Silver is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Mexico, but perhaps it should be. After all, Mexico has been the world’s leader in the production of silver since the 1500´s and continued to be the number one producer through 2003.
The Tran-Volcanic Axis range of mountains that traverse Mexico from Veracruz at the eastern side to Cabo Corrientes on Banderas Bay near Puerto Vallarta at the western side are extremely rich with mineral wealth uncovered during the Pleistocene age when its 38 volcanoes erupted. As the crust of the earth was ripped open by the volcanic action, massive sulfide veins rich in gold, lead, zinc, copper, and silver were exposed.
For a thousand years prior to the 1500´s, Spain dominated the world in silver production. Silver was domestically used by the Spaniards in the Roman Empire and was also used in bartering for Asian spices. Soon after 1492, when the Spaniards first arrived in the New World, Cordoba visited the Yucatan coast of Mexico in 1517 and Cortez arrived in Veracruz, Mexico. Much to their delight, they discovered a land rich with vast deposits of silver, gold, and other prized minerals. That was the beginning of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico resulting in the Spaniards pretty well dominating the country for the following three centuries.
Cortez and his army of well trained and armed soldiers managed to terrorize and plunder Mexico for 20 years, stripping her of as much mineral wealth as possible. In 1524, for example, Cortez and his troops defeated a large band of native Indians in the Ameca Valley near Puerto Vallarta while on his journey to Baja California. During their ventures across the country, they discovered the rich ore deposits throughout the Tran-Volcanic Axis Mountains.
Within the first year of his arrival in Mexico, Cortez had staked his claim for silver in Taxco and the process of staking claims by Spaniards such as Guzman continued for many years as they traversed the country. Beautiful colonial mining cities sprung up all over central Mexico with adjacent farming communities as required to support the miners. For example, within 50 miles of the Pacific Ocean and high in the Sierra Madres, the beautiful colonial gold and silver mining city of Mascota was founded in 1592, Talpa de Allende in 1599, and San Sebastian in 1605.
Prior to arriving in Mexico, the Spaniards had extracted and refined silver and gold from ore by various means, however in 1557, a new mercury amalgamation process was developed in Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico, whereby ores were crushed to a fine powder and then mixed with salt (sodium chloride), water, copper sulfate, and mercury. The silver in the ore then chemically bonded to the free chlorine from the salt and the free sulfur from the copper sulfate. This slime was then spread out on a patio and allowed to dry; hence the name, Patio Process. After a month of drying and regrinding, the mercury was removed from the amalgamation of mercury, silver, and gold, and the refined silver and gold was ready for the market. Use of this extraction process continued for the next three centuries.
In 1804, a couple of the local indigenous people in the Sierra Madre mountains, about 30 miles southeast of Banderas Bay, discovered massive sulfide veins while searching for flint. They took vein samples to the miners in Talpa de Allende for evaluation, and lo and behold, within a few years a Spaniard named Hernandez had staked his claim on the area! This area was referred to as the Cuale District and mining began in 1824. The Hernandez family mined the area for 30 years but when the owners died, the slick lawyer hired to settle the estate somehow acquired the mining licenses and formed the Union en Cuale Company. This company owned all of the land from Los Arcos to the Pitillal River along the Banderas Bay and extended approximately 40 miles back up into the Sierra Madres.
All of the mines in the area from the Cuale District to Talpa de Allende, Mascota, San Sebastian, etc., required tons of salt, mercury, and other mining related materials and equipment. Of course the miners needed food and other products for daily living. Most of these supplies were transported by boat up the Cuale River or Rio Cuale which flows from high in the Sierras down to Banderas Bay on the Pacific Ocean.
The entire area along Banderas Bay near the mouth of the Cuale River was first referred to as Las Peñas when the Spanish explorer Don Pedro de Alvarado arrived in 1541. Las Peñas, or the rocks, was named after the huge rock outcropping; now called Los Arcos, in Banderas Bay located a few miles south of the mouth of the river. A small village known as Las Peñas was officially established at the mouth of the Rio Cuale to support the mining operations of the Union en Cuale Company and by 1885, the thriving village of Las Peñas consisted of approximately 1,000 residents living in 250 casitas.
As part of the Agrarian Reform, resulting from the 1919 Mexican Revolution, 39 square miles of the Union en Cuale Company property, located in the Mexican state of Jalisco, were expropriated by the federal government and granted to the local residents as an ejido, or farming cooperative. In memory of Don Ignacio Vallarta, the Governor of Jalisco, the name of Las Peñas was changed to Puerto Vallarta in 1918. Who could have imagined that this young municipality, located at the mouth of the Cuale River, was destined to become one of the most popular resort destinations in the world?
Today, that area where it all began near the mouth of the Rio Cuale is referred to as Old Town or The Romantic Zone. It is the home to numerous fine restaurants, curio and souvenir shops, beautiful new condominiums, and a magnificent new malecon or beachfront promenade that connects with the malecon in El Centro or downtown. Nestled among the mountainsides surrounding and overlooking the quaint Romantic Zone are thousands of villas and condominiums, all with spectacular views of the city, the bay, and the Sierra Madres.
With its perfect climate and incredible shoreline, in all probability Puerto Vallarta would have eventually been discovered as a world class travel destination and a retirement Paradise. However, without the Union en Cuale Company, it very well might have all begun near the mouth of the Ameca River which enters Banderas Bay at the state line between Jalisco and Nayarit, about five miles north of town. The Ameca River runs through the rich Ameca Valley which has been farmed for centuries and would have been the logical choice for the region’s initial settlement in the absence of the Union en Cuale Company.
In summarizing, thanks to the Union en Cuale Company, Puerto Vallarta has become the world class retirement haven and tourist resort destination that it is today; a Paradise that has grown from 1,000 to 430,000 inhabitants in a mere century.