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Xavier López Medellín and Felix Hinz, Mexicolore contributors

The road Cortés followed to reach Tenochtitlán: Mexico is revealed to the world...

This article has generously been written specially for us by Xavier López Medellín and Felix Hinz. Xavier writes: ‘I was born in México City and currently live in Baja California. I have a PhD in Biological Sciences, but History is a great passion of mine, particularly the conquest of America and the XVIth century. I met Felix in 2002 and we’ve been partners since then working on our project Página de Relación.’ Felix Hinz is a Lecturer at the Department of History, University of Hildesheim (Germany); his doctoral thesis was on ‘mechanisms of Hispanization and the transformation of collective identities during and after the conquest of Mexico.’

Pic 1: Cortés’ expedition to Mexico: 1. Cuba 2. Cozumel 3. Grijalva River 4. San Juan de Ulúa, Chalchihuecan, Cempoala 5. Jalapa, Xico 6. Tlaxcala, 7. Cholula, 8. Paso de Cortés, 9. Tenochtitlán
Pic 1: Cortés’ expedition to Mexico: 1. Cuba 2. Cozumel 3. Grijalva River 4. San Juan de Ulúa, Chalchihuecan, Cempoala 5. Jalapa, Xico 6. Tlaxcala, 7. Cholula, 8. Paso de Cortés, 9. Tenochtitlán (Click on image to enlarge)

Hernán Cortés and his men departed from Cuba on* February 10th [1519] and embarked on one of the most extraordinary adventures in the history of mankind: the conquest of Mexico. In the following months, not only would they encounter different civilizations, walk through forests with new and strange plants and animals and eat exotic food and beverages; they would also engage in ferocious combats with the natives, suffer from new diseases and bear the harsh conditions of an unknown and sometimes hostile country.

*[See comment below...]

Pic 2: The shores of Cozumel
Pic 2: The shores of Cozumel (Click on image to enlarge)

On February 27th, they reached the island of Cozumel in the Caribbean Sea off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. When they arrived, they noticed that the inhabitants of the small and scattered villages had fled to the interior of the island, terrified by the sight of the ships. When Cortés sent two of his captains to find the population, they found and seized a native and asked him to find and bring the rest of the inhabitants with the promise that they would not be harmed. Some caciques returned, and Cortés knew from them that there were at least two other Spaniards kept as slaves on the peninsula, so he wrote them letters explaining they were on the island waiting for them.

Pic 3: Cortés and Jerónimo de Aguilar meet
Pic 3: Cortés and Jerónimo de Aguilar meet (Click on image to enlarge)

Jerónimo de Aguilar had been enslaved in Yucatán for eight years after surviving a shipwreck and was the only one who returned with Cortés. The other, Gonzalo Guerrero, was already married with a Mayan woman and had children with her; he wanted to continue living among the Maya. The result of Jerónimo de Aguilar joining the expedition represented a great benefit for Cortés because through him he would be able to communicate with the Maya and learn more about this unknown land.

Pic 4: Grijalva River in the state of Tabasco
Pic 4: Grijalva River in the state of Tabasco (Click on image to enlarge)

The expedition left Cozumel and on March 22nd they reached the Grijalva River in the present state of Tabasco. The natives there were hostile because they had already engaged in combat with Spaniards from a previous expedition. Cortés’ troops defeated the natives in the Battle of Centla, their first battle that allowed them to introduce horses as a new weapon. After this combat, the natives made peace with the Spaniards on April 15th and the cacique brought them several gifts that included food, jewels and twenty women to cook for them. Among these women was Malinalli or Malintzin, who was baptized as Marina, and Cortés gave her to one of his captains since he was already married to Catalina Xuarez.

