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Bearing a penant of blue and white crowned with a red cross Hernando Cortes, a 34-year-old Spanish soldier, stepped ashore on what is now Mexico on Good Friday, 1519. Soon he would discover cities larger than any in Spain, volcanoes reaching into the clouds, armies so vast they seemed to stretch to infinity, and bloody rituals of human sacrifice. He ended his 83-day, 400-mile journey by conquering one of the greatest civilizations on earth.

I set out some 480 years later in a bright purple and yellow bus with Intercontinental Adventures of Mexico City to retrace his route in just 9 days. Of course, I and my fellow tourists fought no battles and stayed in comfortable, if not luxurious, inns along the way.

We began our trek in Veracruz, Mexico's oldest city. From the Hotel Imperial, named by Maxmillian, we explored this multi-racial metropolis, stopping by the new Aquarium, taking in its fascinating architecture, and later dancing with its people on the zocalo.

Cortes the Diplomat
Cortes proved himself a skilled diplomat, winning allies among the Indian tribes who despised their Aztec overlords. He founded the first European town in Mexico, Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, "rich town of the True Cross," now known as La Antigua, 45 miles north of Veracruz, where we began to retrace his route. Villa Rica survived for nearly a century before being supplanted by the present-day port of Veracruz. The most important buildings today are what remains of Cortes' house, its walls draped in tree roots and vines, the large ceiba tree to which he supposedly lashed his ships, and La Hermita del Rosario, the oldest church in the Americas.

The Totonacs, discontented subjects of the Aztecs, invited Cortes to their capital, Zempoala, "place of 20 waters," our next stop. Cortes' advance guard came upon the city of 80,000 at night and thought they had discovered a city of silver. In fact, the walls of the buildings were covered with white plaster that shown like silver under the full moon. Here resided the Fat Chief of Zempoala, who told Cortes everything he knew of the Aztecs, helping him decide to move inland to Tenochtitlan.

Zempoala today is just a large town, its population decimated in the 16th century by smallpox. Its ruins are impressive. Founded in 1027, it came under the rule of the Aztecs, who imposed human sacrifice on its people. Cortes named it New Seville.

His men grew restless. Quelling opposition by hanging two of them, flogging others, and destroying all but one of his ships, Cortes pressed on to Xalapa. Now the capital of the State of Veracruz and its chief commercial center, it features a spectacular archaeological museum, built by the University of Veracruz, with 3,000 artifacts on display. During the time of Cortes, Xalapa was a mere village.

Volcanoes and Coffee
Far ahead of us lay snow-capped Pico de Orizaba, at 18,855 feet North America's third highest peak. Here and there, abandoned sugar cane haciendas dotted the landscape. We had already climbed 3,000 feet since leaving La Antigua. With the truncated cones of the old volcanoes Popocatepetl  (smoking mountain) and Iztaccihuatl (the white woman) ahead of us like road markers, we rode on to Coatepec, "heel of the serpent."

Hacienda Escondido, Humantla, MexicoWe arrived in early evening, the town veiled in a heavy mist. Its street lamps, crowned with yellow halos, lit the way to La Parroquia, the parish church, where a mass was being held. Unlike Cortes' men who camped in the damp cold, we bedded down for the night at the luxurious Posada Coatepec, a comfortable inn in the center of town, with rooms named after cities of the world. The next day, we visited a coffee mill, for Coatepec is today the center of Mexico's coffee growing region.

In the hills outside of town, banana plants shade dark green coffee plants in an atmosphere of a continual soft mist. Local Indians still speak Nahuatl. Antiquity has an everyday reality here. It was easy to imagine what this land must have looked like to the conquistadors.

After leaving the Coatepec area, we followed the smooth curving road toward Cantona and could only imagine what it was like for Cortes to cross the Name of God Pass, an 11,000-foot saddle in the Sierra Madre. The pass and the surrounding mountains was the divide between the tropical coast and the altiplano. Had Cortes chosen to turn back, this would have been the logical place.

Spread before us was a parched 8,000-foot-high plateau bordered by Mexico's four highest volcanic peaks. We measured our crossing of this vast dusty region by the ruins of haciendas. As we crossed the altiplano, maguey plants, used to make pulque, a pre-Hispanic version of tequilla, ran in neat rows towards the horizon.

Mysterious Cantona
Cantona, a contemporary civilization to Teotihuacan, looked much as it did 1,000 years ago. This rugged outpost, surrounded by dry, arid land dotted with old haciendas, was abandoned 300 years before Cortes. Its 500 cobblestone causeways once led to over 3,000 patios on which its 80,000 inhabitants built their houses. The city also had 24 ball courts, more than any other of its time. The winners of the ball games were treated to three days of feasting and then were decapitated.

