History

El Camino Real
Began and Ended in Veracruz

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

Veracruz was the Beginning and the End of the Camino Real to Spain
Awhile back, I was researching some information about the Southwestern part of the US and found the Camino Real mentioned. It was surprising to see that for many historians in Texas and New Mexico, the Camino Real went as far as Mexico City. In Veracruz, I had heard of the Camino Real and went looking for some more information in the local Archives.

Here is some of the remarkable information about this old road. In reality, Veracruz was the beginning and the end of the Camino Real and was the link to the mother country of Spain.


Traffic Flow During the Spanish Colonial Era 1521-1810

San Juan de Ulua
The Early Beginnings
As early as 1550, the first Camino Real, or King´s Highway began construction in the states of Veracruz, Puebla, Hidalgo, and Tlaxcala, Mexico, and was the first toll road in continental America.

An Important Place
On the weekends I had been to the fort of San Juan de Ulúa many times, but I didn't know the real importance of this old fort until much later when I began doing tour guide work.

For about 300 years, the fort was the center of traffic and logistics for the richest colony of the Spanish Empire and was the repository for the treasures of the orient, South America, and Mexico.

Many times this wealth came from far away on its trip to the mother country of Spain.


The Roads to Antigua, Veracruz
Spain´s Only Official Port
Veracruz was Spain´s only official port on the Gulf of Mexico.

The port of Veracruz was the origin, as well as the destination of the Camino Real highway system in New Spain, bringing merchandise from Spain, and transporting gold and silver from Mexico as well as the treasures of the Orient back to Spain.

It was the route taken for the largest transfer of riches known in the history of mankind. I had the time and decided to dig a little deeper.

The State Archives of Veracruz
La Casa de la Condesa de Malibran
The first moments of the morning sunlight reflect upon interior patio of this spare but elegant 17th century Spanish home. It used to be the house of the Countess of Malibran.

It is across from the Navy park, and just down the street from the Veracruz fish market on Zaragoza street.Today it houses the Archivo Historico y Biblioteca del Estado de Veracruz.

Soon, one of the people who work at the Archivo helped me find a small book called, "El Camino Mexico-Veracruz en la Epoca Colonial", by Sergio Florescano Mayet, printed in 1987.
Up the Old Stairway
The First Roads for Horses in New Spain
The book said that when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they found a system of roads that were no more than walking trails.

In spite of great cultural developments such as pyramids, the Indians had no horses, burros, oxen or beasts of burden, and hadn´t invented a wheel larger than a child´s pull toy.

In Early New Spain
Freight in those days was carried on foot by bearers, or "talmanas", supporting heavy loads with a tump line across their foreheads. You still see people carrying things this way in the Indian areas of Mexico and Guatemala.

No Bridges for the Oxcarts
When the Spaniards later brought in horses, donkeys, mules, and oxen, they found they would also have to build bridges over the rivers that would bear the weight of carriages and the oxcarts full of merchandise coming from Spain through the port of Veracruz.

Km. 0 on the Camino Real
There was also the gold and silver going to the port of Veracruz, then on to Spain.

Although in most cases, the Camino Real followed the original routes, this new system of toll roads eventually replaced and improved the walking Indian trails with wider roads and bridges over the raging rivers and deep gorges, especially in the rainy season.

The Camino Real Highway System
The first official Toll Road in Mexico was the Camino Real from Veracruz to Mexico City.
An Ancient Doorway in Antigua, Veracruz
The Purpose of the Camino Real
It´s purpose initially was to transport the Aztec gold to Spain.

Later when large deposits of silver and gold were found in Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Taxco, and Chihuahua the Camino Real was expanded to carry these new riches back to Spain.

Along the Camino Real to Veracruz passed all the merchandise and people who came from Europe through Veracruz, the only official port on the Gulf Coast.

Silver Prices Plunge
At the time of the Conquest of Mexico, the price of silver was the same as the price of gold.

The quantities of silver found were so vast that the market was flooded with Mexican silver forcing the price downward to the proportions seen today.
La Casa de Hernan Cortés
Profitable Business
The profitable sales of goods from Spain at a handsome mark-up was allowed.

It is said that even the cheapest bottle of wine in Barcelona increased in value some 1200% when delivered to the mining towns of Zacatecas.

