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HOME > Classical Novels > The Boy Travellers in Mexico > CHAPTER XXV.
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The plateau terminates suddenly at Boca del Monte, and here begins the descent of the cumbres. At Esperanza the train exchanged the ordinary locomotive for a monster one of great power; it looked like two locomotives placed end to end with a tender between them, and was specially built to take the trains over the extraordinary grades on this part of the road. High speed was out of the question, or at all events dangerous, and in descending the slope the train moved not faster than fifteen miles an hour. The schedule time of the ascent is twelve miles an hour, and the Brobdingnagian locomotive is taxed to the utmost of its ability.
Frank learned from one of the officials of the road that there are no fewer than 148 bridges between Vera Cruz and Mexico, and on the branch to Puebla. These bridges are of various lengths, the longest being the Puente de Soledad, which measures 742 feet. The longest of the tunnels is 350 feet, and there are fifteen tunnels in all.
"Nowhere else in the world," wrote Frank, "have we seen finer engineering work than on this railway. It reminded us of the railway from
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 Bombay to Poonah in India, the line from Colombo to Kandy in Ceylon, and the Saint Gothard and Semmering railways in the Alps. We looked down from dizzy heights where the train would have been ground to atoms had it rolled from the track into the abysses below; we crept along the edges of precipices, or in niches cut in perpendicular walls of rock; we crossed deep chasms upon slender bridges; we darted into tunnels in rapid succession, and swept around curves so sharp that it seemed as though the brakeman on the rear of the train might have shaken hands with the engine-driver. We looked into the beautiful Valley of Maltrata, which lay spread far below us, a gem of floral and arboreal beauty among the rugged hills; and we wound and turned among the sinuosities of the track so that our locomotive faced to all points of the compass a dozen times over in a single hour. In a direct distance of two and a half miles, as the bird flies, the railway goes
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 twenty miles; looking down, we saw the track far beneath our level, and looking up we could trace its zigzags along the slopes and precipices. It was the railway passage of the Alps, the Caucasus, the Sierra Nevadas, the Indian Ghauts, and the Blue Mountains of Australia all in one.
"We stopped a few minutes at the station of Maltrata, which is on an artificial platform that was built up from the slope; it was originally intended as a passing-point for the up and down trains, and for several years after the completion of the line the daily trains each way met at Maltrata. From this point onward the descent was as rapid as before; the locomotive held the train back instead of pulling it, and the brakes kept up a continual grinding against the wheels. We shuddered to think what would have been the result if the brakes had given way and the locomotive failed to restrain us. But in such an event our agony would have been brief, as the whole business would have been ended in a few minutes. They told us that once when a freight train was climbing the mountain two of the rear wagons became detached and started down the slope. Fortunately there was no one on these wagons to lose his life; they jumped the track at one of the curves, and were dashed a thousand feet or more down a steep hill-side into a rocky valley.
"A little distance below Maltrata we skirted one side of the Barranca del Infernillo, a great chasm which made our heads swim as we looked into it. Twelve miles from Maltrata we reached Orizaba, where we had arranged to spend a day, and therefore we left the train as it drew up at the station.
"We observed a change in the vegetation as we descended the slope; we had left the tierra fria behind us, and were now in the tierra templada, or temperate region. The maguey and cactus gave way to darker and richer verdure, which was certainly far more pleasing to the eye than the scanty vegetation of the great plateau. Orizaba is 4000 feet above sea-level, 181 miles from the capital of the republic, and eighty-two from Vera Cruz. It has 20,000 inhabitants, and is a favorite resort of the people of Vera Cruz in the hot and sickly season.
"We expected to have a fine view of the peak of Orizaba from the town of the same name; but in this we were disappointed, as there is no part of the great volcano visible from here, except a thin strip of white over the top of a nearer and lower mountain; even this strip cannot be seen from all parts of the town, but only by climbing to the roof of the hotel or the tower of one of the churches.
"Doctor Bronson asked if we wished to ascend the peak of Orizaba; we gave a prompt negative to his question, partly for the reason that his
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 plans would not permit us to stay here long enough, and partly because the sensation was pretty well exhausted at Popocatepetl. The ascent is quite as difficult as that of Old Popo; Orizaba is a beautiful peak, shaped like a sugar-loaf, and wearing constantly a mantle of purest snow upon its regular and beautiful cone. According to Humboldt, it is 17,378 feet high; a party of American officers ascended it in 1848; three years later a Frenchman named Doignon followed their example, and found the flagstaff they left there, with the torn fragments of the American flag which marked their visit.
