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Los Cabos History

A Remote Land of Unfathomable Riches

Los Cabos is one of Mexico's most beautiful and historically rich areas. For those who love to explore history, it is a treasure trove. Its unique location at the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula, piercing the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, has made it one of Mexico's most infamous international destinations throughout history, and its popularity continues to attract more people from around the world every year. 

  • SJD plaza
  • San Jose del Cabo
  • Palmilla Beach

A Brief History of Los Cabos

Exploration & Discovery

The modern era of Los Cabos' history began with Hernan Cortes' arrival on the peninsula in the early 1600s. The Spanish explorer and conquistador, best known for conquering the Aztec empire, was drawn to the far reaches of the Mexican territories, suspected to be an island with stories of women, pearls, and gold. After mutinies and other failed commissions, Cortes arrived in the bay of La Paz in May of 1535, and his lasting impact is shown by the sea that now bears his name – Mar de Cortez (Sea of Cortez). 

Cortes first encountered hunter-gatherer tribes in the area, most notably the Pericues and Guaycuras indigenous peoples. The area's original inhabitants subsisted by sailing and fishing in the rich waters of the cape. Archaeologists date their introduction to the Los Cabos area near 13,000 BCE. These warring tribes and the lack of water and food were able to defeat Cortes, the man who led the "Conquest of Mexico," in less than a year. Though these groups have been culturally and linguistically non-existent since the end of the 18th century, it is still possible to see their rock art and cave paintings throughout the entire Baja California peninsula. 

A few short years after Cortes landed, English pirates seized the land as their base of operations for raids against the Spanish explorers and traders. The lucrative Manila Galleon, a trade route from the Philipines to Acapulco, put Los Cabos on the world stage, parading unbelievable wealth from the Far East to the flourishing West. The granite rock formation of the cape was a welcoming beacon for the long-haul sailors that landfall and fresh water in the estuary of San Jose del Cabo were near. The cape also provided the best cover for ambush attacks. The pirates' time in Los Cabos continued until Jesuit missionaries founded the mission at San Jose del Cabo de Anuiti in 1730. King Phillip of Spain erected a small fortress as a strategic base, cutting off access to fresh water to force out the English, Dutch, and Russian sailors and increase Spanish exploration of the area. The Manila Galleon continued into the early 19th century until Mexico and South America finally defeated Spain.

Colonization & Resistance

Despite the efforts of the early Spanish explorers and colonists, it was not until Jesuit missionaries arrived in 1697, nearly 150 years after the campaigns of Cortes, that the Baja peninsula saw its first permanent settlement. Known at this time as California, over almost 40 years, the Jesuit priests built seven missions from Loreto to San Jose del Cabo. The indigenous tribes of the area bided their time and strategically attacked, initiating the beginning of the end of the Jesuit occupation of the Los Cabos area in 1734. It is still possible to see a tile mosaic depicting the death of Padre Nicolas Tamaral and the Pericu uprising above the entryway of the old Catholic church in San Jose del Cabo. Sadly, the fate of the Pericu and the Jesuits were inextricably tied. The tribe was decimated by European diseases of smallpox, measles, and syphilis brought to the region by the Galleon Trade. They were culturally extinct by 1768, the same year the Jesuits were expelled. 

The 19th century saw many new trials and tribulations in Los Cabos. The original pioneer families steered operations to cattle ranching, farming, and mining in the Sierra de la Laguna mountains. Dominican and Franciscan friars replaced the Jesuit priests as the religious leaders of Baja California. They fared no better than their predecessors while making forward strides to tend the land. Tensions in Europe opened the stage for rebellion, and The Mexican War of Independence from Spain began. Though it was finally determined that California was not an island, receiving staples from the Mexican mainland was not easier, and dire situations on the Baja California peninsula were only exacerbated. While Mexico won its independence, the transition of the territory of New Spain to the Mexico Republic fanned out slowly to the Los Cabos region as an already outlaying area. Many residents were unaware that the war had ended and valiantly continued fighting for Mexican independence. 

On the coattails of the War for Independence, The Mexican-American war dominated the middle decades of the 1800s. And by the close of the century, many characters emerged trying to seize economic interests in the peninsula. Mining, real estate, filibustering expeditions, and all-out conquest were attempted. The US economy and larger population proved no contest to the ill-prepared forces of Mexico, which was still unstable after decades of war with Spain. Mexico lost close to half its territory to the United States. The crown jewel was the annexation of Alta California, now the state of California, which the US had made numerous attempts to purchase before the war. The US conceded the Baja California peninsula back to Mexico, citing that there were no natural resources and the Mexicans could “keep all of it.”

Natural Resources...

Ironically enough, pearl fishing in La Paz and north to Mulege commanded the world’s pearling industry by 1889, outfitting royalty for centuries with some of the most precious and unique jewels ever found. The Great Lemon, named for its size and shape, adorns the crown of Queen Elizabeth II and resides with the royal jewels in London. The Queen of Spain was also gifted with a stunning 400-grain pearl from the Sea of Cortez called La Perla de La Paz. Dating back to its discovery, Baja California Sur’s pearl operation climaxed just after the turn of the century. Still, by the 1940s, when American author John Steinbeck trekked to La Paz (where he got the idea to write The Pearl), the pearl industry was a distant memory as an unknown disease had decimated the oyster beds.  

