CENTRAL AMERICA–PANAMÁ TO SAN JOSÉ.

I had intended to embark at Panamá in the American steam-ship
‘Columbus’ for the coast of Central America. In that case I should
have gone to San Juan del Sur, a port in Nicaragua, and made my way
from thence across the lake, down the river San Juan to San Juan del
Norte, now called Greytown, on the Atlantic. But I learnt that the
means of transit through Nicaragua had been so utterly destroyed–as
I shall by-and-by explain–that I should encounter great delay in
getting across the lake; and as I found that one of our men-of-war
steamers, the ‘Vixen,’ was immediately about to start from Panamá
to Punta-arenas, on the coast of Costa Rica, I changed my mind, and
resolved on riding through Costa Rica to Greytown. And accordingly
I did ride through Costa Rica.

My first work was to make petition for a passage in the ‘Vixen,’
which was accorded to me without difficulty. But even had I failed
here, I should have adhered to the same plan. The more I heard of
Costa Rica, the more I was convinced that that republic was better
worth a visit than Nicaragua. At this time I had in my hands a
pamphlet written by M. Belly, a Frenchman, who is, or says that he
is, going to make a ship canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
According to him the only Paradise now left on earth is in this
republic of Costa Rica. So I shipped myself on board the ‘Vixen.’

I had never before been on the waters of the Pacific. Now when one
premeditates one’s travels, sitting by the domestic fireside, one
is apt to think that all those advancing steps into new worlds will
be taken with some little awe, some feeling of amazement at finding
oneself in very truth so far distant from Hyde Park Corner. The
Pacific! I was absolutely there, on the ocean in which lie the
Sandwich Islands, Queen Pomare, and the Cannibals! But no; I had no
such feeling. My only solicitude was whether my clean shirts would
last me on to the capital of Costa Rica.

And in travelling these are the things which really occupy the mind.
Where shall I sleep? Is there anything to eat? Can I have my clothes
washed? At Panamá I did have my clothes washed in a very short space
of time; but I had to pay a shilling apiece for them all round. In
all these ports, in New Granada, Central America, and even throughout
the West Indies, the luxury which is the most expensive in proportion
to its cost in Europe is the washing of clothes–the most expensive,
as it is also the most essential.

But I must not omit to say that before shipping myself in the
‘Vixen’ I called on the officers on board the United States frigate
‘Merrimac,’ and was shown over that vessel. I am not a very good
judge of ships, and can only say that the officers were extremely
civil, the sherry very good, and the guns very large. They were
coaling, the captain told me, and he professed to be very much
ashamed of the dirt. Had I not been told so I should not have known
that the ship was dirty.

The ‘Merrimac,’ though rated only as a frigate, having guns on one
covered deck only, is one of their largest men-of-war, and has been
regarded by them, and by us, as a show vessel. But according to their
own account, she fails altogether as a steamer. The greatest pace her
engines will give is seven knots an hour; and this is felt to be so
insufficient for the wants of the present time, that it is intended
to take them out of her and replace them by a new set as soon as an
opportunity will allow. This will be done, although the vessel and
the engines are new. I mention this, not as reflecting in any way
disgracefully on the dockyard from whence she came; but to show that
our Admiralty is not the only one which may have to chop and change
its vessels after they are built. We hear much–too much perhaps–of
the misfortunes which attend our own navy; but of the misfortunes of
other navies we hear very little. It is a pity that we cannot have
some record of all the blunders committed at Cherbourg.

The ‘Merrimac’ carries the flag of Flag-officer Long, on whom also
we called. He is a fine old gentleman, with a magnificent head and
forehead, looking I should say much more like an English nobleman
than a Yankee sailor. Flag-officer Long! Who will explain to us why
the Americans of the United States should persist in calling their
senior naval officers by so awkward an appellation, seeing that the
well-known and well-sounding title of admiral is very much at their
disposal?

When I returned to the shore from the ‘Merrimac’ I had half an hour
to pack before I again started for the ‘Vixen.’ As it would be
necessary that I should return to Panamá, and as whatever luggage I
now took with me would have to be carried through the whole of Costa
Rica on mules’ backs, it became expedient that I should leave the
greater part of my kit behind me. Then came the painful task of
selection, to be carried out with the thermometer at ninety, and to
be completed in thirty minutes! To go or not to go had to be asked
and answered as to every shirt and pair of trousers. Oh, those weary
clothes! If a man could travel as a dog, how delightful it would be
to keep moving from year’s end to year’s end!

