Pacific Shores From Panama – Down The West Coast To Peru

When we boarded the steamer at Panama (or, as the new port is called, Balboa, and I like the name) we seemed to be headed for a new world. The moist and misty air, the soft hills fringed with tropical vegetation, the rich islands of the bay, Taboga and Taboguilla with their little neighbours, precipitous, yet thickly wooded down to the very water’s edge, composed a picture so unlike the usual ports of embarkment in more northern climes that we settled ourselves in our chairs with a feeling of quiet expectancy, anticipating a voyage on placid waters in the doldrums under the equator. Nor were we to be disappointed.

As we slowly steamed down the gulf, the sun neared the horizon and its broad golden rays spread out great fingers behind the purple islands, making them appear, as one of the young ladies naively expressed it, “like the old pictures of heaven.” Long files of pelicans lazily flapped their heavy wings as they slowly made their way homeward against the evening breeze.

An hour later the faint forms of the Pearl Islands rose before us—San Jose to the southward; Pedro Gonzales to the north, and behind them the cloud-wreathed summit of Rey Island that screened from view Saint Michael’s Bay, where Balboa strode into the surf to take possession of the Southern Sea in the name of the Spanish King. These islands lured us on like sirens, as they had many a mariner before us, by the glint of their precious gems, to fall into the hands of some pirate, some John Sharp or his like, lurking in an inlet awaiting the galleons, gold-laden, that bore the treasure of the Incas for transshipment to Spain.

Following the same track that we were taking, Pizarro, nearly four hundred years ago, with his little company had set out upon his conquest of Peru. And that tall brig upon the horizon,

“Her tiering canvas in sheeted silver spread,”

might she not well be his caravel bound for Gorgona or lonely Gallo or the verdant islands of the Gulf of Guayaquil? The sun had now set; the clouds parted, and the moon, hitherto hidden, poured its pale radiance upon the calm Pacific.

Next morning (how strange at sea!) I was awakened by the bleating of a lamb and by a lusty cock-crow. The Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s steamers of the West Coast are a strange little world. Built for an ocean where storms are unknown, they combine certain comforts not to be found on much more pretentious boats. Their saloons and cabins are exceptionally large and open directly upon the promenade-decks that stretch the entire length of the ship, there being, properly speaking, no steerage and no second class. The natives and others who cannot afford the first-class ticket travel in the “cubierta,” as it is called, a deck at the stern roofed with canvas but otherwise open, where in picturesque confusion, surrounded by bags and bundles, they loll in ham-mocks or lie wrapped in shawls.

Upon this deck the hen-coop faces, a big two-story affair, partly filled with ripening fruits—bananas, oranges, and the like—and partly with chickens; ducks, and other forlorn-looking fowl fattening for the table. Between decks stand your beef and mutton on the hoof, gazing mournfully up at you as you look down the hatchways. Upon this home-like boat, quiet and contented, with no unseemly hurry, you meander down the coast at ten knots. The air is soft as a caress, and for at least eight months of the year the sea as placid as a mountain lake, a glassy mirror reflecting an azure sky.

For one who wishes to escape the rigours of a northern winter, for a lover of soft sunshine, of southern seas without the brisk trades of the Caribbean, I can imagine no more delightful voyage than this West Coast cruise, quietly gliding southward, a cloudless sky overhead in the daytime, a marvellous starry heaven at night. Little by little the North Star drops toward the horizon; little by little the Southern Cross ascends in the firmament.

It may be hot for the first day or two, but on the third day out you cross the equator and face the breeze that follows the antarctic current, Humboldt’s Current, that freshens and cools what other-wise would be a hot and steamy coast. Occasionally the calm surface of the sea is ruffled, now by the spike-like fin of a shark or the blow and rounded back of a grey whale; again by tortoise shining like great topazes set in opals or by silvery flying-fish skimming from wave to wave or schools of white-bellied mantas that frolic along by the steamer’s side.

