A Mexican Carlsbad
( Originally Published 1912 )
WHEN a European is suffering from "liver" or kindred ailments, he betakes himself, if he has the means, to Carlsbad or some other popular and expensive health resort. The Mexican also has his little maladies, and likewise a cure to which he hies, and it is known as Tehuacan.
I first heard of the fame of Tehuacan from a man from Minnesota with whom I struck up an acquaintance in Puebla. He was in search of some place in which to recuperate, and had come across an attractively illustrated pamphlet distributed by the railway company, which described Tehuacan as the Mexican Carlsbad. According to this booklet, if all the virtues of European spas could be combined in one, they would faintly approach the efficacy of Tehuacan water. For Tehuacan also had its spa, in the shape of two or three mineral springs, the waters of which were said to be certain specifics for almost every human ill. Under their influence diseases of the kidneys, calculus and other ailments, more or less serious, disappeared as if by magic.
My Minnesotan acquaintance also produced an article he had cut from a Western newspaper, written by some delighted visitor to Tehuacan. This writer had much to say about the beauties of the place, the fashionable folk who resorted there, and he waxed eloquent in praise of the local hotel. "It is not a hotel," said he, enthusiastically, "but a grand old country house, where the proprietor will receive you with true Mexican hospitality; it is not an inn but a home." "That suits me to the limit," remarked the Minnesotan; "I'm off to Tehuaean, and if the place only comes up to that recommendation, it will be different from any Mexican country hotel that I ever struck; for I'll defy any man to get a square meal and ordinary comforts in any of them."
I had, at that time, decided to continue my travels as far as Oaxaca, the most important city in southern Mexico, and to see something of the gold and silver mines in that part of the country. Oaxaca (pronounced wah-hack-ah) is two hundred and twenty-eight miles from Puebla, and as it is a dusty, tiring trip in the winter months, my American acquaintance persuaded me to break the journey at Tehuacan, which is about eighty miles on the way. I was not sorry to do this, as I had great curiosity to see a Mexican Carlsbad.
We left Puebla for Tehuaean the following afternoon, making our journey of four hours in a crude, dusty car, stifling hot and crowded with Mexicans. But the scenery along the way amply compensated for any discomforts of travel. From the city the railway crosses the plain, winds among the hills and mountains and gradually descends to Tehuacan through a succession of rich valleys, dropping from an altitude of 7091 feet to 5408, this change of altitude being marked by a corresponding increase in temperature.
Shortly before our journey ended, the train was boarded at a wayside station by a Mexican serving man or mozo, resplendent in a sort of German infantryman's uniform. This gorgeous being represented the hotel at the springs. He condescended to distribute among us humble passengers illustrated pamphlets describing the establishment in the following eloquent language .
"The table service is unexcelled, even in the most expensive hotels in the capital of the Republic. The dining hall is probably the largest in the country, and is particularly noticeable for the elegance of its furnishings and the scrupulous neatness of all its appointments. Travellers who have stayed at the most famous hostelries of foreign capitals are loud in their praises of the tempting, wholesome, daintily prepared meals served by the artistic chef and his able staff of assistants."
The pamphlet went on to point out that you could not be unhappy or bored at Tehuacan. There was tennis, golf, hunting, and riding in plenty for visitors, the recreations even including a bowling-alley and a church. My companion, with a look of great joy exclaimed, "We seem to be in luck. This place is evidently a sort of Mexican paradise."
When we arrived at Tehuacan, we got on a little street-car standing outside the station, drawn by two mules, which took us and our baggage to the hotel, some two miles distant. We travelled at a good pace through the dark country roads, and at our journey's end found ourselves outside a picturesque, long rambling stone building bearing very little resemblance to a hotel. In fact, it was what in Mexico is called an old hacienda building, a sort of large country house and farmhouse combined, in which the proprietors of haciendas or estates make their homes. Passing through the main doorway, we entered a large, old-fashioned, cloistered patio, filled with flowers, orange trees and tall banana plants; in the middle was a fountain playing from a wide, moss-covered basin. Adjoining the hotel was a long shady avenue of orange trees and palms. In Puebla or Mexico City the open patio would have been uncomfortably cool, but in Tehuacan, at a much lower altitude, the night air was deliciously balmy ; the sky was perfectly clear, the stars wonderfully brilliant; and there was not the faintest suspicion of a "norther."
