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Mexico

From Conquistadors to Aztecs, we follows the ‘Route of Corts’ the old road from Veracruz on the east coast to Mexico City, with a guide who knows his history and architecture as well as where to eat well and dance. There’s nothing like getting off on completely the wrong foot, and Belinda from Tufnell Park managed a spectacular gaff in her first few words. She said that Corts had ‘discovered’ the cities of the ancient Aztecs. Whoops. "Corts!" snorted Manuel.

"The only thing Corts ‘discovered’ was that he was lost."  Manuel is a Pinomez Indian and a long-time member of the Mexican Indian Oral Tradition Group. He has firm views on Hernan Corts, the Spaniard who landed in what is now Mexico in 1519, who was at first received as a god by Montezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, but later laid waste to much of their civilization. Manuel’s stories tap in to a past that precedes the Conquistadors, and he had agreed to escort us along the so-called ‘Route of Corts’ the old road from Veracruz on the east coast to Mexico City and bend our ears about native Mexican culture along the way. Belinda could consider her ear already firmly bent.

Of course, the trip wasn’t all going to be social-anthropology-on-the-trot. Pleasure-seekers that we were, we’d soon see to that. First off was dancing the night away in Veracruz itself not in some sweaty club, but under the stars and palm trees. Four times a week people turn out to take a twirl in the city square. As the big band plays, ancient couples prop each other up, young folk gyrate gently in trainers and jeans; tight silk dresses press up against smart white suits. There’s a plethora of panama hats, and whenever the music pauses, a hundred fans flick open and flutter in the evening air.

Trying to paper over her faux pas, Belinda (assisted by a tequila or two) got Manuel talking, as we flopped out in basket-chairs at a pavement cafe. "In Veracruz the old history stopped and the new history began," said Manuel. The path from Veracruz, past the volcanoes of Citlaltpetl and Popocatpetl to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), he told us, was once the most important trade route in the land. And it was at Veracruz, on Good Friday in 1519 that the wicked Corts landed and began his conquest of Mexico well, not quite in what we now call Veracruz, but in the old city, a few miles to the north.

Next morning (far too early for some) we headed out to L’Antigua (‘Old Veracruz’), today a sleepy tropical village beside a wide, slow-moving river. Legend has it that Corts burned the boats his Conquistadors arrived in so that there was no question of return. Manuel relished exploding legends. We were admiring the ‘House of Corts’ a gothic ruin, with giant fig trees pushing their roots through window-gaps and broken doorways when he set us right. "It can’t really be Corts’ house," he said. "It was built in the 1520s, and by that time he was in Tenochtitlán." We moved on to an ancient chapel, indisputably the first in Mexico. It was here that Corts’ road to Tenochtitlán began or rather the Indian track that Corts later made into a road. Over this track, Manuel told us, relay-runners carried fruit, chocolate and fresh fish to the Aztec capital. Along the way, other runners would descend the slopes of volcanoes, bringing snow from the peaks to keep the fish cold. Not knowing whether we’d encounter quite the same level of service, and as Vercruz is famed for its seafood, we paused for lunch, at an open-air restaurant beside the river giant, succulent crab’s claws, and red snapper stuffed with shellfish and chillies, covered with hazelnut sauce.

Just beyond L’Antigua, we stopped off at the archaeological site of Cempoala. Once, this was a city of some 30,000 inhabitants, home to the Totonacs, with lime-washed walls that shone so brightly in the sunlight that the Conquistadors thought they were made of silver. Manuel explained how their ancient calendar effectively did away with the need for leap years by beginning a new year not simply at midnight, but at a subsequent quarter of the day each year. "Pretty good for savages," he remarked dryly. Belinda blushed.

On we drove, past massive mango trees, then up through coffee plantations to Xalapa in the hills. Next morning, at the town’s superb Archaeological Museum, Manuel was in his element. "They say we hadn’t even invented the wheel," he exclaimed, as we peered into a cabinet of 1,200-year-old children’s toys, complete with wheels. "Of course we had. But the wheel is a circle. The sun, which we worshipped, is a circle. We did know the wheel, but we would not offend Father Sun by putting it on the ground to work for us! For toys, it was OK."

