Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/20

Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8  (1828)  by Henry Dunn
Part IV, Chapter II: Vale of Petapa, -Lake of Amatitan, -Falls of San Pedro Martyr, -Escuintla, -Salt Works, &c.


Vale of Petapa,—Lake of Amatitan,—Falls of San Pedro Martyr,—Escuintla,—Salt Works, &c.

From this hacienda two of us set out for the shores of the Pacific, following the course of the river Michatoyat, which discharges itself into the great ocean at about 14° north latitude, forming what is termed the Bar of Istapa. Passing through a long lane, formed chiefly by wild fruit-trees, and ending in beautiful meadows, we began to descend by a steep and rocky path into the valley of Petapa. The way was literally choked up with flowers, rising five and six feet high. The descent, which afforded us a fine view of the luxuriant valley at the foot of the mountain, ornamented by old ruins, and bounded by the lake on one side and the mountains on the other, consisted of windings through this immense bed, every instant supplying scenery which truly merited the term paradisaical.

Near the foot of the hill we found a tolerable trapiché, where we left our horses in order to visit the ruins of the old town of Petapa, which was swept away by a flood, about the year 1750, occasioned by the sudden obstruction of the river, which flows down the mountain. The only vestiges now remaining are the ruins of two churches, which stand near to each other, and are of considerable size; one was devoted to the Indian population, the other to the ladinos and whites. Whether this separation was occasioned by the permission of any mixture of Indian superstition in the worship of the aboriginal population, or whether it sprung from that proud distinction which these strange Christians maintained, even at the footstool of God, over their fellow-worms, we know not; in either case it was disgraceful. This spot possessed some additional interest in our eyes, as having been the curacy of the English friar Tomas Gage, before alluded to. The ruins at a distance are picturesque, and not uninteresting on a close examination. In one of the churches a fine cupola, and several small Grecian pillars still remain entire. In the other the side chapels, some of them ornamented by figures half obliterated, are still to be seen; while the body of the church now serves as a bed for a few orange and lime-trees, and ivy and moss have covered the cracked walls. The three small villages which now bear the name of Petapa formed at the period of the catastrophe a considerable town.

Returning to the trapiché we met with the proprietor, who gave us a very hospitable reception, and showed us his mill, the great wheel of which was turned by a considerable stream descending from the mountain, and forming two small falls, one of about ten feet and the other five. On this trapiché he employs about sixteen men, who receive, some one shilling sterling, and others nine pence a day, and are occupied in the manufacture of panelas. The process is very simple: the cane which grows luxuriantly in the valley, is cut and crushed between cylindrical rollers; the juice which flows into the vat beneath, is then boiled, and when arrived at a sufficient degree of consistency, is poured into small hollow wooden beds, the size of the panela, where it cools, hardens, and forms a solid cake, in which state it is sold for the manufacture of chicha and agua-diente. For these lands the proprietor paid a rent of 100 dollars annually; he had sown the cane and built the hut and mill at a very cheap rate, and at the time we visited was able to produce 680 pounds daily, which reckoning 280 days to the year, afforded 190,400 pounds, or 7,616 arrobas, producing at a rial and a half for each panela of five pounds weight, a sum equal to £1,428 sterling. That the manufacture of these coarse panelas is more profitable in the present circumstances of the country, than that of sugars there can be no doubt, and this accounts for the multitude of these trapichés which are spread over the face of the country. But it is melancholy to remember that money thus acquired is gained at the expense of the whole community;—numerous trapichés cause a similar increase in spirit-shops, and by the multiplicity of these, it is evident that useful agriculture is impeded, the population demoralized, and the aborigines destroyed.

In this vale the thermometer at 12 o'clock stood at 75° Fahrenheit, in the shade; a rise of 7° having taken place in a distance which could not exceed six miles in a straight line. At the farm we had just left, it had stood at about 68° at the same hour during the whole of our stay. Leaving this part of the valley, we soon arrived at the village of S. Miguel de Petapa, which is regularly built, with a neat church, and a spacious plaza: from hence, after passing a tolerably good hacienda, we reached the summit of a ravine, at the foot of which lay the Lake of Amatitan. The sight of this fine sheet of water, three leagues in length, and about a league broad at the widest part, is rendered still more interesting by the nature of its environs; on one side rise abrupt and bold rocks to a height of about eight hundred feet; on another, sloping hills, covered with verdure; while on a third side, cochineal plantations are cultivated to the shores, and backed by the town, bearing the same name as the lake. A few wild fowl skim over the surface of the waters, and moharra, pescadillo, and crayfish are found within its bosom; the depth has never been ascertained correctly; its banks gradually shelve till they approach the middle, when they become precipitous and very deep.

