The Spanish Conquest of México Story

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By Mike Vondruska

The Spanish Conquest of México Story

500 Hundred Years Ago, five hundred daring men landed in the Americas and in less than 2 short years, they did the impossible. 

They defeated a huge powerful empire consisting of some 15 million people scattered over 207,000 sq km (80,000 sq miles) which stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of México in present day México. 

 The year was 1519

Christopher Columbus had already succeeded in discovering new lands 27 years earlier.

King Charles V of Spain was expanding his empire into new uncharted territories.

Spanish colonies were already established in Cuba and Hispañola (now the Dominican Republic). These locations became strategic “stepping-off” points for further discoveries west, south, and north.

Spaniard and renegade, Hernán Cortés defied a last minute order from the governor of Cuba to NOT go on a planned exploratory mission to the lands west.

He was afraid Cortés would plunder any riches he found rather than follow his orders which were explicitly to just explore the region and basically, take notes.

However, that’s like sending a kid into a candy store and saying that he can only look but not touch … or eat.

Hernán Cortés set sail anyway from Cuba with 11 ships, 15 horses, and 500 men to what is now the country of México.

Shortly after arriving on the shores of present-day Veracruz state, he eventually met the local tribal leaders who lived there. They told him of a magnificent city inland where the master and powerful leader (Moctezuma II) of the Aztec Empire resided. 

Emissaries from the great Aztec king came to Veracruz and gave Cortés gifts which included items made of gold. He was told the gold came from the great city to the west, México-Tenochtitlán.

 It was then that Cortés made a bold decision. He decided he would do more than just explore. He would travel to meet this Aztec leader, confiscate all his gold and other riches as well as strip him of his power. Then he would work to convert the population of this new land to Christianity.

This was Hernán’s big opportunity in his life to create for himself, historical fame and riches!

It’s an Amazing True Story of Epic Adventures

This story of the Spanish Conquest reads like an adventure saga similar to the likes of the Indiana Jones movies

•  Adventure into the unknown

•  Suspense

•  Betrayal

•  Barbaric bloody battles

•  An intense clash of two very different
   cultures and religious beliefs

•  An unending quest for gold & total power

•  And yes, there was even a romance interest

How could one Spaniard with a small band of a few hundred fortune seekers drastically change the face of Mesoamerica forever?

Hang on to your seat and keep reading to see how this true conquest adventure story unfolds.

Hernán Cortés was a Very Lucky SOB

If there had been a lottery back in the early 1500’s, Cortés would have been declared the lucky “winner.”

Here’s why.

In 1519, Cortés and his small group of 500 or so men leave Cuba and reach the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula.

After hanging out on the island of Cozumel for a while, he gets word that there might be a couple white guys living in the region. And sure enough, he finds two Spaniards that had been shipwrecked from an earlier expedition in 1511.

Cortés invites them to join his group. The one guy (Aguilar) says yes and the other guy (Guerrero) says thanks but no thanks. You see, he had already married a Mayan woman, had some kids, and liked it there.

So Aguilar goes with Cortés which is excellent because Aguilar speaks Mayan. 

What a stroke of luck! Now Cortés can have Aguilar be his translator from Spanish to the Mayan language.

OK, now more “luck” is about to happen for this Spaniard.

They leave the Caribbean coast and continue sailing into the Gulf of México to what is now the state of Tabasco. They have a couple battles with some local tribes and eventually make a treaty.

As a peace offering, one of the local leaders gives Cortés a gift of 20 young girls from his tribe. One of these girls was originally from further west and grew up speaking Nahuatl which is the language of the Aztecs. She also knew Mayan.

Cortés can now talk with Aguilar in Spanish, who can then talk with this girl (Malinalli) in Mayan, who can then talk with the Aztecs and other tribes in the central and gulf coast regions who also speak Nahuatl.

Wow!  Talk about a lucky break!

Now there is no more staring blankly at each other, doing hand gestures, and basic charades to figure out what each party is trying to say.

Cortés can actually communicate with the locals in their own language.

That’s HUGE!

That’s a BIG DEAL!

There was one more very lucky break which Cortés takes advantage of.

He and his men arrived to present day Veracruz and met up with a local tribe there; the Totonacs.

Through his communication chain, Cortés found out that they were under the rule of a big powerful group known as the Aztecs (also called Mexicans).

Because of that, they had to pay what they considered to be an unfair amount of taxes to their leader; the great Moctezuma who reined from far away and did not do much for them.

After hearing this, Cortés had one of those “Ah Ha” moments. Hey, he was no dummy!

So he quickly tells the Totonac leader that they should unite together with him and his men and that they will help them get rid of those nasty Aztecs.

The leader agrees and gives Cortés about 40 fierce warriors and some 200 men to help carry all his supplies, including his heavy cannons.

