The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 4.

The lake of Nicaragua. Ometepec. Becalmed on the lake. White egrets. Reach San Ubaldo. Ride across the plains. Vegetation of the plains. Armadillo. Savannahs. Jicara trees. Jicara bowls. Origin of gourd-shaped pottery. Coyotes. Mule-breeding. Reach Acoyapo. Festa. Cross high range. Esquipula. The Rio Mico. Supposed statues on its banks. Pital. Cultivation of maize. Its use from the earliest times in America. Separation of the maize-eating from the mandioca-eating indigenes of America. Tortillas. Sugar-making. Enter the forest of the Atlantic slope. Vegetation of the forest. Muddy roads. Arrive at Santo Domingo.

As daylight broke next morning, I was up, anxious to see the great lake about which I had heard so much. To the north-west a great sheet of quiet water extended as far as the eye could reach, with islands here and there, and — the central figure in every view of the lake — the great conical peak of Ometepec towered up, 5050 feet above the sea, and 4922 feet above the surface of the lake. To the left, in the dim distance, were the cloud-capped mountains of Costa Rica; to the right, nearer at hand, low hills and ranges covered with dark forests. The lake is too large to be called beautiful, and its vast extent and the mere glimpses of its limits and cloud-capped peaks appeal to the imagination rather than to the eye. At this end of the lake the water is shallow, probably filled up by the mud brought down by the Rio Frio.

We had still a voyage of sixty miles before us up the lake, and this was to be accomplished not by paddling, but by sailing; so we now rigged two light masts, and soon after seven o’clock sailed slowly away from San Carlos before a light breeze, which in an hour’s time freshened and carried us along at the rate of about six miles an hour. The sun rose higher and higher; the day waxed hotter and hotter. About noon the wind failed us again, and the sun right overhead, in a clear pitiless sky, scorched us with its rays, while our boat lay like a log upon the water, the pitch melting in the seams with the heat. The surface of the lake was motionless, save for a gentle heaving. We were almost broiled with the stifling heat, but at last saw a ripple on the water come up from the north-east; soon the breeze reached us, and our torment was over; our sails, no more idly flapping, filled out before the wind; the canoe dashed through the rising waves; our drooping spirits revived, and there was an opening out of provisions, and life again in the boat. The breeze continued all the afternoon, and at dark we were off the islands of Nancital, having been all day within a few miles of the north-eastern side of the lake, the banks of which are everywhere clothed with dark gloomy-looking forests. One of the islands was a favourite sleeping-place for the white egrets. From all sides they were flying across the lake towards it; and as night set in, the trees and bushes by the water-side were full of them, gleaming like great white flowers amongst the dark green foliage. Flocks of muscovy and whistling ducks also flew over to their evening feeding-places. Great masses of a floating plant, shaped like a cabbage, were abundant on the lake, and on these the white egrets and other wading birds often alighted. The boatmen told me — and the story is likely enough to be true — that the alligators, floating about like logs, with their eyes above the water, watch these birds, and, moving quietly up until within a few yards of them, sink down below the surface, come up underneath them, catch them by the legs and drag them under water. Besides the alligators, large freshwater sharks appear to be common in the lake. Sometimes, when in shallow water, we saw a pointed billow rapidly moving away from the boat, produced by some large fish below, and I was told it was a shark.

After dark the wind failed us again, and we got slowly along, but finally reached our port, San Ubaldo, about ten o’clock, and found an officer of the mining company, living in a small thatched hut, stationed there to send on the machinery and other goods that arrived for the mines. A large tiled store had also just been built by the owner of the estate there, Don Gregorio Quadra, under the verandah of which I hung my hammock for the night. Mules were waiting at San Ubaldo for us, and early next morning we set off, with our luggage on pack mules. We crossed some rocky low hills, with scanty vegetation, and, after passing the cattle hacienda of San Jose, reached the plains of the same name, about two leagues in width, now dry and dusty, but in the wet season forming a great slough of water and tenacious mud, through which the mules have to wade and plunge.

