A Brief History of Los Cabos: 30 Million Years at Land’s End
The granite rock formations that extend to Land End in Cabo San Lucas have, over time, become much more than mere boundary markers or evocatively shaped oddities. The jutting promontory is a living symbol of the city, a sort of cinematic shorthand; and to see so much as a silhouette is to know exactly where you are in the world.
El Arco, in particular, is now as symbolically synonymous with Cabo San Lucas as White Cliffs with Dover or the Rock with Gibraltar. The naturally formed Arch bounded by two immense bodies of water–the Sea of Cortés and Pacific Ocean–is a staple image on postcards and photographs, on souvenir T-shirts, shot glasses, and tequila bottles. It’s co-opted for packaging and advertising campaigns and splashed across the front of travel brochures and local lifestyle magazines.
Hotels and luxurious resorts vie for the best vantages of El Arco, and the romantic attractions of area restaurants are often judged by the quality of their sunset views of Land’s End. Boat tours, even those dedicated to whale watching or snorkeling in neighboring bays, always include up-close looks at the headland’s signature landmarks, from Lover’s Beach to La Lobera.
In addition to its geographic and symbolic importance, Land’s End is also immensely important historically, and a thriving habitat for native flora and fauna, both above and below the waterline. Sea birds roost on craggy perches. Sea lions bask and bark. Marine life teems in the nutrient rich waters that hug the shore.
At dawn atop El Vigía (The Watcher), the large, humplike hill whose crest marks the high-point (500 feet) of the Land’s End headland, the rising sun covers land and sea with a blanket of red-gold light, before slowly unveiling the slow-rolling waves of the Pacific that stretch to the western horizon. It’s a scene that has been repeated innumerable times, and witnessed by innumerable generations of inhabitants, human and otherwise.
Although hikers and divers are constantly discovering new finds–the latest was a shipwreck uncovered again following Hurricane Odile–the rock formations at Land’s End are almost unfathomably old. They existed long before the Sea of Cortés was formed, and long before the Baja Peninsula separated itself from the Mexican mainland.
According to Oscar Ortíz, owner of adventure activities specialist Cabo Expeditions and one of the most knowledgeable local history guides, Land’s End dates to 30 million years ago, at approximately the point when the first natural processes were setting in motion the inconceivably slow-moving chain reaction that eventually resulted in the headland’s present formation and location.
For some perspective, the Sea of Cortés was born about 5.3 million years ago. So for more than 25 million years–a vast expanse of time–tectonic plate shifting and other geological processes were inexorably moving the Baja California peninsula towards its present position.
Fascinatingly enough, as Ortíz points out, the Baja Peninsula broke away from the mainland from the top down–at the terminus of the Colorado River–and during the course of its lengthy evolution underwent a surprising number of transformations. The Sierra de la Laguna, the mountain chain that forms the spine of present day Baja California Sur, for instance, was so named because the area was once surrounded by a vast lagoon. In fact, most of the state south of La Paz was once an island, before the inevitable march of time slowly knitted the land back together again.
Any tour of Land’s End and its many unique landmarks and underwater points of interest necessarily begins near the old tuna cannery, which for many years–before the age of tourism–was the center of commerce in Cabo San Lucas. Hills dotted with cholla (the cactus for whom native residents, or choyeros, are named) and fuzzy viejito (little old man) cactus, among other low-lying vegetation, climb upwards toward the peak of Cerro del Vigía from behind the cannery. A sign on the first hill reads No Vende (not for sale), and atop El Vigía is a small white cross that was presumably planted to seek protection for local inhabitants, although it is also rumored that this was once a traditional Pericú burial ground.
The beach that fronts the cannery, Playa Coral Negro, is the first of the three so-called Cannery Beaches that look out from Land’s End upon the calm waters of Bahía Cabo San Lucas (Cabo San Lucas Bay). El Balcón (The Balcony), and Playa Escondida (Hidden Beach) follow, and are the last sandy stretches before the beautiful and oft-visited Playa del Amor (Lover’s Beach).
Granite pinnacles extend out of the water near land, the first notable one being Pelican Rock. Much of the abundant marine life for which the area is famed is due to upwelling, a phenomenon that pushes cooler, nutrient rich waters towards the surface. Coral polyps on the underside of Pelican Rock create oxygen, further enhancing the nutrient rich environment, and drawing a profusion of colorful feeders, including king angelfish, pufferfish, parrotfish, surgeon fish and guitarfish. As a consequence of its tropical color, and proximity to nearby sandfalls, this is one of the best dive sites in the bay, and a particularly popular spot for night dives.
