The 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.

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