In writing narrative adventure history, one of elements of research that is important to me is what I call "immersion research" (for lack of a formal nomenclature to describe it). Certainly, the hard academic book and library and archive and primary research is crucial, but if a writer wishes to recreate landscape, flora, and fauna from some 500 years ago, I think it's important to travel the lands and rivers and seas of the people you are writing about.
In June of 2006, while researching the book CONQUISTADOR, I decided to follow the route of Cortes and his conquistadors from the east coast of Mexico, near where they landed in the spring of 1519 by Vera Cruz up through the jungles of the tierra caliente, over mountains and tablelands and eventually make my way down into the Valley of Mexico, to the ruins of Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City) where Cortes would finally meet the emperor Montezuma. I traveled by bus and by car and also by foot, hiking in the mountains and hoping to feel first hand, at least to some degree, the heat and humidity of the sultry coastal jungle, the dry parchment of the central badlands, the thin air of the high mountains.
Mexico's magnificence did not disappoint. When you see a volcano nearly 20,000 feet high looming in the distance, you squint and blink and readjust, trying to gain some scope or scale or perspective. The conical dome hovers before you like a mirage, and you can't believe it's real--it seems pasted against the skyline like just before you, but as the bus rumbles along for an hour, then another, you realize that the volcano was more than 100 miles away when you first gazed on it.
I staged in Cholula for a few days, famous now (not for the hot sauce) for having practically as many churches as there are days in the year, but important during the conquest as the site of a brutal and controversial massacre which took place during Cortes's first visit there in this high, dramatic and ancient city of religious pilgrimage. I stayed in the gorgeous and perfectly located Villas Arqueologicas Cholula, located literally at the foot of one of the most important archeological sites in all of Mexico (and there are many). In 1519 Cholula boasted a great pyramid honoring Quetzalcoatl, with 120 steps leading to the summit of the structure, which is said to be the largest free-standing man made structure in the world, twice as long as the great Egyptian pyramid of Cheops. The pyramid is now topped with a Spanish remnant, the impressive Church of Nuestra Senora de Los Remidios, and on most days you can see (as the Spaniards certainly did) the massive cone of Popocatepetl in distance. For a nominal fee and for those not overly claustrophobic, you can explore the well-maintained and well-lit catacombs which are literally in the bowels of this ancient pyramid, an exhilarating hour well worth the effort. There are said to be more than five miles of tunnels in and around the pyramid, excavated by archeologists.
In Cholula I was fortunate to befriend a local business owner named Rodrigo Moctezuma (yes, a distant relative of the emperor who shared his name). Rodrigo owns a stylish little jazz bar named Jazzatlan, and in the evenings I would sit and eat and drink wine with Rodrigo and his friends and listen to local bands and watch movies projected onto the stucco wall. We talked of Mexican history, and the conquest, and I told Rodrigo of the book I was writing and of my desire to see the noted Pass of Cortes, the high mountain pass where Cortes and his men first beheld the magnificent Tenochtitlan far below in the Valley of Mexico. Rodrigo agreed to take me there in his 1974 VW bus, and the next day, a bit hungover, he picked me up and we were off.
We drove through farmlands and small towns and soon the road was no longer paved but gravel and then dirt and we rose up through scrub pine and brushy mountain flanks, heading for the slung saddle between the volcanoes Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatal. Eventually the dirt road curved through deeper forest, across rivers and next to cooling waterfalls, and I could feel the altitude in my veins, in my throbbing head, nausea beginning to creep over me. I remembered that Cortes had lost many of his appropriated native bearers on this mountainside, the early winter temperatures and heights too much for his coastal porters. The horses shivered through the nights. Even in June, when I was there, the nearly 12,000 foot pass can be freezing, and I wore a fleece as we left the van at the Pass of Cortes sign and began hiking the narrow trails heading up to the pass proper, what amounted to a flinty game trail creased between jagged stone walls.
Mist shrouded the mountaintops and only occasionally could I see the volcano arched above me, and then it would disappear again in the gauzy haze. I stopped, leaned against a rock, rocked back and forth slowly while Rodrigo laughed at me. I asked him to point to where Tenochtitlan would be, the great city on the water, and he smiled knowingly, pointing just to our left, to the west. "There, look below the fog," he said.
I could see the outlines of buildings dotting the valley, thousands of flecks visible those many miles below, and I closed my eyes as the mist rose and swirled around us. I tried to imagine what it might have looked like to the Spaniards seeing it for the first time, thought of the words left by chronicler Bernal Diaz:
"And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land ... we were astounded. The great towns and temples had buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, and it seemed like an enchanted vision... Indeed, some of our soldiers asked if this was not all a dream."
A dream indeed. It was Tenochtitlan, the fabled City of Dreams. Cortes and his men were soon to arrive, and for the Aztecs, a nightmare was about to begin unfolding.
The fog had now completely enveloped us, and when I opened my eyes the mirage of Tenochtitlan had vanished. Rodrigo looked away, then said, "Let's go. It's gone."