Sonora isn’t just a place of natural wonders where the desert meets the sea, and sky islands abound. It’s a place rich with culture and the diversity of art, architecture, and food that make all places the people call home exceptional. While you could explore this part of Sonora through indulging in its big cities – like Hermosillo. The small towns of Sonora each offer their own unique glimpse into the vibrant world of this Mexican state. They are the perfect destinations for a Sonora roadtrip, especially if you enjoy delving into history and culture. And if time and resources allow, they aren’t to be missed.
This guide will cover some of the small towns that I was able to check out during my time exploring Sonora, in particular, Magdalena de Kino and Kino Bay. But I would also like to point you in the direction of the other Pueblos Magicos of Sonora. Even though, I unfortunately was not able to visit them all. Come along to explore these small towns via pictures and words. And see if they might be just right for your next adventure.
Small Towns of Sonora
Sonora is home to many well-known urban areas, including its capital, Hermosillo. It is also home to the town perched on the coast that Arizonans love, Puerto Peñasco or Rocky Point. But of course, it goes without saying that the people of Sonora don’t just live in big cities and tourist towns. Like all places, Sonora is home to all kinds of villages and settlements. It has historic landmarks, architectural wonders, and the unexpected.
Mexico does a nice job of pointing you towards some of its most unique towns through the Pueblos Magicos program. They designate exceptional pueblos across Mexico in this way. This helps travelers decide where to spend some time exploring. It also honors the work that local people have done to make their homes beautiful and protect the various histories of Mexico. On a Sonora roadtrip, you could try to see all of these special small towns of Sonora.
As of 2024, there are four Pueblos Magicos in Sonora, they include Magdalena de Kino, Ures, San Carlos, and Alamos. I also include Kino Bay in my guide here because of its importance to domestic travelers. And because of its proximity to Isla Tibron and the indigenous Seri people.
I was able to visit Magdalena de Kino and San Carlos on my Sonora roadtrip. But sadly could not visit Ures and Alamos.
Magdalena de Kino is home to the tomb of Father Kino, an important figure in European exploration in the Sonoran Desert. It lies on the highway between Nogales and Hermosillo.
San Carlos, which I will dedicate an entire guide to, is known for its natural beauty. Here, the rugged mountains of the Sonoran Desert stretch out into the sea, and this world of desert and ocean can be explored from trails and from town.
Ures and Alamos were left unvisited on our Sonora roadtrip due to a lack of time and safety concerns. But I really wish we had been able to visit them.
A Little About Each Town
Alamos is an old mining town that is now known for its stone, colonial buildings. Besides its architectural wonders, Alamos is nestled in Sonora’s more lush interior. There is hiking and kayaking to be done here, not to mention birding in La Sierra de Álamos Río Cuchujaqui, which is home to over 400 different species. I desperately tried to figure out a way to visit this town, but my friend’s family who lives in Hermosillo wasn’t sure it would be safe for me to drive there. I chose to follow their advice and didn’t go, but other people in San Carlos thought it might be a safe drive. As always, do your own research on safety before traveling.
Ures is a town that I wasn’t aware of during my planning. It is in central Sonora and is one of the oldest post-colonial towns in the state. There are 277 historic monuments in town, and it is only 1.5 hours from Hermosillo.
If you have the time and it is safe, visiting all of these small towns of Sonora would be the perfect way to see a balanced mix of natural and cultural beauty.
Although it is not a Pueblo Magico, I wanted to include Bahía Kino in my Sonora roadtrip. We made a day trip to visit this town, because I heard that this little beach-side village is much loved by the people of Hermosillo. Without time for an overnight visit, this was a great fit for us, as it is only a 1.5 hour drive from Hermosillo, and we aren’t the types to want to sit on the beach for days.
If you prefer small town beaches, Bahía Kino would be a good fit for a night or two. There are plenty of places to stay in town, and it would be a nice homebase for exploring Punta Chueca, which is a village belonging to the indigenous Seri people. There are sometimes tours to Isla Tiburon from here.
While we visited, we stopped in for some food, and then went searching for a beach to spend a few hours. Among the small towns of Sonora, this is Hermosillo’s beach town. We first trundled down the village’s dusty roads to the downtown area. I was expecting a beautiful pier and Malecon to walk along, but I ended up being a little stressed out by this part of town.
Despite pictures of the wooden pier stretching over the gentle ocean, when we visited, the pier was closed for repair. Standing at the gate and looking out at the shifting water, it wasn’t possible to snap a good picture of the structure. Despite this, the Malecon was lined with small, open air shops where families milled, purchasing food and toys for the sea. Having just eaten, and not wanting to fight the crowd or local sellers, we ended up getting right back into our car.
Following Google maps in search of Museo Comaác where I was hoping to learn more about the Seri people, we ended up in Kino Nuevo. Here the beach was lined by white painted vacation homes, and quiet, empty streets. It reminded me a bit of Las Conchas. It is removed from town, so it has become a quiet respite for visitors from Hermosillo and beyond.
We weren’t planning on walking the beach here, but peeking through the houses were the inviting, warm sands, so I couldn’t resist. We parked near the museum, and then followed an access point between the white walled vacation homes. The beach beyond was awash in tan, soft sand and scattered families resting and playing in the surf.
We walked up and down the beach for about an hour. After which we stopped back at the car to check out the museum. While all of the signs inside are in Spanish, there is plenty to learn here, even if you can’t read Spanish. The museum is home to many displays about the local indigenous people. They share information about their ceremonies, food, and traditional ways of life. They were also selling the art and handy work of local folks. I was really grateful to have the opportunity to purchase a carved wood and shell necklace while visiting.