Three idle days pass by.

At dawn upon the fourth I distinctly heard a locomotive whistle and then the clear call of a bugle. Looking out of the state-room window, I had my first glimpse of Peru. It was quite what I had been led to expect: a long, bleak shore of sand, desolate, treeless, dry. We were anchored before Paita, but the port was still silent and the little town apparently asleep, except for an officer taking his morning ride along the beach. By the time I came on deck a boat or two had put out from shore with the doctor and the company’s agent. Finally the captain of the port arrived, resplendent in his gold-laced uniform as he sat in the stern-sheets of his smart chaloupa, manned by four stalwart oarsmen in spotless white.

I lost all interest in him, however, as soon as I made out the queer rafts and boats that were now paddling out toward us. Here, come to life again, were the old woodcuts in Oviedo’s “Historia.” In the first edition of this old book, now rare and costly, published in Seville only a few years after the Conquest, there are quaint pictures showing the manners and customs of the natives as the Spaniards first found them: their thatched huts, their cabins perched in the tree tops, their strange animals and queer fish, and their various primitive boats. Here in this harbour of Paita these self-same craft were coming out to meet us—dugouts filled with fruit and manned by single Indians, balsas of cabbage-wood (a light timber common to Ecuador and Colombia) like those that brought the friendly caciques to greet Pizarro, and larger rafts, rigged with square sails, that ferried him and his little army, horses and all, from Puno to Tumbez, only a few miles distant in the Gulf of Guayaquil.

But now another flotilla approached us; this time row-boats of more modern type, painted like those of Naples, blue and green, with the fleteros or boatmen, the sharks of the coast, who row you ashore for what-ever they can make, but are no better and no worse than their prototypes in Mediterranean waters.

We landed, and upon the dock found Indian women in black mantas selling green paroquets and gaudy parrots and the strange tropical fruits with which we were soon to grow so familiar. We walked to the Plaza, set out with palms and dominated by the towers of its church, a queer Hispano-Moorish affair in which a black-robed congregation was listening to low mass.

We looked, too, into the Gran Hotel Pacifico, where, in its dining-room, we found quite the strangest ceiling decoration that we had ever seen. It was painted by some man of real ability, not at all the same person who had daubed the crude marines upon the walls, but a man who understood his art. Yet his subject was worthy of a neo-impressionist. In the corners parrots and gaudy butterflies disported themselves, while eggs and fruits lay about in salvers, but the dominant note, the raison d’etre, of the ceiling was an enormous lobster, some fifteen feet across, that spread its vermilion claws and nippers in all directions,, em-bracing parrots and fruits, eggs and salvers, in its all-consuming clutches.

Paita is really a very old settlement, dating from colonial days. Yet a walk among its streets discloses only the most ephemeral constructions, flimsy beyond belief—houses built of dry bamboo thinly covered with plaster and mud, so thinly covered, indeed, that one can look through the cracks and chinks into the rooms themselves. The whole fabric would crumble away in an instant at the first hint of rain. But rain comes to Paita, according to legend, only once in twenty years. Notwithstanding, Paita is the wettest place on the Peruvian coast. Thence southward for hundreds of miles to the distant coast of Chili, between the Andes and the sea, it never rains, though clouds sometimes form, and at certain seasons a sort of heavy mist, the camanchaca, hangs over the land for weeks at a time.

We weighed anchor after luncheon, and all the afternoon skirted the sandy desert of Sechura, whose yellow dunes, backed by lavender mountains, terminate at times in rocky headlands shaped like ruined castles and spotted with guano.

This was the desert that Pizarro and his men traversed after landing at Tumbez. On its outer confines they founded San Miguel di Piura, and after five months’ halt decided to push on toward the mountains, leaving the coast and their ships behind them, braving the dangers of an unknown country swarming with savages. How they surmounted this mountain rampart; how, armour-clad and leading their foot-sore horses, they finally threaded its rocky defiles; how they supported the rigours of cold and exposure at the summit after the warm, tropical air of the coast; how, only two hundred strong, they seized the Inca at Cajamarca in face of his fifty thousand warriors, will ever be matters of marvel.

