Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/5

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Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8  (1828)  by Henry Dunn
Part I, Chapter V: Yzabal, -Mountain of Mico, -Indians, -Character of these Aborigines, -Superstitions, -Iguana.


Yzabal,—Mountain of Mico,—Indians,—Character of these Aborigines,—Superstitions,—Iguana.

This port consists of about fifty or sixty huts raised at the foot of one of the mountains, and is in fact only a depot for goods passing from Belize to Guatimala.

On landing we were conducted to the commandant's house, and before him our boxes were opened, but immediately closed on an assurance that they contained nothing contraband, with “tengo confianza en vmds” “I have confidence in you,” and no further notice taken of them. In one of the largest of these habitations we took up our temporary residence, boarding with the owner, and sleeping at a neighbouring hut. The provision was by no means despicable, consisting generally of soup, eggs, a hashed fowl and a clarety kind of wine mixed with water for dinner, and coffee in the morning and evening. This hut, by far the best in the place, was spacious, well built of wild cane, and covered with the leaf of the bay tree. Considerable quantities of goods were remaining in it, waiting for mules to be forwarded over the mountains. Besides the requisite articles of furniture it contained a thermometer, a French writing desk, and about thirty volumes of books neatly bound, chiefly translations from the French, one or two of Mad. Genlis' novels, and a life of Napoleon.

About 6 o'clock every evening the drum beats to call out the military force of Yzabal, which is composed of about twenty men, not only out of uniform, but almost without dress, one wanting a hat, a second a coat, and all without shoes or stockings. These armed with rusty muskets and old swords, and totally without discipline, are its only defence.

The people are excessively indolent, sleeping the greater part of the day on mats stretched upon the floor, and lying on the ground at their house doors, talking with each other during the night. The heat is considerable, varying during the hottest months from 90 to 100° Fahrenheit, in the shade; and to Europeans the climate is very dangerous.

Our mules having at length arrived, we prepared to set out over the mountain the following morning at day break. The bustle of preparation, saddling and loading of cargo being over, we started in good spirits and good temper, one following another merrily, and forming a line of considerable length. Our party consisted of a lady and four gentlemen; three servants followed with provisions, and the arriero or muleteer with fifty mules loaded with goods brought up the rear. Each Spaniard was armed with a brace of pistols in holsters, and a large knife fixed in his belt, and the servants with swords.

Immediately on leaving Yzabal the traveller begins gradually to ascend the mountain, winding in a serpentine direction towards its summit, through narrow passes, lined on each side with trees. In consequence of this circuitous rout, without which it would be utterly impassable, the ascent is very gradual, and is not one continued rise, but varies according to the difficulties of the way.

After riding onward for about an hour the road becomes very steep, some of the ascents appearing almost perpendicular from their base. Over these the mules pass with amazing care and sagacity, invariably placing their feet on the same lodge of rock or treading on the same crag, over which their predecessors have passed. Many of these are worn with their footsteps, and they are never willing to change them.

On reaching the summit of one of these precipices, a most beautiful ravine suddenly burst upon our view, into which we immediately began slowly to descend; along the beds of the different channels formed by the autumnal rains. A rivulet of clear spring water flowed murmuring along over the numerous pebbles and pieces of rock which impeded its course, a variety of trees in full luxuriance shaded it from the intense heat of the sun, while the melody of birds regaled the ear with harmony; depicting one of those scenes which poets have described, when they have sung of the days of the golden age.

At least so it seemed to us, for here we breakfasted, not on aerial food, but on good cold fowls and wine which we had taken the precaution to store for some such occasion. How far this beverage might operate on the fancies of hungry travellers, so as to lead them to exaggerate the natural beauties of the spot, must be left for the reader to determine.

