Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/7

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San Pablo, -Ampú, -Simplicity of the Inhabitants, -Chimalapa -Sulphureous Springs, -Entrance into Guatimala.

Leaving Gualan and passing through two small Indian villages in the route, we came to San Pablo, a town containing about sixty thatched houses, and a neat church. The road from hence to Ampú is tolerably level, but in many parts unshaded, and in these situations, during the hot months the sun darts his rays with a force that makes it almost impossible to enjoy the scenery.

Passing two other villages and descending a very steep barranca or precipice, we entered a narrow defile between two high hills, which appears to form the bed of a considerable stream in the rainy season, but was now quite dry; and chiefly excited notice from the immense number of butterflies which swarmed in it, many of them very large in size, and clothed in every diversity of colour. No inconsiderable number of the 760 kinds which Linnæus has reckoned up, might have been collected in this spot. The hills on each side are thickly wooded, and to these on our approach they rapidly winged their flight.

From hence passing over a small chain of hills nearly devoid of vegetation, and composed entirely of calcareous earths, we arrived at the little village of Ampú, where for the first time, we observed lands enclosed by hedge rows, and cattle grazing under the eye of their owners.

This place does not lie in the regular route from Gualan to the capital, and is consequently rarely visited by strangers. The whole of the inhabitants soon appeared at the house where we had stopped, the news of the arrival of an “Ingles” and his “Señora,” having rapidly spread throughout the neighbourhood. Though exceedingly inquisitive, examining the dress of the lady with the greatest attention, they were very respectful and polite. From my having a few medicines, they at once concluded I was a physician, or “gran medico,” and several came to complain of their infirmities. One had rheumatism, another calentura or fever, a third colic. To all of these very simple remedies were offered, and we were loaded with thanks. Towards evening we took tea, and amused ourselves by letting them taste it, which some of them did with strange contortions; while others, with a courtier-like politeness declared it to be “muy bueno,” very good, at the same time secretly stepping towards the door, in order to empty their mouths of it unobserved. Many of these people had never passed the bounds of their native village, and knew as little of the tumultuous world, as the world knows of them.

From hence the following morning, we started for Chimalapa, across dry and arid plains of considerable extent, bearing scarcely any signs of vegetation. A few leafless trees and shrubs were scattered over them, high and sterile mountains rising one above another, enclosed them on every side, while the reflection of the sun's rays on the sandy soil, rendered the heat almost intolerable. After riding onward over these plains, for about six leagues, we passed two small Indian settlements, where the soil appeared better in quality, was a little cultivated, and in some places enclosed.

Towards evening, we arrived at Chimalapa, a town containing about 500 inhabitants, several good houses, and a neat church. The population is entirely Indian, and altogether uninstructed. During the night the thunders echoed over the neighbouring mountains, which were brilliantly illuminated by numerous and vivid flashes of lightning, accompanied by heavy rains; the first that had fallen here for several months.

0ur following day's journey was very uninteresting. With the exception of a few pines, some maguey and cactus plants, the face of the country is sterile, and appears almost entirely uninhabited. One Indian settlement, where we remained for an hour or two, in the heat of the day, was cleaner, more compact, and had a greater air of comfort about it, than any we had yet seen. About four leagues from this little spot runs a range of high mountains chiefly composed of porphyry, which it is no easy task to ascend after a long day's journey. Once accomplished however, the traveller is abundantly repaid. From this elevation the country again becomes level, and he suddenly finds himself transported into a fresher and cooler climate. The difference of temperature is truly surprising. After being oppressed with heat, we found ourselves at once chilly, and when we arrived at Guastatoya, a village situated about a league from the summit, wet with the rain, which had for some time been falling in torrents, we should have rejoiced at the opportunity of surrounding a blazing fire.

This village is one of the most interesting in the whole journey. Its elevated situation and beautiful scenery, rendered still more agreeable by the refreshing rains that had so lately fallen, pleased us exceedingly, and we could willingly have remained here some days, had our time permitted it. The house we inhabited was one of the best in the place, and was at that time tenanted by an old widow lady and her two daughters. The chairs, doors, and two old fashioned couches, were all of mahogany antiquely carved; three niches in the wall of the largest room contained images of saints, and a large crucifix, while in an inner apartment, an old four-post mahogany bedstead, with a few better articles of furniture indicated some degree of superiority in the owner. It had probably been the residence of a priest in former days, having every appearance of a decayed parsonage. The yard was well stocked with fowls, turkeys, and good milch cows; and under a shed was a loom on which one of the women was weaving coarse cotton.

