Geography and Travels in History Cortes and Mexico Part 2

About the history and geography of the travels of Cortes through Mexico, the Yucatan peninsula and Aztec land, tracing the steps now.



From Cholula, Cortes marched westward to the ridge between two volcanic peaks, Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl. From there he saw the Valley of Mexico below him. Surrounded by mountains, it was a broad plain with a large lake in its center. Along the lake were towns and in the middle was the island-city of Tenochtitlan--called Mexico by the Spaniards--which was the home of the Aztecs. Tenochtitlan was connected to the mainland by causeways built across the lake. Cortes descended into the valley to the town of Ixtapalapa, where he was met by Aztec ambassadors. The next day the Spaniards marched across a causeway into Tenochtitlan and were welcomed by Montezuma II, the Aztec emperor. At first the Aztecs and their guests maintained a shaky peace, but when Montezuma was mysteriously murdered, the Aztecs rose up against the Spaniards, who were forced to flee from the city across a causeway on June 30, 1520, known thereafter as the noche triste ("sad night").

After receiving Spanish and Indian reinforcements and regrouping his army, Cortes besieged Tenochtitlan in the summer of 1521. Attacking across the causeways, the Spaniards and their allies fought their way into the main square of the city and occupied the Aztec war god's pyramid. On Aug. 13, 1521, Cortes overcame all resistance and massacred the Aztec defenders, thus becoming the master of Mexico with all of its gold and silver treasures.

Footsteps Now. Today Cortes's journey begins in Fidel Castro's Cuba. Cortes would not recognize modern Havana with its large hotels along the waterfront, which before the Cuban Revolution served American tourists but are now apartment houses of the people. Leaving the port of Havana in his small sailing ships today, Cortes would be amazed at the size of the Russian ships there being loaded with sugar.

Some 400 mi. west across the Yucatan Channel is the Mexican island of Cozumel, which was Cortes's first landfall. Formerly occupied by only a few Mayan Indians, the island is now crowded with expensive resort hotels and an international airport which brings tens of thousands of tourists from the U.S. to Cozumel's beaches each year. From Cozumel, Cortes's path leads to the River Grijalva in Tabasco, Mexico, on the Gulf of Campeche. Here, where Cortes won his first battle and acquired his mistress, Marina, little has changed. The mangrove swamps still dominate the terrain, and only a passing ship on its way to the river port of Villahermosa reveals that over 400 years have elapsed since Cortes came ashore.

Retracing Cortes's voyage, the next stop is the island of San Juan de Ulua, which is now connected to the city of Veracruz by a long curving pier. This island, where Cortes celebrated Easter in 1519, is dominated by a massive fort built in the 17th century, which since then has served first as a prison and now as a tourist attraction. Cortes's town of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz has disappeared, replaced by the modern Mexican city of Veracruz with its ships, fishing boats, swimming beaches, and hotels and nightclubs. Leaving Veracruz, Cortes's footsteps lead 25 mi. north to the ruins of Cempoala near the present village of Agostadero. The Totonac city of Cempoala--Cortes's first ally--is presently a jungle, although five pyramids still can be recognized amid the lush green growth.

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