Cempoala (sometimes spelled "Zempoala") was the capital of the Totonac people. The name means "place of 20 waters," after the sophisticated Totonac irrigation system. When Cortés arrived here under the cover of night, the plaster covering of the massive Templo Mayor (Main Temple) and other buildings led him to believe the city was constructed of silver. Cortés placed a cross atop this temple—the first gesture of this sort in New Spain—and had Mass said by a Spanish priest.
The city's fate was sealed in 1519 when Cortés formed an alliance with the Totonac leader. Chicomacatl—dubbed "Fat Chief" by his own people because of his enormous girth—was an avowed enemy of the more powerful Aztec, so he decided to fight them alongside the Spanish. The alliance greatly enlarged Cortés's army, and encouraged the Spaniard to march on Mexico City and defeat the Aztec. The strategic move backfired, however. The Totonac could protect themselves against the Spanish swords, but were powerless against the smallpox the invaders brought with them. The population was devastated.
Upon entering the ruins, you'll see Círculo de los Gladiadores, a small circle of waist-high walls to the right of center. This was the site of contests between captured prisoners of war and Totonac warriors: each prisoner was required to fight two armed warriors. One such prisoner, the son of a king from Tlaxcala, won the unfair match and became a national hero. His statue stands in a place of honor in Tlaxcala. Another small structure to the left of the circle marks the spot where an eternal flame was kept lighted during the Totonac sacred 52-year cycle.
At the Templo de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), to the far left of Templo Mayor, outstanding warriors were honored with the title "Eagle Knight" or "Tiger Knight" and awarded an obsidian nose ring to wear as a mark of their status. Just to the left of the Moon Temple is the larger Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun), where the hearts and blood of sacrificial victims were placed. Back toward the dirt road and across from it is the Templo de la Diosa de la Muerte (Temple of the Goddess of Death), where a statue of the pre-Hispanic deity was found along with 1,700 small idols.
There's a small museum near the entrance that contains some of the minor finds the site has yielded. Well-trained guides offer their services, but tours are mainly in Spanish. Voladores from Papantla usually give a performance here on weekends. To get here from Veracruz, drive 42 km (26 mi) north on Carretera 180, past the turnoff for the town of Cardel. Cempoala is on a clearly marked road a few miles farther on your left. If you are coming by bus, take an ADO bus to Cardel. The terminal for Autotransportes Cempoala buses is at the corner of Calle José Azueta and Avenida Juan Martinez, two blocks from the ADO station. A ride directly to the site costs about 80¢ each way.