I’ve lived in Phoenix for most of my life and have never traveled to Puerto Penasco (AKA Rocky Point). Like many, I believed the cautionary tales of cartels, shootouts, and high crime and stayed away. For Fumi’s 30th birthday I wanted to go somewhere fun, but because of his tight work schedule we couldn’t go very far. Puerto Penasco is only about a 3.5 hour drive from Phoenix.
Craving something new and a little exotic, we decided to take the leap and drive to Mexico. I scoured the internet for guides and tips for first-timers and had to root through old message boards to gather answers to the many questions I had: Do I need to exchange money? Where should I exchange money? What should I do there? Where can I eat? Jellyfish??
I’ve compiled a list of basics for the Puerto Penasco First Timer:
1. PREPARE FOR THE TRIP TO PUERTO PENASCO
Make sure you have your passport or greencard and make a copy of each for safe-keeping (ALWAYS have a copy of your passport in case it gets lost).
Buy Mexico insurance. It’s illegal to drive in Mexico without insurance. Don’t chance it. Also, don’t wait to buy it near the border as it’s more expensive. It’s a good idea to purchase insurance with US labor rates and legal assistance in case you do have to file a claim. Cheaper is not always better. We purchase our insurance through Mexpro and typically choose GNP Seguros because of their US labor rates and medical, but Mexpro will let you compare policies side by side to find the right fit.
Buy an international phone plan. Verizon makes it easy to add a travel pass for your smartphone. For Mexico it’s currently about $2 per day and you can call and use data abroad the same as when you’re stateside. Just make sure you go into settings and allow roaming.
2. WHAT TO PACK
An ice chest for drinks and to bring back any shrimp, and a smaller cloth cooler bag for the pool, beach, or to carry around.
Water for drinking and I always bring water for brushing my teeth. Don’t misunderstand–Mexico water isn’t dirty, it just has different bacteria than what we’re used to.
Beach sandals and comfortable walking shoes
Swimsuit and beach towel
Beach umbrella and pool/beach toys
Casual outfit for shopping and walking around
Nicer outfit for dinner or going out
A book to enjoy
Small bills (US dollars for tips)
If you forget any of these things you can pretty much buy everything you need at the local shops.
3. DRIVING TO PUERTO PENASCO, MEXICO
The drive is pretty easy. Google maps might tell you there’s a toll road in AZ, but AZ has no toll roads.
Fill your tank in Ajo, Why, or right at the border on the US side. If you’re there for the weekend (even a long weekend) this should get you to rocky point and back. You can buy gas in Mexico, but I didn’t want to go through the trouble.
Follow directions as you pull through the gate of the border. If you have tinted windows, roll your windows down so they can see the back seats. This will help them wave you through quicker. You may be stopped and your car may be searched. Don’t panic, it’s pretty routine. Be mindful about what you can and cannot bring. Don’t bring guns or ammunition, obviously, and I’ve heard mixed things about bringing meat over.
Watch the speed limit. Set cruise control if you need help behaving. Speed limits in Mexico are slower. They also have more pedestrians and activity along the roads so be careful.
Stop signs can be hard to spot and there were several instances where people just ran them.
Once you get away from the border town, you’ll have a long stretch of lonely highway. You still want to mind the speed limit. You can keep up with traffic, but watch for cops and road hazards. The road to and from Puerto Penasco is pretty nice and clear, but you may encounter wildlife.
Driving at night–my second time driving to Puerto Penasco was at night and I was a little nervous since everyone tells you not to drive over the border at night. We had no issues. In fact, I found driving at night to be less stressful with less distractions along the road and plenty of other people were making the drive as well. Check the border times, but typically the border closes at midnight.
4. WHERE TO STAY IN PUERTO PENASCO
We used Airbnb and booked a condo at the Sandy Beaches. We ended up staying at the Sonoran Sea Resort and because that resort was so accommodating, we try to book there each time. Here’s what our seaside condo looked like:
For $120 a night we had a fully furnished 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom condo to ourselves. The view was incredible for watching sunsets and dolphins–YES! Dolphins!
Why not a hotel? Honestly the hotel options just didn’t look as good and were kind of pricey. The resorts had better amenities and I liked being able to refer to user reviews. The Sonoran Sea has heated pools, a swim up bar, restaurants, and great security so we just prefer to stay there. There are lots of other options too. Many of our friends opt to rent out entire houses or villas along the beaches. Check out what Airbnb has to offer in Puerto Penasco HERE. This link gives you a credit for signing up (and gives me one as well)!
All places I encountered will take USD, but your money goes so much further in pesos. How much further? My $9 nachos were $140 in pesos when I asked which turns out to be just over $6. So pay in pesos. If not, you’ll pretty much be paying US prices for everything. Shopping for souvenirs was the same story. Just make sure to carry small bills in USD for tipping.
Wait staff prefer USD for tips. Tipping is a US thing, but it’s expected in Rocky Point since it’s a tourist destination. 20% is pretty standard.
You can change your currency at a bank if you arrive M-F during business hours. We had trouble finding a bank with Saturday hours, but there was a small currency exchange station in Old Port next to the seafood vendors that was open for us on Saturday. Bring small bills just in case you have trouble finding a place to exchange money.
6. WHERE TO SHOP
For groceries, Super Norte has some of the best prices and selection on alcohol and fresh salsas, but Super Ley had the biggest variety and best bakery. There’s also a Sam’s Club and if you don’t have a membership you can purchase a day pass for pretty cheap.
For cosmetics, skincare, or healthcare items Guadalupana Boticas (or any boticas) off the main road is a good place to stop and Coppel across from Super Ley is another place to find some good deals on beauty products.
For souvenirs, we mostly enjoyed the market at Old Port. Lots of friendly vendors if you want to play the haggling game. We made a few friends there.
7. WHERE TO EAT
Kaffee Haus is a must. From 7:30 AM to 4PM, but be prepared to wait in line. It’s well worth it. Everything we ordered was delicious and the mochas are the size of your head!
Another Rocky Point favorite is Wrecked at the Reef. This is a must-visit if you’re staying at the resorts and don’t want to venture into town at night. This is a typical bar and restaurant with good food, live music, and a nice place to sit outside on the beach and watch the sunset.
If you’re looking for a nicer place with a beautiful view, La Casa del Capitan has great food and a view that can’t be beat. The salsa here was my favorite, but you can’t really go wrong here. It’s a little tricky to get to right now, but as of December 2016 they were paving the road that leads up to it so it shouldn’t be an issue for long.
If you’ve been thinking about traveling to Rocky Point, do it. We had such an incredible time and always felt safe and welcome. Make sure you follow local laws and don’t act any differently than you would at home and you’ll do just fine. Remember, you’re a guest in their country. Don’t be the Ugly American everyone hates.
Have you traveled to Puerto Penasco lately? Any favorite places or tips I forgot to share?