The ride from this place to Omoyta, the next village, is very agreeable; the first four leagues of the way lies through cultivated fields, chiefly of maize, and watered by the river Platanos, which flows in this direction so circuitously as to oblige the traveller to ford it ten times in the course of a few hours. In some places this stream is four or five feet deep, and has a rapid current, but generally it merits rather the name of a rivulet. In the rainy season however, it augments so much, as to render it necessary, in several places, to have ferry boats, while in others, the post from Gualan to Guatimala is not unfrequently detained several days, owing to the sudden swelling of the waters. The latter four leagues are shaded by the woods, through which the road is cut; in many places these are open, and partake greatly of the character of park scenery.

At Omoyta we were received into the house of the Padre, at that time inhabited only by his nephew and niece, the former of whom, a man about thirty, lay ill of a fever he had contracted on the coast. We found him lying on the floor of one of the rooms, with every door and window carefully closed, smoking a cigar. In this room he had remained shut up fourteen days, using no other means of recovery, and impressed with the idea that fresh air and cleanliness would be injurious to the last degree. This we found afterwards to be the general opinion, and that the plan he had pursued was the regular course of treatment in fevers. With some difficulty we persuaded him to allow the windows to be opened, that he might see the light of heaven, and breathe an untainted atmosphere. We then gave him a few simple medicines, but as we left early in the morning, we heard nothing more of our patient.

This house, which stood by itself on the hill, overlooking the Indian village at its foot, was considerably decayed, and greatly neglected. Adjoining to it was a neat chapel, or “Oratorio de la Misa,” which they willingly showed us. It contained one tolerable painting of the taking down from the cross, and several images, but was, in other respects, very plain. Here the villagers assemble to say mass, every feast day. A small bell raised above the building, serves to call them together out of the valley, and were it to join in simple and spiritual worship, it would yield in such solitudes as these, one of the most interesting and delightful of sounds.

From Omoyta to San José the country is for the most part sterile, and the scenery uninteresting. After passing one or two considerable barrancas, the road suddenly turns by a beautifull little spot, cultivated with the sugar cane. A good house, belonging to the proprietor, and a trapiché or sugar mill, surrounded by a luxuriant plantation, and well watered by a stream, running through the grounds, appeared a little paradise in the midst of these wilds.

About three leagues further, the country becomes exceedingly mountainous, and the roads very rugged. Several of these mountains are supposed to contain rich veins of silver, but they have never been worked, and from their locality, the attempt would be difficult and expensive. A little beyond these flow two considerable streams powerfully sulphureous; one hot, the other cold: near the source of the former the temperature of the water is boiling heat. From hence at the distance of about a league, is the village of San José. The spot on which it stands has many natural advantages, but the houses are wretchedly built, and the accommodations miserable.

Leaving San José, the road to Guatimala lies for several leagues, over a narrow and elevated plain. On each side are deep valleys thickly wooded, chiefly with pine and evergreen oaks, and behind these rise undulating lines of hills, backed by high mountains. As we approach nearer the city, the eye opens on an extensive plain studded with trees, and ornamented by numerous hedge rows, enclosing the lands near the capital. In the midst of the plain stands the city of New Guatimala.

Its appearance from this spot about a league distant, is singularly picturesque. Its numerous turrets and cupolas, glistening in the sun, and its white low houses regularly arranged at right angles, with orange trees, thickly interspersed among the buildings, form a middle ground, while the mountains encircling it, and especially the beautiful “Volcano de Agua,” as it is termed, generally crowned by clouds, complete a picture, which, for interest and beauty, will bear comparison with any prospect in the world.

The descent from this elevated situation into the valley is by a road cut out of the rock, and winding down it. On one side are deep precipices, and on the other high and perpendicular rocks, each clothed with hanging woods, and the richest verdure.

At the end of this pass stands the eastern gate, where our passports were required. Between this and the outer street of the city, are orchards and meadows for about two miles, and after these a few straggling houses, till we gradually enter the more populated districts. When we arrived, the place appeared almost deserted: the streets were as silent as if the plague had ravaged them, and most of the houses were closed. This we found afterwards to be partly owing to our having entered at the hour of siesta, and partly to the civil war, then at its height. The opposing party had a short time before assaulted the city, and the inhabitants were still in a state of confusion. After riding through ten or a dozen streets, all equally silent, and some of them covered with grass, we arrived safely at the place of our destination.