Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/14

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CHAPTER VII.

Suburbs, -Villages, -Bee-hives, -Cochineal Plantations, -Grazing Farms, -Bathing Places, -Trip to Antigua, or old Guatimala.


To the beauty of the environs, and the majestic character of the neighbouring scenery, rather than to any attraction which the city itself possesses, must be attributed that peculiar charm which compels the stranger to admire Guatimala, and impresses his mind even after leaving it, with the recollection of its loveliness and grandeur. The suburbs, in every direction, abound with pleasing walks, some leading to the hills of Carmen and Calvary, where chapels, called hermitages, are erected; and others, to the different Indian villages by which the city is surrounded. The adjoining country, for two or three leagues, affords numerous beautiful rides, and probably a greater variety of magnificent scenery may be found here, within the circumference of a few miles, than in the neighbourhood of any other city in either hemisphere.

One of the most agreeable pedestrian excursions is to Jocotonango, a village about a mile distant. On the outside of the town, a fine avenue of trees leads into fields nearly isolated from the surrounding country, by stupendous barrancas, and surrounded in the distance, by a chain of mountains and volcanoes, over the tops of which an immense mantle of dark clouds lies almost perpetually stretched. On a fine evening, these fields are to be seen thickly studded with small parties, reclined upon the grass; some enjoying the cool breeze, and others listlessly gazing upon the majestic prospect. Close by is the village, which consists of a few small houses, a number of Indian huts, and a square or plaza, ornamented by a fine old fountain, which stands in the middle.

Once a year, this spot becomes the busy scene of rustic festivity, by the influx of visitants at the annual fair, which commences on the l4th of August, and lasts fifteen days. The first of these is appropriated to the sale of mules and horses, of which an immense variety are exhibited. The second is the great feast, and devoted to amusement. The middle of the plaza is then occupied by a multitude of Dulce women, who, squatted on the ground, are peeping through their black mantillas, and recommending the various preserved fruits and sweetmeats which they have for sale; a few covered stalls, with toys and ornaments, are interspersed among the crowd, and numerous benches ranged around the square, are occupied by hundreds of Señoritas, glittering in all the tints of the rainbow, and differing not less in the colour of their skin than their vestments; gold and spangles are scattered in profusion over splendid lace dresses, and plumes of feathers bend over features of every order, from the thick-lipped and flat-nosed negress to the pale and delicate countenance of the Spanish belle. Fans, adorned with gilded hearts and darts, are flourished and flirted with a tact that would not have disgraced the days of Addison; and all the artillery of Cupid is directed at the crowds of spectators who parade on foot, or prance by on horseback, in order to exhibit their equestrian skill. This diversified scene is, to a stranger, both novel and diverting.

About two leagues to the S. E. the village of Pinula formerly attracted attention from its possessing a kind of seminary for young girls, who were educated free of expense, and maintained themselves by the productions of their gardens and bee-hives. The building which they inhabited appears very similar to a convent, and is now in a neglected state. Scarcely any pupils are to be found within its walls, and this once famed establishment, although sanctioned by royalty, is all but extinct. The bee-hives used here are so different both in shape and construction to ours, that a slight description of them may be interesting. In form they are cylindrical, have about three feet in length, and nearly a foot in diameter, and are generally made of wood, with circular doors at each end, the bee entering at a small opening in the middle, which is by its situation generally protected from the rain. The one we saw opened was merely a log of wood roughly hollowed out, with doors at each end. The honey was contained in small bags about two inches long, of which a double row was arranged on each side the hive; the centre contained small cells of comb for the young ones. During the clearing of the hive, the bees flew around the head of the man who was extracting the honey, but did not offer any injury. This species of bee either has no sting, or else possesses that property in too feeble a degree to be dangerous. The honey has an agreeable scent, is much softer, and in taste not so pleasant as that of the European insect.

