No. 82.
Mr. Scruggs to Mr. Frelinghuysen.

No. 3.]

Sir: From Honda, the head of steam navigation on the Magdalena, to Bogota, the capital of the Colombian Republic, the journey must be made on mule-back. The distance is less than 70 miles, although it usually requires from three to four days to complete it. However, within the last few years a line of coaches has been established between the federal [Page 146] capital and Agrialarge, a stopping place some 30 miles distant from Bogotà; so that the journey by mule-back has been reduced to about 40 miles.

After perfecting all necessary arrangements the day previous, the traveler rises at six, takes a light breakfast of chocolate and bread, and. hopes to be on the way by seven. But people here take life easily. Servants and guides and muleteers make no note of time, and it is quite useless to try to hurry them, so that if he gets fairly under way by ten o’clock he is fortunate. Ashe ascends a spur of the eastern Cordillera there is revealed to him a most enchanting view of the surrounding country; the atmosphere is singularly clear, pure, and exhilarating, and he breathes more deeply and easily; the senses are no longer oppressed by the sultry heats and intoxicating perfumes of the valley; the limbs recover their wonted elasticity, and the mind seems more clear and active.

Just beyond the deep, broad valley of the Magdalena, are the snowcapped mountains of Tolima. They seem marvelously near, and yet they are more than 100 miles distant; so very clear and transparent is the pure ethereal atmosphere of this elevated region. In the opposite direction is the dish-shaped valley of Guaduas, fringed with luxuriant foliage of the coffee plantations and the virgin forests of emerald green. In the center of this valley reposes the parochial village, with its church steeples reaching upward as if in feeble imitation of the adjacent mountain peaks. This valley of Guaduas is over 3,000 feet above the sea level, and has, therefore, an equable and temperate climate. But the atmosphere is quite damp, and rheumatism, diptheria, and goitre are among the prevalent maladies of the place. The population of the village is about 20,000, the basis of which is the Chibcha Indian, the race which inhabited this country at the time of the conquest by Quesada, in 1537. But here, as elsewhere in the Andes, the Indian has lost his race identity by amalgamation with the Castilian, and a Chibcha of pure blood is seldom seen except in the more remote rural districts. The negro and his descendants are seldom seen here. They seem to thrive best in the hot, malarious region of the coast and on the margins of the great rivers.

The next village of importance is Villete. It has a population of about 2,000, mostly Indians and mixed-breeds. Its elevation is only about 600 feet above the sea level, and has an average temperature of about 85°. Though quite hot, the atmosphere is singularly dry and sanitary, and the place is often resorted to by invalids from Bogota and the more elevated regions.

The valley is watered by the Rio Negro; justly so named, for its waters are as black as ink, so rendered by their passage through the coal and mineral deposits along the foot-hills of the Sierra. Near by are a noted sulphur spring and the extinct volcano which Humboldt describes as likely, one day, to break out afresh and destroy this beautiful valley.

Up to this point our journey has been alternating between deep valleys and dizzy mountain peaks. We cross one only to encounter another. Such is the Camino Real or “Royal Highway,” the only available route between the Colombian capital and the outside world. Within the past few years it has been much improved, it is true, and at great expense to the government; but it is still little else than a mere mule trail, not wide enough in many places for two mules to walk abreast, and so tortuous and precipitous as to be impassable except on the backs of animals trained to the road. When we reflect that this is the overland highway of an immense commerce, and that it has been in constant use since [Page 147] the Spanish conquest, we naturally marvel that it is no better. It seems to have been constructed without any previous survey whatever, and without the least regard for comfort or convenience, making short curves where curves are quite unnecessary, or going straight over some mountain spur or peak when the ascent might have been rendered less difficult by easy curves. But, to the observant traveler, the inconveniences and hardships of the journey are, in some measure, compensated by the varied and captivating scenery. He passes through a variety of climates within a few hours’ ride. At one time he is ascending a dizzy steep by a sort of rustic stairway hewn into the rock-ribbed mountain, where the air reminds him of a chilly November morning; a few hours later he is descending to the region of the plantain and the banana, where the summer never ends, and the rank crops of fruits and flowers chase each other in unbroken circle from January to December. On the bleak crests of the paramos he encounters neither tree nor shrub; where a few blades of sedge and the flitting of a few sparrows give the only evidences of vegetable or animal life; while in the deep valley just below, the dense groves of palm and cottonwood are alive with birds of rich and varied plumage, and the air seems loaded with floral perfumes until the senses fairly ache with their sweetness.

Agrialarge is, as I have said, the last stopping place before exchanging the saddle mule for the coach. It is a little settlement of a few hundred inhabitants, situated on the eastern crest of the Cordillera which surrounds the vast altiplane of Bogotá. We here dismiss our faithful mule, and take coach or omnibus for the cities of the plain. The transition from the intense midsummer heats of Villete, to the bleak Novemberblasts of Agrialarge, has been a journey of but a few hours. Our ears and finger-tips ache with cold, and a strange numbness is felt in every limb. But the descent to the edge of the plain is rapid, and within thirty minutes we are greeted by the clear, bright rays of perpetual spring. The ripening wheat fields, fringed by primroses and perennial flowers, alternated by green pastures filled with sleek herds of sheep and cattle, afford a landscape worthy of the artist’s pencil or the poet’s enthusiasm.

This plain is the traditional elysium of the ancient Chibchas, and their imperial capital was near the site of the present capital of Colombia; and perhaps around no one spot on the American continent cluster so many legends of the aborigines, or quite so many improbable stories illustrative of the ancient civilization. Here one can almost imagine himself in the north temperate zone, and in a country inhabited by a race wholly different from the people heretofore seen in the republic. Agriculture and the useful arts seem at least a century ahead of those on the coast and in the torrid valleys of the great rivers. The ox-cart and plantation wagon have supplanted the traditional pack-mule and ground sled. The neat iron spade and patent plow, have taken the place of wooden shovels and clumsy forked sticks. The inclosures are of substantial stone or adobe; and the spacious farm-house or quinta has an air of palatial elegance compared with the mud and bamboo hut of the Magdalena. The people have a clear, ruddy complexion, at least compared with those heretofore seen in the country; and their dialect is a near approach to the rich and sonorous Castilian, once so liquid and harmonious in poetry and song, so majestic and persuasive on the forum. None of these agricultural implements and none of these commodious coaches and omnibuses were manufactured here, nor elsewhere in Colombia. They have all been imported from the United States or England. They were brought to Honda, packed in small sections, by the liver steamers, and thence lugged over the mountains, piece by piece.

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One peon will carry a wheel, another an axle, a third a coupling pole or single-tree, and the screws and bolts are packed in small boxes on cargo mules. The upper part or “body” of the vehicle is likewise taken to pieces and packed in sections. One man will sometimes be a month in carrying a wagon wheel from Honda to the plain. His method is to carry it some 50 or 100 paces and then rest, making sometimes less than 2 miles a day. When the vehicle finally reaches the plain, the pieces are collected and put together by some smithy, who may have learned the art from an American or English mechanic. One scarcely knows which ought to be the greater marvel, the failure to manufacture all these things in a country where woods and coal and iron are so abundant, or the obstacles that are overcome in their successful and profitable importation from foreign countries.

I have, &c.,