The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 19.

Iguanas and lizards. Granada. Politics. Revolutions. Cacao cultivation. Masaya. The lake of Masaya. The volcano of Masaya. Origin of the lake basin.

THE road passed along a sandy ridge only a little elevated above the waters of the lake, and the ground on both sides was submerged. As we travelled on we were often startled by hearing sudden plunges into the water not far from us, but our view was so obstructed by bushes that it was some time before we discovered the cause. At last we found that the noise was made by large iguana lizards, some of them three feet long, and very bulky, dropping from the branches of trees, on which they lay stretched, into the water. These iguanas are extremely ugly, but are said to be delicious eating, the Indians being very fond of them. The Carca Indians, who live in the forest seven miles from Santo Domingo, travel every year to the great lake to catch iguanas, which abound on the dry hills near it. They seize them as they lie on the branches of the trees, with a loop at the end of a long stick. They then break the middle toe of each foot, and tie the feet together, in pairs, by the broken toes, afterwards sewing up the mouth of the poor reptiles, and carrying them in this state back to their houses in the forest, where they are kept alive until required for food. The raccoon-like “pisoti” is also fond of them, but cannot so easily catch them. He has to climb every tree, and then, unless he can surprise them asleep, they drop from the branch to the ground and scuttle off to another tree. I once saw a solitary “pisoti” hunting for iguanas amongst some bushes near the lake where they were very numerous, but during the quarter of an hour that I watched him, he never caught one. It was like the game of “puss in the corner.” He would ascend a small tree on which there were several; but down they would drop when he had nearly reached them, and rush off to another tree. Master “pisoti,” however, seemed to take all his disappointments with the greatest coolness, and continued the pursuit unflaggingly. Doubtless experience had taught him that his perseverance would ultimately be rewarded: that sooner or later he would surprise a corpulent iguana fast asleep on some branch, and too late to drop from his resting-place. In the forest I always saw the “pisoti” hunting in large bands, from which an iguana would have small chance of escape, for some were searching along the ground whilst others ranged over the branches of the trees.

Other tree-lizards also try to escape their enemies by dropping from great heights to the ground. I was once standing near a large tree, the trunk of which rose fully fifty feet before it threw off a branch, when a green Anolis dropped past my face to the ground, followed by a long green snake that had been pursuing it amongst the foliage above, and had not hesitated to precipitate itself after its prey. The lizard alighted on its feet and hurried away, the snake fell like a coiled-up watch-spring, and opened out directly to continue the pursuit; but, on the spur of the moment, I struck at it with a switch and prevented it. I regretted afterwards not having allowed the chase to continue and watched the issue, but I doubt not that the lizard, active as it was, would have been caught by the swift-gliding snake, as several specimens of the latter that I opened contained lizards.

Lizards are also preyed upon by many birds, and I have taken a large one from the stomach of a great white hawk with its wings and tail barred with black (Leucopternis ghiesbreghti) that sits up on the trees in the forest quietly watching for them. Their means of defence are small, nor are they rapid enough in their movements to escape from their enemies by flight, and so they depend principally for their protection on their means of concealment. The different species of Anolis can change their colour from a bright green to a dark brown, and so assimilate themselves in appearance to the foliage or bark of trees on which they lie. Another tree-lizard, not uncommon on the banks of the rivers, is not only of a beautiful green colour, but has foliaceous expansions on its limbs and body, so that even when amongst the long grass it looks like a leafy shoot that has fallen from the trees above. I do not know of any lizard that enjoys impunity from attack by the secretion of any acrid or poisonous fluid from its skin, like the little red and blue frog that I have already described, but I was told of one that was said to be extremely venomous. As, however, besides the repute of giving off from the pores of its skin poisonous secretion, it was described to be of an inconspicuous brown colour, and to hide under logs, I should require some confirmation of the story by an experienced naturalist before believing it, for all my experience has led me to the opinion that any animal endowed with special means of protection from its enemies is always either conspicuously coloured, or in other ways attracts attention, and does not seek concealment.

