Pacific Shores From Panama – Guatemala And Its Capital

We awoke at dawn, took the early train, and by ten o’clock were once more aboard the ship. That night we crossed the boundary to Guatemala and anchored in the early morning at its chief Pacific seaport, San José. Our steamer carried a consignment of steel rails destined for a link in the Pan-American Railway. These were to be put off at Champerico, the next port, a lengthy and tedious operation that, in the ground swell, would usually require about two days. So we planned to utilise this time in making a trip up to Guatemala City.

This was a Saturday, and according to all calculations our steamer could not leave Champerico before the following Tuesday morning at the earliest. In order to facilitate our departure our captain, who was kindness and thoughtfulness itself during all this cruise, sent us quickly ashore in his gig. We found the Pacific Mail agent upon the dock, and he too assured us, after some demur, that the trip, as we planned it, was feasible. So presently we were seated in the train again ascending the hills toward the interior of Guatemala. The air was moist and big vaporous clouds hung about the distant mountains. The country through which we passed at first resembled the ride to Sonsonate, being chiefly through grazing-lands interspersed at times with large plantations of sugar-cane or bananas. Natives in gay costume leaned from the doorways of palm-leaf huts.

Beyond Escuintla the air grew cooler; the clouds lifted to some extent and disclosed richly wooded hillsides, well-tilled fields, and beneficios with pink, box-like houses surrounded by long white arcades. Clear little streams fringed with willows ran merrily down to the sea. The views toward the coast were lovely as the train rounded curve after curve, always mounting to cooler heights. But the great volcano, Agua, stubbornly refused to show itself on this our upward journey.

At the stations the Indian women met the train to peddle their fruits : mangoes and pineapples, chirimoyas, alligator pears, and loquats. And a gay picture they made with their thick black hair bound tight about their heads to form braided crowns, plaited with broad ribbons of lilac and green. Their strong yet delicately moulded arms emerged from white chemisettes, enriched with embroidery, and so short that when they raised their hands to steady the baskets upon their heads, the bare bronze skin of their lithe, graceful bodies was revealed to the waist-line. For skirts they only wear hand-woven cloths, gay with patterns, wrapped closely round their hips —so tightly, indeed, that every movement of their shapely limbs is disclosed as they walk along.

The gorges grew deeper as we ascended, and in their glens, half hidden in a tangle of creepers, vines, and flowering yucca, we could see great tree-ferns spreading their tops like giant umbrellas. The volcanic mountains took on strange shapes, and presently we found ourselves upon the reedy banks of the broad lake, Amatitlan, along which the train now ran for many miles, crossing it at one point upon a long low bridge. We were by this time nearly four thousand feet above the sea, and the air was deliciously cool and refreshing after the humid atmosphere of the coast.

At Moran, whose ruined church by the track stood a silent witness to the devastation of an earthquake, we knew we were approaching the capital, for women hurried along toward the city with their market produce balanced upon their heads and gaudy new villas came into view from time to time. We crossed the viaduct that spans the broad Reforma, and entered the station.

Upon emerging the first object that confronts you is the bull-ring made of adobe, washed with their favourite pale-blue water-colour. Opposite it, convicts were at work grading a hill under the surveillance of some slovenly, barefoot soldiers. Beyond we passed a pilgrim church situated at the head of a great flight of steps, at whose base cows were being milked, while the crenellated walls of an old fortress rose up behind, blue and unreal against the sky-line like some piece of stage scenery.

The streets down which we drove were wide and straight and paved with square blocks of stone like the old Roman thoroughfares; the houses but one story in height for the most part; the churches baroque, pretentious, and uninteresting.

When I asked the cabman upon reaching the hotel how much I owed him, he calmly replied: “Eighteen dollars.” I fairly gasped, feeling that I was being robbed. Then I remembered that in Guatemala eighteen dollars of their money equals just one American dollar! You can imagine the condition of one’s pockets in a country with such a currency—constantly cluttered with rolls of dirty paper pesos, tattered and often worn to shreds. You buy a few postage stamps and you pay eight dollars for them; your simple dinner amounts to forty dollars, your room to fifty dollars a day. Yet living in Guatemala is cheap—when you make due allowance for exchange.