No one came forward to receive us or show us our rooms ; but at last we met a drowsy-looking mozo who spoke no English. When we asked him about rooms, he shook his head in a bewildered manner — probably the effect of our bad Spanish — and walked away. My companion said, "We must evidently help ourselves"; so we opened door after door until, finding two that seemed to be unoccupied, we took possession of them. We then wandered about in quest of the proprietor or his representative, whom we had expected to receive us with "true Mexican hospitality."
A jolly looking, bearded Spaniard was sitting outside the house, puffing a big cigar, talking to the mozo we had encountered, and apparently very much amused about something, possibly our arrival. As the mozo strolled by, my companion asked him who the Spaniard was. "Este el patron, senor" (He is the proprietor), replied the man. Alas for Mexican hospitality !
The hotel was crude in the extreme. The bedrooms, it is true, were comfortably furnished and scrupulously clean; but the dining-room was certainly not what you would expect at a Carlsbad. It was a long room, paved with stone flagging and furnished with an array of small deal tables ; at the end of it there was a bar where guests could take a drink between the courses. The waiters were unkempt Mexican mozos with their coats off and clad in dirty vests. The cutlery and linen were of the coarsest description, and as for the food, only a robust constitution and a good appetite engendered by the healthy climate of Tehuacan could have made it endurable. No invalid could have eaten it and lived.
The proprietor was, I discovered, one of the largest landowners in the neighborhood of Tehuacan, having an estate of many thousands of acres. People told me that he con-ducted the hotel simply to oblige the public and as a recreation for himself. I suppose he had done this on the principle that "what is death to you is fun to me."
My illusions about the dining-room had been shattered, but worse was to follow. I ordered a horse the next day that I might enjoy the wonderful riding the neighborhood was said to afford. The horse produced looked as if it had come over with Cortes and taken part in the famous march on Tenochtitlan. He was far too old to be interested in me or my plans. He stood motionless while I mounted. But then the worm turned. I was the last straw that broke the faithful steed's back. He did not kick, he did not plunge ; for he could not have done either if he had tried — he simply foundered, sank to the earth and stretched his weary, ancient limbs upon it. He was lifted to his feet and two mozos pushed him back into his stable. My American friend, as eager for shooting as I was for riding, started out with a gun, but after tramping about the country for half a day, came back with one small quail as a trophy of the chase.
The morning after my arrival I was standing at the entrance to the hotel when I was startled by a voice which said in a strong Western accent : " Good morning, neighbor ; I suppose you ain't got such a thing as a kidney about you ?" Turning, I found myself confronted by a wiry, wizened Westerner, with a face like a dried apple. There was a look of inquiry and a knowing twinkle in his eye. In answer to his question, I hinted that my anatomy did include a kidney or two, and that I was occasionally re-minded of it when I had dined unwisely. "Wal, then," continued my Western friend, "you ain't got no business with that kidney when there's Tehuacan water near by."
He then proceeded to relate how he had suffered mortal agonies for I don't know how many years from acute kidney disease. "I took that durned kidney on trips all over creation," he said, speaking of the offending organ as if it had been some evil sprite with whom he had been doomed to keep company. "I took him to San Antonio, Texas — my native state and dosed him with sulphur water, but, Lord, it wasn't no good. He kept the upper hand. Then I took him off to Topo Chico Springs near Monterey, and poured down buckets of water, but he only laughed at it. I tried a score of other places that the doctors sent me to, but none of them wasn't any good, and he just thrived on the water. Well, sir, finally I was advised to try Tehuacan, and I came down here with very little faith in it. Wal, I wasn't here twenty-four hours before that durned cuss realized that his time had come. I had him where the wool was short. He squirmed and kicked and didn't exactly like the water, but I fixed him with it and, by Gum, he's kept quiet ever since."
"But," said I, "when you leave Tehuacan, how do you manage; doesn't he break loose again?" "No, siree," replied the gentleman from Texas; "Tehuacan water is bottled and sent all over Mexico, and I drink nothing else." Here he looked around with a mysterious air as if afraid that he might be overheard. "There's only one gen-ew-ine Tehuacan water," he said, "and the stuff they give you here ain't fit to dose a dog with." "It comes from the spring, doesn't it ?" I asked. "Yes, it does come from a spring," he answered, "but not from the spring, the gen-ew-ine one, and that's why I'm just a-going to walk two miles to the right place to fill my little jug." Here he tapped affectionately a wicker-covered demijohn which he carried. "If you like," he added, "I'll pilot you to the place." I accepted the invitation, and along the dusty road, under the blazing sun, off we trudged to the spring.
