The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 13.

Matagalpa. Aguardiente. Fermented liquors of the Indians. The wine-palm. Idleness of the Nicaraguans. Pine and oak forests. Mountain gorge. Jinotega. Native plough. Descendants of the buccaneers. San Rafael. A mountain hut.

AT noon we arrived at Matagalpa, the capital of the province of the same name. The town contains about three thousand inhabitants; the province, or department, about thirty thousand. Matagalpa is built close to the river, on a rocky surface, with stony knolls rising up in some parts amongst the houses. It contains three churches, and the usual large square or plaza. Around, the country appeared very dry and barren, and there is scarcely any cultivation in the immediate neighbourhood. We put up at one of the best houses in the town. The family consisted of a stout lady about fifty and her husband, their daughter and her husband, and an unmarried son. The two younger men appeared to do nothing; the elder one had a contract with the government to manufacture aguardiente for three towns, and spent nearly all his time at a small hacienda, a league distant, where he grew sugar-cane and maize, and distilled the spirit.

There is a great deal of aguardiente, an inferior kind of rum, sold throughout Nicaragua, and most of the Indians make it a point to get drunk on their feast-days, but at other times are a sober race. They do not owe the introduction of intemperance to the Spaniards, though they can now obtain stronger liquor than in the old times, as the ancient Indians do not appear to have known how to distil, but they made several kinds of fermented liquors. In Mexico the chief drink was “pulque,” the fermented juice of the agave or maguey plant. In Nicaragua “chicha,” a kind of light beer, made from maize, is still the favourite Indian beverage. On the warmer plains, the wine-palm (Cocos butyracea) is grown. I saw many of them near San Ubaldo. The wine is very simply prepared. The tree is felled, and an oblong hole cut into it, just below the crown of leaves. This hole is eight inches deep, passing nearly through the trunk. It is about a foot long and four inches broad; and in this hollow the juice of the tree immediately begins to collect, scarcely any running out at the butt where it has been cut off. This tendency of the sap to ascend is well shown in another plant, the water liana. To get the water from this it must be cut first as high as one can reach; then about a foot from the ground, and out of a length of about seven feet, a pint of fine cool water will run; but if cut at the bottom first, the sap will ascend so rapidly that very little will be obtained. In three days after cutting the wine-palm the hollow will be filled with a clear yellowish wine, the fermented juice of the tree, and this will continue to secrete daily for twenty days, during which the tree will have yielded some gallons of wine. I was told that a very large grove of these trees was cut down by the government near Granada, on account of the excesses of the Indians, who used to assemble there on their festivals, and get drunk on the palm-wine. The Indians of Nicaragua, when the Spaniards first came amongst them, objected to the preaching of the padres against intemperance. They said “getting drunk did no man any harm.”

The manufacture of aguardiente is a government monopoly, which is farmed out to contractors. The contracts are always given to the political supporters of the party in power.

There are many private illegal stills in the mountains. They are generally amongst thick forest, near a small brook, with some dense brushwood close at hand for the distiller to slip into if any government officers should come up. One day, when rambling in the woods near Santo Domingo, I came across one of these “sly grog” manufactories. The apparatus was very simple. It consisted of two of the common earthenware pots of the country, one on the top of the other, the top one having had the bottom taken out and luted to the lower one with clay. This was put on a fire with the fermented liquor. The spirit condensed against the flat bottom of a tin dish that covered the top vessel, and into which cold water was poured, and fell in drops on to a board, that conducted it into a long wooden tube, from which it dropped directly into bottles.


