Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan/Chapter 15

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On Sunday, the fifth of January, I rose to set out in search of a government. Don Manuel Pavon, with his usual kindness, brought me a packet of letters of introduction to his friends in San Salvador. Mr. Catherwood intended to accompany me to the Pacific. We had not packed up, the muleteer had not made his appearance, and my passport had not been sent. Captain de Nouvelle waited till nine o'clock, and then went on in advance. In the midst of my confusion I received a visit from a distinguished ecclesiastic. The reverend prelate was surprised at my setting out on that day. I was about pleading my necessities as an excuse for travelling on the sabbath; but he relieved me by adding that there was to be a dinner-party, a bull-fight, and a play, and he wondered that I could resist such temptations. At eleven o'clock the muleteer came, with his mules, his wife, and a ragged little son; but owing to various delays we did not get off until the afternoon, and late as it was, diverged from the regular road for the purpose of passing by the Lake of Amatitan, but it was dark when we reached the top of the high range of mountains which bounds that beautiful water.

Looking down, it seemed like a gathering of fog in the bottom of a deep valley. The descent was by a rough zigzag path on the side of the mountain, very steep, and, in the extreme darkness, difficult and dangerous. We felt happy when we reached the bank of the lake, though still a little above it. The mountains rose round it like a wall, and cast over it a gloom deeper than the shade of night. We rode for some distance with the lake on our left, and a high and perpendicular mountain-side on our right. A cold wind had succeeded the intense heat of the day, and when we reached Amatitan I was perfectly chilled. We found the captain in the house he had indicated. It was nine o'clock, and, not having touched anything since seven in the morning, we were prepared to do justice to the supper he had provided for us.

To avoid the steep descent to the lake with the cargo-mules, our muleteer had picked up a guide for us on the road, and gone on himself direct; but, to our surprise, he had not yet arrived. While at supper we heard an uproar in the street, and a man ran in to tell us that a mob was murdering our muleteer. The captain, a frequent visitor to the country, said it was probably a general sword fight, and cautioned us against going out. While in the corridor, hesitating, the uproar was hurrying toward us; the gate burst open, and a crowd rushed in, dragging with them our muleteer, that respectable husband and father, with his machete drawn, and so tipsy that he could hardly stand, but wanting to fight all the world. With difficulty we got him entangled among some saddle-gear, when he dropped down, and, after vain efforts to rise, fell asleep.

I awoke the next morning with violent headache and pain in all my bones. Nevertheless, we started at daylight, and rode till five o'clock.

The sun and heat increased the pain in my head, and for three hours before reaching Escuintla I was in great suffering. I avoided going to the corregidor's, for I knew that his sleeping apartment was open to all who came, and I wanted quiet; but I made a great mistake in stopping at the house of the captain's friend. He was the proprietor of an estanco, or distillery for making agua ardiente, and gave us a large room directly back of a store, and separated from it by a low board partition open over the top; and this store was constantly filled with noisy, wrangling, and drinking men and women. My bed was next to the partition, and we had eight or ten men in our room. All night I had a violent fever, and in the morning I was unable to move. Captain de Nouvelle regretted it, but he could not wait, as his ship was ordered to lie off and on without coming to anchor. Mr. Catherwood had me removed to a store-room filled with casks and demijohns, where, except from occasional entries to draw off liquor, I was quiet; but the odour was sickening.

In the afternoon the fever left me, and we rode to Masaya, a level and shady road of four leagues, and, to our surprise and great satisfaction, found the captain at the house at which I had stopped on my return from Istapa. He had advanced two leagues beyond, when he heard of a band of robbers at some distance further on, and returned to wait for company, sending, in the mean time, to Escuintla for a guard of soldiers. We afterwards learned that they were a body of exiles who had been expelled from Guatimala, and were crossing from Quezaltenango to San Salvador; but, being in desperate circumstances, they were dangerous persons to meet on the road.

The hut at which we stopped was hardly large enough for the family that occupied it, and our luggage, with two hammocks and a catré, drove them into a very small space. Crying children are said to be healthy; if so, the good woman of the house was blessed: besides this, a hen was hatching a brood of chickens under my head. During the night a party of soldiers entered the village, in pursuance of the captain's requisition, and passed on to clear the road. We started before daylight: but as the sun rose my fever returned, and at eleven o'clock, when we reached Overo, I could go no further.

