Read Letter XLVIII - Matanzas. Valley of Yumuri of Letters of a Traveller Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America, free online book, by William Cullen Bryant, on

Los Guines, April 18, 1849.

In the long circuit of railway which leads from Havana to Matanzas, I saw nothing remarkably different from what I observed on my excursion to San Antonio. There was the same smooth country, of great apparent fertility, sometimes varied with gentle undulations, and sometimes rising, in the distance, into hills covered with thickets. We swept by dark-green fields planted with the yuca, an esculent root, of which the cassava bread is made, pale-green fields of the cane, brown tracts of pasturage, partly formed of abandoned coffee estates where the palms and scattered fruit-trees were yet standing, and forests of shrubs and twining plants growing for the most part among rocks. Some of these rocky tracts have a peculiar appearance; they consist of rough projections of rock a foot or two in height, of irregular shape and full of holes; they are called diente de perro, or dog’s teeth. Here the trees and creepers find openings filled with soil, by which they are nourished. We passed two or three country cemeteries, where that foulest of birds, the turkey-vulture, was seen sitting on the white stuccoed walls, or hovering on his ragged wings in circles over them.

In passing over the neighborhood of the town in which I am now writing, I found myself on the black lands of the island. Here the rich dark earth of the plain lies on a bed of chalk as white as snow, as was apparent where the earth had been excavated to a little depth, on each side of the railway, to form the causey on which it ran. Streams of clear water, diverted from a river to the left, traversed the plain with a swift current, almost even with the surface of the soil, which they keep in perpetual freshness. As we approached Matanzas, we saw more extensive tracts of cane clothing the broad slopes with their dense blades, as if the coarse sedge of a river had been transplanted to the uplands.

At length the bay of Matanzas opened before us; a long tract of water stretching to the northeast, into which several rivers empty themselves. The town lay at the southwestern extremity, sheltered by hills, where the San Juan and the Yumuri pour themselves into the brine. It is a small but prosperous town, with a considerable trade, as was indicated by the vessels at anchor in the harbor.

As we passed along the harbor I remarked an extensive, healthy-looking orchard of plantains growing on one of those tracts which they call diente de perro. I could see nothing but the jagged teeth of whitish rock, and the green swelling stems of the plantain, from ten to fifteen feet in height, and as large as a man’s leg, or larger. The stalks of the plantain are juicy and herbaceous, and of so yielding a texture, that with a sickle you might entirely sever the largest of them at a single stroke. How such a multitude of succulent plants could find nourishment on what seemed to the eye little else than barren rock, I could not imagine.

The day after arriving at Matanzas we made an excursion on horseback to the summit of the hill, immediately overlooking the town, called the Cumbre. Light hardy horses of the country were brought us, with high pommels to the saddles, which are also raised behind in a manner making it difficult to throw the rider from his seat. A negro fitted a spur to my right heel, and mounting by the short stirrups, I crossed the river Yumuri with my companions, and began to climb the Cumbre. They boast at Matanzas of the perpetual coolness of temperature enjoyed upon the broad summit of this hill, where many of the opulent merchants of the town have their country houses, to which the mosquitoes and the intermittents that infest the town below, never come, and where, as one of them told me, you may play at billiards in August without any inconvenient perspiration.

From the Cumbre you behold the entire extent of the harbor; the town lies below you with its thicket of masts, and its dusty paseo, where rows of the Cuba pine stand rooted in the red soil. On the opposite shore your eye is attracted to a chasm between high rocks, where the river Canimar comes forth through banks of romantic beauty so they are described to me and mingles with the sea. But the view to the west was much finer; there lay the valley of the Yumuri, and a sight of it is worth a voyage to the island. In regard to this my expectations suffered no disappointment.

Before me lay a deep valley, surrounded on all sides by hills and mountains, with the little river Yumuri twining at the bottom. Smooth round hillocks rose from the side next to me, covered with clusters of palms, and the steeps of the southeastern corner of the valley were clothed with a wood of intense green, where I could almost see the leaves glisten in the sunshine. The broad fields below were waving with cane and maize, and cottages of the monteros were scattered among them, each with its tuft of bamboos and its little grove of plantains. In some parts the cliffs almost seemed to impend over the valley; but to the west, in a soft golden haze, rose summit behind summit, and over them all, loftiest and most remote, towered the mountain called the Pan de Matanzas.