Matagalpa does not rise above the dulness of other Nicaraguan towns; and there is a stagnation about it, and utter absence of aim or effort in the people, that are most distressing to a foreigner used to the bustle, business, and diversions of European cities. A few women washing in the river, or making tortillas or cigars in the houses, was all I saw going on in the way of work. The men, as usual, lolled about in hammocks, smoking incessantly. A few houses were in process of building, or, rather, were standing half finished. Now and then, a little is done to them; and so they take months and years to finish; and men will show you, with the greatest complacency, a half-built house on which nothing has been done for two years, telling you they are so busy with it that they cannot undertake anything else. There are no libraries, theatres, nor concert-rooms: no public meetings nor lectures. Newspapers do not circulate amongst the people, nor books of any kind. I never saw a native reading, in the central provinces, excepting the lawyers turning over their law books, or some of the functionaries in the towns looking up the government gazette, or children at their lessons. Night sets in at six o’clock. A single dim dip candle is then lighted, in the better houses, set up high, so as to shed a weak, flickering light over the whole room, not sufficient to read by. The natives sit about and gossip till between eight and nine, then lie down to sleep.

A single billiard-table, in a dimly-lighted room, at which three or four play all the evening, until the closing hour, at nine, and a dozen others sit round the walls on benches; a gambling room, licensed by the government, where only the smallest sums are staked; cock-fighting on Sundays; a feast day; and perhaps a bull-fight once or twice a year; private gambling carried on to a considerable extent by the higher classes, and aguardiente-drinking by the lower, complete the list of Nicaraguan diversions.

On entering the Matagalpa district, we had found the roads dry and dusty; and we now learnt that whilst at Santo Domingo the season had been unusually wet, near Matagalpa it had been so dry that the maize crops were suffering greatly from the drought. We had been travelling nearly north-west, and were getting gradually further and further away from the Atlantic, into a region where the north-east trade wind, having to travel over a greater stretch of land, gets drained of its moisture.

Our mules and horses were completely tired out; and we expected to have been able, without difficulty, to hire fresh animals to take us on to Ocotal in Segovia; but we were disappointed. We lost the afternoon by depending upon a man who undertook to get us some. He went away, saying he was going after them. Hour after hour passed, and he did not return. We went to his house; and his wife told us that he was getting the mules for us. Night set in, and still he came not. At last, about nine o’clock, we found him at the billiard-room. He said he thought, when he did not return, we would take it for granted that he had not been able to find the mules. I believe he had never been further than the billiard-saloon looking for them. These people get through the days with such ennui and difficulty, that they have no idea of people economising time. A story is told about them which, whether true or not, illustrates this. When the steamboats were first put on the Lake of Nicaragua, the natives complained that they were charged as much as they were in the bungos, although they got sometimes a week’s sailing in the latter, and only one day in the steamboat. We were in a dilemma about mules. I wished to push on, as I found the journey was a longer one than I expected when I set out; and it was important that I should get back to the mines by the end of the month. At last, our host offered us mules to take us as far as Jinotega, charging us three times as much as was usual; and we determined to go on there, and seek animals to continue our journey. We got our own mules put into a good portrero of Para grass just below the town, resisting our host’s invitation to leave them with him, fearing he might use them instead of feeding them. He had to send out to his hacienda for the fresh ones; and although he promised them at seven, it was ten o’clock the next day before they arrived; and the delay in waiting for them quickened my appreciation of the laziness and want of punctuality of the people of Matagalpa.