Pic 5: The present day island of San Juan de Ulúa
Pic 5: The present day island of San Juan de Ulúa (Click on image to enlarge)

They embarked again on their journey and reached the island of San Juan de Ulúa on April 21st. That night Cortés and his troops contacted the first Aztec ambassadors sent by Motecuhzoma, and exchanged greetings and gifts. Since Jerónimo de Aguilar only spoke Mayan he could not communicate with the Aztec ambassadors, on this occasion Malintzin would jump onto the stage, because she knew how to speak Mayan and Nahuatl (the Aztec language), so Cortés spoke in Spanish to Jerónimo de Aguilar who translated it into Mayan to Malintzin and then she translated it into Nahuatl to communicate with Motecuhzoma’s ambassadors. This was the beginning of a very close relationship between Cortés and Malintzin and she would become essential as interpreter because she soon learned Spanish.

Pic 6: Chalchihuecan beach
Pic 6: Chalchihuecan beach (Click on image to enlarge)

With these meetings, Cortés realized that Motecuhzoma ruled a large, powerful and rich empire based in Central Mexico. From that time on his mind was set on one thing: to reach the heart of the empire and meet Motecuhzoma in person. Cortés also made a large display of his forces and fired the canons, something that had a tremendous impact on the ambassadors; he had now shown the superior combat forces of the newly arrived foreigners to Motecuhzoma.
The next morning, the Spaniards crossed to the mainland and founded their first, however rudimentary, settlement in a sandy area known as Chalchihuecan and named it Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz that would become Spain’s first political centre in Mexico. Hernán Cortés was now Captain General and he ordered his men to start building huts to shelter them from the intense sun and heat. However, there was not much to eat, the environmental conditions were very harsh and the mosquitos impossible to cope with!

Pic 7: Cempoala, Veracruz
Pic 7: Cempoala, Veracruz (Click on image to enlarge)

After the ambassadors from the Aztec empire left Cortés’ camp at Chalchihuecan, other natives who were in the vicinity but did not approach because they were afraid of the Aztecs, finally came to the encampment. The Spaniards noticed that they were different, using other kinds of clothes and ornaments and spoke a different language. However, some of them could speak Nahuatl and so Cortés learned they were Totonacs, inhabitants of Veracruz and under Motecuhzoma’s yoke. They were sent by their leader to invite them to their city: Cempoala.
The Totonacs guided some Spaniards to Cempoala, where Cortés learned from the local cacique that Motecuhzoma was a despotic ruler who demanded higher and higher tributes every year and that the Totonacs were severely punished if they did not comply in time. This was a great opportunity to make new alliances, so Cortés promised them to free them from the Aztecs if they joined him, and so they did. The Spaniards’ army started to increase in numbers...

Pic 8: Ruins of the Villa Rica settlement
Pic 8: Ruins of the Villa Rica settlement (Click on image to enlarge)

The rest of Cortés’ men were in charge of finding a better place to anchor the ships and moved the Villa Rica settlement to a new site. When Cortés arrived he started the construction of a more developed settlement with houses made of rock, he designed the streets and planned the construction of a small fortress where he would leave one of his captains in charge.
While at this new settlement, Cortés heard that Diego Velazquez, the governor of Cuba, had been granted a royal decree that authorized him to conquer and populate the regions that were now being discovered by Cortés. In response he assembled his most loyal captains and decided to send ambassadors with great presents to the Emperor in order to gain his trust and validate their deeds. A few days after Cortés’ ambassadors had departed he found out that some of his men wanted to rebel by stealing a ship and returning to Cuba. To set an example to the rest of his men, he punished them severely by hanging two and cutting the toes off another.

Pic 9: Cortés burns his boats
Pic 9: Cortés burns his boats (Click on image to enlarge)

Cortés then began preparations for the journey into Central Mexico. He left a strong garrison in their newly founded settlement in Veracruz, and also took a brave decision: to sink their ships to avoid another rebellion attempt to return to Cuba. He argued that the ships were no longer fit to sail and decided to dismantle them and kept all that could be useful: ropes, cannons, wood, even the nails!

