The name Acapulco is derived from ancient Náhuatl words meaning ‘place of giant reeds.’ Archaeological finds show that when the Spanish discovered the Bahía de Acapulco in 1512, people had already been living in the area for some 2000 years.
The Spanish, eager to find a commercial route to Asia, built a port and shipbuilding facilities in Acapulco, taking advantage of its naturally protected, deepwater harbor. In 1565, Friar Andrés de Urdante discovered Pacific tradewinds that allowed ships to quickly and safely reach the Orient. For more than 250 years, naos, or Spanish trading galleons, made the annual voyage from Acapulco to the Philippines. Gold, silks and spices were unloaded in Acapulco, carried overland to Veracruz, then onto waiting ships for the transatlantic voyage to Spain. Meanwhile, Dutch and English privateers such as Sir Francis Drake were busy looting the ships of their valuable cargo. To protect their investment, the Spanish built the Fuerte de San Diego. But it was the Mexican War of Independence (1810–1822), not pirates, that abruptly killed the trade route.
For the next century, Acapulco declined and remained relatively isolated from the rest of the world until a paved road linked it with Mexico City in 1927. Prosperous Mexicans began vacationing here, Hollywood came calling and by the ’50s, Acapulco was becoming a glitzy, jet-set resort. But by the 1970s, overdevelopment and overpopulation had taken their toll, and the bay became polluted with raw sewage. Foreign tourists took their cash to the newer resorts of Cancún and Ixtapa. Once again, Acapulco’s heyday was over.
In the late 1990s, the city launched ambitious revitalization programs, pouring millions into cleaning up the bay. The big break came in 2002, when American college students, attracted by cheap rooms and a welcoming hotel industry, began coming to Acapulco in droves, replacing Cancún as Mexico’s top Spring Break hot spot. Today, Acapulco is experiencing something of a renaissance, investing in luxury resorts, condos, spas, boutique hotels and restaurants to cater to a more upscale clientele in hopes of reclaiming its title as the ‘Pearl of the Pacific.’