We reached Eten early next morning. A more desolate spot could scarcely be imagined. Sky, sea, a long, sheer, sandy bluff, an iron mole, and that was all. What town there is must lie behind the dunes.

From each of these coast ports, desolate as they may appear, railroads run inland, sometimes far, sometimes only for a short distance. From the looks of the coast one wonders where they run to, little suspecting, as we afterward found, the prolific valleys that open behind, teeming with vegetation wherever water can be found.

Harbours there are none from Guayaquil to Callao, the ships anchoring about a half-mile off shore, a fact that in these peaceful waters entails neither the discomforts nor inconveniences that it does on other coasts. Here at Eten we hoisted our new passengers aboard in a sort of car like those used in roller-coasters, four people at a time. Freight is transferred in lighters which they call lanchas. Even before we had been “received” by the captain of the port, several of these could be seen approaching us.

How can I describe them? They are about the size of a seagoing schooner. Five heavy beams laid across the bow form seats for ten men, whose brawny arms and well-developed deltoids and pectorals would do honour to trained athletes. Their type the broad, flat face, the high cheek-bones, the narrow eyes, set atilt, and the drooping moustache—plainly show their descent from the Chimus, that strange Chinese race whose civilisation seems to have centred about Trujillo, somewhat farther down the coast. Clad only in jerseys and trousers, bare-headed or shaded by wide-rimmed straw hats, each lays hold of a gigantic sweep, five on a side. And how they row, wing and wing, throwing the whole weight of their mighty frames upon the oars, rising in their seats till standing—the only boatmen I ever saw who suggested the galley-slave of the Egyptians or the men who manned the Roman triremes !

It is only a three hour run from Eten to Pacasmayo. On the way you catch glimpses of higher mountains, buttresses of the Coast Cordillera, and by the shore see little groups of fishing-huts clustered in the coves. We had thought the frail balsas of Paita the most daring of seagoing craft, but now we came upon others more daring still—the caballitos (little horses), tiny boats but six or eight feet long that, at a distance, look like the forward end of a gondola. They are made of two cylinders of straw lashed together and diminishing toward the prow, where they tilt sharply upward. The lone fisherman sits astride of them, his feet dangling in the water at either side, and thus he puts to sea, a sort of Triton bestriding his sea-horse.

Pacasmayo lies in a wide-open roadstead enclosed by golden sand hills, behind which rise chains of lofty mountains, a long wall of blue, deceptive, apparently peaceful and soft in the distance, but jagged and precipitous at closer quarters and traversed only by mule-paths. Yet should I like to have crossed them, for beyond their lofty summits, hidden in a lovely valley, lies Cajamarca, alluded to above, the “City of Atahualpa’s Ransom,” the Inca town that played so important a part in the story of the Conquest.

Another quiet night on shipboard sleeping with that dreamy contentedness that comes over one on a calm sea, and at dawn the following morning we were anchored off Salaverry, the most picturesque of the ports we had yet seen. The sun was just rising in a film of clouds. Behind the dunes that clasped the bases of the mountains in a firm embrace rose the ranges of the Andes, fold upon fold, first the foot-hills, purple-clad, then the fainter Coast Cordillera, and finally, blue and distant, the Black Cordillera.

But the Cordillera Real, the royal range of towering peaks, is not for the wayfarer by the coast. Once in a while on a clear, calm evening toward sunset a gleaming snow-capped peak may be descried like a cloud in the sky, but otherwise these mountain giants jealously guard their summits for the pilgrims to their shrine. Soon we were to become such pilgrims and see for ourselves the glories of their mighty heights.

