Tag: Mexico

Puerto Penasco: A Beach Paradise in the Desert

(c) Rocky Point Restaurant Guide

(c) Rocky Point Restaurant Guide

About four hours from Phoenix and Tucson alike, and a little more than an hour’s drive past the Mexican border at Lukeville/Sonoyta sits the formerly small fishing town of Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point to Americans and Ge’e Suidagi in Tohono O’odham). While it is currently a spring break/holiday hot spot for Arizonans looking to spend some time on the beach, Puerto Penasco’s major tourism development actually didn’t start until the 1990s. Initial development was slow, but by the 2000s the growth of the tourism industry and improvements in the city progressed at nearly a monthly rate. In some places, like the community of Las Conchas, condos starting at $100,000 were common- a mere 5 minute walk from the beach.

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

I have been traveling to Puerto Penasco regularly for nearly a decade, and it is easy to see why people were eager to grab their slice of paradise here. The beaches, even at their busiest, were spacious compared to the overcrowded coasts that I have visited in California. Swimming here is easy- the water is warm and comfortable, the sand is soft, and when the tide is perfect there are large tracts of relatively shallow water to drift lazily through. At other times, the waves are good enough for body surfing or boogie bordering, and despite the generally sandy nature of the beach, there are also amazing tide pools here. Puerto Penasco’s beaches offer visitors a little bit of everything.

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

Besides the beaches, Puerto Penasco is home to CEDO, a vibrant shopping/dining hub in Old Port/Malecon, as well as some ecological treasures (and formerly a little aquarium). CEDO is also known as the Centro Intercultural de Estudios de Desiertos y Oceanos or the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans. CEDO has their base in Las Conchas, which has a small museum and shop for visitors. CEDO also runs a variety of ecotourism trips, which include paddling out at Morua Estuary, trips to Pinacate (a must see!) and the San Jorge Islands, among other things. For any one interested in the outdoors, CEDO is your go-to for Puerto Penasco.

Alternatively, Old Port or Malecon is a nice dose of culture, although this area is heavily influenced by tourism, and for any seasoned traveler, it is pretty easy to see. There is lots of shopping here, and while there are definitely some gems to be found, much of what you find here are the cookie cutter souvenirs that most tourists appear to be after. There are areas of Puerto Penasco with more authentic wares, of course, but Malecon is still a great place to visit. Standing on the edge of the main road in Old Port, you can look at some of the oldest parts of the town on one side, and the ocean,

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

rimmed by mountains, on the other. Many of the restaurants in this area are built to cash in on this view, with many of them having large, second-story patios (there is even one restaurant that was built over the water). There are also many places in this area to buy fresh seafood from Puerto Penasco’s own fishermen.

Besides dining downtown, I would highly suggest that anyone who visits Puerto Penasco stop and have lunch at Pollo Lucas. This is my favorite restaurant in the whole city, and while the dining is outside, beneath a thatched roof, it is the best Mexican food that I have ever had. Everyone that I have ever have brought here has loved it. It is simple, delicious, and affordable. I highly recommend it.

And if you have any questions about Puerto Penasco or my travels feel free to leave me a comment. 🙂

My next update will be on November 15th; about the historic Tonto National Monument!

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar, Sonora, Mexico

El Elegante (c) AB Raschke

I have travelled down to Puerto Penasco several times a year from 2005-2014, but despite that fact, I wasn’t aware of Pinacate until the very tail end of my visit to the region. (It didn’t become a UNESCO World Heritage Site until 2013). Once I did find out about it, however, I was hooked on the idea of visiting the park. This area is home to some utterly surreal landscapes, with ten massive Maar craters, and North America’s largest active sand dune field. In fact, this area is so unique and otherworldly that NASA used it to train astronauts for the moon in the 1960s and 70s.

Getting There

Unless you plan on taking an organized tour of this area, you are going to need a vehicle to access the park and its trails. I’d ideally suggest something with some clearance, as the roads were dirt. If they are still dirt, their condition will change with the weather. But be sure to ask the park staff when you enter, as they will be able to give you the best information.

In 2014, the park was split into two sections that were easily visited by travelers. The first is a long dirt road that allows access to three of the reserve’s volcanic craters, and the second includes a visitor center that was built in conjunction with the UNESCO world heritage designation.

Coming from Puerto Penasco, the visitor center is the first part of the park that we visited (73km marker on highway 8). Although the building pales in comparison to the natural attractions of the park, it is a good way to start exploring. The architecture of the center is integrated into the volcanic landscape, and is perched on the wave-like structures of an ancient lava field. Pamphlets about the center also proudly mention that this is the first building in Latin America to be entirely energy self-sufficient, and the arrays of solar panels lining the roof seem to support this claim.

Visitor Center and Nature Trails

When we arrived, we were greeted by a center employee, who not only helped us get our tickets sorted out, but actually gave us an interpretive introduction to the area with the use of the mosaic compass that fronts the center entrance. There we learned that the location of the center was chosen due to its view of the dune fields, Pinacate peak, and the Sierra Blancas. As there are several interpretive trails leading out from the center, any traveler can appreciate the significance of this decision.

These trails are not only beautiful in-and-of themselves (as they weave through the undulating, black lava fields), but they offer some best views of the dunes and the Sierra Blancas that the park offers. Besides this, these particular tracks showcase the unique landscape that has evolved in the Gran Desierto de Altar. As lifeless as one might expect a lavafield tucked away in a desert to be, the area around the visitor center (and much of the rest of the park) is typical of the Sonoran Desert.

