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Rambling Down to Rocky Point

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

In the wintertime, the warm desert sun can be soothing to muscles and bones grown a bit
rusty with time. Combine that warm sun with serene and remote ocean beaches, and the result
is something close to Nirvana. Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), in Mexico, is just such a
place. Located 65 miles south of the Arizona border town of Lukeville, this little fishing
village sits on a small rocky promontory jutting from the western shore of Sonora into the
Gulf of California (Sea of Cortés). Abutting some of the driest desert in North America,
Puerto Peñasco has temperatures similar to those found in southern Arizona. Motorhome
travelers from the United States and Canada have been wintering there for decades, enjoying
the remoteness, the fresh seafood, the margaritas, the laid back lifestyle and the miles of
sandy beaches that are cleaner than most we’ve seen in the United States. First settled in
the 1920s when an alleged mafioso drilled the first freshwater well and built a hotel,
Puerto Peñasco has a colorful history that includes well-known people looking for a
playground during Prohibition days. Later the village grew around a seafood industry
centered on deep-sea fishing and vast colonies of jumbo blue shrimp. During the 1980s, the
sea harvest declined because of over-fishing, but in 1994, the entire northern part of the
Gulf of California became an International Biosphere and commercial fishing was banned
north of Puerto Peñasco. The shrimp is making a comeback, and today tourism augments the
seafood industry, bringing prosperity to the region. The growth and development distress
many old-time RV travelers who come for the solitude, but they still come, along with
increasing numbers of newcomers. When you plan your trip, just be aware that spring break
and Cinco de Mayo (May 5) bring thousands of college students to town; you may want to
avoid those times. Located in what is called the Free Zone, Puerto Peñasco does not require
a passport or a visa. If you plan to travel farther into Mexico, check with your local auto
club office or the Mexican Government Tourism office for current regulations (see sidebar).
It was the middle of January as we began our trip, and the days were sunny and warm. Shrimp
season, which runs from September to April, was in full swing and we were drooling at the
thought of platters of the succulent grilled crustaceans. We were eager to walk the long
sandy beaches, visit colorful shops and experience the adventure of another culture.
Because gas is cheaper on the American side of the border, we joined the lines of other
RVers topping off their tanks in the tiny town of Why, Arizona. Then we traveled south on
Arizona Highway 85 about 28 miles to the Lukeville border crossing. Smiling Mexican border
patrol agents waved us across with no hassle. Vehicle searches are random, and it was our
lucky day. As you drive through Sonoyta on the Mexican side of the border, you will see
colorful shops and numerous farmacias lining the streets. Many Americans choose to buy
their prescription drugs here where prices are usually much cheaper than in the United
States. Just be sure to carry your written prescriptions with you. There are a number of
pharmacies in Puerto Peñasco also. While driving in Mexico, respect the speed limit and
come to a complete stop at all stop (ALTO) signs. Road signs through Sonoyta clearly
directed us to Mexico Highway 8, leading to Puerto Peñasco. It is not a superhighway, but
it’s in pretty good condition, having been paved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during
World War II when concern about Japan blocking the United States’ West Coast led to an
alternative Pacific port along the Gulf of California. (I’m not sure why mapmakers are so
fond of calling this inland sea the Gulf of California when all the locals call it the Sea
of Cortés.) Early on a weekday, we encountered virtually no traffic on Mexico Highway 8,
and knowing that it is patrolled by the Green Angels (mechanics in green trucks who offer
tourists mechanical aid and towing service) was a comfort. We watched for livestock on the
road; this is open-range country. In no time at all, we could see the sand dunes up ahead,
signaling our approach to Puerto Peñasco. Our choice for camping was the Playa Bonita RV
Park, where we had a beachfront site for the week. The rates were reasonable, and full
hookups were included. We were very pleased with our choice, primarily because of the
beautiful beach. The park office has plenty of information on things to see and do, and
fellow campers, upon learning that this was our first visit, were full of advice. We spent
our first day getting acquainted with the town, and as we turned the corner of Boulevard
Benito Juarez onto Malecón Kino, the street along the waterfront in Old Port, vendors began
darting in front of the vehicle, hailing us with calls of, “Shrimp, señor. I have the
freshest shrimp.” We had never seen shrimp so large. Going through the fish markets, it
didn’t take long to get an education about where the shrimp was fresh and where it wasn’t.
Each vendor claimed to have fair scales, and some even placed one-pound bags of beans on
their scales to show how accurate they were. My advice: Bring your own bag of beans and
check the scales for yourself. Planning to bring a cooler full of shrimp and red snapper
home with us, we decided which market we would buy from and told the employees what day we