Under the old Spanish dominion, all that we now call Central America, that is from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to Panama, was known as the Captain-Generalcy, or Kingdom of Guatemala. Cortez, after his conquest of Mexico, sent his daring lieutenant, Don Pedro de Alvarado, one of the most brilliant figures of that turbulent epoch, to subjugate this country, and his name has become linked with it like that of Cortez with Mexico and Pizarro with Peru. He found the country peopled with fairly civilised natives, having their industries and arts, their picture-writings and a primitive language of symbols. Like the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru, they dwelt upon the cool ethereal heights of the tierra templada, where they first woke to civilisation under the stimulus of the exhilarating air raised high above the miasmas of the coast—the torrid tierra caliente.

When Alvarado had brought these natives to submission, he planned to make his capital the finest in the new world. To attain this end, he brought artisans from Spain, and under their guidance, the Mayas, who had erected the temples of Yucatan and Honduras, now built his viceregal palace, the great cathedral where his bones afterward reposed, and the other edifices of his capital, Antigua, situated almost at the base of Agua. In 1776, however, a terrific earthquake shook the city to its foundations, destroying it so utterly that by order of the government the capital was transferred to Guatemala City, and Antigua remains to this day a city of ruins. It is comparatively easy of access, and I should have liked to visit it, but the shortness of our stay would not permit the journey.

Thus, as Spanish-American capitals go, Guatemala City is of comparatively recent origin, whence its baroque architecture, its tawdry palaces and churches. But it makes amends for these. The surrounding country is wholly delightful, and has always been fittingly known as the “Paradise of the New World.” Its elevation above the sea gives it a delicious climate, and its picturesque, if somewhat slovenly, inhabitants afford no end of variety.

The Plaza de Armas, differing in this respect from those we had seen in South America, is ill kept, its pavement cracked and dirty, its trees dusty and neglected. Two sides are bordered by portales sheltering the principal shops under their arcades. To the east rise the great cathedral and the bishop’s palace, while to the west stands the Palace, the official residence of President Cabrera, who holds the country under his iron thumb.

In an automobile we toured the city and its environs, first visiting, at the end of a broad avenue, flanked by villas and foreign legations, the Hipodromo, or Temple of Minerva, a modern edifice of the Greek type, used for scholastic or athletic exercises and public gatherings of all sorts, overlooking a beautiful ravine and a richly wooded country—a perfect tangle of tropic growth.

In the opposite direction we returned to the Calvario, or Pilgrim Church, that I have mentioned, passed the pale-blue Fortezza, and then followed the Avenida de la Reforma, a splendid boulevard shaded by quadruple rows of trees, mostly pines, that fill the air with their aromatic perfume.

At its far extremity, we enjoyed a superb view of Agua topping the rich fields, and then we inspected the Museo. This contains a well-ordered if rather scant collection of plaster casts of the Maya bas-reliefs and monoliths from Quirigua, Péten, and the hidden jungles of Yucatan; modern historic souvenirs of the various revolutions; examples of native industries and some fine specimens of animals and birds, among the latter the quetzal, the national bird of freedom, larger than a parrot and like it contrasting a bright-red breast and a long green tail.

The market that morning and the band concert that afternoon afforded an excellent opportunity to study the women and their gay attire. There were Guatemaltecans of Spanish origin in their prettiest Sunday raiment, mestizos in soft, pale-tinted scarfs, and, most interesting of all perhaps, Indian women, especially those from Quezaltenango and its vicinity, many of whom are employed as nurse-maids in the capital.

They are small but well formed and erect from their habit of balancing loads upon their head; their clothes are hand-woven and enriched with lively and varied patterns; their hair is plaited with flowers, and their faces are often distinctly comely.

Among these women the slouchy soldiers wandered; a malmalimbero lugged his heavy instrument, a sort of xylophone, upon his back, and boys peddled native sweetmeats stuck upon a stick, and candies fashioned in the semblance of men and animals. As the twilight deepened, the cathedral doors swung open and a crowd with lighted candles issued from the main portal, accompanying a Purisima or small, doll-like Virgin, such as one commonly sees in Mexico, overdressed in brocades and laces, and so decked with jewels and ornaments that nothing but its diminutive waxen face was visible.