(c) AB Raschke

As the wettest desert in the world, Sonora hosts a wide array of flora and fauna, and the biosphere reserve is no exception to this. The juxtaposition of the vibrant desert plants with the black, unwelcoming surface of the lava fields is mesmerizing. Animal life abounds as well; the air was filled with the soft calls of desert doves, and side-blotched lizards were basking in the sun all along the trail. It does take some care to navigate the uneven, often jagged ground of the lava fields, but the trails are short enough that they can be taken slowly, and thoroughly enjoyed along the way.

Loop Road

The other half of the park is a few miles down highway 8 (km 52), and consists of a loop dirt road, which is about 70 kms long. This road gets rough in a few spots, so vehicles with some nice clearance are preferable when travelling through this area, but the woman at the visitor center insisted that most cars could handle the road. In either case, it should be travelled with some caution, as much of the road is one-way, and is fairly narrow. The main attractions of this part of the park are the three craters that can be visited along the way, El Elegante, El Tecolote, and Cerro Colorado, but the road itself has a special appeal. There are several interpretive stations along the way, that do a good job of telling the enthralling history of the park, with its turbulent, volcanic origins, to its importance to the Tohono O’odham people, and the early explorations of the area by Europeans. It is also a great way to see the varying species assemblages that make up the colorful mosaic of life in the Gran Desierto de Altar.

El Elegante

El Elegante is the first crater on the dirt road, and it is probably the most breath-taking crater of the three. The drive towards the crater is unassuming, and it built up my anticipation, as I couldn’t help but try to look further down the road for the chance at an early glimpse of the formation. As it is, El Elegante doesn’t reveal itself until you actually hike up to it, and it does not disappoint. The impression that I got of this place is similar to what I feel when I visit the Grand Canyon.

El Elegante (c) AB Raschke

The crater is so large that it is hard to fully grasp its size, and its cliff-like walls seem to be so perfectly round as to have been carved out by some massive artist. Closer inspection reveals imperfections in the crater’s edges, but each one is fascinating, and tells a part of the dynamic story of this formerly explosive area. There is a loop trail that runs along the edge of the crater, and the length of this track gave me some perspective on the true massiveness of El Elegante, as we walked about 2 kilometers and hadn’t even made it half way around.

El Tecolote

El Tecolote is something of a surprise after El Elegante. After reaching the large parking lot built to accommodate visitors to the second crater, we made our way down a trail that led up through the softly sloping hills of this area. Here yellowing grass peeked up through black and red volcanic soil, and intimidating chollas seemed to dominate the landscape, the harsh desert sun making their golden spines glint like painful halos. After about 20 minutes braving the climbing trail, we topped the large, rounded mountain that was the main feature of the path, and found ourselves wondering where El Tecolote was.

View of El Pinacate from El Tecolote (c) AB Raschke

It took some consideration of the area to figure out that we had been scaling El Tecolote the entire time. The mountain that the trail weaved it’s way up was the lip of the crater, and the base of the trail had passed through the opening that had been blasted out of the formation back in the days of Gran Desierto’s violent past. The beauty of El Tecolote was nothing like that of El Elegante. Looking out from the top of the trail, it wasn’t the crater that caught my eye, nor was it the crater that ended up making the hike worthwhile, but rather the view that the its edge offered. To the west, the lava that once flowed from El Tecolote was still apparent, forming a permanent, black shadow across the landscape, and Pinacate ruled the skyline in the distance. To the east, Cerro Colorado was apparent in the distance, a smooth, tan hill rising out of the dark, volcanic ground. Much of the park accessible from the road was apparent from El Tecolote.

Cerro Colorado

Cerro Colorado was the final attraction of the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, and lacking any sort of trail, it took less time to explore than El Elegante and El Tecolote. Approaching this last crater, I couldn’t help but compare Cerro Colorado to Ayer’s Rock (not that they are at all the same in actuality).

Cerro Colorado from a distance (c) AB Raschke

Cerro Colorado was in stark contrast the rest of the black and red formations of that were apparent from the road, and driving up to it, its smooth, slopping back dominated the otherwise flat, creosote carpeted grounds. The crater itself, viewable from the end of the road, was something of the mix of El Elegante and El Tecolote to my mind. The road followed the curve of the edge of the crater that had been blasted out, and across from the viewpoint were steep, severe cliffs like those that ringed El Elegante. After a long day of hiking and driving, Cerro Colorado was a calm finale to the surreal beauty that could be found around every corner of the park.

More Information

Cerro Colorado (c) AB Raschke

It isn’t always easy to find information about Mexico’s biosphere reserves. However, you can learn more about the park from a couple of official sources. Pinacate is a UNESCO world heritage site, and their website has some information. If you can read Spanish, you can also learn more about the park from the Gobierno de México.

The United State National Park Service, having the Organ Pipe National Monument nearby also has a page on Pinacate. And if you are visiting Organ Pipe, you might be able to ask the rangers there for some up-to-date information about Pinacate before crossing the border.

The Rocky Point Ventures – Puerto Penasco tourism website also has some detailed information on the Biosphere Reserve that can help you plan your trip!

Want to know more about visiting Sonora, Mexico? Check out my Visitor’s Guide to Sonora.

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