Ernest Hemingway defined my adolescence, so when I visited Northern Peru I absolutely had to take a detour to the small fishing village of Cabo Blanco and, more specifically, to the Cabo Blanco Fishing Club a couple of miles south of town. I knew that the marlin and the celebrities had long gone, but I wasn’t expecting the club to be quite as dilapidated as it was. It was hard to imagine that this was the place that A-listers like Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Joe di Maggio had flocked to in the 50s and 60s.
There’s no denying desolate Cabo Blanco has a certain rugged charm, but charm isn’t what attracted the celebrities. They came for the 1000 pound marlin (known as ‘granders’) that descended on ‘Marlin Boulevard’, the spot where the cold Humboldt Current meets the warm Ecuadorian Current.
The marlin fishing at Cabo Blanco in the 1950s was the best the world has ever seen. The fish were enormous and they were so close to shore that 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 a 1560 lb world record fish caught by Texan oilman, and true Cabo Blanco pioneer, Alfred Glassell. This fish is still the largest bony fish ever caught on a rod and reel. Over the next 16 years Cabo Blanco produced 24 world records and over 20 more granders. Six other Cabo Blanco world records remain unbroken, including a bigeye tuna that weighed 435lb and a 100lb roosterfish.
At the heart of the fishing was The Cabo Blanco Fishing Club, a luxurious and exclusive place with only 10 rooms for members and their guests. Even in 2014 Cabo Blanco is hard to get to, but back then there were no direct flights to Peru and the roads were atrocious. To join the club you did need money, but more than that you needed to have social influence. Each of the founder members put down an initial investment of $10,000, but when – a few years later – a brazen millionaire offered $50,000 to join the club he was turned down.
Hemingway wasn’t actually a member of the club, and he only visited Cabo Blanco once, for 32 days in 1956. Although he had come to film part of The Old Man and the Sea he still found the time to fish every day of his stay. By normal standards he caught plenty of huge fish but he didn’t manage to land a grander: his largest weighing in at a measly 910 lbs.
Being Hemingway he also managed to find the time for more than a spot of drinking. He even went on record as saying that the Bloody Marys served at the club were the best he’d ever had. The barman who made them continued to live in Cabo Blanco, and to serve Bloody Marys at the town’s only restaurant, until March of this year when he passed away suddenly. His death means that the only people left in Cabo Blanco who remember Hemingway’s visit are the skippers and crew from the fishing boats, most of whom are well into their eighties.
Hemingway visited shortly after the Cabo’s glory days, but after his visit the marlin situation only got worse. On the all-time list of 1000 lb marlin destinations Cabo Blanco is second, but the last grander was caught nearly fifty years ago in 1968. Some blame the increase in commercial anchovy fishing 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.
Although the club itself is now extremely derelict, things do seem to be looking up for Cabo Blanco. Not only have surfers discovered the Cabo’s perfect break, but the Peruvian president has slashed the annual anchovy quota and banned commercial marlin fishing. Early signs are that the big fish are returning, but we're still a long way off from seeing granders again. In a huge show of faith, boutique hotel chain Inkaterra have embarked on extensive marine restoration projects prior to opening a much vaunted hotel in the area. If the big marlin come back, the tourists will surely follow. Hopefully we can show Mother Nature that we have learnt from the mistakes of the past.