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Visit Mexico! Rocky Point & Nogales

Sonara - Sister State to Arizona

OK, so you’re “this close”—and want to put your feet on foreign soil. Visit Mexico. It’s fun, it’s safe, and it’s fascinating. And, from Phoenix and Tucson it’s relatively easy to do—especially if you avoid weekends.

Mexico is divided into 26 states; the one bordering the south of Arizona is called Sonora. There are two popular destinations for day-trippers. Rocky Point (Puerto MX) is legendary in these parts as an affordable beach getaway. And locals and tourists alike seeking a “south of the border” shopping and dining experience without a lot of fuss and hassle love Nogales, 60 miles south of Tucson.

Travel in Mexico/Overview

People who have never traveled "south of the Border” may be apprehensive to do so because are unsure of current regulations. For a day trip it’s less complicated than many people think.

For starters, no special car permits are needed because Rocky Point lies within the Mexican free-trade zone. Rocky Point and Nogales are both located in the state of Sonora, which features a unique visitor program called "Only Sonora."

According to AAA Arizona, “Only Sonora” permits exempt visitors who stay fewer than 72 hours in Rocky Point from the vehicle fees and deposits that would be required if they ventured farther south. Visitors need only present a valid drivers license and proof of vehicle ownership or legal possession by the driver.

Legal possession can be proven with one or more of the following documents:

  • Vehicle registration (in the name of the driver) or original title Lease contract (for leased vehicles)
  • Company owned Vehicles must provide some proof of the labor relationship between the Driver and the Company who owns the vehicle.
  • Leased or Financed Vehicles must provide a 'Letter of Authorization' from the bank or leasing company (if the vehicle is leased or financed). Make sure to contact your bank or leasing company to get your 'Letter of Authorization' a few days before your trip.

Border officials will require a copy of your 'Full Coverage' Mexican auto insurance policy before issuing the 'Letter of Authorization'. You can get this insurance through several insurers: AAA Arizona, on-line policies (Adventure Mexican Insurance, for example) or at offices near the Mexican border (there are lots of these but they could be crowded.)

You are not required to have Mexican auto insurance, and officials do not check for it at the border. But your U.S. auto insurance is not valid in Mexico, and, according to the U.S. Department of State, you could be jailed and your car impounded if you have an accident.

Car insurance pricing varies based on length of stay and type of vehicle; for a day trip or short visit it is very affordable. Policies typically are sold in 24-hour increments. A policy that covers collision damage and liability would cost approximately $40 to $70 for a weekend. The State Department advises buying coverage amounts similar to what you carry in the United States.

Next, you need the proper documents to re-enter the United States. Despite the one-year delay in requiring passports when entering the U.S. by land or sea, the Department of Homeland Security still plans to tighten border crossings starting Jan 2008. As of Jan. 31, adult travelers re-entering the U.S. by land, ferry or small boat must present a passport or a government-issued photo ID plus proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate or naturalization certificate. Those 18 and younger need only proof of citizenship. AAA Arizona advises voter-identification cards and driver's licenses are not acceptable.

You need a free tourist visa only if you plan to stay in Rocky Point for more than three days, so no worries for your day trip agenda. The border is open from 6am to midnight daily. (Visas are free. You can get one at the border-crossing station in Lukeville-Sonoita, where Mexican officials stamp the visa and give you a copy or, in advance, with a US Travel Agents (some offices).

For Nogales, it’s probably easier to park on the US side and WALK across the border for the day. For Rocky Point (at Ague Prieta Crossing) please call 1-800-4-SONORA to obtain your “Sonora Only” Permit. Remember, these permits must be returned to the issuing checkpoint station upon reentry and within the allotted six-month period.

Sonora Border Crossing Points/Vehicle Permit Hours of Operation:

  • Ague Prieta - All week, 24 hrs.
  • Naco - All week, 8:00am to midnight
  • Nogales - All week, 24 hrs.
  • San Luis Rio Colorado - All week, 24 hrs.
  • Sonoyta - All week, 24 hrs.

