Here and There in Yucatan/Along the Coast


The Vivi was a sloop of twenty tons burden, bound for Islands Mugeres and Cozumel, places we had long desired to visit; we therefore decided to take this opportunity. The sloop was anchored before Progreso (port of Yucatan), and would start that night. At dusk we descended the slippery steps of the wooden pier, and when a big wave brought the skiff near our feet, jumped into it and were rowed to the Vivi, that looked very diminutive rocking on the dark billows, for the sea was decidedly rough. The captain helped us to scramble on deck, and we set sail immediately.

I have a dim recollection of taking possession of the cabin, which was about eight feet square, with a bench at the further end, and a berth on each side, and remember ardently wishing that all the globe was terra-firma, or that I had never been born, as well as indulging in a great many other unphilosophical thoughts that seasickness will induce, particularly when cockroaches two inches long are wandering over the victim. That was June 20, and the following are the eloquent and remarkably interesting memoranda of the next four days:

21. At dusk anchored a short distance from land at a place called Telchac. How stupid I was to come in this miserable boat!

22. Stopped at Sacrisan, and again at Hacun. Don't know why.

23. Stopped at Dilan. Wish the water would stop. Head wind. Heavy thunder storm. Very rough. Extra sick. Wish I was dead!

24. Stopped at Holbox. Feel a little better. Ate a cracker. Fine weather.

To those who have been seasick I need offer no apology for such a diary; they will fully understand that I am not responsible.

Holbox is a picturesque Indian village whose inhabitants make a living by catching turtle to send to British Honduras, where the demand is constant. Near the shore there were turtles in pens. For a moment we feared that some of those creatures, weighing 500 pounds each, might be added to our freight; and to see them on the deck, on their backs, their flaps sewn together, and gasping for breath, is enough—almost—to make one jump overboard. The huts of the fishermen are a long distance from the shore, and the indolent natives positively refused to bring water to the sloop, though we had stopped expressly for that, being much in need.

Charming as the village looks at a distance, it has one great drawback, being infested with the terrible Uolpoch (the wickedly minded), a snake thus named by the Indians because without any provocation whatever it attacks, drawing itself up after the manner of a cheese-maggot, and darting at its victim a few feet distant. The venom of this viper causes the blood to ooze through every pore of the skin, and death always ensues in a very short time. No antidote for the poison is known, and the natives greatly dread this snake, because, owing to its color, it can easily be mistaken for a piece of dry wood when it lies straight on the ground. It is two feet long, about an inch and a half in diameter throughout its length, the tail terminating as if cut obliquely, and the mouth shaped like the beak of a quail.

We next cast anchor at Island Contoy to avoid a long line of reefs that are difficult to see in the darkness of night. Island Contoy is four miles long, very picturesque, and totally uninhabited except by millions of sea birds. At dusk immense flocks came home and hovered over the Vivi, as if to examine the great object that had approached their domains.

After dark the island is a dreadful place in the estimation of the simple-minded folk who frequent those waters, because a great treasure said to be buried there is supposed to be guarded by a phantom. One old man who pretended to know the whereabouts of the treasure is said to have been frightened from the place by the apparition of a gigantic negro, accompanied by a fierce hound. Three men once made a bet to pass the night on the island, and actually went there; but it is believed that they were pursued and terrified to death by the spectral keeper of the hidden gold, for daylight revealed one prostrate corpse on the beach, another in the water, and the third man was a raving maniac who never recovered reason.

Several years ago it was generally thought that pirates had buried various treasures there, but in what particular places no one knew. At certain times of the year fishermen from the mainland went to the island to fish, building huts to serve them for the season. One day when a few of these men were on the beach, a large American vessel appeared on the horizon. In due time it cast anchor before Contoy. Several men landed, and producing papers and maps, said that they had come for certain money buried there.

Strange to say, their map led them to the very spot where the fishermen had built their hut: the thatched roof was right over the treasure! The occupants were told that if they would dig they should be handsomely rewarded; so they went to work and soon unearthed some large boxes filled with gold coin, which were promptly put on board. Then the ship sailed away with its precious freight, after the fishermen had been paid a hundred dollars each for their labor of an hour. This account was given us by one of those very fishermen, now quite aged.

