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CHAPTER VII

THE ALTA-PLAIN OF BOGOTÁ

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FEW miles north of the equatorial line, near the boundary between Colombia and Ecuador, the three great

cordilleras of the Andes combine into one dizzy ridge before again spreading out into three distinct ranges. One of these ranges, branching out northwest, passes through the isthmus into Central America and Mexico, and thence, under a different name, along the western coast of the United States into British Columbia and Alaska. The second or middle range, continuing almost due northward, reaches its highest point in the peaks of Tolima, some ninety miles from the Colombian capital, and is soon lost in the Caribbean sea. The third range, turning northeastward, passes on through Venezuela and terminates in the Atlantic.

In the lap of this last-named range, nearly two miles above the sea-level, is the great savannah or plateau of Bogotá. Its geographical position is near the 4th parallel north latitude and the 70th meridian west longitude, and is on nearly a direct line from the cities of Quito and La Paz to the Atlantic ocean. It is, as we have seen, within a few leagues of the Magdalena, and quite as near to the upper reaches of the Meta, one of the navigable affluents of the Orinoco, -conditions which sufficiently indicate the future possibilities of Bogotá as an inland commercial centre.

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I have said that its altitude is nearly two miles. Its exact altitude at the Plaza Bolívar, is 8,760 feet above the sea.

The plateau proper contains about 2,100 square miles of arable land, it being about 70 miles in length by about 30 in width. In shape and general outline it may be compared to a great oval dish, slightly dipping southwestward, but otherwise perfectly level; the high circular wall of treeless mountains corresponding to the outer rim, while the foot-hills and benches represent the inner lobe. The entire plain is a treeless prairie, but well watered by a number of small freshwater lakes and numerous running streams. The brooks and creeks have their sources in the surrounding cordillera and foot-hills, and run in general direction from northeast to southwest. Near the western extremity of the plateau, these various streams are united into one, known as the river Funza, or Bogotá, which constitutes one of the principal affluents of the upper Magdalena. Just before reaching the edge of the plain, the Funza runs with deep and rapid current, and is finally precipitated over a perpendicular cliff into a deep gorge, some six hundred feet below, which leads down by rapid descent to the valley of Anapoime. This is the noted Falls of Tequendama.

The climate of the plateau usually impresses one at first as being perfect. The mean temperature is about 62°, the mercury seldom rising above 65° or falling

, below 59° all the year round. The atmosphere is singularly clear, thin, pure, and exhilarating; sometimes rather cool, crisp, and chilly, but always soft, balmy, and agreeable even to the weakest lungs. It is the region of perpetual spring, where flowers bloom every month in the year, and all nature seems bright and joyous.

But on further acquaintance, we discover that this is

not the springtime of the temperate zone, but rather an abnormal climate where spring, summer, autumn, and winter are harmoniously blended into one continuous season. The sun shines out with dazzling brightness, but we seem not to feel its power. Umbrellas and parasols are not needed to protect us from the burning rays, and we rarely perspire. Sunstrokes and frosts are alike unknown; and one experiences none of that lassitude so common in the springtime of the north temperate zone, nor of that indisposition to go out and enjoy the fresh air so common in high latitudes. There is little or no malaria, yellow fever is unknown, and pneumcnia, pleurisy, and pulmonary consumption are very rare. Thick flannels are always necessary, and at morning and evening a light overcoat is generally comfortable. At nightfall we shall want all the doors and windows closed, and will need thick blankets. We are always comfortable while walking about in the open air; but if we sit still in the house long at a time, a strange coldness and numbness will be felt in the lower limbs; and for this there is but one remedy, which is to get up and walk out, no matter how busy. A brisk walk of fifteen minutes will set everything to rights. The blood will be sent tingling to the very extremities, and the whole body will soon be in a pleasant glow. It is vain to think of stoves and fireplaces. They have been tried many times, and always with the same result. The atmosphere is so thin and light that a stove or grate soon exhausts the oxygen in the room, and a queer feeling of suffocation follows. If, to avoid this inconvenience, a window be opened the fire is of little benefit and the draft unpleasant.

It is quite impossible to work or study here with the same continuity as at less altitudes. Four hours daily is about the maximum for the average brain-worker.

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If in the consciousness of youthful vigor and robust health, one ventures beyond this, alarming symptoms will soon be developed, such as loss of appetite, insomnia, restlessness, and nervous exhaustion; and unless these premonitions are heeded, nervous prostration, paralysis, and sometimes partial insanity are likely to follow.

It is a common belief that respiration at this altitude is more or less difficult and painful. This is true to some extent, but it is generally exaggerated. A stranger, on first visiting the plain, will experience a temporary shortness of breath; he cannot run uphill or up a flight of stairs as rapidly as at lower altitudes; and when he attempts to speak or read in public he will soon find himself gasping for breath. But this soon passes away, and after the first week or so, the lungs expand and readily adjust themselves to the thin air, when one may read aloud or speak by the hour without the least difficulty. Of course respiration will be deeper and more rapid than at the coast, but this becomes automatic and is performed unconsciously. The blood is forced through the veins and arteries at a correspondingly increased rate; and the pulse, which we will say is normal at 75 strokes on the coast, will here rise to the eighties. But this should cause no alarm. The machinery is not out of order at all; it is simply running at a greater speed. Hence the inhabitants of this beautiful region, though usually healthy and robustlooking, are generally short-lived. A man at forty-five or fifty is thought to be old, and worthless at sixty. Of course there are exceptions; I am now speaking of the rule.

But this premature decay is compensated by a marvellous precocity. Girls marry at 14; and, among the lower classes, they sometimes become mothers at 12 and 13. Boys consider themselves men at 14; they are through college at 16 or 17, voters at 18, active politicians at 20, and sometimes grandfathers at 30. In social or domestic life there seems to be no intermediate station between the nursery and the drawing-room ; there is no “awkward age” of girlhood or boyhood, no dolls and mud-pies, no season of tops and jack-knives.

In this favored region the planting and the harvest season may be in every month of the year, and two and even three crops may be grown annually on the same ground. It is no unusual thing to see farmers planting and sowing in adjacent fields, whether the season be in December or May. July and August are considered the most inclement and disagreeable months of the year.

They constitute what is known here as the paramo season, when the dense fogs from the hot valleys below are wafted over the bleak sierras, often obscuring the sun for whole days, or falling in light, cold mists over the plain. At such times the air is very damp and penetrating, chilling one to the very bone, and often producing the worst forms of rheumatism.

The rainy season proper - invierno (“winter") as it is called here — sets in about the 20th of September

. and lasts until about the 20th of November. During this time, there is invariably a rain-storm daily; but it never rains longer than about twelve hours at a time, and a clear, bright morning may be generally counted upon. At midday a thunder-cloud will rise, and the downpour begins. This will continue incessantly until about midnight, when it suddenly ceases and the sky becomes singularly clear. The fair weather usually continues till noon next day, when the downpour begins again with the regularity of clockwork.

The dry season (the verano or “summer”) begins about the 20th of November and continues unbroken

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