Travels in Mexico and life among the Mexicans/Chapter 18






SEVENTEEN hundred yards from the Plaza Mayor, the great square of the city of Mexico, stands the bronze statue of Carlos IV., an equestrian figure, which the great Humboldt declared had but one superior, that of Marcus Aurelius. Behind him is the great Alameda, the beautiful forest garden of the city, with its fountains and flowers; from every direction, various avenues lead in from the country, and are blended in the one artery leading to the city,—to the city's heart. One regal arm is extended westward, pointing to the hill and castle of Chapultepec, toward which from the base of the statue extends the grandest avenue in Mexico,—the Paseo de la Reforma.

When Maximilian was in power here, and, conscious of the ill-chosen site of the city, desired to remove it to a better, he chose the wisest course a wise ruler could have done. Commencing near the Alameda, he caused to be constructed the avenues that radiate in different directions from the statue of Carlos IV. Of these, the Paseo de la Reforma was the principal one, for it was to lead to Chapultepec, his favorite resort, and it was to be the centre of the new city of Mexico, being on the highest land about the present city. The length of this magnificent promenade and drive, from the bronze statue to the castle and park of Chapultepec, is 3,750 yards, which, added to that of the street leading to it from the Plaza Mayor, gives 5,450 yards, with a width, including sidewalks, of 170 feet. In its entire length it contains six circular spaces, 400 feet in diameter, for the erection of monuments to eminent men. The first already holds a beautiful composition in marble and bronze, representing Columbus and his discoveries, the figures being of heroic size. In the second space the foundation is laid for a statue of Guatemotzin, the last Aztec Emperor, and in the third it is proposed to place that of Cortés, his conqueror and persecutor. There is said to be no statue or enduring effigy of Cortés in the republic, such has been the intense bitterness of the people toward the conquerors of Mexico. That they accept a proposition to erect one to his memory is a proof that they are becoming civilized, and are willing no longer to endure the reproach of Humboldt, that "we nowhere in the Spanish colonies meet with a national monument erected by the public gratitude to the glory of Christopher Columbus and Hernan Cortés." The three remaining circles are not yet spoken for, but they will be occupied by the marbles or bronzes of men famous in Mexican history. Carved seats of stone surround the semicircles about the statues, and long rows of trees, composed of eucalyptus and ash planted alternately, line the sidewalks.

This avenue, then, with its broad macadamized road-bed, its shaded walks, and its beautiful statuary, driven straight across the emerald fields of the valley, is the chosen resort of the wealth and fashion of Mexico. It is the only place, in fact, to which they can repair for a drive since the Avenue de Bucarelli, running almost parallel, is no longer fashionable; fortunately, they need no other. The centre of the drive is for equestrians, while the carriages roll along the sides, up one side and down the other. On Sundays and holidays the "Grand Paseo" is in its glory, though a great crowd frequents it every afternoon of the week; mounted policemen are stationed at every one hundred yards; gayly caparisoned horsemen gallop swiftly past, in broad sombreros, embroidered jackets, leggings decorated with silver braid and buttons, and massive spurs of silver. A more picturesque panorama than this cannot be seen in any other city in America. As the sun goes down behind the hills beyond Chapultepec, this assemblage turns toward the city, and the Paseo is left to the seclusion of the verdant pastures which environ it.

What the citizen of the United States feels most in need of

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when he arrives in Mexico is a place to go to,—some house, hotel, section of the city, or quarter where his fellow-countrymen most do congregate. He cannot find it here; he wanders about like a cat on a strange roof, seeking a pleasant, home-like place, but finding it not. There is no hotel here that suits him; not one even on the American plan. The Iturbide, because it is central, grand, and gloomy, has been most patronized; but it does not meet the wants of its guests in a way our great hotels in the States would. There has been a constantly increasing need of a quarter where the stream of Americans could settle and form the nucleus of such winter homes as exist in Florida and the South. This has at last been found. It is on the outskirts of the city, yet within its limits and within gunshot of its busy streets.