We steamed up the coast for two days quietly, placidly, and
steadily. I cannot say that the trip was a pleasant one,
remembering how intense was the heat. On one occasion we stopped
for practice-shooting, and it behoved me of course to mount the
paddle-box and see what was going on. This was at eleven in the
morning, and though it did not last for above an hour, I was brought
almost to fainting by the power of the sun.

Punta-arenas–Sandy Point–is a small town and harbour situated in
Costa Rica, near the top of the Bay of Nicoya, The sail up the bay is
very pretty, through almost endless woods stretching away from the
shores to the hills. There is, however, nothing majestic or grand
about the scenery here. There are no Andes in sight, no stupendous
mountains such as one might expect to see after coming so far to see
them. It is all pretty quiet and ordinary; and on the whole perhaps
superior to the views from the sea at Herne Bay.

The captain of the ‘Vixen’ had decided on going up to San José with
me, as at the last moment did also the master, San José being the
capital of Costa Rica. Our first object therefore was to hire a guide
and mules, which, with the assistance of the acting English consul,
we soon found. For even at Punta-arenas the English flag flies, and a
distressed British subject can claim protection.

It is a small village lying along a creek of the sea, inside the
sandy point from whence it is named. Considerable business is done
here in the exportation of coffee, which is the staple produce of
Costa Rica. It is sent chiefly to England; but it seemed to me that
the money-making inhabitants of Punta-arenas were mostly Americans;
men who either had been to California or who had got so far on their
road thither and then changed their minds. It is a hot, dusty,
unattractive spot, with a Yankee inn, at which men may “liquor,” and
a tram railroad running for twelve miles into the country. It abounds
in oysters and beer, on which we dined before we started on our
journey.

I was thus for the first time in Central America. This continent,
if it may be so called, comprises the five republics of Guatemala,
Honduras, San Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. When this country
first broke away from Spanish rule in 1821, it was for a while
content to exist as one state, under the name of the Republic of
Guatemala; as it had been known for nearly three hundred years as
a Spanish province under the same denomination–that of Guatemala.
After a hard tussle with Mexico, which endeavoured to devour it, and
which forty years ago was more prone to annex than to be annexed,
this republic sat itself fairly going, with the city of Guatemala for
its capital. But the energies and ambition of the different races
comprised among the two million inhabitants of Central America would
not allow them to be governed except each in its own province. Some
ten years since, therefore, the five States broke asunder. Each
claimed to be sovereign and independent. Each chose its own president
and had its own capital; and consequently, as might be expected,
no part of the district in question has been able to enjoy those
natural advantages with which Providence has certainly endowed it. To
these States must be added, in counting up the countries of Central
America, British Honduras, consisting of Belize and the adjacent
district, and the Mosquito coast which so lately was under British
protection; and which is–. But here I must be silent, or I may
possibly trench upon diplomatic subjects still unsettled.

My visit was solely to Costa Rica, which has in some respects
done better than its neighbours. But this has been owing to the
circumstances of its soil and climate rather than to those of its
government, which seems to me to be as bad as any can be which
deserves that name. In Costa Rica there certainly is a government,
and a very despotic one it is.

I am not much given to the sins of dandyism, but I must own I was
not a little proud of my costume as I left Punta-arenas. We had been
told that according to the weather our ride would be either dusty or
muddy in no ordinary degree, and that any clothes which we might wear
during the journey would be utterly useless as soon as the journey
was over. Consequently we purchased for ourselves, in an American
store, short canvas smock-frocks, which would not come below the
saddle, and coarse holland trousers. What class of men may usually
wear these garments in Costa Rica I cannot say; but in England I have
seen navvies look exactly as my naval friends looked; and I flatter
myself that my appearance was quite equal to theirs. I had procured
at Panamá a light straw hat, with an amazing brim, and had covered
the whole with white calico. I have before said that my beard had
become “poblada,” so that on the whole I was rather gratified than
otherwise when I was assured by the storekeeper that we should
certainly be taken for three filibusters. Now the name of filibuster
means something serious in those localities, as I shall in a few
pages have to explain.

We started on our journey by railroad, for there is a tramway that
runs for twelve miles through the forest. We were dragged along on
this by an excellent mule, till our course was suddenly impeded by a
tree which had fallen across the road. But in course of time this was
removed, and in something less than three hours we found ourselves at
a saw-mill in the middle of the forest.

