Sunday, November 08, 2009

La Antigua Veracruz: Where it all began

Not a lot of tourists make it to the sleepy riverside town of La Antigua on the sultry coast of Veracruz state, Mexico. But at one time La Antigua must have been a happening place. It was here that Hernán Cortés reportedly torched his ships before marching inland with his army of 150 men to conquer the mighty Aztec Empire. Cortes scuttled the fleet so that his soldiers could not entertain any thoughts of chickening out and sailing back to Cuba.

The Spanish founded La Antigua in 1523 after abandoning an earlier settlement known as Villa Rica, which was probably the first European outpost in Mexico. Eventually, the conquistadors built the city of Veracruz to the north of La Antigua. But for the better part of a century, La Antigua served as the main Spanish port on Mexico’s east coast.

La Antigua has a pleasant main square with an elevated bandstand and a large church built on the same site as an earlier one that burned down in about 1570. Next to the plaza stands the nondescript-looking El Cabildo, the oldest city hall in Mexico. There is also a squat building fronted by columns that served as a slave market during colonial times.

The most impressive relic from La Antigua’s past is the so-called Casa de Cortés located just east of the town plaza. Despite its name, this rambling structure was never really the home of Hernan Cortés. It is thought to have been an administrative complex or customs house that may have been used to house troops or perhaps even store gold pilfered from the Aztecs.

Guarded by a rusty cannon, the Casa de Cortés is now a roofless maze of disintegrating coral-stone walls and vacant doorways. As intriguing as the building itself are massive strangler fig trees whose tangled roots have entwined themselves like tentacles about the ruins threatening to swallow them whole.

A few blocks to the west stands a walled compound harbouring the Ermita del Rosario, said to be the oldest church in the mainland of the Americas. This diminutive white building looks top-heavy with its large roof comb housing a trio of bells. During colonial times, a group of Franciscan friars visited the church every year to worship the Virgen del Rosario and parade her adorned image to the nearby Rio Huitzilapan. This tradition is recreated every October to honor local fishermen.

A dusty street leads south to the river from La Antigua’s plaza. It skirts Los Cuarteles, a deserted army barracks built in the early 19th century, plus a giant Ceiba tree that was probably around during the days of the conquistadors. In fact, legend has it that Cortes chained his ships to this very tree. It is now situated a fair distance from the water since the river has changed its course over the centuries.

Bordering the Rio Huitzilapan is a small market with souvenir stands and women selling homemade snacks. Just past the market, a swaying suspension bridge spans the wide, slow-moving river. All is peaceful here now. However, with a little imagination, it’s easy to conjure up images of Cortes’ flaming ships drifting on the murky waters toward the Gulf of Mexico.

GETTING THERE: La Antigua is located about 24 km (15 miles) north of the port of Veracruz and roughly 1.5 km (one mile) east of Highway 150. Second class buses leave every 30 minutes from the Veracruz bus station for the town of Cardel and will stop at the road leading to La Antigua. From the highway, taxis ply the route into the village. It is also possible to arrange a tour to La Antigua with taxi drivers in Veracruz.

Below is a slide-show with some of my photos of La Antigua, Veracruz. Move the cursor over the screen to view captions. Click on individual images for information about ordering prints or leasing photos.

La Antigua, Veracruz, Mexico - Images by John Mitchell

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