The grand drive divides a level tract of land lying between the two great aqueducts that supply the city with water. One of these comes from a point leagues away among the hills, where the old convent of El Desierto is situated; the other conducts the water from the sweet springs of Chapultepec. Both start into view from the base of this rocky hill to the westward, but diverge, one taking its course nearly due east, along that road down which dashed the American soldiers, in '47, as they stormed the San Cosme gate, the other trending more to the south, striking nearer the heart of the city. Between these ancient monuments of the past lies the most beautiful stretch of plain in the Mexican valley, smooth as a floor, covered with short sweet grass, low and flat, yet gradually rising to a level much above the city.

It lies west of the city, the only land available for building sites till the distant hills are reached; its drainage is perfect, through the city and into Lake Tezcoco. The reader of Mexican history will remember that, when Cortés had destroyed the Mexico of the Aztecs, it was proposed to build the new city either at Chapultepec or Tacubaya, at the border of the hills, but that the abundance of building material already at hand, from Indian temples and palaces, induced him to rebuild on the same spot. Ever since, the error has been apparent that the site chosen was the worst in the valley, principally from the impossibility of effectual drainage.

It is proposed to form here the nucleus for the American colony in Mexico, by building a hotel that shall compare with, or surpass, anything on the continent, and by dividing the land into lots of convenient size for building upon. The hotel is to be placed opposite the third glorieta, or the space destined for the statue of Cortés,—is to be built of indestructible material, and plans are invited from American architects. Ten thousand varas were given for the site of the hotel, which is to be 500 feet front by 600 deep; also all the stone, sand, and gravel necessary for its construction. Within half an hour, by steam, are the ancient quarries, whence the stone used in the building of the city was obtained. Here is that peculiar conglomerate called tepetate, which can be easily cut, like the shell rock of Florida and Bermuda, and of which half the city is built. This material is placed at the disposal of the builders of the hotel, and can be brought direct from the quarries to the proposed site, by the National road, which bounds the land on one side, and within a thousand yards are the stations of two other great railways, the Central and the Vera Cruz. All the street cars of the city rendezvous in the northeast quarter, while several lines reach the Paseo; none disturb, however, the sanctity of this grand avenue.

Nearly opposite the statue of Colon re extensive baths, with marble basins and an abundant flow of water, that would reflect credit upon any city. There are a score of artesian wells in the tract, from which streams of water gush the year through, rainy and dry season alike. Now the question arises, Why has not this valuable section been sooner taken possession of, and why has it not been built upon? It was, as I have said, part of Maximilian's wise plan to gradually extend the city westward to this higher and more salubrious location, by inducing the wealthy Mexicans to build elegant residences there. Taking up the grand suggestion of the late Emperor, it remains for Americans to realize his dream. The insecurity of the suburbs of the city has been the greatest objection to building there, but that is now removed. Quick transit is now afforded to all parts of the city; while, keeping pace with the growth of the colony, the immense trunk lines of Mexico will bring passengers from the North, and land them at the very doors of their winter homes. At the entrance to the Paseo, a year ago, a great tower was begun, to be 175 feet in height and 25 feet square at the base, from the summit of which an electric light of 16,000 candle capacity is to dart its rays over the city and its suburbs.

Imagine a winter residence in this charming triangle, with an aqueduct three hundred years old in the back yard, and a view from the front of the loveliest valley and the grandest snowcapped volcanoes on the continent! Try to imagine the perfect climate here, with its delicious nights, and warm, bright days. If the possessors of this royal domain act wisely, it will be possible for many of our people to own here perfect gardens of delight, where they may reside in security and happiness.

Terminating the vista down the avenue, rise the hill and castle of Chapultepec. Historic Chapultepec! From the days when Montezuma wandered beneath its shades and built his palace here, to those of the head of the last dead empire, it has been the chosen resort of successive rulers of Mexico. A glorious grove of giant trees surrounds the hill,—grand old cypresses hung with masses of Spanish moss, like those of the cypress swamps of Florida. Beneath them are traced walks and avenues, which are crowded on Sunday afternoons and on feast days, and are seldom solitary any day in the year. Chapultepec, the Hill of the Grasshopper, has the only grove, and presents the nearest point for recreation, about the city, from which it is distant less than two miles.