The first thing that met my view on stepping out of the truck was
a solitary Englishman seated on a half-sawn log of wood. Those who
remember Hood’s Whims and Oddities may bear in mind a heart-rending
picture of the last man. Only that the times do not agree, I should
have said that this poor fellow must have sat for the picture. He was
undeniably an English labourer. No man of any other nation would have
had that face, or worn those clothes, or kicked his feet about in
that same awkward, melancholy humour.

He was, he said, in charge of the saw-mill, having been induced to
come out into that country for three years. According to him, it was
a wretched, miserable place. “No man,” he said, “ever found himself
in worse diggings.” He earned a dollar and a half a day, and with
that he could hardly buy shoes and have his clothes washed. “Why did
he not go home?” I asked. “Oh, he had come for three years, and he’d
stay his three years out–if so be he didn’t die.” The saw-mill was
not paying, he said; and never would pay. So that on the whole his
account of Costa Rica was not encouraging.

We had been recommended to stay the first night at a place called
Esparza, where there is a decent inn. But before we left Punta-arenas
we learnt that Don Juan Rafael Mora, the President of the Republic,
was coming down the same road with a large retinue of followers to
inaugurate the commencement of the works of the canal. He would
be on his way to meet his brother-president of the next republic,
Nicaragua, at San Juan del Sur; and at a spot some little distance
from thence this great work was to be begun at once. He and his party
were to sleep at Esparza. Therefore we decided on going on further
before we halted; and in truth at that place we did meet Don Juan and
his retinue.

As both Costa Rica and Nicaragua are chiefly of importance to the
eastern and western worlds, as being the district in which the
isthmus between the two Americas may be most advantageously pierced
by a canal–if it be ever so pierced–this subject naturally intrudes
itself into all matters concerning these countries. Till the opening
of the Panamá railway the transit of passengers through Nicaragua
was immense. At present the railway has it all its own way. But the
subject, connected as it has been with that of filibustering, mingles
itself so completely with all interests in Costa Rica, that nothing
of its present doings or politics can be well understood till
something is understood on this canal subject. Sooner or later I must
write a chapter on it; and it would almost be well if the reader
would be pleased to take it out of its turn and get through it at
once. The chapter, however, cannot well be brought in till these,
recording my travels in Costa Rica, are completed.

Don Juan Mora and his retinue had arrived some hours before us, and
had nearly filled the little hotel. This was kept by a Frenchman, and
as far as provisions and beer were concerned seemed to be well kept.
Our requirements did not go beyond these. On entering the public
sitting-room a melodiously rich Irish brogue at once greeted my ears,
and I saw seated at the table, joyous in a semi-military uniform, The
O’Gorman Mahon, great as in bygone unemancipated days, when with head
erect and stentorian voice he would make himself audible to half the
County Clare. The head was still as erect, and the brogue as
unexceptionable.

He speedily introduced us to a brother-workman in the same mission,
the Prince Polignac. With the President himself I had not the honour
of making acquaintance, for he speaks only Spanish, and my tether in
that language is unfortunately very short. But the captain of the
‘Vixen’ was presented to him. He seemed to be a courteous little
gentleman, though rather flustered by the magnitude of the work on
which he was engaged.

There was something singular in the amalgamation of the three men who
had thus got themselves together in this place to do honour to the
coming canal. The President of the Republic, Prince Polignac, and The
O’Gorman Mahon! I could not but think of the heterogeneous heroes of
the ‘Groves of Blarney.’

“There were Nicodemus, and Polyphemus,
Oliver Cromwell, and Leslie Foster.”*

[*I am not quoting the words rightly I fear; but the
selection in the true song is miscellaneous in the same
degree.]

“And now, boys, ate a bit of what’s going, and take a dhrop of
dhrink,” said The O’Gorman, patting us on the shoulders with kind
patronage. We did as we were bid, ate and drank, paid the bill, and
went our way rejoicing. That night, or the next morning rather,
at about 2 a.m., we reached a wayside inn called San Mateo, and
there rested for five or six hours. That we should obtain any such
accommodation along the road astonished me, and of such as we got we
were very glad. But it must not be supposed that it was of a very
excellent quality. We found three bedsteads in the front room into
which the door of the house opened. On these were no mattresses, not
even a palliasse. They consisted of flat boards sloping away a little
towards the feet, with some hard substance prepared for a pillow. In
the morning we got a cup of coffee without milk. For these luxuries
and for pasturage for the mules we paid about ten shillings a head.
Indeed, everything of this kind in Costa Rica is excessively dear.

