The extraordinary story of shipwrecked conquistador Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's eight-year odyssey across the American continent from Florida to Mexico from 1528 to 1536 is recounted in this visually stunning film with strong mystical overtones. Inspired by the real-life account written by Cabeza de Vaca, the treasurer of an ill-fated Spanish expedition to the New World, the film begins in 1536 as he and a handful of lost fellow explorers turn up dazed and disoriented in a Spanish camp in Mexico after eight years of wandering the American Southwest. The film flashes back to 1528 when Cabeza de Vaca and a small group of survivors from the disastrous Narvaez expedition (to claim Florida for Spain) land on Galveston Island, Texas, in a makeshift raft and are attacked and captured by a tribe of native Americans. Cabeza de Vaca is enslaved by a native shaman and his sidekick, an armless dwarf named Malacosa. The conquered conquistador nearly goes mad in his enslavement to the pair, and, after an attempted escape, he suffers a complete breakdown. Cabeza de Vaca regains his wits, however, and begins an immersion into the native culture by learning the healing arts from the shaman. Cabeza de Vaca takes part in the ritualistic healing of a native's eye wound, experiences a mystical connection to the supernatural, and discovers his own healing powers. Set free by his captors Cabeza de Vaca wanders the American Southwest as an itinerant healer. He is reunited with two other fellow shipwrecked conquistadors (Dorantes and Castillo) and the Moor slave Estebanico. He heals a young native's (Cascabel) chest wound, bonds with Cascabel's nomadic tribe, and raises a woman from the dead. The four survivors eventually meet up with a group of Spanish conquistadors in Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca discovers to his great sorrow that the Spanish are enslaving natives to help build a cathedral in the desert and have killed Cascabel. The film ends with the image of a group of enslaved natives forced to carry a gigantic silver cross across the desert as a dark storm looms in the background.