In 1525, the Spanish conquistadors, under the leadership of Hernán Cortés, relocated their coastal settlement on the Gulf of Mexico from Villa Rica de la Veracruz south to the Huitzilapan River. La Antigua (or Veracruz Vieja) contains the oldest extant European structures in Mexico, including the Capilla de Cristo del Buen Viaje, a chapel where the first Good Friday mass was celebrated, the Franciscan Ermita del Rosario, the oldest church in the Americas (built between 1522 and 1544) with its early mural paintings, and the city council building known as the Edificio del Cabildo (1523). These structures were built during the time of the Medicis and Michelangelo, during a period that fueled, and in turn was fueled by, global exploration and conquest.
In light of the ancient Veracruz cities of Cempoala and El Tajin, the Spanish Casa de Cortes (or House of Cortes) looks more conquered than the like domain of a conqueror. The ruined remains are vaguely reminiscent of Angkor War, strangled with ficus roots, some forming overlapping curtains, obscuring doorways and openings. Entering the structure is like a portal into a lost world.
Only four rooms remain from a larger complex thought to have been the region’s customs house, rather than a residence. Since La Antigua was the main point of entry for trade between Spain and the interior of New Spain, this would have been a significant structure. The wealth that flooded Europe from Aztec silver and gold traveled through La Antigua between 1525-1599, while the river protected it from pirates and privateers.
Embedded seashells and coral protrude from the stucco-covered stone walls of the Casa Cortes, constructed using a unique combination of indigenous, European, and even sub-Saharan African construction materials (the latter reminiscent of the architecture of the Swahili Coast). It’s often difficult to tell if the twisted ceiba roots are swallowing the complex or holding it upright.
Know Before You Go
La Antigua is 15.5 miles (25 km) north of the modern port city of Veracruz along coastal route 180. Travellng by bus, José Cardel is a main intersection and stop on the both route 180 (going north-south) and the inland route to Xalapa (Route 140). From José Cardel a taxi will take you the remaining 6 miles (approximately 10 minutes) to La Antigua.