I have before remarked that this hacienda is a great stopping-place from Istapa and the salt-works; and unfortunately for me, several parties of muleteers, in apprehension of the robbers, had joined together, and starting at midnight, had already finished their day's labour. In the afternoon a wild pig was hunted, which our muleteer, with my gun, killed. There was a great feast in cooking and eating him, and the noise racked my brain. Night brought no relief. Quiet was all I wanted, but that it seemed impossible to have; besides which, the rancho was more than usually abundant in fleas. All night I had violent fever. Mr. Catherwood, who, from not killing any one at Copan, had conceived a great opinion of his medical skill, gave me a powerful dose of medicine, and toward morning I fell asleep.

At daylight we started, and arrived at Istapa at nine o'clock. Captain de Nouvelle had not yet gone on board. Two French ships were then lying off the port: the Belle Poule and the Melanie, both from Bordeaux, the latter being the vessel of Captain de Nouvelle. He had accounts to arrange with the captain of the Belle Poule, and we started first for his vessel.

As I have before said, Istapa is an open roadstead, without bay, headland, rock, reef, or any protection whatever from the open sea. Generally the sea is, as its name imports, pacific, and the waves roll calmly to the shore; but in the smoothest times there is a breaker, and to pass this, as a part of the fixtures of the port, an anchor is dropped outside, with a buoy attached, and a long cable passing from the buoy is secured on shore. The longboat of the Melanie lay hard ashore, stern first, with a cable run through a groove in the bows, and passing through the skulling hole in the stern. She was filled with goods, and among them we took our seats. The mate sat in the stern, and, taking advantage of a wave that raised the bows, gave the order to haul. The wet rope whizzed past, and the boat moved till, with the receding wave, it struck heavily on the sand. Another wave and another haul, and she swung clear of the bottom; and meeting the coming, and hauling fast on the receding wave, in a few minutes we passed the breakers, the rope was thrown out of the groove, and the sailors took to their oars.

It was one of the most beautiful of those beautiful days on the Pacific. The great ocean was as calm as a lake; the freshness of the morning still rested upon the water, and already I felt revived. In a few minutes we reached the Belle Poule, one of the most beautiful ships that ever floated, and considered a model in the French commercial marine. The whole deck was covered with an awning, having a border trimmed with scarlet, and fluttering in the wind. The quarterdeck was raised, protected by a fanciful awning, furnished with settees, couches, and chairs, and on a brass railing in front sat two beautiful Peruvian parrots. The door of the cabin was high enough to admit a tall man without stooping. On each side were four cabins, and the stern was divided into two chambers for the captain and super-cargo, each with a window in it, and furnished with a bed (not a berth), a sofa, books, drawers, writing desk, everything necessary for luxurious living on ship-board; just the comforts with which one would like to circumnavigate the world. She was on a trading voyage from Bordeaux, with an assorted cargo of French goods; had touched at the ports in Peru, Chili, Panama, and Central America, and left at each place merchandise to be sold, and the proceeds to be invested in the products of the country; and was then bound to Mazatlan, on the coast of Mexico, whence she would return and pick up her cargo, and in two years return to Bordeaux. We had a déjeuner à la fourchette, abounding in Paris luxuries, with wines and café, as in Paris, to which, fortunately for the ships stores, I did not bring my accustomed vigour; and there was style in everything, even to the name of the steward, who was called the maître d'hôtel.

At two o'clock we went on board the Melanie. She was about the same size, and if we had not seen the Belle Poule first, we should have been delighted with her. The comfort and luxury of these "homes on the sea" were in striking contrast with the poverty and misery of the desolate shore. The captain of the Belle Poule came on board to dine, It was a pleasure to us to see the delight with which these two Bordeaux men and their crews met on this distant shore. Cape Horn, Peru, and Chili were the subjects of conversation, and we found on board a file of papers, which gave us the latest news from our friends in the Sandwich Islands. Mr. C. and the captain of the Belle Poule remained on board till we got under way. We bade them good-bye over the railing; the evening breeze filled our sails; for a few moments we saw them, a dark spot on the water; the wave sank, and we lost sight of them entirely.

I remained on deck but a short time. I was the only passenger, and the maître d'hôtel made me a bed with settees directly under the stern windows, but I could not sleep. Even with windows and doors wide open the cabin was excessively warm; the air was heated, and it was full of mosquitoes. The captain and mates slept on deck. I was advised not to do so, but at twelve o'clock I went out. It was bright starlight; the sails were flapping against the mast; the ocean was like a sheet of glass, and the coast dark and irregular, gloomy, and portentous with volcanoes. The great bear was almost upon me, the north star was lower than I had ever seen it before, and, like myself, seemed waning. A young sailor of the watch on deck spoke to me of the deceitfulness of the sea, of shipwrecks, of the wreck of an American vessel which he had fallen in with on his first cruise in the Pacific, and of his beautiful and beloved France. The freshness of the air was grateful; and while he was entertaining me, I stretched myself on a settee and fell asleep.

