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History of Mazatlan

Mazatlan’s history is rich, diverse, and unique. Before the Spanish conquered Mexico, Mazatlan and the surrounding area were occupied by indigenous people known as Totorames. The Totorames survived as hunter/gathers and were particularly skilled in the art of pottery. But unlike their more famous inland neighbors, the Aztecs, the Totorames left behind no great architectural pyramids or structural works. Their civilization ultimately ceased 200 years before the arrival of the Spaniards.

Other tribes did manage to survive and one such prehispanic population was Chametla which occupied the area known as Sinoloa located about 50 miles south of Mazatlan. This group put up fierce resistance as the infamous Spanish Conquistador Cortez searched for passages to Baja California Sur.

But eventually the Spaniards would conquer the Chametla and other tribes. In 1521, Cortes conquered the Aztecs around what is now Mexico City. Relishing his success, Cortes then dispatched his lieutenants to further explore and subjugate the country. By 1531, Nuno Beltran de Guzman, an enemy of Cortes, burned his way through Sinola with his own private army. On this journey he founded the towns of Guadalajara, Tepic and Culiacan. And right on his heels was another conquistador by the name of Francisco Ibarra who founded the mining town of Copala in 1565.

The natives put up fierce battles in efforts to rid the new comings from their land. But as the wars took their tolls, the land eventually fell under the control of the Spanish and was soon subdivided among them.

Part of this subdivision included Mazatlan in which the Spaniards become permanent residents. The first mention of the name Mazatlan can be traced to 1602 where a village of San Juan Bautista de Mazatlan resided 30 miles south of present day Mazatlan. In the tongue of the Aztec’s, Mazatlan means “Place of the Deer.” But, since the Aztec empire never occupied the Mazatlan area, it is believed that an interpreter traveling with Guzman translated the name from a local language.

Although Mazatlan was not settled in the early 1600’s English and French pirates often used the hill screened harbor as a place to ambush the rich galleons that sailed the coast. In response to this looting the colonial government began to establish observation posts to monitor and patrol the pirates. And soon Mazatlan began to develop into a port.

By the 1800’s the pirates were no longer, but just around the corner Mazatlan would experience a number of occupiers in a relatively short period of time. In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain and Mazatlan began to prosper as a port city as well as the capital of the state of Sinaloa. In 1847 Mazatlan was occupied by the U.S. navy in the midst of the Mexican-American War. In 1864, while the U.S. was preoccupied by it’s own Civil War, the French invaded and occupied Mazatlan. And seven years later the British would occupy the port city.

During the tenure of Mexican Presidetn Porfirio Diaz (1876-1910) the railroad would make its way to Mazatlan, the port and lighthouse would become modernized, the cathedral would become finished, and the arts flourished.

However, this period wasn’t without tragedy as the touring Angela Peralta – “The Mexican Nightinggale”- fell victim to a yellow-fever epidemic and over 2,500 people died. More trouble lay ahead during the years of 1910-1917 which saw the Mexican Revolution. Interestingly, this revolution contains one of Mazatlan’s most unusual historical facts. It was during this time that Mazatlan became the first city in the America’s and the second city in the world to be bombed by airplane. The topography adjacent to downtown Mazatlan is honeycombed with limestone caves which were once used for storing perishable food. However, during the revolution it was also used as an ammunition storage facility. A biplane attempting to bomb this site missed its mark and dropped its package of dynamite and nails right onto the city streets resulting in the death of two citizens. Today this area holds radio and microwave antennas.

The 10 years following the revolution brought great prosperity through the trade of fishing. For the record, Mazatlan is still a major fishery and accounts for a significant portion of Mexico’s total shrimping industry.

But, then came the Great Depression of the 1930’s. And as Mazatlan tried to recover, World War II came along. As did much of the world, Mazatlan began to restore itself in the 1950’s. New and improved highways and other infrastructure soon spread across the area. Soon more people began to visit Mazatlan and discover the beauty of the area. This brought on a tourism boom that started in the 1960’s and peaked in the 1970’s. The opening of Playa Norte brought high rise hotels along white sandy beaches. At the end of the 1990’s the population of Mazatlan had grown to over 500,000 with over 1 million annual visitors.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Mazatlan was one of Mexico's only Pacific resorts. With it's European architecture, colonial district and the simple tranquility of one of the world's longest beaches, this historic city has certainly held on to it's appeal.

Over the years private committees have been working with the city and state governments to restore the historical landmarks and monuments throughout Mazatlan such as the Angela Peralta Theater, built in 1870 as the Teatro Rubio opera house, and the boardwalk and monuments of Avenida Olas Altas. The historic square Plazuela Machado underwent restoration and now hosts many social events including the annual Mazatlan Cultural Festival. With it's museums, sidewalk cafes, street performers and stately buildings it boasts an atmosphere that's sure to please.

Today, Mazatlan enjoys a healthy and stable economy that is anchored by a variety of industries. And while the northern part of Mazatlan is a tourism Mecca there still remains a great balance between old and new Mexico. Unbeknownst to most visitors, there are ample real estate opportunities available. Tracts of prime real estate are still available and even ocean front property can still be found at fractions of the cost one would expect to pay in other countries.

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