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CHAPTER XVIJ

CARACAS AND ENVIRONMENTS

T

HREE thousand feet above the sea, less than seven miles in direct line from the coast, yet

separated from it by mountain peaks which tower fully six thousand feet above its streets, stands "picturesque Caracas," the "little Paris ” of South America, the political capital and literary centre of the Republic of Venezuela.

The city is situated in the centre of the beautiful little Chação valley, a deep basin in the eastern cordillera of the Andes, less than twelve miles long by four wide. Around this little valley stands a cordon of blue mountains and green foot-hills, fringed with coffee estates and sugar plantations; and coursing through it, north and south, is the rapidly running little river Guira, fed by limpid streams of pure mountain water. The spot is as beautiful as a picture; the climate is equable and temperate; the air is soft and balmy; and a stranger, seeing the place for the first time, is apt to conclude that it must be indeed the “ earthly paradise" it is sometimes represented.

Near the western extremity of the valley, and only a few miles from the sources of the Guira beyond, stands the unique little village of Antémino; unique, because it is one of the few places in Spanish-America which you fail to associate with the remnants of a former age.

In other words, it is comparatively a new

place, and has a modern, up-to-date look. It is sometimes called the “ Little Tyrol ” of Venezuela; perhaps not so much by reason of a fancied resemblance to the favorite villa of the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, as it is for having been the favorite country residence of every President of the Republic for more than a quarter of a century past. It is within easy distance of the capital, and is connected with it, and also with the town of Los Teques in the mountains beyond, by a modern steam railway.

This railroad, by the way, is a German enterprise, and has been the source of perennial diplomatic disputes and international unpleasantnesses for the past decade. In a season of enthusiasm, when coffee crops were good, prices high, and the country was visited by one of those periodical debauches of prosperity so common in the western world, the government incautiously agreed to guarantee seven per cent annually on the capital necessary to the construction and equipment of the road, provided only that the cost should not exceed $100,000 per mile, and its net earning should fall short of a seven per cent. The calculation was that the road could be built for much less than $100,000 per mile, and that when completed it would hardly fail to pay at least seven per cent on the amount invested. How little the government knew of the methods of modern railway companies! The stockholders claimed that the road cost more than $100,000 per mile, notwithstanding it is narrow gauge and all the machinery and appliances had been imported free of duty; and that, when completed, it never paid actual running expenses. The outcome has been endless controversy, demands for the stipulated guarantee of seven per cent, interpositions by the German government, threats of customs seizure, one serious diplomatic rupture, and an uncomfortable burden upon the national treasury of the Republic.

But to return to the Chação valley. It is not quite so attractive on further acquaintance. You discover that the atmosphere is somewhat damp and malarious, and that mountain fevers, catarrh, liver complaints, and inflammatory rheumatism are common ailments. Thick fogs gather at night, during certain seasons, and hover over the entire valley till nine and ten o'clock in the morning; and when these clear away, the sun shines out with uncommon power and sends the mercury up from sixty-five to seventy-five degrees. Between five and six in the afternoon, a steady gale sets in from the mountain passes on the northwest, hurling fogs and mists through the valley as through a funnel, and by seven the thermometer is down again to sixty-five or even lower. During the months of July, August, and September, the valley, and more particularly the city, is sometimes visited by a species of violent fever which occasionally becomes epidemic. It is not the genuine "yellow jack" of the coast cities, or rather such as we see in Havanna or New Orleans; but it is something very near akin to it, and is often even more rapid and fatal in its results. It is known as la fiebre perniciosa, or “pernicious fever,” and is a genuine terror to unacclimated foreigners. Strangers liable to be affected by such epidemics should never come here in midsummer. If they come after November or before March, they may remain all the year without reasonable apprehension; but in any case they must live temperately, and avoid night drafts if they would keep well.

There has been considerable discussion by the curious as to the origin of the name “ Caracas.” It is said to have been the name of a tribe of Indians who inhabited this valley at the time of the Spanish conquest, early in

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the sixteenth century. The term is likewise applied to a native bird of prey, known to naturalists as the pyloborus, –a sort of cross between the vulture and the

-a mountain eagle, and a terror to smaller and weaker birds. From a fancied resemblance of its harsh and disquieting notes to the sound of the caraca or rattle trap, used instead of the bells during the last days of Holy Week, the old Spaniards called this ferocious bird the caracas. But I know of no explanation of this coincidence of name among peoples who spoke a different language, and who were at the time supposed to be unconscious of each other's existence.

In the year 1560, one Francisco Fajardo (or Faxardo) the illegitimate son of a Spanish adventurer by the daughter of an Indian chief, made the first attempt to found what is now the city of Caracas. He was, however, soon driven from the place by a tribe of hostile Indians, and fled to the Spanish settlement at Cumaná, where he was assassinated by one of his own countrymen. Seven years later, Don Diego de Losada entered the Chação valley with a strong military force, pitched his tents near the central plaza of the present city of Caracas, built a few houses, and called the place Santiago de Leon de Caracas, which in process of time became simply Caracas (with accentuated syllable), and finally plain Caracas.

The city is regularly laid out in blocks or squares of uniform size extending from the banks of the Guira, on the south, to the height of several hundred feet up the slope of the mountain, on the north. The streets are generally narrow, though somewhat wider than those of the average Spanish-American city, and are generally well paved with stone, macadam, or asphaltum. The sidewalks are barely wide enough to accommodate two pedestrians walking abreast, but are neatly overlaid

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with Roman cement and quite smooth. Near the Plaza Bolívar, the conventional centre of the city, two main thoroughfares cross each other at right angles, and extend toward the four cardinal points. These central avenues are designated as “North and South " “East and West” Avenues. All streets running northward from East Avenue are classified as

“ North ist, 3d, 5th,” and so on, omitting the alternate even numbers; while all running northward from West Avenue are known as “West 2d, 4th, 6th,” and so on, omitting the alternate odd numbers. A like classification is made of the streets running southward froni North and South Avenues, omitting alternate even numbers on one side and odd numbers on the other. The houses are all carefully numbered in corresponding series; so that when the name and number of any street or house is given, its exact position with respect to the central plaza is known at once.

Methodical and convenient as this arrangement is, it seems never to have commended itself to the common people; perhaps only for the reason that it is of modern origin, for it was one of the “reforms” introduced by Guzman Blanco. The simple-minded peasantry still adhere to the old Spanish colonial method of naming the corners at the street-crossings, and then designating houses as number so and so between such and such corners. Thus, if you direct a servant to go to “No. 25, North 2d Avenue,” he will stupidly stare and affect not to understand you; but if you say to him, “Go to No. 25, between the corners of Las Ybarras y Maturin,” he will be off at once on his errand.

1 Among the old names of the streets in common use as late as 1780, we find the following: Encarnación del Hijo de Dios ("Incarnation of the Son of God”), Nacimiento del Niño Dios (“Birth of the Child. God”), Circuncision y Bautismo de Jesús (“Circumcision and Baptism of

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