Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 4

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Mexico, as it was and as it is  (1847)  by Brantz Mayer
LETTER IV.


LETTER IV.

XALAPA AND PEROTE.

When the Neapolitans speak to you of their beautiful city, they call it, "a piece of heaven fallen to earth;[1] and tell you to "see Naples and die!"

It is only because so few travellers extend their journey to Xalapa and describe its scenery, that it has not received something of the same extravagant eulogium. I regret exceedingly that my stay was so limited as not to allow an opportunity of beholding the beautiful views around the city, under the influence of a serene sky and brilliant sun.

The town has about ten thousand inhabitants, and is, in every respect, the reverse of Vera Cruz; high, healthy, and built on almost precipitous streets, winding, with curious crookedness, up the steep hill-sides.

This perching and bird-like architecture makes a city picturesque—although its highways may be toilsome to those who are not always in search of the romantic.

The houses of Xalapa are not so lofty as those of Vera Cruz, and their exteriors are much plainer; but the inside of the dwellings, I am told, is furnished and decorated in the most tasteful manner. The hotel in which we lodged was an evidence of this; its walls and ceilings were papered and painted in a style of splendor rarely seen out of Paris.

Before breakfast we strolled to the Convent of St. Francisco, an immense pile of buildings of massive masonry, and apparently bomb-proof. The church is exceedingly plain, but there is a neat and tasteful garden with a lofty wall. This convent also possesses a court-yard of about one hundred feet square, with an arcade of two stories, the upper part of which contains a series of spacious cells; but the whole edifice has a ruined appearance, having once been converted into a cavalry barrack, where the bugle as often sounded the morning call as the bell summoned to matins.

From the top of this conventual edifice there is a fine view of Xalapa and its vicinity. We could see the town straggling up its steep and irregular streets; but much of the adjacent scenery, and especially those two grand objects in the descriptions of all travellers, the Peak of Orizaba and the Coffre De Perote, were entirely obscured by a cloud of mist which hung around the valley in a silvery ring, inclosing the verdure of the glade like an emerald. The vapor, rising from the sea, driven inland by the northern winds, here first strikes the mountains; and, lodging in rain and mist and dew among the cliffs, preserves that perennial green which covers this teeming region with constant freshness and luxuriance. Xalapa is consequently a "damp town," yet it enjoys a great reputation for salubrity. It is now the best season of the year; but scarcely a day passes without rain, while the thermometer ranges from 52° to 76°, according to the state of the clouds and winds. As soon as the mountains have discharged their vapors, the sun blazes forth with a fierceness and intensity, increased by the reflection from every hill, into the town, as to a focus.

Yet I saw enough to justify all the praises even of extravagant admirers. Its society is said to be excellent, and its women are the theme of the poets throughout the republic. As I descended from the top of St. Francisco and wended my way to the hotel, I met numbers of the fair doncellas lounging homeward from early mass. The stately step, the liquid eye, the pale yet brilliant cheek, and an indescribable look of tenderness, complete a picture of beauty rarely matched in northern climes, and elsewhere unequalled in Mexico.

After dispatching our breakfast, for which we paid (together with our night's lodging and dinner) the sum of four dollars, we mounted the diligence at 10 o'clock, prepared as usual for the robbers, and set out for Perote.

In driving from the town we passed through the public square; and in the market which is held there I first saw in perfection the profuse quantity of tropical fruits (and especially the chirimoya, and granadita) for which Xalapa is renowned. The market is supplied by the numerous small cultivators from the neighborhood, the females of whom bear a resemblance to our Northern Indians, which is perhaps even stranger and more remarkable than that of the men.

Maiz, the great staff of life for biped and quadruped in our western world, is chiefly used in the tortilla cakes of which we hear so much from Mexican travellers.

The sellers of these tough, buckskin victuals, sit in lines along the curb of the side-walks with their fresh cakes in baskets covered with clean napkins to preserve their warmth. There they wait patiently for purchasers; and as tortillas, with a little chilé or, red pepper boiled in lard, are indispensable at least twice a day for the mass of the people, they are quite sure of a ready sale.

