Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 29

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Difficultly of passing the Mountain.—Reach Izabal. —Meeting with Mr. O'Reilley.—Receive a Despatch from Mr. de Soza, Minister for Foreign Affairs.—Fort of San Felipe.—Voyage out of the Gulf.—Disembark at Belize.

At nine o'clock the next morning, Saturturday the 23d July, we set off on that most tremendous expedition of passing the mountain: it is laborious at all seasons, but, in the rains, the difficulties of it are hardly to be described.

Previously to arriving at Mico, the last evening, we had passed through a grove of the most magnificent palms that I had ever seen: mackaws and various other parrots with different birds of splendid plumage studded the loftier trees, and startled, at intervals, the deep solitude of the scene with their appalling screech. Here and there a large monkey darted across the path, and, peeping round the trunk of a tree, made hideous faces at us as we passed: amidst the high matted reeds, sometimes, we observed or fancied we observed the rustling of some animal, when we instinctively put our hands upon our holsters: it might be a tiger, for these animals are not wanting to this wild seclusion: the poor mules, in the mean while, were plunging, every few paces, up to their girths in deep morass, and, if the ground was hard, it was so slippery with the wet that they could scarcely maintain a footing.

On entering the route, this day, toward the mountain, we descended into large plains, skirted with forests. When about a league from Mico, it was discovered that one of the baggage mules was missing: half an hour's search was made, but no mule appeared; the animal had been left in one of the forests through which we had passed, and nothing could be done but to go back in search of it. In this predicament, my faithful Murillo again stepped forward; a staff in his hand to support him from slipping down from the narrow crooked paths which often ran along the edge of precipices, and with nothing else but a pair of short drawers to encumber him in the way of dress: he asked two or three pertinent questions of the chief muleteer, and darted off into the thickest of the forest: in less than half an hour we saw him at a distance coming up to us with the lost mule: in the interim, I had undergone much apprehension that the animal would not be found, and of course concluded that it was the one which carried the only baggage which I should have been really distressed at losing,—I mean my despatches. By an extraordinary coincidence this was the very fact, and I was, naturally, the more delighted in witnessing the mule's arrival. The question which Murillo had asked of the muleteer shewed his knowledge of the nature of the animal and his own peculiar fitness and utility as a conductor in travels of this difficult nature: he had inquired from what farm the animal had been taken, well knowing that, on losing the drove, it would be able instinctively to direct its course to that spot, and this it was doing when he overtook and brought it back.

It took us eight hours of hard labour to pass the mountain: about half the time was occupied in the ascent and the other half in the descent; for there were sufficient variations in this route to break any general uniformity in our progress either up or down. The few plains which occurred were deep glens in which the animals found no footing, but plunged along, for the most part in beds of mud. In the slopes they sometimes got fixed in with their baggage in the narrow defiles of the rocks, or foundered, with all four legs so deeply stuck into the cavities as to render them incapable of all exertion: in such cases, the muleteers disburthen the animal, and with their united efforts extricate it from its thraldom. Every step is a labour: each leg is pulled out of one hole, even in the harder plots, and placed on the edge of another into which it slips down by aid of the lubricating mud upon the surface; and in many instances the poor animal rests upon its chest or its belly, the hole being too deep for its legs to fathom. In these cases, I had some difficulty in riding my horse, for he would always endeavour to keep his feet out of the holes, whilst the nature of the road rendered it impossible for him to do so: at first he was violently enraged and threatened to dash himself to pieces; but by degrees, as I pulled him down each step into the holes, he began to walk, much against his inclination: he was the only horse in the whole party; and I was strongly advised to ride a mule; but I knew the value of being well mounted, and had reason to congratulate myself in sticking to my resolution, on the present as well as every other occasion.

