The battle of the beaches

Times Staff Writer

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.

"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 Penasco's ambitions.

Puerto Penasco (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 Penasco wants us. But do we want Puerto Penasco?

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 Penasco. 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 Penasco'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.

The Penasco area has two 18-hole golf courses, both completed in 2006. (Los Cabos has seven; San Felipe, one.) There are ATV and watersports rentals, sunset cruises and plenty of bars, at least four of them promising topless showgirls. As with golf courses, Penasco trails Los Cabos in showgirls but surpasses San Felipe.

Out on the water on the evening of my arrival, a lonely shrimp boat puttered along. The mountains of Baja California were just visible in silhouette on the horizon. The beach, vast and litter-free, was nearly empty, amid gusty winds and 65-degree temperatures, routine for January. And as I watched, the beach grew: The tide was going out on a full-moon evening, and the difference between high and low tide here can be a quarter-mile.

If you keep your eyes on the sea and sky, you can easily imagine Penasco's days as a fishing camp in the 1920s, and its emergence as a fishing destination and party place after the paved road to Arizona went through in the 1940s. These days, it's illegal to take the storied totuava, a now-endangered fish that was plentiful in the 1950s and '60s. But the catch still includes plenty of big fish: bass, corvina, grouper, pompano, sierra and yellowtail from boats, trigger fish from the shore.

Every spring, visitors come flooding in, including thousands of hard-drinking spring-breakers from the universities of Arizona, New Mexico and beyond. In fact, the spring-breakers basically own the month of March. Throughout the spring, the hot summer and fall, it's the Arizonans who keep Penasco busy.

The state tourism office counts more than 70 restaurants in town, along with 14 RV and camping facilities (1,435 spaces) and dozens of hotels, motels and condo developments, with perhaps 5,000 rooms. Though most of the condo buildings are huddled along Sandy Beach, some of the fanciest lodgings lie half an hour south at the 3-year-old Mayan Palace, which combines time-share units with short-term rentals -- at $395 a night and up.

I stayed, with mixed results, at the Penasco del Sol Hotel, which somebody is going to have to nominate as a historic structure pretty soon -- after all, it dates all the way to the early 1990s, when it was built near the Old Port area under the name Plaza las Glorias. And there's another reason the Penasco del Sol stands out.

The city has only a handful of substantial hotels, and none with names you would recognize. Since the boom began, the focus here has been on vacation condos, ventures that give developers a quicker payoff, and give return visitors a chance to own their own piece of the place, and to cook their own meals. Nearly all the condo projects cater to short-term guests, too, with an inventory of units (with kitchens) that rent on a short-term basis. Some even offer room service.

"What they've decided here is that you can make money faster if you just build and sell," said Alejandro Castillo, sub-director of the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans, which has fought for greater environmental sensitivity in an area with scant water and delicate ecosystems.

These projects make an amazing spectacle; Las Palomas, the Bella Sirena, Sonoran Spa, Sonoran Sea, Sonoran Sun and Puerta Privada condo resorts have all risen in the last five years, outfitted with elaborate water features. Las Palomas now has two upscale restaurants open, and an additional 800 condos are scheduled to open in the next year or two.

Unfortunately for the developers, sales have slowed appreciably in the last six months, perhaps a side effect of the mortgage crunch in the U.S., perhaps a result of broader economic worries. Nobody's certain what will happen in spring, when sales usually pick up. But for now, the usual rhythms continue among tourists on the ground.

Scoping out the scene

By day, I walked Sandy Beach and toured condos. I roamed up the coast toward El Pinacate and down the coast to the Mayan Palace, which neighbors the Mayan Lakes golf course (designed by Jack Nicklaus). At the Mayan's casual poolside Balche snack bar I had an excellent lunch of arrachera (flank steak) and admired the savvy of Mayan's management.

Recognizing the cool winds of winter, spring and fall, they shrewdly built an indoor pool.

At the end of one day, I strolled around the Old Port area, where the city has put in handsome steps and a promenade near a collection of restaurants and curio shops and a couple of old-fashioned hotels.

The next night -- once I finally located the right dirt road -- I drove up the town's biggest hill to catch the commanding sunset views from a pair of restaurants. At Casa del Capitan, you get Mexican dishes, mariachi music and general festivity amid hues of orange and yellow.