About four o’clock we reached the city of Granada, and, passing along some wide streets and across a large square, found the hotel of Monsieur Mestayer, where we engaged rooms for the night. The hotel, like most of the houses in the city, was built, in the Spanish style, around a large courtyard, in the centre of which was a flower-garden. Madame Mestayer was very fond of pets, and had macaws and parrots, a tame squirrel, a young white-faced monkey (Cebus albifrons), and several small long-haired Mexican dogs. I was interested in watching the monkey examining all the loose bark and curled-up leaves on a large fig-tree in search of insects. In this and other individuals of this species, a great variety of countenances could be distinguished, and I could easily have picked my own monkey out of all the others I have seen by the expression of its face. I was told that the one in the garden at Monsieur Mestayer’s did not touch the figs on the tree, and I believe it; the Cebus is much more of an animal than a vegetable feeder, whilst the spider-monkeys (Ateles) live principally on fruits.

Granada was entirely burnt down by Walker and his filibusters in 1856, and the present city is built on the ruins of that founded by Hernandez de Cordova in 1522. The streets are well laid out at right angles to each other, and there are many large churches, some of them in ruins. In one of the latter a company of mountebanks performed every evening, and the circumstance did not seem to excite surprise or comment.

The streets are built in terraces, quite level for about fifty yards, then with a steep-paved declivity leading to another level portion. One has to be careful in riding down from one level to another, as horses and mules are very liable to slip on the smooth pavement. The houses are built of “adobe” or sun-dried brick. The walls are plastered and whitewashed, and the roofs and floors tiled. They are mostly of one storey, and the rooms surrounding the courtyards have doors opening both to the inside and to the street.

There are no factories in Granada, but many wholesale stores, kept by merchants, who import goods from England and the United States, and export the produce of the country — indigo, hides, coffee, cacao, sugar, india-rubber, etc. Many of these merchants are very wealthy; but all deal retail as well as wholesale; and the reputed wealthiest man of the town asked me if I did not want to buy a few boxes of candles. The highest ambition of every one seems to be to keep a shop, excepting when the revolutionary fever breaks out about every seven or eight years, when, for a few months, business is at a stand-still, and the population is divided into two parties, alternately pursuing and being pursued, but seldom engaging in a real battle.

There was one of these outbreaks whilst I was in Nicaragua, and the whole country was in a state of civil war for more than four months, nearly all the able-bodied men being drafted into the armies that were raised, but I believe there were not a score of men killed on the field of battle during the whole time; the town of Juigalpa was taken and retaken without any one receiving a scratch. The usual course pursued was for the two armies to manoeuvre about until one thought it was weaker than the other, when it immediately took to flight. Battles were decided without a shot being fired, excepting after one side had run away.

Of patriotism I never saw a symptom in Central America, nothing but selfish partisanship, willing at any moment to set the country in a state of war if there was only a prospect of a little spoil. The states of Central America are republics in name only; in reality, they are tyrannical oligarchies. They have excellent constitutions and laws on paper, but both their statesmen and their judges are corrupt; with some honourable exceptions, I must admit, but not enough to stem the current of abuse. Of real liberty there is none. The party in power is able to control the elections, and to put their partisans into all the municipal and other offices. Some of the Presidents have not hesitated to throw their political opponents into prison at the time of an election, and I heard of one well-authenticated instance where an elector was placed, uncovered, in the middle of one of the plazas, with his arms stretched out to their full extent and each thumb thrust down into the barrel of an upright musket, and kept a few hours in the blazing sun until he agreed to vote according to the wish of the party in power. A change of rulers can only be effected by a so-called revolution; with all the machinery of a republic, the will of the people can only be known by the issue of a civil war.

With high-sounding phrases of the equality of man, the lower orders are kept in a state almost approaching to serfdom. The poor Indians toil and spin, and cultivate the ground, being almost the only producers. Yet in the revolutionary outbreaks they are driven about like cattle, and forced into the armies that are raised. Central America declared its independence of Spain in 1823, and constituted itself a republic, under the name of the United States of Central America. The confederacy, which consisted of Guatemala, San Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, was broken up in 1840, when each of the States became an independent republic. Ever since, revolutionary outbreaks have been periodical, and the States, with the exception of Costa Rica, have steadily decreased in wealth and produce.

