B-Side Pre-Hispanic Sites in Veracruz, Mexico

I was much looking forward to my first full day following the footsteps of Hernán Cortés. Veracruz state was, after all, where Cortes started his route toward Tenochtitlan by land, and where he started building the kind of alliances with local peoples that enabled him, eventually, to show before the Mexicas with what looked like an army. It’s a good story, and I recommend you read about it inHugh Tomas’ book, or in the classic, contemporary The True History of the Conquest of Mexico, written by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of Cortes’ soldiers.

But, after a chilly morning in Ciudad de Mexico, I was also craving some tropical weather. And, no less, excited to find the hometown of my favorite baseball hat when traveling. Yeah – it’s one of those things…

After a nice visit to San Juan de Ulúa, we picked up our rental car and headed straight for La Antigua, the site of one of the earliest Spanish settlements.

La Antigua had a quiet beauty. The beauty of nature overgrowing human settlements. And the riverside views from the hanging bridge were gorgeous, too.

 

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No time for lunch, we got on the car and made our slow way to Cempoala, where Cortes and his friends befriended the Cacique Gordo -fat boss- before heading toward Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

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Frankly, finally making it to Cempoala was a dream come true. I was seeing my first Pre-Hispanic ruins, it was warm but not too much so, and there was basically no one there except for us.

Let’s hire the guide, I suggested.

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The guide. He was young. His selling point was a video approved by the Universidad Veracruzana.

Is it on YouTube?, I asked

Of course.

The guide knew his shit. Only he knew too much shit.

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And of course all the bad things came from Spain”, he said, a bit too far from irony. “Smallpox, ticks, an imposed faith.”

We smiled, as we thought about the hospitals, universities…

“Did you know that some scholars claim that the human sacrifices were staged by the Spaniards so they had a valid excuse to conquer Mexico?”

Fine. OK. So much for the tzompantli – rows after rows of skulls arranged in a structured way that had been discovered in Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

We thanked him and duly paid up, and luckily got a different story from the guy attending the gift shop, who seemed no less well read.

Well, you know. The Cempoaltecs were opressed by the Mexicas. The Spaniards had an interest in marching toward Tenochtitlan. It only made sense that the coastal peoples would support the Spaniards.

Which they did, following most accounts.

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Hm, we discussed in the car, en route to our last destination. The voice of age – the voice of common sense? Age, at its best, makes you less dogmatic, more skeptical. Less ideological, perhaps.

We were hungry but Quiahuitzlan archeological site apparently closed at 4 pm. After leaving the highway, the road climbed steadily toward a jagged peak.

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The site was beautiful. It was the ruins, but it was especially the ruins with those views, in that peaceful afternoon light.

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One of my colleagues and I started walking uphill, hoping to see more. Turns out, we were on the trail to the summit of the jagged peak.

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It was tempting to climb it, but we knew our other two colleagues would worry.

Plus they were hungry.

Plus the site was about to close.

So we made it down with big smiles on our sweaty faces, and drove down to the closest beach, where Google maps advertised an old fort related to…you guessed it, Hernán Cortés.

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So, of course, we went. Only there was nothing there but shrubbery and the odd tree.

“Let’s hit the restaurant”, we agreed.

And we had lunch at 6 pm. It was pleasant, the food and the late afternoon light falling on an empty beach drowned by a wild sea. And the beers were cold enough.

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I could definitely get a room around here and thank God for life, I thought.

In the mean time, I settled for another bottle of Modelo Especial and toasted to a day on the footsteps of Hernán Cortés.

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