Here and There in Yucatan/Traveling With Turtles


Having waited long for an opportunity to leave Cozumel Island for British Honduras, we decided to go on the Triunfo notwithstanding its uninviting appearance. It was a twelve-ton schooner, badly in need of paint; as for order, the limited space made that impossible. The captain, called Antonio, was as unclean a specimen of the Spanish sailor as we have ever had the misfortune to see. The mate was "Antonio the Second," to distinguish him from his superior; black "Jim" was cook and general assistant; a man named Trejo serving as pilot. There was no compass on board. Such a thing can rarely be found on those coasting vessels.

There were four passengers besides ourselves, all of us having plenty of luggage. Add to this twenty-five enormous turtles; some on deck, some below; a large party of hens; two big cages full of doves; another of canaries; a spoiled lapdog; cat and kittens; two goats; and a colony of cockroaches of the largest species. There was not a square inch to spare.

The cabin was occupied by live turtles, they being considered the most valuable passengers: these unfortunate creatures were on their backs, their flaps sown together. They evidently suffered, stretching their necks to gasp for breath, making most dismal sounds in the vain endeavor to fill their lungs, and drawing their heads back into their shells at the approach of any one. To keep them alive water was dashed over them once a day, which favor they did not seem to appreciate as much as they might have done had the water been thrown on their backs.

We more than suspected that there was a considerable amount of "contraband" on board; were also well aware that the coast-guard was cruising about on the look-out for just such vessels as the Triunfo; consequently the grim face of the captain did not often relax into a smile. He betrayed his anxiety by asking for the loan of our field-glasses very frequently, rather to our annoyance, for there was much that interested us to be seen on the coast. In return for the use of the glass Antonio gave us some information. Among other things he said that all along the coast there is a fine variety of excellent shellfish; that one crab, called the "soldier," also known as "hermit," possesses remarkable curative properties. Simply boiled and eaten every day, it cures nervous diseases and consumption; while a certain oil extracted from it is an infallible remedy for palsy and other ills. Of course! During our brief stay at Nizucte we saw a man cook, and eat with great relish, a few "hermits." He was poisoned by them, and came within an inch of losing his life.

One of the Indian villages along the coast is called Tancah; shortly after the occasion I write about our Ark of the Carribean went down near there. A French bark, bound for Vera Cruz, stranded near the village; it was believed that the Indians killed those on board, and sent the bodies adrift, for they floated down the Gulf Stream to Cozumel. The Indians took possession of the bark.

On this coast, as in many other countries, the wreck of a vessel is considered a godsend, the inhabitants thinking they have a right to kill the crew and take possession of the ship and its contents. The people of Tancah and another village called Tulum have no boats; so at low tide they made fast a rope to the vessel, and used it to go back and forth, landing as much of the cargo as they could. Craving for liquor, as always, they went down into the hold, where some remained drinking till unable to move, being consequently drowned at flood-tide.

The inhabitants of San Pedro, a fishing settlement on the Island of Ambergris, at the south end of Yucatan, heard of the wreck. They are half pirates, and at once started off for a share of the spoils. The Indians, always hostile to strangers, received them with bullets; they could not reach the ship. When the Indians abandoned it, leaving in it what they could not carry, they retired from the beach. The people of San Pedro and Island Mugeres had been keeping a sharp look-out; they now came for the rest of the cargo.

They were not molested, and found costly dry goods and other valuable articles, also casks of fine wine and vinegar. In the hold there were many dead Indians.

Having loaded their boats they were about to start for home, when they saw that a storm was at hand. The captains decided that it would not do to venture out to sea until it passed over. Joaquin Carballo, owner of the Triunfo, said he was more afraid of the Indians who might arrive, than of the storm. Contrary to the advice of his companions he put to sea, and was never heard of again.

Three miles north of Tancah, at a place called Tulum (castle), a grand old castle towers on the brink of a precipitous cliff against which the waves dash with fury. It serves as a good landmark to mariners, being the highest point along the coast. That spot also presents the wildest scenery in the country, its iron-bound coast reminding us of the south end of Cozumel, though much grander and more wild.

The ancient city was surrounded on three sides by a wall that had watch-towers at the corners. There are two gateways in the north and south walls; one in the east. This fortification was composed of rough, flat stones, laid upon each other without mortar or cement, and varied in thickness between seven and twelve feet. The high precipitous cliff forms a sea wall, 1,500 feet long, on the east side. The Spanish historians inform us that among the Mayas the Ruler and his nobles had their dwellings all inclosed by a great wall in the centre of the city, the rest of the people living outside. From their works we also learn that when the conquerors, under command of Captain Grijalva, crossed from Cozumel, they saw, toward sunset, a burg so large that "Seville would not have appeared better." There was a very lofty tower, and on the shore a crowd of natives, bearing standards that they raised and lowered, to invite the travelers to join them.

