Since I grew up near the ocean, every vacation I get, I drag my family to a body of water.
This past spring, after talking to some friends and consulting a map, I found out the closest beachfront to New Mexico is in Old Mexico (as my wife’s grandmother used to call it).
Puerto Peñasco is a former fishing village-turned-vacation-destination, a mere 12 hours away from Santa Fe or, if you’re traveling in a minivan with two kids, the journey translates to about eight DVDs with some time added for bickering as to whether Iron Man’s Robert Downey Jr. beats School of Rock’s Jack Black when it comes to charisma and believability.
It seemed as soon as I started mapping our trip, buying Mexican auto insurance and making reservations at the Peñasco Del Sol hotel, our phone started ringing, mostly from my wife Lala’s sister Becky who, when it comes to worrying, is about as nervous as a very small nun at a penguin shoot.
“I know. We will. Not sure yet,” I’d hear my wife Lala say into the mouthpiece as she paced and her brow started to wrinkle. I didn’t have to witness the other end of the conversation. Becky was most likely discussing the recent warnings about Mexican travel in the wavering voice of a lovesick opera star.
As any dutiful husband/father (and a man fantasizing about drinking Indio beers at sunset) would, I started my research. I emailed the border guards at Nogales, spoke on the phone to the manager of the hotel, sent telegrams to shrimp fishermen and started reading every border blog and Arizona newspaper I could digitally find until my eyes crossed. From what I could tell, as long as we used the same common sense we do in our hometown, we’d be fine. In fact, we would be safer in the welcoming arms of Puerto Peñasco than we would be in our geographical homeboy Albuquerque’s (and, yes, this was before swine flu fever broke out, but my reasoning still holds).
As the trip grew closer, Becky would call about something that happened in Juárez and Tijuana, sometimes months prior, and I’d counter with more emails from single women crossing the Lukeville, Ariz. border with their children every week for work. I felt that we should be cautious but not fearful. Becky felt that we should stay home under our beds, preferably wrapped in Bubble Wrap, holding loaded elephant guns. Lala and I decided we would start our trip and, if we saw any sign of danger, we would turn our jalopy around like Okies during the Dust Bowl unable to find work.
Like many parents, the hypnotic effect of portable DVD players gave Lala and me the chance to catch up. She noticed I had gotten my hair cut and shaved my beard off recently while I asked her to remind me of her middle name again. We gabbed all the way to Tucson where we stayed a few nights, perusing a post-hippie-generation street fair on Fourth Avenue and hiking through the striking Saguaro National forest before heading south. Given our concern that masked guerillas might pop out from behind the large, human-like cacti, our vision was hyper-focused so the desertscape was even more incredible. Watching the Saguaros slowly disappear into more flat terrain was worth all of Becky’s freak-out phoners.
Surprisingly, we didn’t even have to stop at the border. Mexico gave us a verde light, and we had an easy hour drive to Puerto Peñasco. If you’ve never been, entering Puerto Peñasco can seem like you’ve been dropped in the Middle East. Miles and miles of sandy dunes meet the Sea of Cortez almost like a mirage.
“This is Mexico?” London asked, rubbing his eyes after Spidey faded on a screen the size of a cocktail napkin.
“As far as we know,” I answered, expecting a herd of camels to come loping down the sand. Instead, out of our hotel window, we gazed upon a long, wide beach with people riding horses and children exploring tidal pools for shells and marine life.
Our kids couldn’t wait to get to the pool so we hurried down. There was a hot tub and two pools: one larger pool for swimming and a smaller one for recreation. Since we were still in the shadows of spring break, the rec pool offered water basketball and a swim-up bar that London claimed as his private clubhouse, even though it only opened on the weekends. London and Poppy loved racing from one pool to the next, occasionally dropping into the hot tub to watch young and not-so-young couples get the type of groove on that would just make the PG-13 cut.
Lala and I like to walk, and the coastline at Puerto Peñasco allowed for long strolls west from the Peñasco Del Sol to Sandy Beach, where larger hotels and resorts have sprung up like giant colorful trees. We saw a few spring break clichés, pale girls holding baby oil in one hand and wine coolers in the other, but mostly it was just the type of easy wandering we like to do. At night, we drove to the Malecon to watch the sunset, shop for a Mexican wrestling costume (with cape) for London and eat fresh seafood at the Blue Marlin restaurant. For some reason, this has been the season of new hairstyles for our familia, so Poppy had her hair braided while two women tried to roll London’s nest into dreads after scolding Lala (bad mother!) for not combing her poor son’s hair.
Our trip was divine and, given the temperate weather in Puerto Peñasco all year long (and favorable exchange rate), I’d go anytime, perhaps even this summer.
Maybe our stay there was too wonderful and Lala was missing her sister’s warnings because, after I’d taken the kids into the Sea of Cortez to swim, she had that familiar worried visage splashed across her face.
“Did Becky call?” I asked, toweling off.
“No.” She gave me that look that many husbands are far too familiar with. “When you swim, you need to shuffle your feet.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Stingrays,” she said, colder than the sea we had just left.
“Never heard of them.” I jumped in the pool and waited desperately for the bar to open