The next day I had a recurrence of fever, which continued upon me all day, and the captain put me under ship's discipline. In the morning the maître d'hôtel stood by me with cup and spoon,—"Monsieur, un vomitif;" and in the afternoon, "Monsieur, une purge." When we arrived at Acajutla I was unable to go ashore. As soon as we cast anchor the captain landed, and before leaving for Zonzonate engaged mules and men for me. The port of Acajutla is not quite so open as that of Istapa, having on the south a slight projecting headland of rock. In the offing were a goelette brig for a port in Peru, a Danish schooner for Guayaquil, and an English brig from London. All the afternoon I sat on the upper deck. Some of the sailors were asleep, and others playing cards. In sight were six volcanoes; one constantly emitting smoke, and another flames. At night the Volcano of Izalco seemed a steady ball of fire.

The next morning the mate took me ashore in the launch. The process was the same as at Istapa, and we were detained some time by the boat of the English vessel occupying the cable. As soon as we struck, a crowd of Indians, naked except a band of cotton cloth around the loins and passing between the legs, backed up against the side of the boat. I mounted the shoulders of one of them; as the wave receded he carried me several paces onward, then stopped and braced himself against the coming wave. I clung to his neck, but was fast sliding down his slippery sides, when he deposited me on the shore of San Salvador, called by the Indians "Cuscatlan," or the land of riches. Alvarado, on his voyage to Peru, was the first Spaniard who ever set foot upon this shore; and as I took special care to keep my feet from getting wet, I could not but think of the hardy frames as well as iron nerves of the conquerors of America.

The mate and sailors took leave of me and returned to the ship. I walked along the shore and up a steep hill. It was only eight o'clock, and already excessively hot. On the bank fronting the sea were the ruins of large warehouses, occupied as receptacles for merchandise under the Spanish dominion, when all the ports of America were closed against foreign vessels. In one corner of the rained building was a sort of guard-room, where a few soldiers were eating tortillas, and one was cleaning his musket. Another apartment was occupied by the captain of the port, who told me that the mules engaged for me had got loose, and the muleteers were looking for them. Here I had the pleasure to meet Dr. Drivon, a gentleman from the island of St. Lucia, who had a large sugar hacienda a few leagues distant, and was at the port to superintend the disembarkation of machinery for a mill from the English brig. While waiting for the mules he conducted me to a hut where he had two Guayaquil hammocks hung, and feeling already the effect of my exertions, I took possession of one of them.

The woman of the rancho was a sort of ship's husband; and there being three vessels in port, the rancho was encumbered with vegetables, fruit, eggs, fowls, and ship's stores. It was close and hot, but very soon I required all the covering I could get. I had a violent ague, followed by a fever, in comparison with which all I had suffered before was nothing. I called for water till the old woman was tired of giving it to me, and went out and left me alone. I became light-headed, wild with pain, and wandered among the miserable huts with only the consciousness that my brain was scorching. I have an indistinct recollection of speaking English to some Indian women, begging them to get me a horse to ride to Zonzonate; of some laughing, others looking at me with pity, and others leading me out of the sun, and making me lie down under the shade of a tree. At three o'clock in the afternoon the mate came ashore again. I had changed my position, and he found me lying on my face asleep, and almost withered by the sun. He wanted to take me back on board the ship, but I begged him to procure mules and take me to Zonzonate, within the reach of medical assistance. It is hard to feel worse than I did when I mounted. I passed three hours of agony, scorched by the intense heat, and a little before dark arrived at Zonzonate, fortunate, as Dr. Drivon afterward told me, in not having suffered a stroke of the sun. Before entering the town and crossing the bridge over the Rio Grande, I met a gentleman well mounted, having a scarlet Peruvian pellon over his saddle, with whose appearance I was struck, and we exchanged low bows. This gentleman, as I afterward learned, was the government I was looking after.

I rode to the house of Captain de Nouvelle's brother, one of the largest in the place, where I had that comfort, seldom known in Central America, a room to myself, and everything else necessary. For several days I remained within doors. The first afternoon I went out I called upon Don Manuel de Aguilar, formerly chief of the State of Costa Rica, but about a year before driven out by a revolution and banished for life. At his house I met Don Diego Vigil, the vice-president of the republic, the same gentleman whom I had met on the bridge, and the only existing officer of the Federal Government.