This strategy is known as, “Divide and Conquer.”

You will see as this true adventure saga progresses, he will do this again and again with tribes of people he meets along the way toward the Aztec capital, Tenochititlàn (now México City).

What started off as just his small group of 500 men will eventually turn into thousands of warriors from several different tribes who were also not fond of paying through the nose to the Aztecs.

So that’s why Cortés was a lucky SOB.

Totally by accident, he found key people who could help him communicate from Spanish to Mayan to Nahuatl which gave him the new knowledge of knowing about the many disgruntled outlying tribes under the Aztec rule.

Then with his “Divide & Conquer” plan, Cortés could now proceed westward to meet the great leader of the Aztec Empire; Moctezuma . . . and take him out.

A Journey of No Return

With a group of Totonac tribal warriors and a couple hundred men to help carry supplies, Hernán Cortés was ready to move westward into unknown territory to meet this Aztec leader, Moctezuma II.

But first, he had to convince his men that this was a good thing to do. 

With promises of patriotism for their country and wealth for the King of Spain (riches like gold & new territory), for God (great opportunities to convert a whole new land to the Christian faith), and of course, for personal wealth (after Spain’s 15%, the rest of all treasures found would be shared with his men), Cortés swayed most of them to push westward.

Oh, and one more thing. As a final convincing point for his men, he scuttled his ships. He had them dismantled and used the material to help build a town along the gulf coast. 

With no possibility of a return to Cuba, his men really had no choice but to follow him.

So westward they went. 

It would be a grueling 250 mile trek from the sweltering tropical heat along the Gulf of México coast during the rainy season, up onto a big stretch of high arid plateau, over a much colder 11,000 foot mountain pass, and finally into the valley of the incredible Aztec capital city,  Tenochititlàn (now México City).

Along the way, the local people who encountered these foreigners were amazed at what they saw

There were loud tubular things that shot fire (muskets and cannons), weird bearded men dressed in strange clothing with pots on their head (their helmets looked like a pot to cook in), vicious trained attack dogs (dogs were supposed to be docile), and a strange creature they had never seen before (horses). 

In fact, many locals thought the men on the horses (only 15 were brought from Cuba) were a 6 legged, 2 headed god.

OK, let that sink in. Six legs, two heads. Got it?  Good!

Fierce Tlaxcala Fighters Take on the Spaniards

When they reached the outskirts of what is now the capital city of the state of Tlaxcala (Tlaxcala city), they were met with fierce resistance.

The Tlaxcalans, or Tlaxcaltecs, were an indigenous group of Nahua ethnicity who inhabited this area just north of the present day city of Puebla.

These Tlaxcalan guys knew how to fight tough.

One of the first things they did was to take one of their long lances and shove it into an oncoming horse, killing it. They actually killed 2 horses proving that they were not gods. You can’t kill a god. 

As you can imagine, this really pissed off Cortés. After all, he had only brought 15 horses and already 2 were killed. 

For two weeks this battle ensued trapping the Spaniards on a hilltop

However, the Tlaxcalans were amazed at these foreigner’s tenacity and also in how they attacked them.

You see, the Tlaxcalans attack their enemies to “capture” them to use for religious sacrifices. The Spaniards on the other hand were “killing” the local warriors. This was a weird strategy that the Tlaxcalans could not fathom; killing as opposed to capturing for sacrifice later.

Finally, the Tlaxcalans decided to quit the fight and work out a treaty with Cortés. You should note that the Tlaxcalans were already enemies of the Aztecs so it was an easy transition for the Spaniards to become allies with these guys.

Again, this was a huge plus for Cortés.

Even after the 2 weeks of fighting, the Tlaxcalans still had thousands of fierce warriors who were now on the side of the Spaniards.

Plus, they would have a safe place to rest up before their big push toward the Aztec capital.

Note: With messenger runners, Moctezuma was kept informed of everything the Spaniards were doing on their trek.

He even sent them several envoys to give the foreigners gifts with instructions to tell them politely that they would be welcome to come to the Aztec city but that it was not really necessary for them to come. 

In the mind of this Aztec leader and his council, Moctemzuma II really did not want Cortés to come and so it was thought that by giving gifts of gold and other expensive stuff, the foreigners would be satisfied and just turn around and go home.

However, that strategy did not work. Each time Cortés received these exquisite ornate gifts made with gold from the Aztecs, it just fueled the Spaniard’s desire to reach the Aztec capital as soon as possible. 

In other words … GREED spurred him on!

A Slaughter of Thousands in Cholula

Additionally, another huge incident happened prior to the Spaniards reaching Méixco-Tenochititlàn.

The 2nd largest city at that time was Cholula (100,000 population) which is now in present day Puebla state. It is not far from Tlaxcala.