"There was a town here at the time of the Conquest, and Cortez left a small garrison to hold it when he pushed on to Mexico. It has an agreeable climate, the frequent rains and the mists from the Gulf keeping it well moistened, so that the trees, plants, and green things generally are in a high state of luxuriance. Coffee and tobacco are grown here in large quantities. The town has quite a manufacturing industry, and contains the repair and construction shops of the railway company. We greatly enjoyed a stroll through the streets, which seemed rather dull and sleepy
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 after those of the capital. Most of the houses are covered with red tiles, which give the city a very picturesque appearance when it is looked upon from the heights surrounding it. Like all old towns of Mexico, it has an abundant supply of churches, and the inhabitants are mostly of the Catholic faith. Not many years ago it was unsafe for a Protestant woman to appear on the streets wearing a hat or bonnet of foreign make; she was liable to be pelted with mud and stones, and her life was by no means out of danger. A milder feeling prevails at present, and the old bigotry is steadily passing away.
"We made a pleasant excursion in the environs of the city, which are very attractive, owing to the luxuriance of the vegetation. Fields of coffee, tobacco, sugar-cane, oranges, and bananas alternate with each other and show the mildness of the climate of Orizaba; some of the plantations are of great extent, and we received many invitations to make a leisurely visit and spend whatever time we liked in their examination.
"One of the sights of the place which we were told not to omit were the falls of the Rincon Grande, about three miles from the city. We did
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 not omit the falls, and will always hold them in pleasant recollection. The Rio de Agua Blanco, which supplied the water for the falls, is a deep and swift stream coming from the mountains to the eastward of Orizaba. Much of its course is through a deep cañon; but where the falls begin, a part of the river flows along the surface of the mesa which forms one side of the ravine, and breaks over the side to join the main stream below.
"The fall is perhaps fifty feet from top to bottom, and a cloud of mist rises like that from Niagara or Montmorency. Both sides of the fall are bordered with a luxuriance of tropical verdure, rendered especially luxuriant by the moisture from the plunging waters. The trees are covered with bunches of Spanish moss, some of them several feet in length,
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 and by numerous parasitical plants, nearly all gaudy with flowers. Some of the trees are so completely in the grasp of the parasites that hardly anything of the original trunk or limbs can be seen. They showed us one tree that had been killed by the parasites; the wood had decayed and crumbled, and the vines were so thick where it had stood that they remained erect as though unaware that their former support had passed away.
"We saw the falls from above and also from below; and while both views were interesting, each had an especial beauty of its own. The shrubbery was so dense that we could walk only in the paths that had been cut for the purpose; and the growth of vegetation is so rapid that these paths require to be trimmed out several times a year. There is no possibility of straying from the path, for the simple reason that it is impossible to proceed in the dense undergrowth except by the aid of a machete. Though at an elevation of 4000 feet above the sea, Orizaba has a tropical climate; its location places it in the tierra templada, but its temperature and characteristics would seem to include it in the tierra caliente. And not only its temperature but its mosquitoes give it a tropical character, as they are of the kind with which the traveller in equatorial regions has a disagreeable familiarity.
"There's a pretty river flowing through Orizaba, and it is useful to the inhabitants in many ways. When we saw it there was not much water in its bed, but they tell us that at some periods it is a rushing torrent of great force and volume. It turns several mills, and is the resort of the women whose duty it is to cleanse the soiled linen of the rest of the inhabitants. Laundry-work here is about as it is in the rest of Mexico, and the rough handling of shirts and other garments by the lavanderas converts them into rags in a very short time. This is good for the cotton-factories of Orizaba, which turn out a fair quality of goods, but are said to be unprofitable for their owners. We have better reports of the flouring-mills here, and also of a paper-mill which was established by an American several years ago. As the Mexicans become better educated the demand for paper is likely to increase; at present it does not take a large number of mills to supply their wants in this respect.
"The people of this city are less eager to point out the hill of El Borrego than are the Pueblans to indicate the scene of the battle of Cinco de Mayo. The latter was a Mexican victory, while the battle of Borrego was a disastrous defeat. Four or five thousand Mexicans were surprised and put to flight by a few hundred French troops. The French say there were not over one hundred in the attacking party. It was a
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 night surprise, and the French had all the advantages of a nocturnal assault. In justice to the Mexicans it should be added that............
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