For two hours we toured Pre-Hispanic culture, as Manuel expounded how Copernicus cribbed his theories from a Mexican codex hidden in the Vatican, and how the Spaniards, on seeing dead babies being placed in funeral urns, had come up with the idea that they were about to be cooked, and that the locals were cannibals. And as for human sacrifice: "Never!" he said, really angry. "Never! The idea that the Mayans threw virgins into the cenotes [water holes] that’s completely illogical. That was their only drinking water!"

Outside Xalapa, we continued the climb through eucalyptus and pine forests, driving on through mountain mists and across wide plains. We were heading for Puebla, in a valley surrounded by four volcanoes.

Puebla was built by Bishop Julián Garcs, one of the Franciscans who followed in Corts’ wake. The good bishop had the spot shown to him in a dream, by angels descending with string to mark out the city limits. Today, Puebla is a delightful mixture of Spanish wedding-cake baroque and retina-exploding Mexican village colour, of coloured tiled façades and quiet garden courtyards. The enormous cathedral, adorned inside with onyx, marble and gold, is considered one of the most splendid on the continent. There’s an Artists’ Quarter, where painters work in tiny, rather dark studios in an arched arcade; and the city market is full of the brightly coloured Talavera pottery for which the region is renowned. The food’s good, too. Nuns at the local Santa Clara convent claim the honour of inventing mole the extraordinary Mexican sauce made of chillies and chocolate, which different people will tell you has anything between 30 and 80 ingredients.

It was two days before Manuel could tear us away. He had further treats up his sleeve. A short drive from town, we stopped at the church of Santa Maria Tonantzintla, ebullient with carvings in which conventional cherubs give way to chillies, exotic fruit and people in feather head-dress, all brilliantly painted, and dashed with gilt. Then, a little farther on, were the ruins of Cholula. When Corts arrived, Manuel told us, Cholula was a huge city with over 400 temples. But the inhabitants attempted to ambush him on his march to Tenochtitlán, and paid dearly for it. The leaders were killed, and their temples destroyed.

In the late afternoon, we ourselves headed off to Tenochtitln. The dreamy island capital of the Aztecs is now the most populated city in the world, its ancient lake long since swallowed up by urban sprawl. But even in the midst of modern Mexico City, Aztec remains appear, poking up unexpectedly between traffic islands, or built into a metro station. Manuel and Belinda had made up their differences. His final contribution to her Mexican education was to teach her the correct native way to say PopocatÃpetl (with the stress on the Ã). We all practised the name as we rounded the great volcano itself, and joined the city traffic.

Fact File

Information & Visas: EU citizens don’t need a visa for Mexico, but you will get a ‘Tourist Card’ on entry, which you must return as you leave the country. Mexico Tourism Board, 41 Trinity Square, Wakefield House, London EC3N 4DJ, Tel: 020 7488 9392, Fax: 020 7265 0704, Email: info@mexicotravel.co.uk, www.mexicotravel.co.uk

Getting there: Check out www.aeromexico.com and www.mexicana.com for flights via Mexico City to Veracruz.

Getting around: Roads are generally in fairly good condition, but some are very busy with pantechnicon traffic. Car-hire companies often have a £500 personal liability clause in their insurance contract. If you travel by coach, it’s advisable to book on a 1st-class coach and travel by day.

Hotels: Veracruz Holiday Inn Veracruz Centro Historico, Avenida Morelos 225, Tel: +52-229-932-4550, Fax: +52-229-932-4255, Email: hichvera@prodigy.net.mx, www.ichhotelsgroup.com. It may sound commercial, but is located in an attractive arcaded building in the historical centre of town. From £31 double per night, room only.

Xalapa [also spelt Jalapa] Howard Johnson, Av. 20 de Noviembre Ote. No. 455, Xalapa, Tel: +52 2817 9394, Fax: +52 2817 2591. Comfortable, convenient, colonial-style hotel for a night’s stopover. From £35 double per night, room only.

Puebla Camino Real Puebla, 7 Poniente No. 105, Tel: +52 222 29 09 09, Fax: +52 222 29 0998, Email: crpuebla@caminoreal.com, www.caminoreal.com. Luxury hotel in 16th-century convent. Well worth the splurge. From £72 double per night, room only

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