On the tenth day after leaving Progreso, about nine o'clock at night, we sailed into the beautiful Bay of Dolores, at Mugeres Island, or Women's Island, as the Spanish conquerors called it, because they found in the temples of the natives many images of women. The water of the bay was as unruffled and crystaline as a sheet of emerald; and the village of Dolores made a charming picture, with its thatched cottages, boats hauled up on the white beach, and tall palms waving like feathered canopies above the dwellings; while the perfect stillness made us almost imagine that we beheld an enchanted island awaiting the touch of a magic wand. That wand was the first golden sun-ray that shot from the east, calling every creature to life and action. Doors were thrown open; faint columns of smoke wreathed their way to the cloudless sky; children ran to the beach to float their toy ships; fishermen launched their boats; women passed to and fro, and feathered songsters warbled their sweetest lay. No wonder that the last pirate chief, Captain Lafitte, made this island his headquarters. Some old people there well remember him as "a nice gentleman who paid for everything he had from the fishermen along the coast, and never harmed any poor person."

It was at the beginning of the present century that Lafitte became a terror to the ships that navigated the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, among the West India Islands down to the coast of Venezuela. In the beautiful harbor of Mugeres Island he found perfect shelter from the storms that at certain times of the year sweep with violence along those coasts; and on the top of some dunes south of what is now the village of Dolores he built small towers, whence he could keep an eye on the surrounding waters. The foundations of these towers yet remain in place, and "every Christmas Eve the ghost of a sailor wanders about the hills." No one dares speak to him, believing that it would cause them to die within one year.

When not on board, Lafitte's men lived in huts on the very spot where the village now is. Lafitte is described as having been very haughty with his men, punishing the least breach of discipline, and never allowing them to approach him without first asking permission, although he was kind to the poor people on the coast. Once, when the Alcalde of a village refused to sell him meat for his men, he caused them to seize a bull and put it on his ship. On being told by the fishermen that that bull had been brought for their amusement in a festival, he had it at once restored to them, stating that he would be sorry to deprive them of the little pleasure they had in their life of toil and hardship. After the bull-fight, plenty of meat was sent to him as a present; then he insisted on paying for it, saying that he would take nothing from the poor.

The tragic fate of this pirate king is told and retold by those who recollect the event. Just at a time when some of Lafitte's ships were away from the place of rendezvous, a strong force was sent against him. He encountered it near Contoy and fought bravely, but his ship struck a rock and sunk. He took to the boats with eight or ten men, and succeeded in landing on a sandbank called Blanquilla, but was pursued and surrounded. One by one all his men fell; still he refused to surrender, and was killed there, defending himself as long as there was breath in his body.

The bay is generally animated, because many fishing smacks from Cuba frequent those waters, and the captains make the bay their headquarters, as the pirates did at the beginning of this century. These smacks are generally handsome schooners, of thirty to seventy tons burden, divided in three compartments. The central one forms a large tank whose sides are perforated with hundreds of holes, through which the sea water passes freely in and out. As soon as caught the fishes are bled by piercing them behind the right fin with a thin, hollow, cylindrical tube, then thrown in the tank, to be transferred to other large cages, also perforated, that are anchored near shore; these are closed with a padlock. When enough fish are caught to almost fill the vessel's tank, they are taken to Havana to be kept in other tanks till required for the market.

In case of stormy weather or laziness, the captains remain at Mugeres Island for days together, never in a hurry to leave; for if in Spain they have one family, here also there are blue-eyed children to climb on their knees and call them "Papa." This state of affairs does not seem to be out of the way there; it may be that few have preserved the right to point the finger at their neighbor.

Besides the schooners from Havana, there are coasting sloops that carry on considerable contraband between British Honduras and Yucatan, stopping at the island for any cargo they can get.

As for the islanders' boats, they constantly come and go; some are exceedingly small. The fishermen handle them most skillfully, one alone easily manages rudder and sail; they frequently stand upright in the smallest craft, apparently as much at ease as on land. To balance large boats they tie to the mast a rope with a long loop at the other end. In this a man sits as in a swing, his feet resting on the edge of the weather-side of the boat that is thus kept straight in a very strong wind, the man swinging himself backward over the water.

The east side of the island presents a complete and beautiful contrast to the west. Rocks and crags run from one end to the other, the never-tiring waves ceaselessly dashing against them. What scope for the wildest fancy on this rocky shore!—with its millions of periwinkles and other shell fish. A lilliputian world—miniature caverns, shells of every shape and color, tiny tunnels, rivers and lakes, filled with sparkling bubbles of foam—and the sea eternally roaring.