Though now used as an astronomical observatory, the castle retains much that Maximilian added for the purpose of making it a royal residence. The corridor was adorned with voluptuous paintings, after the style of a Pompeian villa, but these the prudish Mexicans have draped with a sort of sarape, willing to avail themselves of the genius of the artist, but greatly marring the beauty of his figures. The improvements the Emperor designed have never been finished, but it is hoped that the enlightened government now in power-will carry them out. Whatever may be urged against Maximilian as a usurper, it must be admitted that he has embellished the capital more than any ruler since Cortés. His magnificent service of plate is in the Museum, and the costly furniture is widely scattered, but some tables are shown, some chandeliers, the rooms the royal couple occupied, and the plan, designed by his order, of the imperial park of Chapultepec. From the roof of the castle, as well as from the entire crest of the hill, a wide view is afforded of the beautiful city, enclosed between its amethyst hills. Perhaps there does not exist in the wide world a lovelier vision than that spread before one from the castle of Chapultepec; the historic valley held in the hollow of the Cordilleras and guarded by the snow-crested volcanoes far away to the southward,—those

"Mountains white with winter, looking downward, cold, serene,
On their feet with spring vines tangled and lapped in softest green."

"What," says the Princess Salm-Salm, "are the Central Park in New York, Regent's Park in London, the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, the Bieberich Park on the Rhine, the Prater in Vienna,—nay, even the pride of Berlin, the Thiergarten,—what are they all in comparison with this venerable and delightful spot?"

The same bright and vivacious writer, who was in at the death of the empire, and performed daring deeds in defence of her hero, the Emperor, relates that the first night Maximilian and Carlotta occupied the castle, they were driven out of their rooms by mosquitoes, and pitched their beds on the open terrace.

Down beneath the hill, to the right, as we face the valley, is that grand memento of days gone by, the cypress of Montezuma, el arbol de Montezuma. It is undoubtedly one of those beneath which the Aztec sovereign meditated in the intervals of his sacrifices. Says one female writer, "There has the last of the Aztec emperors wandered with his dark-eyed harem." We suppose she must mean Montezuma, for his successor died so soon after his elevation to the throne that he had little time to wander; and Guatemotzin, stern and watchful chieftain, had no leisure left him by the assaults of the Spaniards. But if we are to believe the chroniclers, Montezuma, though he had an

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extensive collection of wives, visited them only by stealth, and never took them walking with him. So we must dismiss this pleasant fiction of the harem; but if the lady insists, then we must imagine that the grave and ever-occupied Montezuma always strutted about with his flock at his heels; and every morning, like chanticleer,

"His lusty greeting said,
And forth his speckled harem led."

Rising to a height of one hundred and seventy feet, and with a circumference of forty-six, this towering monarch of Chapultepec has sheltered many a royal head ere it attained its present dimensions; but, with the blessing of God, it will never shelter another. Near this sombre cypress draped in its gray robe of Spanish moss, there gushes from the base of the hill that equally famous spring of cool, clear water known as "Montezuma's Bath." It was the former source of supply for the ancient Aztec city, and was conducted to the capital, as now, over a magnificent aqueduct of nine hundred arches. There is an inscription carved in the stone walls of the basin, to the effect that this fountain was restored by the viceroy of Spain in the year 1571. The southern aqueduct marches straight upon the city and terminates there in a fountain of quaint design, near which is a tablet informing one that there are 904 arcos from the bridge of Chapultepec to the fountain; that it is 4,663 varas long, was begun in 1677, and finished in 1779. This fountain is called the Salto del Agua, or Waterfall, and the water obtained here is known as agua delgada, thin or pure water, to distinguish it from that of the San Cosme aqueduct, which is agua gorda, or thick water.[1] Near the spring at Chapultepec is the great rock which is said to have had upon it a carving of Axayacatl and Montezuma, and which was destroyed by Cortés; it is not entirely obliterated, however, as some incised lines yet remain. A monument here, a plain shaft, records the brave deeds of the Mexican cadets in their defence of the castle. Nowhere in the vicinity of the capital are grouped so many reminders of Mexico's glorious history; nowhere except in the Museum is there so much to attract one, or so much to absorb his attention after he is there.

Back of the grove is Molino del Rey, the King's Mill, where the Americans lost so many men in capturing this key to the defences of the city. The great building is now used as a foundry for ordnance, and stands as on that memorable day in '47 in all its ugliness. On the hill above is a monument to the Mexican soldiers who fell in the action, and from this point the eye takes in at a glance the entire situation,—Molino del Rey and Chapultepec, the fall of which determined that of the city. Down on the plains below are the sites of the battle-fields of Churubusco and Contreras, where obstinate fights occurred.