His business at Zonzonate showed the wretched state of the country. He had come expressly to treat with Rascon, the head of the band which had prevented my coming from Guatimala by land. Chico Rascon, as he was familiarly called in Zonzonate, was of an old and respectable family, who had spent a large fortune in dissipation in Paris, and returning in desperate circumstances, had turned patriot. About six months before, he had made a descent upon Zonzonate, killed the garrison to a man, robbed the custom-house, and retreated to his hacienda. He was then on a visit in the town, publicly, by appointment with Señor Vigil, and demanded, as the price of disbanding his troops, a colonel's commission for himself, other commissions for some of his followers, and 4,000 dollars in money. Vigil assented to all except the 4,000 dollars in money, but offered instead the credit of the State of San Salvador, which Rascon agreed to accept. Papers were drawn up, and that afternoon was appointed for their execution; but, while Vigil was waiting for him, Rascon and his friends, without a word of notice, mounted their horses and rode out of town. The place was thrown into great excitement, and in the evening I saw the garrison busily engaged in barricading the plaza, in apprehension of another attack.

While these occurrences were taking place, I remained in Zonzonate recruiting. The town is situated on the banks of the Rio Grande, which is formed by almost innumerable springs, and in the Indian language its name means 400 springs of water. It stands in one of the richest districts of the rich State of San Salvador, and has its plaza, with streets at right angles, and white houses of one story, some of them very large; but it has borne its share of the calamities which have visited the unfortunate Republic. The best houses are deserted, and their owners in exile. There are seven costly churches, and but one cura.

I was unable to undertake any journey by land, and feeling the enervating effect of the climate, swung all day in a hammock. Fortunately, the proprietors of the brig which I had seen at Acajutla, bound for Peru, changed her destination, and determined to send her to Costa Rica, the southernmost state of the Confederacy. At the same time, a man offered as a servant, very highly recommended, and whose appearance I liked; and I resolved to have the benefit of the sea voyage, and, in returning by land, explore the canal route between the Atlantic and Pacific by the Lake of Nicaragua, a thing which I had desired much, but despaired of being able to accomplish.

Before leaving I roused myself for an excursion. The window of my room opened upon the Volcano of Izalco. All day I heard at short intervals the eruptions of the burning mountain, and at night saw the column of flame bursting from the crater, and streams of fire rolling down its side. Fortunately, Mr. Blackwood, an Irish merchant, for many years resident in Peru, arrived, and agreed to accompany me. The next morning before five o'clock we were in the saddle. At the distance of a mile we forded the Rio Grande, here a wild river, and riding through a rich country, in half an hour reached the Indian village of Naguisal, a lovely spot, and literally a forest of fruits and flowers. Large trees were perfectly covered with red, and at every step we could pluck fruit. Interspersed among these beautiful trees were the miserable huts of Indians, and lying on the ground, or at some lazy work, were the miserable Indians themselves. Before us, at the extreme end of a long street, was the church of Izalco, standing out in strong relief against the base of the volcano, which at that moment, with a loud report like the rolling of thunder, threw in the air a column of black smoke and ashes, lighted by a single flash of flame.

With difficulty we obtained a guide, but he was so tipsy that he could scarcely guide himself along a straight street; and he would not go till the next day, as he said it was so late that we should be caught on the mountain at night, and that it was full of tigers. In the meantime the daughter of our host found another, and, stowing four green cocoa-nuts in his alforjas, we set out. Soon we came out upon an open plain, and, without a bush to obstruct the view, saw on our left the whole volcano from its base to its top. It rose from near the foot of a mountain, to a height perhaps of 6,000 feet, its sides brown and barren, and all around for miles the earth was covered with lava. Being in a state of eruption, it was impossible to ascend it, but behind it is a higher mountain, which commands a view of the burning crater. The whole volcano was in full sight, spouting into the air a column of black smoke and an immense body of stones, while the earth shook under our feet. Crossing the plain, we commenced ascending the mountain. At eleven o’clock we sat down by the bank of a beautiful stream to breakfast. My companion had made abundant provision, and for the first time since I left Guatimala I felt the keenness of returning appetite.

