Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Eye in the Sky: El Faro -- Mazatlán’s lighthouse watches history being made

After negotiating a dirt path and climbing more than 300 concrete steps, you arrive at the top of Cerro de Creston, the home to 33 species of flora, 19 species of fauna, and El Faro. El Faro is the second natural highest lighthouse in the world at 157 meters (523 feet) from high tide, and the view of his domain is well worth the imposing climb. The birds are flying below you, boats rock in the harbor, waves crash at the base of the hill and all of Mazatlán, the Pacific, the Sierra Madres and the surrounding area is spread out in front of you.

It’s 1821, and the Pacific Ocean is a very busy place with the trade market and the gold rush. Spanish rule is over, and the port has not seen pirates since before 1800. The City of Mazatlán received a decree by Cortes de Cadiz making it the first port in Mexico on the Pacific Coast. It was immediately one of the most important on the Pacific, along with San Francisco, California, and Valparaiso, Chile.

Mazatlán was the main supplier of imported merchandise for the states of Sonora, Durango, Chihuahua, Nayarit, Jalisco and Baja California. It is said that an average of 60 ships a year from the United States, Europe and the Far East entered the harbor, oddly enough with no help from any navigation system for 7 years. That changed in 1828, when Isla de Creston (Yes! It used to be an island, more on that later …) began to be utilized for marine signaling. For the first 60 years, it was a very crude operation, merely a rubblework pavilion, with torches and bonfires that were lit using wood and coal, to create a tenuous light at best, that only could be seen from a very short distance. Eventually this was replaced by oil and kerosene lamps, which made for a much stronger, constant light. Then, in mid-1879, a small tower was constructed and a lamp installed that had been handcrafted in Paris. It ran on oil and used mirrors and a Fresnel lens to enhance the light, which was a vast improvement.

The next milestone for El Faro was in 1892. Porfirio Diaz was President of Mexico and a great era of prosperity was underway. The railroad arrived, the port and lighthouse were modernized and the cathedral was finished. There was a new age of enlightment and education; the arts and journalism flourished. The president of the port, Don Bernardo Vazquez, and the city engineer, Jose Natividad Gonzáles, oversaw the final adaptations to the lighthouse, as well as the extension of the jetty and its artificial fill. These operations turned Isla de Creston from an island to being connected to the mainland, thus becoming Cerro de Creston.

In 1905 the lamp was once again converted, this time to a revolving type, and with the exception of a few more minor modifications in 1933, the lighthouse became the El Faro we know now. El Faro is seven meters (23 feet) high, with a 1000-watt bulb that’s the equivalent of 600,000 candles and can be seen from 30 nautical miles (60 km).

As you stand on the breezy pinnacle of Cerro de Creston and look around, you can see all the different personalities of Mazatlán; Stone Island with sweeping beaches and acres of coconut trees, the exciting, busy downtown area, the lazy north beaches covered in high-rises. It’s easy to imagine the stories El Faro could tell about the changes and events in this ever evolving city. The eye of El Faro has seen a great deal of the history of Mazatlán: the arrival of Angela Peralta in 1883 and the yellow fever outbreak immediately following; the revolution of 1910-17 and the bombardment by airplane - the second city in the world to experience this after Tripoli; the ‘60s and ‘70s with “Spring Breakers” and stars like John Wayne; Hurricane Olivia and her path of destruction in 1975. And, of course, El Faro has always had front row seats for Carnaval, which officially began in 1898, although there are accounts of it as early as the mid-1800s.

El Faro is arguable the most recognizable symbol of Mazatlan. His constant beam of light has shone upon the city and all its transformations throughout the years, and will undoubtedly see much more. Viva Mazatlan and Viva El Faro!

This will be seen in the April edition of "M" magazine.


Nancy said...

Thanks for the information, and glad you're back!

rab marlow said...

Well written. Feels like I'm there. Thanks for the virtual tour.