Conquistadors vs. Aztecs: the Battle of Otumba

Hernan Cortes makes a narrow escape

Conquistadors battling Aztecs
Mural by Diego Rivera

In July of 1520, as the Spanish conquistadors under Hernan Cortes were retreating from Tenochtitlan, a large force of Aztec warriors battled them on the plains of Otumba.

Although exhausted, wounded and severely outnumbered, the Spanish were nevertheless able to drive off the invaders by killing the army commander and taking his standard. Following the battle, the Spaniards were able to reach the friendly province of Tlaxcala to rest and regroup.

Tenochtitlan and the Night of Sorrows

In 1519, Hernan Cortes, at the head of an army of some 600 conquistadors, began the audacious conquest of the Aztec Empire. In November of 1519, he reached the city of Tenochtitlan and after being welcomed into the city, treacherously arrested Mexica Emperor Montezuma. In May of 1520, while Cortes was on the coast fighting the conquistador army of Panfilo de Narvaez, his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado ordered the massacre of thousands of unarmed citizens of Tenochtitlan at the Festival of Toxcatl. The enraged Mexica laid siege to the Spanish intruders in their city.

When Cortes returned, he was unable to restore calm and Montezuma himself was killed when he tried to beg his people for peace. On June 30, the Spaniards tried to sneak out of the city at night but were spotted on the Tacuba causeway. Thousands of ferocious Mexica warriors attacked, and Cortes lost roughly half his force on what came to be known as the "noche triste" or "Night of Sorrows."

The Battle of Otumba

The Spanish invaders who managed to escape from Tenochtitlan were weak, dispirited and wounded. The new Emperor of the Mexica, Cuitláhuac, decided that he had to try and crush them once and for all. He sent a large army of every warrior he could find under the command of the new cihuacoatl (a sort of captain-general), his brother Matlatzincatzin. On or about July 7, 1520, the two armies met in the flatlands of the Valley of Otumba.

The Spanish had very little gunpowder left and had lost their cannons on the Night of Sorrows, so the harquebusiers and artillerymen would not factor into this battle, but Cortes hoped he had enough cavalry left to carry the day. Before the battle, Cortes gave his men a pep talk and ordered the cavalry to do their best to disrupt the enemy formations.

The two armies met on the field and at first, it seemed as if the massive Aztec army would overwhelm the Spanish. Although Spanish swords and armor were far superior to native weapons and the surviving conquistadors were all battle-trained veterans, there were far too many enemies. The cavalry did their job, preventing the Aztec warriors from forming up, but there were too few to win the battle outright.

Spotting the brightly dressed Matlatzincatzin and his generals at the other end of the battlefield, Cortes decided on a risky move. Summoning his best remaining horsemen (Cristobal de Olid, Pablo de Sandoval, Pedro de Alvarado, Alonso de Avila and Juan De Salamanca), Cortes rode at the enemy captains. The sudden, furious assault took Matlatzincatzin and the others by surprise. The Mexica captain lost his footing and Salamanca killed him with his lance, capturing the enemy standard in the process.

Demoralized and without the standard (which was used to direct troop movements), the Aztec army scattered. Cortes and the Spanish had pulled out a most unlikely victory.

Importance of the Battle of Otumba

The improbable Spanish victory over overwhelming odds at the Battle of Otumba continued Cortes' run of phenomenal luck. The conquistadors were able to return to friendly Tlaxcala to rest, heal and decide their next course of action. Some Spaniards were killed and Cortes himself suffered grave wounds, falling into a coma for several days while his army was in Tlaxcala.

The Battle of Otumba was remembered as a great victory for the Spaniards. The Aztec host was close to annihilating their enemy when the loss of their leader caused them to lose the battle. It was the last, best chance the Mexica had of ridding themselves of the hated Spanish invaders, but it fell short. Within months, the Spanish would build a navy and assault Tenochtitlan, taking it once and for all. 


Levy, Buddy... New York: Bantam, 2008.

Thomas, Hugh... New York: Touchstone, 1993.

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Minster, Christopher. "Conquistadors vs. Aztecs: the Battle of Otumba." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). Conquistadors vs. Aztecs: the Battle of Otumba. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Conquistadors vs. Aztecs: the Battle of Otumba." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).