Coast Towns Of Mexico
( Originally Published 1913 )
AT eleven o'clock next morning the two thou-sand sacks of coffee were all aboard and we said goodbye to Guatemala.
A little later we passed the first port in Mexico, San Benito, marked by a warehouse or two upon the shore. The long, low thread of coast continued to unroll itself all the afternoon, with now and then a faint, blue mountain form dimly seen hiding its head in thunder-clouds. We passed two steamers—a rare event upon this silent sea.
Before dawn next day we heard the high wind whistling about our cabin, the trades that always blow in the Gulf of Tehuantepec. After breakfast we anchored in the outer bay of Salina Cruz, and came up to the dock soon after, watching with interest, as we did so, the crowd of Mexican cargadores, in white jeans and the national peaked hats, preparing to unload our cargo. This was the first time we had been alongside a dock since we left Balboa, and was to be the last until we arrived in San Francisco.
Each town along this coast seems to have a physiognomy all its own. Some are but a collection of tropical shacks shaded by cocoanut palms; others have a prosperous air displayed in their mountains of coffee-sacks and bags of sugar; others again wear an ugly face devoid even of the interest of character. Salina Cruz is certainly one of these, for no element of beauty can be found in its windy, sand-swept streets. But she has dressed her unattractive face in very neat and business-like clothes—her excellent wharves and docks, built by a great English corporation, equipped with all the modern machinery and appliances that are lacking even in some of our most up-to-date American ports. Electric cranes, running easily on tracks, swing their giant arms in air, lifting from the ships' holds great handfuls of bales and boxes and emptying them directly, as the case may be, either into freight cars standing ready to take them across the Isthmus to the Gulf or into solid warehouses ranged along the quay. Salina Cruz was the proposed western terminus of the famous ship railway so much discussed some years ago as the only possible solution of the canal problem.
Whether this Tehuantepec Railway, with its trans-shipments, will be able to compete with the direct route of the Panama Canal is the question one naturally asks one's self. The town of Tehuantepec, which gives its name to the Isthmus, lies about twenty miles inland, and is famous for the beauty and the curious national dress of its women. To judge from those we saw in Salina Cruz, I should say they justify their reputation.
We sailed early Friday morning and headed up the Mexican coast. The sea was alive with turtles, gleaming like great topazes upon the calm blue waters.
What a change in the shore-line from the softly wooded hills of Guatemala! All was bleak and arid, rugged and firmly modelled. Low headlands thrust themselves into the sea, girt with jagged rocks and clothed with dry underbrush, and great clusters of the organ cactus reared their bright-green fingers straight toward heaven. At other times long white lines of sand skirted with foliage connected these headlands, and once in a while a broad verdant valley opened and a wreath of blue smoke proclaimed a human presence. One of these valleys stretched its mouth so wide that we coasted for about half an hour along its unbroken beach, walled with cocoanut palms and backed by densely wooded hills, rising one behind another, fold after fold, peering over each other, as it were, to catch a glimpse of the sea, while the mother range-the Sierra Madre—looked calmly down upon her children from her cool ethereal heights.
Then the coast receded until it almost disappeared from view, then protruded again far out into the sea until we seemed to be heading directly for its yellow cliffs. No opening appeared until we came quite close, when, of a sudden, a narrow passage split the cliffs and we entered a landlocked harbor, the loveliest on all this coast.
What memories cling about this bay of Acapulco, as perfect in form as any saucer, with but a single chip in all its rim, that of the narrow boca that admits ships from the sea! Purple hills enclose it; groves of cocoanut palms skirt its shores; native huts lie cool in the shadows of the woods, and over to the northward the old town of Acapulco spreads itself upon a hill-slope behind its ancient Spanish fortress.
What pictures it has beheld! The dromonds and the galliases from Panama, with the merchants of Spain and the traders from the vice-royalty of Peru, assembled to buy the silks and porcelains from China and the spices from the Indies; the nobles and their caravans from Mexico City just across the mountains, even at times the viceroy himself, come to welcome the King's ship—the great galleon that once a year arrived from Manila freighted with the treasures of the Orient, its sails gay with painted images, its waist bristling with cannon, its rigging hung with ollas, earthen jars, to catch and cool the rain-water upon its lengthy voyage.
During the old régime Acapulco was the chief port upon the Pacific for the East-Indian trade, and this great galleon, commanded by a general who flew the royal standard at his masthead, left each year for the Philippines in March, returning the following December or January.
Bret Harte has founded one of his most important poems upon this event, a curious legend beginning thus:
"In sixteen hundred and forty-one
This "Lost Galleon" never arrived for a very peculiar reason, and he concludes his account of its ill-fated voyage with the following prophecy of the Holy Brotherhood: that in 1939, just three hundred years from the date it was due,
"The folk in Acapulco town,
If this prophecy is fulfilled, her captain-general, upon his return, will not find the old town greatly changed, for today its buildings still echo the His-panic taste of the seventeenth century. Its old fortress of San Diego still bristles with antiquated artillery, the old craft of its harbour are primitive, and its shiftless people, cut off from all communication with the outside world, fill in the foreground of the picture in quite an appropriate manner. But he will rub his eyes in bewilderment when he reads the name, to him meaningless, of the boats that come to ferry one ashore: the New York, the Maryland, the George Washington, and the Flying-Fish.
