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Camino Real de Tierra Adentro Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site

By Paige, Nicaragua, June 2011

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New Spain’s once all-important trade route, the Royal Road of the Interior Lands, today spans vast deserts, enormous mountains, broad rivers, and two nations, Mexico and the United States of America. They work in concert to protect what is sometimes called America’s First Superhighway, blazed in 1598 by Zacatecas-born and notoriously bloodthirsty conquistador Juan de Oñate, oftencredited with founding the first European city in the USA.

The 2560-kilometer (1600-mile) Camino Real has long been preserved in bits and pieces, with attention focused on some 55 sites recognized and protected as historic, including parajes (rest stops), Spanish haciendas, indigenous pueblos, bridges, churches, caverns, and silver mines; five destinations have been named UNESCO World Heritage sites. This was North America’s main artery, and whole civilizations mixed and mingled along its storied length.

The Royal Road was used primarily for trade, but also for administration, military purposes, and probably tourism. The cities that thrived along its length are now among the most important in modern-day Mexico: Mexico City, Jalisco, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Queretaro, Zacatecas, Durango, Chihuahua, Aguascalientes. Heading north into the United States, the Camino Real’s federally protected course connects El Paso, Texas; and Socorro, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos, New Mexico.

Unfortunately, this historic road that once united New Spain—and almost certainly existed centuries earlier, perhaps used by the original Aztec tribes fleeing their mysterious homeland, Aztlán—has been spotty, and large swaths of it have been paved over and ignored over the centuries. This past year, however, UNESCO declared the entire length of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro a piece of humanity’s heritage, initiating added international efforts toward its preservation.

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