On leaving the town, we crossed the river, and ascended a range on the other side. Here, for the first time, I got amongst pine trees in the tropics; and they gave a very different aspect to the country from what I had before seen. No brushwood grows under them, and they stand apart at regular intervals, not shouldering each other, as in the Atlantic forest, where the trees crowd together, each trying to overtop its neighbour. No lianas hang from the trees, and, excepting a few narrow-leaved Tillandsias, no epiphytes nestle on the branches and trunks. Below, instead of shrubby palms, large-leaved heliconias, and curious melastomae, the ground was bare and brown from the fallen leaves of the pines, excepting that in some places light grass had sprung up; in others the common bracken-fern of Europe. All that I thought characteristic of a tropical forest had disappeared; and the whistling of the wind through the pine-tops, which I had not heard for years, carried me back in imagination amongst the Canadian forests. The road was rocky, and to the left rose mountains of nearly bare cliffs, up which clung straggling pines, reaching to the summits, relieving, but not concealing, their nakedness. Clumps of evergreen oaks were the only other trees; and these, like the pines, grew in social groups on the hills. In the valleys, the oaks and pines gave place to a variety of trees and brushwood, different species of acacia being the most abundant. Occasionally a tree-cactus appeared, its curious flattened, kite-shaped joints, covered with prickles, looking like great leaves, and its stem, formed of the same, thickened at the bottom into a round filiform trunk, not differing much from the trees around, but in the branches showing all the gradations by which the flat constricted joints thicken out into stems. In some parts, as we travelled on, we found the oak trees and many of the pines completely draped with hanging festoons of the grey moss-like Tillandsia usneoides, or “old man’s beard.” Not a bough but had a great fringe hanging down, sometimes as much as six feet long, like a grey veil swaying in the breeze, and giving the trees a strange and venerable look. The ride was delightful after the stagnation at Matagalpa: everything was fresh and new to me. The aspect of the country, the trees, shrubs, and flowers, the birds and insects, the aromatic perfume from the pines, claimed my attention every minute.

After four hours’ riding across the pine-clad ranges, we reached a gorge leading up to the heights overlooking the valley of Jinotega. The path was along the steep side of this gorge, often along the side of a precipice, where a few logs were laid to prevent the mules going over, but really increasing the danger, for they were old and rotten. Large boulders, imbedded in dark-coloured earth, lay on the steep slopes, and about these grew small herbaceous ferns in the greatest variety and profusion — a very paradise for a fern-collector. In some parts a light green maiden-hair fern covered the ground with its beautifully tender foliage, reminding me of shady banks in the north of England, covered with the equally lovely oak-fern. Every few yards discovered some new species, filling the mind with delight at their beauty and variety. In dryer and more stony places, a pinnatifid club-moss stood up amongst the stones in crisp tufts, like the parsley fern on mountain-sides at home. A black and blue bird (Cyanocitta melanocyanea), about the size of a jackdaw, flew in small noisy flocks; and I noticed a beautiful trogon, with burnished green back, and rose-coloured breast. The highest points of the ranges enclosing this ravine were covered with pine trees (Pinus tenuifolia); lower down grew evergreen oaks, and lower still a variety of small trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, reaching to the dry bed of the brook.


After a steep and rocky ascent, we reached the top of the range, and before us lay the upper end of the valley of Jinotega. Here it was very narrow, hemmed in by rocky ranges capped with pine forests. Descending the steep and rocky slope, we soon left the pines and oaks above us, and came down on a narrow alluvial flat, gradually widening out as we proceeded down the valley. On each side of the road were fields of maize, suffering greatly from the drought. The soil was a fine deep, dark loam, and for the first time in Nicaragua I found they ploughed their land, and made permanent fences. The plough was a primitive implement, not unlike some of those still in use in parts of Spain. It was entirely of wood, excepting that the point was shod with an iron plate. Many of the fences were hedges, amongst which grew the lovely creeper Antigonon leptopus, with festoons of pink and rose-coloured flowers. The Indian and Mestizo girls bind it in their hair, and call it “la vegessima,” “the beautiful.” It does not wither for some time after being cut, and so is very suitable for garlands and bouquets. It has been carried to Greytown and the West Indies; and whenever it flourishes, it is a great favourite.

About a mile down the valley we reached the small town of Jinotega, and put up at the estanco kept by a very polite and dignified elderly gentleman, who, in the customary phrase of the country, placed himself, his house, and all he possessed, at our service. His wife, a bustling young woman, not more than half the age of her husband, set to work at once to get our dinner ready. There were several women-servants and many children about the house. It was kept cleaner than is usual in Nicaragua, and I noticed in the yard behind that some attempt at drainage had been made. Our host appeared to be in comfortable circumstances. Outside the town he had a small farm where he grew maize and wheat. He complained greatly of the drought, and said it had never occurred before in his recollection that the maize had failed in Jinotega for want of rain. He found us a man who promised to supply us with mules or horses to take us to Ocotal, but as they had to be brought up from the “Campos” or plains he could not let us have them early, and it was ten o’clock the next day before we started again.