If you had visited Puerto Penasco and San Felipe in the early 1990s, said John Hibbert, a veteran real-estate sales specialist who spent most of the 1990s in San Felipe and most of the 2000s here, "you would have said that San Felipe was a few years ahead. . . . Then all of a sudden, things took off here. And now it looks like San Felipe is five years behind Puerto Penasco."

Of course, when it comes to proliferating resorts and coastal Mexico, some travelers would rather be behind than ahead.

But there's no sense dwelling on too many details. Trying to quantify Puerto Penasco in 2008 is like carving letters in the sand at low tide. The sand and sea will be here, but when it comes to the man-made landscape, the surge keeps changing things.

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christopher.reynolds@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Planning this trip

THE BEST WAY

Getting there:

From LAX, nonstop service to Puerto Penasco is offered on Aeromexico. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $277.

Most visitors drive from Arizona. By the existing highways, it's about 550 miles from Los Angeles, 440 from San Diego, 215 from Phoenix, 60 miles from the border. A new highway, due to be completed later this year, will follow the Gulf of California coastline more closely, shaving about 100 miles from the Southern California drive.

Because Penasco is still a driving destination, only a handful of rental cars are available at the airport. And even though Alamo has a new desk at the airport -- neither the company's website nor its phone operators are taking reservations for Puerto Penasco yet. Taxis, however, are common and affordable.

TELEPHONE

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 52 (country code for Mexico) and the local number. (Do not use that combination for toll-free numbers.)

WHERE TO STAY

Penasco del Sol hotel; (800) 259-6976 or (638) 383-0302, www.hotelrocky point.com, recently remodeled with 204 rooms. Pool, restaurant, beachfront location. Considered the best hotel in town. Rates $89 to $249 per night, plus 12% taxes, breakfast included weekdays.

Hotel Vina del Mar, 1 de Junio Street and Malecon Kino; (638) 383-0100, www.vinadelmarhotel.com. A modest lodging in the Old Port area. 111 units. Rates $67 (single room) to $152 (Jacuzzi suite), tax included.

Las Palomas Beach & Golf Resort, 150 Boulevard Costero; (877) 802-7484, www.laspalomascommunity.com, is a vast condo project (11 buildings), but has about 350 studios and suites available for short-term rental. One-bedroom units rent for $175 to $272, plus 5.5% in taxes.

Mayan Palace, Kilometer 24, Carretera Penasco-Caborca; (800) 292-9446, www.mayanpalace .com/penasco. Time-share resort featuring golf course, tennis, indoor and outdoor pools. Rates $395 to $655 per night, plus 2% taxes.

Condo rental agencies include Sea Side Reservations, (888) 262-4508, www.seasidemexico.com; Oceano Luxury Vacation Rentals, (888) 328-8491, www.gooceano.com; FMI Rentals, (638) 388-0773 or (no international dialing code before this number) (602) 288-8609, www.fmi rentals.com; Fiesta Beach Travel, (800) 713-6259, www.rockypoint mexico.com.

WHERE TO EAT

Casa del Capitan, 1 Aqua Ave., (638) 383-5698, has the best views in town and a menu long on seafood. Entrees up to $18.

The Point, Malecon Fundadores, (638) 383-8660, in the waters just off the Old Port area. Seafood and steak. Entrees up to $16.

Balche at Mayan Palace, (638) 383-0400, might be the one thing that's affordable at this exclusive resort. Main dishes up to $13.

TO LEARN MORE

The Sonora Tourism Commission runs www.gotosonora.com. Operated by a travel agency, www.puerto penasco.com has a detailed website.

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On travel.latimes.com

To see more of Puerto Penasco, go to latimes.com/puerto penasco.

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A character study of two Mexican vacation towns

Sonora's Puerto Penasco and Baja California's San Felipe appeal in different ways to visitors from north of the border.

*--* -- PUERTO PENASCO SAN FELIPE Population 44,647 in the 14,831 in the 2005 census, but 2005 census, but estimates as high estimates as high as 60,000 as 30,000 Driving miles from Los Angeles About 550 About 350 Commercial flights 3 weekly from LAX None Weather Routinely, highs Often 5 to 10 in the 90s in degrees warmer summer, 60s in than Puerto winter Penasco Tectonic drift Part of North Pacific plate and American plate is inching and is inching northwest. southeast *--*

-- Christopher Reynolds

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday, February 26, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction 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.
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