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Mazatlán History

Adapted from an article originally written by John David Cutbush and Shana Hugh

Mazatlán is rich in very diverse history. Before the Spanish conquered México, the area around Mazatlán was inhabited by indigenous people known as the Totorames. They left behind exquisite polychrome pottery with elaborate red and black designs indicative of a high culture. However, unlike their renowned inland neighbors, the Toltecs and Aztecs, the Totorames left no pyramids or grand works. Their civilization was gone 200 years before the Spanish arrived. But other local pre-Hispanic tribes survived. Just 80 km south of Mazatlán is one of the oldest pre-Hispanic populations in Sinaloa: Chametla, in the municipality of Rosario. You can see samples of polychrome pottery and other artifacts on display at Mazatlán's Museo Arqueológico, which is dedicated to preserving the history of the state of Sinaloa. The archaeology museum is located in Centro Historico: Sixto Osuna #76. Open 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday to Friday.


Old Mazatlán

When Hernán Cortés led the Spanish conquerors searching for a passage to Baja California Sur, they met heavy resistance from the locals here: evidence that native populations inhabited this land well before the Spaniards came to Mazatlán. After Cortés conquered the Aztecs around present-day México City in 1521, his lieutenants were dispatched to explore and subjugate more of the country. In 1531, renegade opportunist (and enemy of Cortés) Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán burned his way through Sinaloa with his private army under the banner of conquest. Guzman laid waste to a broad western belt of Pacific México, but also managed to found several towns including Guadalajara, Tepic and Culiacan. He was followed by conquistador Francisco Ibarra, who founded the mining town of Copala in 1565. After a brutal battle with nearby natives, the lands were divided among the Spaniards, who became the first permanent settlers of what is now Mazatlán.


Game of Ulama

Despite Spanish conquest of the pre-Hispanic peoples of México, some remains of pre-Hispanic culture have endured. For example, the Game of Ulama has been an enduring tradition in Sinaloan culture. Ulama is derived from the pre-Hispanic sport, Ullamaliztli, which was played in Mesoamerica for 1500 years. The Spanish thought the "ule" (ball used to play Ulama) had magical properties and were, therefore, intimidated by it. Fear and confusion even caused Catholic priests-- who came to America during colonization-- to prohibit the indigenous people from playing the game. But the game survived and is still played today in Mazatlán, one of the last places it is played on earth. Mazatlán was first mentioned in 1602 as the name of a small village, San Juan Bautista de Mazatlán (now called Villa Unión), 30 miles south of present day Mazatlán. The name Mazatlán means Place of the Deer in the Nahuatl language, tongue of the Aztecs. However, because the Aztec empire never extended this far to the northwest, it is believed that a Nahuatl-speaking interpreter traveling with Guzmán translated the name from the local language. In Spanish, the word for "Deer" is Venados (as in Isla de los Venados, or Deer Island). Although present-day Mazatlán was not yet settled in 1600, English and French pirates used the hill-screened harbor as a place from which to attack the rich galleons that plied the coast.


Cerro del Vigia or "Lookout Hill"

In response, the colonial government established a small presidio on the harbor and watchtowers atop the cerros, and Mazatlán began to develop as a port town. By 1800, the pirates were gone. Nevertheless, legends persist of treasure buried in hidden caves and under windswept sands, waiting to be discovered. Cerro Vigia, or "Lookout Hill" is one of Mazatlán's three highest observation points (Crestón Hill-- where the Lighthouse is located-- is the highest). This lookout was once used by the Spanish to guard the harbor, later used by Mazatlecans to defend their port in a battle against the French, more than 200 years ago. By the mid-1800s, many German immigrants settled here and developed Mazatlán's seaport. Banda music has its roots in Bavarian music which they introduced, and in 1900 started the Pacifico Brewery. A monument atop the hill called The Cañon is a cannon that commemorates Mazatlecan bravery. The year 1821 brought Mexican independence from Spanish colonial rule after a ten-year struggle. Mazatlán prospered as a port city, and served as the capital of Sinaloa from 1859 to 1873, with a population of several thousand. It was occupied by the U.S. Navy in 1847 during the Mexican-American War, by the French in 1864 (while the United States was pre-occupied by its own Civil War), and by the British in 1871. Under Mexican President Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910) the railroad arrived in Mazatlán, the port and lighthouse were modernized, the cathedral was finished, and the arts blossomed.


Paseo Claussen

The 19th century also brought disaster to Mazatlán: tragically, while touring Mazatlán in 1883, the opera company of Ángela Peralta-- the "Mexican Nightingale"-- fell victim to a yellow-fever epidemic that claimed the lives of more than 2,500 Mazatlecos. The 20th century brought the revolution of 1910-17 and with it the distinction of being the second city in the world to suffer bombardment from an airplane (Tripoli, Libya, was the first). Cerro de la Neveria (Icebox Hill), adjacent to downtown Mazatlán, is honeycombed with limestone caves once used to store ice imported from San Francisco during the mid-1800s. Mazatlecan families used this ice to preserve their seafood and other perishables before the days of household refrigerators. By the time of the revolution, the hill was used to store ammunition. Devil's Cave-- the red gate which pierces the side of the hill near what is now the Malecón-- served as an escape route for soldiers guarding the ammunition. The biplane sent to bomb the hill missed its target and dropped the package of dynamite and nails onto the city streets, killing two citizens. Today, Cerro Neveria holds only numerous radio and microwave towers.


Ships arriving to Mazatlán

The decade after the revolution brought prosperity to Mazatlán as its commercial fishing industry continued to expand, followed by the depression of the 1930s. Recovery after WW II led to port improvements and new highways, followed by the "discovery" of Mazatlán by tourists during the 1960s and 70s, when the city expanded along Playa Norte. As tourism continued to increase, high-rise hotels sprouted further north in the "Golden Zone." By the early 1990s, the number of inhabitants pushed past half a million, with another million visiting annually. Now in the 21st century, Mazatlán continues to grow and attract foreign interest. Much of the charm of Mazatlán is due to the fact that it does not owe its existence solely to tourism, as its other industries continue to prosper. With tracts of prime real estate still available, Mazatlán continue to attract tourists and investors who come to discover the Charm and Old World flavor of Mazatlán.


Mazatlán's nowadays