It would be ungenerous of me, in this condemnation of the political parties of Central America, not to state that there are many individuals who view with alarm and shame the decadence of their country. Such, however, is the state of public opinion, that their voices are unheard, or listened to with indifference. There seems to be some radical incapacity in the Latin races to comprehend what we consider true political economy. The will of the majority is not the law of the land, but the will of the strongest in arms. They cannot understand that a republic has no more divine right than a monarchy; that a country having an hereditary sovereign at its head, if it is governed in consonance with the wishes of the greatest number of its inhabitants, is freer than a republic where a minority rules by force of arms. They make a principle out of what is a mere detail of government — whether the chief of the state be elective or hereditary — but the fundamental principle of good government, namely, that the will of the majority shall be the law of the land, is trampled under foot and treated as the dream of an enthusiast.

The environs of Granada are very pretty; it is situated only a mile from the lake, and a few miles lower down the sleeping volcano of Mombacho juts boldly out, rising to a height of nearly 5000 feet, and clothed to the very summit with dark perennial verdure. The cacao of Granada and Rivas is said to be amongst the finest grown, and there are many large plantations of it. The wild cacao grows in the forests of the Atlantic slope, and when cultivated it still requires shade to thrive luxuriantly. This is provided at first by plantain trees, afterwards by the coral tree, a species of Erythrina, called by the natives Cacao madre, or the Cacao’s mother, on account of the fostering shade it affords the cacao tree. The coral tree rises to a height of about forty feet, and when in flower, at the beginning of April, is one mass of bright crimson flowers, fairly dazzling the eyes of the beholder when the sun is shining on it.

One of the principal courts of law is held at Granada, and whilst we were there a priest was being tried for having seduced his own niece. He was afterwards convicted, and, to show the moral torpidity of the people, I may mention that his only punishment was banishment to Greytown, where he appeared to mix in Nicaraguan society as if he had not a spot on his character.

Having finished our business in Granada, we started for Masaya, where I wished to consult a lawyer, Senor Rafael Blandino, who most deservedly bears a very high character in Nicaragua for probity and ability. We had a difficulty in obtaining horses, and did not get away until noon. The road was a good one, having been made by the late President, Senor Fernando Guzman, who seems to have done what little lay in his power to develop the resources of the country. The soil was entirely composed of volcanic tufas, and was covered with fine grass; but there were no springs or brooks, all the moisture sinking into the porous ground. Lizards were numerous, and on damp spots on the road there were many fine butterflies, most of them of different species from those of Chontales.

At four o’clock we entered Masaya, and passed down a long road bordered with Indian huts and gardens. The town is said to contain about 15,000 inhabitants, nine-tenths of whom are Indians. It covers a great space of ground, as the Indian houses are each surrounded by a garden or orchard; they stand back from the road, and are almost hidden amongst the trees. There was no water when I visited Masaya, excepting what was brought up from the lake which lies more than 300 feet below the town, surrounded, excepting on the western side, by precipitous cliffs, down which three or four rocky paths have been cut. Up these, all day long, and most of the night, women and girls are carrying water in Indian earthenware gourd-shaped jars, which they balance on cushions on their heads, or sling in nets on their backs. No men, or boys above ten years of age, carry water, and the women seemed to have all the labour to do. I believe it would have been impossible to find ten men at work in Masaya at any one time.

I spent the next day exploring around Masaya, as I was greatly interested with the geological structure of the country. One of the paths down to the lake has been made passable for animals taken down to drink. I rode my horse down, but in the steepest part he slipped on to his side, and I was content to lead him the rest of the way. The scene was one which is only possible in a half-civilised tropical land. Women, with the scantiest of clothing, or less, were washing linen, standing up to their waists in the water amongst the rocks, on which they thumped the clothes to be cleansed; laughing and chatting to each other incessantly. Men with mules and horses were bathing themselves and their animals at a small sandy beach, and girls were carrying off great jars of water, which they obtained further down, where the water was less tainted with the ablutions. Great rocks, that had fallen from the cliffs above, lined the shore; and amongst these grew many shrubs and plants new to me. The cliffs themselves were, in some parts, green with lovely maidenhair ferns, belonging to three different species.


