National Geographic : 1940 Sep
On the Cortes Trail By IL.is IMARDEN JWilh Illustrations from Photographs by the Author FROM sixty miles at sea the snow-clad Peak of Orizaba, Mexico's highest moun tain, was already visible, hanging pallid and wraithlike in the moist air of early morn ing. Detached from the horizon, it floated high over the Gulf of Mexico, like one of those white and silver pinnacles that rise mistily in the background of old Japanese scrolls. So it may have appeared to hardy Hernan Cortes and his 508 fellow-adventurers when, on that Holy Thursday four centuries ago, they cast anchor off the parched sand dunes of what is now Veracruz. There they landed, to prepare for the auda cious inland march whose nearly forgotten route I had come to follow. That devious trail was to lead me through three climates: from tropical Veracruz upward through rising temperate country to the snows and icy gales of Popocatepetl's summit, nearly 18,000 feet above the sea. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, soldier-chronicler of the expedition, wrote an eyewitness account of the conquest of Mexico. I had read his original manuscript, still preserved in the municipal archives in Guatemala. It made me want to see for myself the country through which the Spaniards passed. Poring over old documents and histories, I puzzled out the route followed more than 400 years ago in that incredible cavalcade of con quest (map, pages 338-9). Solemn Samuel Gives Warning Ashore in Veracruz, I found Samuel, who had driven down from the capital and was seeking a return passenger. Later, when under the cloisterlike arcade of a sidewalk cafe I told him I needed a chauffeur and general guide, he produced let ters of recommendation from other "North Americans." Over lukewarm lime juice and water we discussed my itinerary. "Clearly," Samuel observed in unhurried upland Spanish, "one does not go to all these places in the automobile." "To some places I'll go on a horse," I re plied. With the city Mexican's acquired horror of such primitive means of travel, he became volubly concerned. "There remain many bandits in the retired places," he warned me. "Moreover, it is now the time of rains. One does not travel in the rains." But at times, as Cortes found, one must "travel in the rains," and Samuel at last con ceded grudgingly that it might be done; we would start as soon as he could prepare car and equipment. That night Veracruz sank slowly into the sultry depths of a midsummer night on the Gulf. A water-front lounger pointed out to me the shadowy hulk of the island fortress of San Juan de Ulfla, whose lights snaked yellowly across the oily swell (Color Plate I and page 341). Landing there on St. John's Day in 1518, Juan de Grijalva, predecessor of Cortes, asked his interpreter the name of the mainland's ruling tribe. "Colhfla," answered the guide, pointing landward. Grijalva's sailors added their corruption of this word to the name of the saint, calling the reef St. John of Ulua. Grim Isle of Sacrifice Guides Ships Somewhere off in the darkness lay the slipper-shaped Island of Sacrifices, where shocked Spaniards first saw dismembered bodies of human sacrificial victims. Now I caught the fugitive gleam of its lighthouse, beckoning intermittently to passing ships in white, red, and green. The pulsating beat of drums from beyond the southern breakwater said in irregular ac cents that Veracruz was dancing the danzdn; dancing it, as the local saying goes, "on a handkerchief." For the couple performing this slow version of the better known rumba rotate monotonously in a fixed spot. Early next morning Samuel and I went in a clattering gasoline launch to San Juan de Ulua. The massive pile is no longer a garri soned fort, nor a political prison. Machine shop and foundry for shipbuilding and repair ing have replaced the cannons and muskets that once greeted such visitors as Sir Francis Drake and his contemporaries. Apparition of a Horse We drove by night along the north beach at Veracruz. On this natural drill ground Cortes, to impress emissaries of Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, held a review of his 16-horse cavalry. Two by two, the Spanish horsemen charged past the marveling messengers of the despotic ruler (Plate I).