In half an hour we mounted, and soon after twelve o'clock entered the woods, having a very steep ascent by a faint path, which we soon lost altogether. Our guide changed his direction several times, and at length got lost, tied his horse, and left us to wait while he searched the way. We knew that we were near the Volcano, for the explosions sounded like the deep mutterings of dreadful thunder. Shut up as we were in the woods, these reports were awful. Our horses snorted with terror, and the mountain quaked beneath our feet. Our guide returned, and in a few minutes we came out suddenly upon an open point, higher than the top of the volcano, commanding a view of the interior of the crater, and so near it that we saw the huge stones as they separated in the air, and fell pattering around the sides of the volcano. In a few minutes our clothes were white with ashes, which fell around us with a noise like the sprinkling of rain.

The crater had three orifices, one of which was inactive; another emitted constantly a rich blue smoke; and after a report, deep in the huge throat of the third, appeared a light blue vapour, and then a mass of thick black smoke, whirling and struggling out in enormous wreaths, and rising in a dark majestic column, lighted for a moment by a sheet of flame; and when the smoke dispersed, the atmosphere was darkened by a shower of stones and ashes. This over, a moment of stillness followed, and then another report and eruption, and these continued regularly, at intervals, as our guide said, of exactly five minutes, and really he was not much out of the way. The sight was fearfully grand. We refreshed ourselves with a draught of cocoa-nut milk, and thought how this grandeur would be heightened when the stillness and darkness of night were interrupted by the noise and flame, and forthwith resolved to sleep upon the mountain.

The cura of Zonzonate, still in the vigour of life, told me that he remembered when the ground on which this volcano stands had nothing to distinguish it from any other spot around. In 1708 a small orifice was discovered puffing out small quantities of dust and pebbles. He was then living at Izalco, and, as a boy, was in the habit of going to look at it; and he had watched it, and marked its increase from year to year, until it had grown into what it is now. Captain de Nouvelle told me he could observe from the sea, that it had grown greatly within the last two years. Two years before, its light could not be seen at night on the other side of the mountain on which I stood. Night and day it forces up stones from the bowels of the earth, spouts them into the air, and receives them upon its sides. Every day it is increasing, and probably it will continue to do so until the inward fires die, or by some violent convulsion the whole is rent to atoms.

Old travellers are not precluded occasional bursts of enthusiasm, but they cannot keep it up long. In about an hour we began to be critical and even captious. Some eruptions were better than others, and some were comparatively small affairs. In this frame of mind we summed up our want of comforts for passing the night on the mountain, and determined to return. Mr. Blackwood and I thought that we could avoid the circuit of the mountain, by descending directly to the base of the volcano, and crossing it, reach the camino real; but our guide said it was a tempting of Providence, and refused to accompany us. We had a very steep descent on foot, and in some places our horses slid down on their haunches. An immense bed of lava, stopped in its rolling course by the side of the mountain, filled up the wide space between us and the base of the volcano. We stepped directly upon this black and frightful bed, but we had great difficulty in making our horses follow. The lava lay in rolls as irregular as the waves of the sea, sharp, rough, and with huge chasms, difficult for us, and dangerous for the horses. With great labour we dragged them to the base and around the side of the volcano. Massive stones, hurled into the air, fell and rolled down the sides, so near, that we dared not venture further. We were afraid of breaking our horses' legs in the holes into which they were constantly felling, and turned back. On the lofty point from which we had looked down into the crater of the volcano sat our guide, gazing, and, as we could imagine, laughing at us. We toiled back across the bed of lava and up the side of the mountain, and when we reached the top, both my horse and I were almost exhausted. Fortunately, the road home was down hill. It was long after dark when we passed the foot of the mountain and came out upon the plain. Every burst of the volcano sent forth a pillar of fire; in four places were steady fires, and in one a stream of fire was rolling down its side. At eleven o'clock we reached Zonzonate, besides toiling around the base of the volcano, having ridden upwards of fifty miles; and such had been the interest of the day's work, that, though my first effort, I never suffered from it.

The arrangements for my voyage down the Pacific were soon made. The servant to whom I referred was a native of Costa Rica, then on his way home, after a long absence, with a cargo of merchandise belonging to himself. He was a tall, good-looking fellow, dressed in a Guatimala jacket or coton, a pair of Mexican leather trousers, with buttons down the sides, and a steeple-crowned, broad-brimmed, drab wool hat, altogether far superior to any servant I saw in the country; and I think if it had not been for him I should not have undertaken the journey. The reader will perhaps be shocked to hear that his name was Jesus, pronounced in Spanish 'Hezoos, by which latter appellation, to avoid what might be considered profanity, I shall hereafter call him.