If the Spaniards had but known it, Guatemala held things more wonderful
than gold or spices or even "soft sensuous pearls," for it had been the
seat and center of early Maya culture centuries before, and within its
limits, or just beyond, lay the amazing ruins of Tikal, Naranjo, Palenque,
and Copan. But for the sixteenth century Spaniard archeology did not
exist. His quest was still the same as that of Columbus and
Behaim, one still inspired
by the lure of treasure.
To make the conquest of Guatemala, CortÚs chose Pedro de Alvarado. Alvarado, of Badajos, whom we have already met, was of good figure and engaging countenance. He was athletic, too, and an excellent horseman, and his hair and beard were red — so red that the Indians were tempted to think him Quetzalcoatl, the Fair God, and christened him the Sun. But though in a sense a good comrade, Alvarado was easily roused to anger and to brutal vengeance. He left Mexico City for Guatemala on December 6, 1523, with one hundred and twenty horsemen, three hundred foot-soldiers, a few pieces of artillery, and a large body of Mexicans. The principal Guatemalan tribes were in certain respects superior to the Aztecs and comparable to the Peruvians. Of their chief settlements, Utatlan was most celebrated. Massive official buildings, religious and governmental, grouped about a court made it rudely magnificent. The subjugation of these people took the better part of two years. During this time Alvarado passed also into Salvador. Here, contrary to his expectation, he failed to get news of an interoceanic strait to the southward but heard of distant cities, built of stone and lime and densely populated —an echo, no doubt, of Quito and Cuzco.
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