Customs Regulations

    Entering Mexico
    Going into Mexico is relatively easy as long as you have no illegal drugs or firearms. You're allowed to bring in two cartons of cigarettes or 50 cigars, plus 1 kilogram (2.2 lb.) of smoking tobacco; two 1-liter bottles of wine or hard liquor; and 12 rolls of film. A laptop computer, camera equipment, and sports equipment that could feasibly be used during your stay are also allowed.

    Returning to the US
    Returning U.S. citizens who have been away for at least 48 hours can bring back $800 worth of merchandise duty-free, once every 30 days. You'll pay a flat rate of duty on the next $1,000 worth of purchases. On mailed gifts, the duty-free limit is $200. It is recommended that you keep your receipts or purchases accessible to expedite the declaration process and car inspections.

Note: If you owe duty, you must pay as you cross back into the United State— either by cash, personal check, government or traveler's check, or money order (and, in some locations, a Visa or MasterCard).

To avoid paying duty on foreign-made personal items you owned before your trip, bring along a bill of sale, insurance policy, jeweler's appraisal, or receipts of purchase. Or you can register items that can be readily identified by a permanently affixed serial number or marking -- think laptop computers, cameras, and CD players -- with Customs before you leave. Take the items to the nearest Customs office or register them with Customs at the airport from which you're departing. You'll receive, at no cost, a Certificate of Registration, which allows duty-free entry for the life of the item.

U.S. Citizens
For specifics on what specifically you can bring back from Mexico and elsewhere, and the corresponding fees, download the invaluable free pamphlet Know Before You Go online at www.cbp.gov (click on "Travel," and then click on "Know Before You Go! Online Brochure.”) Or, contact the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20229 (tel. 877/287-8667) and request the pamphlet.

Canadian Citizens
Before travel begins, write for the booklet I Declare, issued by the Canada Border Services Agency (tel. 800/461-9999 in Canada, or 204/983-3500).

For an up-to-date, country-by-country listing of passport requirements around the world, go to the "Foreign Entry Requirement" Web page of the U.S. State Department at http://travel.state.gov.

Rocky Point — Or Puerto Peñasco, if you prefer.

True road warriors traveling from Phoenix and, to a great extent, those traveling from Tucson will find that a visit to the historic little fishing village of Puerto MX, is literally a day’s drive. They’ll be time to sample a sandy beach, a local restaurant or a shop or two, but you’ll be stretched time-wise to become too active in some of the area’s unique outdoor, culinary, and shopping adventures.

If your tribe is interested in seeing the heart of the Sonoran desert, and the beautiful waters of the Sea of Cortez from the car window at 70 mph, then this journey comes highly recommended. If affordable, why not leave the driving to others by using a shuttle service from Phoenix? This allows everyone a chance to relax and soak in the scenery. (Kona Shuttle features a dual air conditioned 12-passenger Mercedes Sprinter van (602) 956-5696; (602) 971-0166 or (866) 443-2368; Sea Side Shuttle will pick you up at the resort but you need to make reservations in advance: (877) 275-5746). 

Rocky Point, the term generally ascribed to the larger area, is a well-loved weekend and holiday getaway for heat-weary Phoenicians and Tucsonans. To get there you have to navigate a border crossing and this, for many day-trippers, can be the rub. Depending on the season, the day and the especially the time of day, there can be traffic delays at the border coming back into the United States—lengthy, annoying, and inconvenient delays. It’s fair to say that most weekends the AZ/MX border crossings are busy so the best time for a Rocky Point day trip is undoubtedly mid week. And to do so, for our purposes from the Tucson and/or Phoenix metro areas, all roads initially lead through Gila Bend, AZ.