Cortés had received an invitation to enter the city by the local leaders. As part of the invitation, he was told the Tlaxcalan warriors would have to camp outside the city as they were not the best of friends. 

Upon entering the city, the reception received by the Spaniards was lukewarm at best. Within a few days of being there, Cortés started receiving rumors of a possible attack by the Cholulans.

Some of the evidence was in observing trenches being dug in strategic places, maybe for fighters to hide. Also, many women and children were seen leaving the city. 

Not being one to wait around until this rumor was totally confirmed, Cortés gathered all the nobility, leaders, and priests into the main plaza and then promptly slaughtered them all.

At the same time, the Tlaxcalan warriors entered the city and attacked with a vengeance killing everyone in sight. The surprised and panic stricken Cholulans trampled each other trying to escape.

For several hours, it was total chaos!

When all was said and done, thousands of Cholula citizens lay dead in the streets. It was one big bloody massacre!

Of course, this sent a clear message to Moctezuma that the Spaniards meant business.

The Aztec leader quickly sent word to Cortés that he had nothing to do with this plot to trap him and his men in Cholula. He assured them that they were “friends.”

Cortés sent Moctezuma a message that basically said, “See you soon!”

Moctezuma II and Hernán Cortés Finally Meet

In the fall of 1519, Spaniard, Hernán Cortés along with his men, and a huge group of Tlaxcalteca warriors were on their final leg to meet the great Aztec leader, Moctezuma II in what is now present day México City.

Five hundred years ago, the great Aztec capital was located on an island in the middle of a vast shallow lake with several causeways leading out of the city in different directions to the mainland.

At that time, it was the home to some 200,000-300,000 people. It was huge!

Many historians speculate that it was among the largest cities in the world at that time.

This is what Bernal Diaz (one of Corté’s men) wrote upon seeing this magnificent city for the first time from a high distant vantage point.

“And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico [i.e. Tenochtitlán], we were astounded. These great towns and cues [i.e., temples] and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. It is not surprising therefore that I should write in this vein. It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before. . . .”

The day was November 8th. With great fanfare, gifts, and scores of onlookers, Moctezuma II accompanied by his noblemen, came out to finally meet this strange group of foreigners who had traveled hundreds of miles by foot and horseback from the gulf coast.

In a letter to Spain’s King Charles V about this event,  Cortés wrote,

“Mutezuma [sic] came to greet us and with him some two hundred lords, all barefoot and dressed in a different costume, but also very rich in their way and more so than the others. They came in two columns, pressed very close to the walls of the street, which is very wide and beautiful and so straight that you can see from one end to the other. Mutezuma came down the middle of this street with two chiefs, one on his right hand and the other on his left. And they were all dressed alike except that Mutezuma wore sandals whereas the others went barefoot; and they held his arm on either side.”

At one point during their initial Meet & Greet, Cortés assured Moctezuma by telling him, “We have come to your house in México as friends. There is nothing to fear.”

However, it should be noted that Moctezuma was very distressed prior to the Spaniard’s arrival. His dilemma was quite simple. Should he welcome them or kill them before they entered the city?

His close group of noblemen (including family members) gave him conflicting advice. He also prayed to his gods to give him directions.

Some favored killing the foreigners and others thought these strangers might be gods who were destined to arrive.

So for Moctezuma, it was a big gamble to let them in the city.

And as history shows, his decision to welcome Cortés and his men into the capital city proved to be an utter disaster for him and his people.

At first, everything seemed to be fine. The Spaniards were the guests of the Aztec leader for several months. However, now it was Cortés who became worried that perhaps Moctezuma might have some plans to go against him and his men.

After some deliberation with his commanders, Cortés made the bold decision to take Moctezuma prisoner in his own palace.

What a shock that was to the great Aztec leader!

About this same time, an unexpected twist to the plot of this historical story occurred.

Spanish Troops are Sent from Cuba to Arrest Cortés 

The governor of Cuba (you may remember that last minute, he had revoked the orders for Cortés to go explore this new land, but Cortés went anyway) got word of what Cortés was up to and found out about all the riches he was accumulating.

So he sent soldiers from Cuba with the orders to capture Cortés and bring him back to stand trial for his disobeying orders which explicitly stated that he was to “explore” and not “exploit.”

The governor also decreed that if necessary, his soldiers were given the authority to kill Cortés.

When these soldiers arrived to the coast of present day Veracruz, word quickly reached Cortés that he was a wanted man.

Not to be the one to wait around, he proactively took a band of 70 men with him, trekked all the way back to Veracruz, and promptly captured the commander of the newly arrived group. 

In fact, when many of the men who came to capture Cortés heard about all the gold and treasures found in this new land, they wanted to join him.

So now he was able to return to the Aztec capital with even more reinforcements.

Moctezuma is Killed by his own People 

Unfortunately, when he arrived to the city, there was chaos.

