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The City of the Silver Hills | Tramping Through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras

Tramping Through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras

By Harry A. Franck
Published 1916
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10



A monotonous wide path full of loose stones led through dry, breathless jungle across the valley floor to Comayagua. The former capital of the republic had long held a place in my imagination, and the distant view of it the day before from the lofty rim of the valley backed by long blue ranges of mountains had enhanced my desire to visit the place, even though it lay somewhat off the direct route. But romance did not long survive my entrance. For the most part it was merely a larger collection of huts along badly cobbled or grass-grown streets common to all “cities” of Honduras. A stub-towered, white-washed cathedral, built by the Spaniards and still the main religious edifice of Honduras, faced the drowsy plaza; near it were a few “houses of commerce,” one-story plaster buildings before which hung a sign with the owner’s name and possibly some hint of his business, generally that of hawking a few bolts of cloth, straw hats, or ancient and fly-specked cheap products from foreign parts. The town boasted a place that openly receives travelers, but its two canvas cots and its rafters were already occupied by several snobbish and gawkily dressed young natives bound from the north coast to the capital.

The chief of telegraphs finally led me to the new billiard-hall, where a lawyer in a frock coat and the manners of a prime minister admitted he had an empty shop in which I could swing my hammock. When he had finished his game, he got a massive key and a candle and led the way in person to a small hut in a side street, the rafters uncomfortably high above the tile floor, on which I was fortunate to have a newspaper to spread before depositing my bundle. The lawyer took leave of me with the customary “At your orders; here you are in your own house,” and marched ministerially away with the several pompous friends who had accompanied him. But a few moments later, having shaken them off, he returned to collect ten cents—one real for rent and another for the candle. It was the first lodging I had paid since leaving Guatemala City. As I doubled up in my ill-hung hammock, the dull thump of a distant guitar and the explosion of a rare firecracker broke the stillness of New Year’s eve, while now and then there drifted to my ears the sound of a band in the main plaza that tortured the night at intervals into the small hours.

Comayagua by day was a lazy, silent place, chiefly barefoot, the few possessors of shoes being gaudily dressed young men whose homes were earth-floored huts. The place had the familiar Central American air of trying to live with the least possible exertion; its people were a mongrel breed running all the gamut from black to near-white. There were none of the fine physical specimens common to the highlands of Mexico, and the teeth were notably bad. A few of the soldiers, in blue-jean uniforms with what had once been white stripes, faded straw hats, and bare feet, were mountain Indians with well-developed chests; for military service—of the catch-them-with-a-rope variety—is compulsory in Honduras. But the population in general was anemic and stunted. Two prisoners were at work in the streets; more properly they sat smoking cigarettes and putting a finger cautiously to their lips when I passed in silent request not to wake up their guard, who was sound asleep on his back in the shade, his musket lying across his chest. The town had one policeman, a kinky-haired youth in a white cap and a pale light gray cotton uniform, who carried a black club and wore shoes! The cartero, or mailman, was a barefoot boy in faded khaki and an ancient straw hat, who wandered lazily and apparently aimlessly about town with the week’s correspondence in hand, reading the postals and feeling the contents of each letter with a proprietary air. The sun was brilliant and hot here in the valley, and there was an aridity that had not been suggested in the view of it from the heights above.

It was no place to spend New Year’s, however, stiff and sore though I was from the hardships of the road, and toward lazy, silent noonday I wandered on along the trail to the modern capital, hoping that it, at least, might have real beds and a hotel, and perhaps even white inhabitants. The battered old church bells were thumping as I topped the slight rise that hid the town from view, and it was four hours later that I saw or heard the next human being, or any other evidence of his existence except a stretch of barb-wire and one lone telegraph wire sagging from one crooked stick to another. The four stony dry but flat leagues along the valley floor had brought me to San Antonio, all the population of which was loafing and mildly celebrating New Year’s, as they would celebrate any other possible excuse not to work. Here I obtained water, and new directions that led me off more toward the east and the heaped-up mountains that lay between me and Tegucigalpa. On all sides spread a dry, bushy land, aching for cultivation. I had the good fortune to fall in with a river so large I was able to swim three strokes in one of its pools, and strolled with dusk into the town of Flores on the edge of the first foothills of the ranges still to be surmounted.

Though still a lazy naked village, this one showed some hint of the far-off approach of civilization. Animals were forbidden the house in which I passed the night, and its tile-floor was almost clean. This latter virtue was doubly pleasing, for the rafters above were so high that even when I had tied my hammock by the very ends of the ropes I could only climb in by mounting a chair and swinging myself up as into a trapeze; and if I must break a leg it would be some slight compensation to do so on a clean floor. How much uncleanliness this simple little 30-cent net had kept me up out of since the day I bought it in Guatemala City!

