like a circus tent on a side road near Tacos El Poblano. It’s the go-to place for everyone in town at night.
Another cool adventure is the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located about 30 minutes north of town, the reserve is a volcanic field where NASA astronauts trained in the ’60s because of the similarity of the land to the moon’s surface. The entrance fee is about $5 and any vehicle can make the three-hour roundtrip tour to see volcanic peaks, cinder cones and a couple of large craters. Keep in mind this is a one-way route. Also, the Pinacate/Schuk Toak Visitors Center located a few miles toward town is worth a stop. Here, they offer nature walks to the dunes, information videos in the theater, and gallery and museum space about area history, wildlife and tribal heritage. The best time to go on this trip is in the morning, and make sure you have plenty of water and gas.
Driving around, there are many places to rent ATVs. Right outside of the resort, I rent one to explore Cholla Bay to the north. There are some cool restaurants to be found and when the water goes out at low tide, you can drive on it and dig for clams in the bay, or take a ride up San Juan hill. Other activities are snorkeling with sea lions, fishing and whale watching. From December to March, there are humpback and fin whales in the northern Sea of Cortez – just ask the front desk to set you up with the info.
The only way to get to Puerto Peñasco is by car or bus (or private plane if you are lucky enough to roll like that). It is a very special place that citizens of Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas have been coming to for years – plus, really smart older people who discovered their retirement dreams. I mean, where else can you find an affordable beachfront home? There is no doubt in my mind that, soon, the planes will come and maybe even the cruise ships. But hopefully not too soon – for now, it’s just a road trip away!
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