Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 7

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Soon after our departure from Puebla,[1] we crossed a small stream spanned by a fine bridge, and commenced ascending by a very gradually inclined plain toward the Sierra Nevada. The mountains on our left are a stupendous range, standing out sharply against the bright blue sky, in the clear early light and pure atmosphere, their lower portions covered with dark pine forests, from which the conic peak of Popocatepetl, with its eternal snow, emerges majestically; while, further north, towers its gigantic rival, Iztaccihautl. Between us and the mountains is the Pyramid of Cholula. As we approach this elevated region, the country becomes well watered, and the plain is just sufficiently inclined for irrigation; the soil rich, the estates extensive, and cultivated with the greatest care. Immense herds of cattle are spread over the fields, and the land, now preparing for the winter crops, is divided into extensive tracts of a thousand acres, along which the furrows are drawn with mathematical accuracy. Among these noble farms a multitude of habitations are scattered, which, inclosing the numerous population necessary for labor, with the requisite chapels, churches, and surrounding offices, gleam out brightly with their white walls from among the dark foliage of the groves, and impress one as favorably as the multitude of tasteful villages that dot the windings of our beautiful Connecticut.

We breakfasted hastily at San Martin, and for the next league our ascent was almost imperceptible. At length we crossed several fine streams, and the road, rising rapidly, struck more into the mountain. There was no longer any sign of cultivation, even in the dells, but the dense forest spread out on every side its sea of foliage. The road was as smooth as a bowling-green, and we swung along over the levels, up hill and down, until we passed the Puente De Tesmeluca, over a stream dashing from a mountain ravine like a shower of silver from among the verdure. After again ascending another mountain, and following its descent on the other side, we reached the village of Rio Frio, a collection of the miserable huts of coal-burners, and the nest and nursery of as fierce a brood of robbers as haunt the forests. In proof of this, and, moreover, that the Cross, in this land, is no "sign of redemption" the sacred emblem was again spread out on every side, as yesterday in the Barranca Secca, marking the grave of some murdered traveller. We were once more in the fields of romance and robbery; yet, well guarded to-day by a vigilant troop, and in good spirits at the near termination of our trials, we again launched forth for our final ride. Leaving this narrow and desolate ravine among the hills, the road once more ascends by a series of short windings through the pine woods, among which the wind whistled cold and shrill as over our winter plains; and, thus gradually scaling the last mountain on our route, while the increased guard scoured the recesses of the forest, we reached the lofty summit in about an hour, and rolled for some distance along a level table land, catching glimpses, occasionally, of a distant horizon to the west, apparently as illimitable as the sea. The edge of the mountain was soon turned, and as the coach dipped forward on the descent of the western slope, a sudden clearing in the forest disclosed the magnificent Valley of Mexico.

The sight of land to the sea-worn sailor —the sight of home to the wanderer, who has not beheld for years the scene of his boyhood— are not hailed with more thrilling delight than was the exclamation from one of our passengers as he announced this prospect.

I am really afraid to describe this valley to you, as I dislike to deal in hyperboles. I have seen the Simplon—the Spleugen—the view from Rhigi—the "wide and winding Rhine"—and the prospect from Vesuvius over the lovely bay of Naples, its indolent waves sleeping in the warm sunshine on their purple bed—but none of these scenes compare with the Valley of Mexico. They want some one of the elements of grandeur, all of which are gathered here. Although the highest triumphs of human genius and art may disappoint you, Nature never does. The conceptions of Him who laid the foundations of the mountains, and poured the waters of the seas from his open palm, can never be reached by the fancies of men. And if, after all the exaggerated descriptions of St. Peter's and the Pyramids, we feel sick with disappointment when we stand before them, it is never so with the sublime creations of the Almighty.

You would, therefore, no doubt, most readily spare my attempting to give by the pen a description of what even the more graphic pencil has ever failed faithfully to convey. But I feel in some measure bound to make for you a catalogue of this valley's features, though I am confident I must fail to describe or paint them.

