Each year at Christmas time, Ms. Karen & I take a road trip from our home in the Tucson Mountains in search of our next adventure. Two years ago, we headed for the Zuni Pueblo, but for our purposes, the town was closed to tourists. So we continued on and ended up at Chaco Canyon, one of the most amazing archeological sites we have ever visited … at least in the New World.
Last year, 2016, we visited Silver City, New Mexico and enjoyed the Gila Cliff Dwellings, Pinos Altos (superb dinner at Buckhorn Saloon), Old Town Mesilla, and the ghost town of Stein. Here in New Mexico, we discovered tons of history related to Southern Arizona.
This year, 2017, it was off to Old Mexico to find out why so many Tucsonans rave about Puerto Peñasco; a.k.a “Rocky Point”.Read More
On our first night we stayed at the Sonoran Desert Conference Center in Ajo. Why Ajo? First, Ms. Karen had never been to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument just south of this old copper mining town. Second, just south of the Monument is the border crossing at Sonoyta, Mexico and an easy 1.5 hour drive on Route 8 to Puerto Peñasco.
Ajo is definitely worth a visit. Stuart and Emily are the Conference Center proprietors and are a great source of visitor information. The Conference Center is the old Curley School, now home to many artists in residence, as well as comfortable modern hotel rooms that were once classrooms. As for dining in Ajo, 100 Estrella Restaurant offers good food, especially specialty burgers.
Before leaving Ajo, we purchased Mexican Auto Insurance. It’s the LAW, and I had no ambition to see the inside of a Mexican jail. Full Coverage: $62 for three days South of the Border.
(TRAVEL ALERT: February, 2020, If you travel here, keep in mind that the border wall is currently being constructed through the Organ Pipe National Monument.)
Our visit to Organ Pipe National Monument was brief. The unpaved roads that wind through the Monument were in bad shape. The Monument supervisor in charge of maintenance took one look at our little Ford Escape and shook his head … indicating that he did not recommend we take the back roads until they are finished regrading them. (TRAVEL ALERT: 2020, If you travel here, keep in mind that the border wall is currently being constructed through the Organ Pipe National Monument.)
We crossed into Mexico at Sonoyta and headed directly to El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Sonora (translated as “The Pinacate and Great Desert of Altar Sonora”). “Pinacate” is named for the pinacate, a black beetle native to this area.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated El Pinacate and its sister park, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, as International Biosphere Reserves because of their unique natural features.
El Pinacate encompasses nearly 2,800 square miles of some of the most rugged desert on Planet Earth. Tourists from around the globe visit this reserve to see the world’s largest concentration of Maar craters, which were created by volcanic eruptions that occurred tens of thousands of years ago. The largest of the craters, El Elegante, is about a mile wide and 800 feet deep.
While it is still considered the Sonoran Desert, El Pinacante is very different from our Sonoran Desert that surrounds Tucson. The Southern Arizona desert is the wettest on earth, receiving an average of 12-13 inches of rain annually. The desert of Sonora, Mexico might get a third of that in a good year. It has very little vegetation by comparison to Southern Arizona. The main features of El Pinacate are comprised of black igneous rock, the result of great volcanic eruptions and vast lava flows.
The roads of El Pinacate are not paved, but were easily passable in a standard sedan. Along the 30 mile one-way stretch are many interpretive signs that help explain this amazing landscape. The visitors center is located several miles further south on Hwy 8. We definitely recommend you stop there, not only for the natural history, but also for the story of human habitation in this unforgiving land. Note: Many of the interpretive signs are in Spanish only, so bring your dictionary.
After spending several pleasant hours at El Pinacate, we continued on to our resort hotel on the beach, Peñasco del Sol. Mostly, this was an OK place to serve as our headquarters as we explored the old historic port and places like Cholla Bay where it appears that Americans have built many fine houses along the shore, reminiscent of the Balboa Peninsula, Newport Beach, California.
The staff was friendly and helpful. The margaritas were the best. The rooms at Peñasco del Sol Resort were not carpeted, so we could hear the footsteps of the people partying in the room above ours. One of them wore stilettos for sure. The shower was deficient; almost no hot water and very little water pressure. This would be OK in the summer, but it is winter now. When we mentioned the shower issue to the front desk, they apologized and gave us a voucher for two free breakfasts.
Miguel’s is the hotel restaurant. It was OK. Ms. Karen’s shrimp was not the best, and their Mexican cuisine was no competition for El Charro Cafe in Tucson. However, our room had a balcony overlooking the pool area and the beach beyond. Very nice. The hotel was built in 1991. Should we return, we may try one of the newer hotels on the “Sandy Beach”.
Tourists from Tucson and Southern Arizona usually come to Rocky Point in the Summer months to escape the heat. We were here in the dead of Winter, so the beach was not crowded and the temperature along the water was 60 degrees mid-day. Too cold for water sports, but pleasant nonetheless. We could easily imagine a few summer days on the beach here would be worth the 4-hour drive from Tucson.
Because of the surrounding sand dunes, there are many places to rent off-road vehicles, ATV’s and dune buggies. Watercraft is also available for rent. There is no shortage of charter cruises and fishing boats. Whale watching begins sometime in January, although we were told by our concierge that whales had already been spotted.
IF you have suggestions, please contact me at: Jim@southernarizonaguide.com. We are interested to find the BEST of Puerto Peñasco.
The morning after we arrived, we took a drive down to the old port where we had lunch at Flavio’s Restaurant patio right over the water. Ms. Karen purchased earrings from a street vendor and enjoyed her shrimp cocktail, more like ceviche with small shrimp, than prawns and cocktail sauce, but tasty. The margaritas were ordinary.
After lunch, we wandered among the many shops. The streets are narrow, one way, and crowded. Hard to image how crowded it would be in the summer. In the winter there is ample parking in a lot just to the right of Flavios as you enter the old harbor. I am not sure I would want to bring a car down here in the summer.
All the shops were selling typical tourist items: sombreros, serapes, sweatshirts, and tee shirts. One tee shirt got my attention. “This is not a beer belly. It is a fuel tank for a sex machine.” I almost bought it. Ms. Karen bought a blanket. She has several and uses them for tablecloths and picnic blankets.
On our third morning, we headed north toward Yuma taking the “scenic” route along the Sea of Cortez. Unfortunately, the road never got us very close to gulf or the Colorado River Delta. We were running late, so we did not stop in El Golfo de Santa Clara, the only access to the gulf along the way. We tried to cross back into the USA through San Luis, but somehow missed the port of entry there. There are no signs pointing the way, although the “fence” was visible from our car. And, yes Donald, there is a fence.
After an hour of being seemingly lost on the most dreadful road you can imagine, we stumbled onto a line of cars with United States license plates in Los Algodones. We assumed and hoped they were waiting to cross the border. After another hour of stop and go, winding through the streets of Los Algodones, which was lined with vendors and dental offices, we finally reached American soil. Our advice is: If you are not familiar with Mexico, stick to Sonoyta or Mexicali entrances.
Now, if we could only find Yuma, Arizona where we had reservations at the historic Coronado Motel near the historic district. More on Yuma in our next newsletter.