With the great mass of Mexicans there is no such thing as domestic cookery. The laborer sallies forth with his clacos in his pocket, and two or three of them will purchase his cakes from an Indian woman. A few steps further on, another Indian woman has a pan boiling over a portable furnace, and containing the required beans or chilé. The hungry man squats down beside the seller—makes a breakfast or dinner table of his knees-holds out his tortilla spread flat on his hand or a ladle of chilé

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making tortillas.

and a lump of meat—then doubles up the edges of the cake sandwich fashion, and soon until his appetite is satisfied. He who is better off in the world, or indulges occasionally in a little extravagance, owns a clay platter. Into this he causes his frijoles, or chilé and meat, to be thrown, and making a spoon of his tortilia, gradually gets possession of his food, and terminates his repast by eating the spoon itself! There is great economy in this mode of housekeeping, which recommends itself, especially to the tastes of old bachelors. There are no dishes to be washed—no silver to be cleaned, or cared for. Your Indian—flings down his clacos—stretches himself to his full height—gives a valedictory grunt of satisfaction over a filled stomach—and is off to his labor.

Thus wonderful is the frugality not only of the humbler classes but, indeed, of almost all who have come under my observation in Spanish America. Whether this frugality is a virtue or the result of indolence, it is not necessary for me to slop to enquire. The reader may draw his own conclusions. But all classes are content with less physical comfort than the inhabitants of other countries. Their diet is poor, their lodging miserable, their clothing coarse, inelegant and inadequate for the climate; and yet, when the energies and intelligence of the very people who seem so supine are called into action, few men manifest those qualities in a higher degree. Let me, as an illustration, notice the ARRIEROS, or common carriers of the country, by whom almost all the transportation of the most valuable merchandise and precious metals is conducted. They form a very large proportion of the population, yet, by no similar class elsewhere are they exceeded in devoted honesty, punctuality, patient endurance, and skillful execution of duty. Nor is this the less remarkable when we recollect the country through which they travel—its disturbed state—and the opportunities consequently afforded for transgression. I have never been more struck with the folly of judging of men by mere dress and physiognomy, than in looking at the Arrieros. A man with wild and fierce eyes, tangled hair, slashed trowsers, and greasy jerkin that has breasted many a storm—a person, in fact, to whom you would scarcely trust an old coat when sending it to your tailor for repairs—is frequently in Mexico, the guardian of the fortunes of the wealthiest men for months, on toilsome journies among the mountains and defiles of the inner land. He has a multitude of dangers and difficulties to contend with. He overcomes them all—is never robbed and never robs—and, at the appointed day, comes to your door with a respectful salutation, and tells you that your wares or monies have passed the city gates. Yet this person is often poor, bondless and unsecured—with nothing but his fair name and unbroken word. When you ask him if you may rely on his people, he will return your look with a surprised glance, and striking his breast, and nodding his head with a proud contempt that his honor should be questioned, exclaim: "Soy José Maria, Señor, por veinte años Arriero de Mexico—todo el mundo me conoce!"

"I am José Maria, sir, I'd have you know—an Arriero of Mexico for twenty years—every body knows me!"

I regret, that I have been able to give only the faintest pencilling outline of Jalapa, which, with all its beauty, has doubtless hitherto been associated most nauseously in your mind with the drug growing in the neighborhood to which it has given its name.[2]

A beautiful scene, embracing nearly the whole of this little Eden, broke on me as we gained the summit of the last hill above the town. A dell, deep, precipitous, and green as if mossed from the margin of a woodland spring lay below me, hung on every side with orange trees in bloom and bearing, nodding palms and roses and acacias scenting the air with their fragrance, and peering out among the white walls of dwellings, convents, and steeples. In the next quarter of an hour, the mists that had been gathering around the mountains, whirled down on the peaks along which we were travelling, and as the wind occasionally drifted the vapor away, we could see around us nothing but wild plains and mountain spurs covered with volcanic debris, flung into a thousand fantastic forms, among which grew a hardy race of melancholy-looking pines, interspersed

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ARRIEROS

with fallen trunks, aloes and agaves. Thus the road gradually ascended among desolation, until we reached a height where the clouds were lodged on the mountain tops, and a cold, drizzling rain filled the air. In this disagreeable manner, travelling among the clouds, we reached the village of St. Michel, and afterward La Hoya, over a road paved with basalt. From the latter place the scenery is described as magnificent when the day is clear, and the sun is out in its brilliancy. The vapor is said to be then spread out below you like a sea, and the mountain tops and little eminences peer above it like so many islands.

