The name Extremadura translates to “extremely tough”, and it is a pretty apt description of large swathes of the region. But in between the the barren plains and evocative medieval villages there are spectacular stretches of forested mountain slopes and beautiful reservoirs, and it is one of the best places for viewing birds of prey in the wild. Black Iberian pigs, too, are a regular sight, grazing on acorns in the fields before they meet their inevitable end and are turned into the archetypal Spanish ham, jamon iberico. As with much of the east and north of the country, the rather surprising smell of Eucalyptus is common between the oak and pine trees in the Mediterranean scrub.
The towns and villages of the region, where it often feels like little has changed since the Middle Ages with their stone wall centers and cobbled streets, add to the hardy feel of the place. The city of Merida is the site of some of the most compelling Roman ruins outside of Italy, including a theater, amphitheater, 720 meter-long bridge, aqueduct, and circus. Cacares was subject to the influence of a host of cultures over the centuries, and many are still visible in its medieval town center, listed as a UNESCO heritage site. But perhaps the most evocative story of the region is its relationship with the conquistadors, those fearless, merciless, adventurers that swept over the New World.
Putting aside all questions of morality, it seems that the harsh environment, with its history as the frontline in a continuously changing war zone, was the perfect place for breeding the type of hardened psychopaths that were so gung-ho about risking their life in pursuit of wealth and glory. Consider just a handful of the marauders from a few villages within a couple of hundred kilometers of each other in the east of the region.
Take Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who battled through more than a hundred kilometers of unexplored Panamanian rainforest filled with hostile tribes, to become the first European to arrive at the New World side of the Pacific in 1513. Then there was Hernán Cortes, from Medellín, who set off in 1519 with four-hundred men, a couple of hundred friendly “Indians,” and fifteen horses to face what could have been, as far as he knew, millions of hostile natives in the unknown interior. Most of his fighters were armed with nothing more than swords and shields, and wearing cotton armor. He scaled three mountain ranges, each with their own volcanic peaks higher than the highest mountain in Spain, to arrive at a magical city in an enormous swampy lake, accessible only by miles-long causeways over the water, and ultimately defeated hundreds of thousands of Aztecs, with the assistance of other local tribes, in a bloody massacre.
Francisco Pizarro, from a small village named Trujillo, had already almost starved to death three times on swampy coastal shores before he led the expedition high into the Andes to take on the most powerful empire on the continent. They marched unmolested, through a mixture of luck and hubris, straight into the camp of the Incas, and were able to take their emperor hostage, and ultimately kill him, despite his force of a couple of hundred being faced by tens of thousands of warriors. Seventeen of his party, including three of his own brothers, were from the same village.
Francisco de Orellana, the first man to navigate the entirety of the Amazon after a trek lasting well over a year through impenetrable jungle and uncharted rivers, was also from Trujillo. Another Extremaduran was Hernando de Soto, who led the first European expedition into Northern America. Pedro de Alvarado, from the Extremaduran town of Badajoz, rampaged over much of Central America. Almost everywhere you pass there is some local son who played a part in the subjugation of the New World. It is an extraordinary concentration, and these villages from which they originated are in many cases a step back in time, with the feeling that little has changed.