No. 97.
Mr. Scruggs to Mr. Frelinghuysen .

No. 54.]

Sir: Perhaps a brief recurrence to the physical and climatic pecuarities of this portion of the Colombian Republic, in continuation of the subject of my No. 3, of the 7th of July last,* may not be uninteresting to the Department. And I am the more inclined to crave your indulgence on this point since a recent commercial enterprise of an international character has drawn general attention to this country, hitherto comparatively little known even to the people of the United States.

It is, however, a country of singular beauty and of inexhaustible natural resources. Such is its remarkable formation that, although not exceeding in area three of the larger States of our Union, it presents every variety of climate, and is capable of yielding every species of product found in the three zones of the earth; whilst, for boldness and grandeur of natural scenery, it is probably without a rival on the globe.

But, perhaps, the most unique display of Audean scenery is found a few miles north of the Ecuadorian boundary. Here the Cordilleras combine into one dizzy ridge before spreading out into three distinct ranges. One of these, bending to the northwest and lowering its crest as it passes the narrow isthmus, loses its grandeur only in the icy plains of Alaska, The central range, running due northward, culminates in Mount Tolima (the highest peak north of the equator), and soon disappears in the blue waters of the Caribbean, while the third, or eastern chain, turning to the right and dipping gracefully toward the rising sun, holds in its lap, at an altitude of nearly two miles above the sea level, the magnificent plain on which is situated the Colombian capital.

This plain, in its general outline and conformation, may be said to resemble an oval-shaped dish, slightly inclined southeastward, but otherwise perfectly level. The high, circular wall of treeless mountains would correspond to the outer rim of the dish, while the inner lobe or rim is represented by the foot-hills or “benches.” Its extent is about 25 leagues from north to south by about 11 from east to west, and, therefore, contains an area of about 2,500 square miles. It is well watered by numerous creeks and small fresh-water lakes, besides the river Funza and its immediate tributaries. All these streams have their several sources in the surrounding Sierra, and run, in general direction, southwestward to the limit of the plain, where they are united and precipitated over the [Page 228] noted Falls of Tequendama, the only visible outlet of the waters of this immense basin.

The inner rim or wall of this great aerial valley is an undulating ridge of rich loam, underlaid with sandstone. This terminates in a kind of bench or terrace before breaking off into the rugged and barren Sierra, which rises to a height of from 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the level of the plain.

There is an aboriginal tradition that this entire basin was once the bed of a great fresh water lake; and there is probably no one fact more clearly indicated by modern geological research than that this tradition had its origin in the existence of a veritable lake, covering the whole area, possibly as late as the eleventh century.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, in 1537, the inhabitants of this region were the Chibchas, who, according to Quesada, numbered about three quarters of a million. Their form of government was essentially patriarchal, and their habits were those of an agricultural people given to the arts of peaceful industry. Their religion contained much to remind us of the ancient Buddhists. It imposed none of those revolting sacrifices of human victims which marked the rituals of the Aztecs. They had their divine mediator in Bohica, or deity of mercy. Their Chibchacum corresponded to the Buddhist god of agriculture. Their god of silence, as represented by earthen images which I have examined, was almost identical with the Buddhist god of wisdom, as represented by the images in some of the Chinese temples. They had also a traditional spirit of evil, corresponding to Neawatha of the ancient Mexicans, and to the Satan of the Hebrews. And connected with their flood myth was a character corresponding to the Hebrew Noah, the Greek Deucalion, and the Mexican Cojcoj.

The capital of the Chibcha empire was Bocatá, of which Bogotá is manifestly a mere corruption. It was situated near the site of the present Colombian capital. But their most ancient political capital was Monquéta, near the site of the present village of Funza, on the opposite side of the plain. Near the site of the present grand cathedral, in the heart of the present city of Bogota, was a temple consecrated to the god of agriculture. Here the Emperor and his caciques, accompanied by the chief men of the country, were wont to assemble twice a year and offer oblations to the deity who was supposed to preside over the harvests, a ceremony not unlike the “moon feasts” celebrated in many of the interior districts of China.

