Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/21

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Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8  (1828)  by Henry Dunn
Part IV, Chapter III: Bar of Istapa, -Fisheries, -Vampyres, -Rock of Mirandilla, -Alotenango, -Almolonga, -The two Volcanoes, -Ascent of the Volcan del Agua, &c.


Bar of Istapa,—Fisheries,—Vampyres,—Rock of Mirandilla,—Alotenango,—Almolonga,—The two Volcanoes,—Ascent of the Volcan del Agua, &c.

From Sapoti to Santa Rosa, and from Santa Rosa to Raudal, a distance of ahout two and a half leagues, the road is level, but obstructed by immense quantities of bushes and low shrubs. The latter place, only a fisherman's hut, is situated about a league from the mouth of the Michatoyat, which forms a bar at some short distance. There is no other mode of going thither than in miserable canoes, which are polled along the esteros, or inlets of the ocean, the banks of which are lined with mangroves. Near the mouth of the river there are a couple of huts, inhabited by fishermen, who there pack and salt fish for the capital, of which a considerable quantity is dried and sent up. The population of these places consists chiefly of mulattoes and negroes, with a few Indians; they have a small church, but as the climate is not considered good, no priest will live amongst them. The average heat in the middle of the day is from 88° to 90°. The number of insects is considerable; some of the men were horribly disfigured by the bites they had received. The shore is bold and steep, but the high surf which here rolls itself majestically in a long heavy wave towards the land, frequently dashes over its boundaries, and lightly inundates the neighbouring soil; near the bar of the Michatoyat it is however lessened, and large sailing boats might come up the river generally without danger.

This spot is celebrated as being the place where Pedro Alvarado equipped his armaments in the years 1534 and l539. Of the advantages which it possesses over Sonzonate as the port of Guatimala, notice has been taken at length in the chapter on the trade and commerce of the republic. In its present state three or four hundred adventurers landing on its banks, might in three days enter the capital without encountering an enemy; and if determined, would be more than sufficient to subdue the troops appointed for the defence of the city. It has been said this bar is formed by the river Guacalate, but this an error; the Guacalate flows near the Michatoyat, but does not join it. Attempts have been made to cut a canal that should unite the two rivers, by which it was supposed the body of water would be sufficiently increased to remove the bar; this plan however has not yet been carried into effect, and it is very doubtful whether the benefit would be sufficiently great to repay the labour.

At Sapoti we slept under a somewhat better shed, though still greatly annoyed by the multitude of flies, and chilled by the heavy dews which fall near the shore. The following day we returned to Naranjo, where we again passed the night in the open air, drenched by the dews, and tormented by an additional enemy, the vampyre; these animals a few days before our arrival, had killed no less than thirty fowls, belonging to the farm. As we had passed through this place two days before, they had told us that one of the people was somewhat unwell with fever, and inquired if brandy were a good thing for him. We of course warned them against it, and recommended a purgative plant which grows in the neighbourhood; but they persisted in their own remedy, and thirty-six hours afterwards the man was dead and buried.

Returning to Mistan through the woods, we noticed a few deer, the guacamaya or great macaw, and several wild peacocks; these birds on the wing display their splendid plumage to great advantage. Vultures here as in every other part of the republic, are abundant; the body of a calf which had just died on the road, was literally covered with them, struggling in crowds for a footing upon the carcase. The voraciousness of these filthy birds is almost incredible, and the exactness and rapidity with which they reduce bodies to the most perfect skeletons, cannot be surpassed by the most acute anatomist.

At Mistan we turned from our former route, and crossing the river Guacalate, began to ascend in the direction for the Peña de Mirandilla. The road we found generally woody, and the path so covered with bushes and shrubs, as to be in some places almost impassable; the river in this direction has rapids for nearly a league, and several streams casting themselves down the sides of the mountains, form small cascades of considerable beauty. The Peña or Rock of Mirandilla is a bold projection of granite, which rears its head considerably above the neighbouring mountains, and appears to have been struck by lightning; the middle part has evidently been swept away by the electric fluid, leaving two bare ridges, which from their elevated and solitary situation, present a somewhat singular aspect. At the foot of the mountain is a ruinous trapiché, where we passed the night; the roof had partly fallen in, and some of the walls been opened by the recent earthquake. Between Mistan and the Peña, a distance of not more than eight or nine leagues, we found a difference of temperature equal to ten degrees.

From this unfrequented spot we turned towards the Antigua, passing between the two celebrated volcanoes. In this situation the mountains exhibit themselves in aspects singularly interesting; the one towering to a height of above fourteen thousand feet, presents a rich and diversified soil, clothed with verdure to the very summit, and girded by a belt of thick forests,—the other rising to an elevation equal if not superior, exhibits its three bare and rugged peaks, covered with dried lava and ashes, still trembling under the working of the mighty furnace within, and breathing out a column of pale blue smoke, which perpetually ascends fmm its crater. The contrast is striking,—the horrible and the beautiful in nature, are not often to be met with so closely united, or linked together as these are by the junction of their bases. The greater part of the road between the two, bears evident marks of the violent shocks to which it has been subject; immense chasms formed by the opening of the hills, still remain in the rude state in which nature left them, when she convulsively tore them asunder; huge stones seem to have been hurled in every direction, and lay in the wildest confusion; while in some parts the deep bed of ashes, and cinders, and scorified lava, which at different times have been vomited forth, produce an appearance of desolation, strangely opposed to other parts closely contiguous. In these latter, the volcanic substances which only lightly strewed the ground, have been covered by a new strata of decomposed vegetable matter, over which trees, and shrubs have spread themselves, and aromatic plants now shed forth their fragrance.