Whilst waiting for the mules we strolled around the town. In the centre most of the houses are substantially built and tiled; on the outskirts there are small grass-thatched huts with high-pitched roofs. Wheat, maize, potatoes, and beans are the principal things grown. Many of the people have light sandy-coloured hair and blue eyes, and I thought at first they might be the offspring of a number of Americans that settled in Jinotega during the civil war in the States, but afterwards abandoned the place. I found, however, some elderly people with the same distinctive marks of ancestry other than the Spaniards, Indians, or Negroes, and I am inclined to believe that on the breaking up of the bands of buccaneers by Morgan, at the end of the seventeenth century, many of them found a refuge up the Rio Grande and Rio Wanks. They were well acquainted with these rivers, and made many forays up them to harry the Spanish settlements on the Pacific slope. In 1688 a body of about three hundred French and English pirates abandoned their ships in the Gulf of Fonseca, forced their way across the country, and descended the Rio Wanks to the Atlantic. The fair-haired and blue-eyed natives of Matagalpa and Segovia are probably the descendants of the outlaws who made these provinces their highway from one ocean to another.

Jinotega is pleasantly situated, and has many advantages over other Nicaraguan towns. The climate is temperate and moderately dry, the land very fertile. Pine trees on the surrounding ranges furnish fuel and light. Pasture is abundant; for two miles below the town the valley opens out into wide “campos” covered with grass, on which a large number of horses, cattle, and mules are reared.

Our road lay down the valley. On the sides of the enclosing ranges there were many cultivated patches, and we saw whole families, men, women, and children, weeding amongst the maize. A few showers had fallen during the night and given them some hopes of saving their crops. We passed a village called Apanas and then struck across the plains, and on the other side reached low flat-topped ranges covered with small trees and brushwood, amongst which were many clearings well fenced and planted with maize. Passing over an undulating country, the hills covered with oak forests, the lowlands well grassed, we reached about two o’clock San Rafael, a small town that has used up all its houses in forming the plaza in front of a barn-like church. As usual, the half-breed population were sunk in idleness and poverty.

We stopped at one of the houses to get a drink of “tiste,” and were visited by a fussy little man who told us that he was secretary to the judge and keeper of the “estanco,” and in fact the ruling power in the town, which he placed at our disposal. We, however, wanted nothing but our “tiste” and to get some information about a cave we had heard was in the neighbourhood. Our friend knew all about it, and got a boy to show us the way for a couple of dimes. Under his guidance we crossed a brook, and passing through a pine forest soon reached the cave, which was on the side of the precipitous bank of a small stream. It was only a small one, extending for about twenty feet back, hollowed out of a sandy conglomerate, probably by the action of the brook when it ran at a higher level. I dug a little into the floor, but had not time to do much, and found nothing. There were signs of its having been recently occupied, the walls and roof were blackened with smoke, and numerous shells of the common fresh-water melania were lying about. We were told that the Indians when travelling used it, and that during the last revolution the inhabitants of San Rafael hid their valuables in it, though what they consisted of I am at a loss to say.

On leaving the cave our guide put us on the wrong road, and we did not discover the mistake until we had travelled a couple of miles. We then arrived at some huts in the pine forest, where we were told that the road to Ocotal was half a mile distant, across a stream and a high steep range opposite. We had either to return to San Rafael to take the right road or to cross the range. The latter looked rather formidable, but we determined to try it. It was very steep and rocky, but amongst the pines there was no underwood, so, after some stumbling and slipping, our beasts managed to scramble to the top, and we soon after regained the road.

We now travelled over steep ranges, composed of great moraine-like heaps of clay, with large angular boulders. Pine and oak trees covered the heights, shrouded with long fringes and festoons of the moss-like Tillandsia. Many epiphytes grew on the oaks, amongst which the mottled yellow flower of an orchid hung down in spikes six feet long.

