Streets of Mexico – June 2023

El Camino Real

El Camino Real, or “The Royal Road,” a.k.a “The King’s Highway,” referred to any major road in New Spain (present-day Mexico and the American Southwest) since, at least in theory, everything then belonged to the King.

There were four major Camino Reales, the most famous and longest being El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The King’s Highway to the Interior) which extended for nearly 1,600 miles from Mexico City to Santa Fe, New Mexico, the longest trade route in North America. It followed Native trails established in pre-Columbian times and was hugely important for Spain to extend and maintain its empire.

Every three years, the Spanish viceroy would send a wagon train north to visit all the far-flung Spanish settlements (called parajes or stopping places) along the road, which could range from a major town to just a simple camping site, all spaced about a day’s journey apart, perhaps 10 to 15 miles. The perilous journey took about six months and included the dreaded 60-mile section known as La Jornada del Muerto (Day’s Journey of the Dead Man) through the Chihuahuan Desert (later used as the site for the first atom bomb test). The railroad made this El Camino obsolete in 1885. In 2010, UNESCO declared it a Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Another major El Camino stretched for 600 miles in California, linking all 21 of Father Junipero Serra’s missions from San Diego to Solano. (The king had ordered their construction to claim the land in response to Russian settlements in northern California. Serra is now revered as a saint or reviled as an oppressor/murderer depending on whether you’re Catholic or Native. If you’re both, well, it must pose a dilemma.) According to legend, the Spaniards dispersed mustard seeds on their journey north so that they could later follow a bright yellow trail back home. Today this route is commemorated with large mission church bells suspended from shepherd staff-like metal poles at key points along this “royal” road.

This is a selection from Ellison’s recently published book, Mexican Streets: Tales of Tragedy and Triumph.

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David Ellison
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