We found a strange character living on the island apart from every one except two men who serve him. With them he makes houses, stone walls, and statues of himself. He calls himself Spanish Consul and fomentador, has large plantations of vegetables, and plenty of cattle, yet will neither give nor sell anything to anybody, not even a little milk for any one who is sick. Vegetables and fruits ripen and rot, while his cattle roam everywhere and spoil all that other people plant. He works like a slave, and only allows himself one scanty meal a day. No one knows why he lives such an austere, isolated, selfish existence. It is understood that in his younger days he was engaged in the slave-trade on the African coast, and the people believe he must have committed some heinous crime that keeps him a prey to remorse, which he tries to stifle by doing penance. Some say he is haunted, and others that he is looking for the treasure, because he frequently changes his place of residence, building a new hut each time. He has plenty of gold ounces, yet seldom approaches the village. When he passes along the beach at twilight the friendly chat is suddenly hushed, and some one exclaims, in an awe-struck whisper: "There goes Mondaca!"

After some delay we obtained a canoe to take us to the eastern coast of Yucatan, only six miles distant. Our object was to examine some ancient structures at a place called Meco, where pilgrims used to worship every year when on their way to Mugeres and Cozumel, whither they went as Mahometans journey to Mecca.

After the bush was cut down we succeeded in measuring a temple: it was ten feet in height, built on the summit of an artificial mound forty feet high, with stone steps on the east side. In the base of the mound there were very small rooms, in which we were just able to stand upright.

Surrounding the courtyard where the temple was there were other apartments of the same size, that may have served as lodgings for pilgrims; only people under three feet high could be comfortable in them. As we stooped to crawl in and out, we conjured up visions of diminutive individuals going back and forth, and up and down the almost perpendicular stairs, in quaint and scanty attire, bearing offerings to propitiate the dear gods of the sea. All the other buildings at Meco were equally small; and the natives affirm, as a matter of course, that they were built and inhabited by dwarfs.

There is another of these strange cities further down the coast, called Nizucte; and though exposed to a visit from hostile Indians, we found there three men, one accompanied by his wife and a pretty daughter of eighteen summers. They were from the village of Dolores, and having put up a thatched roof intended to remain at Nizucte a few days, working hard at scraping a woolly substance from the trunk of a fan-palm called in Spanish guano. We asked how much they could earn at that work, and were informed that one aroba (twenty-five pounds) is worth $2.50; three people working together obtain that amount in two days. The stuff is used to make cushions and pillows, being as soft as feathers, but firmer. The leaf of the guano is baked underground, and made into very strong ropes that serve the fishermen in their boats; the canoe we had engaged had no other rope in it. The fresh leaves make excellent fans, that retain a bright-green color for eight or ten days. They were put into our hands to keep off mosquitos when we were invited to be seated on a log under the thatched roof. The pretty girl offered us cigarettes; she was astonished when we declined. Not smoke! It was such a consolation! Would we not try just a very little one? She seemed to regard me as an object of pity because I had never used tobacco, and my husband as a very peculiar being for having given up the use of the weed.

These people informed us that the "queer old houses" were close by. The largest building proved to be a diminutive temple, at the entrance of which were two enormous snake heads made of concrete; they were embraced and encircled by gnarled roots that looked like dark-skinned serpents entwining the mineral representations of the same reptiles. Near by we found two large human legs, also concrete, and a square pedestal one foot high, on which was a symbol of the Phallic worship, two lobsters and a small turtle, all made of concrete. The doorway of the temple was three feet high and one and a half wide. The structure consisted of large, well-hewn stones, and the ceiling formed a triangular arch with capping stones, though outside the building was square.

It did not take long to see all the ruins, but the owner of our canoe said he could not return to the village till next day, or perhaps the day following, as he desired to load his boat with lime and wood; we had therefore to make the best of it.

After dark we sat round an enormous camp fire, and knowing that it was not impossible for us to be disturbed by wild beasts or Indians, we vied with each other in telling blood-curdling stories to make the time pass pleasantly. Near the fire there were two trees of poison-oak at a convenient distance from each other to hang a hammock from them, so there we decided to sleep, but the mosquitoes were determined that we should not; there were millions of these fiendish insects, and no amount of smoke seemed to annoy them. A refreshing shower sprinkled us now and again, which relieved us from our tormentors for a few minutes.