Five miles after regaining the road we reached the top of a high range of hills, and found a single hut on the summit. Night was coming on, it was raining, and we were told that there was a very bad road before us over mountains, and no other house for three leagues. We determined to stay at the hut, although the prospect of our night’s entertainment was a most cheerless one. The hut was about twenty feet square, with a small attached shed for a kitchen. The floor was the natural earth, littered with corn husks and other refuse. There was not a bit of furniture, excepting some rough sleeping-places made of hides stretched over poles. There was not a stool nor even a log of wood to sit down upon. In this miserable hut dwelt three families, consisting of nine individuals; men, women, and children.

The land around appeared to be poor. A patch of the forest in front of the house, sloping down the side of a steep valley, had been cleared, and planted with maize and wheat. We were told that there were a few other houses down this valley. The people in the hut seemed miserably poor. I said to Velasquez that they must have been born on the settlement, as I could not imagine any one coming from outside the mountains to live at such a spot, and on inquiry we found that every one was a native, born within a mile of the hut. It was perhaps bleaker than usual that evening, a continuous rain was falling, and a high wind whistling through the pine-tops. Pigs, dogs, and fowls were constantly in one’s way, and the only cheering sign was the bright blaze and fragrant smell of the burning pine splinters. I asked one of the men if he preferred this place to Jinotega, where the fertile slopes and grassy plains had so pleased our eyes. He answered he did, the air was fresher and there was less fever.

They made for us some tortillas, and we had tea with us. The only ingenious thing about the place was a sort of stove, dome-shaped, made of clay, with two holes through the top like a cooking-stove, on which they put their earthenware cooking vessels. I turned into my hammock early, with all my clothes and my boots on, and my coat buttoned tightly round me, as the bleak wind found many a crevice to whistle through, and the open network of the hammock, agreeable enough in the warm lowlands, was too slight a protection against the cold of the mountains. A few poles placed across the doorway partially closed it, but some of the smallest pigs got through, and were rooting and grunting amongst our baggage all night.

As soon as daylight broke next morning we were up, stiff, chilled, and cramped, and got some hot coffee made, which warmed us a little. We then had a better look round than we had had the night before. It was a most desolate spot, with scarcely any grass; and a poor half-starved horse came up to get a small feed of maize.

The people of the mountain regions of Europe cannot, if they would, take up land in the fertile lowlands, as they are already occupied, but in the central provinces of Nicaragua the greater part of the land is unappropriated, and these people might, if they liked, make their homesteads where, with one-half the labour they spend on their barren mountain ridge, they might live in abundance. But they have been born and bred where they live, and knowing how strong is the force of custom and how attached the Indians are to their homes, I do not wonder that they stay from generation to generation on this bleak range. I can imagine that if removed to the lowlands they would sigh for their mountain home, to smell the fragrance of the pine trees, and to hear once more the wind whistling through their branches. I have already noticed how the Indians cling generation after generation to the same spot, even when a short removal would be manifestly to their advantage. I fear there is a more ignoble reason that has as much to do with this as their love of home, their confirmed and innate laziness. They shrink from any labour that they are not forced to undertake. As an instance, no one during at least two generations that the house had been occupied had brought in even a log of wood for a seat, and a table would, I fancy, be beyond their wildest dreams of comfort. An Avocado tree grew before their door, the only fruit tree to be seen, and it was nearly destroyed by being deeply cut into. I asked why they had injured it, and they said they fired at it as a target, and, lead being scarce, they dug out the bullets with their knives; yet within thirty paces of their hut there were plenty of pine trees that would have done equally well as a target, but then they would have had to walk a few yards from their door.

How was such a spot first chosen for settlement? All the names of the places around are Indian, and probably in the old times when there was continual warfare amongst the tribes, the remnants of one, conquered and nearly extirpated, fled to the mountains, and occupied a locality from necessity and for safety that they would not otherwise have chosen. Afterwards when a new generation arose they looked on the pine-clad hills as their home and birthright.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52