The ruins of Cempoala, 12km north of Cardel and 4km west of Hwy-180, though not as dramatic as El Tajín further north, make for an absorbing detour – most weekdays you’ll have them to yourself. The first native city visited by the conquistadors, Cempoala quickly became their ally against the Aztecs. When Cortés arrived, the city, under the leadership of Chicomacatl (dubbed the “Fat Chief” by conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo), had been under Aztec control for little over fifty years. Its people, who numbered some 25,000 to 30,000, had already rebelled more than once and were only too happy to stop paying their tribute once they believed that the Spaniards could protect them. This they did, although the inhabitants must have begun to have second thoughts when Cortés ordered the idols of their deities to be smashed and replaced with crosses and Christian altars.
Cortés left Cempoala in August 1519 for the march on Tenochtitlán, but the following May he was forced to return in a hurry by the news that Pánfilo Narváez, on a mission to bring the conquistadors back under the control of the governor of Cuba, had come after him with a large force. Cortés mounted a surprise attack on the newly arrived Spaniards, who were camped in the centre of Cempoala, and won a resounding victory: Narváez was wounded (but survived), many of his generals were captured and most of the men switched sides, joining the later assaults on the Aztec capital.
The ruins date mostly from the Aztec period, and although the buildings have lost their decorative facings and thatched sanctuaries, it’s one of the most complete surviving examples of an Aztec ceremonial centre – albeit in an atypical tropical setting. The double-stairway pyramids, grouped around a central plaza, must have resembled those of Tenochtitlán, though on a considerably smaller scale. Apart from the main, cleared site, consisting of the Templo Mayor (the largest and most impressive structure, where Narváez made his stand), the Gran Pirámide and the Templo de las Chimeneas, there are lesser ruins scattered throughout, and around, the modern village. Most important of these are the Templo de las Caritas, a small temple on which a few carvings and murals can still be seen, in open country just beyond the main site, and the circular Templo de Ehecatl (Temple of the Wind God) on the opposite side of the main road through the village.
The site takes a couple of hours to explore; if you’re coming by bus there are a few direct second-class services from Veracruz, but it’s generally quicker to go to Cardel and change there: Cardel has very frequent first-class services from both Veracruz and Xalapa, and even more second-class. Coming from La Antigua, you can go back to the main road, get a second-class bus to Cardel and go on from there. From Cardel there are plenty of green-and-white taxis (M$60) to the site, but the local buses marked “Zempoala” that leave from the bus station are cheaper (M$10).