Like many of the tasks of life, this one grew easier toward its termination. A moderate day’s walk, not without rocky climbs and bajadas, but with considerable stretches of almost level going across solitary wind-cooled plains, brought me to Támara. A passing company of soldiers had all but gutted the village larder, but at dusk in the last hut I got not only food but meat, and permission to swing my hammock from the blackened rafters of the reed kitchen, over the open pots and pans. Incidentally, for the first time in Honduras prices were quadrupled in honor of my being a foreigner. Civilization indeed was approaching.

Half way up the wooded ridge beyond I met the sun mounting from the other side, fell in soon after with a real highway, and at eleven caught the first sight of Tegucigalpa, the “City of the Silver Hills,” capital of the Sovereign and Independent Republic of Honduras. It was no very astounding sight; merely what in other lands would have been considered a large village, a chiefly one-story place with a whitewashed church, filling only a small proportion of a somewhat barren valley surrounded by high rocky and partly wooded hills. I marched down through Comayagüela in all the disreputableness of fifteen days on the trail, across the little bridge of a few arches over a shallow river which to Honduraneans far and wide is one of the greatest works of man, and into the park-like little central plaza, with its huge arbor of purple bourgainvillea.

The “Hotel Jockey Club” was not all that the imagination might have pictured, but at least there Was the satisfaction of knowing that any stranger in town, be he “gringo” or president-elect, famous or infamous, rich or honest, could stop nowhere else. Among its luxuries was a “bath,” which turned out to be a massive stone vessel in the basement with a drizzle of cold water from a faucet above that was sure to run dry about the time the victim was well soaped; its frontiersman rooms were furnished with little more than weak-kneed canvas cots, and the barefoot service of the dining-room was assisted by all the dogs, fowls, and flies of the region. But there lay two hungry weeks of Central American trail behind me and for days to come I ate unquestioningly anything that came within reach of my fingers, of whatever race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Just around the corner—as everything is in this miniature capital—the American Legation delivered the accumulated mail of a month, and the pair of real shoes I had had the happy thought of sending to myself here months before. This bit of foresight saved me from hobbling on to the coast barefoot. I had arrived just in time to attend one of Tegucigalpa’s gala events, the inspection of her newly reformed police force. “It is set for three,” said the legation secretary, “so come around about three-thirty.” Just around another corner we entered toward four the large dusty patio of a one-story building of mud blocks, against the adobe wall of which were lined up something over a hundred half-frightened, half-proud Honduranean Indians in brand new, dark-blue uniforms and caps, made in Germany, and armed with black night-sticks and large revolvers half-hidden in immense holsters. We took the places of honor reserved for us at a bench and table under the patio veranda beside the chief of police, an American soldier of fortune named Lee Christmas. He was a man nearing fifty, totally devoid of all the embroidery of life, golden toothed and graying at the temples, but still hardy and of youthful vigor, of the dress and manner of a well-paid American mechanic, who sat chewing his black cigar as complacently as if he were still at his throttle on the railroad of Guatemala. Following the latest revolution he had reorganized what, to use his own words, had been “a bunch of barefooted apes in faded-blue cotton rags” into the solemn military company that was now to suffer its first formal inspection. The native secretary, standing a bit tremulously in the edge of the shade, called from the list in his hand first the name of Christmas himself, then that of the first assistant, and his own, he himself answering “present” for each of these. Next were the commanders, clerks, under-secretaries, and the like in civilian garb, each, as his name was pronounced, marching past us hat in hand and bowing profoundly. Last came the policemen in uniform. As the secretary read his title and first name, each self-conscious Indian stepped stiffly forth from the ranks, throwing a foot, heavy with the unaccustomed shoe, high in the air and pounding the earth in the new military style taught him by a willowy young native in civilian dress who leaned haughtily on his cane watching every movement, made a sharp-cornered journey about the sun-flooded yard and bringing up more or less in front of his dreaded chief, gave a half turn, raised the right leg to the horizontal with the grace of an aged ballet dancer long since the victim of rheumatism, brought it down against the left like the closing of a heavy trapdoor, saluted with his night-stick and huskily called out his own last name, which Christmas checked off on the list before him without breaking the thread of the particular anecdote with which he chanced at that moment to be entertaining us.

“I tried to get ’em to cut out this —— —— German monkey business of throwing their feet around,” confided the chief sadly, “but it’s no use, for it’s in the —— —— military manual.”

Judged by Central American standards the force was well trained. But the poor Indians and half-breeds that made up its bulk were so overwhelmed with the solemnity of the extraordinary occasion that they were even more ox-like in their clumsiness and nearer frightened apes in demeanor than in their native jungles. The quaking fear of making a mis-step caused them to keep their eyes riveted on the lips of our compatriot, from which, instead of the words of wrath they no doubt often imagined, issued some such remark as:

“Why —— —— it, W——, one of the bums I picked up along the line one day in Guatemala told me the best —— —— yarn that—”

Nor could they guess that the final verdict on the great ceremony that rang forth on the awe-struck silence as the chief rose to his feet was:

“Well, drop around to my room in the hotel when you want to hear the rest of it. But if you see the sign on my door,’ Ladies Only To-day,’ don’t knock. The chambermaid may not have finished her official visit.”