Dolores, the cemetery of the aristocracy, lies behind these hills, surrounded with fields of pulque plants, and the pleasant resort of Tacubaya, with palatial mansions and beautiful gardens, occupies the slopes where the city of Mexico ought to have been built. A tramway leads direct from the city, past Chapultepec, to Tacubaya, and thence circles round to the lovely hamlet of San Angel,—formerly famous as a gambling centre, and even now worthy an extensive reputation in that respect,—where are annual feasts of flowers, resorted to by the population of Mexico.

Secluded amongst gardens of fruits and flowers, except on feast and gambling days quiet as the grave, no one would suspect that San Angel was the resort of pestiferous robbers and cut-throats. Yet it is, and the pedregal, or stony lava plain, bordering the town, which is full of caves and fissures, is the hiding-place of numerous thieves and murderers. The shepherds, half-naked Indians in ragged blankets, who watch over small flocks of goats and sheep, are the guardians of the villains who hide there, and are not over reputable themselves.

"But more Northwestward, three Leagues from Mexico," says good Friar Gage, "is the pleasantest Place of all that are about

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Mexico, called La Soledad, and by others El Desierto, the solitary, or desert place and Wilderness. Were all like it, to live in a wilderness would be better than to live in a City," This wilderness. El Desierto, is situated some fifteen miles from the capital, on the road to Toluca. No railroad was finished to it at the time of my visit, and no regular stage line connects it with the city, and so any one then desiring to visit this abandoned convent of the Carmelites had to do as a party of us, tourists and engineers, did, one pleasant day in June. We chartered a diligence capable of holding fifteen persons, and, leaving Mexico at six in the morning, climbed the hills that led away to this conventual paradise. Thirteen engineers, let loose from a week's confinement in the office, it may be needless to remark, disencumber themselves at once of whatever restraint office rules may have laid upon them, and if the people along the route of our road did not know that we were Americans, it was not altogether the fault of the engineers. Besides ourselves there were ten mules and an experienced driver, one who had driven between Mexico and Toluca for many a year.

Leaving the valley, you say good by to all refreshing vegetation except such as snuggles in secluded valleys or in the gardens of the villages. At the hamlet of Santa Fe, those of the party who were outside exclaimed to those who were inside that they ought to be on the roof, for the view was beautiful beyond their power of praise. And this was no exaggeration, as those of us who were so fortunate as to secure an outside seat going down confessed to ourselves on the way back. A picture alone can convey to my reader the exceeding beauty of this fair valley, with its hills, lakes, towns, cities, and mountains seen through the heavenly atmosphere that blesses this country; only Velasco's pictures could do this to perfection, and one must try to fill in the colors in imagination.

The diligence portion of the route was a small matter, for after we had been safely carried to a miserable village called Caujimalpa, the driver assured us that there his obligation ended, and we must procure beasts of some sort for the remaining distance, about two miles. Now at this village there was a meson, or hostelry, where it was possible, our Jehu said, we might find some horses; but some of the engineers who were sent into the stable-yard to ascertain returned with the discouraging information that there was not one. This set us all down in the mouth, but by diligent search we at last unearthed the keeper of the meson and worried him until he admitted that he had one horse; but to every question regarding further supply, he returned the invariable Mexican answer, "No hay,"—"There are none." Enclosing him in a double ring, the dozen of us elected a spokesman and questioned him regarding the resources of the place.

"Will you give us a horse?"
"No hay caballo, señor."
"We want two mozos, also."
"No hay" (pronounced no eye).
"A muchacho, then, to guide us."
"No hay, señor!"
"Something to eat?"
"No hay."
"Some pulque to drink?"
"No hay."
"A house for shelter?"
"No hay."
"Tell us the road to the convent."
"No hay."
"Confound your picture, can you let us have any mules?"
"No hay, señor!"
"A jackass, then,—give us donkeys."
"Si, señor, hay burros"—" Yes, sir, I have jackasses."
"Good for the Mexican!" shouted an engineer, "he has no hay for horses, but has an eye for jackasses. Vamanos!"
"Trot out your donkeys, old man," said our leader; and he trotted them out, forthwith.

