Thursday, November 25, 2010

Stephens and Catherwood (4): La Dolce Vita

"The coast assumed an appearance of grandeur and beauty that realized my ideas of tropical regions. There was dense forest to the water's edge. Beyond were lofty mountains, covered to their tops with perpetual green, some isolated, and others running off in ranges, higher and higher, till they were lost in the clouds."

I wish I'd had access to this passage back in the days when Mr Parfitt used to oppress his fifth year English class at Colet Court with his stringently-held view that there is no such word in the language as "till".

Anyway, Stephens was already getting into the whole tropical adventure thing as the pair skirted around the Bay of Amatique. After PG, the next stop was a small settlement located at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, now quite widely-known to visitors to these parts, though not for the reasons anticipated at the start of that century:

"It was called by the familiar name of Livingston, in honour of the distinguished citizen of Louisiana whose criminal code was at that time introduced into Guatemala; and it was supposed, so advantageous was its position, that it would become the port of entry of Central America; but these expectations were not realized."

In 1839 one didn't have to drop into Puerto Barrios to get one's passport stamped*, so Stephens was able to press right on with Guatemala's most scenic entrada, recording the first time experience in a manner that will no doubt kindle recollections of the awe experienced by those of us who have since followed in his backwash.

"A narrow opening in a rampart of mountains wooed us on, and in a few moments we entered the Rio Dolce. On each side rising perpendicularly from three to four hundred feet, was a wall of living green. Trees grew up from the water's edge, with dense, unbroken foilage, to the top; not a spot of barrenness was to be seen; and on both sides, from the tops of the highest trees, long tendrils descended to the water, as if to drink and carry life to the trunks that bore them. It was, as its name imports, a Rio Dolce, a fairy scene of Titan land, combining exquisite beauty with colossal grandeur..."

The pair had been led to expect a degree of "gambolling" of monkeys and parrots, but instead found the steep gorge strangely quiescent during their up-river excursion to the harbour of 'Yzabal'.

"The pelican, the stillest of birds, was the only living thing we saw [wot no herons?], and the only sound was the unnatural bluster of our steam engine. The wild defile that leads to the excavated city of Petra is not more noiseless or more extraordinary, but strangely contrasting in its sterile desolation, while here all is luxuriant, romantic and beautiful."

It would seem that they passed up on the opportunity to try some of the local delicacies, such as these freshly harvested jutes:

* The customs post was then located beside Lake Isabal.

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