In the midst of these plains there are some rocky knolls, like islands, on which grow spiny cactuses, low leathery-leaved trees, slender, spiny palms, with plum-like fruit, prickly acacias, and thorny bromelias. This spiny character of vegetation seems to be characteristic of dry rocky places and tracts of country liable to great drought. Probably it is as a protection from herbivorous animals, to prevent them browsing upon the twigs and small branches where herbaceous vegetation is dried up. Small armadillos abound near these rocky knolls, and are said to feed on ants and other insects. We had a long chase after one, which we observed some distance from the rock, over the cracked and dried-up plain: though it could not run very fast, it doubled quickly, and the rough cracked ground made odds in its favour; but it was ultimately secured. Pigeons, brown coloured, of various sizes, from that of a thrush to that of a common dove, were numerous and very tame. One of the smallest species alights and seeks about in the streets of small towns for seeds, like a sparrow, and more boldly than that bird, for it is not molested by the children — more perhaps from indolence than from any lack of the element of cruelty in their dispositions. After crossing the plains we rode over undulating hills, here called savannahs, with patches of forest on the rising ground, and small plains on which grows the ternate-leaved jicara (pronounced hickory), a tree about as large as an apple-tree, with fruit of the size, shape, and appearance of a large green orange, but growing on the trunk and branches, not amongst the leaves. The outside of the fruit is a hard thin shell, packed full of seeds in a kind of dry pulp, on which are fed fowls, and even horses and cattle in the dry season; the latter are said sometimes to choke themselves with the fruit, whilst trying to eat it. Of the bruised seeds is also made a cooling drink, much used in Nicaragua. The jicara trees grow apart at equal distances, as if planted by man. The hard thin shell of the fruit, carved in various patterns on the outside, is made into cups and drinking-vessels by the natives, who also cultivate other species of jicara, with round fruit, as large as a man’s head, from which the larger drinking-bowls are made. In the smaller jicaras chocolate is always made and served in Central America, and, being rounded at the bottom, little stands are made to set them in; these are sometimes shaped like egg-cups, sometimes like toy washhand-stands. In making their earthenware vessels, the Indians up to this day follow this natural form, and their water-jars and bowls are made rounded at the bottom, requiring stands to keep them upright.

The meals of Montezuma were served on thick cushions or pillows. This was probably on account of the rounded bases of the bowls and dishes used. The gourd forms of bowls possibly originated from the clay being moulded over gourds which were burnt out in the baking process. It is said that in the Southern States the kilns in which the ancient pottery was baked have been found, and in some the half-baked ware remained, retaining the rinds of the gourds over which they had been moulded. Afterwards, when the potter learned to make bowls without the aid of gourds, he still retained the shape of his ancient pattern.

The name, too, like the form, has had a wonderful vitality. It is the “xicalli” of the ancient Aztecs, changed to “jicara” by the Spaniards, by which they mean a chocolate-cup; and even in Italy a modification of the same word may be heard, a tea-cup being called a chicchera.

On top of one of the hills we just got a glimpse of a small pack of wolves, or coyotes, as they are called, from the Aztec coyotl. They are smaller than the European wolf, and are cunning, like a fox, but hunt in packs. They looked down at us from the ridge of the hill for a few moments, then trotted off down the other side. Their howlings may often be heard in the early morning.

Cattle, horses, and mules are bred on these plains. Male asses are kept at some of the haciendas. They are not allowed to mix with any of their own kind, and are well fed and in good condition; but they are only of small size, and the breed of mules might be greatly improved by the introduction of larger asses.