At the lake commences the Michatoyat, which increasing as it flows towards the Pacifie, forms a considerable river. The town which bears the name of San Juan Amatitan, is of considerable size; the streets are regularly arranged at right angles, and the houses generally well built. It has a good church, and like most others its celebrated image. The inhabitants chiefly employ themselves in raising fruits and vegetables for the capital,—in fishing in the lake, or in the manufacture of a species of mat. Close to the town is a warm spring, and in the woods at a short distance, are others possessed of mineral and sulphureous properties.

From hence to San Christoval de Amatitan, a distance of about three leagues, the road turns through beautiful lanes, and is perfectly level. Immense forests cover the mountains on each side, and the only sign of habitation, is a valuable farm belonging to the dominican friars, and two trapichés.

On our arrival at the town, which chiefly consists of one long street wretchedly paved, we proceeded to the cabildo or town house, which in the absence of inns, is generally appropriated to travellers. This one might be justly termed a huge shed roughly divided into three parts; one extremity formed the prison, and the other the residence of an Indian,—in the middle department, which was three parts filled with logs of wood, we swung our hammocks and took up our residence. Soon after, we visited the cura, with whom we spent a great part of the evening. He seemed a well read, intelligent man, and possessed a very good miscellaneous library. Juarros, the historian of Guatimala, speaking of this town, says, that in the neighbourhood is found the green chapuli, a large species of grasshopper about a span long; at the extremity of its tail, is a sharp curved point like a thorn, which becomes hard when the animal has attained its full growth. “If killed in this state, and carefully opened, a small bunch of seeds similar to those of the passion flower about an inch long, attached to ramifying fibres, is found in the intestines. These grains being sown will produce a plant like the gourd, which will bear a fruit resembling small pompions as yellow and brilliant as gold; the seeds of which sown again will bring forth similar fruit, but of much larger size.” Such is the account given of the chapuli, which certainly looks apocryphal. We inquired of the cura if the story had any foundation; his reply was, “I have cut the seed from the body of the animal, placed them in water, viewed them through a powerful microscope, when they had every appearance of seed. I have sown them in a flower pot, and they have produced a tree about a foot high, having a pointed leaf; and at the bottom of the stem a white powder, but neither flower nor fruit could I obtain.” Such is the history of this wonderful insect; the animal is only found in the months of October and November, consequently we had no further opportunity of verifying the story. The cura assured us the animal could not have swallowed the seeds, as they formed a constituent part of the intestines.

The following morning we set out for Escuintla; the road although rugged, is tolerably level, and the neighbouring woods are said to abound with vainilla (the epidendrum of Linnæus.) and the cinchona officinalis, the bark of which is known by the name of jesuits powder, or peruvian bark. About two leagues from San Christoval we heard a considerable noise, as if produced by the falling of water, and turning through the woods to the left we suddenly came upon the river Michatoyat which here forms most beautiful rapids; immense pieces of rock seem by the giant hand of nature to have been cast in the most fantastic forms, over which a very large body of water passes with a tremendous current, forming in the space of about 200 yards, twelve to fifteen falls, varying in depth and direction.

A little beyond this is the village of San Pedro Martyr, a collection of miserable huts. We tied our horses to a tree, and entered the estanco or spirit shop to get some refreshment, but a scene of misery presented itself too great to be endured. In the middle of the hut was a large fire, on which was boiling a cauldron of fermented sugar. The heat at this time was 85° in the shade;—three or four dirty children were sitting on the ground, and two women nearly naked, stretched on a mat, were singing, or rather howling in an advanced state of madness. Leaving this wretched group, we sought shelter under an orange tree, at a little distance, and having procured a guide set out for what is termed here the great fall of San Pedro Martyr.