Play del Amor, or Lover’s Beach, is a perennially popular spot for sun-seekers, picnickers, resting kayakers, and those that just want to enjoy the gorgeous views of the coastline, from Cabo San Lucas to Punta Ballena (Whale Point, so named because its shape approximates the head of a whale). Water taxis are the preferred mode of transportation to Lover’ Beach, and rides can be arranged around the Marina, or from Playa El Médano (Medano Beach). The swimming and snorkeling are excellent here, although those that walk through the rock bounded passage to Playa del Divorcio (Divorce Beach) should avoid swimming on that side, due to strong Pacific Ocean rip currents.
During days gone by, Playa del Amor was often referred to as Doña Chepa, or Doña Chepita, after, as legend has it, a prostitute who had appropriated the area for business purposes. In fact, her activities may have suggested the beach’s current moniker, which, if true, somewhat lessens the romance factor. Nonetheless, this lovely golden sand beach and its gently sloping underwater shelf are among Land’s End’s greatest treasures.
Just beyond Lover’s Beach is Neptune’s Finger, another granite pinnacle, this one in the shape, as the name suggests, of a slightly bent finger rising from the deep. Corals, sponges and sea fans are among the most common sights for visiting divers. And beyond that, the Window to the Pacific, a vertical keyhole crack in the rocks at Land’s End that allows boaters on the Sea of Cortés side to see through to the Pacific. Boobies and cormorants nest nearby, oblivious to the fuss of photo snapping tourists.
El Arco, the great arch itself, is also the boundary marker non pareil. It divides land from sea–it is the last stretch of uninterrupted land reaching down from Alaska to the southern tip of the 800 mile long Baja California peninsula–sea from sky, and the Sea of Cortés from the Pacific Ocean. Beyond it is the passage of water that weaves in between what Steinbeck once called the Friars, the large rocky sentinels that guard the bay. The largest of these is called Cerro Blanco by local fishermen, and is in effect Land’s End, although that designation is given to the entire promontory.
In front of Cerro Blanco is a large flat rock that hosts the sea lion colony, or La Lobera (The Rookery), and behind it a small pinnacle upon which is invariably a single solitary sea lion, posed as if on the prow of a ship. This small pinnacle is known as The Point, and is perhaps the premier dive site at Land’s End, offering up-close looks at sea turtles, sea lions, moray eels, whale sharks, and even the occasional octopus.
Back in the watery passageway between evocatively shaped granitic formations one sees what is often called Scooby Doo Rock, because of its similarity to a certain cartoon canine. Seen from a different angle, this rock can also resemble a witch. And there is another large rock that looks like a smaller twin of Cerro Blanco. It has no memorable name, so Steinbeck’s dubbing of it and its bigger brother as The Friars (Los Frailes) will have to suffice.
And there is, of course, the shipwreck, the remains of a cargo ship transporting gypsum plaster from San Marcos Island near Santa Rosalía that sank off the coast in 1956. Local legend has it that the first mate on the Nuremberg, as it was called, had been gambling heavily en route, and had a lost a good deal of his personal fortune. These losses so affected him, it is said, that he knowingly steered the ship to her doom. The Nuremberg had long been covered, until Hurricane Odile, the Category 4 storm that devastated Los Cabos in September 2014, exposed her–or at least her top half–once again. The shipwreck has since formed an artificial reef, and has sparked a great deal of interest as Land’s End newest dive site.
And, now firmly on the Pacific Ocean side of Land’s End, there is The Pirates Cave, a spade-shaped opening that like many local inlets, coves and caves is reputed to hide long-buried pirate treasures. The area does have a rich pirate history. During the heyday of the lucrative Manila – Acapulco Galleon Trade, English and Dutch privateers waited in ambush behind the protective cover of Land’s End, hoping to sack that treasure laden ships that arrived yearly from Manila, stopping at Aguada Segura–San Jose del Cabo’s estuary–to take on fresh water. English captain Thomas Cavendish earned a fortune in gold and goods when he and his men sacked the Santa Ana in 1587, and many others, including Sir Francis Drake and Dutch freebooters–called Pichilingues by the Spaniards–sought to do the same.
Once clear of The Pirate’s Cave, the rocks open upon beautiful Divorce Beach. Rogue waves and rip currents make it a bit more perilous than neighboring Lover’s Beach, but for pure beauty, this is the premier ground level vantage at Land’s End. Lay upon a large flat rock showing eons of erosion, and polished to incredible smoothness, and watch as the waves roll in across the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, finally crashing upon the shores just below your feet. It’s a sight both meditative and majestic, not least because the sound of waves hitting the beach has been heard from time immemorial. Despite the changes in people and places around it, Land’s End remains the same as it has for 30 million years, and will probably remain for millions more.
The last stop on the tour, Grand Solmar, speaks to the changes. The resort is protected by the first hills at Land’s End on the Pacific Ocean side, a fact which seems fitting because of the building on the other side of the hill: the old cannery. One-time cannery manager Don Luis Bulnes Molleda was the founder of the Solmar Group of resorts, restaurants, and fishing boats, and one of the most important figures in the transition of Cabo San Lucas from tuna packing town to premier tourist destination.