We passed through the village of "Las Vigas," described by Humboldt, as the highest point on the road to Mexico. The houses in this neighborhood are of different construction from those below the mountains, and are built of pine logs, each tree furnishing but one piece of timber of four inches thickness, and the whole width of its diameter; these are hewn with the axe, and closely fitted. The floors of the dwellings are laid with the same material, and the roofs are shingled. As the houses indicate a colder climate than the one through which we have recently travelled, so does also the appearance of the people, who are hardier and more robust than the inhabitants of the plains skirting the sea.

After winding along the edge of the mountain for some hours, we obtained an occasional view of the plain of Perote, level as the ocean, and bounded by the distant mountains. The Peak of Orizaba again appeared in the southeast, while the Coffre of Perote towered immediately on our left, and, seemingly in the midst of the plain, rose the Peak of Tepiacualca. Beyond it, on the remotest horizon, was sketched the outline of the snow-capped mountains. All these plains have doubtless been the basins of former lakes; but they now appear dry and arid, and it is not easy to distinguish how far they are cultivated at the suitable season. During the summer, they present a very different prospect, and, losing the guise of a waste moor, only fit for the sportsman, put on a lively livery of cultivation and improvement, far more agreeable than the dark and thorny maguey and the wilted foliage of dwarfish trees, with which they are now mostly covered. We occasionally see the stubble of last year, but the chief agriculture is evidently carried on upon the slopes and rising ground, where the irrigation is more easy from the adjacent mountains and is not so rapidly absorbed as in the marshy flats.

We had not travelled this road without our usual dread of thieves. Our guns were constantly prepared for attack, and we kept a wary watch, although during nearly the whole day we were accompanied by a party of lancers, who clattered behind us on nimble horses. Some leagues from Perote we approached the "Barranca Seca," a noted haunt of the ladrones; and as we came, within gunshot of the place, a band of horsemen dashed out from the ruins of an old hacienda on our right and galloped directly to the carriage. The mist had again come down in heavy wreaths around us, obscuring the prospect at a dozen yards distance; and the guard of troopers had fallen considerably in the rear. What with the fog and the dread of our foes, we were somewhat startled—cocked our weapons—ordered the coach to stop—and were half out of it, when the lancers reined up at full tilt, and after a parley with the new comers, assured us that they were only an additional troop kept here for security. I questioned, and still doubt the truth of this story, as I never saw a more uncouth, or better mounted, armed and equipped set of men. Their pistols, sabres, and carbines were in the best order, and their horses stanch and fleet; but they may have composed a band of old well-known robbers, pensioned off by the Government as a guard; and willing to take regular pay from the authorities, and gratuities from travellers, as less dangerous than uncertain booty with constant risk of life.

Accompanied by these six suspicious rascals and the four lancers, we quickly passed the wild mist-covered moor, and entered the Barranca, a deep fissure worn by time and water into the plain, and overhung, on all sides by lofty trees, while the adjacent parts of the flat country are cut up into similar ravines, embowered with foliage. With all the aids of art, the thieves could not have constructed a more suitable covert; and, to add to our dismay, soon after entering the Barranca, our coach broke down!

We tramped about in the mud while the accident was repairing, and the guard and its auxiliaries scoured the pass. The quarter of a mile through which the ravine extended was literally lined with crosses, marking the spot of some murder or violent death. These four or five hundred mementos mori seemed to convert it into a perfect graveyard; while the broken coach, the dreary day, shrouding mist, approaching night, and savage figures in the scene, made a picture more fit for a Trappist than a quiet traveller fonder of his ease than adventure.

We were, however, soon again in our vehicle, and for an hour afterward the country gradually ascended, until, at sunset, the sky cleared off and we entered Perote by a brilliant starlight.

Perote is a small town, containing not more than 2500 people. It is irregularly built; the houses are only of one low and dark story, erected around large court-yards with the strength of castles. In the middle of the town there is a large square, abundantly supplied by fountains of pure water from the neighboring hills.

