In The Crater Of Popocatepetl
( Originally Published 1912 )
As almost every tourist who gazes upon Mont Blanc is seized with the ambition to make an ascent, so there are few travellers who can behold Popocatepetl without feeling an overwhelming desire to scale this king of Mexican mountains. To do this was once regarded as a wonderful feat, and the adventurous traveller who performed it was ac-claimed as a hero. But nowadays, so prosaic has the world become, that scores of American tourists climb to the snowy heights of "Popo" every year, including the expedition as part of their "round-trip" excursions to Mexico.
Popocatepetl had fascinated me from the time I had first seen its wondrous outline standing sharply against the blue Mexican sky, its snow-clad tip glistening beneath the dazzling Mexican sun. Viewing Popocatepetl daily across the green fields of Cuautla, I became possessed of a keen desire to emulate the American tripper by including a climb to the summit as part of my own itinerary. I was given an unexpected opportunity to realize this desire when I received an invitation one day to meet some friends at Amecameca and join them in making an ascent of the great mountain.
Amecameca is about halfway between Cuautla and Mexico City, or a distance of forty miles. The train which I took one morning made this journey in something like four hours ! It was a hot, dusty ride; but as in other Mexican railway journeys that I had made the interesting sights to be seen on the way served to alleviate the discomforts and slowness of travel.
Between Cuautla and Amecameca there is some wonderful scenery. Leaving the cultivated valley, the railway passes between a succession of lofty, treeless, sun-baked hills; then, gradually climbing higher, opens up a splendid view of the surrounding mountains, with the great peaks of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl rising above them all. Many of these hills show unmistakable signs of volcanic action and the effects of the lava which once flowed from the two volcanos when they were active.
A great deal of maguey is cultivated in this district, and there are several large plantations along the line. A number of fibrous plants are also grown which are extensively employed in the manufacture of hemp. There are in Mexico about one hundred and fifty species of agave of various sizes, all fibre-producing plants, some of them having leaves as much as six or eight feet long. They thrive best in the semi-arid districts and in a thin, rocky limestone soil. All that is necessary is that the soil around the plant should be kept clear of weeds.
Most important of these fibrous plants is henequen, which is extensively cultivated in Yucatan, the dry climate and sandy soil of that part of Mexico being peculiarly adapted to its cultivation. The fibre produced is used very largely in the manufacture of carpets, rugs, twines, ropes and bagging. Owing to the check that Manila hemp crops received from the Spanish-American War, Yucatan in recent years has acquired almost a monopoly of the hemp trade. Formerly one of the poorest States of Mexico, it has now become one of the richest. Enormous fortunes have been made by the henequen growers in the last ten years, many poor men having suddenly acquired great wealth. The value of the fibres exported from Mexico every year now amounts to nearly 40,000,000.
Some species of cactus are also valuable for their fibre-producing qualities, notably the ixtle, which was used extensively by the Aztecs for weaving blankets. The famous tilma in the shrine of Guadalupe is made of this material. It is said that some cacti will produce an excellent quality of paper pulp, and experiments are being made with them. If the project is successful, it may do something towards relieving the situation in the paper trade caused by the decreasing area of forests available for paper-making purposes.
The maguey, which supplies the national beverage, pulque, was found useful in other ways by the ancient races of Mexico. Its thorns were used for needles and pins, while the leaves made a good thatch for the roofs of their huts, and when properly prepared, furnished as good a material for their writing as the Egyptian papyrus.
As in the trip from Mexico City to Cuernavaca, the line from Cuautla runs over the mountains, and at one point it reaches the altitude of nearly eight thousand feet. It passes through miles of cool, pine woods with all the characteristics of a northern forest, and occasionally there are glimpses of the great wooded valley leading to Popocatepetl, whose pointed snow peak towers above the clouds. Comparisons are always odious, but to my mind the magnificent distances to be seen here, the glorious blue sky, the thin, clear air, and the wonderful tints of the mountains and trees combine to form scenic beauties which rival even those of the valley of Chamounix and Mont Blanc. At three in the afternoon I reached Amecameca, met my friends and had a good night's rest at the comfortable little hotel in this picturesque town, preparatory to making the ascent of the mountain the following day.