On the opposite shore rises the cone of the volcano of Masaya, and the streams of lava that have flowed down to the lake and covered the old precipitous cliffs on that side are plainly visible. The cliff encircles the whole lake, excepting where concealed by the recent lava overflow. At the time of the conquest of Nicaragua, in 1522, the volcano of Masaya was in a state of activity. The credulous Spaniards believed the fiery molten mass at the bottom of the crater to be liquid gold, and through great danger, amongst the smoke and fumes, were lowered down it until, with an iron chain and bucket, they could reach the fiery mass, when the bucket was melted from the chain, and the intrepid explorers were drawn up half dead from amongst the fumes. Since then there have been several eruptions; and so late as 1857 it threw out volumes of smoke, and probably ashes. The whole country is volcanic. For scores of miles every rock is trachytic, and the earth decomposing tufas.

The lake itself is like an immense crater with its perpendicular cliffs. I spent some time in making an accurate section of the strata as exposed in the rocky paths leading down to the water. The whole section exposed is 348 feet in height from the surface of the lake to the top of the undulating plain on which Masaya is built. This measurement was kindly given to me by Mr. Simpson, an enterprising American engineer engaged in erecting a steam-pump to raise the water for the supply of the town. At the bottom are seen great cliffs of massive trachyte (Number 1 in section). Above this is an ash bed, then a bed of breccia containing fragments of trachyte, then another bed of cinders, which looks like a rough sandstone, but is pisolitic, and contains pebbles of the size of a bean. This bed is surmounted by one that possesses great interest (Number 5 in section). It is composed of fine tufa, in which is imbedded a great number of large angular fragments of trachyte, some of which are more than three feet in diameter. It is the last bed but one, the surface being composed of lightly coherent strata of tufaceous ash, worn into an undulating surface by the action of the elements.

I believe there is but one explanation possible of the origin of these strata, namely, that the great bed of trachyte at the base is an ancient lava bed; that this, perhaps long after it was consolidated, was covered by beds of ashes and scoriae thrown out by a not far distant volcano, and that at last a great convulsion broke through the trachyte bed and hurled the fragments over the country along with dense volumes of dust and ashes. The angular blocks of trachyte imbedded in the stratum Number 5 in section are exactly the same in composition as the great bed below, and in them I think we see the fragments of the rocks that once filled the perpendicular-sided hollow now occupied by the lake. Looking at the vast force required to hollow out the basin of the lake, by blasting out the whole contents into the air — distributing them over the country so that they have not been piled up in a volcanic cone round the vent, but lie in comparatively level beds — I cannot expect that this explanation will be readily received, nor should I myself have advanced it if I could in any other way account for the phenomena. Still, within historical times, there have been volcanic outbursts, not of such magnitude, certainly, as was required to excavate the basin of the lake of Masaya, but still of sufficient extent to show that such an origin is not beyond the limits of possibility.

Thus, in the same line of volcanic energy, not far from the boundary line of the States of Nicaragua and San Salvador, there was an eruption of the volcano of Cosaguina, on the 20th of January 1835, when dense volumes of dust and ashes, and fragments of rocks, were hurled up in the air and deposited over the country around. The vast quantity of material thrown out by this explosion may be gathered from the fact that, one hundred and twenty miles away, near the volcano of San Miguel, the dust was so thick that it was quite dark from four o’clock in the evening until nearly noon of the next day; and even at that distance there was deposited a layer of fine ashes four inches deep. The noise of the explosion was heard at the city of Guatemala, four hundred miles to the westward, and at Jamaica, eight hundred miles to the north-east.