Penetrating through the woods for about a league, and passing a smaller fall, we arrived at the great cataract, which in fact consists of three, the river being divided at the summit by granitie stones, and in a great measure concealed by hanging bushes; over this rock a powerful body of water is precipitated from a height of from fifty to seventy feet; several smaller streams throw themselves down different parts of the mountain, and glistening through the surrounding foliage, present a prospect highly enchanting, yet partaking rather of the character of the romantic than the sublime.

Leaving this spot through fields of the sugar cane, and fording three rivers, the latter of which was deep and had a rapid current, we entered the woods that lead to Escuintla; for about eight miles the road is tracked, through a thick forest of timber. In some places the banana or plantain tree, (Musa Sapientum,) grows to a very considerable height, and spreads itself in the wildest abundance, while in others thick bushes of convolvuluses and dahlias, rising from six to fourteen feet, bent across the path, and obscured every other object from the view. These woods are singularly rich, both in animal and vegetable productions; the most beautiful birds inhabit the thickest parts of the forest, and the cotton tree, the indigo plant, and the palma christi, grow wild among the bushes, the former we observed in flower as we passed along.

The situation of the town called La Conception Escuintla, is by no means unpleasing; in the vicinity are numerous agreeable walks; and a fine river which flows close to the town, affords convenience for bathing. Near the plaza are a few good houses, and a very handsome church, at this time however in ruins; the earthquake which had then taken place about three months, had opened the walls and thrown down the cupola, and the vestry was now alone used for the purposes of worship. From the summit of this building, a remarkably interesting prospect presented itself on the evening we ascended. On the east and north-east, the dark foliage of the thick woods covering a considerable tract of country, and varied only by the curling smoke of a few scattered huts, were backed by a fine ridge of mountains covered with wood, and terminated by volcanic cones, whose tops were enveloped in thick clouds; while on the west and south-west the setting sun illuminated the fertile flat country, as he bathed his beams in the great Pacific, whose waters formed the last ridge on the western horizon. The climate of Escuintla is very warm, the thermometer stood at 88° a difference of twenty degrees having taken place during a ride of about fourteen leagues; and if considered in a straight line, a distance of not more than half that number.

From Escuintla the following morning we set out for a Trapiché, about three leagues on the road towards the coast, which from hence becomes perfectly level, and as beautiful as can be desired; on this part of it some rice was cultivated. The entrance to this establishment, was through an alcove formed by palms, cocoa, cypress, orange and other fruit trees, and the grounds near, were laid out in a much better style than any we had yet seen. The wheels of the machinery were lighter, and on the best principle, and the whole clean and in good order, but nothing was manufactured except repardura or panela.

About three leagues further we arrived at the village of Mistan, which consists of a few huts, and after another league reached Masagua, a small village built in a circle cut out of the wood; it like the rest has its decayed church and boasts its miraculous image. The whole of this road lies through thick forests, across which a narrow path has been trodden; on every side are gigantic trees some of them measuring from thirty to thirty-five feet in circumference, and towering to an elevation of from eighty to ninety feet; around the trunk of each of these winds some creeper to the height of forty and fifty feet,—these delicate plants wreathing themselves around the sturdy sons of the forest, give to the woods of America a charm peculiarly their own.

From hence to Ipsanguasati a solitary hacienda, to Naranjo a similar one, and to Overo a still worse, a distance of about 10 leagues, the road bears precisely the same characteristics. At the latter place we arrived towards the evening, and a more inhospitable reception it would have been impossible to have received; the only place in which we were permitted to pass the night, was under a shed, compared with which the most miserable European cow hovel would have been a palace; nothing could be had for money, and hungry and fatigued, we stretched ourselves to pass a restless and a sleepless night. The whole atmosphere seemed alive, the air was loaded with sand flies, mosquitoes and every other kind of the innumerable kinds of insects, which with all their tribes, are the torment of travellers in hot countries. At length day broke and we proceeded to the salinas or salt works, which are situated on the shores of the ocean, and consist of three villages about a mile distant from each other called Manglar, Santa Rosa, and Sapoti, at the latter we arrived by an early hour. These salinas are in a miserable condition, and consist merely of a few huts, under which are coarse wooden vessels half filled with earth; upon this the salt water is poured, it oozes into a vessel below, and is then boiled in earthen vats, till it assumes a consistency, is dried in the sun, and offered for sale without undergoing any farther process.