60 miles from the US/Mexican border, Rocky Point, Mexico could have been an Arizona seaport, but history and great negotiating by the Mexican government in the mid-1800’s made it a part of Mexico. In 1846, the US/Mexican war ended, and a joint commission was set up to establish where the new border between the two countries would be. Negotiations went on until 1853, when James Gadsden, a South Carolina railroad promoter, was authorized by the US Congress to make 5 different secret offers to the Mexican government, for which we would pay from $15 million to $50 million. Each option included enough territory for the US to have a southern railroad route to the Pacific ocean, and a seaport on the Sea of Cortez. The President of Mexico, General Santa Ana (of Alamo fame), didn’t want to give up the territory connecting mainland Mexico with the Baja peninsula. Through his envoy to Washington, he lobbied Congress to come up with an offer for land that did not cut off his land bridge to the Baja. In 1854, Congress agreed to Gen. Santa Ana’s demands and paid $10 million for the territory that now makes up the southern portions of New Mexico and Arizona. Known as the Gadsden Purchase, this land includes both Tucson and Yuma, but did not include access to the Sea of Cortez. Thus, Arizona lost the chance to have it’s own beach front property.
In the 1920’s, two wandering fishermen, Victor and Benjamin Bustamante, discovered huge schools of beautiful blue shrimp in the waters off a “rocky point” known as Cerro de Penasco, and when other fishermen moved in, the town now known as Puerto Penasco was established. Rocky Point had one major problem…there was no fresh water. Thus, it appeared destined to remain a small temporary camp for Mexican fishermen.
In 1929, a US Mafioso named John Stone (an associate of Al Capone) saw the potential of the area as a resort destination and built a hotel and drilled a well for fresh water. Guests were flown in for fishing, hunting, gambling and (remember, it was during Prohibition) drinking. The availability of fresh water attracted more Mexican fishermen to the area, and the town began to grow. By 1931, Stone had managed to alienate many of the local Mexican government officials, and lost his license to do business in the area. Before departing, Stone burned his hotel and dynamited the well, leaving Rocky Point once again without fresh water. The Hotel was rebuilt by the Bustamante brothers and re-opened as the Hotel Penasco. The building itself still remains.
In 1936, Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas visited Rocky Point, saw that the area had tremendous potential, and ordered a pier constructed for the local fishing fleet. He also began construction of a railroad to connect Rocky Point with Mexicali and the border.During World War II, the US Corp of Engineers, with the cooperation of the Mexican government, built a paved road from the Arizona border to Rocky Point. The US feared attacks on it’s west coast ports by the Japanese, and wanted access to a port on the Sea of Cortez as a backup for shipping.
In 1955, the shrimp industry started to boom. Markets in Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Las Vegas and Los Angeles were developed, and Rocky Point was finally on it’s way to becoming something more than just a fishing village. By the early 1980’s, over 80% of the economy was based on the fishing and shrimping industry. Then the government made a mistake–they allowed Japanese and Korean trawlers into the Sea of Cortez. They began using long drag nets, and almost wiped out the fishery in the entire area. After five years, the Mexican government kicked the trawlers out, but another disaster occurred–the shrimp got a disease which decreased their fertility, and the shrimp industry almost died. In the early 1990’s, the shrimp began a comeback. Eventually, the harbor at Rocky Point housed over 200 fishing vessels. Then, in 1994, Mexico declared the entire northern part of the Sea of Cortez and the Pinacate Volcano area to be an International Biosphere Reserve. Commercial fishing could no longer take place north of Rocky Point. This put lots of fishermen out of business, and over half the fleet was sold to fishing operations in Guaymas, to the south. In 1989, the fishing industry was estimated to bring in up to 80% of the income earned by Rocoportenses (what the people of Rocky Point call themselves.) Today, fishing accounts for less than 50% of the local income, and tourism makes up the most important economic sector of the economy. The shrimp season lasts from October to May.
Before Rocky Point was settled by Mexicans, the Seri Indians wandered the local deserts. A sub-tribe of Arizona’s Tohono O’Odam Indians, the Seri were rumored to be cannibals, and early Spanish explorers were constantly on guard to protect themselves when traveling through the territory. In the 1940’s, a Seri (later called by his friends “the rich one”) began carving small statues of local animal and plant life out of ironwood, a small tree with extremely hard and dense wood that only grows in the Sonoran desert. Other members of the tribe saw that he was doing well selling the carvings, and began to carve their own statues. Today, ironwood carvings are perhaps the favorite souvenir purchased by tourists in northern Sonora. Other craft and art items available in the Rocky Point area are small carpets, blankets, jewelry, ceramics, hand woven baskets, hammocks, and the ever-present T-Shirt!
Another interesting and unusual feature of the Puerto Penasco area is the extreme tides produced in the area. In Cholla Bay, five miles from the heart of Rocky Point, the difference between low and high tides can be as much as 24 feet.
Also nearby is Mount Pinacate, home of 9 major volcanic craters and over 400 volcanic vents. In the early 70’s, Apollo astronauts trained for their moon-walks on this mountain.
Today, people visit Rocky Point for the sun, sand, sea, fishing, and just general relaxation. It is not a Mazatlan or Puerto Vallarta, and most visitors are eternally grateful for that fact.