In St. Vincent, in the West Indies, there was a great eruption on April 27th, 1812, which continued for three days, and was heard six hundred and thirty miles away on the llanos of Caracas. It has been so graphically narrated by Canon Kingsley that I shall once more quote from his eloquent pages. “That single explosion relieved an interior pressure upon the crust of the earth which had agitated sea and land from the Azores to the West Indian Islands, the coasts of Venezuela, the Cordillera of New Granada, and the valleys of the Mississippi and Ohio. For nearly two years the earthquakes had continued, when they culminated in one great tragedy, which should be read at length in the pages of Humboldt. On March 26th, 1812, when the people of Caracas were assembled in the churches, beneath a still and blazing sky, one minute of earthquake sufficed to bury, amid the ruins of the churches and houses, nearly ten thousand souls. The same earthquake wrought terrible destruction along the whole line of the northern Cordilleras, and was felt even at Santa Fe de Bogota and Honda, one hundred and eighty leagues from Caracas. But the end was not yet. While the wretched survivors of Caracas were dying of fever and starvation, and wandering inland to escape from ever-renewed earthquake shocks, among villages and farms which, ruined like their own city, could give them no shelter, the almost forgotten volcano of St. Vincent was muttering in suppressed wrath. It had thrown out no lava since 1718, if, at least, the eruption spoken of by Moreau de Jonnes took place in the Souffriere. According to him, with a terrific earthquake, clouds of ashes were driven into the air, with violent detonations from a mountain situated at the eastern end of the island. When the eruption had ceased, it was found that the whole mountain had disappeared. Now there is no eastern end to St. Vincent nor any mountain on the east coast, and the Souffriere is at the northern end. It is impossible, meanwhile, that the wreck of such a mountain should not have left traces visible and notorious to this day. May not the truth be, that the Souffriere had once a lofty cone, which was blasted away in 1718, leaving the present crater-ring of cliffs and peaks; and that thus may be explained the discrepancies in the accounts of its height, which Mr. Scrope gives as 4940 feet, and Humboldt and Dr. Davy at 3000, a measurement which seems to me to be more probably correct? The mountain is said to have been slightly active in 1785. In 1812, its old crater had been for some years (and is now) a deep blue lake, with walls of rock around, 800 feet in height, reminding one traveller (Dr. Davy) of the lake of Albano. But for twelve months it had given warning, by frequent earthquake shocks, that it had its part to play in the great subterranean battle between rock and steam; and on the 27th April 1812 the battle began.”

“A Negro boy — he is said to be still alive in St. Vincent — was herding cattle on the mountain-side. A stone fell near him, and then another. He fancied that other boys were pelting him from the cliffs above, and began throwing stones in return. But the stones fell thicker, and among them one and then another too large to have been thrown by human hand. And the poor fellow woke up to the fact that not a boy but the mountain was throwing stones at him; and that the column of black cloud which was rising from the crater above was not harmless vapours, but dust, and ash, and stone. He turned and ran for his life, leaving the cattle to their fate, while the steam mitrailleuse of the Titans — to which all man’s engines of destruction are but pop-guns — roared on for three days and nights, covering the greater part of the island with ashes, burying crops, breaking branches off the trees, and spreading ruin from which several estates never recovered; and so the 30th of April dawned in darkness which might be felt.

“Meanwhile, on the same day, to change the scene of the campaign two hundred and ten leagues, ‘a distance,’ as Humboldt says, ‘equal to that between Vesuvius and Paris,’ the inhabitants, not only of Caracas, but of Calabozo, situate in the midst of the llanos, over a space of four thousand square leagues, were terrified by a subterranean noise, which resembled frequent discharges of the loudest cannon. It was accompanied by no shock, and, what is very remarkable, was as loud on the coast as at eighty leagues inland; and at Caracas, as well as at Calabozo, preparations were made to put the place in defence against an enemy who seemed to be advancing with heavy artillery. They might as well have copied the St. Vincent herd-boy, and thrown their stones, too, at the Titans; for the noise was, there can be no doubt, nothing else than the final explosion in St. Vincent far away. The same explosion was heard in Venezuela, the same at Martinique and Guadeloupe; but there, too, there were no earthquake shocks. The volcanoes of the two French islands lay quiet, and left their English brother to do the work. On the same day, a stream of lava rushed down from the mountain, reached the sea in four hours, and then all was over. The earthquakes which had shaken for two years a sheet of the earth’s surface larger than half Europe was stilled by the eruption of this single vent.

“The strangest fact about this eruption was, that the mountain did not make use of its old crater. The original vent must have become so jammed and consolidated, in the few years between 1785 and 1812, that it could not be reopened even by a steam-force the vastness of which may be guessed at from the vastness of the area which it had shaken for two years. So when the eruption was over it was found that the old crater-lake, incredible as it may seem, remained undisturbed, as far as has been ascertained. But close to it, and separated only by a knife-edge of rock some 700 feet in height, and so narrow that, as I was assured by one who had seen it, it is dangerous to crawl along it, a second crater, nearly as large as the first, had been blasted out, the bottom of which, in like manner, is now filled with water.

