Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 16

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Dinner at the President's.—Visit to the old city of Guatemala or Antigua.—Its three extraordinary mountains.

Sunday, 19th. I this day, had the honour of dining with the president, at the Palace: the party consisted of M. Soza, Minister for the Home and Foreign Affairs; M. Beteta, Minister of Finance; General Millar, and M. Isidro Mendez, both chief members of the senate. We were, altogether, only six in number. Dinner was served at two o'clock. There were seldom more than two or three dishes at a time on the table, each of which the President himself helped, by putting some portions of it on a separate plate which was successively offered to the company. As I felt aware it might appear deficiency in good breeding not to take, at least, a small portion of every dish presented to me, I of course helped myself to each in routine: they succeeded one another by such numbers of removes, that my fortitude began to falter; fortunately, however, it did not quite yield, as I should have been sorry to have given offence where such marked kindness and attention were evidently meant to be shewn. During the dessert, the President, after a short speech on the rapid progress of their independence and the stability it had acquired, drank a brinda or toast to those who had assisted in promoting or otherwise befriending it; and concluded by drinking the health of his Britannic Majesty and the English people. In returning thanks, I wished that Guatemala might continue to enjoy the happiness and tranquillity she experienced;—that, as she was the last to obtain her independence, so she might be the last to lose it; and that, though the youngest of the new states, she might, like Joseph, who surpassed his brethren, eventually exceed in honour and importance all the rest of her rivalling confederates.

The conversation now turned on the central position of the Republic, its consequent facilities for commerce and intercourse not only with Jamaica, and the British islands, but also, through her medium, with Peru and Chile. The proposed navigation by the lake of Nicaragua was also discussed, by which the British intercourse with China and the East Indies would be so much facilitated,—together with other subjects of equal political and commercial importance as well to the Republic as to the empire of Great Britain, I had the pleasure of being told by the President, on this occasion, that he had been informed by Don Juan de Mayorga, their minister at Mexico, of the interest I had taken in favour of their Republic. He had heard, he said, that I had, on many occasions, spoken in support of its new organization, in answer to parties at Mexico who had wished Guatemala to be still dependent upon that Republic; and he concluded by drinking my health, and hoping that I might return and radicate (that was his expression) myself in the country. Flattering as these sentiments were, I did not feel that I merited them:—nothing would give me greater pleasure than to return to live amongst them; but as my whole life had hitherto been devoted, however humbly, to the service of my country, at home, I could not expect to be able to return without some official employment, which it was equally uncertain if I should ever have the good fortune to obtain. — The conversation afterwards took a lighter turn, perhaps much more interesting to my readers if I should repeat it, but which, I beg leave to tell them I cannot; they will agree with me that moments passed in friendship and conviviality should always be esteemed sacred, even in the company of our equals; but that to reveal the confidence of superiors, when they honour us with it, betrays, something like a weakness of understanding with a badness of heart.—Tea and coffee were introduced, without the removal of the cloth. We then passed into an adjoining room, where there was a table laid out with liqueurs and cigars, where we spent another hour very socially; and about six o'clock in the evening, we took our leave.

Monday, 20th June. About five o'clock this morning I mounted my horse with a view of visiting the former city of Santiago de Guatemala, now called the "Antigua": it lies about nine leagues to the s.w. of the new capital, towards the South Sea; and is the town where the congress of the State is held. Although it has been often visited by dreadful earthquakes, its population has, always, within a short period of each successive calamity, reached 8000 or 12,000 souls. The canon Dighero, who was devoting his scientific labours towards the effecting of a good communication, either by road or canal, between the present capital and the Pacific, informed me that he remembered the earthquake which took place on the 29th of July, 1773, and which was succeeded by a further shock on the 2d of December of the same year: on neither of these occasions, did the whole of the inhabitants desert the city; and it was, at length, endeavoured to compel them to remove from it by a royal mandate, but without effect; nor did the ecclesiastics of the cathedral quit the old capital, until about the year 1779, although they were warned to do so by two other smart shocks, which occurred in the year 1775. The "Incorrigibles," as the present inhabitants are aptly called, amount to about 18,000 souls; and houses are both scarce and dear. The road, for the first five miles out of the new city, is over fine grassy downs; after which, it becomes more woody; then you pass through deep glens and climb the sides of precipitous ravines, which continue to the entrance of the Antigua: on approaching it, I was greatly struck with the romantic beauty of the town itself, as well as of the surrounding scenery. I will attempt to describe it.

Two sides of the city, those to the south and east, are bounded by the three grand conical mountains of Guatemala, and the other two sides by craggy and luxuriant sierras of less elevation; amongst which winds the road to the new capital. The most beautiful of the three large mountains is to the east: it is called the Water Mountain, as emitting, at times, cold water from its northern side: the other two, to the south, also emit water, but as the same is always hot, they have acquired the designation of the Fire Mountains. The hot water, which flows from the north side of them, is very medicinal, and is called De Bartolomé Acatenango. There is a larger mountain to the south of these volcanoes called Pacaya, and another to the west called Atitañ. The three largest mountains are, in fact, quite close to the city, and they rise with gentle, uniform, slopes from the very streets of it, being cultivated nearly half the way up with the nopal or cochineal plant and indigo, and interspersed with luxuriant gardens and grotesque Indian villages; having the remainder of their heights adorned, to their very summits, with trees of an exuberant growth. The height of the plain of Old as well as New Guatemala is about 1,800 feet above the level of the sea: the tops of the mountains, taken from the same level, are about a league or 15,000 feet high. They therefore rise, from their base, to the height of about 13,200 feet, which, although it is 2,547 feet lower than the inferior limit of perpetual snow, is (I shall presently show) from 1000 to 3000 feet higher from the level of their base than any other mountains in North or South America.

The loftiest mountain, and nearest to the city of Mexico, is that of Ajusco, towards the south; its main height is 12,052 feet; but, standing on the verge of that table land, which is itself elevated 7,470 feet, its actual height from its base to its summit is only 4,582 feet. Ajusco, seen at the distance of ten leagues from the city of Mexico, is a noble sight; how then must I have been struck with the mountains of the Antigua, whose bases arise from the verge of its streets to an elevation nearly three times as great as that of Ajusco; and which, from their relative elevation above the level of the sea, and on account of their being situated under a warmer latitude, are covered with perpetual verdure, to their very summits! Chimborazo, the highest peak of the Andes in South America, is 21,441 feet; but it rests upon a plain of 9,514, leaving for its actual height from its base only 11,927 feet, 2,700 of which are covered with snow.

The two highest of the Mexican mountains Popocatēpetl and Ixtacxihuātle, viewed from a distance, present, with their snow-clad summits, a grand and terrific appearance. The loftiest, which is 17,710 feet above the level of the sea, rises from its base to the height of about 10,000 feet, whereas the three indestructible volcanoes of Guatemala (it is extraordinary that they have no names,—perhaps Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego might do) are elevated, as we have seen, 13,000 feet. There is not, probably, in the whole world, so perfect a cone as the Water Mountain of the three in question; and, although it does not appear terrifically grand like the other mountains of these regions, it is preeminently beautiful, and strikes the imagination with sensations of amazement and delight.