Driving directions:

  • From North Phoenix to Gila Bend: Take HWY 51 or I-17 south to I-10 West (Los Angeles) to HWY 85 S toward Buckeye and Gila Bend.
  • From Tempe to Gila Bend, travel south on I-10 E toward Tucson. Take exit 164/Queen Creek Rd toward Maricopa (.4 mi), then right at W. Queen Creek Rd. (1.7 mi) then left at AZ-347 S/S Maricopa Rd. (13 mi). Watch for AZ-238/W (Smith Enke Rd.) and follow it to HWY 85 into Gila Bend (40 mi). Turn left on E. Pima St.
  • From Tucson to Gila Bend follow I-10 W to I-8 (San Diego). Proceed on I-8 W south f1 mile to HWY 86. Proceed west on I-8 to Gila Bend.
  • From Gila Bend. Travel southwest through Gila Bend to West Pima St. to the exit for HWY 85 (Ajo, Lukeville and Mexico). Travel 80 miles through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to Lukeville, the border and Sonoita, MX.
  • Then, U.S./Mexico border to Rocky Point: (60 minutes)
  • Proceed slowly through Sonoita to the first stop sign.
  • Turn left go 1/4 mile to Mexico HWY 8. Turn right, follow signs marked "PTO "
  • Travel south through town on HWY 8 that takes you directly into Puerto, Rocky Point.

Hola, Amigos! Welcome to Rocky Point.

You’re at the beach! Now what? Start having fun, of course. Enjoy the food, the sunshine and the people watching. Once in Rocky Point the fish markets, shopping, shrimp boats and the marina are straight ahead. The Sandy Beaches will be to your right, past the hotels. Las Conchas and Playa Encanto will be left, a nice drive along the beach. The main tourist area for Puerto is still the Old Port area near the Malecon west of town. By now you probably have a local map and an agenda, but if not here’s a quick list of activities and adventures available in the area:

Water sports—Sonora boast some of Mexico’s best beaches and the family water fun activities are seemingly endless. There’s swimming, deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and sun bathing. Many of the beaches are shallow with great access for all. Explore some of the world’s most beautiful tide pools. In addition to excellent visibility (up to 100 ft.!) divers marvel at the incredible variety of marine life that inhabits the Gulf of California’s underwater cliffs, caves, and kelp forests. The best places for snorkeling are San Jorge Island in Rocky Point, Punta Sargento, Patos Island, Tiburon Island (near Kino Bay) and Isla San Pedro Nolasco. If you’re at all interested, you might want to check out possible boating excursions in advance of your visit. There sunset cruises, island trips and fishing charters available year round but the schedules, times and availability are ever changing. Tourists may rent jet skis and snorkeling/diving gear by the day from several local vendors. Or, if you’re ready for the adrenaline rush of a lifetime, sign up for para sailing over the Sea of Cortez. Old Port providers include:

  • Rent'n Ride—299 N. Hwy. # 8; 383-6383
  • Sand & Sea Rentals —202 National Armada Ave.; 383-6214
  • Sun & Fun Rentals & Sales—3 Estrella Ave.; 383-5450
  • Santiago's Para Sailing— Slip B-18 Marina; 383-5834

Dining

For years the traditional shopping, dining and carousing hub for visitors was Old Port—immediately south-west of Puerto, directly west of Rocky Point Mountain—commonly referred to as the fish market area. Hungry? Here you’ll find many eateries, a variety of foods plus Mexican beers and tequilas. Many restaurants in Rocky Point are clean, safe and charming. Larger restaurants are subject to health inspections, so you're more likely to get a well-prepared meal from establishments with “Americanos” in mind; the best advice is to avoid roadside taco stands and drinking tap water. If in doubt, ask about the ice and its water source. Ask if it’s safe to eat the lettuce. (They don’t take offense!) Lists of restaurant favorites include Lily's, La Curva and the Blue Marlin. You’ll find many more in Old Port including Friendly Dolphin Restaurant, El Capitan, Margaritaville, Manny’s Cantina, Costa Bravo Restaurant, Pink Cadillac Nightclub, Light House Restaurant, etc. Take dollars and/or pesos; some restaurants do not take credit cards, checks or debit cards. If in doubt, ASK before being seated. The Central Puerto businesses cater mostly to locals; here you can find grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies and medical providers. (Hint: Be sure to fill up the tank with gas before returning to the U.S. and always carry plenty of fresh water in the car when traveling in the desert.)

