efe-epaLa Antigua, Mexico

In legends, in ruins and in the natural exuberance of the ceiba trees, the legacy of Hernan Cortes lives on in this Gulf coast hamlet where he came ashore five centuries ago on the expedition that would ultimately topple the Aztec empire.

Traces of Cortes are abundant in La Antigua as the community prepares for next Monday's 500th anniversary of his arrival in Mexico.

After stopping at the island of San Juan de Ulua, now the site of the Port of Veracruz, Cortes' ships sailed a short distance up the Huitzilapan River before stopping in front of a giant ceiba tree.

"We're in front of the ceiba where Cortes tied up his ships when he arrived in April 1519," Calixto Landa Romero, a 65-year-old boatman, told EFE, relating an account passed down through generations of his family.

The thousand-year-old tree has branches that extend out more than 20m (65ft) from the trunk and sits about 50m (164ft) from the river, though Landa assures EFE that the ceiba was at the water's edge in Cortes' time.

"The river flowed here where the ceiba tree is, with the passage of the years it receded because they opened local irrigation channels and all of that affected the course," he says.

And it was here, between the ceibas and the river, where Casa de Cortes was built in 1523 to serve as a fortress, warehouse and customs post. Though only four of the 22 original rooms are even relatively intact, the ruins are an archaeological treasure.

The walls and doors are penetrated by hundreds of roots from amate, which were the source of the paper on which Mexico's indigenous peoples wrote their codices

Near the ruins of the Casa de Cortes, the town has placed a giant globe with a diameter of 3m to show the conquistador's route along the Mexican coast.

Although Cortes never officially lived in it, Casa de Cortes it is the oldest building in Mexico associated with the conquistador.

"There's the Cortes Palace in Cuernavaca, the house of La Malinche in Coyoacan (Mexico City), which are subsequent to this construction," said Moises, an 18-year-old resident who tells visitors the story of the structure.

A short distance away Cortes built a hermitage, considered the first Catholic house of worship in the continental Americas, which has been renovated and painted white for the anniversary.

by Jose Antonio Torres