At short distances from the city many of the inhabitants have nopaleras or cochineal plantations, to which they pay considerable attention. These consist of a certain quantity of ground, carefully fenced in, and planted with parallel rows of prickly pear plants, (the Cactus cochenillifer,) or common Indian fig. Directly after the rains have ceased, the [1]insects are sown upon the plant. Twelve or fourteen of these are collected from the parent with a feather, and enclosed all together in a small bag of the maize leaf, left open, and pinned with a thorn to the leaf of the cactus. Seven or eight of these bags are placed on different leaves of the same plant. In a short time the insects begin to breed in the bags, and the young ones crawl out upon the plant. As they grow, they gradually cover themselves with a mantle of white paste, which protects them from injury by the weather, and in the course of three months, they are ready for gathering. This is done by scraping the leaf, and after a sufficient number have been reserved for seed, the rest are either placed upon tins in a large oven, or thrown into hot water. When dried they assume the appearance of small grains, and are ready for sale. A second crop is then sown, and in three months a second harvest is reaped, after which the seed is preserved by covering the plant till the rainy season is passed. After four or five years the cactus decays from the quantity of nourishment drawn from it by the insects, and it is then necessary to root them up and plant fresh ones.

The cultivation of this insect was not commenced in Guatimala till the year 1821, and so rapid has been its progress that it is estimated the harvest of the present year will produce 90,000 pounds weight.

The “haciendas de ganados” or grazing farms, are generally several leagues distant. Some of them are very valuable possessions, having good houses connected with the farms, and very numerous herds, but being generally left to the direction of mayor-domos or foremen, they are mostly neglected. The land is so good, and the climate so favourable, that the care and management, which to an English farmer is of the last importance, can here readily be dispensed with; and nobody in Guatimala thinks of taking more trouble than is absolutely necessary.

Some of the wealthy Spaniards were formerly in the habit of expending very considerable sums of money upon these estates, uniting to the grazing department, sugar plantations, and of late cochineal gardens. One of the most beautiful of this description, about a league and a half from the city, strikingly exhibits the thoughtless profusion with which money was wasted upon such undertakings. It is situated upon the side of one of the mountains, and commands a fine prospect of the plain of Guatimala, the city, the mountains, and the different Indian villages, scattered about them, forming a panoramic view from this situation remarkably interesting. The house and walks are elevated and laid out in the Italian style. Three stone terraces rise one above another, and a very fine archway adorns the entrance to the outer court. An immense aqueduct on the upper terrace supplies several stone reservoirs, and affords a sufficient quantity of water, both for the sugar mill on the second terrace, and for the irrigation of the whole of the land. Below and all around the buildings, are sugar plantations, orange and lime groves, nopaleras separated by hedge rows of plantain trees, and small Indian huts for the people employed on the estate. The works and edifices alone are said to have cost the original contriver £20,000 sterling; but in so careless a manner are these things executed, that the aqueduct is led through other estates, and is liable at any time to be cut off. This delightful spot is now in the hands of a company of individuals, who leave it to the care of an agent, who in his turn commends it to the care of nature. Neglect appears in every branch, half the produce is wasted, and the buildings are allowed to fall into decay.

The village of San Juan de Amatitan, and the town of Escuintla may be termed the fashionable bathing places of Guatimala. The former is situated near the lake of the same name, and has a fine river flowing near it, the waters of which are supposed to be medicinal. The latter which is by far the most frequented, although fifteen leagues distant, possesses a similar stream in which the visiters bathe. This place is infested by vermin of every description, the houses are wretched and the accommodations miserable; the climate is excessively hot, and the town so destitute of every comfort, that even chairs must be brought from Guatimala by the fanciful mortals who arrive for the benefit of their health. In the months of January and February the old and the young, the grave and the gay flock hither to derive as they imagine new vigour from the profuse perspiration they experience, and the bracing influence of this wonder-working water. It is amusing to observe how universally prejudice and fashion lead the world in chains; and one can scarcely restrain a smile at the remembrance that four months after the return of the good citizens of Guatimala, from their beloved Escuintla, the enlightened fashionables of Grosvenor square will be deserting country seats, furnished with every luxury, to crowd themselves into dirty garrets at the “adorable Brighton.”