The altitude of the plain above the sea-level is 8,750 feet, and its mean temperature is about 59° Fahrenheit. The atmosphere is thin, pure and exhilarating, but it is perhaps not conducive either to longevity or great mental and physical activity. A man, for instance, accustomed to eight hours’ daily mental labor in New York or Washington will here find it impossible to apply himself closely for more than five hours each day. If he exceeds that limit, ominous symptoms of nervous prostration will be almost sure to follow.

The climate is an abnormal one. It is not exactly a temperate zone beneath the equator, as is sometimes represented, and yet, barring its tendency to develop nervous complaints, it is not unhealthful. There is no malaria. Yellow fever, cholera, pulmonary consumption and agues are unknown. Sunstrokes are never heard of, and nobody ever suffers from frost-bitten extremities. The planting and the harvest season is in each month of the year, and two annual crops may without difficulty be grown on the same soil. I have seen farmers harvesting and sowing in adjoining fields in December, and likewise in July.

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I have never found respiration at this altitude either painful or difficult, as many have represented. It is, however, necessarily both deep and rapid, forcing the blood through the veins at a rate of from 80 to 85 strokes per minute. A man, for instance, whose normal pulse is 75 at the coast, will find upon his arrival here that it has reached 80.

July and August are considered the most inclement and disagreeable months of the year. Thus, midsummer is known here as the inverano or paramo season, that is, winter, when the dense mists rising from the torrid plains and valleys below are blown over the bleak sierras and settled over the plains, rendering the air exceedingly damp and chilly. The “rainy season” proper begins about the last of September and continues at intervals until about the first of December. From that time to about the middle of February the climate is almost perfect. The atmosphere is of transparent clearness—pure, crisp, and balmy. The sky is of a dark indigo color, and at night the stars shine out with uncommon brilliancy.

A moonlight night is something indescribably beautiful. The stars of both hemispheres are distinctly visible, and the “Milky Way,” viewed from this altitude, is one of the most gorgeous sights in the tropical heavens.

At this season Ursa Major, the Magellanic nebula, and the Southern Cross are at once visible in all their splendor. There is very little twilight. The boundary line between day and night is well defined; but if the twilight is marvelously short, it is surprisingly beautiful, and a December sunset in Bogota never fails to arrest the attention of strangers.

The lakes and water-courses of the plain abound in fish, but only of a single species. These are a kind of slimy eel, not unlike those exposed for sale in the market places of Central China, certainly not very prepossessing in appearance, though quite palatable when properly cooked. There is also an abundance of water-fowls, especially the teal duck, so highly prized in Europe. I believe no effort has ever been made to introduce the shad or other species of fish in the waters of the plain, though there is really no reason why such an effort should not prove both successful and profitable.

The soil of this valley, as I have intimated in another dispatch, seems to be of almost inexhaustible fertility. The staple product is Irish potatoes, a native of the Andes, by the way. Maize and a degenerate species of Indian corn grow well, but mature slowly and imperfectly. Wheat and rye do much better, and are grown in considerable quantities. The strawberries are delicious, and grow without much attention. Rice will not mature in this cool, thin atmosphere. The peaches and apples are almost worthless. The cabbage and cauliflower are extensively cultivated, but the cabbage never “heads,” and is eaten green as in Florida and Texas. Red clover is a recent innovation, but has proven quite a success.

Here, as elsewhere in Spanish America, the mule is a necessary appendance of the civilization, but the hog is almost an exotic; nobody ever eats pork or bacon in Bogota. The beef and mutton are excellent, but both are usually spoiled by the butcher.

Bituminous coal, of an excellent quality, abounds in the foot-hills all around the plain, and there is an abundance of iron ore just beyond, but neither is ever seriously molested. The inhabitants continue to use charcoal, prepared many leagues distant and brought hither on pack mules at a great expense. Coal oil has been discovered within one day’s ride from the national capital, yet people here import petroleum from the [Page 230] United States at an average total cost of $1.20 a gallon. Those who cannot afford this luxury continue to burn tallow candles. Some years ago an American company attempted to establish gas works here, but, owing to the difficulty and great expense of transporting metallic pipes over the mountains, wooden ones were substituted, and the result was almost a complete failure. It is probable the electric light, as recently perfected in the United States, would under all the circumstances be cheaper and more practicable in a city like this.

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I have, &c.,