Standing in the midst of the thriving IGY Marina, shrouded in darkness as small pangas dart to and fro crossing the wakes of both modest sportfishers and mega yachts heading out for the day’s fishing in the fertile waters surrounding Baja’s tip, it’s difficult to imagine that in 1955 Cabo San Lucas was a “Cannery Town” — population about 100.
That was the year Don Luis Bulnes Molleda and his wife Conchita accepted the assignment and transferred to Cabo from Ensenada to assume the operation of the Empresas Panado tuna cannery, the only tuna cannery throughout Latin America.
Born on August 25, 1928 in Llivia, a village on the coast of Spain, Bulnes immigrated to Mexico City on June 5, 1948 for a job as a warehouse helper working with Myrurgia Perfumes and Colognes, a subsidiary of Pando. Although he found the metropolitan city exciting, it was also overwhelming.
His future wife, Conchita, the third of four children of Maria Ausencia Hernández and Francisco Malo Sautto, was born in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and attended the primary and secondary schools in San Luis Potosí, where her love of music blossomed. Lacking a piano, she improvised, using tableware to create an imaginary keyboard. Realizing her passion for music, her parents surprised her with her first piano. Later, Conchita enrolled in the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City where she wrote the music and lyrics of the first of many compositions.
It was in Mexico City where Bulnes met and fell in love during a whirlwind 21-day courtship with the remarkable and enchanting cosmopolitan, Doña Concepción Malo (Conchita). They married in September, 1951.
He had been promoted to a position in his company in Ensenada, overseeing Pando interests in both Tijuana and Ensenada. When an opportunity presented itself to oversee the Cabo San Lucas tuna cannery branch of the company, he and Conchita, knowing little about the Baja Peninsula and even less about the small, remote village of Cabo San Lucas, eagerly accepted the opportunity to become the project manager and accountant, respectively, of the Empresas Pando tuna cannery which had been founded in 1927.
Flying from Mexico City to Cabo San Lucas had its challenges. First, their plane was forced to land in Mazatlán for repairs. At that time, the only airport was in La Paz, 120 miles north. When they finally landed in La Paz, on September 12, 1955, it was in the middle of a huge storm.
With no other transportation available, they hitched a ride to Cabo on a fuel truck. When they at last arrived, to their dismay they discovered the small village of 100 had no paved roads, no hotels and no restaurants. Their new home (provided by Pando) lacked electricity and running water.
On their first night in their new home, they discovered the sheets on the bed were so rough they threw their overcoats on top of them to make them more comfortable. The cannery had the only generator and light at night. Undaunted and demonstrating a blend of tenacity and determination, the two began adjusting to their new life.
The failing cannery they had been sent to reorganize was fertile grounds for their budding management skills. At first, they depended on Sr. Pando, the tuna factory owner, and his nephew, Servando Martinez Pando, to guide them through the intricacies of the canning business.
But he and Conchita, a certified accountant, grew into their new responsibilities; working side by side, they became a formidable team.
They implemented changes that improved the quantity and quality of the small plant’s production, and it began to steadily grow! Bulnes was to proudly boast, “My wife helped me like you have no idea! I was able to get involved with production and did not have to worry about the day-to-day operation. It is and always has been my privilege and my great fortune to have her by my side.”
Those early years were a struggle for them, however, as they forged forward. To get to San Jose, it was a two to three hour trip under good conditions! It was a voyage to get to La Paz; one had to drive on dirt roads eight to ten hours each way, a 16-hour minimum round trip. With doctors, medication, and even the only bank in La Paz, Bulnes was required to travel there frequently. He later recalled having slept only six hours in one week, adding that he would often put his hand out of the car window to brush the trees to stay awake.
When he returned late at night, the only light he saw as he came into town was the plant’s light … always a welcome sight.