Pic 10: Jalapa
Pic 10: Jalapa (Click on image to enlarge)

The Spaniards first returned to Cempoala where they gathered resources for their journey and took advice from the natives as to which route to follow: The cacique of Cempoala recommended taking the eastern road to Jalapa and from there to proceed to Tlaxcala, land of the fiercest enemies of Motecuhzoma. They departed on August 16th 1519 and headed east towards Jalapa and Xico and started the ascent of the Sierra Madre Oriental (Mexico’s eastern mountain range).

Pic 11: Zautla today
Pic 11: Zautla today (Click on image to enlarge)

They continued their journey eastward and passed through a high plateau with arid and cold landscapes in the upper parts of the Sierra. After three days of hunger, extreme cold and heavy rains, the landscape gradually changed to woodlands and finally they reached the town of Zacatula (Zautla). They were very tired, weak and starving and some of the natives in his army that came from tropical lands died of the intense cold. Back in those days, Zacatula was an important, well-resourced settlement and the Spaniards were able to recover their strength. Cortés asked the local cacique, a fat and shaky person named Olíntetl, if he was a vassal of Motecuhzoma, to which he replied: “What? Is there anyone who is not his vassal?”

Pic 12: Near Ixtacamaxtitlán
Pic 12: Near Ixtacamaxtitlán (Click on image to enlarge)

Olíntetl was terrified of the reaction Motecuhzoma would have when he learned that Zacatula received these strangers without his permission, but Cortés told him that he came in the name of a more powerful ruler, to whom even Motecuhzoma would have to submit. At this meeting the Spaniards heard for the first time of the grandeur of the Aztec capital: México-Tenochtitlán, a city located in the middle of a lake with canals, large roads and endless luxuries.
They continued their journey to Tlaxcala, and passed through the lands of Ixtacamaxtitlán where they saw a large wall made of rocks that represented the border with Tlaxcala. Today, nothing of this wallremains and the memory of its builders seems to be lost in history. After inspecting the area, the Spaniards crossed the wall and continued to Tlaxcala; however, they soon found a group of armed men waiting to fight them. Cortés sent some horsemen to attack and the hostile soldiers started to run, but they suddenly turned around and attacked the horsemen, killing two horses: the natives now realized they could defeat them...

Pic 13: The landscape between Ixtacamaxtitlán and Tlaxcala
Pic 13: The landscape between Ixtacamaxtitlán and Tlaxcala (Click on image to enlarge)

Soon after, more forces from Tlaxcala appeared wearing the war banner of Tlaxcala with a white crane, but their attacks were not coordinated among their captains and they were unable to defeat the Spaniards; after a few battles they realized they could not defeat their enemy and surrendered to Cortés. This new alliance was not only beneficial to Cortés, who gained new forces and resources, but also to the people of Tlaxcala, since they had lived surrounded by allies of the Aztecs and could not access basic products like salt or cotton because these items were not produced in their own lands.

Pic 14: Supposed baptismal font of the Lords of Tlaxcala
Pic 14: Supposed baptismal font of the Lords of Tlaxcala (Click on image to enlarge)

On September 18th 1519, the Spaniards arrived in Tlaxcala and were welcomed with celebrations and gifts, among which were the daughters of the four rulers from Tlaxcala. Cortés wanted to impose the Christian faith and in the following days a priest baptized the rulers and their daughters. Motecuhzoma was terrified that his enemies from Tlaxcala and the Spaniards would make an alliance and he was constantly sending ambassadors to Tlaxcala under the protection of Cortés.