The Meson is at the further end of the town, and incloses a spacious court-yard, around which on the ground floor (which is the only floor) are a number of brick paved, windowless stalls, furnished with a bed, a couple of chairs, and a table. No landlord made his appearance to welcome us. We waited a considerable time in the court-yard for his attendance; but as we received no invitation, S——— and myself got possession of a consumptive-looking candle, and sallied out to hunt for lodgings. We took possession of one of the dens I have described and sent in our luggage; and carefully locking the door afterward, (as Perote is the headquarters of villany, and the court-yard was full of unshaved, ill-looking devils wrapped up in blankets,) we left our thin tallow as evidence of our tenure.

On one side of the gateway is the fonda or eating part of the establishment, where two or three women were employed cooking sundry strange looking messes. We signified our hunger, and were soon called to table. Several officers of the garrison, as well as the stage-load coming from Mexico, were there before us. The cooking had been done with charcoal, over furnaces, and the color of the cooks, their clothes, the food, and the hearth was identical; a warning, as in France, never to enter the kitchen before meals. The meats had been good, but were perfectly bedevilled by the culinary imps. Garlic, onions, grease, chilé, and God knows what of other nasty compounds, had flavored the food like nothing else in the world but Perote cookery. We tasted, however, of every dish, and that taste answered to allay appetite if not to assuage hunger; especially as the table-cloth had served many a wayfarer since its last washing, (if it had ever been washed,) and had, besides, doubtless been used for duster, (if they ever dust.) The waiter, too, was a boy, in sooty rags, who hardly knew the meaning of a plate, and had never heard of other forks but his fingers.

Disgusted, as you may well suppose we were with this supper, I did not remain long at table. We were a set of baulked, hungry men, and withal, tired and peevish. I put my face for a moment outside of the gate, to take a walk, as the night was beautiful; but S—— pulled me back again, with a hint at the notorious reputation of Perote. It was not eight o'clock, but the town was already still as death. Its population had slunk home to their cheerless dwellings, and the streets were as deserted as those of Pompeii, save where a ragged rascal now and then skulked along in the shadow of the houses, buried up in his broad-brimmed sombrero and dirty blanket.

We therefore at once retired to our cells; I threw myself on the bed wrapped in my cloak, in dread of a vigorous attack from the fleas, and slept without moving until the driver called us at midnight to start for Puebla. Being already dressed, I required no time for my toilet, and I doubt much if hair-brushes, orris tooth-powder, or the sweet savors of the Rue Vivienne, were ever thought of by a parting guest at Perote!

In half an hour we were once more in the coach galloping out of the town, followed by three dragoons furnished by the officer we had met at supper, who seemed to entertain as poor an opinion as we did of this citadel of vagabondism.

Although the sky had been clear and the stars were shining brightly when we retired to bed, a mist was now hanging in low clouds over the plain. The road was, however, smooth and level, and we scampered along nimbly, fear adding stings to our coachman's lash, inasmuch as he was the driver of a diligence that had been robbed last spring, and had received a ball between his shoulders, from the effects of which he had just sufficiently recovered to drive on his first trip since the conflict. We galloped during the whole night, stopping only for a moment to change horses; nor did we meet a living thing except a pack of jackals, that came bounding beside the coach along the level and almost trackless plain. I never saw half so frightened a man as our coachman, especially when we passed the spot where he had been wounded. Every shrub was a robber—and a maguey of decent size was a whole troop!

The early morning, from the rain which had fallen during the night on this portion of the plain, was as cold and raw as November at home; nor was it until an hour after sunrise that the mists peeled off from the lowlands, and, folding themselves around the distant hills, revealed a prospect as bare and dreary as the Campagna of Rome.


  1. "Un pedazo de cielo caido en tierra.
  2. To give you an idea of the profusion of fruit in Jalapa I will state a fact. I gave a French servant a real (twelve and a half cents) to purchase me a few oranges, and in a short time he returned with a handkerchief bursting under the load—he had received forty for the money. I told the story to a Jalapanian with surprise: "They cheated him" said he: "nearly double the number."