The vegetation on the plains was rapidly drying up. Many of the trees shed their leaves in the dry season, just as they do with us in autumn. The barrenness of the landscape is relieved in March by several kinds of trees bursting into flower when they have shed their leaves, and presenting great domes of brilliant colour — some pink, others red, blue, yellow, or white, like single-coloured bouquets. One looked like a gigantic rhododendron, with bunches of large pink flowers. The yellow-flowered ones belong to wild cotton-trees, from the pods of which the natives gather cotton to stuff pillows, etc. About one o’clock we reached rather a large river, and after crossing it came in sight of the town of Acoyapo, one of the principal towns of the province of Chontales. we stayed and had dinner with Senor Don Dolores Bermudez, a Nicaraguan gentlemen who had been educated in the States, and spoke English fluently. He very kindly took me over the town, and I always found him ready to give me information respecting the antiquities and natural products of the country. Acoyapo and the district around it contains about two thousand inhabitants. The store-keepers, lawyers, and hacienderos are of Spanish and mixed descent. Amongst the lower classes there is much Indian and some negro blood; but there are many pure Indians scattered through the district, living near the rivers and brooks, and growing patches of maize and beans. In the centre of the town is a large square or plaza, with a stucco-fronted church occupying one side, and the principal stores and houses ranging around the other three sides. A couple of coco-palms grow in front of the church, but do not thrive like those near the sea-coast. It was Saturday, the 22nd of February, when we arrived; this was a great feast-day, or festa, at Acoyapo, and the town was full of country people, who were amusing themselves with horse-races, cock-fights, and drinking aguardiente. Their mode of cock-fighting is very cruel, as the cocks are armed with long sickle-shaped lancets, tied on to their natural spurs, with which they give each other fearful gashes and wounds. All classes of Nicaraguans are fond of this amusement; in nearly every house a cock will be found, tied up in a corner by the leg, but treated otherwise like one of the family. The priests are generally great abettors of the practice, which forms the usual amusement of the towns on Sunday afternoons. I have heard many stories of the padres after service hurrying off to the cock-pit with a cock under each arm. Bets are made on every fight, and much money is lost and won over the sport.

Like most of the Nicaraguan towns, Acoyapo appears to have been an Indian city before the Spanish conquest. The name is Indian, and in the plaza Senor Bermudez pointed out to me some flat bared rock surfaces, on which were engraved circles and various straight and curved characters, covering the whole face of the rock. Some rude portions of stone statues that have been found in the neighbourhood are also preserved in the town. The Spaniards called the town San Sebastian; but the more ancient name is likely to prevail, notwithstanding that in all official documents the Spanish one is used. Acoyapo is a grazing district, and there are some large cattle haciendas, especially towards the lake. The town suffers from fever owing to the neighbouring swamp. Much of the land around is very fertile; but little of it is cultivated, as the people are indolent, and content if they make a bare livelihood. We left Acoyapo about three o’clock: our road lay up the river, which we crossed three times. Excepting near the river, the country was very thinly timbered; and it was pleasant, after riding across the open plains, exposed to the hot rays of the sun, to reach the shady banks of the stream, by which grew many high thick-foliaged trees, with lianas hanging from them, and bromelias, orchids, ferns, and many other epiphytes perched on their branches. At these spots, too, were various beautiful birds, amongst which the Sisitote, a fine black and orange songster, and a trogon (Trogon malanocephalus, Gould), were the most conspicuous.

