Zempoala became a major Totonac center after about AD 1200 and fell to the Aztecs in the mid-15th century. The 30,000-person town boasted defensive walls, underground water and drainage pipes. As Hernán Cortés approached the town, one of his scouts reported that the buildings were made of silver - but it was only white paint shining in the sun.

Zempoala's chief struck an alliance with Cortés for protection against the Aztecs. But his hospitality didn't stop the Spanish from smashing his gods' statues and lecturing his people on the virtues of Christianity. It was at Zempoala in1520 that Cortés defeated the expedition sent by Cuba's Spanish governor to arrest him.

By the 17th century Zempoala, devastated by disease, was reduced to just eight families. The town was eventually abandoned. The present town dates from 1832.

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