If you are exploring the history and culture of Sonora, please don’t miss out on learning about the indigenous people here. They might not be as famous as the Mayans or Aztecs. But they have a rich culture and history just as well. And respectfully visiting the museum and Punta Chueca to take a tour with local people is a great place to learn more about the ingenious ways that Native Sonora people thrived in the desert.
Magdalena de Kino
Magdalena de Kino is a small town that is nestled in the desert hills on the 15, between Nogales and Hermosillo. It’s one of the Pueblos Magicos that I mentioned above. And it was of particular interest to me because it is home to the tomb of Father Kino. This makes it extremely unique among the small towns of Sonora.
I know about Father Kino as an Arizonan. He is something of a major historic figure in my home state and he had a kind of larger-than-life place in my mind. Stories about him can be found scattered across the landscape among our national parks, museums, and historic places. Nonetheless, Needless to say, I really wanted to visit his tomb. It felt like a very important part of the shared history between Arizona and Sonora. And I wanted to pay my respects to this figure that helped shape the world as I knew it.
Getting to Magdalena de Kino from Hermosillo by car is easy, so it’s a nice addition to a Sonora roadtrip. You just drive up the 15 for a couple of hours. However, when I asked my friend’s family about visiting they weren’t so sure. They never exactly told me why. But in researching before the trip, I found out that Magdalena de Kino had been the site of a battle between cartels in recent memory. And the local people had been held hostage by the violence for some time. Their homes, businesses, and lives were impacted by gun fights.
That all being said, that’s not the norm in Magdalena de Kino. It’s a small, sleepy town, where I watched interviews about people saying they moved there for the peace and quiet. It has a historic Centro, and sits along the riverside, where people gather on weekends with friends and family to enjoy the water and the setting.
Hotel Elba and Visiting Father Kino’s Tomb
When we visited, I initially booked a place right in center of town. But on the urging of my friend’s family we ended up staying in Hotel Elba, which is in a town just south of Magdalena de Kino. Hotel Elba is what I could call a standard motel. However, the ladies working there were extremely kind and patient with us. And we were walking distance from Restaurant Elba which serves the famed “Elephant Ear” – which is thin, fried steak. It was a bit of an adventure to try it and honestly added to the joy of driving up north.
The next day, we hopped over into Magdalena de Kino. And truthfully, I think it’s a day trip destination. The tomb and adjacent church were very nice. In fact, the tomb was more exceptional than I was expecting. The murals are beautiful displays of Sonoran and Arizonan history, and they also had historic artifacts on display. Somewhat grim, although interesting to me, they also display Father Kino’s bones.
Surrounding the church is the local Centro, where walked a bit to enjoy the architecture and quiet morning. Then we went over to a coffee shop/restaurant/bookshop on the edge of downtown. It was a bit confusing, as all three were physically connected but separate businesses, but it was a nice spot to relax before hitting the road again.
I’d suggest spending a half day or so in Magdalena de Kino, unless you are able to visit during one of their festivals. I’m sure that there is plenty more to see (and taste) in this little town. But it isn’t a tourism hotspot, so it retains its quiet, laid-back nature.
A Few Notes on Father Kino
I did some simple Wikipedia reading to learn more about Father Kino, so take this with a grain of salt, but he seemed like a genuinely interesting guy who maybe wasn’t just a force for European colonization.
For one, he did not support slavery or forced labor that was Spain’s policy and plan for indigenous people. He is also known as an explorer, who proved that Baja California wasn’t an island, which was the popular thinking in his day. (Probably despite Native people trying to tell Europeans otherwise).
While I am sure that Father Kino isn’t a black and white figure. He did play a role in colonization, and he remains an important part of Arizonan and Sonoran history. If nothing else, he is an illustration of complexity. He was someone who was fascinated by the world, took note of some of its wrongs, but still played a part in the stealing of land and culture from Sonora and Arizona’s indigenous peoples.
Some Thoughts on Safety and Road Tripping in Sonora
Generally, the sense that I got from the US government, friends from Baja Sur, and friends from Hermosillo is that traveling in Sonora isn’t the safest thing you can do. But the small towns of Sonora are also amazing! Everyone offered me words of caution and were thoughtful about where we went on our Sonora roadtrip. For one, I was expressly warned not to travel by myself. And my friend’s family were pensive (if somewhat distracted by more important things!) about where we went. And there is a recent history of violence in Sonora.
So, be very careful and cautious while planning. Sonora is a beautiful place, but it is also in the midst of cartel activities.
Thank you to Sonora
That being said, I think with some caution, planning, and common sense, it was a nice place to explore. I found people to be very kind throughout – although English was hard to come by. I generally felt very safe with few exceptions!
That being said, we did miss some spots I would have liked to have seen because people warned us it might not be safe. I think for travel to Sonora, you should prioritize safety over your travel goals.
We also did not go out at night except in San Carlos – and we weren’t out late at all. Finally, we aren’t party people, so we weren’t seeking anything beyond alcohol throughout our trip. We kept a low profile, and we also did our best to respect local people by being polite and speaking Spanish to the best of our abilities.
Go with caution. Do your research. And travel respectfully and kindly. Sonora has a lot to offer, and so much we didn’t see. But I am grateful that we were able to visit safely and enjoy a few of the exceptional things this Mexican state has to offer. And I’m grateful to everyone that made us feel welcomed.
More on Sonora, Mexico
If you are interested in learning more about my travels through Sonora, be sure to check out my Visitor’s Guide to Sonora. I also have posts on El Pinacate y el Gran Desierto de Altar (the UNESCO World Heritage site), Puerto Peñasco (aka Rocky Point), and Hermosillo.
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