Our exultation was of short duration, for there was not a beast in that collection of a score or more that had a whole hide on his back. The poor burros had been all the week employed in freighting on the road, and this was their Sunday rest. Indeed, it seemed inhuman to mount such dwarfed and blistered animals. Long years of servitude had worn the skin from their backbones, the pack-saddles had galled them until there were great spaces of raw and bloody flesh and running sores. They looked at us reproachfully as we got astride the pack-saddles,—for there were no others,—yet they offered no remonstrance in the shape of kicks or expostulatory brays. A silent and a saddened crowd, we wended our way up the hill, along the course of a swift-running stream that supplies the aqueduct that passes Chapultepec and San Cosme.

Soon we entered the wood that renders El Desierto one of the most enchanting resorts within a day's ride of Mexico. Pine, hemlock, cedar, and oak clothed the hillsides and darkened the deep and delightful vales. They are the largest trees found in a body in the valley, always excepting the cypresses of Chapultepec. In fact, there are no others left, except in isolated specimens in the various villages. The air here was cool and sweet, and the wind sighed through the pines with a subdued murmur, as though too heavily laden with sweetness to break into a gale. We found the convent on a central hill, entirely hidden from the world outside, a pile of massive buildings, with domes and turrets, surrounded by their dormitories, and enclosed within a high stone wall. Dilapidation and decay were written all over them. How many years have passed since they were occupied by the pious monks, no one seems to know, but antiquity's veil is over the place, since the oldest of the buildings was raised early in the seventeenth century,—in its first decade. Friar Gage, who was here about 1625, and whom the Abbé Clavigero calls a man of lies (though I believe he verily tells the truth), gives a caustic description of the lives of those holy monks who had mortified themselves by retreating to this wilderness. "It is wonderful to see the strange devices of fountains of water which are about the gardens, but much more strange and wonderful to see the resort of coaches and Gallants, and ladies and gentlemen, from Mexico, thither, to walk and make merry in those desert pleasures, and to see those hypocrites whom they look upon as living Saints, and so think nothing too good for them to cherish them in their desert conflicts with Satan, None goes to them but carries some sweetmeats, or some other dainty dish to nourish them withal; whose prayers they solicit, leaving them great alms of Money for their Masses, and above all offering to a picture in their Church, called Our Lady of Carmel, treasures of diamonds,

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pearls, golden chains and crowns, and gowns of cloth of gold and silver. Before this picture did hang in my time twenty lamps of silver; the best of them being worth a hundred pounds."

This gives us a picture of El Desierto in its flourishing period, and the remains now about us fully sustain the belief that the whole valley was indeed a beautiful garden of fountains and fruits, where the monks secluded themselves in such delightful retreats that the fair ladies of Mexico were constrained to seek them out. All, alas! have departed,—fountains, flowers, monks, and stately dames and gallants. The ruins remain, and the forests, for the conservation of which latter, as tending to preserve the supply of water flowing to the city, the government has recently passed necessary laws.

After groping through the subterranean passages, which wound beneath the principal buildings, and may have been used by the accursed Dominicans—who once inhabited here after the departure of the Carmelites—as places of torture or imprisonment for their religious victims, we entered the chapel. How changed in the lapse of two centuries and a half! Where hung that sacred picture of Our Lady of Carmel, and those silver lamps, are now but bare walls, defaced with many an inscription and the smoke of vandal fires. Beneath the central dome, where the light sifts through and enlivens the gloom, is a brick furnace once used for the smelting of glass, fragments of which, and much wood for fuel, lie about on the broken pavement. There are passages in these walls in which one might easily lose himself, wells and cistern that may be the entrances to subterranean labyrinths, and cells and vaults that may once have heard many a groan.

To find a stream in the hills of far-off Mexico that recalled a mountain torrent of New England, spanned by just such a bridge as artists love to draw across our foaming brooks, was something that drew us all into the valley after the fortunate discoverer. One touch of such a bit of nature made us all united at once upon this charming dell as the place to lunch in. The hampers were accordingly opened here, and each member of the party, provided with half a chicken and a bottle of ale, sat down contentedly to the feast. After the repast, the photographer of the party secured—in the conventional language of his profession—the shadow of that bridge, ere the substance faded from our sight, and then we hastened to the convent and our donkeys.

