Rocky Point History
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 Navy 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 President Lázaro Cárdenas 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, Bahía 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.
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 water 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. The business did well until Stone and the locals began to quarrel. Stone burned down the hotel and blew up the water well before he left.
In the 1930s, under President Lázaro Cárdenas, 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. In 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 Cuauhtémoc. 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 Elías Calles was split from Puerto Peñasco. Until the 1990s, there had been little tourism here except for campers, fishermen and those (including college students from the University of Arizona) 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 the preference of Arizona residents to spend beach weekends here. An important action on this modernization concept was the zoning program in 1995, implemented by the Secretary of Urban Infrastructure and Ecology of the Sonora state, Vernon Perez Rubio. It organized a total of 104,385 hectares, and designated 10,971 hectares for a touristic reserve and productive activities, 8,671 hectares for a low density touristic-housing reservation, and 6,462 hectares for a medium density touristic-housing reservation.
Much of the inspiration for the effort came from the success of Cancún, which was a 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 (although a passport is still needed). 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 was at twelve percent. The local real estate market started to go bust 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 Marriottand Carnival Cruise Lines to build facilities here. The new “Home Port del Mar de Cortes” (Sea of Cortez) cruise ship terminal is currently under construction between Sandy Beach and Cholla Bay (La Chola), northwest of the central city.
The airport has started receiving scheduled flights from Los Angeles International Airport and from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada. 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 over one hundred 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, Phoenix and Yuma 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 Choya 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 there used to be 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, 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.
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 Científicas y Tecnológicas (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.
Many residents here are American, most restaurants offer menus in English, and most businesses accept U.S. 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, the “Rocky Point Times,” which is family-owned and operated, and has been published monthly since 1993.