We reached and crossed a high range, from the summit of which we had a splendid view over the plains and savannahs we had crossed, to the great lake, with its islands and peaked hills, and beyond the dark dim mountains of Costa Rica, amongst which dwell the Indians of the Rio Frio and other little-known tribes. Before us were spread out well-grassed savannahs, thinly timbered, excepting where dark winding lines of trees or light green thickets of bamboos marked the course of rivers or mountain brooks. Here and there were dotted thatched huts, in which dwelt the owners of the cattle, mules, and horses feeding on the meadows. Far in the distance the view was bounded by a line of dark, nearly black-looking forest, which, there commencing, extends unbroken to the Atlantic. Near its edge, a seven-peaked range marked the neighbourhood of Libertad — the beginning of the gold-mining district. Descending the slope of the range, we found the savannahs on its eastern side much more moist than those to the westward of it; and as we proceeded, the humidity of the ground increased, and the crossings of some of the valleys and swamps were difficult for the mules. The dry season had set in, and these places were rapidly drying up; but in many it had just reached that stage when the mud was most tenacious; at one very bad crossing, called an “estero,” my mule fell, with my leg underneath him, pinning me in the mud. The poor beast was exhausted, and would not move. Night had set in — it was quite dark, and I had lagged some distance behind my companions: fortunately they heard my shouts, and, soon returning, extricated me from my awkward predicament. Without further mishap we reached Esquipula, a village inhabited mostly by half-breeds, and slung our hammocks for the night in a small thatched house belonging to the mining company, who kept many of their draught bullocks at this place on account of the excellent pasture around. The village of Esquipula is built near the river Mico, which, rising in the forest-clad ranges to the eastward, runs for several miles through the savannahs, then again enters the forest and flows into the Atlantic at Blewfields, a broad and deep river. This river must have had at one time a large Indian population dwelling in settled towns near its banks. Their burial places, marked with great heaps of stones, are frequent, and pieces of pottery, broken stone statues, and pedestals are often met with. Near Esquipula there are some artificial-looking mounds, with great stones set around them; in fact, this and another village, a few miles to the south, called San Tomas, are, I believe, both built on the sites of old Indian towns. The Indians of the Rio Mico gave the Spaniards some trouble on their first settlement of the country. About two leagues from Acoyapo, the site of a small town was pointed out to me, now covered with low trees and brushwood. Here the Spaniards were attacked in the night-time by the Rio Mico Indians, and all of them killed, excepting the young women, who were carried off into captivity, and the place has ever since lain desolate.

Many extravagant stories have been told of the great statues that are said to have been seen on the banks of the Mico, much lower down the river than where we crossed it; but M. Etienne, of Libertad, who descended it to Blewfields, and some Ulleros of San Tomas, who had frequently been down it after india-rubber, assured me that the reported statues were merely rude carvings of faces and animals on the rocks. They appear to be similar to what are found on many rivers running into the Caribbean Sea, and to those which were examined by Schomburgk on the rocks of the Orinoco and Essequibo. As others like them, of undoubted Carib workmanship, have been found in the Virgin Islands, it is possible that they are all the work of that once-powerful race, and not of the settled agricultural and statue-making Indians of the western part of the continent.

We started from Esquipula early next morning, and crossed low thinly-timbered hills and savannahs to Pital, a scattered settlement of many small thatched houses, close to the borders of the great forest; on the edge of which were clearings, made for growing maize, which is cultivated entirely on burnt forest land. At some parts they had already commenced cutting down trees for fresh clearings; these would be burnt in April, and the maize sown the following month, in the usual primitive way, just as it was in Mexico before and at the Spanish conquest. In commencing a clearing, the brushwood is first cut close to the ground, as it would be difficult to do so after the large trees are felled. The big timber is then cut down, and in April it is set fire to. All the small wood and leaves burn well; but most of the large trunks are left, and many of the branches. Most of the latter are cut up to form a fence round the clearing, this at Pital and Esquipula being made very close and high to keep out deer. In May, the maize is sown; the sower makes little holes with a pointed stick, a few feet apart, into each of which he drops two or three grains, and covers them with his foot. In a few days the green leaves shoot up, and grow very quickly. Numerous wild plants also spring up, and in June these are weeded out; the success of the crop greatly depending upon the thoroughness with which this is done. In July each plant has produced two or three ears; and before the grain is set these are pulled off, excepting one, as if more are left they do not mature well. The young ears are boiled whole, and make a tender and much-esteemed vegetable. They are called at this stage “chilote,” from the Aztec xilotl; and the ancient Mexicans in their eighth month, which began on the 16th July, made a great festival, called the feast of Xilonen. The poor Indians now have often reason to rejoice when this stage is reached, as their stores of corn are generally exhausted before then, and the “chilote” is the first fruits of the new crop. In the beginning of August the grains are fully formed, though still tender and white; and it is eaten as green corn, now called “elote.” In September the maize is ripe, and is gathered when dry, and stowed away, generally over the rooms of the natives. A second crop is often sown in December.

