In 1826, retired Lt. Robert William Hale Hardy of the British Royal Navy was sailing in this area searching for pearls and precious metals. He named the area Rocky Point and it was identified as Rocky Point on marine maps until President Lázaro Cárdenas changed it to Puerto Punta Peñasco (Port Rocky Point). To simplify pronunciation, the English name lost the word “Port” and the Spanish name dropped “Punta”.

Prior to the 1920s, the area was just one of the safe harbors for wandering fisherman who worked the upper Gulf of California. During fishing seasons, fishermen from Guaymas, Bahía Kino, Puerto Libertad and Puerto Lobos began to come here to camp out. At this time the area was known as Punta de Piedra o Punta Peñasco. The name comes from a large quantity of solidified lava that hit the Gulf. Even as early as the 19th century, fishermen from Arizona came here. Since there was no source of drinking water, it was not settled permanently.

Twentieth-Century Rocky Point History

In the 1920s, John Stone from Ajo, Arizona, came here to build a hotel and casino. This was done to take advantage of people coming over the border to escape Prohibition. He drilled a water well, and set up a flight service from Phoenix and Tucson to bring in tourists to drink, gamble and fish. It is said that Al Capone frequented the place. The business did well until Stone and the locals began to quarrel. Stone burned down the hotel and blew up the water well before he left.

In the 1930s, under President Lázaro Cárdenas, a railroad was built to connect the Baja California to the rest of Mexico, passing by Puerto Peñasco.The town began to grow again, adding a police delegation in 1932.

The railroad line created new population centers and the initial layout of the city and port of Puerto Peñasco was begun in the 1940s. During this same time shrimp fishing was having an impact on the local economy. In 1941, the village had 187 inhabitants who made a living by fishing or working for the Sonora-Baja California railway.

In 1952, Puerto Peñasco separated from the municipality of Caborca and comprised the localities of Sonoyta, Bahía La Choya, 21 de Marzo and Cuauhtémoc. Sonoyta was the second largest population center at the time. It had been a settlement since 1694 when Jesuit missionaries established a mission with the name of San Marcelo de Conoitac.

In 1989, the municipality of Plutarco Elías Calles was split from Puerto Peñasco. Until the 1990s, there had been little tourism here except for campers, fishermen and those (including college students from the University of Arizona) looking to take advantage of Mexico’s legal drinking age of 18. The municipality’s pristine beaches with clear waters stretched for a hundred miles north or south with almost no development.

Learn More about the History of Rocky Point, Mexico

The push to make Rocky Point a major tourism center was initiated in 1993. The government joined with private investors to build condominiums and other facilities. The goal has been to take advantage of the area’s proximity to the United States and the preference of Arizona residents to spend beach weekends here.

An important action on this modernization context was the zoning program in 1995. It was implemented by the Secretary of Urban Infrastructure and Ecology of the Sonora state, Vernon Perez Rubio. It consisted of a total of lands of 104, 385 hectares, of which highlights 10,971 hectares for a touristic reserve and productive activities, 8,671 hectares for a low density touristic-housing reservation, and 6,462 hectares for a medium density touristic-housing reservation. Much of the inspiration for the effort came from the success of Cancún, which was a nearly virgin beach before a government/private venture developed it.

Another reason to look to tourism was the declining catches of fishermen here, due to overfishing and pollution. The federal government contributed two billion pesos in infrastructure, especially in roadways and an airport. One of the first condo/hotel complexes to be built was Plaza Las Glorias in the early 1990s. More condos and hotels, as well as restaurants, supermarkets and bars began to appear.

The last major development has been the Mayan Palace, a condominium, hotel and golf course complex. Between 2002 and 2007 economic growth was at twelve percent. The local real estate market started to go bust in 2007 due to the economic slowdown in the United States. 99% of condominium buyers were from the U.S. and many condo owners were trying to resell. The government is still negotiating with companies such as Marriott and Carnival Cruise Lines to build facilities here. The new “Home Port del Mar de Cortes” (Sea of Cortez) cruise ship terminal is currently under construction, northwest of the main city. Its first phase is scheduled to be completed by December, 2014.

The new highway shortens the drive from California by 100 miles. After fishing, tourism is the most important economic activity for the city. Development to date includes over seventy restaurants, forty-two hotels and motels, and fourteen RV facilities.