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CHAPTER V

A MULE RIDE IN THE ANDES

T

HERE are now three available routes from
Honda, the head of steam navigation on the

Magdalena, to the great savannah of Bogotá on which is situated the capital of Colombia; whereas, only a few years ago, there was but the one, the old mountain trail of the sixteenth century, often too narrow for two mules to walk abreast, and generally so crooked and precipitous as to be a terror to inexperienced and nervous people. We may, if we choose, go around by way of Jirado, Tocaime, and La Mesa, making part of the journey by modern railway, part of it by coach, and part on mule back, - and reach the southwestern edge of the plain a few miles from the head of the great Tequendama Falls. Or, if preferable, we may proceed from Jirado by the still more modern and direct route, most of the way in coach or ox cart if the road happens to be in good order, which however is seldom the case,

and reach the western edge of the plain near the town of Agualarge on the crest of the great sierra. But the surest, as well as the most frequented route is the old one directly across the mountains from Honda to Agualarge; and this will have to be made all the way on mule back, just as it was three centuries ago.

Deciding to take this last named route, the first thing to do is to get ready for the journey; and this will require time, patience, and forethought. Good mules,

well trained to the road, can be had through local contractors who make it a regular business. The mules will cost from eight to ten dollars per head for the trip; and this will include the services of an experienced guide or muleteer, but not the feed of the mules on the way, which will be an additional charge of about forty cents per head daily. We shall have to buy or hire also our own saddles, bridles, blankets, and other articles necessary to the outfit, for the contractor furnishes nothing but the mules and pack saddles.

After perfecting all arrangements the day before, we rise at six in the morning, take a light breakfast of chocolate and bread, and hope to be well on the way by seven, while the air is yet fresh and cool. Vain hope! If we get under way by nine or ten we shall be fortunate. The mules, although usually brought in from the portraros, or pastures, the evening before, are never quite ready on time. There is always a delay of an hour or so in adjusting our luggage on the pack saddles. A bridle or a girth or a saddle blanket or something is almost sure to be missing. The muleteer invariably forgets something, and quite as invariably takes his own time in hunting it up. It is worse than useless to try to hurry him. In this country, people take life leisurely, and never think of doing to-day what may be by any possibility put off till to-morsow. Mañana ("to-morrow") is the one stock word in the native dialect the meaning of which every one must learn to understand and appreciate if he would get along without useless worry and waste of nervous force.

Even after all things are ready, and we are fairly mounted, the delays are not over. Both mule and muleteer seem loath to “get down to business.” They will stop and loiter at every little way-side chicheria,

1 A wayside shop in which native drinks are sold at 2} cents each.

1

“ loan

and if the muleteer solicits a "loan" of a few reales? with which to buy parting drinks for himself and friends, it is always good policy to cheerfully grant his request. Of course he has no expectation of ever returning the money, or that you will be so ill bred as to ever ask him for it. But we need have no fears as to his drinking; he is not going to get tipsy till we reach our journey's end. He will then expect another small

of a few reales with which to have a good time" on his way back. Upon the whole, he is not a bad sort of fellow. He is usually a short, broadchested, stocky, half-breed Indian, scrupulously polite and civil, and generally very obliging and useful, provided you show no impatience with his dilatory ways and do not undertake to hurry him.

As we ascend the first spur of the Cordilleras we get a fine view of the upper Magdalena river and valley, which from this altitude look like a vast ocean of green billows with a muddy little streak running between them. Above this, but still far below us, float great pillows of white cloud casting dark and ever-changing shadows over the green landscape, while just beyond are the snow-capped mountains of Tolima, which seem to pierce the very sky. The picture is one which no artist has ever succeeded in putting on canvas, yet, once seen, is ever fresh on the tablets of memory.

An hour or so later, and almost before we realize it, we are well out of the torrid heats and into the region of perennial spring. The atmosphere has now become singularly clear, crisp, and exhilarating; we seem to breathe more deeply and easily, the limbs regain their wonted elasticity, and the mind becomes clearer and more active. As we gaze in rapture upon the majesty and grandeur of the scenery before us, we readily forget the petty annoyances of the early morning, and the multitudinous discomforts of the past two weeks' journey.

1 A real is a native silver coin worth about ten cents.

A little farther on, we reach the crest of the great dividing ridge between the valleys of the Magdalena and the Guaduas. Here we get our first view of real Andean scenery; and the first thing that impresses us is the almost painful stillness of the place. Not a sound is heard save the Aitting of a few lonely sparrows: all nature seems to be in majestic repose; the cares and bustle of mundane life are all far beneath us, and we seem almost face to face with the Divine. To the eastward are the snow-capped ridges of San Ruiz, and a little to the southward, and much nearer, are those of Tolima, already noticed. Towering above all these is the great cone-shaped peak of Tolima, - the highest point on the continent north of the equator. Running up from a tropical base through all the climes of the globe, with belts of herbage of every latitude on its steep and mottled sides, the hoary pinnacle of this great mountain seems to pierce the very sky. In the thin, transparent atmosphere, distances are very deceptive, and this majestic sentinel of the Andes seems but a few furlongs distant. It really looks like we ought to be able to reach its base in a couple of hours at least. But it is more than a hundred miles distant, and to reach it by the ordinary route and mode of travel would require a whole week of the hardest kind of riding. To our left, far beneath us, is the beautiful little lozenge-shaped valley of the Guaduas, encircled by a high wall of treeless mountains and fringed on all sides by a green border of coffee plantations and bamboo groves. In the centre of this valley, nestled among the plantain and bamboo, is the red tiled village, sometimes dignified by the name of city; and meandering through the centre of the valley is the rapid-running little river of clear mountain water, which at this distance looks like a mere thread of silver. This little river, valley, and city are directly in the line of our journey; and the serpentine mountain path on the sierra beyond, now so distinctly visible, yet so remote, must be climbed to-morrow. The little city just below us will afford lodging for the night; but we must break away from the enchanting scene which has held us spell-bound for the last hour, if we would reach the posada before dark, for the distance is at least five times greater than it appears. So down, down we go; now skirting a rocky cliff, now crossing a deep cove, now ascending, now descending; now traversing the sombre margins of a beautiful mossgrown dell; then down again by a yawning precipice, where a single misstep would send both mule and rider beyond the cares of this world; finally down a rocky ledge over which it would seem even a goat could scarcely pass in safety, and just as the short twilight of a tropical evening is merging into thick darkness, we find ourselves sitting in the piazza of the hostlery enjoying the soft and balmy atmosphere of the place. Anon we have a dinner of soup, fish, boiled meats, and vegetables, all cooked in Spanish style with an abundance of garlic and red peppers, followed by a variety of dulces, white cheese, coffee, and cigars, and then to bed. And ah! how we enjoy the sound sleep on a hard raw-hide cot not overly clean perhaps - despite the fleas and the dirt !

This little valley is about 3,000 feet above sea level, and therefore has a mild and equable climate. The temperature seldom varies five degrees the year round. Indeed, it is rarely above 70° or below 68o. A perfect

1 Dulces (“sweets”) is the common name applied to all forms of dessert.

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