We landed at Salaverry and were delighted with the broad strand, worthy of an Ostend or a Brighton, that stretches in a wide curve off toward Trujillo, founded by Pizarro and named by him for his birth-place in Estremadura, whose white domes and towers lay some miles distant like a mirage of the Orient among palms and verdant valleys.

Salaverry itself is a low, one-storied affair whose broad, straight sandy streets with their wooden houses are strongly reminiscent of some of our Western frontier towns. Yet Spanish civilisation has put a picturesque impress upon it—upon its windows with their iron rejas; upon its broad verandas barred with screens and used as outdoor rooms; and upon the life of its streets, where women in black, half hidden in sombre doorways, call to the aguador as he peddles his donkey-load of water from door to door, and half-naked street urchins vend chirimoyas and alligator pears at the street-corners.

Upon the beach the fishermen mend their nets near the caballitos drying in the sun that stand erect against gaily painted fishing-smacks. It was a Sun-day morning, so the strand was dotted with bathers, diving in the surf or chasing each other in wild races across the hard-packed sand, among them the children of the British vice-consul, the only foreigners upon the scene.

Again we weighed anchor after lunch, and as we sailed southward the coast grew more and more majestic. Never a note of green, to be sure, but, by compensation, behind the fringe of golden sand that skirts the sapphire sea, range upon range of mountains, always varied, ever broken into a thousand cones and pinnacles and as changeable in hue as a chameleon, flecked by fleecy cloud shadows through the whole gamut of greys, lavenders, and purples. At times the dunes would break as at Chimbote and inland valleys open green as gardens. Toward evening the level sun rays warm these ashen mountains, burnishing them like bronze, and their deep quebradas and rocky gorges by contrast are plunged into indigo shadows of a strength and intensity quite beyond belief.

Occasionally islands whitened with guano lie upon the sea, and upon them nest myriads of birds, and along the water’s edge flocks of glistening sea-lions bark and snarl and wriggle and fight or disport them-selves in the surf. Our captain took us quite close to one of these islets—so close, indeed, that with the naked eye we could plainly see the innumerable birds, both shags and murre, that peopled its honeycombed pinnacles. Just as we passed he blew two mighty blasts upon the siren, and every seal threw itself headlong into the sea, while the birds in one enormous cloud that darkened the sun left their nests, flying far out to sea—a mist of golden dust rising from the island raised by the whir of their countless wings.

For the first time in several days no land was in sight the following morning. But by ten o’clock the long, tawny hills of San Lorenzo Island appeared above the horizon, and we made Callao harbour within an hour. There lay a great variety of ship-ping, from the clean, white, English-built cruisers of the Peruvian navy and the smart “home-boats” of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company to old hulks anchored to the northward, whose only passengers or crew were the gulls and pelicans that settled in their rigging or perched along their decks.

Our steamer was immediately surrounded by a swarm of small boats, each manned by a shouting crowd of fleteros, that made a gay and brilliant scene, painted in the brightest colours and covered with awnings not unlike those used upon the Italian lakes.

We went ashore with friends in the company’s motor-launch, got through the customs quickly, and soon were in the train bound for Lima, only eight miles distant.

I rubbed my eyes as we sped along. Was I in Peru in early March or in California in September? It was surely the end of summer, for here were fields of ripened corn, there venders of luscious grapes. The cattle grazing in the parched fields, the Rimac roaring over its stony bed, the tawny shores of San Lorenzo wreathed with fog like the Contra Costa hills, the files of eucalypti, even the whistle of the American-built locomotive and the clang of its bell, recalled like magic the country that surrounds the Bay of San Francisco or hides in the depths of Sonoma Valley.

But there across the aisle sat a major in his Franco-Peruvian uniform, while in front of him a group of young subalterns in the same neat clothes conversed amiably to ladies in rather boisterous hats, and in the coach ahead, second class, the cholos and other mixed races that we could see proved beyond a doubt that we were in Peru.