The Antigua or old Guatimala - and the villages lying between it and the capital, may with propriety be included in this slight sketch of the surrounding country:- let us therefore at once set out for that city. Leaving Guatimala through the southern barrier, we proceed across the plain for about three leagues, when we arrive at the village of Mixco, situated on the declivity of a mountain, which commands a fine view of the valley, the mountains enclosing it, the city and its suburbs. This village is well populated and has a good church, its inhabitants are chiefly potters and carriers.

From hence the ascent is rocky, and steep, and the road continues rough and irregular till we arrive at the village of San Lucas about three leagues further. This place is termed by old Tomas Gage an English Friar, who about a century ago published a tour through Mexico and Guatimala, the granary of the capital, since it was found practicable to keep corn in good, condition here, much longer than in the old city. In the present day however, it has no claim to this honourable title. The cura of this village possesses probably more botanical information than any other native of the republic. He has taken considerable pains in the cultivation of European fruits and vegetables, and had at one period near a thousand different plants in his garden. When we visited this spot, it was sadly overgrown with weeds, and appeared greatly neglected, which was attributed by the owner to a long illness from which he had but just recovered, and which had rendered him incapable of superintending it. We found here strawberries, olives, bergamot pears, figs, asparagus, besides a variety of plants and flowers he had received from Europe. This priest appeared to be a very intelligent man, had a tolerable good library, and had evinced both his patriotism and liberality in having had lessons prepared at his own expense for the establishment of a Lancasterian school.

From hence to the Antigua, a distance of three leagues, the road becomes tolerably level, and the scenery romantic. The mountains lie on each side, covered with verdure, and lined chiefly with stunted oaks, while the river which waters the old capital, rolls murmuring towards it at their feet. The view of the city from a distance, is highly pleasing: its situation is beautiful, and the plain on which it stands, very fertile. On approaching near to it, and entering the streets, the traveller is struck with the unique prospect which presents itself. Convents, churches, palaces, and public buildings of every description, stand before his eyes, all ruined and in great measure overgrown with moss: walls, with tremendous openings, and huge stones, tottering as if ready to fall upon the head of the passer-by, remain precisely as they did when, fifty years ago, the inhabitants fled from their vicinity, through fear of being swallowed up by their ruins. The very rubbish in many places, has not been removed, and such is the superstitious feeling of the lower orders, that they object to see any portion of the stones appropriated to what they deem unhallowed purposes. These buildings are many of them in a very superior style of architecture, far surpassing similar edifices in the new capital. In the streets near the market-place, the houses have been mostly repaired, or rebuilt; but in some of the outer ones, bare walls, covered with moss, still meet the eye in every direction.

The suburbs constitute one vast garden, filled with vegetables, for the supply of both the cities, or covered with the nopal for the cultivation of the cochineal insect, of which a considerable quantity is annually produced. These gardens are mostly well directed, and regularly irrigated. In the vicinity, are some water-mills, for grinding flour; but the machinery is wretchedly coarse. The number of inhabitants is now estimated at near 16,000, employed chiefly in agriculture, and the streets and plaza are again thronged with a noisy multitude, equally forgetful of the fearful past, and careless of the future.

  1. The coccus, a genus of insect of the hemipterous order. Generic Character. -Snout, seated in the breast,-Antennæ filiform,-Abdomen bristly behind.-Wings two, erect in the male, but without poisers. Several of the species when dried, produce a colouring matter, but the coccus cacti is the best fitted for this purpose. The female of this insect is the true cochineal of the shops, which is well known for its great use in dying and painting. Dried, pounded, and prepared, the colour is sold under the name of carmine.- Crabbe's Technicological Dictionary.