We chose the first named, and soon were landing at the custom-house, which you literally "pass through" to leave the landing-stage, and found ourselves in the main plaza, set out with fine mango-trees. The afternoon was all too short for this picturesque old town, with its streets and dazzling colonnades, its cool porticos, its markets and shops filled with a bright jumble of pottery and ponchos, woven baskets and tropical fruits.
We sketched and visited the agency and the consulate, occupying two of the most pretentious houses in the town, both typically Spanish, with patios and great airy chambers whose windows are barred with solid rejas strong enough for a prison.
At sundown we were towed in the agent's boat to our ship, which had meanwhile gone across the bay to coal. The evening was delightful, the air balmy yet refreshing, and the calm bay, landlocked, with but its single exit to the sea, spread its opalescent waters to catch the sky reflections—pink, green, lavender, and mauve. The American consul had come out with us—a distinguished-looking man with a young face and snow-white hair—and he and the agent dined at the captain's table, and we all spent the evening together up under the bridge by the captain's cabin.
The coal-barges lay alongside, and in the fitful light of electric reflectors we could see the passers, a motley crew, half naked, grimy, black by nature or by dust, one could not tell which, shovelling the coal like demons, in the weird night light.
Our next Mexican port was Manzanillo, whose lighthouse, perched upon a bluff, was the first that we had remarked on all the coast. We ran in close under it, swung into a wide and beautiful gulf, and anchored behind a fine, new breakwater, where lies the little town, the western terminal of one of the Mexican railways, straggling along a sand-bar. We went ashore on principle, but found little to interest us except some pretty juegos, or sets of Guadalajara pottery—bottle, plate, and drinking-cup, made to match. The town is dirty and unattractive, the country dry and desolate.
There remained but one more port of call, San Blas, and a tiny pearl of the tropics it is, set in shores of vivid green and groves of palm-trees. We cast anchor a mile or two offshore, near a British gun-boat, and immediately a boat put off from her and one of her officers came to call upon our captain. What a trim boat's crew it was—how spick and span their uniforms, how well fed, how ruddy their complexions under their cork helmets after the sallow skins of the Central Americans we had been seeing!
Our steamer had two thousand bunches of bananas to take aboard, so we went ashore for the afternoon in a big surf-boat, riding the breakers to shelter behind a primitive breakwater. Here we found ourselves in a calm lagoon, broken by numerous sand-spits and stretching off into bayous of rich tropical vegetation.
Sturdy cargadores were loading big lighters with bananas and dried fish, and beyond we could see the first bamboo huts of the village roofed with palm-leaves.
A few Mexican buildings were mingled with them, but they recalled the Moor, rather than the Spaniard, with their blank walls, their roof terraces, and pink arcades. There was little to do but peep into the native huts like those of South Sea Islanders, drink cocoanut milk, visit the market, where we were offered a whole bunch of bananas for fifteen cents gold, and then wander down to the beach, where the natives were swimming, riding the surf on boards like Kanakas and having a splendid time. This quiet afternoon was altogether a charming farewell to the tropics. Even the sunset, as we returned to the ship, was sufficiently lurid and full of colour to meet the requirements of the occasion, and as we stood out for the open sea it was with deep regret that we said good-bye to the heat and discomfort, the glamour and charm, of the southern seas.
Never shall I forget the romance of those nights at sea—the long talks with our captain up under the bridge, his lines from Kipling's "Seven Seas," the stars that twinkled their thousand eyes overhead, and the great calm Pacific that stretched to infinity, its broad bosom faintly heaving in its slumberous breathing.
After leaving San Blas we cut across the mouth of the Gulf of California, and toward sundown rounded the southern extremity of Cape St. Lucas. That night we crossed the tropic of Cancer. The Southern Cross, that had so long guided us, disappeared from the firmament, the North Star stood high in the heavens, and in the morning when we arose a bracing north wind greeted us.
The officers appeared dressed in navy blue instead of the white of the tropics. Activity and energy developed in the crew. Even the passengers awoke from their drowsiness, threw off the lethargy of the steamer-chairs, and took long walks forward and aft. Lower California unrolled its naked headlands, the great bluffs of Magdalena Bay arose along the sea. Sometimes the coast was low and sandy; sometimes table-lands stretched flat for miles, as if their tops had been lopped off by giant machetes; sometimes high and wicked cliffs lifted their walls along the shore, scarred and seamed, with the surf pounding along their feet. Many a good ship has foundered on this wild coast, with no lights, even to-day, to guide them in the night, with no siren to warn them in the fog, their ribs mouldering along the treacherous rock-bound shore.
Beyond Cape San Rocco and Cedro Island we passed the deep curve of Viscaino's Bay, and followed the course of that intrepid navigator, until one morning—the fourth, I think, from San Blas—the peak of Catalina Island rose above our port bow. Shoals of flying-fish frolicked in the water and, as the land drew nearer, fishing-smacks skimmed over the dancing waves, their sails bellying in the fresh westerly trades.
After the inhospitable coast of Lower California, our own shores looked verdant and animated. At night an unbroken chain of lighthouses guided our course. By day the great cliffs that skirt the sea frowned down upon us.
And then one morning, with the earliest dawn, the twinkling beam of San Benito's lighthouse lured us on, and the faint silhouette of the Farallones rose to the westward. We changed our course, coasting close in under the cliffs, and as the sun rose behind the Contra Costa hills, flooding the headlands with the glory of its effulgence, we entered the Golden Gate, and the broad waters of the bay of San Francisco opened their arms to us.