Before the Spanish invaded and conquered Mexico in the early 16th century, indigenous people known as the Totorames inhabited Mazatlán. Although they moved from the area 200 years before the Spanish arrived, they left behind vestiges of their lives in the form of polychrome pottery with red and black designs.
Following Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs in 1521, his men were sent to explore the rest of the country. Nuño de Guzmán brought his army to the now state of Sinaloa and after battles with the native people, claimed the land for Spain. In 1531, the remaining Spanish settled Mazatlán, which means “place of the deer” in the Nahuatl language, which is the language of the Aztecs.
The port of Mazatlán, which is at the confluence of the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, became a strategic location for English and French pirates to attack rich Spanish galleons that plied the coast. The attacks led the colonial government to establish a small presidio, or fortified military settlement, on the harbor and build watchtowers. Mazatlán began to develop as a port town with the arrival of a stronger Spanish military presence.
By the 1800s, the pirates were gone and German immigrants began setting in Mazatlán to help develop the port for greater shipping trade. Banda music, which is a big part of the culture throughout Mexico, and especially Sinaloa, has its roots in the Bavarian music Germans introduced to Mazatlán. They also used their centuries-old brewing skills in 1900 to found the Pacifico Brewery.
After Mexico’s successful war for independence in the early 19th century, Mazatlán prospered and became Sinaloa’s capital from 1859 to 1873. Under Mexican President Porfirio Díaz in the late 19th century, the railroad arrived in Mazatlán, the port and lighthouse were modernized and the city’s main cathedral was finished. During the same period, Mazatlán experienced a tragic disaster when over 2,500 residents died in 1883 when a yellow-fever epidemic swept through the city.
In the 20th century, Mazatlán’s commercial fishing industry – the backbone of its local economy – resumed its expansion after the Mexican Revolution ended in 1920, but it was strongly impacted by the worldwide depression in the 1930s. After recovering from WWII, Mazatlán made many port improvements and built new highways and hotels to accommodate tourists from all over the world who discovered the city’s golden beaches in the 1960s and 1970s.
Today, Mazatlán, now known by the nickname “Pearl of the Pacific”, is approaching nearly 500,000 residents and hosts over 2 million visitors each year who enjoy Mazatlán’s big-game fishing and its miles of beaches. But the city’s economy is more than just tourism. Its commercial shipping port, which is benefiting from increased container shipping of finished products trucked to cities throughout North America, has been booming since the completion of the Mazatlán to Durango highway.