Pic 15: Popocatépetl and Diego de Ordaz’ coat of arms with the fiery volcano
Pic 15: Popocatépetl and Diego de Ordaz’ coat of arms with the fiery volcano (Click on image to enlarge)

From the lands of Tlaxcala, the Spaniards were impressed by the huge 5,500 meter volcano Popocatépetl (‘the mountain that smokes’) that is still active today. One of his soldiers, Diego de Ordaz, was eager to climb the volcano and take a closer look at it. Since the natives seemed to be terrified by it Cortés thought it would be a good idea if one of his men climbed it and returned successfully as proof of their braveness. The chronicles mention that the natives went as far as a shrine devoted to the gods of the volcano and the Spaniards went on on their own, but when Ordaz climbed the volcano it started to throw out fumes, rocks and fire. They waited an hour after it stopped and then climbed to its mouth and saw the lava inside; they could also see the magnificent city of Tenochtitlán from above and the best routes to access it. The natives were very impressed by this act, and years later Ordaz requested from the Emperor the right to use a coat of arms depicting a volcano.

Pic 16: Cholula today with Popocatépetl behind
Pic 16: Cholula today with Popocatépetl behind (Click on image to enlarge)

After spending more than twenty days in Tlaxcala recovering their strength and gathering information on Tenochtitlán and the best routes to get to it, the ambassadors of Motecuhzoma suggested to Cortés that he go to the holy city of Cholula, which was under Aztec control and located near Tlaxcala. The people of Tlaxcala disagreed, arguing that Motecuhzoma was setting a trap for them. However, Cortés resolved to meet the Aztec ruler and on October 11th, he enlisted his forces that now included 100,000 warriors from Tlaxcala, and started their journey to Cholula. As soon as they got close to the city, they were received by priests who walked them into the holy city, where they provided them with comfortable accommodation and plenty of food. The warriors from Tlaxcala were not welcomed and so had to remain outside the city.

Pic 17: The massacre of Cholula, Lienzo de Tlaxcala
Pic 17: The massacre of Cholula, Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Click on image to enlarge)

Something terrible happened in Cholula while the Spaniards were there. The native and Spanish chronicles tell different stories about what happened and that has been an issue of debate since the sixteenth century and we will not go deeper into it. Whatever the reasons, the Spaniards punished Cholula with extreme severity. It is generally accepted that Cortés called the nobles and warriors of Cholula to gather inside the main plaza, where he had previously located some of his men to block the access to the plaza and with a gunfire signal all of the Tlaxcala and Cempoala warriors rushed in and with the Spaniards they slaughtered them all. This terrible act is remembered by history as the massacre of Cholula, and changed the way the natives saw the Spaniards forever.

Pic 18: The ruins at Cholula
Pic 18: The ruins at Cholula (Click on image to enlarge)

Cortés remained in Cholula for the following days reorganizing his forces, sending messengers to his men in Veracruz, appointing new leaders for the city, and most importantly he sent Motecuhzoma’s ambassadors back complaining about the latter’s ill treatment of the Spaniards, so now they would march into Tenochtitlán as enemies making as much damage as they possibly could. Motecuhzoma quickly sent back gold presents and much food and cocoa, and confusedly argued that he had not ordered any attack, and insisted that they should not continue to Tenochtitlán, which was a sterile and wasted land with not enough food and accommodation for the Spaniards.
After further council with his captains and the leaders from Tlaxcala and Cempoala, they discussed the best route to take to continue. The Aztecs suggested going south and surrounding the volcanoes while those from Tlaxcala said it was probably a trap. Cortés then decided to take the hardest route by climbing the mountain range formed by the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, a route that was previously explored by Diego de Ordaz.

Pic 19: A view of Popocatépetl from Amecameca
Pic 19: A view of Popocatépetl from Amecameca (Click on image to enlarge)

On November 1st. Cortés and his soldiers left Cholula and passed through Huejotzingo, where new ambassadors arrived with gifts and more persuasive words. However, Cortés was determined to see Tenochtitlán himself, so they started to climb the mountain range and spent the night between the two volcanoes, where they suffered from extreme cold. Today, the pass between both volcanoes is called The Pass of Cortés and it was from there that he got the first glimpse of the wonderful city of Tenochtitlán.
The next morning they started their descent towards Amecameca, where they were welcomed by the local cacique who complained about Motecuhzoma’s tyranny. Cortés spent two days in this city listening to the same complaints from ambassadors of the neighboring towns, and received them as allies. He and his men then took the road to Iztapalapa where they were received by a luxurious delegation headed by Cacama, Motecuhzoma’s nephew who was richly dressed and had many servants. His mission was to once and for all convince Cortés to turn back and return to Veracruz, which was of no use because the Spaniards were already on the doorsteps of Tenochtitlán.