“The day after the explosion, ‘Black Sunday,’ gave a proof, but no measure, of the enormous force which had been exerted. Eighty miles to windward lies Barbados. All Saturday a heavy cannonading had been heard to the eastward. The English and French fleets were surely engaged. The soldiers were called out, the batteries manned, but the cannonade died away, and all went to bed in wonder. On the 1st of May the clocks struck six; but the sun did not, as usual in the tropics, answer to the call. The darkness was still intense, and grew more intense as the morning wore on. A slow and silent rain of impalpable dust was falling over the whole island.

“The trade-wind had fallen dead; the everlasting roar of the surf was gone; and the only noise was the crashing of the branches snapped by the weight of the clammy dust. About one o’clock the veil began to lift, a lurid sunlight stared in from the horizon, but all was black overhead. Gradually the dust-cloud drifted away; the island saw the sun once more, and saw itself inches deep in black, and in this case fertilising, dust.

“Those who will recollect that Barbados is eighty miles to windward of St. Vincent, and that a strong breeze from east-north-east is usually blowing from the former island to the latter, will be able to imagine, not to measure, the force of an explosion which must have blown the dust several miles into the air above the region of the trade-wind. Whether into a totally calm stratum or into that still higher one in which the heated south-west wind is hurrying continually from the tropics toward the pole.”1

1 “At Last” by Charles Kingsley volume 1 page 90.)

I have quoted this graphic account of the great volcanic eruption of St. Vincent in 1812 from Canon Kingsley’s delightful work to impress on my readers, in more eloquent language than I can command, the fact of great explosions having taken place in recent times similar in character, though much inferior in extent and force, to that by which I believe the great basin of the Lake of Masaya and similar basins in the same and adjoining Pacific provinces have been blasted out. I do not shut my eyes to the fact that great as was the force in operation in 1812 at St. Vincent, that necessary to excavate the great chasm at Masaya was incomparably greater. No one is more disinclined than I am to invoke the aid of greater natural forces in former times than are now in existence. But I believe there is good reason to infer that at the close of the glacial period volcanic energy was much more intense than now. So strained is the earth’s crust at some parts that it is surmised that even a great difference in the pressure of the atmosphere such as occurs during a cyclone, may be sufficient to bring on an earthquake or a volcanic eruption already imminent. Whether this be so or not, there can be no doubt that at the melting away of the ice of the glacial period there was an enormous change in the strains on the earth’s crust. Ice that had been piled up mountains high at the poles and along the chain of the Andes all through tropical America melted away and ran down to the ocean beds. This great transference of weight could not have been accomplished without many rendings of the earth’s crust and many outpourings of lava and volcanic outbursts. Let us reflect, too, that not only was an enormous mass of matter, before lying over the poles, removed nearer to the equator, and many mountain-chains relieved of the ice of thousands and tens of thousands of years, but that there must have been an actual change in the earth’s centre of gravity. All our experience shows that the ice was more developed on some meridians than others; probably nowhere in the whole world did it lie so thick as along the American continents; and everywhere it must have been greater over the land than over the sea. When it assumed its liquid form, and arranged itself freely according to its specific gravity, the centre of gravity of the earth must have been effectively changed. All who have studied the present statical condition of the earth’s crust will readily admit that such a change might produce greater volcanic outbursts than any known to history.

Then when we turn to the most ancient traditions of the human race in both the old and the new worlds, and find everywhere fire and water linked together in the accounts of the great catastrophes that are said nearly to have annihilated the human race, I for one am inclined to accept them, and to believe that when, in the “Leo Amontli,” as translated by Brasseur de Bourbourg, we read of “the volcanic convulsions that lasted four days and four nights,” of “the thunder and lightning that came out of the sea,” of “the mountains that were rising and sinking when the great deluge happened,” and that when Plato on the other side of the Atlantic speaks of the earthquakes that accompanied the engulfment of Atlantis, we hear the dim echoes that have been sounding down through all time from that remote past, of the fearful volcanoes and earthquakes that terrified mankind at the time of the great cataclysm.

In these remarks on the origin of some of the lakes of Nicaragua I except the largest ones, namely, the lake of Managua and the great lake of Nicaragua, which probably occupy areas of depression produced by the large amount of material abstracted from below and thrown out by ancient volcanoes.

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