Conceive yourself placed on a mountain nearly two thousand feet above the valley, and nine thousand above the level of the sea. A sky above you of the most perfect azure, without a cloud, and an atmosphere so transparently pure, that the remotest objects at the distance of many leagues are as distinctly visible as if at hand. The gigantic scale of everything first strikes you—you seem to be looking down upon a world. No other mountain and valley view has such an assemblage of features, because nowhere else are the mountains at the same time so high, the valley so wide, or filled with such variety of land and water. The plain beneath is exceedingly level, and for two hundred miles around it extends a barrier of stupendous mountains, most of which have been active volcanos, and are now covered, some with snow, and some with forests. It is laced with large bodies of water looking more like seas than lakes—it is dotted with innumerable villages, and estates and plantations; eminences rise from it which, elsewhere, would be called mountains, yet there, at your feet, they seem but ant-hills on the plain; and now, letting your eye follow the rise of the mountains to the west, (near fifty miles distant,) you look over the immediate summits that wall the valley, to another and more distant range—and to range beyond range, with valleys between each, until the whole melts into a vapory distance, blue as the cloudless sky above you.

I could have gazed for hours at this little world while the sun and passing vapor chequered the fields, and sailing off again, left the whole one bright mass of verdure and water—bringing out clearly the domes of the village churches studding the plain or leaning against the first slopes of the mountains, with the huge lakes looming larger in the rarified atmosphere. Yet one thing was wanting. Over the immense expanse there seemed scarce an evidence of life. There were no figures in the picture. It lay torpid in the sunlight, like some deserted region where Nature was again beginning to assert her empire—vast, solitary and melancholy. There were no sails—no steamers on the lakes, no smoke over the villages, no people at labor in the fields, no horsemen, coaches, or travellers but ourselves. The silence was almost supernatural; one expects to hear the echo of the national strife that filled these plains with discord, yet lingering among the hills. It was a picture of "still life" inanimate in every feature, save where, on the distant mountain sides, the fire of some poor coal-burner, mingled its blue wreath with the bluer sky, or the tinkle of the bell of a solitary muleteer was heard from among the dark and solemn pines.

What a theatre for the great drama that has been performed within the limits of this valley! When Cortez first stood upon these mountains, and looked down on the lovely scene, peaceful then and rich under the cultivation of its Indian children; the hills and plains covered with forests, and much of what is now dry land hidden by the extensive lake, in the midst of which rose the proud city of the Aztec kings filled with palaces and temples; in site, another Venice on its inland sea; in art, the Indian Attica—when he beheld, I say, this tranquil scene at his feet, what must have been the avarice and the relentlessness of an unknightly heart that urged him onward to the destruction and enslavement of a civilized and unoffending people, whose only crime was, the possession of a country rich enough to be plundered to minister to the luxury of a bigoted race beyond the sea!



Our descent commenced from the eminence where we had halted awhile to survey the valley. Our coachman was an honest Yankee, fearless as the wild horses he drove, and they scoured along under his lash as if we had the level roads of New England beneath us. But, alas! we had not. I question whether there are any such roads elsewhere—in the world—nor can you conceive them, because your experience amongthe wilds of the Aroostook or the marshes of the Mississippi, can furnish no symptoms of such highways. They were gullies, washed into the mountain side by the rains; filled, here and there, with stones and branches; dammed up, to turn the water, by mounds a couple of feet high—and thus, gradually serpentining to the foot of the declivity. You may readily imagine that there was no such thing as rolling down with our rapid motion over such a ravine. We literally jumped from dam to dam, and rock to rock, and in many places where the steep is certainly at an angle of 45o, I must confess that I quailed at the impending danger while the horses bounded along as fiercely as if they bore Mazeppa. But the driver knew what he was about, and in an hour drew up at the Venta de Cordova, where, when I alighted, I found myself deaf and giddy from the heat, dust, and irregular motion. In a few moments, however, the blood poured from my head and I was relieved, though I felt ill and uncomfortable the rest of the day. Two of the other passengers suffered in the same manner.[2]

