The city of Esteco

Few today have heard of Esteco. The records tell us that the first colony of that name was built on the western banks of the Pasaje river, some eight leagues to the south of El Quebrachal, in the province of Salta. When the city of Talavera was founded in 1567 the people of the earlier settlement re-established themselves there, giving it the name of Esteco Nueva, or New Esteco. It is to this second city that our tale relates.

The city of Esteco soon became the pride of northern Argentina; rich and powerful, and set in the most beautiful surroundings imaginable. Succulent fruit sprang from its fertile soil, to be eaten off the finest gold and silver plate. But all was not well. Scornful of outsiders, its citizens competed with each other in their ostentatious behaviour and their dedication to the pleasures of life, while slaves and beggars – for this was a long time ago – were treated with contempt and a total disregard for even the most basic human rights and dignity.

Over the years, Esteco grew increasingly decadent. The bells in the church towers tolled each morning in vain, for who, after a night’s wanton debauchery, would get up early for mass? Far better to lie abed until the cool of the late afternoon and then stroll through the Esteco streets, bejewelled and bedecked with their latest finery, all a flutter of furs, lace and pearls. It would all too soon be time for another night’s revels to begin. The churches were as empty as the minds of the citizens, but while behind the church doors all was peace and tranquillity, the halls of the city resounded with shouts and cries of dissolute abandon.

Years passed, and the Eighteenth Century dawned. One sultry evening, an elderly and infirm missionary arrived in Esteco, drawn by the infamy of this vain and vacuous place. Weak from his long and arduous journey and with the dust of his travels still clinging to his clothes the frail old man shuffled from door to door in the habit of a mendicant friar. Unsurprisingly, every door slammed shut in his face, to the accompaniment of cruel and uncivil remarks.

But the old man was determined to continue, to see whether there might not be one charitable soul, one glimmer of hope in this den of iniquity. Slowly, with increasing hunger but indefatigable purpose, he continued in his rounds. And at last he was rewarded. Right on the eastern edge of the city a woman who lived alone with her infant son invited him in to her humble home, where she sacrificed her last remaining hen to provide food for the elderly traveller.

Fired by the woman’s compassion, and perhaps also fuelled by the sustenance she had provided, Father Bárzana – for it was he – harangued the people of the town from the market place, from the street corners, from the entrances and pulpits of the empty churches, entreating them to return to the ways of Christianity. But his words continued to fall on stony ground.

Preaching in the market place, the friar told the people of Esteco that their city would soon be destroyed by an earthquake and that this would be a punishment for their unholy life and their unwillingness to repent. His warning was greeted with derisory laughs and from that moment on his life became unbearable. Wherever he went, people would jeer and joke about the end of the world. There was even a spate of ‘earthquake’ parties, at which the revellers made fun of him and his faith.

Finally, the old man realised that there was nothing more he could do. He went to the house of the poor woman who had helped him and ordered her to leave her house before dawn on the following day, taking her son with her. Before the sun was high in the sky she would hear the most terrible sounds; the sky would turn red, the earth would crack open and the city of Esteco would be swallowed up for eternity. Provided she did not look back, she and her son would be safe. But if she succumbed to curiosity they would also be punished.

The woman heeded the friar’s warning, and before the sun arose she was well on her way with her son bundled up in her arms. After a few hours on the road, just as the old man had told her, she watched the sky turn crimson and heard behind her the thunder of buildings crashing to the ground, the furious roar of flames and the crack of the earth itself splitting wide open.

Such was the ferocity of the holocaust that she could soon feel the heat of the fire on her back and through the deafening blast could clearly make out the shrieks and screams of the dying citizens of Esteco as they tried in vain to escape their destiny. Distracted by terror and the very real fear that she and her son might yet fail to escape the fate of her fellow citizens she let her curiosity get the better of her and, momentarily forgetting the warning of Father Bárzana, turned to contemplate the devastation of what had once been the city of Esteco.

As she turned, infant son in her arms, she froze on the spot, instantly transformed to solid stone. And there she stands to this day, in the shape of a massive rock structure that requires little imagination to discern the forms of the mother and her babe in arms. Recognisable from afar by all travellers in the area, there are those who say that every year she takes one step further in the direction of Salta, the city to which she was fleeing when she so unwisely looked back.

As for the city of Esteco and its inhabitants, destroyed by earthquake in 1692, nothing remains but this tale.


La Maldonada

Back in 1536 or thereabouts Don Pedro de Mendoza lay on his sick bed pondering the string of fortunes and misfortunes that had brought him on such an long and eventful journey, across that wide and inhospitable ocean, at the orders of his King and Emperor, Charles V.

Don Pedro was thinking back over the events of his life. The surrender in Toledo, his departure in San Lúcar de Barrameda the following year, the attempts against his life, the trial and execution of John Osorio, so many things . . . And finally, the foundation of this new city, Santa María de los Buenos Aires, in February 1536, the 2nd was it ? Or the 3rd ? He cared little now, anyway. He cared little for anything these days, except the thought of his next meal.