Not far from Amecameca is a new winter and summer resort under American management, known as "Popo Park" — that is how the Americans have abbreviated "Popocatepetl Park." A large, comfortable hotel has been started at this place, which has become quite a popular week-end resort for people in the capital, especially during the winter months. Before long a motor road will be completed between Popo Park and the city, the distance being about forty miles. The hotel is situated in the midst of the pine woods, and although the air is cool during the day and sharp at night and in the morning, blazing wood fires enable the guests to be very comfortable. A number of wealthy people are building bungalows in the park, which is destined to become, in time, one of the most popular resorts in Mexico.
This is the place from which tourists usually make the ascent of Popocatepetl (17,782 feet). The hotel management arranges all the details of the ascent, the cost for each person being $25. This includes a return ticket from Mexico City, room and board at the hotel, a guide, pack-mule, and complete outfit of bed, clothing and food for the trip. For $10 extra the visitor can be carried up the most difficult part of the route after the animals are left behind, making the ascent possible to those who are too much affected by the high altitude to exert their strength. Visitors who come from Mexico City can make the trip to the summit and return to town in three days.
Our party for the ascent consisted of three, each of us mounted on a sturdy mule. At midday we stopped for luncheon at the ranch of El Paraje, a point where many who set out to scale the mountain often turn back, either losing courage or finding the strain on the heart and lungs too great. As we left the ranch and rode onward, the scenery and vegetation began to change until only a few stunted oyamal trees and patches of withered grass were to be seen.
When we reached the ranch of Tlamacas at four in the afternoon, a freezing, bitter wind was blowing, there was a light fall of snow and we were glad to get inside the hut and warm ourselves at a wood fire. It was agreed that we should continue our journey to the summit at three o'clock in the morning. In spite of the fire and plenty of blankets, we spent the early hours of the night very uncomfortably, as it was impossible to keep out the intense cold. At two in the morning, after refreshing ourselves with some hot tea, we commenced the ascent by the light of the full moon, its brilliant rays reflected by the white field of snow. As we mounted upwards, the path became more and more steep, the mules being compelled to stop frequently to gain their breath. We were forced at last to dismount and proceed on foot. In the far distance the City of Puebla, with its twinkling lights, could now be seen, backed by the towering peak of Orizaba.
As we climbed steadily on, the moon sank behind the mountain heights and the sky was diffused with the first rosy flush of the coming dawn, a most beautiful sight. The green mountain looked so majestic that one could not wonder that it had taken its place with its companion, Ixtaccihuatl, in the mythology of the Aztecs. Legend says that Popocatepetl (the smoking mountain) and Ixtaccihuatl (the woman in white) were once giants who, having displeased the gods, were transformed into mountains. The appearance of the smaller mountain strikingly illustrates this story, for the outline of its summit bears a close resemblance to the form of a woman shrouded in snow. After being changed into mountains, the legend adds, the woman died, but the man was doomed to live on and to gaze on his beloved forever. At times, in his deep grief, he trembles and moans, while tears of fire course down his furrowed cheek. Both mountains are extinct volcanoes, Popocatepetl having been active within historical times. The fires of Ixtaccihuatl were probably the first to cease, thus giving rise to the beautiful legend.
People who climb Popocatepetl are warned not to eat much, which advice is not altogether sound, as the great strain upon the system is weakening enough without the exhaustion necessarily caused by the lack of food. Before we had reached the summit we were all tired out, and our breathing became so labored that we were obliged to call a halt. Then we made a final struggle, pushing forward with a grim determination which was soon rewarded. A few minutes more of hard climbing brought us to the crater, and before our eyes was unfolded a magnificent scene. Around us were the rugged mountain heights, half shrouded with clouds of varied and beautiful tints, which in the course of an hour or two drifted away, enabling us to see into the depths of the vast crater. Here the scene vividly recalled the descriptions of the infernal regions in Dante's great poem. The rugged sides of the crater, glistening with yellow sulphurous incrustations, intermingled with masses of black volcanic earth and white patches of snow, assumed a thousand weird shadows and variegated colors; and on one side was a large pool of intensely green water. As a fitting accompaniment to this scene the air was filled with pungent fumes, and a strange noise was heard like the escaping of steam, combined with another sound which closely resembled the rapid firing of musketry. One of these noises is caused by the rush of sulphurous vapor from great fissures in the crater, called "respiratorios"; the other is made by stones which are continually being detached from the sides of the crater and fall into its depths. The smoke which issues from the fissures can only be seen at close range, but it was formerly visible from a distance, thus giving rise to the name Popocatepetl or "smoking mountain."