Maintenance
A system was devised to pay for maintenance, as well as pay local municipal taxes, making it possible for towns to grow along the new road.

At convenient locations along the road such as bridges or state lines. The toll or tax was charged according to the value of the merchandise.
La Casa de Hernan Cortés
Royal Mounties
People didn´t stray far from the Camino Real since occasional bands of runaway slaves and highway bandits presented a real danger.

Royal Spanish soldiers had detachments that regularly patrolled the Camino Real.

The original Camino Real from Veracruz to Mexico City went from Antigua, Rinconada, El Lencero, Xalapa, Perote, Puebla, Tlaxcala, and then to Mexico City.

Camino Real Map
Caminos Real in America Before the Year 1600

A 21 Day Trip
In those days it took 21 days to make the trip during the dry season, and during the rainy season it took about 31 days. Later the same trip would take 12 hours by train, and now the a bus trip to Mexico City takes about 5 hours.

A System of "Ventas"
Along the Veracruz-Mexico City Camino Real there were some 21 way stations, or "ventas" along the way, each about a days ride apart. A "venta" was a concession authorized by the "Casa de Contratación" or the colonial business arm set up by the king of Spain. At the "venta" fresh horses, local food, or small hotels were available along the way.

courtyard
El Museo de la Ciudad
Later Caminos Reales
In later years another Camino Real to Mexico City was established through Córdoba and Orizaba, and the first train to Mexico City followed this route.

The main street through Orizaba and many towns and villages in Mexico is still called "El Camino Real".

To the south a Camino Real was established from Mexico City to Acapulco to bring the riches from the annual Nao fleets from the Philippines, China, and India.

From Mexico City, these treasures were transferred to Veracruz for shipment to Spain.

"El Camino Real de la Tierra Adentro."
When rich deposits of gold and silver were discovered in Zacatecas in 1546, and in 1550, another Camino Real highway system called "El Camino Real de la Tierra Adentro", or the Inland Camino Real, was built to transport these riches to Mexico City, then on to Veracruz and Spain.

Expansion into New Mexico
By 1598, the Viceroy authorized the expansion of the road as far north as Santa Fe, New Mexico in hopes of finding an extension of the rich mines, such as the Santa Eulalia and Temosachic mines in Chihuahua, as well as extending the lines of the profitable trade of items from Spain to the new colonists in the mining boom towns.

Eventually the Camino Real extended to California connecting the 19 missions along the coast to Mexico City and eventual the fort of San Juan de Ulúa in Veracruz.

Camino Real Map
Camino Real de los Jesuitas
Another Camino Real in Veracruz
In the year 1600, the King of Spain authorized another third short Camino Real in the state of Veracruz for the Jesuits and their sheep herding business.It went from San Bartolomé to Paso de Ovejas.

When Independence movement which began in 1810, and rebel troops began to drive the Spaniards back to towards Veracruz, the Camino Real highway system continued to operate with taxes continuing to be collected, now providing operating funds for local municipalities.

The End of the Camino Real System
Technically it operated in New Spain until November 23, 1825, when the Spaniards finally gave up their last outpost at the fort of San Juan de Ulua in Veracruz.

The Camino Real colonial highway system in New Spain is fascinating because it parallels the development of the New World during the first 300 years of the history of Mexico and parts of the United States. It was the route taken for the largest transfer of riches known in the history of mankind.

The vast amounts of treasure that passed through the port of Veracruz from as far away as China and India are beyond anyone´s imagination.

Camino Real Map
"Méjico" was changed to "Mexico" and "Jalapa" to "Xalapa" by President Benito Juarez

An Old Map and a New Project.
The original Camino Real that winds its way through the tropical villages from Antigua, Veracruz is now lost, and local people don´t seem to care. It has always been there.

The other day I found an old map in a used book store here in Veracruz. My next project is to actually locate the original Camino Real in this area, and take pictures of the shells of the abandoned Spanish haciendas along the way. Many of them are still there.

Out in the countryside, I have seen what feels like stretches of what must have been part of the Old Camino Real, and have some more of the old maps now and want to physically retrace it for at least the first 50 miles or so from Veracruz.

The people in the little villages still tell of legends of bandit treasure and lost gold which are part of the Camino Real.

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