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Cancun on the Sea of Cortez (Read what others are saying)

August 20, 2007

On a recent Friday morning, the lobby reception desk of the Sonoran Sun Resort was covered with more than a hundred orange parking passes paired with room keys.

The reception desk personnel were ready for the weekend onslaught. Nearly all of the arriving guests checking into the 228-unit resort on the glimmering blue Sea of Cortez that day would be Arizonans. This is their secret getaway, after all. Puerto Peñasco is Arizona's beach.

It's a secret obfuscated with many names. People in Arizona refer to the Mexican city of Puerto Peñasco as Rocky Point, its English translation. The name in either version refers to a Gibraltar-like rock outcropping that punctuates two long stretches of beach.

The sea itself has conflicting names. Local Mexicans prefer to say Sea of Cortez, or Mar de Cortés, even though English maps label the sea between Baja California and the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa as the "Gulf of California."

The "Gulf of California" name arose as a politically correct alternative to "Cortez," the cruel Spanish conquistador who battled the Aztecs in 1519-21. Almost nothing in Mexico bears the Cortez name now, except the sea, but local Mexicans somehow want the sea's original name to survive.

Whatever the names, the tourism destination is starting to look like other well-established Mexican sea resorts, like Cancún. It already resembles the Caribbean resort as it appeared 20 years ago, especially the way Puerto Peñasco's line of towers stretches several miles west of the Mexican city, the resort zone known as Sandy Beach.

The economic model for Puerto Peñasco differs significantly from Cancún, however. Whereas hotels catering to one-time or occasional tourists dominate Cancún, Puerto Peñasco's developments are entirely condominiums owned by frequent repeat visitors.

Puerto Peñasco, if nothing else, is a reflection of Arizona's rising prosperity. Puerto Peñasco is 62 miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border. If Arizonans were not grabbing up condos, Puerto Peñasco would remain the isolated fishing village it was before the resort boom began.

Puerto Peñasco's condo model is working. In fact, developers cannot seem to build condo towers fast enough. An 80-year master plan already has been designed for the five miles of Sandy Beach that envisions more condo towers, a golf course, neighborhoods of second homes, commercial strips and even senior housing.

On the opposite side of the Mexican city, the shore's most luxurious resort, the Mayan Palace, operates several miles away, but it plans to expand, too.

All of this glitz surrounds a Mexican city of 45,000 residents, a community so small it does not even have a movie theater. That will change, however. To accommodate the resort growth, an international airport will open in 2009.

Not longer after, a desalinization water plant is planned to supplement the current underground water supply. A new highway under construction connecting with Southern California no doubt will facilitate more tourism demand. A Wal-Mart is coming, too, just like in Cancún.

Tourists, of course, do not have to be condo owners to visit Puerto Peñasco. The condos are rented out on dates when the owners are away. On our trip, tourists from as far away as New York City stayed at the Sonoran Sun resort.

Because the condos have kitchens, refrigerators, balcony dining tables and washer/dryer units, the first stop for visitors is usually Puerto Peñasco's lone grocery store, Super Ley.

Once the kitchen is stocked and the luggage unpacked, visitors can concentrate on the real purpose of their visits — the wonderful beaches and the sprawling resort pools.

The condo economic model makes Puerto Peñasco perfect for families with small children. The resort managers, though, have struggled to make this happen. At one point, Puerto Peñasco was popular for wild Spring Break crowds.

To subdue the partying, the resorts now generally enforce a 25-year-old age limit for condo renters. Exceptions are made for couples younger than 25 wanting to be married and/or spend their honeymoons in Puerto Peñasco.

English is readily understood throughout the city and the resort zone. The U.S. dollar is the dominant currency. Visitors can even receive U.S. currency in change instead of pesos.

The sea is wonderful at Puerto Peñasco. Clear and turquoise-colored, the sea has its own personality, distinctive because of its wide tidal swings. The shore will be 40 yards farther from a resort at sunbreak from where it was the afternoon before, because of the shallow seabed.

A few, but not many, seagulls and pelicans occupy the seashell-crusted shorelines. One warning: my wife, Lucy, had the bad luck to be stung on one foot when she stepped on a small, sand-buried stingray while in waist-high water about 20 yards from the shore. Stingray incidents seem to be a rare event, however.

Otherwise, my family, including 13-year-old daughter Emily, enjoyed the sea, especially when low winds made it nearly as calm as a swimming pool. Although sunset cruises, deep-sea fishing, snorkeling, parasailing and banana boat rides are available, the beach and hotel pool were fabulous enough. We concentrated on relaxing, even taking the time to build a sand castle.

As easy as it would be to forget you are in Mexico, it would be just as much a mistake. We made sure to escape the fantasy resort world by dining for lunch at a Puerto Peñasco taquería and dinner at a seafood restaurant beneath the "Rocky Point" lighthouse.

Dining one evening at the Old Port, also known as La Choya, (again, two names for the same place), is a must. We enjoyed a spectacular sunset, fireworks launched from sunset cruise ships, and the view of the night-lit resort towers along Sandy Beach, not to mention tasty fish.

We also spent a couple of hours shopping the curio shops along Avenida 32, a collection of souvenir stores every Mexican tourism city has. All of the objects clearly were not locally made, even if they were marked as Puerto Peñasco or Rocky Point. The folkloric plates and glasses, T-shirts, towels, etc., were made in Central or South Mexico. If you need gifts, though, you can bargain with the proprietors.

We couldn't help but notice the unpaved streets in Puerto Peñasco. Only 18 percent of them are paved, but San Antonio has a role in changing that. The San Antonio-based North American Development Bank is lending $2.27 million to the city, which will match the loan with its own funds, to pay for more than 10 miles of paving in the city, not the resort zones.

The project gives priorities to high-traffic streets with the most dust. Paving streets will cut down on the high rate of respiratory diseases in the city.

Puerto Peñasco may be Arizona's beach, but South Texas residents may not want to rule it out. Looking at a map, Cancún and Puerto Peñasco are about equal distances from San Antonio. Tourists who have visited Cancún several times, as well as the Pacific resort cities, may want an alternative.

Puerto Peñasco, blessed by the Sea of Cortez, is headed for its own stardom on Mexico's ever-lengthening tourism parade.

David Hendricks is an Express-News business columnist
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