The officers and soldiers in his company and the seven or eight women who had accompanied them from the motherland, were as desperate as he was. Their strength and courage were not wanting, but like their leader they were trapped in the daily necessity to eat . . . and equally unable to find anything of sustenance. All these herbs and sand were no good for hungry Spaniards, and the meagre rations that Ayolas was able to scrape together were every day more miserable and less satisfying. Although forbidden, they had even sacrificed their horses in order to survive, as they sat there, helplessly contemplating the immense river, which beat against the coast as a constant reminder of the impossibility of their return.

And such is the degradation of man that they were reduced to stealing from each other; snatching at the frogs and snakes or the rotting meat from the dead animals they found lying around. In their desperation even family ties meant little: father stole from son, brother from brother, husband from wife. Such morals as they had once possessed seemed to have been wiped out by the spectre of famine, and robbery and assault had become a way of life.

A soldier called Maldonado was hanged, no one now remembers why, and his wife, unable to face a life alone and in starvation, decided to leave the settlement and throw herself on the mercy of the Indians she had seen from time to time on the outskirts of their new town. Frightened and desperate, she thought that these strange people might have more pity on her than her fellow Europeans.

One evening she left the camp, and following the coast came to a place called Punta Goda, in the area known today as Monte Grande. As night came on she looked for somewhere to sleep and seeing a likely cave in the hillside she boldly made her way inside.

Now life was more dangerous in those days than it is today, and perhaps Maldonado’s widow was made of stronger stuff than many of us. However, she was surely not prepared for the surprise that awaited her. For, as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw a pair of gleaming, phosphorescent eyes that seemed to move in the dark, cutting off her only exit.

Terrified, she crouched still, and heard a low growl as if of an animal in pain, followed by what could only be described as a purring sound. But no cat could have eyes that size, and she slowly realised that she must be enclosed in the cave with what the Spaniards called a lion, and what we today would call a puma.

Who knows how many hours they spent together in that cave, woman and feline, nor which was the more frightened of the two. Poor Maldonada squatted petrified until the first shafts of morning sum began to filter into the cave and she could see that it was indeed a puma, a female puma, very fat and very pregnant.

Maldonada began to edge her way to the entrance of the cave. But the movement evidently disturbed the cat who, now clearly visible on a ledge some two metres above, stood, stretched, snarled and prepared to pounce on the unfortunate woman. But at that very moment the ledge gave way beneath the animal, which fell gracelessly, and painfully to the floor of the cave, apparently unable to move. Its snarls of fury turned into whimpers of pain, then silence.

The woman could now see quite clearly that the puma was about to give birth, and was in a very poor state to do so. No longer afraid of the semi-conscious cat, she set to help and in a short while the mother was delivered of two fine cubs. The puma soon recovered consciousness but by some divine luck seemed to be aware of the part that Maldonada had played in the birth of her cubs and to accept her as one of her family, bringing her meat to eat as if she were one of the cubs she had helped into the world.

And so she stayed in the cave for several weeks until one day, when she had gone to drink at the river, she was suddenly surrounded by a group of Indians. She fought desperately to be allowed to stay with her new-found family, but in vain, and the Indians carried her off. Meanwhile, back in the Spanish camp, nothing more had been heard of Maldonada, although a story had been going round that one of the Indian Chiefs had taken her for his wife.

Time went by. Pedro de Mendoza survived the famine and eventually left for Spain, never getting there of course because as we all know he died on the high seas in June of 1537. The new Governor of Buenos Aires was now a certain Francisco Ruiz de Galán, a severe and inflexible man who everyone feared and many hated. Indeed the people came to blame Don Francisco for all the hostile animals and the ubiquitous Indians who made their life such a misery and made it almost impossible for them to leave the safety of their encampment.

One day one of the captains, on an exploratory mission with a group of soldiers in Indian land, came across a white woman and brought her back to the town. It was Maldonada, and surrounded once again by her own people, many of whom well remembered her flight, she was happy to tell her story, and happier still to be safely back amongst her own kind.

But the new Governor saw things in a very unfavourable light. To have chosen to leave the encampment for Indian lands was for him the gravest of crimes, punishable only by death. Nothing would make him change his mind, neither the pleadings of his nearest and dearest nor the rational arguments of his wisest advisors. He gave orders for the wretched woman to be taken a league or so outside the town and left tied to a tree, to be devoured by wild animals. The soldiers had no choice but to obey, and unwillingly carried her off to her fate.

And so once again the poor woman spent a night alone with wild beasts. That night so many wild animals gathered around her defenceless body that the growls and roaring kept the townspeople awake. Nobody slept a wink, and at dawn the townspeople, with a few soldiers for protection, hurried to the tree to see what had happened.

There was Maldonada, still tied to the tree, still alive. At her feet a lion stood watch accompanied by two cubs. The weary animal silently moved aside to let the men in to untie the woman’s thongs. It was the lion from the cave of course, the lion that the woman had helped in that difficult moment. Scratched and bleeding still, the lion had fought off all the other wild beasts in order to protect her benefactor and thus repay the favour.