would be back. They assured us the seafood would be ready, and it was. Tantalizing aromas
brought us to Mary’s Cocteleria, an open-air restaurant, and lunch was grilled shrimp with
garlic. It was so good we could have stayed there all afternoon, but the shops across the
street beckoned. Brightly colored pottery, blankets, T-shirts- we were in shoppers’ heaven.
Some of the prices quoted were outrageous, but the merchants expect you to haggle and they
all seemed to have about the same bottom-line price. English is widely spoken and everyone
is very friendly. It quickly became obvious to us that these people depend on tourists for
their livelihood and are eager to please. One merchant, in particular, spent quite some
time talking about life in Puerto Peñasco and noted that it is really more an extension of
the United States than of the real Mexico, but that didn’t diminish our Mexican experience.
You will find some lovely pieces of Talavera pottery here, and the prices are good. The
shops are small, and most do not take credit cards or checks, but there is no need to
change your dollars into pesos. We found ourselves wishing we had brought more cash, but
even though there are several banks in town with ATMs, we didn’t take the time to find
them. Dinner found us at another little waterfront eatery, Flavio’s. The margaritas were
perfect and the Mexican food outstanding. Any concerns we’d had about eating the food down
here were quickly dispelled. Every meal was deliciously prepared. Of course, we followed
fellow campers’ recommendations: We drank only bottled water even though we were told it
wasn’t necessary. Evening found us back at the motorhome just in time for a sunset stroll
along the beach. Tiny seashells covered the sand, and every few steps we stopped to examine
something. We left the shells on the beach because they provide homes for tiny hermit
crabs. Greatly enjoying the local food, we decided to forego what we had packed with us and
went back to Flavio’s for breakfast the next morning. The chile rellenos were the best we
had ever eaten. As we sat at our outdoor table, sea gulls circled overhead, looking for a
handout. Sunlight dappled the smooth waters of the sea, and flocks of pelicans lined the
shore. Shrimp boats were on the horizon, and our waiter told us that several of the boats
would be in the harbor soon to unload their catch, so we hurried down to watch. Boats in
all manner of repair lined the wharfs in a colorful panorama. A few fishermen displayed
their catch along the street, and all were friendly. We found deep-sea fishing charters
plentiful, and the reasonable package prices customarily include a license, gear, bait and
a guide. By afternoon, we were back in the shops, adding to our acquisition of pottery and
blankets. Sunset found us enjoying margaritas at a little outdoor bar just down the beach
from our motorhome and chatting with a couple who like bird-watching. Gulls and pelicans by
the thousands, as well as blue-foot-ed booby, sage sparrows, Western grebe, long-billed
curlews and many other birds, enjoy the nesting grounds around the northern tip of the
gulf. Saturday morning, we packed a picnic lunch, plenty of bottled water and sunscreen,
and set out to explore the beachside community of Los Conchas. The beaches are quieter
there, with no motorized traffic allowed, and we had many calories to walk off. Just beyond
is CEDO, the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans, where scientists
from around the world study the unique coastal-desert ecosystem around the gulf. Free
public tours of the museum and laboratories are available on Tuesday and Saturday
afternoons. Back in Old Port for the evening, we had dinner at La Curva, which boasts some
of the biggest (and most economical) combination plates in town. The food was delicious,
and a couple of guitar players serenaded us while we ate. What indulgence! With many
restaurants to choose from and meals at low prices, a trip to Puerto Peñasco is well worth
it, even if all you do is eat and drink. Our trip back to the states was uneventful, and
the U.S. border agents were just as friendly as those on the Mexican side. Several Puerto
Peñasco regulars reminded us that people who practice risky lifestyles are the ones who
generally run into trouble here, as they would anywhere else. Mexico welcomes the average
RVing gringo and is eager to make your stay comfortable. We are already planning our next

To drive your motorhome in Mexico, you’ll need: 1. Proof of citizenship (a passport or
original birth certificate; notarized affidavits and voter registration cards are no longer
accepted). 2. Photo I.D. for each person in the vehicle. 3. A valid U.S. driver’s license.
4. Copies of the vehicle’s title and registration, all in your name. If the motorhome is
being financed or rented and is not registered in your name, you need a notarized
permission letter from the title holder. 5. An international credit card. If you are
pulling a car with your motorhome, you need a second credit card in another person’s name
for the second vehicle (not necessary in Sonora if you get an Only Sonora pass at the
Sonora Tourist Center in Tucson). 6. Automobile liability insurance issued by a Mexican
insurance company for both the motorhome and the dinghy. Pets: You may bring only dogs or
cats with you (two per family) as long as you have (for each) a rabies certificate issued
within the last six months and a veterinarian’s statement that the animal is free of

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