On our way my companion informed me that there were three springs. The original spring, he said, had belonged to the hacienda, but the proprietor had sold it to a company called La Cruz Roja or Red Cross Company, which bottled the water, the trade-mark being a red cross. In the meantime he had dug a well which supplied Tehuacan water, it is true, but this my companion insisted did not have the curative properties of the original spring. Then a second well was dug in the neighborhood by another company, which also bottled water, and this, too, my Western friend insisted was less efficacious. For that reason he walked every day to the Red Cross Spring to fill his demijohn.
The country about Tehuacan abounds in high, rolling hills of grayish limestone rock, covered with scrubby trees and cactus of every description. On the way my guide pointed out numerous holes in the hillside where attempts had been made to find water. As we crossed some fields, he called my attention to the remains of some Aztec irrigation works, little aqueducts of crumbling stone, extending for long distances, which had been supplanted by the much cruder work of the Spaniards. A great deal of irrigation is still done about Tehuacan, a plentiful supply of water being obtainable when wells are sunk. The gray soil in this district is wonderfully fertile, and there were many green fields of sugar-cane and maize.
When we reached the bottling works, we went to the ancient spring to which the Aztecs once resorted as a cure for their ailments. It has been enclosed with stonework in the form of a well, and adjoining it are the bottling and carbonating rooms. When we had quenched our thirst with copious draughts of the water, which had only a slight mineral flavor and is quite pleasant to the taste, my companion filled his jug. The manager of the bottling works showed us some grayish powder which remains when the water is evaporated. A geologist who knows the district well afterwards told me that all the water comes from an underground stream, and there is no difference between one well and another, despite my Texan friend's assertion to the contrary.
As we returned to the hotel, my companion confided to me that his business was selling kitchen appliances, stoves and so on, to hotels. He knew all the dark secrets of the hotel kitchens in Mexico, and gave me the benefit of his long experience. He warned me against certain establishments in the capital. "Don't go to Blank's,"he said, "if you want good vittles. That there place is inch deep in grease, and they have the dirtiest mozos in the city." "How about Dash's ?" I asked, referring to a well-known establishment. "Clean outside, dirty in the back," he replied sententiously, with a deprecating shake of his head. "They use canned goods, too, and buy the cheapest stuff in the market." After listening to some of his horrible recitals, I was more than ever impressed with the truth of the familiar saying that ignorance is sometimes bliss.
During my stay at Tehuacan I took a walk over the hills near the hotel, which were thickly covered with cactus of every shape and size. One was a straight specimen, as tall as a lamp-post, covered with ugly prickles. There were round cacti looking like colossal hedgehogs. Others resembled the huge, straight-leaved aloe, but were armed with formidable spikes. Then there was another with a gnarled trunk, like that of a small oak tree, with great extending branches arranged like the pipes of an organ and called the organ cactus. There was also a species which had great fiat leaves, and when these were shaken there seemed to be quantities of liquid swishing about inside them. Some of the cacti bore a sort of prickly pear fruit; some had white and others flaming red blossoms. These cactus-covered hills would have delighted the heart of a botanist. Sickly, diminutive specimens of these plants are sometimes seen in northern hothouses bearing long Latin names and labelled "Native of Mexico." Here they were growing on their native heath in magnificent perfection.
The town of Tehuacan is more than ordinarily attractive, with its pretty plazas and its wide streets which have rows of trees in the centre of them. Outside some of the old-fashioned Spanish mansions are curiously curled iron brackets for holding the street-lamps. Tehuacan was an Indian town long before the Conquest. The present town, which has a population of ten thousand, was founded by the Spaniards in 1524. Its business is still largely in the hands of Spaniards, some of whom are direct descendants of the families that came over from Spain four hundred years ago. It is a quiet, sleepy place, and was rarely heard of until the advent of the railway transformed it into a health resort.
With a really good, up-to-date hotel, Tehuacan, with its mineral springs, its fine climate and its beautiful scenery, would become a resort well worth visiting, and one where many classes of visitors could regain health and strength. Under present conditions, however, there are too many hardships to be endured to make it attractive to people accustomed to comfortable living. Mexicans do not seem to mind discomforts so much as Europeans and Americans do; and they patronize the place all the year round, some of them coming from long distances. From Tehuacan there was until recently a horse tramway line of thirty miles to Esperanza on the Mexican Railway (the line from Vera Cruz to Mexico City). This has just been converted into a steam railway.