The Voyage of Discovery: Spanish Explorers’ Route to Mexico in the 1500s

Spanish conquistadores on Jose Mier chessboard in Sun Valley

Jose Mier Journeys From Spain to Mexico

Jose Mier ancestors most likely came from Mier, Spain and when explorers arrived in the New World (Mexico) they founded cities that bore names of those in Spain. But exactly how did the Spanish find the New World and what route or routes did they take?

In the early 16th century, the Age of Exploration was at its zenith, with European nations seeking to expand their empires and horizons across the globe. Spain, under the patronage of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, emerged as a prominent player in this era of exploration. Spanish conquistadors, driven by a thirst for wealth and adventure, set sail for the New World. One of the most iconic and impactful journeys of this period was the route taken by Spanish explorers to reach Mexico in the 1500s. This article traces the path of these intrepid adventurers, their hardships, and the profound consequences of their arrival in the land of the Aztecs.

Spanish conquistadores on Jose Mier chessboard in Sun Valley
Spanish conquistadores on Jose Mier chessboard in Sun Valley

The Context: Spain’s Motivation for Exploration

Before delving into the route, it’s important to understand the motivations behind Spain’s exploration efforts during the 16th century. Spain’s quest for exploration and colonization was driven by several factors:

  1. Wealth and Resources: Spain sought the vast wealth of the Americas, including precious metals like gold and silver, to bolster its treasury and finance ongoing conflicts.
  2. Spread of Christianity: The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, were fervent Catholics. They saw exploration as an opportunity to spread Christianity among indigenous populations.
  3. Glory and Prestige: Exploration was a means for Spanish conquistadors to seek fame and glory. Many were drawn by the prospect of becoming legendary figures in history.
  4. Territorial Expansion: Spain wanted to expand its territorial holdings and establish a global empire.
  5. Trade Routes: Discovering new trade routes to Asia was another key objective. Spain hoped to compete with Portugal’s successful routes to the east.

The Route: Spanish Explorers’ Journey to Mexico

The journey to Mexico from Spain was a complex and treacherous undertaking, involving months of preparation, navigation, and determination. Here’s an overview of the route taken by Spanish explorers in the 1500s:

  1. Departure from Spain: Spanish explorers embarked on their journey from various ports along the coast of Spain. Seville, located along the Guadalquivir River, was a significant departure point. The first leg of the journey was to the Canary Islands, where explorers would resupply and prepare for the transatlantic crossing.
  2. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean: The most challenging part of the voyage was crossing the vast Atlantic Ocean. Spanish explorers typically sailed westward, following prevailing winds and ocean currents that would eventually lead them to the Americas. The exact route varied, but they aimed for the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico.
  3. Landfall in the Caribbean: Once land was sighted, usually in the Caribbean islands, explorers celebrated their successful crossing. These islands served as stepping stones and provided opportunities for resupplying, repairing ships, and establishing initial contact with indigenous peoples.
  4. Exploration of the Caribbean: Before heading to the mainland, explorers often spent time exploring and claiming Caribbean islands for Spain. This practice laid the foundation for Spanish influence in the region.
  5. Search for the Mainland: Spanish explorers, including the likes of Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, and Juan de Grijalva, set sail from the Caribbean in search of the mainland. They relied on maps, navigational instruments, and indigenous knowledge to navigate the uncharted waters.
  6. Landfall in Mexico: The exact route to Mexico varied among different expeditions. Hernán Cortés, for instance, arrived in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in 1519. This marked the beginning of Spanish presence on the mainland of North America.

Hernán Cortés and the Conquest of Mexico

The most famous expedition along this route was led by Hernán Cortés. Cortés, a Spanish conquistador, arrived in Mexico in 1519 with the intent of exploring and claiming the land for Spain. His journey was fraught with challenges and conflicts, and it ultimately led to the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Here is a closer look at Cortés’s expedition:

  1. Landfall in the Yucatan: Cortés and his men first landed on the Yucatan Peninsula, near what is now the city of Veracruz. From there, they began their march inland, encountering indigenous civilizations like the Totonac and the Maya.
  2. Alliance with Indigenous Groups: Cortés skillfully formed alliances with indigenous groups who were opposed to the Aztec Empire’s dominance. These alliances provided him with valuable allies, information about the Aztecs, and military support.
  3. March to Tenochtitlan: Cortés and his forces embarked on a challenging march to Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. Along the way, they faced battles, hardships, and setbacks, but their determination remained unwavering.
  4. Fall of Tenochtitlan: In 1521, after a prolonged siege and battle, Tenochtitlan fell to Cortés and his allies. This marked the end of the Aztec Empire and the beginning of Spanish rule in Mexico.

Consequences of the Spanish Arrival

The arrival of Spanish explorers in Mexico in the 1500s had profound and lasting consequences for both the indigenous populations and the course of history. Some of the key outcomes include:

  1. Colonization: The Spanish established colonies throughout Mexico, paving the way for Spanish rule that would persist for centuries.
  2. Cultural Exchange: The encounter between Spanish and indigenous cultures led to a blending of traditions, languages, and religions. This cultural exchange is known as mestizaje.
  3. Disease and Demographic Collapse: Unfortunately, the arrival of the Spanish also brought diseases, such as smallpox, to which indigenous populations had no immunity. This led to a devastating demographic collapse.
  4. Economic Exploitation: Spain exploited Mexico’s resources, particularly its rich silver mines, to fuel its empire’s growth. The influx of precious metals had a significant impact on global economies.
  5. Christianization: The Spanish missionaries worked to convert indigenous populations to Christianity. This effort played a central role in shaping the religious and spiritual landscape of Mexico.
  6. Legacy of Conquest: The Spanish conquest of Mexico remains a central element of Mexican identity and history. It is remembered through cultural symbols, such as the Mexican flag, which features an eagle perched on a cactus devouring a snake—a reference to the Aztec legend of the founding of Tenochtitlan.


The route taken by Spanish explorers to reach Mexico in the 1500s marked a turning point in history. It led to the conquest and colonization of the Aztec Empire, forever altering the course of Mexican and global history. The consequences of this exploration—cultural exchange, colonization, and the spread of Christianity—continue to shape Mexico’s identity and heritage to this day. The journey of Spanish explorers across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World is a testament to the human spirit of adventure and the profound impact of exploration on the world’s interconnected history.