Immediately north of Veracruz lie the oldest Spanish settlements in Mexico, and the sites of the indigenous towns which became Cortes’ first allies. A short stretch of toll highway takes you as far as CARDEL, a busy little town and handy place to change buses or visit the bank, at the junction of the coastal highway and the road up to Xalapa. La Antigua lies 2km off this road. Beyond Cardel there’s very little to stop for in the long coastal stretch (about 4hr on the bus) to Papantla. At NAUTLA, 153km from Veracruz, you pass the largest town en route to Papantla, surrounded by coconut groves, at the heart of the so-called “Costa Esmeralda”. There are hotels, some of them pretty fancy, trailer parks and campsites all the way up here, but most are just metres from the highway, which runs close to the shore. The grey sand is frequently desolate and windswept, and it’s not really a place you’d want to stay.
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For all its antiquity, there’s not a great deal to see in LA ANTIGUA, site of the second Spanish settlement in Mexico (it’s often incorrectly described as the first – Villa Rica is further north). It is, however, a beautiful, cobble-streeted tropical village, just 20km north of Veracruz on the banks of the Río La Antigua (or Río Huitzilapan). At weekends it makes a popular excursion for Veracruzanos, who picnic by the river and swim or take boat rides.
In the semi-ruined centre of the village stand some of the oldest surviving Spanish buildings in the country: on the plaza are the Edificio del Cabildo, built in 1523, which housed the first ayuntamiento (local government) established in Mexico, and the Casa de Cortés, a fairly crude stone construction, which, despite the name, was probably never lived in by Cortés and is now a ruin, undergoing restoration. Nearby is the tranquil Ermita del Rosario, the first Christian church built in New Spain, which also dates from the early sixteenth century, though it’s been altered and restored since.
On the riverbank stands a grand old tree – the Ceiba de la Noche Feliz – to which it is claimed that Cortés moored his ships. A pedestrian suspension bridge crosses the river near the tree, and on this stretch of the bank are lanchas offering river trips and a little row of restaurants with waterside terraces, the pick of which is Las Maravillas.
CempoalaThe first native city visited by the conquistadors, CEMPOALA (or Zempoala) 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.
The ruins, though nowhere near as dramatic as El Tajín further north, make for an absorbing detour and take no more than an hour to explore. They date mostly from the Aztec period, and although the buildings have lost their decorative facings and thatched sanctuaries, they constitute one of the most complete surviving examples of an Aztec ceremonial centre – albeit in an atypical tropical setting and on a very small scale. The double-stairway pyramids, grouped around a central plaza, must have resembled miniature versions of those at Tenochtitlán. Apart from the main, cleared site, consisting of the Templo Mayor, the Gran Pirámide and the Templo de las Chimeneas, there are lesser ruins scattered throughout, and around, the modern village. Look out in particular for the circular Templo de Ehecatl (Temple of the Wind God) on the opposite side of the main road through the village.
Around 15km north of Cardel, the sleepy village of Villa Rica was the first permanent Spanish settlement in New Spain. Established by Cortés in 1519, it was abandoned in 1524 for La Antigua, and only foundations remain today, close to the normally deserted beach. Just beyond, an exceptionally scenic area of steep, green hills is home to Mexico’s only nuclear plant, on the coast at Laguna Verde.