Maize is very prolific, bearing a hundredfold, and ripening in April. From the most ancient times, maize has been the principal food of the inhabitants of the western side of tropical America. On the coast of Peru, Darwin found heads of it,1 along with eighteen species of marine shells, in a raised beach eighty-five feet above the level of the sea; and in the same country it has been found in tombs apparently more ancient than the earliest times of the Incas.2 In Mexico it was known from the earliest times of which we have any record, in the picture writings of the Toltecs; and that ancient people carried it with them in all their wanderings. In Central America the stone grinders, with which they bruised it down, are almost invariably found in the ancient graves, having been buried with the ashes of the dead, as an indispensable article for their outfit for another world. When Florida and Louisiana were first discovered, the native Indian tribes all cultivated maize as their staple food; and throughout Yucatan, Mexico, and all the western side of Central America, and through Peru to Chili, it was, and still is, the main sustenance of the Indians. The people that cultivated it were all more or less advanced in civilisation; they were settled in towns; their traders travelled from one country to another with their wares; they were of a docile and tractable disposition, easily frightened into submission. It is likely that these maize-eating peoples belonged to closely affiliated races. In the West India Islands they occupied most of Cuba and Hayti; but from Porto Rico southwards the islands were peopled by the warlike Caribs, who harassed the more civilised tribes to the north. From Cape Gracias a Dios southward, the eastern coast of America was peopled on its first discovery by much ruder tribes, who did not grow maize, but made bread from the roots of the mandioca (Manihot aipim); and still in British Guiana, on the Lower Amazon, and in north-eastern Brazil, farina made from the roots of the mandioca is the staple food. Maize has been introduced by the Portuguese, but it has no native name, and is used mostly for feeding cattle and fowls, scarcely at all for the food of the people. This fundamental difference in the food of the indigenes points to a great distinction between the peoples to which I shall have in the sequel to revert. In the West India Islands, Cuba and Hayti seem to have been peopled from Yucatan, and Florida, Porto Rico, and all the islands to the southwards, from Venezuela.

1 “Geological Observations in South America” 1846 page 49 and “Animals and Plants under Domestication” volume 1 page 320.

2Von Tschudi “Travels in Peru” English edition page 177.

In Central America, the bread made from the maize is prepared at the present day exactly as it was in ancient Mexico. The grain is first of all boiled along with wood ashes or a little lime; the alkali loosens the outer skin of the grain, and this is rubbed off with the hands in running water, a little of it at a time, placed upon a slightly concave stone, called a metlate, from the Aztec metlatl, on which it is rubbed with another stone shaped like a rolling-pin. A little water is thrown on it as it is bruised, and it is thus formed into paste. A ball of the paste is taken and flattened out between the hands into a cake about ten inches diameter and three-sixteenths of an inch thick, which is baked on a slightly concave earthenware pan. The cakes so made are called tortillas, and are very nutritious. When travelling, I preferred them myself to bread made from wheaten flour. When well made and eaten warm, they are very palatable.

There are a few small sugar plantations near Pital. The juice is pressed out of the canes by rude wooden rollers set upright in threes, the centre one driving the one on each side of it by projecting cogs. The whole are set in motion by oxen travelling round the same as in a thrashing-mill. The ungreased axles of the rollers, squeaking and screeching like a score of tormented pigs, generally inform the traveller of their vicinity long before he reaches them. The juice is boiled, and an impure sugar made from it. I do not think that the sugar-cane was known to the ancient inhabitants of the country: it is not mentioned by the historians of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, nor has it, like maize and cacao, any native name.