After inspecting the bottom of the crater and being half choked by the sulphurous fumes which issued from its depths, we were glad to climb back to the outer edge. The rarefied air was so oppressive that we were constantly obliged to rest. Shortly afterwards the mists again surrounded us and we seemed to be standing on a rocky island in the midst of a boundless sea. We afterward learned that a storm was raging in the neighboring valley. Before long, however, the sun's rays pierced the mist, and it grew so warm that we were obliged to discard our blankets.
Popocatepetl is today owned by a company, and until recently a large force of peons were employed in mining the sulphur, of which there are enormous quantities visible; but the work of mining is extremely difficult, because the miners suffer greatly from exposure and the strain resulting from the high altitude. Work was abandoned a short time ago owing to these conditions and the difficulties of transportation. When Cortes invaded Mexico, he obtained the sulphur for making his gunpowder from the crater of Popocatepetl, some of his adventurous followers scaling the mountain and bringing down a large supply.
The sulphur miners, after work, used to seat themselves on mats of rushes, give themselves a push and whiz down over the snow-field in a couple of minutes. There is said to be no danger in this feat, and many tourists have under-taken it. But the snow at the time of our visit was frozen into hummocks like the waves of a choppy sea, so we had to trudge down on foot. Having lunched on the summit, we commenced our descent, reaching Tlamacas a little after three o'clock, and after a brief rest mounted our mules and resumed our journey downwards to El Paraje, where we spent the night. Next day we were back in Amecameca again. All our faces were reddened and burned by the glare from the snow-fields, and our bodies ached from the fatigue we had undergone, but otherwise we felt none the worse for our climb.
Before leaving Amecameca I visited the famous sacred mountain, which is on the outskirts of the town. Here, in a deep cave which served as a hermitage, once lived the good friar Martin de Valencia, one of the "twelve apostles of Mexico," who was sent by Pope Adrian the Sixth as a missionary to the Indians, with the title of "Vicar of New Spain." After many years of faithful service he died, deeply revered by his flock, and was buried at Tlalmanalco; but it is said that the Indians secretly removed his body and buried it in the cave. A legend says that, years after his death, a mule, bearing an image of the Virgin intended for the parish church, stopped at the cave and refused to budge. This was regarded as a miraculous sign that the image was to be deposited there, and there it has remained ever since. It is removed once a year, on Ash Wednesday, when it is taken down, with great pomp, to the church and placed on the high altar. On Good Friday it is carried back to the cave. This is the occasion of a great fiesta at Amecameca, and visitors from all parts of Mexico come to see the passion play which is enacted in the town shortly before the image is taken back to the shrine. The representation of the Crucifixion by Indian actors is a wonderful sight.
The play is opened by a body of horsemen enacting the role of centurions, who call upon the people to attend the sacred ceremony; whereupon the vast multitude of Indian spectators makes a general movement to a hill near the church, supposed to represent Calvary, preceded by the various characters in the mystic drama. On the way to the hill a continuous roar goes up from the excited mob, and the representative of Judas is unmercifully pummelled and kicked. At the head of this strange procession walks the Indian representing the Saviour, staggering under the weight of a heavy cross, scourged and reviled by a number of other Indians representing the Jews. When, at last, the cross has been erected, and he has been raised and lashed to it, the air is rent with shrieks and yells, and a general fight often follows between the representatives of the Christians and Jews, the latter barely escaping with their lives.
