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If You Build It, They Will Come: Cabo San Lucas’ History as a Tourist Destination

“It was a sad little town, for a winter storm and a great surf had wrecked it in a single night. Water had driven past the houses, and the streets of the village had been a raging river.”

So wrote John Steinbeck after a visit in 1940, when Cabo San Lucas was little more than a cannery and some ramshackle housing. The cannery was built in 1927, and for over 35 years was the center of the town’s existence. There were no hotels, no golf courses, no luxury spas, and no marina. But the reason the cannery was so successful (at one point boasting the highest production in all of Latin America), was the reason the town would eventually become one of Mexico’s premier tourist destinations: fishing.

View of the Cabo San Lucas Marina circa 2011. Image: Marrovi

Rod Rodriguez opened Baja Sur’s first fishing resort in 1950, Rancho Las Cruces near La Paz, and other early developments began appearing throughout the decade, attracting Hollywood movie stars and other globetrotters drawn by the area’s abundance of marlin, tuna, and sailfish. Rodriguez’ Palmilla and Bud Parr’s Hotel Cabo San Lucas were the original fly-in resorts in what is now called the Tourist Corridor, and Rodriguez’ Hotel Hacienda became Cabo San Lucas’ first development in 1963. By the time Luis Coppola and former cannery manager Luis Bulnes built the landmark Land’s End Finisterra in 1972, the die had been cast.

Fishing has always been king in Cabo. Image: Provelt

These four men – Rod Rodriguez, Bud Parr, Luis Coppola, and Luis Bulnes – were the pioneers of the tourist age in Cabo San Lucas. They not only set the stage, but were the driving force behind the tremendous growth that began in the early 1970s. The Transpeninsular Highway was completed in 1973, and for the first time visitors from the U.S. were able to drive down to Cabo, rather than arriving by boat or plane. By 1974, work was being done to dredge the marina, eventually leading to an explosion of water-based activities companies.

In the 1970s, Fonatur, the Mexican Tourism Agency, also made a commitment to developing the southernmost part of the peninsula, dubbing Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo, and the intervening 20 mile stretch, Los Cabos, or “the Capes.” Amidst the building boom that ensued, luxury beachfront hotels and sportfishing charters remained the most popular tourist draws until the early 1990s, when Jack Nicklaus put the area on the golfing map with superb layouts at Palmilla, Cabo del Sol, and El Dorado.

Diamante Dunes

Today, Los Cabos is one of the premier international golfing destinations, with over a dozen world-class loops, including three courses that have been ranked among the world’s 100 best.  And although Cabo San Lucas remains best known for fishing and golf, beaches and beachfront hotels, thriving shopping and dining scenes have also emerged in recent years. Shoppers can browse in the luxury boutiques of Puerto Paraiso and Luxury Avenue, and aficionados of fine food will find scores of first-class restaurants, many specializing in fresh local seafood and an emerging regional style known as “Baja Mediterranean.”

In retrospect, it all happened very quickly for Cabo San Lucas. Long-time visitors remember the days in the early 1970s when there were the hotels Hacienda, Finisterra, Mar de Cortez, and little else. Recently, the G20 conference was held in Los Cabos. Our area was chosen as a meeting ground for world leaders, as a symbol of economic growth and prosperity in the 21st century. It’s certainly been a remarkable transformation for a town that fifty years ago consisted of 300 cannery workers.

 

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About Chris Sands

Chris Sands is the author of Bohemia by the Bay, and writes about wine, golf, and travel for publications such as Baja.com, Los Cabos Guide, Los Cabos Magazine, 10 Best, and USA Today. He is a full-time resident of Cabo San Lucas.

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