Pic 20: Digital reconstruction of Tenochtitlan and its environs
Pic 20: Digital reconstruction of Tenochtitlan and its environs (Click on image to enlarge)

The Spaniards reached the Iztapalapa road that led to Tenochtitlán on the morning of November 8th 1519. Cortés was leading the group with some of his captains on horses and Malintzin at his side. They were followed by the footsoldiers, then came the large contingent of allied native soldiers and the women that helped them, and finally by natives pulling the cannons. On this road, just before reaching the city, in the small islet of Xolo, Motecuhzoma and Cortés met. The emperor of the Aztecs was wearing a large plumed crown, rich clothes and golden sandals, while his companions were bare footed but also lavishly dressed. The Aztecs kneeled and put their hand on the ground and then to their lips in a saluting gesture; Cortés approached them and tried to hug Motecuhzoma, but he was stopped by one of the Aztec nobles. No one was allowed to touch the emperor of Tenochtitlán.
The story of the journey of the Conquistadors to Central Mexico is fascinating; the facts narrated by various witnesses reveal a new and exotic world that kept the Spaniards in awe with every step. From here on their adventure continues from scouring the city and wondering at the marvelous palaces, to the rushed escape from the city, then laying siege to it and finally by destroying it to conquer it, but that is another story...

All images kindly supplied by Xavier López Medellín; pic no. 20 original by and copyright Tomás Filsinger.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 23rd 2012

emoticon Q. Guess which was, according to Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, one of the first words in Mayan languages learnt by the Spanish conquistadors?
A. tak’in - ‘gold’! Talk about takin a liberty...

Hernán Cortés: Página de Relación website
Lorenzo Ferrero - La ruta de Cortés: Youtube music video
Lorenzo Ferrero - La Matanza del Templo Mayor - Youtube music video
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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Thanks for writing in and pointing out a mistake in the article.
First, actually it WAS 1519 when Cortés left Cuba! However it wasn’t September: he and his force sailed on February 10th from Cuba. So you yourself are wrong about the year, the authors were wrong only about the month.
Second, you ought to know that there is wild disagreement in the sources as to the number of Tlaxcalan warriors who marched with Cortés to Cholula. 100,000 may well be an exaggeration, but by suggesting it was more like 1,000 you’re going to the other extreme! Andrés de Tapia, one of Cortés’ most trusted captains, wrote in his chronicle of the invasion ‘The Spaniards set out for this city [Cholula] accompanied by forty thousand warriors who by order of the marqués marched at a distance from us’ (See ‘The Conquistadors: First-person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico’ edited and translated by Patricia de Fuentes, Uni of Oklahoma Press, 1963, p. 33). Matthew Restall, in his recent book ‘When Montezuma met Cortés’ writes ‘On October 10, the surviving Spaniards and some six thousand Tlaxcalteca warriors made the daylong march to Cholollan.’
Third, my re-reading of this article suggests the authors in no way portray the Cholula massacre as ‘some mysterious event’. What’s more, IN THE PREVIOUS PARAGRAPH they wrote ‘The people of Tlaxcala disagreed, arguing that Motecuhzoma was setting a trap for them.’ As far as I’m aware, there was only one Moctezuma and only one trap, and the article mentions it, contrary to your claim otherwise!!
So there’s just a teeny-weeny bit of hypocrisy here, when you suggest we’re being ‘really unprofessional’...
We’ve corrected the date error at the top of the article, and for flagging this up (albeit mistakenly suggesting the year is wrong - it isn’t) we’re grateful to you.