I spent the winter of 2013-14 travelling from the Yucatan up through Mexico following the route of Hernan Cortes, as he discovered and conquered the Aztecs. But first I wanted to see Mexico from a Spanish perspective by visiting Extremadura inland in southern Spain, during September 2013. Most of the conquistadors came from this harsh and backward region, and its periphery.
The trip was my first since developing throat cancer in 2012, a bit unlucky for someone who had never smoked and doesn't drink spirits. Unlucky in that it was caught late and I had to have chemotherapy and a fierce regime of radiation. My throat was one big wound, inside and out. But lucky, in that I had the viral kind for which treatment has a high rate of success. But in Spain, I had to live on the few snacks I could sallow and nutrition supplements dissolved in milk.
I visited Cortes's home town of Medellin, a walled town on a hill, now a soporific by-water, above a baked yellow valley whose only greenery was along the riverbank, where desperate roots delved to slake their thirst. The place which better typifies old Extremadura is Trujillo where very little has changed, since the flash mansion on the square had a Pizarro living in it. You could remake El Cid here just by removing the cars and a few bits of street furniture.
The trip gave me a feel for the fact that this was itself a frontier territory in the years when the conquistadors were growing up. The local lord in Medellin was a headbanger who supported a failed rival for the Crown, the Moors had only just been driven out; it was no town for softies. Or people without money. If you wanted to get on, you got out.