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Alone in Mexico

The Astonishing Travels of Karl Heller, 1845-1848

Written by Karl Bartolomeus Heller and translated and edited by Terry Rugeley

Publication Year: 2007

This volume is the first-ever English translation of the memoirs of Karl Heller, a twenty-year-old aspiring Austrian botanist who traveled to Mexico in 1845 to collect specimens. He passed through the Caribbean, lived for a time in the mountains of Veracruz, and journeyed to Mexico City through the cities of Puebla and Cholula. After a brief residence in the capital, Heller moved westward to examine the volcanoes and silver mines near Toluca.
When the United States invaded Mexico in 1846–47 conditions became chaotic, and the enterprising botanist was forced to flee to Yucatán. Heller lived in the port city of Campeche, but visited Mèrida, the ruins of Uxmal, and the remote southern area of the Champotòn River." 
 From there Heller, traveling by canoe, journeyed through southern Tabasco and northern Chiapas and finally returned to Vienna through Cuba and the United States bringing back thousands of samples of Mexican plants and animals.
Heller's account is one of the few documents we have from travelers who visited Mexico in this period, and it is particularly useful in describing conditions outside the capital of Mexico City.
In 1853 Heller published his German-language account as Reisen in Mexiko, but the work has remained virtually unknown to English or Spanish readers. This edition now provides a complete, annotated, and highly readable translation.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. v-xi

List of Illustrations

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pp. xiii

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pp. xv

The main thanks for this work go to my wife, Margarita, who heard it all a thousand times. I am deeply indebted to Gerlinde Thompson and Robert Larson of the University of Oklahoma, who helped to improve my understanding of the German language dramatically. My heartfelt recognition to the staff of The ...


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pp. xvii-xix

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pp. 1-11

In the summer of 1845 a twenty- year- old Austrian botanist named Karl Bartolomeus Heller set out from Vienna for an extended scientific expedition in Mexico. His itinerary carried him to England, Cuba, the British West Indies, Haiti, and the Mexican port of Veracruz. Heller spent a year exploring central Mexico; in late 1846 he sailed from the Veracruz coast ...

First Part: Travels in Veracruz, Puebla, and Mexico

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Chapter 1

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pp. 15-22

It was on August 9, 1845, from the deck of a handsome steamship that roared downstream on the Donau River, that I waved my last farewell to the beloved fields of my fatherland. I was enrapt by the youthful fantasies that necessarily occupy a twenty- year- old lad setting off on such a protracted and dangerous journey. But for the longest time my soul sank into those ...

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Chapter 2

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pp. 23-32

At noon we reached the island, which we accurately recognized even at a distance because of its level east coast and because we could already see the stout coconut palms with their green tops swaying in the breeze. Barbados is the easternmost of the Caribbean islands. The Portuguese discovered but never occupied it, and for that reason Barbados ...

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Chapter 3

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pp. 33-41

On November 9, 1845, we departed from the Havana harbor in order to sail for Veracruz, which lay 810 miles away. A strong northwest wind churned up the sea, so that once again many of our fellow travelers fell seasick. The north winds, or nortes, are very frequent around this time on the American coasts, and endanger ships because of their intensity. No winter passes ...

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Chapter 4

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pp. 42-51

Mirador is rather like Zacuapan, founded by Herr Sartorius, which lies an hour to the east. Excluding the German personnel indispensable to its administration, its inhabitants are mostly Indians or mestizos. They number approximately three hundred and live dispersed in huts constructed of wooden poles, and without exception labor on the haciendas. This tiny ...

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Chapter 5

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pp. 52-64

I had already spent several weeks in Mirador. My diverse pursuits, the different excursions, and the ordering of collected items consumed all my time— a great relief to me, as the first months of residence in the Americas are a time of the greatest trials for the traveler. He has to struggle partly with the climate, partly with the novelty of the customs and with the unusual ...

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Chapter 6

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pp. 65-76

On March 12, 1846, we found ourselves in Huatusco. In the vicinity of this charming place there is a pleasant valley through which flows a lovely mountain brook; many years earlier on the banks of this brook, in the shade of a small forest, the Belgian natural scientist A. Ghiesbrecht had built a thatch-roofed house that now stands abandoned. Since he was ...

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Chapter 7

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pp. 77-86

Before I move on to the account of a new journey, I would like the reader to know something more detailed about life in my little house in Huatusco. As I explained in the previous chapter, it lies secluded in a charming valley, a good quarter hour from the village to which a narrow stone path leads. I frequently wandered this path in order to visit some friends whom I will mention here. ...

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Chapter 8

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pp. 87-97

After completing this last journey I seriously contemplated making my way to the interior of the nation. However, two circumstances delayed the execution of this plan: in the first place, of course, the political conditions of Mexico; and secondly, an illness that held me prisoner in my house for a long time. In chapter 5 I already hinted a bit over the looming war with ...

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Chapter 9

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pp. 98-104

After Mexico City, Puebla is the largest city of the republic, and bears the name “de los Angeles” because legend holds that angels helped build the Cathedral. In many respects Puebla is almost more beautiful than the capital itself. The streets run at right angles, are well paved, and are provided with sidewalks. Thoroughly charming flat- roofed houses constructed in medieval ...