We were now within two leagues of the coast, and I ventured on alone some distance through the forest with the joyful expectation of seeing the waters which embraced in their span the coast I was about to leave and that to which I was going. The arduous parts of the journey had been passed, and the tropical foliage evinced the low regions of the port of Izabal. By the rapidity with which I had proceeded I thought that I ought to have arrived there, if I had gone the right way: by the position of the sun it appeared that I could not be mistaken, but as there were still three hours of daylight and the spot was romantically beautiful, I dismounted and refreshed my horse with a drink from a pure stream which crossed our path Whilst I was remounting, an Indian passed by, who informed me that I was not far from the direct route, and that the muleteers would pass within a small distance of me, or perhaps might come by that very spot. As he had proceeded from Izabal, I detained him in conversation about the place: learnt that a British schooner had arrived on the preceding evening, and, from what I could ascertain, that Mr. O'Reilley had come in her. In the course of half an hour, my companion looking through the forest, said, "Alli estan," (there they are,) but I could see nothing. "Las mulas, Señor"' (the mules, Sir). It was two or three minutes before I could distinguish them, passing, in the distance, through the wild recesses of the forest. In the course of another hour, we entered Izabal: after leaving the woods, the last mile or two lay through wide lanes covered with green sward, and might be passable enough when not so swampy as they now were.

The lake which is of fresh water, as its name Dulce denotes, is a fine expanse of about thirty miles by twenty, so that it forms a beautiful object as you descend down to the coast: as the creek, which leads into the small gulf, or Golfeto, communicating with the Atlantic is very narrow, its mouth is not discernible, and the borders of the gulf are therefore, as far as they can be made out, composed of thickly wooded slopes rising gradually into a spacious verdant amphitheatre.

About half a mile from the shore lay the schooner, and, nearer in, three or four smaller craft, with a few boats and canoes, upon the beech: the town consists of thirty houses indifferently built, with a very hut-like appearance, and in a straggling manner, within a quarter of a mile square; some of them being within thirty yards of the water's edge, which is affected by a slight tide. The population is about 100 souls, exclusive of the military, who are on duty for the defence of the place, and who, at this time, did not exceed twenty-seven, rank and file.

The only house with any tolerable convenience or comfort is that of Mr. Benson, and thither we were directed to guide our steps. Having entered the outer yard of this abode I met poor Mr. O'Reilley: I shall never forget the delight which he manifested in seeing me: he had suffered much in his passage up the gulf, and entertained many apprehensions at the nature of the journey he had to encounter to the capital: indeed my appearance warranted him in the conclusion that it was not one of an ordinary nature; for my white cotton jacket, as well as my face, had become so splashed and covered with mud as completely to disguise their natural appearance: my leather boots or leggings were one mass of half dried clay, and my English leather breeches (I generally rode in these, without buttons at the knees) had nearly adopted the same extraneous colouring. We had of course much to say to each other, and, being left to ourselves, began to talk over particulars: I now discovered that the Commission which had arrived at Belize was the Commission of Inquiry into the State of the Laws of the West Indies, and had nothing to do with any of the Commissions to the New Republics; Mr. O'Reilley told me that his appointment as consul was not to interfere in any way with the duties I was sent to fulfil, but on the contrary he was ordered to look to me for any advice or assistance which, as a new comer unacquainted with the politics and manners of the country, he might require: and, what in my present situation was not a little consolatory, he also assured me that there was a strong impression at home that I was likely to give satisfaction with regard to the Commission with which I had been intrusted: on the other hand, he learned from me the exact state of affairs in the republic to which he had been sent: I gave him my horse and accoutrements, which were valuable to him, as he was unprovided with a saddle or the leggings of which I have spoken: he had also the benefit of such other articles of my travelling apparatus as might be deemed convenient for him to retain;—including the Chinese: he gave me a filtering stone, with other small conveniences for a voyage, and, after this interchange of good offices, we parted on the following evening, Sunday, 24th July, at seven o'clock, when I embarked on board the schooner which had brought him from Belize.

A few minutes before I left the house, I received an extraordinary courier from Mr. Soza, the minister for foreign affairs: he had sent me a small box containing specimens of the different tobaccos produced in the country, made up into cigars. I ought to have mentioned that I had yesterday paid a visit to Don Indalesio Pergamo, the commandant of the town: the poor man had been ill of an intermittent fever: he was lying in his hammock, and presented a picture of the most frightful emaciation: he hardly seemed as if he would live a minute: I peeped into his dwelling to take my leave of him before I went aboard, but he was unconscious of any attention, and I left the poor sufferer for dead. It was a sad parting specimen of the sickness and mortality of the coast of Izabal.