Cortes left the plateau over the Pass of the Firewood, so named by him because he saw "a thousand cartloads of wood neatly cut." Most likely it was to be used for firing pottery in nearby towns.

We rode on toward Tlaxcala, "place of tortillas," the next province on Cortes' itinerary, stopping for the night at the Hacienda La Escondida, a magnificent 19th-century fortress-like structure nestling on the dry plain in the shadow of La Malinche, the fourth highest of Mexico's volcanoes. A roaring fire awaited us in the massive dining room. We supped on chicken enchiladas, drank tequila and told ghost stories.

The Tlaxcalans, the only Indian tribe to have its own republic, attacked the Spanish soldiers. More than 60 Spaniards were wounded, 45 more died. Cortes eventually reached a stalemate with the Tlaxcalans. With the help of his interpreter, Malinche, he formed the alliance that would help him conquer the Aztecs.

Today, Tlaxcala endures as Mexico's secret treasure and its smallest state. Known as the largest producer of bulls for the bull ring, it also boasts the unique archaeological sites of Xochitecatl, with its temples dedicated to the goddess of fertility, and Cacaxtla, with its delicate murals painted shortly before 750 AD. The San Francisco Convent, begun in 1524 and the oldest in the Americas, stands out as a highlight. The Tlaxcalan Indian chiefs were baptized here, with Cortes acting as their godfather. When they took the faith, Cortes considered them conquered.

The City of Churches
Aztec spies closely watched the events in Tlaxcala. Moctezuma became increasingly concerned as Cortes set out toward Cholula, the sacred city of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. With 20,000 houses and over 400 temples, it was the largest city Cortes had encountered. A religious center in Cortes' time, today, it's a city of churches, with more than any other city in Mexico.

On our way to Cholula we stopped in Puebla, the first truly colonial city in Mexico. Settled in 1539, its streets teem with magnificently restored colonial mansions, churches and convents. We visited the Palafox Library, with its 43,000 volumes on ecumenical subjects, and then saw Talavera pottery being made.

After a brief respite at the Cantina Pasita to sample its famous raisin liqueur, we walked up Callejon Los Apos (Frog St.), the street of the antique dealers. Our lodging for the night, the Meson Sacristia de la Companiea de Jesus (House of the Sacristy of the Company of Jesus), formerly an antique shop in a private townhouse, is now a hotel with rooms decorated with antiques--all for sale. All of its nine rooms are named appropriately after parts of the sacristy in a church.

With the great snowcapped volcanoes in front of us, we reached Cholula by mid-morning on the seventh day. Cholula, "place from which the water flows," was dominated by the largest pyramid in the world. Today, the pyramid is crowned by the Church of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, Our Lady of the Remedies.

Even after the Conquest the Indians remained faithful to the cult of Quetzalcoatl, so the Spaniards built their churches, at least 365 of them, on the sites of the former shrines. One of these, the Convent of San Gabriel, became Cortes' headquarters.

Malinche brought word of a large force of Aztecs preparing for an attack. At dawn the Spaniards could see from their quarters larger numbers of Cholulans entering the plaza of the church, supposedly for a religious service. Without warning, Cortes signaled for his troops to attack the Indians, and within two hours more than 3,000 lay dead. After this, Cortes encountered no further resistance as he moved toward Tenochtitlan.

Into the Valley of Mexico
Dusty cornfields gave way to an alpine-like forest as we climbed between the steep volcanic slopes. From here it was only a short way to the Pass of Cortes, 12,000 feet above sea level. Once on the other side, Cortes proceeded to towns in the valley. His and our first stop in the Valley of Mexico was Amecameca. The Church of Santa Maria de la Ascension on the main square, offers a secluded Romanesque cloister filled with images of the Aztec god Chaluc.

Cortes then trekked over lava flows to Tlalmanalco. We got there by a roadway overflowing with the fringe traffic of Mexico City. Here we began our journey through the "Land of the Aztecs." The Spaniards marched in astonishment across causeways into the populous heart of the Aztec realm. The causeways are now highways. We encountered dust and concrete and the refuse of thousands, as modern Mexico City reaches out to swallow the many towns and lakes of former times.

Cortes entered Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519. It was Friday for us, the beginning of the weekend. The traffic was formidable. We traveled west to the broad avenue still called the Tlalpan Causeway. Then wide enough for eight horsemen to ride abreast, today it has eight lanes, plus a Metro track.

Within six months of Cortes' arrival, Moctezuma was dead, stoned by his own people. After terrible riots, Cortes recaptured the city on August 13, 1521.

All this was set in motion in 1519 along the route we had followed. At times the footprints are faded or covered by the veneer of modern life. But the path is still there, revealing a Mexico of both past and present. The Ruta de Cortes connects them both.

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