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Chapter 10

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pp. 105-117

Mexico City,1 the republic’s capital, lies 7,198 feet above sea level, numbers approximately 210,000 inhabitants, and is the home of the president and an archbishop. It has a university, several colegios,2 many churches, two theaters, and a huge arena for bullfighting (plaza de toros). The streets intersect the city at right angles and are often six thousand to nine ...

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Chapter 11

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pp. 118-130

Just as we had earlier abandoned our residence in Huatusco, so too we now set out on a narrow road leading to the gate of the capital. This road is called “Lerma Highway.” It is one of the most beautiful in the country, and was constructed at considerable cost over the mountain range that borders the Valley of Mexico on the western side. It leads over Chapultepec ...

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Chapter 12

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pp. 131-139

On September 5 I greeted the rising sun on the road to the mining district of Zacualpan. This time I directed my steps to the west and discovered parts of the Toluca valley that I had never seen before. Here stiff agaves closed around luxurious fields of corn, wheat, and cereal. A few small hills interrupted the plateau, then once again came marshy places with ...

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Chapter 13

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pp. 140-148

After I had returned from the arduous journey just described, and had seen everything in the environs of Toluca and had made use of it for my research, I faced no small dilemma as to where to direct my travels. I simply did not know where I was to turn, since the war with the North Americans still raged, and travel in the Mexican republic became more dangerous each ...

Second Part: Travels in Yucat

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Chapter 14

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pp. 151-160

After we had already waited several days for a favorable wind, as I have said, we finally had to have a steamship tow us out of the harbor. It was not advisable to remain any longer in Alvarado, for we risked exposing ourselves to seizure by the Americans. We feared their new attack at every instant, and as much as possible tried to protect ...

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Chapter 15

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pp. 161-170

The new year was upon us, and both the political situation and my own state had improved but little. The civil war gripped Yucat

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Chapter 16

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pp. 171-175

For a long time now I had gone without news from Europe. Given my already doubtful situation, this isolation exerted a thoroughly evil influence over me, since I could not easily leave Campeche once and for all before receiving new instructions for my journey. All my hopes now rested on the English postal steamer, which was to have landed in Veracruz ...

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Chapter 17

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pp. 176-186

While the lone stragglers of the festival left the stores and rum taverns to wander off through the streets of the city in wild abandon, I threw myself into preparations for a journey to the interior of the country. In particular, it was my intention to visit the famous ruins of Yucat

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Chapter 18

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pp. 187-194

In Campeche I once more resumed my former life. Either because of complications from my last journey or because the pressing heat of the season, a nausea overcame me, one that gnawed feverishly at my body and contributed not a little to worsening my condition. But I tried to cope with my sorrow through daily journeys, however limited, and so one day came to a ...

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Chapter 19

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pp. 195-202

On the morning of July 1, 1847, I saddled my horse in order to see the hacienda Chivic and the Campeche timber forces of the vicinity. It was a beautiful summer morning, the kind that one frequently enjoys in tropical countries during the rainy season. Everything had rejuvenated itself once more with the dawn. Seemingly withered trees and bushes flourished ...

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Chapter 20

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pp. 203-212

I have already mentioned that Yucatán’s ties with Tabasco were rather restricted, but communication between their ports had now been severed altogether. That is, the North Americans, who as a preliminary measure had burned all the ships in the port of Tabasco on October 24 and 25, 1846, returned once more on June 15 of this year1 and took the city of ...

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Chapter 21

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pp. 213-222

On November 20, 1847, at 3:00 in the morning, I stood on the banks of the Grijalva in order to embark once more in a small, uncomfortable riverboat. Although far larger than the canoe in which I had come from Chiltepec, it could nevertheless be called tiny in comparison the river. I had spent the evening before my departure quite enjoyably in the company of ...

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Chapter 22

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pp. 223-231

The new year of 1848 began, and a new link added itself to the endless chain of time! It was the third new year that I had celebrated in America, and once again I looked hopefully to a future that could harbor sorrow and joy, life and death! On such days I indulged in far-ranging refl ections and found that until now I had grown richer only in the matter of bitter experience. It ...

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Chapter 23

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pp. 232-237

For most of the two months that followed I found myself in Chiapas, and in February, in fact, I knocked around the border so much that I stayed now in one state, now in another, without having to make a long journey. On February 21 I proceeded in a southwesterly direction across the border, which I reached, via an extremely mountainous road, after a few hours’ ...

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Chapter 24

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pp. 238-245

According to my plan, the return journey was irrevocably set to begin: sparing no expense of labor and effort, I thus started to pack and to put my collection in order. It was overwhelming, as here I had laid a bundle of palms, there another plant or an animal in preservation, until the hour of departure would be arranged with certainty. At the same time, I began ...

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Chapter 25

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pp. 246-249

Only after my strength had returned somewhat did I begin to deliver my letters of recommendation, with which I was amply provided on this occasion. I gratefully remember the friendly reception shown to me everywhere by all, but above all that of my trustworthy countryman Herr H. Heinen, in the house of Herr B. May & Company, whom I had known ...


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pp. 251-268


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pp. 269-274

E-ISBN-13: 9780817380335
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817354565

Publication Year: 2007