Within the great wall of Tulum, which has a circuit of 2,800 feet, we yet see several buildings, that were at one time decorated with beautiful stucco ornaments and fresco paintings.

The grand old castle, including a wing on each side, measures at the base one hundred feet in length. The entrance faces inland, and is reached by a stairway thirty feet wide, with twenty-four steps. On each side it has a broad balustrade.

There are two rooms, twenty-six feet in length; low stone benches run along the walls, on which are seen imprints of the red hand.

The east wall has no opening, except small oblong holes for ventilation.

The wings are buildings of two stories, both together being much lower than the main structure. The stairs leading to the second floor are outside.

A peculiar feature in the edifices of Tulum is that some had flat ceilings, not found elsewhere in the peninsula.

Three miles from the ancient city is a new village, Tulum Pueblo, whose inhabitants come regularly to the old castle to burn copal, incense, and wax candles; and practise rites of the religion of their forefathers. These people are ruled by a queen, named Maria Uicab. It is as much as one's life is worth to land at Tulum; the natives being very hostile, make it necessary to be always on the alert and ready to take to the boat or fight.

At dusk the captain of our craft ordered Antonio the Second to tell "Jim," the cook, to make a clearing on deck so that the passengers could lie down. With difficulty room was made for four or five. Two individuals from Spanish Honduras at once carefully monopolized it all by spreading a huge mattress for their own particular benefit, while we had to sit upright in the small space left.

As we were skirting the edge of the Gulf Stream, about midnight, waves washed over the deck. The Honduras people and their dog were not disturbed by it, being under a large sheet of oilcloth lined with blankets. We went down into the little hole called cabin, to find that the turtles did not leave room for more than one person. The atmosphere was sickening, but having a severe cold I remained below, sitting on the floor among the turtles, keeping out of reach of their horny bills, lest they should visit their just wrath on my innocent head.

After a while, insensibly to myself, one of my fellow sufferers was utilized as a pillow. I was aroused by members of the cockroach colony that seemed to have selected me as a site to hold a mass meeting. From a second troubled doze upon my turtle pillow I was awakened by a shout and, going to the foot of the scuttle, saw my husband holding the tiller, giving orders in not sweet Spanish. His attention had been attracted by a strange sound; peering through the darkness he saw that the boat was sailing straight toward breakers, but a few yards ahead. A glance showed him that the man at the helm was sound asleep; he pushed him aside and veered the boat.

Not even a star glimmered overhead; we therefore went back about half a mile and hove to till morning. Daylight showed that we were entirely out of our course, and had been close upon the reefs at the entrance of Ascension Bay, where the water is very deep and alive with sharks.

Ascension Bay is eight miles wide at the mouth, eleven miles in its broadest part, north and south, thirteen miles east and west. The greatest depth of water is eleven feet. Across the entrance there is a sandbar where the water is but six feet deep.

Only fishermen now approach this bay to stay for a few days at a time, on a cay called Culebra, or Snake, at the entrance, because all the territory around is in possession of hostile Indians; though they do not often go there, even to cut the excellent logwood that grows so abundantly. Some years ago much ambergris was also found in the bay; the largest piece discovered there weighed eight pounds two ounces. It was sold for $270 in the city of Valladolid, Yucatan.

Behind the reefs, about a mile from the entrance of the bay, there is a good anchorage where large vessels can safely anchor in from eighteen to twenty-three feet of water.

On the third day out we reached the Island of Ambergris, and stopped at San Pedro, a picturesque fishing village, surrounded by groves of cocoanut palms.

Here, our suspicions of there being contraband on board were verified, for at dusk about 20,000 cigars were slyly put into a small dory, and taken ashore with many precautions, to be afterwards conveyed to Belize on fishermen's boats.

There was no lodging for us in the village; we therefore passed a horrible night on deck, lying on coiled ropes and sails, a thick mist falling upon us

Soon after sunrise we started, but were almost becalmed for several hours, so did not sight the city of Belize, thirty-five miles from San Pedro, till four o'clock in the afternoon. As we neared the harbor, our pilot succeeded in running us on to mud banks three times. On the third we might have remained all night, had not a "colored lady and gentleman," sailing their own small boat, come to our assistance.

The man got on board the Triunfo and helped us into deeper water, for which we were duly grateful. He accepted from the captain some Cozumel cigars. At dusk we cast anchor in the harbor of Belize, capital of British Honduras.

We were urgently requested by Antonio the First to defer landing until after dark, because they wanted to smuggle in a few thousand cigars that were still on board, and several demijohns of Havana rum. At nine o'clock we were put ashore on a lonely wharf, with only the stars to guide our footsteps, and tendered hospitality for the night at the house of the man who owned the cigars, a tobacconist established in the city.

  1. Published in "New York Tribune."