During the same period, El Triunfo and San Antonio mining towns, just south of La Paz, experienced a second mining boom in 1862, becoming the most populated and wealthiest towns in Baja California Sur. This success drove commercial expansion throughout the area until the mine was flooded in the hurricane of 1918 and finally closed in 1926.

... & Natural Wonder

After the mines closed in the early twentieth century, Los Cabos began capitalizing on natural wonders instead of natural resources. Though the beauty of Los Cabos was still only accessible by yacht or private plane, stories spread about film stars visiting the towns on the Gulf of California to enjoy vacations away from the spotlight. At this time, foreigners were drawn to the pristine waters of the Sea of Cortez, not for pearl fishing, but marlin and other sportfish became the big tickets of the day. In the 1940s, Los Cabos attracted many famous names, including Lucille Ball, John Wayne, and Bing Crosby. The first resorts in Cabo San Lucas were built largely with Hollywood money, including the Hotel Palmilla, which opened in San Jose del Cabo in 1956 and is now known as the One&Only Palmilla

Until the opening of the transpeninsular highway, Los Cabos remained a rural, hard-to-reach, hidden gem. In 1974, the Mexican government formed a trust fund for tourism, Fonatur, which had big plans for this remote hideaway, starting with accessibility. The newly finished highway made it much easier for people and goods to travel the 1063 miles of the Baja peninsula, allowing the region's population to reach nearly 80,000 and making it the 30th state of Mexico. Dredging for the Cabo San Lucas Marina also began in the mid-70s. With the opening of the international airport in 1986, Los Cabos solidified itself as a top tourist destination. The construction of marinas, golf courses, and resorts over the years attracts visitors from across the world and spurs the area's continued growth. Luxury real estate, beach mansions, and sun-drenched spa living draw many to this once-sleepy fishing village in the harsh land that tempted many world-weary travelers throughout its rich history.  

Despite a rough past, this beautiful beach town's future is very bright. Again, Los Cabos has become a significant center of Mexican culture and business. With its gorgeous beaches, championship golf courses, world-class cuisine, and proximity to the United States, it is an attractive place for visitors and investors worldwide. 

  • Cueva del Palmarito

    The original inhabitants of Los Cabos were the Pericu hunter-gatherers, experienced sailors, and expert fishermen—territorial and fierce. Morphological and genetic study indicates that these people were more closely related to Asian and Australian ancient peoples. The most detailed glimpse of their existence is from the privateers who spent time in what is now Cabo San Lucas. Wiped out by war and disease, cave paintings hidden along the Sea of Cortez are the only evidence left.

  • Pirates of Los Cabos

    The Spanish trade route from the Philipines to Mexico, known as the Manila Galleon, met the attraction of many English and Dutch privateers looking for an easy score. In Cabo San Lucas Bay, famed English privateer Thomas Cavendish led an attack against the Spanish galleon Santa Ana in November 1587, right off El Arco at Land’s End. Having cultivated good relationships with the Pericu natives,  pirates flourished in the area until they were forced out in the 18th century.

  • Baja Missions

    27 Spanish missions were constructed on the Baja peninsula between 1683 and 1834. Spain introduced livestockfruitsvegetables, and industry into the region. The mission in San Jose del Cabo was established in 1730 (and rebuilt over the years) and finally abandoned in 1840 after the disappearance of the Pericues. The current church was built in 1940, although nothing was left of the previous construction.

  • Independence

    In 1821, when Mexico won its War of Independence, the first commissioned flag included the tricolor stripes representing independence (green), the Roman Catholic faith (white), and the union (red) of the Mexicans and Spaniards that fought together to win the war. The central coat of arms has changed over the years but has always featured an eagle, representing the Mexican's Aztec heritage and their god Huitzilopochtli. 

  • Queen of Gems

    Pearls from the Sea of Cortez, once plentiful and celebrated by royalty across Europe, are now the rarest in the world. Nearly decimated at the turn of the century, these pearls are now sustainably cultured at one farm. The "Rainbow-Lipped Pearl Oyster" (Pteria sterna) is a unique species native to the Gulf of California capable of producing pearls of amazing colors: black, rainbows, blue, pistachio, golden, gray, and purple.

  • El Triunfo

    The 47-meter-high smokestack, "La Ramona," is all that remains of the once bustling mining mecca of El Triunfo. In its heyday, 10,000 miners called it home, and it was the largest town in Baja California Sur. El Triunfo, the first city to install electricity and telephones, was a cultural center. Nearly a century after the mine's closure, many of the original buildings have been restored and converted into restaurants, museums, and boutiques to attract tourism.

  • Celebrity Hangout

    Since before the 1940s, Los Cabos has been attracting the rich and famous to its remote, sun-drenched shores. Beginning as a getaway from paparazzi and prying eyes and just a quick trip from L.A., Los Cabos continues to be a celebrity favorite for its luxury, security, and privacy. It's not unusual to see A-list actors, musicians, athletes, and more enjoying this beach town's natural beauty and exciting amenities.

    photo credit: Instagram/@nickjonas

  • Los Cabos Getaway

    The opening of the Transpeninsular Highway and the Los Cabos International Airport has allowed the area's growth to explode! Mexican nationals and foreigners alike visit this magical destination year after year. Los Cabos is one of the top vacation destinations in Mexico with a robust expat community. Los Cabos shows no signs of slowing down with pristine beaches, a bustling nightlife, delectable culinary offerings, and adventure to boot, who wouldn't want to getaway to paradise?


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