Puerto Peñasco, Mexico

Once, it was enough to be Arizona's beach, a nice wide patch of below-the-border shoreline where college kids could camp out and drink too much.

But now, it wants to be more than a parent's nightmare. In less than a decade, more than three-dozen condo towers have risen in this town's Sandy Beach area, surrounded by ever-widening waves of upscale vacation homes. It looks like a cellphone commercial by Samuel Beckett, all these rectangles of steel and glitz erupting at the edge of the barren, sandpaper-flat desert.
Puerto Penasco: A caption with a Feb. 24 Travel article on Puerto Penasco, Mexico, said the photo showed an indoor pool at Las Palomas condominium complex.The pool is part of the Mayan Palace condominium complex. —

"Sandy Beach is like Maui. This is the happening spot," condo sales specialist Mary Snyder told me as we stood in a model unit. "Out by the Mayan" -- half an hour south of town -- "is like Kauai."

Because this is the desert and you can't surf here, Snyder's Hawaiian analogy is slightly imperfect. But it tells you something about Peñasco's ambitions.

Puerto Peñasco (also known as Rocky Point) has been growing like a four-star weed, and it wants to steal visitors from Baja California -- not only from San Felipe, its sibling across the sea, but also from the golfing-fishing-partying-and-real-estate-speculating juggernaut now known as Los Cabos.

The first flights from California started landing here Oct. 30 -- three turboprop planes a week from LAX. A new airport, big enough to accommodate jets, is supposed to make its debut by summer 2009. And a new highway to the north is due to open later this year, shortening the drive from Southern California by about 100 miles.

So Puerto Peñasco wants us. But do we want Puerto Peñasco?

Some of us won't. If you're in search of cobblestone streets or colonial architecture or tropical landscapes or big waves, you'd be wasting your time here.

But if you're looking for Mexican beachfront lodgings, fishing, watersports, off-roading and golf -- well, many prices are lower here than in Los Cabos, and many penthouses are higher. And because this place has more than twice the population of San Felipe, it has more action as well.

One day I found myself squinting at the sea from a 10th-floor unit in Las Palomas development, looking out a window filled with nothing but sky and sea. Far below, a lone couple strolled the chilly beach beside a row of palapas. This lavishly furnished unit, with three bedrooms, a kitchen and 1,600 square feet of patio space, rents for $685 to $990 nightly.

Meanwhile, just a mile or two up the coast lies the Reef, a beachfront restaurant, bar, RV park and convenience store that stands perfectly as a symbol of the older, grittier Peñasco. It's $5 a night to camp, the floor of the bar is concrete and the restaurant's cuisine, according to its local advertising, is "gormet."

For those who would rather skip 21st century civilization and commune instead with the stark natural landscape, there are the craters and lava fields of El Pinacate national park (full name: El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve), 32 miles north of town. There's a kayak rental operation by the old port, and San Jorge island, 27 miles away by boat, offers birding and snorkeling in the company of sea lions. The Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans, a local environmental group, organizes other day trips as well.

Planes and cars

Though nearly all visitors from the north still come by car, I took the new Aeromexico flight from LAX. It was wonderfully short (90 minutes), startlingly expensive (more than $300 round-trip) and plopped me down in the middle of Peñasco's slowest season. Most of the plane's 30 seats were empty.

As I steered my rental car through town -- the lonely Alamo desk at the airport has access to just five cars and doesn't take reservations from the U.S. yet -- it was clear that nearly every building had arisen in the last 40 years and that only the principal streets were paved.

The year-round population, growing fast, is about 60,000, most of whom live on the dirt streets set back from the beachfront resort zone. To the north is Cholla Bay, where the first neighborhood of American vacation rentals started taking shape more than a decade ago. To the south is Las Conchas, a newer enclave of vacation homes, many still under construction.