By noon we arrived at the village of San Juan Alotenango, situated at the foot of the mountains. It now consists only of a few Indian huts, the town was ruined by the great earthquake of San Pedro Martyr, and thc church and convent had been lately destroyed by fire. The curate of this place informed us, that he had attempted with a friend to ascend the Volcan de Fuego, but that after arriving at the middle of the mountain, the ascent became so precipitous, and the trembling of the mountain so excessive, that they were obliged to relinquish their purpose. The last eruption of this volcano took place about two years ago, when flames issued from the crater, and ascended to a considerable height, immense quantities of stones and ashes were cast out towards the west, and the race of monkeys who inhabit the neighbouring woods, almost extirpated.

From this village we proceeded to Almolonga or Ciudad Vieja, celebrated for being the spot where Alvarado first pitched his tent, to form a capital. The fate of this city has been before related; fourteen years after its foundation a dreadful eruption of the volcano, accompanied by an immense torrent of water, overwhelmed its buildings, and swallowed up a great part of the inhabitants. It is now composed only of Indian huts, and chiefly cultivated for cochineal gardens. In all kinds of agriculture the lands are still turned up by the hoe, and oxen draw by the horns. Horses are very rarely to be seen in harness.

From Almolonga we came to the Antigua, where we spent a few days, one of which was devoted to the ascent of the Volcan de Agua[1] (water volcano.)

This beautiful and gigantic mountain is in figure a perfect cone, its base is computed to have eighteen leagues of circumference, and its height to be 14,500 feet. The ascent by the road is calculated at from three to four leagues, and its crater measures one hundred and forty yards, by one hundred and twenty.

Leaving the old city a little before day light, we soon arrived at the convent of San Juan Obispo, which stands upon its base, surrounded by a few huts, and almost buried in bushes and flowers. From this point the ascent begins, and from hence to the small town of Santa Maria is gradual, and can be accomplished on a mule. In the whole of this region wheat might be advantageously cultivated, the soil is good and in some parts luxuriant. A variety of plants grow wild, among the shrubs which spread themselves on every side. Among the rest we found the tea plant.

Santa Maria which is situated at an elevation of about 7,500 feet, is a considerable Indian village, and contains a population of three or four thousand, who chiefly find employment in the old city. In the colder months, many of them are occupied in carrying snow from the mountain, for the supply both of the Antigua and the capital. Here we procured guides, and set forward on foot; the ascent we found steep and painful, the path which was slippery with the dew, affording us a very uncertain footing. From the village, to the height of about nine thousand feet, only a few scattered pines, two or three cherry trees, and some wild apples diversify the scene. Soon after this we enter the middle region of forests, consisting almost entirely of American oaks; the soil here was composed of an exceedingly rich black loam, the wild cane we found growing to an amazing height and thickness. The hand plant (arbol de las manitas,) or cheirostemon platanoides, growing to a height of 40 feet, with its corolla glistening in scarlet and gold, and many others were nourishing luxuriantly. A little beyond these, the keen cold air sweeps over the sides of the mountain unshielded by forests, and as we gradually ascend in the scale of vegetation, pines again present themselves almost devoid of foliage, and highly resinous. These continue till we reach the summit, and spread themselves on the margin of the crater, among the rocks and stones, which are scattered around them.

By about 2 o'clock we had arrived at the top very much exhausted; the clouds which had gathered during the ascent, now formed a thick veil around the mountain considerably below us, through which it was impossible to pierce, and we were thus in great measure disappointed of the view we had expected to enjoy of the surrounding country. The spacious crater is completely concave, and produces a powerful echo, great numbers of huge stones, covered with moss and grass, are scattered over its surface, which is sterile and unproductive. The thermometer at 2 o'clock, P. M. stood at 42° the difference between the base and the summit at the same hour being about thirty degrees.

About 3 o'clock we commenced the descent, which although more rapid was not much less painful than the ascent; the steep slippery path, kept us almost continually on a run, except when interrupted by falls, from which our guides although possessing the advantage of bare feet, were not exempt. As we descended the clouds partially cleared off, and we enjoyed the prospect of the dilferent towns and villages, varying in elevation, which are spread at the foot of the mountain. On afavorable day the view fiom the summit is one of the most extensive that can possibly be enjoyed, being bounded both on the north and south, by the two oceans, while eastward the province of San Salvador, and westward the plains of Chiapa may be discovered. By five o'clock we had again arrived at the Antigua, completely worn out by fatigue, and although gratified by the excursion, feeling no anxiety to make a second trip. The following day we bent our course homeward, and arrived safely at the capital.

the end.

  1. That this is an extinct volcano there can be little doubt although no tradition exists of fire having ever issued from its bowels.