Acapulco Travel Guide – History
On 13 December 1521, exactly four months after the fall of Tenochtitlán, the Spanish found the tiny fishing village of Acapulco. Spanish explorers used the port, which is virtually the only natural deep-water harbor south of San Francisco, to begin exploring what was called the ‘Great South Sea’. Westward voyages across the Pacific, sailing with the prevailing currents as Magellan had done, are relatively easy, but the return trip, against those currents, proved almost impossible.
In 1565, Andrés de Urdaneta discovered the way back and established a trade route between the Viceroyalty of New Spain (México) and the Orient. For the next 250 years the Manila Galleons (‘Nao de China’ in Spanish) brought Oriental fineries to Acapulco, which then became the hub of commerce between Spain and the Far East. Silks, spices, pearls, lacquer work, and porcelain were exchanged for Mexican silver – in such unprecedented quantities that Mexican silver coins became, for well over a century, the common currency of the South China Sea.
No other shipping line has endured for so long, nor has any other been so difficult. The eastward voyage from Manila lasted an average of six months but despite the enormous hardships of the voyage, there was a significant interchange of people, culture, art, and cuisine. The Philippines became a colony of México, and the only Catholic country in southeast Asia. And the native language, Tagalog, is written with the Latin alphabet.
The gate to old Fort San Diego
This colossal treasure in merchandise and silver exchanged at the annual Acapulco fair attracted pirates, including Sir Francis Drake. Persistent pirate attacks necessitated the construction of Fort San Diego, the first Spanish fort anywhere on the Pacific. The present structure, known as the ‘new’ Fort, was rebuilt on the ruins of the first after a disastrous earthquake in 1776.
During the War of Independence the Mexican priest and patriot, José María Morelos y Pavón (1765-1815) captured Acapulco and accepted the surrender of Fort San Diego. The Spanish withdrew in 1815, the Manila Galleons stopped sailing, and Mexico’s vast Oriental trade ended. Acapulco lapsed into an obscurity from which it would not begin to recover for well over a century – until World War II, when a new road to México City opened.
The people of Acapulco have preserved and restored Fort San Diego, and today the old building houses a beautiful, air-conditioned museum dedicated to the Galleons, the goods they carried, and the lasting effects of trade between México and The Philippines. It is well worth a visit.
Schurz, William: The Manila Galleon.
Kandell, Jonathan: La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City.
The Bay of Santa Lucía (Acapulco) is oval, with the long axis running parallel to the coast, which is east-west. The old city lies on the western end of the Bay, where a peninsula forms the harbor (map).
International visitors began to arrive with the inauguration of jet service, and in the 60’s a brand-new “hotel zone” spread around the eastern half of the Bay. Unfortunately, this growth brought considerable pollution, and by the 80’s the Bay was filthy. Thankfully, the present City government has done a great deal to improve the situation.
About the Author
I was born in the geographic center of Texas (Brady) on Texas Independence Day (2 March), but left at 16 and have lived in Madrid, New York, San Francisco, Manila, Albuquerque, Galveston, and Iowa City.
I came to Acapulco as a child, just after WWII and I’ve lived here part-time since 1991 and year-round since 1995. I teach conversational English in an up-scale private prep school.
I wore black western boots when I was on the Rodeo board in Austin; now I wear sandals (except when in the classroom).
I can provide fairly comprehensive information on Acapulco, and limited help on MÃ©xico City and Oaxaca.