Hemingway and the glory days of Cabo Blanco, Peru
Looking at the unspectacular smattering of low-strung cabins and fishing boats on a scrubby cape on Peru’s North coast, you would never imagine that Cabo Blanco had played host to the likes of Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Joe di Maggio and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s life-long love affair with Cuba is well documented, but his brief dalliance with Cabo Blanco is also worth remembering.
Windswept Cabo Blanco possesses a certain rugged charm, but it was not this that attracted the Hollywood A-listers. Everyone who visited came for one thing and one thing only: the ‘granders’ or 1000 pound marlin which congregated in so-called Marlin Boulevard only a few miles off the Cabo at the spot where the cold Humboldt Current meets the warm Ecuadorian Current. The marlin (and some enormous bluefin tuna) were attracted by the bonito and mackerel which gorged themselves on tiny anchovetas.
The fishing at Cabo Blanco in the 1950s was unlike anything ever seen before or since: not only were the fish bigger, but they were closer to shore and they could be spotted, and cast to, without the need for trolling. In the 1952 season an astounding 17 granders were landed by a handful of fishermen, including the (still-standing) 1560 lb world record fish caught by Texan oilman, and true Cabo Blanco pioneer, Alfred Glassell.
At the heart of the fishing was the exclusive Cabo Blanco Fishing Club, a luxurious and modernistic establishment which was built on land leased from the Lobitos Oil Company. To join the fishing club you needed money, but more than that you needed social clout. Each of the founder members put down an initial investment of $10,000, but when a few years later a brash millionaire offered $50,000 to join the club he was turned down. The club was small, boasting only 10 rooms for members and their guests. And it was hard to get to: a nine hour flight from Miami with multiple stops was followed by a bone-rattling drive from Talara. But as long as the marlin came it was all worth it.
Hemingway was not actually a member of the club, and he only visited Cabo Blanco once, for 32 days in 1956. Although he had come to work (part of the film version of The Old Man and the Sea was shot in Cabo Blanco) he still found the time to fish every day of his stay. He caught several huge fish but no granders: his largest weighed in at 910 lbs. Characteristically he also managed to squeeze a fair bit of drinking in to his trip, and he rated the Bloody Marys served at the club the best he had ever tasted. His visit is still remembered fondly by the barman and a couple of the skippers (all well into their eighties now) who survive.
In hindsight Hemingway visited after the Cabo’s glory days, but in the decades to follow the marlin situation got worse and worse. Cabo Blanco is second on the all-time list of 1000 lb marlin destinations, but none of these fish has been caught in the last 50 years. Some blame the increase in anhoveta quotas while others point towards one particularly serious El Niño event which forever changed the food chain in this section of ocean. Peru’s anti-American military government of the 1960s didn’t help either. Nor did the fact that so many ‘granders’ were killed by Glassell and company. Once the big marlin had gone the celebrities stopped coming and the club closed its doors – much like Gatsby’s parties ceased the moment he died.
Fortunately there is a happy footnote to this story. Not only have surfers discovered the perfect left tube at Cabo Blanco, but the Peruvian president has just signed a decree which greatly reduces the annual anchoveta quota and bans commercial marlin fishing. The decree encourages catch and release marlin fishing, and initial signs are good that the big fish are returning. Hotel chain Inkaterra have waded in, and are doing their bit to preserve the marine environment before they open their much talked about Cabo Blanco hotel. If the granders come back, the tourists will surely follow. Even if they don’t, it’s a lovely part of the world.