As they settled into their new home, Conchita’s aspiration to bring music and culture to Cabo San Lucas intensified. Music was Conchita’s passion and though her other endeavors and responsibilities were successful, they were secondary. Some of her songs have been performed by the groups Marlin, Carlos Cuevas, Manoella Torres and Aida Cuevas, among others. Songs included: “Dreaming I will love you,” “I love you,” “Lovers,” “Your lies,” “Let’s go for the Cabos,” “Enigma of Love,” “My Loneliness,” and “If You Return to Me.”
Baja writer Gene Kira tells a story about Bulnes’ first encounter with a billfish. “One day as he hurried down the cannery’s famous wooden pier, he spotted something splashing out in the water. At first he thought it was a bird or a seal, but then he realized that it was a large striped marlin, hooked on a hand line held by one of the boys, Adolfo Ruiz, nicknamed “El 40.”
As it was his first year in Cabo San Lucas, he had to conceal his astonishment at seeing a striped marlin caught from a pier. He never admitted to anyone that it was the first billfish he had ever seen; after all, he was the company “jefe,” and was supposed to know all about fish.
At that instant, Bulnes was transfigured by the grace, power, and natural beauty of that magnificent fish. Although he didn’t realize it at that time, years later that love would motivate him to establish one of Baja California’s most important sport fishing resorts and use its influence and financial resources to create a legal foundation to preserve billfish for future generations.
Often in those early years, Conchita would go out on the pier and weep. Bulnes comforted her by offering to return to the mainland. But she always shook her head and refused. “Let me cry,” she insisted. “I am sad, but this is our home now and we can’t leave.” Little did she know that they would be given the opportunity to prove her statement.
The plant was given a reprieve. The operation not only survived, it became successful as production grew from 14,000 to 300,000 cases during their tenure. After 13 years, Pando Company once again promoted Bulnes and offered him a transfer to Mexico City in 1968. Rather than take the transfer, Bulnes quit and returned to Cabo San Lucas.
Upon his return, Bulnes partnered with two other businessmen to build the deluxe 65-room Hotel Finisterra which was completed in 1972.
In 1963, envisioning the future, Bulnes had purchased undeveloped property for next to nothing. Later, selling his share of Finisterra, he built his own Hotel Solmar with 20 rooms and 2 suites – the Ray Cannon Suite and the Francisco King Suite, named for Cabo’s television pioneer, which eventually grew to 84 rooms less than a year after the trans-peninsular highway was completed.
(By December, 1957, construction had begun on the 1,000-mile-long paved road connecting Baja Sur with the U.S.A., a massive project that would be completed in the waning days of 1973).
This was followed by dredging equipment which was brought to Cabo to cut away the dune, allowing ocean-going ferryboats from the Mexican mainland to enter the Cabo San Lucas Marina. Bulnes mused, “There have always been crazy people in the world and I have been one of them!”
Realizing that the most important activity in Mexico was sportfishing, Bulnes commented, “Between Cabo San Lucas and the Revillagigedo Islands south of us, we have more striped marlin than anywhere in the world. That is totally unique and irreplaceable. You can build a golf course anywhere, but these marlin are only here!”
Bulnes earned the title of Cabo San Lucas’s Father of Sportfishing after he introduced the first sportfishing fleet in these early years.
“I have a special love for billfish that began at that magic instant in 1955. I feel everyone should have a chance to see such beauty. We should preserve them for future generations. They are so beautiful. Did you know that when a marlin dies, it dies with its eyes looking down?”
On April 30, 1993, Don Luis established a Mexican billfish foundation –Fundacion Para La Conservacion De Los Picudos, A.C. –with board members from Baja California and the west coast of Mexico, and key support from Luis Coppola, Julio Berdegue, and Guillermo Alvarez. Using their considerable influence, these board members have expanded the foundation’s contacts throughout Central and South America and established ties in the United States and in Mexico City, working to develop and disseminate information for the preservation of billfish and other species, and for the benefit of the sport fishing industry.
One of the core missions of the foundation is the monitoring of commercial fishing.