We had been able to provide ourselves with a few fowls, which, with some onions and green chillies, and a little fresh bread, constituted the stock for our voyage. The point from which we embarked, and which is put down in the maps as Bodegas, to the first strait, is seventeen miles; and, about seven o'clock the next morning, we reached Fort San Felipe, on the left side of the mouth of the strait, in passing down. There were on board the schooner five men besides the captain, who now went on shore to show his papers to the commandant of the fort: the battery consisted of four guns, of about fourteen and twenty-four pounds calibre, commanding the river both ways. The fort itself is on a rising ground, and behind it are five or six indifferent cottages: the commandant's house is little better than a hut; and the whole population, garrison included, did not amount to thirty souls.

The commandant, a man of forty, and of the caste between a creolian and a negro, was very polite and ordered breakfast to be provided: I offered him a handsome recompense, but he would not accept of any; I, therefore, paid the compliment to his daughter, a buxom young girl, possessing in a prominent degree all the supposed perfections of negro beauty. She had on a turban composed of an indifferent old handkerchief, which I took off, and, happening to have a handsome maroon coloured China one in my pocket, twisted it round her head, leaving her to tie the knot according to her fancy; which she immediately did, in an off-hand way, and with as much composure as though this was the usual manner in which she had been accustomed to make her toilette. She now asked what else I had to give her; seemed particularly desirous for my shoes, which she tried on her own feet, and made me promise, as I knew the size, to bring her back some when I returned from my country; only to remember that they were to be of the same colour as the handkerchief. This flirtation, which was going on before the assembled population of the fort, caused great amusement and satisfaction. The commandant chuckled at his daughter's address, and was pleased with her affable and courteous demeanour towards strangers: the soldiers who were also Africans, grinned and chattered out their approbation, and we embarked with the blessings and good wishes of all parties, particularly of the sable miss, whose parting words were—"don't forget the shoes."

The narrow passage between the large gulf which we had left and the little gulf we were about to enter takes the name of the fort, and is called the river Felipe: it is ornamented with woody mountains rising on each side from its banks, which vary in width from one to three or even five miles, up the channel: the large gulf was as smooth as glass, but on entering the river the stream became pretty rapid.

By seven o'clock this evening the 25th, we arrived with a good breeze to within seven miles of the bar, and came to anchor in the narrowest part of the river: here, the banks were on each side closed in with lofty umbrageous mountains: the mast of our little vessel got entangled amongst the branches of the trees which were hanging over the water: about ten o'clock a storm of thunder and lightning came on, which lasted, without intermission, till two in the morning: the peals were terrific and the flashes almost blinding: the heat was most intense, but it was impossible to keep the hatches open, as the little cabin would have been deluged with the rain: Don Francisco and myself had tried the plan of keeping them shut, but found it not to be endured, and we had no other resource but to sit upon deck, exposed to the appalling rigour of the storm. After this miserable night, we weighed anchor, the next day, at five, and came off the Vigia, or Look-out, on our right: a little a-head we observed some long stakes stuck up in the water to show the channel. Here the schooner touched the first shoal for twenty yards over a bar of about five and an half to six feet: this shallow runs across a small bay about three quarters of a mile wide, just after leaving the channel which is not in some parts a quarter of a mile broad: indeed looking back at the latter from the bay it appeared like a rivulet at the bottom of some woody ravine. Vessels sometimes get grounded on the bar for three or four days together: the sea breeze sets in over it from ten to eleven a. m. daily: this increases the depth of the water, as it throws back the current of the river; so that vessels drawing more than is usually on the bar, lie to on the inner side of it, and shift their ballast to starboard, whereby they also gain another foot of water. A fine breeze brought us by eleven o'clock to point Manawick, and at one we were off Seven Hills; the remainder of the day and all the night we made no progress, as the north-east wind blew directly in our teeth, and continued so for the whole of the next day, the 28th.

Our faces were dreadfully scorched and blistered by exposure to the hot weather, and we felt sorely tired of the voyage, although it was considered a tolerably favourable one: we had performed it in five days, and it is seldom effected in less than from five to eight to Belize, and from eight to ten from Belize to Izabal; as, in the latter case, the current is against you in the very places where the wind would be most useful, but is kept off by the lofty barriers encircling the narrow channel; so that it is necessary to get out of the vessel and tow her, with infinite labour, along the shore, impeded by the branches of the trees and the obstructions from the natural unevenness of the banks.