Pioneer Family Saw Baja Fishing Village Grow Up
Asked recently to name his favorite restaurant in town, a crewman aboard one of the local sportfishing cruisers paused only briefly before responding, with a straight face, “KFC.”
Apparently, the Colonel’s place is quite popular among locals. So are McDonald’s, Dairy Queen and Domino’s Pizza, to name a few fairly recent arrivals.
They’re further examples of the so-called “Americanization” of this once quiet and dusty fishing village; the result of progress, which doesn’t sit well with everyone and in fact has some longing for the good old days.
As for Mark Parr, he’ll stick with La Noria, the Mexican restaurant at Hotel Hacienda Beach Resort, which the Parr family happens to own. The food is of much higher quality (the beef is shipped in from the United States); the convenience is unsurpassed.
As manager of one of Cabo San Lucas’ oldest hotels and having spent most of his childhood here, Parr, 48, can remember a time when food was neither American-style fast nor Mexican-style gourmet.
One time, in particular, stands out.
“I was out walking around with a .22-caliber rifle,” he fondly recalls, from behind his cluttered desk. “I was 7 and thought it was just great to have that rifle in my hands. Well, I saw a turkey buzzard up there and I didn’t think I could really hit it, and lo and behold I nailed the damn thing.
“My father comes along and says, ‘You killed it, you eat it.’ And he made me eat it. My father was an avid conservationist.”
Asked how the buzzard tasted, Parr paused only briefly before responding, with a straight face, “It tastes just like what it eats.”
Which is mostly the rotting carcasses of other animals. And they don’t taste anything like chicken.
Cabo San Lucas has undergone a dramatic transformation from sleepy village to boom town since the Parr family helped pioneer Baja California’s southern extreme as a destination for adventurous tourists.
The late William Matt “Bud” Parr was a partner in the building of Hotel Las Cruces Palmilla (now simply the Palmilla), which opened in 1956, and Hotel Cabo San Lucas, which opened in 1961 on the bluff overlooking beautiful Chileno Bay. The Parr family purchased Hotel Hacienda Beach Resort, which Mark Parr manages, in 1977.
In the early 1960s, these were basically the area’s only hotels and they catered mostly to the rich and famous (John Wayne, Bing Crosby and Kirk Douglas, to name a few), who came by private plane and, in some cases, by yacht.
Parr refused to share any gossip in regards to the celebrities, which also included Raquel Welch, Desi Arnaz, Lee Marvin and Chuck Connors, only to say that “they were all pretty good guys” and that Wayne, to him, seemed larger than life.
Today, sprawling new resorts and condominium complexes are springing up all along the once-barren corridor between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas.
Championship-caliber golf courses (five and counting) are being plopped down, like patchwork, amid sand and cactus, further sapping a well-water supply some fear will eventually dry up.
At the northeastern corner of the Cabo San Lucas marina, a massive multilevel shopping mall is being built, further blocking an ocean breeze that once offered relief for those strolling through town.
If that’s not enough, developers of the mall, among others, are trying to win government approval to have a pier erected for cruise ships. It would shoot straight out 900 feet and dog-leg to the left another 900 feet, parallel to Cabo’s only accessible public beach.
This is a highly controversial issue, since such a pier probably would have an adverse effect on the marine environment (there has been no environmental impact study), and it would certainly impede the view from resort-lined Medano Beach of Cabo’s most prominent landmark: Land’s End and its famous arch.
Most growth is good, Parr maintains, but erecting a pier for cruise ships, merely to funnel their passengers to the mall instead of ferrying them to the docks across the harbor, as ship tenders currently do, caused even him to lament, “This is going too far. I mean, how much is too much?”
Bud Parr, a retired entrepreneur from the Southland who came to Cabo for a fishing and hunting trip in the early 1950s, realized immediately the region’s potential as a tourist destination.
When he and his Mexican partner, Abelardo L. “Rod” Rodriguez, became fully involved with their hotel projects, the Parr family began spending more time in the area and eventually established a second home here.