Our next day’s journey was a very long one, and to my companions very
fatiguing, for they had not latterly been so much on horseback as had
been the case with myself. Our first stage before breakfast was of
some five hours’ duration, and from the never-ending questions put
to the guide as to the number of remaining leagues, it seemed to be
eternal. The weather also was hot, for we had not yet got into the
high lands; and a continued seat of five hours on a mule, under a
burning sun, is not refreshing to a man who is not accustomed to such
exercise; and especially is not so when he is unaccustomed to the
half-trotting, half-pacing steps of the beast. The Spaniard sits in
the saddle without moving, and generally has his saddle well stuffed
and padded, and then covered with a pillion. An Englishman disdains
so soft a seat, and endeavours to rise in his stirrup at every step
of the mule, as he would on a trotting horse at home. In these
Hispano-American countries this always provokes the ridicule of the
guide, who does not hesitate to tell the poor wretch who is suffering
in his pillory that he does not know how to ride.

With some of us the pillory was very bad, and I feared for a time
that we should hardly have been able to mount again after breakfast.
The place at which we were is called Atenas, and I must say in praise
of this modern Athens, and of the three modern Athenian girls who
waited on us, that their coffee, eggs, and grilled fowl were very
good. The houses of these people are exceedingly dirty, their modes
of living comfortless and slovenly in the extreme. But there seems to
be no lack of food, and the food is by no means of a bad description.
Along this road from Punta-arenas to San Jose we found it always
supplied in large quantities and fairly cooked. The prices demanded
for it were generally high. But then all prices are high; and it
seems that, even among the poorer classes, small sums of money are
not valued as with us. There is no copper coin. Half a rial, equal to
about threepence, is the smallest piece in use. A handful of rials
hardly seems to go further, or to be thought more of, than a handful
of pence with us; and a dollar, eight rials, ranks hardly higher in
estimation than a shilling does in England.

At last, by the gradual use of the coffee and eggs, and by the
application, external and internal, of a limited amount of brandy,
the outward and the inward men were recruited; and we once more
found ourselves on the backs of our mules, prepared for another
stage of equal duration. These evils always lessen as we become
more accustomed to them, so that when we reached a place called
Assumption, at which we were to rest for the night, we all gallantly
informed the muleteer that we were prepared to do another stage.
“Not so the mules,” said the muleteer; and as his words were law,
we prepared to spend the night at Assumption.

Our road hitherto had been rising nearly the whole way, and had been
generally through a picturesque country. We ascended one long severe
hill, severe that is as a road, though to a professed climber of
mountains it would be as nothing. From the summit of this hill we had
a magnificent view down to the Pacific, Again, at a sort of fortress
through which we passed, and which must have been first placed there
by the old Spaniards to guard the hill-passes, we found a very lovely
landscape looking down into the valley. Here some show of a demand
was made for passports; but we had none to exhibit, and no opposition
was made to our progress. Except at these two places, the scenery,
which was always more or less, pretty, was never remarkable. And even
at the two points named there was nothing to equal the mountain
scenery of many countries in Europe.

What struck me most was the constant traffic on the road or track
over which we passed. I believe I may call it a road, for the produce
of the country is brought down over it in bullock carts; and I think
that in South Wales I have taken a gig over one very much of the same
description. But it is extremely rude; and only fit for solid wooden
wheels–circles, in fact, of timber–such as are used, and for the
patient, slow step of the bullocks.

But during the morning and evening hours the strings of these bullock
carts were incessant. They travel from four till ten, then rest till
three or four, and again proceed for four or five hours in the cool
of the evening. They are all laden with coffee, and the idea they
give is, that the growth of that article in Costa Rica must be much
more than sufficient to supply the whole world. For miles and miles
we met them, almost without any interval. Coffee, coffee, coffee;
coffee, coffee, coffee! It is grown in large quantities, I believe,
only in the high lands of San José; and all that is exported is sent
down to Punta-arenas, though by travelling this route it must either
pass across the isthmus railway at a vast cost, or else be carried
round the Horn. At present half goes one way and half the other. But
not a grain is carried, as it should all be carried, direct to the
Atlantic. When I come to speak of the road from San José to Greytown,
the reason for this will be understood.