The remainder of the journey over the mountain is relieved by a constant repetition of similar scenery. In some places the passes are lined by trees rising most majestically to the height of 90 and 100 feet. At other times rows of palms branching on either side form a continued gothic archway, or rather series of archways, far surpassing those of art: while in other situations the abruptness of the transition from hill to dale, and from mountain to ravine relieve the eye and considerably heighten the effect. At times one half of a party separated by the roads are some distance in advance, and then the shouts of the muleteers calling one to another, or to their mules, and the answering whistle of the stragglers in the rear as they wind down or ascend the different glens, now appearing and then as suddenly concealed by the intervening trees, render the scene singularly picturesque. A few wandering Indians conveying parcels from Gualan to Yzabal or loaded with maize, are the only human beings to be seen till about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, by which time in favourable months the mountain is generally passed, and the traveller arrives at a small Indian town called Mico, another depot for goods.

During four months in the year it is however almost impassable, and the journey far from being agreeable is one of the most difficult and painful that can he experienced. In many instances travellers are obliged to pass the night on its summit drenched hy the rains, and terrified by the proximity both of tigers and rattlesnakes.

After resting at Mico a short time, it is customary to ride forward about a league, to a solitary hut, where parties generally remain for the night on account of the superior forage for the mules. On alighting at this house we inquired for something to eat, but could get no other reply than “no hay” there is none. At length however after considerable persuasion the female was induced to move, and in a short time two fine fowls and some eggs were produced. The servants lighted a fire, and after roasting the fowls and preparing the eggs with the addition of chocolate, we threw ourselves on the ground, and by the light of the fire ate a hearty supper. Soon after this most of the party were soundly sleeping.

Notwithstanding the excessive fatigue of the day's ride, I could not rest. During the whole of the night, some thousands of monkeys that inhabit the woods around Mico kept up a loud and discordant yell, any thing but grateful to the ear; while the light of the fire glared only upon three or four wild figures, gliding from one part of the hut to another, and appearing at such an hour and by such a light more like demons than men.

These Indians are a scattered portion of the aborigines of the country, and their original character and condition does not appear to have been much improved. Generally speaking they have the character of being trusty and harmless, and excepting when under the influence of intoxicating liquors display considerable mildness. As messengers they are very faithful, finding their way through bushes and thickets before untrodden, with a degree of instinct which is truly surprising. They subsist solely on maize, and drink little besides water, unless it be a kind of spirit called pesso, which is made by the rind of limes rubbed with corn, and allowed to ferment, and then mixed with honey; this they esteem a great luxury.

The maize they grind into a powder between two stones, and after moulding it into a kind of dough with water but without salt, they bake it in small cakes which they call tortillas. In appearance they are not unlike the English oatcake, but very tasteless.

Their huts are altogether without furniture. Some of them have a hammock, but this luxury is by no means general. Their usual custom is to sleep on mats upon the floor.

These scattered families all profess the Roman Catholic religion, and are under the pastoral care of the Padre at Gualan, the nearest town to their residence, who visits them two or three times a year for the purposes of confession and absolution. The whole of them are exceedingly ignorant and superstitious, and are most completely under the dominion of their religious superior. The women of this hut had each of them small silver crucifixes suspended round their necks by light gold chains, which they seemed to regard with the highest degree of reverence.

Owing to the obstinacy of the muleteers it is almost impossible to set out early in the morning, and as the road from hence is open and unshaded by trees, this perverseness often becomes a source of considerable distress and vexation. The inconveniences of horse or rather mule exercise under a tropical sun, are soon found not to be trifling.

After ascending for some time from Mico, the edge of an immense valley presents itself, surrounded by high mountains gradually sloping to the ground, and forming a very large circus or amphitheatre, thickly wooded on every side chiefly with pine, and having at least sixty miles of circumference. Its appearance is sublime, but the intense heat of the sun when we crossed it reflected on all sides, with scarcely a breath of air, greatly impeded our enjoyment of its scenery. The soil here was very sandy, and in some parts the face of the country completely sterile. Vegetation seemed to be entirely burned up by the rays of the sun.

Towards evening another hut appears in the distance called Iguana, and after the exhaustion produced by the heat and fatigue of the day, it is a most agreeable resting place.