Though with a prospect before them of home and a stable, those donkeys of ours were loath to move in any direction. It was then that American ingenuity triumphed over asinine perversity, though not even Balaam had more trouble with his burro than we did with ours that day. The path down the hills was narrow, and when a rider was settled in his saddle he could not see the way ahead of him if the donkey carried his ears erect, while if he wore them at his side there was hardly room between the opposite banks for the beast to pass. It was only by getting behind a donkey and pushing him that we could get him

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into a run, and then, as it was down hill, we would jump on and ride before he had lost his impetus. This scheme was very successful until the beasts saw through it, when they stopped short as soon as we had done pushing, thereby transferring the impetus to ourselves, who were thrown over their heads, despite their ears, and received sundry bruises. But we did not cherish against them any resentful feelings, and delivered them to their owner little the worse for wear; then we rode into the city at dark, with every member of our party in good condition,—save where he had come in contact with a donkey.

Crossing the valley eastward, we find at about the same distance from the city as Chapultepec, two miles, the church and chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A tramway leads out to it, over a causeway that is said to have existed when Cortés invaded the valley. At the foot of the hill of Tepeyacac is the sumptuous church built in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with a small village clustered about it, and a series of stone steps leading up to the chapel on the hill. Here, in the year 1531, if we may believe Mexican tradition, the most holy Virgin appeared to a poor Indian, Juan Diego by name, as he was on his way to early mass. After commanding him to direct the Bishop of Mexico (who was the noted Zumárraga) to build here a chapel in her honor, she filled his blanket with flowers, and disappeared. The wondering Indian did as directed, but when he cast at the Bishop's feet his burden of flowers, as they fell away from the blanket there was revealed an image of the Virgin herself! Reverently and with joy and wonder, the Bishop took the tilma, or blanket, and hung it up in his oratory; and two years later it was hung above the high altar in the church built in commemoration of this event. The church was finished in 1533, and later the chapel, perched on the hill above, was built. These are not the only attractions to the shrine, for a celebrated chalybeate spring gushes forth from the base of the hill, which was caused by the pressure of the Virgin's foot in emphasis of her command to Juan Diego. On the side of the hill, half-way to the chapel, is a monument in stone and mortar to one man's devotion, in the shape of the mast and sails of a ship. Caught at sea in a storm, a sailor vowed he would build a stone ship to the glory of the Virgin, if allowed to escape to land. Once safe ashore, either his funds or his piety failed him, since he got no farther than the foremast. And there it stands to-day, the only stone effigy in existence perhaps, of a ship, or part of one, of so large a size.

In the cemetery, near the chapel, are buried Santa Anna and several other noted Mexican worthies. A fine view of the city of Mexico is obtained from the hill. In the church at its foot are many objects of curiosity,—the veritable painting of the Virgin on the tilma of the Indian, enshrined in a crystal case with golden border, a silver altar rail, numerous pictures testifying to the efficacy of the waters of the spring in healing the sick, and cords of crutches, which proclaim that numerous cripples have been cured by visiting this most holy shrine.

It will be noticed that the Virgin of Guadalupe is the first American saint in the calendar. Her appearance to Juan Diego was most opportune, since the conversion of multitudes of Indians to the Catholic faith immediately followed, as they transferred their worship of their old images to this new one. It will be remembered that she had a rival in the Virgen de los Remedios, which was either brought by Cortés or his soldiers with him to Mexico, or manufactured soon after their arrival. This latter was a small wooden doll, ugly enough to frighten all the rats out of the valley of Mexico, yet dressed in rich petticoats of silk, adorned with pearls of great value. Her church is now partially in ruins, and the blessed relic—this wooden doll, found by a soldier in a maguey plant—was removed to the cathedral years ago. This was a matter of precaution, as she had so many rich jewels about her that it was feared some graceless robber might be tempted to spirit her away from so lonely a place.

  1. "Sweet water is brought by a conduit to Mexico from a place called Chapultepec, three miles distant from that city, which springeth out of a little hill, at the foot whereof stood formerly two statues or images, wrought in stone, with their Targets and Launces, the one of Montezuma, the other of Axaiaca, his father. The water is brought from thence to this day in two pipes built upon arches of brick and stone."—Thomas Gage, 1625.