The bivouacs made on the roadside by the bullock drivers for their
night and noon accommodation are very picturesque when seen filled
by the animals. A piece of flat ground is selected by the roadside,
about half an acre in size, and close to a river or some running
water. Into this one or two hundred bullocks are taken, and then
released from their carts. But they are kept yoked together to
prevent their straying. Here they are fed exclusively on sugar-canes,
which the men carry with them, and buy along the road. The drovers
patiently cut the canes up with their knives, and the beasts
patiently munch them. Neither the men nor the animals roar, as they
would with us, or squabble for the use of the water-course, or curse
their own ill luck or the good luck of their neighbours. Drivers and
driven are alike orderly, patient, and slow, spending their lives
in taking coffee down to Punta-arenas, and in cutting and munching
thousands of sugar-canes.

We passed some of those establishments by moonlight, and they looked
like large crowded fairs full of low small booths. The men, however,
do not put up tents, but sleep out in their carts.

They told me that the soil in Costa Rica was very favourable to the
sugar-cane, and I looked out to see some sugar among the coffee. But
not a hogshead came that way. We saw patches of the cane growing by
the roadside; but no more was produced than what sufficed for the
use of the proprietor himself, and for such sale as the traffic on
the road afforded. Indeed, I found that they do not make sugar,
so called, in Costa Rica, but import what they use. The article
fabricated is called by them “dulce.” It comes from their hands in
ugly round brown lumps, of the consistency of brick, looking, in
truth, much more like a large brickbat than any possible saccharine
arrangement. Nevertheless, the canes are fairly good, and the juice
as sweet as that produced in first-rate sugar-growing soils.

It seemed that the only use made of this “dulce,” excepting that
of sweetening the coffee of the peasants, is for distillation. A
spirit is made from it at San José, called by the generic name of
aguardiente; and this doubtless would give considerable impulse to
the growth of sugar-canes but for a little law made on the subject
by the present President of the republic. The President himself is a
cane-grower, and by this law it is enacted that the only person in
Costa Rica entitled to supply the distillery with dulce shall be Don
Juan Mora. Now, Don Juan Mora is the President.

Before I left the country I came across an American who was desirous
of settling there with the view of producing cocoa. “Well,” said I,
“and what do you think of it?”

“Why, I like the diggings,” said he; “and guess I could make things
fix well enough. But suppose the President should choose to grow all
the cocoa as well as all the gin! Where would my cacao-plants be
then?” At a discount, undoubtedly. These are the effects on a country
of despotism in a small way.

On my way into San José I got off my mule to look at an old peasant
making dulce, or in other words grinding his sugar-canes by the
roadside. It was done in the most primitive manner. One bullock
turned the mill, which consisted of three vertical wooden rollers.
The juice trickled into a little cistern; and as soon as the old man
found that he had enough, he baled it out and boiled it down. And yet
I imagine that as good sugar may be made in Costa Rica as in British
Guiana. But who will put his capital into a country in which the
President can pass any law he pleases on his own behalf?

In the neighbourhood of San José we began to come across the coffee
plantations. They certainly give the best existing proof of the
fertility and progress of the country. I had seen coffee plantations
in Jamaica, but there they are beautifully picturesque, placed like
hanging gardens on the steep mountain-sides. Some of these seem to
be almost inaccessible, and the plant always has the appearance of
being a hardy mountain shrub. But here in Costa Rica it is grown on
the plain. The secret, I presume, is that a certain temperature is
necessary, and that this is afforded by a certain altitude from
the sea. In Jamaica this altitude is only to be found among the
mountains, but it is attained in Costa Rica on the high plains of the
interior.

And then we jogged slowly into San José on the third day after our
departure from Punta-arenas. Slowly, sorely, and with minds much
preoccupied, we jogged into San José. On leaving the saw-mill at the
end of the tramway my two friends had galloped gallantly away into
the forest, as though a brave heart and a sharp pair of spurs would
have sufficed to carry them right through to their journey’s end. But
the muleteer with his pony and the baggage-mule then lingered far
behind. His heart was not so brave, nor were his spurs apparently
so sharp. The luggage, too, was slipping every ten minutes, for I
unfortunately had a portmanteau, of which no muleteer could ever make
anything. It has been condemned in Holy Land, in Jamaica, in Costa
Rica, wherever it has had to be fixed upon any animal’s back. On this
occasion it nearly broke both the heart of the muleteer and the back
of the mule.

But things were changed as we crept into San José. The muleteer was
all life, and led the way, driving before him the pack-mule, now at
length reconciled to his load. And then, at straggling intervals, our
jibes all silenced, our showy canters all done, rising wearily in our
stirrups at every step, shifting from side to side to ease the galls
“That patient merit of the unworthy takes”–for our merit had been
very patient, and our saddles very unworthy–we jogged into San José.