The succeeding distance of about thirty miles lies along the level, and skirts a detached range of volcanic hills between the lakes of Tezcoco and Chalco, the same which I described, some time ago, as rising like ant-heaps from the plain. We passed the village of Ayotla, and through a number of collections of mud-walled huts and desolate hovels, buried up among palm-trees and fields of barley and maguey, (resembling the streets of ruined tombs near Rome;) but nowhere did I see any evidence of neat or careful cultivation, or of comfort and thriftiness. In this the valley of Mexico is, markedly, different from that of Puebla. Misery and neglect reigned absolute. Squalid Indians in rags exhibiting almost entirely their dirty bodies, thronged the road; miserable devils coming from market; children, half-starved and naked, and women, whose wiry and uncombed hair gave them the mien of porcupines.

At length, as we gained the top of a little eminence our driver pointed out the "City of Mexico:"—a long line of turrets, and domes, and spires, lying in the lap of beautiful meadows, and screened, partially, by intervening trees, planted along the numerous avenues leading to the Capital. About two leagues from the city we came to the ancient border of the lake of Tezcoco, now a marshy flat from which the waters have receded. Here we mounted the Calzada, or causeway, raised about six feet above the surrounding waters.

This road is not one of the ancient avenues by which the city was approached, across the lake, during the reign of the Indians, but was constructed at great expense by the old Spanish Government. Although the land to the north of it is covered with saline particles that are perfectly visible as you ride along, yet the southern flats, being watered by the fresher stream from Chalco which flows through several apertures of the dike, are in no manner discolored. The northern marsh was covered with myriads of ducks, and looked as if it had been literally peppered with wild fowl. These birds are murdered in immense quantities with a sort of infernal machine, formed by the union of a great number of gun-barrels, and they furnish the chief food of the poor of Mexico.

Thus, about four o'clock, we passed this unprepossessing approach to the Capital, driving by the body of a man who had just been murdered, lying on the road side, with the blood flowing from his recent wound. Hundreds passed, but no one noticed him. At the gates we were detained only a moment for examination, and we entered the city by the Puerta de San Lazaro. A saint who suffered from impure blood, and presides over sores, may well be the patron of that portal and portion of the suburbs through which we jolted over disjoined pavements, while the water lay green and putrid in the stagnant gutter, festering in the middle of close streets, swarmed with ragged thousands. As I looked at them from our window, they seemed more like a population of witches, freshly dismounted from their broomsticks, than anything else to which, in fancy, I can readily compare them.

But the journey ended as we drove to the hotel Vergara, where a dirty court-yard, filled with sheep, chickens, horses, bath-houses, and a blacksmith's shop, received our jaded crew. I found that a kind friend had already prepared rooms for me, where, after a bath and dinner, I was made as comfortable as possible, by the attentions of a hospitable land-lady.

  1. It is not over two or three hundred yards from the gates of Puebla, where most of the robberies of which I afterward heard during my residence in Mexico, occurred. A band of some five, ten, or a dozen men, armed, with their faces covered with crap, usually stood waiting in the early dawn, for the diligence. If there were armed foreigners in the coach, they would look in, consult a moment, and then ride off. If the passengers were unarmed, and the boot of the vehicle looked heavy and tempting, the result was the perfect sacking of the whole company. Their persons were first robbed and partially stripped as they descended from the door: they were then made to be down with their mouths on the ground—and their trunks were rifled. One lady (the present prima donna of the opera in Mexico) lost $8000 in doubloons and jewels, at this very spot— notwithstanding a guard had been promised by the authorities, and paid for. The instances, however, were innumerable and immperdonable, while regiments of cavalry dozed, within a quarter of a mile, in a city almost under Martial Law.

    While I resided in the Capital, during Santa Anna's vigorous administration, he had some 65 or 70 garrotted. Two or three every week. This for a time struck terror to the band; but I learn that lately they have again taken the road with renewed vigor.

  2. Almost all travellers suffer from giddines and flow of blood to the head on their arrival on the Valley of Mexico. This arises from the rarefaction of the atmosphere, 7000 feet above the level of the sea.