For Parr’s four boys (one died five years ago), this was tantamount to growing up in the Wild West.
“When I got here there were less than 120 inhabitants,” Mark Parr says. “We used to set our watches by the tuna-packing plant. We knew it was Sunday when the whistle didn’t blow. They’d blow the whistle at 7 and 12 and 1 and 4. We never needed to use a watch.”
Parr’s father hired a private tutor for the children and obtained the services of a full-blooded Pericu Indian to teach them the ways of the wild, and Parr says the children, close in age, pretty much acted “like a bunch of wild Indians.”
They had the time of their lives, until they started becoming interested in girls, because there weren’t many.
“At 15, 16 and especially 17, the only time we’d see the opposite sex was during the holiday period of time [when we had tourists],” Parr says. “It was pretty rough.
“My father finally put a fence up around the property and the mayor came out and got really mad. He said, ‘Oh, you’re fencing off the beaches!’ Then my father had to remind [the mayor] that he had four chickens [daughters], and that my father had four chicken hawks. And would he like the chicken hawks in a cage or would he like them flying free?
“He also pointed out that the barbed wire is pointed toward the inside, to keep us in, and not toward the outside.”
The fence is still standing, even though Parr is happily married with his own grown children, who have long since flown the coop.
It didn’t take long, naturally, for the Parrs to discover how spectacular fishing was off Land’s End, before the completion of Mexico’s trans-peninsular highway in 1973 and the San Jose Del Cabo international airport in 1977.
And, perhaps most notably, before the indiscriminate pillaging by long-line fishermen began to show its effects.
“Fishing back in those days is . . . hard to explain to somebody, because they don’t believe you,” Parr says. “The average size leopard grouper was 75 to 125 pounds. We’d pick ‘em up trolling and pick ‘em up with bait right off the beach.”
(To put this in perspective, unless Parr has his groupers mixed up, the all-tackle world-record leopard grouper is a 21.4-pound specimen caught here in 1995.)
“Even when I came down and took possession of the hotel and started operating it for the family more than 20 years ago, I remember being able to take off for lunch, run down to my house and put on pair of swimming trunks, grab my fins and mask and go right out here in front of the hotel.
“And in less that 20 minutes I’d [spear] a pompano or sierra, throw it to the cook, go take a shower, and by the time I came back that thing was already on a plate. . . .”
Parr says 500-pound black sea bass used to reside under the fishing pier at the southwestern entrance to the harbor. Sailfish and small striped marlin used to follow the deep channel into the bay. This is almost unheard of today because of all the boat traffic and the pollution it generates.
“I remember running home [in the boat] and we would have to go around all the sailfish and turtles,” he says. “Turtles were hazardous, there were so many of them.”
Sardines were also hazardous, in their own way, because they were so plentiful in the small bays. The bigger fish that prey on sardines would literally beach themselves while charging through the bait fish because they couldn’t see the beach.
“And the poor pelicans . . . the bait would cover the rocks and the pelicans would dive down after the bait and hit the rocks and just knock themselves silly.”
All of this was very entertaining to mischievous young boys, of course, but it wasn’t all fun and games back then. Parr had his eye on a 3 1/2-horsepower outboard and was told he’d have to raise the money himself if he really wanted it.
So, he and his brothers started fishing for sharks and selling the bleached-out jaws to tourists.
“We did pretty good with it at first,” he says. “I’d sell the shark jaws for about $5 apiece, and I was lucky to sell about one or two a week.
“Well, I sat down for a minute and, I was young in those days, and I would keep on hearing these mother-in-law jokes.
“So I said OK. I took out a piece of wood, nailed the shark jaw onto it and inscribed the words “Toilet Seat for Mother-in-Law,” and I started selling five of those things a day after that. That was my first lesson in marketing.
“Unfortunately,” he adds with a laugh, “the only thing I didn’t understand back then were patent laws.”