Geography and Travels in History Cortes and Mexico Part 3

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



Leaving the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Cortes's trail winds into the mountains, which are still scantily populated and enveloped in pine forests. Just as in Cortes's time, to the south Mt. Orizaba, an 18,851-ft. snow-covered volcano, looms on the horizon. Past the mountains, Cortes's footsteps come to the land of the Tlaxcalan Indians, who today grow corn and beans and build their homes with mud bricks as they did when the Spaniards first arrived. The Indian city of Tlaxcala, which Cortes passed through, is gone, supplanted by a town of concrete, plate glass, and metal offices and stores, Pemex gas stations, and adobe homes.

Continuing on from Tlaxcala, Cortes's route heads south across federal highway 190, skirting the industrial city of Puebla, where Mexican workers assemble Volkswagens, to the ruins of the city of Cholula. A powerful city in the time of Cortes, Cholula is now an archaeological and tourist site. The buildings of the ancient city have all been razed, and even the pyramid where 6,000 people were sacrificed yearly has vanished. On the spot where the pyramid stood, there is now a Catholic cathedral with white shimmering spires in which Indians worship Christ instead of the Aztec war god.

From Cholula, the path comes to Popocatepetl National Park and up to the ridge between the volcanoes of Ixtaccihuatl and Popocatepetl. This is where Cortes first saw the Valley of Mexico. However, the present-day view has been completely altered, for there is no longer an island-city of Tenochtitlan, or even a lake in the valley. Since Cortes's lifetime, an asphalt road has been constructed from the mountain pass down into the valley, making the descent much less difficult.

Following Cortes to the town of Ixtapalapa is not possible, for the suburbs of Mexico City and an occasional factory block the way, and trucks and buses speed past on paved roads. Ixtapalapa, where Cortes met the Aztec ambassadors, has been engulfed by the urban sprawl of Mexico City. The lake which surrounded the Aztec capital city has been completely drained and filled, and the entire Valley of Mexico has been covered by modern Mexico City. One of this modern city's problems is that the buildings over the filled-in lake rest on loose foundations and are easily toppled by earthquakes.

The causeway which Cortes crossed from Ixtapalapa to Tenochtitlan is now buried below the streets of Mexico City and is intersected by the city's subways. Tenochtitlan is submerged beneath downtown Mexico City. The place where Cortes was driven from the city in 1520 is now underneath a titanic cypress tree called El Arbol de la Noche Triste ("the Tree of the Sad Night") and is a Mexican national monument. The Aztec central plaza which the Spaniards captured in 1521 is presently under the Zocalo--the city square--and is surrounded by the Mexican Supreme Court Building, the National Palace, and the National Pawn Shop Building. The Aztec war god's pyramid was torn down by order of Cortes, and today in its place stands the Metropolitan Catholic Cathedral. The Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in which Cortes walked, fought, and gained glory is literally buried by 20th-century Mexico City.

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