The person Cortés left in charge made the mistake of thinking that a huge gathering of people in the city was the start of an uprising against the Spaniards when in fact, they were just gathering for some big religious celebration.

With this misinterpreted information, the Spaniards who were left in the city during the absence of Cortés, took action and proceeded to slaughter hundreds of important Aztec officials.


Now the local people were very angry at the foreigners and also at Moctezuma for allowing them to enter the city.

After hearing what happened, Cortés orders Moctezuma to talk to his people and calm them down. A big crowd comes to the main plaza and Cortés puts Moctezuma on a balcony to speak with them.

However, the people would not listen to him. In fact, they turned into a mob and started throwing stones at the great Aztec leader. 

One or more of the rocks thrown from the crowd struck their great leader and killed him.

Now with Moctezuma dead, it was time for the Spaniards to hightail it out of the city.

However, that was easier said than done.

Remember, the city was on an island and the only way off was over one of the causeways.

It was a Blood Bath!

The night the Spaniards tried to retreat from the city has come to be known as La Noche Triste or The Sad Night.

The Aztecs were waiting for them and attacked the Spaniards with a vengeance as they tried to escape via one of the causeways.

It was a bloodbath!

So many Spaniards were killed and many drowned in the lake from their heavy armor and from the weight of the gold they tried to take with them.

They say Cortés actually cried as a result of the loss of so many of his men. Hence the name, La Noche Triste.

Miraculously, Cortés survived and escaped that night. He then proceeded to hike all the way back to the city of his allies; back to Tlaxcala.

He used that city as a base camp for his surviving men to recover from their wounds and to plan his attack on the Aztec capital by building a handful of small brigantine warships with shallow drafts.

His intent was to surround the island city, cut off their water supply and food, and lay siege.

The Unknown Disease

One or more of the newly recruited men from the ships that came to arrest Cortés unknowingly carried with them the smallpox virus which over a short period of time spread quickly throughout the many villages and also to the Aztec capital.

It eventually killed tens of thousands or more of the indigenous people.

This very unfortunate tragedy would heavily weigh the odds in favor of the Spanish conquerors.

The Final Battle

After some months of preparing for battle, the army of Cortés did lay siege to Tenochtitlán.

Over time with many battles on the causeways leading to the city and from the lake, the Spaniards eventually did conquer them.

The Aztecs fought bravely and killed hundreds to thousands of these invaders.

They also captured many Spaniards and their allies to be sacrificed to their gods by cutting out their hearts, beheading them, and then cooking and eating their arms and legs. 

However, with famine and the smallpox plague ravaging their ranks, what strength the Aztecs did have was just not enough to defeat the invaders.

At the end, the once magnificent city of Tenochtitlán had been turned into a wasteland.

Most of its beautiful buildings, market places, houses, gardens, temples, and shops were destroyed.

The Aztec capital was in total ruins and most of the people who were able to flee the city ended up dying from starvation and/or disease.

Hernán Cortés and his initial band of 500 men with 15 horses, some muskets, and cannons conquered the mighty Aztec empire which had spanned all throughout middle America.

And the incredible fact was, Hernán Cortés accomplished this seemingly impossible feat in just under 2 years.

Because of this one man with his vision of gold, power, and of spreading the Christian religion, the face of Mesoamerica was changed forever.

2019 was the 500th Anniversary

2019 marked the 500th anniversary of the Spanish landing in the state of Veracruz.

Was this an important event to be celebrated in México?

For some people, the answer is “Yes.” 

After all, among other things, the Spanish did introduce the Catholic faith to Mesoamerica where today about 80% of the population claim to practice Catholicism.

They also brought to México horses and other European influences which eventually helped enrich the lives of the Mexican people.

However, for other Mexican people, the answer would be “No.” 

Why would they want to recognize and celebrate an event where a foreign invader took over their land and ruled for 300 years.

Either way, Hernán Cortés, his Spanish soldiers, and scores of other local allied native warriors completely changed the face of the Americas in just under two years.    


Mike Vondruska is the owner of Go Now Adventures, a US-based tour company specializing in México exploration travel. 

He and his design team have created a 10 day small group educational expedition to follow the same 250 mile route Cortés and his men traveled from the time they arrived on the gulf shores of present day Veracruz all the way to what is now México City to where Cortés met up with Moctezuma. 

Along the “Route of Cortés,” Mike’s historian guide, Cuauhtemoc Benitez Patino will lead the group to explore the different areas where all the major alliances, battles, and other important events took place, explaining in detail what happened at each location.

Information for the Cortés & The Spanish Conquest of México 10 day historical exploration tour can be found at

This educational tour is best suited for history teachers, professors of Latin American studies, students of Latin American studies, and those who have an interest in North American history.

Contact Mike Vondruska for more information.


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