We took the early train for the lowlands, planning to spend the entire day en route, reaching Retalhuleu at six to spend the night, and the following morning we were to proceed to Champerico to meet our steamer. Though the distance from Retalhuleu to the coast is but twenty-five miles, only three trains a week make the connection.

The trip through the jungle I shall not soon forget, both for the beauty of the long ride and for the adventure that closed it.

The road from Guatemala City as far as Escuintla was a repetition of our ascent from the coast, but for the fact that, upon the downward journey, Agua stood revealed in all its majesty, rearing its perfect cone, sharp and regular, more than twelve thousand feet above the sea. Behind it towered its two neighbours, even greater in height though more distant, Fuego and Acatenango, volcanoes also, cutting their sharp silhouettes against a cloudless sky—forming the great trinity that decorates the country’s coat-of-arms.

We had an early luncheon in the station at Escuintla, luckily, from what followed, an excellent repast graced with the finest avocado pears I have ever tasted.

At Santa Maria Junction the train left the road to the coast, turning aside upon what will some day be the main line of the Pan-American Railway that eventually will connect the cities of the United States with Panama by rail—a dream that fascinated the mind of James G. Blaine, who was one of its strongest early advocates. At the present day such large portions of it already exist that its realisation no longer seems a dream but a reality of the not very distant future.

The piece we were now traversing has been open but a year or two and passes through a virgin jungle, affording a ride of rare novelty and charm. You plunge almost instantly into a tropical forest whose moist, heavy atmosphere is as steamy as that of a hothouse. Its giant trees are hung with vines and snake-like creepers and bound about by the iron thongs of the lignum-vitae. Orchids balance them-selves upon the twisted limbs, and royal palms rear their column-like trunks among the thick underbrush.

At each station rough-looking peons left the second-class coaches to work on the fincas, or plantations, all their worldly possessions in packs upon their backs. Their foremen and their employers, the haciendados, go about armed to the teeth, looking like walking arsenals, with their cartridge-belts, their pistols, and their long, ugly knives.

Our train conductor was an American, whose wonderful gold teeth proclaimed that fact to all the world. He had lived, I think he said, for twenty years along this Guatemala Central Railroad, and he retailed to us all the gossip of the road, pointing out the big sugar estates, the mahogany logs at Buena Vista, the rubber-trees, and, later on, the coffee plantations sheltered from the sun by the leaf-age of the jungle. He told us, too, where to get the best pineapples (most refreshing upon a journey like this), and we bought, by his advice, nine of them for twenty-seven reales, or seven cents gold, and cocoa-nuts at about a cent and a half apiece.

The native villages were a source of constant interest, with their bamboo huts thatched with palm leaves, their primitive outdoor kitchens, where we saw armadillos roasted whole like Chinese sucking pigs. Children played about as nature made them; the men, especially toward Patulul, were clad only in richly coloured breech-cloths that harmonised perfectly with their warm. brown skins, and the women were washing half nude in the streams.

River after river, rippling over pebbly beds, ran from the mountains to the sea, and one after another we crossed them: the various branches of the Coyolata, the two main forks of the Madre Viejo, the Nahualate, the Nimá, and the Ican. Their presence explained the fertility of the region and the rich verdure of the country, despite the fact that we were at the end of the long dry season, when one would naturally expect to see the land seared and scorched by the sun, ardently awaiting the rain.

At Mazatenango we lost a passenger who had greatly interested us—a beautiful mestiza, upon whose shoulders two green parakeets had perched all day. It was now nearly five o’clock, and only an hour’s ride separated us from our destination for the night. During this last portion of the trip we passed through extensive coffee fincas that form the principal source of wealth of the region, arriving at Retalhuleu just on time.

Lucky for us that we did so.

I have spoken of Guatemala’s despotic president, Cabrera. We had had instances before of the close watch that is kept by his officials on every stranger and every citizen, for our names had been taken each time we passed in or out of a railroad station or entered a hotel. Here, at Retalhuleu, the officials advanced again for these formalities, and when I had signed my name I was surprised to see them exchange a look, and one of them handed me two telegrams. Both were from the captain of our ship, urging us to hire a special train and get to Champerico at once, as he sailed at eight o’clock that evening.