“Commercial fishing must be properly regulated; it is still a big business,” said Bulnes, with an insight born of the days when he lived in the opposite camp. “The only way to do that properly is with good information. We must know exactly how many fish we can catch, and not catch one more than that! The long-lining, especially, has to be stopped. I know that some people will be upset with me for saying this, but long-lining is just too destructive. It kills whatever happens to swim by.
“At this moment, there is a new awareness in Mexico of our need to protect the fish here, and it reaches to the highest levels of our government. But, we still have a big fight ahead of us,” he added.
In 1974, soon after the completion of Hotel Solmar, Bulnes was almost out of money. When a friend from Mexico City told him about a plan to film a movie in Cabo, Bulnes set to work to help make the motion picture “Fox Trot” with Peter O’Toole, Charlotte Rampling, Max von Sydow, etc., in his hotel. The movie saved him.
Airports were improved and the San José del Cabo airport, about 32 miles from Cabo, was modernized to handle major airline traffic.
It was a time of tremendous growth and under Bulnes’ stewardship whose early successes led to what is now known as Grupo Solmar, an impressive collection of luxury hotels, resorts, restaurants and fishing boats in Los Cabos. It also includes the Solmar Beach Club, Grand Solmar, Playa Grande Resort, Hotel Quinta del Sol, Rancho San Lucas as well as the El Galeón, Sea Queen, Romeo and Julieta Restaurants.
Because he was “Old School,” he believed investing in his employees was good policy since they invested in him and his company every day. He considered them as his familia.
“How does someone who has been in Cabo for 50 years feel about the progress of Cabo San Lucas?” someone asked. “With progress, we have to pay the price,” Bulnes replied.
He mused, “What have we lost? It’s difficult to compare those days with today. There are not many natives left. In 1955, there were only 100 people living in Cabo. Everyone knew each other. Now the population is 150,000 with a 20% annual growth rate. There are not many places in the world with this fast a growth rate, so with progress unfortunately came drugs, prostitution, and crime. Are we getting overbuilt? No! Not unless we fail to preserve and maintain our quality of life.”
When asked how he was preparing his son, Francisco, (known as Paco), to take over as his successor, and what advice he gives him, he laughed and said that his son does the work, and he (Bulnes) only gives him ideas. He’s very proud of Paco and says he would not have forged ahead if Paco were not there to take over. Bulnes’ daughter “Sharo” lives in Arizona and he had eight
grandchildren, including twins. It’s obvious he’s very proud of his family.
It’s no secret that he and Conchita are a wonderful love story. When asked how he has kept their romance alive, he smiled, but then with a serious look, he replied. “The expression ‘macho’ does not work. Your companion, your partner in life has to be treated as an equal. We are in an era where women can do anything that a man can do. Sure, we’ve had the usual share of problems, but when you treat your companion as your equal, it all works out.”
Bulnes was asked if there was any one moment where he could look back and say that it was the one greatest moment. His answer was so in keeping with the character of this icon.
“It feels good to know that a lot of people have depended on us for employment. If someone wanted to work, they had the opportunity.”
Bulnes has seen a lot in his half-century career during which time he has become one of the most important leaders on the Baja peninsula. Many lives have been touched by his vision and projects. His employees, many of whom had been with him since the very beginning, have considered him to be a wonderful employer … deserving of their love and respect.
His courageous determination, tempered with compassion, along with the support of his loving wife, gave literally, many thousands of people the opportunity to change their futures and prosper in a variety of businesses in Cabo San Lucas.
Los Cabos lost one of its founding fathers when Don Luis Bulnes Molleda died at age 83 on October 10, 2011 . . . the world lost a good man and the town mourned.
Doña Bulnes passed away on December 19, 2016.
The history would not be complete without including the input of the Bulnes’ son, Francisco (Paco) and their daughter, Sharo, as well as the many others who contributed to the growth and influence of the Solmar Empire on the Cabo San Lucas of today.
A special thanks to Joe Tyson and David Kier for photos provided.