Arizona’s Beach

One of Puerto Penasco’s broad beaches

In mid-March, we drove six hours to the Sonoran town of Puerto Peñasco, known by many Americans as Rocky Point, its meaning in English. Drive due east on Highway 8 for three hours, and you’ll reach the twin towns of Calexico and Mexicali. Then drive southeast, down the coast of the beginning of the Sea of Cortez, due south of Yuma, Arizona. Puerto Peñasco has beautiful expansive beaches, some lovely Mexican resorts and not much else yet. But it’s the site of spring break for all the Arizona universities, with its beaches, good food and 18-year-old drinking age.

We’ve been members of the Vidanta group of hotels for eleven years, having signed up in 2007 at the Mayan Palace in Puerto Vallarta. Puerto Peñasco has, not only a Mayan Palace where we stayed, but a Grand Mayan resort with fabulous golf course next door.

We were also attracted to the area by the quantity of bird species, and saw 61 different birds while we were there, checking out its estuaries as well as the northern end of the Sea of Cortez. Here’s the entire list: Puerto Peñasco birds March 2019

When we arrived in time for a late lunch, we tried out Cholla Bay Oyster House at the northern end of town, right on the beach with a grand view, lovely local oysters on the half shell, and maybe the best crab cakes we’ve ever eaten. The manager, Edgar Silva, was a terrific host, and we ordered a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon blanc once we discovered that there’s not a single craft beer anywhere in the town! No bottles, cans, taps or growlers. Craft Brewing hasn’t arrived yet. Hopefully, it will before our next visit.

We left Cholla Bay for the rather long drive to the Mayan Palace, which is several miles south of the town of Puerto Peñasco, but when we got there, the drive was worth it. Seeing that we are members, the front staff upgraded us to a bedroom suite with a kitchenette and a wonderful view of the ocean and the pools that fill the resort. We rested a while after the long drive, then found the sports bar for happy hour, when the drinks are two for one.

Bakal Restaurant

The dining room, called Bakal, has an extensive buffet and also a menu, and the food turned out to be excellent, so we ate dinner there several times, since it was a half-hour drive into town, and Puerto Peñasco’s roads are very dark at night.

The next morning, we rode on the shuttle to the golf course and walked around part of it, logging in the first selections for our bird list. One of the birds we saw was a Loggerhead Shrike. Those of you who are interested in birds will be as surprised as we were that we saw perhaps twenty shrike while in Puerto Peñasco. They popped up on bushes and power lines everywhere we went. Always solitary, but so many of them!

Chef Mickey’s Place

We had read very good reviews on a restaurant called Chef Mickey’s Place and decided to drive into town to try it out. They weren’t quite open when we arrived, so we sat out in the Sonoran sun at one of their outside tables while we waited. Presently, a young woman brought us menus, then another brought water and silverware. We ended up staying right there and ordered a bottle of chardonnay. While we waited for our Caesar salads, a man walked into the courtyard and introduced himself. He was Mickey himself, and he welcomed us to the place and said that he hoped we would enjoy the food. He was born in Guadalajara, grew up in Las Vegas, and now had this restaurant.

Laurel ordered blackened grouper with shrimp, and I chose the giant bacon-wrapped local shrimp. The food was outstanding. I can’t remember Laurel raving so about a plate of food, and my prawns were incredible. We were so impressed with the food that we ordered two desserts, something we rarely do, and were rewarded with a perfect classic flan and apple-strudel-topped cheesecake. The manager, Miguel, was all smiles when we left, hearing all our oohs and ahhs.

Tonio at Three Boys Fish

We promised to come back later in the week, and we did, on Friday for lunch. Mickey does two or three wonderful things with the local grouper, and also with flounder, neither of which are common in San Diego. We talked to him about the quality of his fish, and he called his supplier, Three Boys Fish, and told us to see Tonio on our way north the next day. On Saturday at the Malecon, we did just that, and brought back two pounds each of flounder and grouper, as well as a couple of pounds of colossal shrimp. The shrimp was seven dollars a pound, and the fish only three.

The weather forecast predicted rain for Monday, and it was right. We got up Monday morning to see the skies gray and the resort pools pelted with rain. We had decided to visit the Malecon anyway and drove up to the other end of town, looking for El Oktopus, which we found near the end of the street. After circling the area three times, we paid the five dollars to park in the large parking lot at the east end, then walked nearly the length of the strip to the restaurant. At this time, the rain was more of a drizzle, and we made it there without too much worry. They were just opening up, and we sat at a window table and looked out at the gray day, sympathizing with the vendors whose stalls had already gotten plenty wet during the morning.

Grilled octopus and blue corn tortillas with octopus and pork belly

Laurel ordered whole grilled octopus, and I thought the blue corn tacos with grilled octopus and pork belly sounded good. And both of them were terrific. A few minutes after we sat down, it started to rain again, and this time it was pounding down, splashing off the pavement and flowing like a river down the hill at the corner. The outside vendors gave up and shut down, taking their tarps and carts with them. Too many people on the street were caught without umbrellas and got soaked, hurrying inside or to their cars.

That’s a lot of mud

Fortunately, it eased off again before we left, and we headed back toward our car at the end of the street. We stopped and talked to the owner of a restaurant on the bay side of the street. His place was closed, and he took us in and showed us his terrace wall which looked out onto the water. The wall had collapsed and been washed away during one of the recent storms. We drove back to the Mayan Palace through the soggy town, trying to avoid flooded intersections and mud that was more than a foot deep. By the time we reached the resort, our car was thoroughly coated with a thick layer of mud, and it stayed there until we returned to San Diego and had our regular carwash do a triple wash on everything and scrub as much from the engine block as they were able.

Negronis and Caesar salad

Folks in the know told us these two days brought in more rain than the town normally gets in an entire season. But by Tuesday afternoon, the storm had blown itself out, and the sun came out to start drying up the impromptu lakes and puddles. We drove back into town for an early sunset dinner and found the perfect antidote for the prior rain and gray sky. Next to the Malecon is a hill called Cerro de la Ballena, Whale Hill. At its top sits a fine Italian restaurant called Pane e Vino. Our table looked out and down the steep hill to a panoramic view of the entire end of the town and Bahia la Cholla, with the Sea of Cortez gleaming to the west. We ordered Negronis, our favorite Italian cocktail, and two Caesar salads. For entrees, Laurel had grouper with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes, and I couldn’t pass up Jack Daniels bourbon shrimp. Excellent food and very good service from our waiter, Angel. One of the best in town.

Flounder with artichokes and tomato and Jack Daniels shrimp

On Thursday, we got seats on a boat for a ride to what’s known as Bird Island, real name Isla San Jorge. It’s about an hour out from the beach—a bunch of big rocks populated by sea lions and topped by lots of birds, mainly Brown Boobies, Blue-footed Boobies, pelicans, gulls and the occasional shearwater. Quite a few people went snorkeling or used the kayaks onboard to enjoy the spot, but the water was too cold and rough for us. The wind had come up by the time we headed back to the resort, and it was much rougher than the trip out. Unfortunately, the captain didn’t use good sense, and gunned the boat too fast, creating a very rough ride back that, to me, turned the entire experience sour.

Brown Booby

Overall, we came away with mixed feelings, partly because of the rainstorm which was nobody’s fault. The Mayan Palace Resort is a high quality place, and some of the seafood and restaurants are superb. We did quite of lot of birding there, and saw some very uncommon species. We were disappointed with the lack of paved roads in much of the town, but we’ll give Puerto Peñasco another try during the warmer season.

Blue-footed Booby

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