What visions his telegram evoked ! In fancy I saw us stranded for ten days in this desolate port with nothing but our hand-luggage; I saw our tickets for the voyage reposing, with our other possessions, in the purser’s safe; I saw us following forlornly by the next steamer, which was the worst boat on the line.

So, without losing a single moment, I interviewed the station-master, he called up the central office in Guatemala City, catching the officials just before they left for the night, and I watched the reply slowly tick from the telegraphic instrument—the order for a special at what looked like a ruinous figure until it was divided into American dollars. The only car that they could find available was a second-class coach, and in twenty minutes after our arrival an engine was attached to it, a dim, smoky lamp was lighted in one of its corners, and we started off, dinnerless, in the night.

What a wild ride it was ! The locomotive snorted like a raging monster at the very door of our coach, that rocked from side to side like an unballasted ship upon the shaky rails; the lamp spluttered and smoked and threatened every instant to fall from its fixture and smash upon the floor.

The lights of native huts (for it was still early in the evening) flashed by in the darkness. Anxious faces peered through the windows as we slowed down at the few stations. Such a thing as a train at night was unknown upon this road, that, as I have said, operates but three trains a week in each direction, and these only in broad daylight. Our whistle shrieked as we sped along, and at last, in record time, we pulled into the station at Champerico.

I think the whole town was there to meet us. I know the entire garrison was, barefooted doubtless, but with fixed bayonets, prepared to quell any revolution that might emerge from this lone coach. Their anxiety faded, but their curiosity was evidently increased, when they beheld only two mild-mannered persons step out. Guessing our object, they called repeatedly: “You cannot embark; you cannot em-bark.” However, the port agent met us, some natives took up our luggage, and we stumbled along over the railroad tracks and switches in the direction of the mole.

The captain of the port had been forewarned, for nothing short of the President’s permission had been necessary to enable us to leave the country after nightfall. So, as he expressed it, “in honour of the lady,” he came himself with his small court, all dressed in white, to take us to the bodega on the end of the mole. Four boatmen, also in white, were waiting there, and the captain’s big chaloupa was in readiness to be swung out and down into the long Pacific rollers which fortunately were exceptionally quiet that evening. The boat was duly launched, my wife was put into a sort of barrel-chair, and at the end of a crane was swung out into the darkness and care-fully lowered into the waiting boat, then I was sent down in the same manner.

The ship’s lights twinkled in the distance, shut out at times by a long black wave-wall that disappeared as quickly as it came. We seemed to float upon a moving black void with silvery phosphorescence all about and dripping from the oars. Once out of the ground-swell, however, we glided peacefully along toward the ship’s golden lamps that beckoned us like the hospitable lights of some large hotel.

We met the purser’s boat coming ashore to see how we were faring, and then we knew, what we had already guessed, the reason for the change of plans that had necessitated this brusque departure—namely, that in this calm weather the steel rails for Champerico had rained into the lighters in double-quick time, and the ship was ready for departure Monday night instead of Tuesday morning.

On awaking next day we found ourselves anchored off Ocos, the last port of call in Guatemala. Only a mile or two to the north lay the Mexican border. Nothing tempted us to go ashore at this forlorn port, and indeed we were quite well pleased, after the past three days’ activities, to sit quietly in our steamer-chairs upon the open deck and watch the lighters filled with sacks of coffee come one after the other out through the surf, whose breakers they breasted by an ingenious system of cables attached to buoys, giving their signals to the men in charge of the donkey-engine ashore by means of black and white flags.

Toward night great clouds gathered about the mountains inland and the lightning flashed dull silver in the deepening gloom. The stars disappeared one by one; a high wind arose; big warm splashes of rain pattered on the deck, and before we knew it a chuvasco—one of those great tropical storms that come so quickly in these latitudes—was let loose about us. In a moment floods of water swept the ship from stem to stern. But all was over as quickly as it came, and in a few hours the stars twinkled again overhead.