We stopped for a few moments at a country seat on the top of the Cumbre, where this beautiful view lay ever before the eye. Round it, in a garden, were cultivated the most showy plants of the tropics, but my attention was attracted to a little plantation of damask roses blooming profusely. They were scentless; the climate which supplies the orange blossom with intense odors exhausts the fragrance of the rose. At nightfall the night falls suddenly in this latitude we were again at our hotel.

We passed our Sunday on a sugar estate at the hospitable mansion of a planter from the United States about fifteen miles from Matanzas. The house stands on an eminence, once embowered in trees which the hurricanes have leveled, overlooking a broad valley, where palms were scattered in every direction; for the estate had formerly been a coffee plantation. In the huge buildings containing the machinery and other apparatus for making sugar, which stood at the foot of the eminence, the power of steam, which had been toiling all the week, was now at rest. As the hour of sunset approached, a smoke was seen rising from its chimney, presently pufis of vapor issued from the engine, its motion began to be heard, and the negroes, men and women, were summoned to begin the work of the week. Some feed the fire under the boiler with coal; others were seen rushing to the mill with their arms full of the stalks of the cane, freshly cut, which they took from a huge pile near the building; others lighted fires under a row of huge cauldrons, with the dry stalks of cane from which the juice had been crushed by the mill. It was a spectacle of activity such as I had not seen in Cuba.

The sound of the engine was heard all night, for the work of grinding the cane, once begun, proceeds day and night, with the exception of Sundays and some other holidays. I was early next morning at the mill. A current of cane juice was flowing from the mill in a long trunk to a vat in which it was clarified with lime; it was then made to pass successively from one seething cauldron to another, as it obtained a thicker consistence by boiling. The negroes, with huge ladles turning on pivots, swept it from cauldron to cauldron, and finally passed it into a trunk, which conveyed it to shallow tanks in another apartment, where it cooled into sugar. From these another set of workmen scooped it up in moist masses, carried it in buckets up a low flight of stairs, and poured it into rows of hogsheads pierced with holes at the bottom. These are placed over a large tank, into which the moisture dripping from the hogsheads is collected and forms molasses.

This is the method of making the sugar called Muscovado. It is drained a few days, and then the railways take it to Matanzas or to Havana. We visited afterward a plantation in the neighborhood, in which clayed sugar is made. Our host furnished us with horses to make the excursion, and we took a winding road, over hill and valley, by plantations and forests, till we stopped at the gate of an extensive pasture-ground. An old negro, whose hut was at hand, opened it for us, and bowed low as we passed. A ride of half a mile further brought us in sight of the cane-fields of the plantation called Saratoga, belonging to the house of Drake & Company, of Havana, and reputed one of the finest of the island. It had a different aspect from any plantation we had seen. Trees and shrubs there were none, but the canes, except where they had been newly cropped for the mill, clothed the slopes and hollows with their light-green blades, like the herbage of a prairie.

We were kindly received by the administrator of the estate, an intelligent Biscayan, who showed us the whole process of making clayed sugar. It does not differ from that of making the Muscovado, so far as concerns the grinding and boiling. When, however, the sugar is nearly cool, it is poured into iron vessels of conical shape, with the point downward, at which is an opening. The top of the sugar is then covered with a sort of black thick mud, which they call clay, and which is several times renewed as it becomes dry. The moisture from the clay passes through the sugar, carrying with it the cruder portions, which form molasses. In a few days the draining is complete.

We saw the work-people of the Saratoga estate preparing for the market the sugar thus cleansed, if we may apply the word to such a process. With a rude iron blade they cleft the large loaf of sugar just taken from the mould into three parts, called first, second, and third quality, according to their whiteness. These are dried in the sun on separate platforms of wood with a raised edge; the women standing and walking over the fragments with their bare dirty feet, and beating them smaller with wooden mallets and clubs. The sugar of the first quality is then scraped up and put into boxes; that of the second and third, being moister, is handled a third time and carried into the drying-room, where it is exposed to the heat of a stove, and when sufficiently dry, is boxed up for market like the other.

The sight of these processes was not of a nature to make one think with much satisfaction of clayed sugar as an ingredient of food, but the inhabitants of the island are superior to such prejudices, and use it with as little scruple as they who do not know in what manner it is made.

In the afternoon we returned to the dwelling of our American host, and taking the train at Caobas, or Mahogany Trees so called from the former growth of that tree on the spot we were at Matanzas an hour afterward. The next morning the train brought us to this little town, situated half-way between Matanzas and Havana, but a considerable distance to the south of either.