On our way back to Island Mugeres we passed through immense schools of sardines, and that evening enjoyed some of them for dinner. They were very large and of a remarkably fine flavor, but the people in those parts only catch a few now and then to serve as bait for bigger fish.

Our next expedition was to the salt pits in the middle of the island. By an underground passage these large pools communicate with the sea on the east side. At the beginning of the fishing season, men and women go to collect the salt that is deposited by evaporation on the shore of the pools. They seem to regard it as a kind of picnic, though the work is laborious, especially for the women, who stand up to their waists in muddy water all day long, putting the salt into large turtle shells that serve instead of vats. It would be almost impossible to transport the salt by land to village Dolores; the only roads are narrow pathways through the thicket, and the soil is so rocky and uneven that it is tiresome to walk, much more so to carry a load. A great extent of the interior of the island is taken up by a most picturesque lake that opens on the south side of the bay by a narrow channel through which the water of the ocean enters. The lake is consequently subject to tides, and it is navigable for the majority of the canoes used by the fishermen.

The channel is crooked and scarcely more than nine feet wide, having dense thickets of mangroves on each side. It takes about half an hour to go through it, then the lake suddenly opens to our view, truly a charming scene! It is surrounded by banks twenty feet high, covered with verdure; seagulls soar overhead, filling the air with discordant screams, while pelicans, herons and storks, are perched here and there, half hidden among the foliage, motionless, wistfully watching the water, to catch the unsuspicious fish that venture within their reach.

The lake is nearly three miles long; its southern end reaches to within a hundred yards of the salt pit; thus the labor of transporting the salt is made comparatively easy.

During our stay at the village Dolores, we examined a curious old manuscript, written in very quaint Spanish, that is called the "Book of the Jew." It is held in great esteem by the people there as well as by many of the inhabitants on the mainland, and so highly appreciated that those who possess copies, either in print or manuscript, can hardly be induced to let them go out of their hands. For the benefit of the reader we give a few extracts from the volume:

"For the bite of vipers take two inches from the middle of the snake's body, burn it; then put the ashes on the wound. It will be cured."

Heart disease and epilepsy are trifling matters for the "Jew;" his unfailing remedy is—"Three swallows' hearts tied to the patient's left arm."

Here is advice "for the faint-hearted." "Wear a small bag, containing Artemesia, over the heart; it will give thee vigor and daring." "A spider rolled in its web and worn around the neck will cure ague and fever."

"To prevent hydrophobia let a woman swallow the tongue of a male iguano, and a man that of a female iguano."

For some diseases the patient is advised to cook a turkey buzzard, feathers and all, and drink the broth. Ground bones of the skunk are likewise much recommended.

"Cook the head of a rattlesnake in a new vessel containing a pint of vinegar, then take from the head the little thorn-like fangs. One of these applied to an aching tooth, will make it fall out without any pain; but take care not to touch any other tooth, for as many as you touch will fall out."

Those who have a poor memory are advised to use mustard as snuff: "a very little of it and you will understand more in one hour than those who do not know the secret will in a day."

"Every human body consists of four humors: phlegm, blood, anger, and melancholy, to which correspond four elements: heat, cold, moisture, and dryness."

And this book was published several years ago as a learned work on medicine!

At the south end of the island, on a narrow promontory, there is an ancient shrine, built of well-hewn stone, abandoned since the time of the conquest. To it, in ages gone by, pilgrims repaired from far and near to deposit offerings on the altar. These chiefly consisted of clay figures representing the human body or parts of it; fragments of them are found in the sand all around. We were fortunate enough to unearth a very perfect face, that of a woman, and a pair of feet with sandals. The shrine stands on a platform 2 metres high, and is itself 3 metres in height (9 feet, 9 inches) with a frontage of 6 metres. The doorway faces south, and the walls are nearly three feet thick. The interior was divided in two rooms, the altar being in the smallest.

The lintels of the doorways are sapote wood. On them various names have been carved at different times. Among others we saw that of Mr. Goodall, with the date 1841. This gentleman is now President of the American Bank Note Company in New York City.

In the floor of the largest room there was a big hole that was made by some one searching for a certain treasure. The rocky elevation upon which the shrine stands is a wild and romantic spot, its base surrounded by crags against which the roaring billows constantly dash their white foam. On each side the rocks are yielding to the unceasing action of the waves; already part of the platform, and the east wall of the shrine, has been carried down into the sea. Atom by atom, the entire structure will thus disappear in the course of time.