As soon as we passed Pital we entered the great forest, the black margin of which we had seen for many miles, that extends from this point to the Atlantic. At first the road lay through small trees and brushwood, a second growth that had sprung up where the original forest had been cut for maize plantations; but after passing a brook bordered by numerous plants of the pita, from which a fine fibre is obtained, and which gives its name to Pital, we entered the primeval forest. On each side of the road great trees towered up, carrying their crowns out of sight amongst a canopy of foliage; lianas wound round every trunk and hung from every bough, passing from tree to tree, and entangling the giants in a great network of coiling cables, as the serpents did Laocoon; the simile being strengthened by the fact that many of the trees are really strangled in the winding folds. Sometimes a tree appears covered with beautiful flowers, which do not belong to it, but to one of the lianas that twines through its branches and sends down great rope-like stems to the ground. Climbing ferns and vanilla cling to the trunks, and a thousand epiphytes perch themselves on the branches. Amongst these are large arums that send down aerial roots, tough and strong, and universally used instead of cordage by the natives. Amongst the undergrowth several small species of palms, varying in height from two to fifteen feet, are common; and now and then magnificent tree ferns, sending off their feathery crowns twenty feet from the ground, delight the sight with their graceful elegance. Great broad-leaved heliconiae, leathery melastomae, and succulent-stemmed, lop-sided-leaved begonias are abundant, and typical of tropical American forests. Not less so are the cecropia trees, with their white stems and large palmated leaves standing up like great candelabra. Sometimes the ground is carpeted with large flowers, yellow, pink, or white, that have fallen from some invisible tree-top above, or the air is filled with a delicious perfume, for the source of which one seeks around in vain, as the flowers that cause it are far overhead out of sight, lost in the great overshadowing crown of verdure. Numerous babbling brooks intersect the forest, with moss-covered stones and fern-clad nooks. One’s thoughts are led away to the green dells in English denes, but are soon recalled; for the sparkling pools are the favourite haunts of the fairy humming-birds, and like an arrow one will dart up the brook, and, poised on wings moving with almost invisible velocity, clothed in purple, golden, or emerald glory, hang suspended in the air; gazing with startled look at the intruder, with a sudden jerk, turning round first one eye, then the other, and suddenly disappear like a flash of light.

Unlike the plains and savannahs we crossed yesterday, where the ground is parched up in the dry season, the Atlantic forest, bathed in the rains distilled from the north-east trades, is ever verdant. Perennial moisture reigns in the soil, perennial summer in the air, and vegetation luxuriates in ceaseless activity and verdure, all the year round. Unknown are the autumn tints, the bright browns and yellows of English woods, much less the crimsons, purples, and yellows of Canada, where the dying foliage rivals, nay, excels the expiring dolphin in splendour. Unknown the cold sleep of winter; unknown the lovely awakening of vegetation at the first gentle touch of spring. A ceaseless round of ever-active life weaves the forest scenery of the tropics into one monotonous whole, of which the component parts exhibit in detail untold variety and beauty.

To the genial influence of ever-present moisture and heat we must ascribe the infinite variety of the trees of these forests. They do not grow in clusters or masses of single species, like our oaks, beeches, and firs, but every tree is different from its neighbour, and they crowd upon each other in unsocial rivalry, each trying to overtop the other. For this reason we see the great straight trunks rising a hundred feet without a branch, and carrying their domes of foliage directly up to where the balmy breezes blow and the sun’s rays quicken. Lianas hurry up to the light and sunshine, and innumerable epiphytes perch themselves high up on the branches.

The road through the forest was very bad, the mud deep and tenacious, the hills steep and slippery, and the mules had to struggle and plunge along through from two to three feet of sticky clay. One part, named the Nispral, was especially steep and difficult to descend, the road being worn into great ruts. We crossed the ranges and brooks nearly at right angles, and were always ascending or descending. About two we reached a clearing and hacienda, belonging to an enterprising German, named Melzer, near a brook called Las Lajas, who was cultivating plantains and vegetables, and had also commenced brick and tile making, besides planting some thousands of coffee trees. His large clearings were a pleasant change from the forest through which we had been toiling, and we stayed a few minutes at his house. After riding over another league of forest-covered ranges, we reached Pavon, one of the mines of the Chontales Company, and passing the Javali mine soon arrived at Santo Domingo, the headquarters of the gold-mining company whose operations I had come out to superintend.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32