Another weird scene is enacted at night when the sacred image is conveyed up the mountain side, escorted by a great multitude with torches, joining at intervals in a wild chant, while many of the devout crawl on their knees up the rocky path.
Upon my return to Mexico City, where I arrived in the evening, I went to the Hotel Sanz. I was surprised to find this place in festal array, with its patio decorated with American and Mexican flags, and a large floral shield bearing the words, "Welcome, Shriners." On inquiry I learned there was another American invasion in progress, five hundred members of the masonic order, the Mystic Shriners, having come down to Mexico from the States to make a tour through the country and arouse interest in "shrining." The local newspapers were full of their doings. They were headed by the officers of the order, who were called "The Nobles of the Mystic Shrine," while the chief officer bore the imposing title of "The High Imperial Potentate." Many of the members had brought their wives and daughters, so that there was a very large party. The wives of some of the Shriners seemed to take great delight in their husbands' titles and the pomp and paraphernalia of the order. On the other hand, I heard one irreverent Shriner, possessed of the Western craze for abbreviation, remark to an acquaintance, " Say, old man, where's the Imp. Pot. stopping? "
0, great and imperial potentate, to think that a Shriner should have dared to brave the awful curses of the mystic shrine by dubbing you " Imp. Pot."
At their meetings the Shriners wore a sort of Turkish costume with a red fez, and they greeted each other with the word "Salaam." Next day, President Diaz gave them audience at the National Palace, receiving what the Shriners called a "grand salaam," and being presented with a jewelled fez. He was also enrolled as a member of the organization. During their stay in the city the ladies of the Shriner party conducted a bazaar, which, for some reason unknown to ordinary mortals, was called a "Jamaica" — probably some mystic term only to be understood by the initiated.
The Shriners not only saw the sights of the capital, but went in special trains to Cuernavaca and other places. With this swarm of American tourists in the city, San Francisco Street seemed more like the main street of an American town than the leading thoroughfare of the Mexican capital. The curio shops, the dulcerias, and the big department stores all did a rushing business. My admiration for President Diaz greatly increased, too, at this time. Half the American tourists wanted to see the President and grasp his hand in the same way as they treat their own President when they go to Washington. Some of them, with an eye to business, sought special interviews with the President to interest him in some gold-mining project, a meat-canning factory, an automobile, or even to reveal to him the wonders of a new patent medicine or hair-restorer. That so many of them succeeded certainly showed a wonderful amount of good nature on the part of Mexico's great ruler.
Before I left the city, nearly fifty women from the Western States, mostly widows, came down in a body to see Mexico, led by a very determined-looking female who had organized them into a sort of women's travel club. All of them wanted to see the President. I overheard one lady remark, "Say, if that President Dye-az doesn't see us ladies, well, there's going to be trouble, that's all." The President must have considered it unsafe to refuse, for he received them all at the palace the next day. Hero as well as statesman, I say; for a man brave enough to face fifty determined women, mostly widows, is surely well fitted to rule a nation !
One afternoon a young woman belonging to this party entered the hotel writing-room in which I was sitting ; a giddy-looking girl with light, fluffy hair, and rather over-dressed. She seemed to be quite excited. "Oh, say," she remarked to one of the older women of somewhat prim and old-maidish appearance, "I had such a funny experience on San Francisco Street just now. A young Mexican with big black eyes followed me and another girl. He was one of them Mexican dudes — lagerteegys they call 'em. He kept a-saying all sorts of things like `hermosy' and `dulcy.' The girl I was with understood Spanish, and she said he was a-saying ` beautiful girl,' `lovely eyes,' `sweetness.' Say, wasn't it funny?" The elderly lady gave a snort of contempt and disapproval. " I should just like to see one of those lagerteegys follow me and say such things," she retorted. The girl went off giggling, and commenced singing, "Oh, take me back to New York town." A few minutes later I heard her remark to a friend out in the patio, "Say, did you hear what she said? Why, she said she'd like to see one of them lagerteegys follow her. Well, I guess if a lagerteegy ever did he'd never escape."