Shopping

Expect to be deluged by people trying to sell you all sorts of Mexican “stuff”— especially jewelry, blankets, clothing, and trinkets. Politely say, "No, gracias," and walk away—especially if you're simply not interested. Some of the street vendors can be tenacious. If you are interested, you can barter your way into some tasty purchases. You’ll find Mexican vendors are genuinely friendly and funny—as evidenced by the ironic street names they’ve named in the local “shopping district”—Rodeo Drive, Shacks Fifth Avenue and the Dirt Mall. This collection of local curio shops is a must stop, although bargaining may not be acceptable in some of the more pricey galleries. (Rodeo Drive is actually old Cholla Bay Road found by going north on the main boulevard, making a left on Cholla Bay Rd. and then driving over the railroad tracks.) The people are poor by American standards but welcoming and cordial. Have fun bargaining with the locals, landing some great deals and securing mementos of this unique destination. Don’t forget to make your customs declarations at the border, especially if you’re taking back alcohol or expensive art.

Attractions/Museums

CEDO, the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans, is a Natural History Resource Center and Biological Field Station for the study of two very diverse biospheres: the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve and the Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve. CEDO’s vision is to advance and share knowledge about this area and promote conservation and sustainable use of the natural and cultural resources. A free natural history talk, with exhibits, is presented (in English) every Tues/2pm and every Sat/4pm at the CEDO Marine Science Center in Puerto Peñasco. Seeing the Earthship Visitor Center, made from used tires and aluminum cans, is worth the visit alone. Learn about spring tides, giant whales, the vaquita and see a 55 ft. skeleton of a fin whale! (638) 382-0113

The CET-MAR Aquarium is Rocky Point's small, up-close-and-personal aquarium and unlike any you’ll see stateside. Located in the small community of Las Conchas, this simple place allows non-divers an amazing introduction to the marine life of the inter-tidal zone and the northern gulf coast. Most of the small tanks only feature one fish! Golden dogfish and eels and stingrays swim behind glass while bigger fish and invertebrates circle in open tanks. You can almost look eye-to-eye with lobster, octopus, sea horses and shrimp. You’ll want to buy fish food for $2 a bag; sea turtles bob from a tank in the center of the aquarium building, almost begging for a snack. (Hint: Moms, be sure to watch the kiddies; turtles are known to grab for their food and sometimes bite.) A pair of very loud and naturally rambunctious sea lions is the star attraction. Watch out! They, too, come after food by literally popping out of the fencing to snatch food from unsuspecting hands. (Open Mon-Fri, 10am–2:30pm, Sat/Sun, 10–6pm. Admission is $2/adults and $1/kids. 43 Las Conchas Road, Las Conchas. (638) 382-0010)

Nature Adventures

The Pinacate Mountains are located north of Puerto Peñasco about 22 miles. This is a volcanic crater region, home to one of the world’s largest volcanic craters and unique plant and animal life. The area is also famous for its vast and formidable sand dune formations. You can visit the Elegante and Cerro Colorado Craters or hike the Carnegie or Pinacate Mountains. The Ranger Station at the entrance has information regarding the roads, hazards and current weather conditions. Daily self guided tours, open 9-5:00pm. The reserve entrance is located in Ejido Nayarit, which is half way between Rocky Point and Sonoita. (638) 384-9007

Good advice:

  • Always carry a pouch of tissues in your purse or pocket because restrooms are chronically out of toilet paper.
  • Don't assume your credit card will be accepted everywhere. U.S. currency is widely accepted, so there is no need to exchange money. Most of the time, you'll get your change in dollars, not pesos.
  • Wear sunscreen and cover-ups. Burns are not uncommon.
  • One of the best resources for information on traveling to Rocky Point is the English-language newspaper Rocky Point Times.
  • Leave unessential valuables in the room, or at home. Less clutter for you to manage or lose and less worries about parking the car and going on a hike. Lock your car doors, of course.