The climate of Tegucigalpa leaves little to be desired. Otherwise it is merely a large Central American village of a few thousand inhabitants, with much of the indifference, uncleanliness, and ignorance of the rest of the republic. Priests are numerous, wandering about smoking their cigarettes and protected from the not particularly hot sun by broad hats and umbrellas. One lonely little native sheet masquerades as a newspaper, the languid little shops, often owned by foreigners, offer a meager and ancient stock chiefly imported and all high in price; for it takes great inducement to make the natives produce anything beyond the corn and beans for their own requirements. The “national palace” is a green, clap-boarded building, housing not only the president and his little reception-room solemn with a dozen chairs in cotton shrouds, but congress, the ministry, and the “West Point of Honduras,” the superintendent of which was a native youth who had spent a year or two at Chapultepec. Against it lean barefooted, anemic “soldiers” in misfit overalls, armed with musket and bayonet that overtop them in height. The main post-office of the republic is an ancient adobe hovel, in the cobwebbed recesses of which squat a few stupid fellows waiting for the mule-back mail-train to arrive that they may lock up in preparation for beginning to look over the correspondence mañana. It is not the custom to make appointments in Tegucigalpa. If one resident desires the presence of another at dinner, or some less excusable function, he wanders out just before the hour set until he picks up his guest somewhere. By night the town is doubly dead. The shops put up their wooden shutters at dusk, the more energetic inhabitants wander a while about the cobbled streets, dim-lighted here and there by arc-lights, the cathedral bells jangle at intervals like suspended pieces of scrap-iron, arousing a chorus of barking dogs, and a night in which two blankets are comfortable settles down over all the mountainous, moon-flooded region. There is not even the imitation of a theater, the plaza concert on Sunday evenings, in which the two sexes wander past each other in opposite directions for an hour or two, being the only fixed recreation. A man of infinite patience, or who had grown old and weary of doing, might find Tegucigalpa agreeable; but it would soon pall on the man still imbued with living desires.

The fitting shield of Honduras would be one bearing as motto that monotonous phrase which greets the traveler most frequently along her trails, “No hay.” The country is noted chiefly for what “there is not.” Everywhere one has the impression of watching peculiarly stupid children playing at being a republic. The nation is a large farm in size and a poorly run one in condition. The wave of “liberty” that swept over a large part of the world after the French Revolution left these wayward and not over-bright inhabitants of what might be a rich and fertile land to play at governing themselves, to ape the forms of real republics, and mix them with such childish clauses as come into their infantile minds. The chief newspaper of the republic resembles a high-school periodical, concocted by particularly thick-headed students without faculty assistance or editing. A history of their childish governmental activities would fill volumes. In 1910 all the copper one-centavo coins were called in and crudely changed to two-centavo pieces by surcharging the figure 2 and adding an s, a much smaller one-centavo coin being issued. The “government” may have made as much as $50 by the transaction. Not long before my arrival, the current postage-stamps, large quantities of which had been bought by foreign firms within the country, were suddenly declared worthless, and the entire accumulated correspondence for the next steamer returned to the senders, instead of at least being forwarded to destination under excess charges. Foreigners established the first factory Tegucigalpa had ever known, which was already employing a half-hundred of the pauperous inhabitants in the making of candles, when the “government” suddenly not only put a heavy duty on stearine but required the payment of back duty on all that had already been imported. An Englishman came down from the mines of San Juancito embued with the desire to start a manual-training school in the capital. He called on the mulatto president and offered his services free for a year, if the government would invest $5000 in equipment. The president told him to come back mañana. On that elusive day he was informed that the government had no such sum at its disposal,

“I have saved up $2500 myself,” replied the Englishman, “which I will lend the government for the purpose, if it will add a like amount.”

But when mañana came again, the president expressed his regrets that the national treasury could not endure such a strain.

The best view of Tegucigalpa is had from Picacho, a long ridge from back in the mountains, ending in a blunt nose almost sheer above the city. Whoever climbs it recognises the reason for the native saying, “He who holds Picacho sleeps in the palace.” Its town-side face is almost precipitous, and on every hand spread rolling, half-bare upland mountains. All but sheer below, in the lowest depression of the visible world, sits the little capital, rather compact in the center, then scattered along the little river and in the suburb of Comayaguela beyond it. The dull-red tile roofs predominate, and the city is so directly below that one can see almost to the bottom of every tree-grown patio. A few buildings are of two stories, and the twin-towers of the little white cathedral stand somewhat above the general level. But most noticeable of any is the fact that all the vast broken plain surrounding it far and wide lies almost entirely uncultivated, for the most part neither cleared nor inhabited, crossed by several roads and trails, most conspicuous of all the two white ribbons by one of which I had arrived from the north and the other of which was already inviting me onward to the coast and new climes.

A fellow-gringo, bound for the Pacific exit on a miniature horse, packed away my baggage on his cargo mule and left me to walk unhampered. A highway some fifty feet wide and white with dust struck off uncertainly toward the southwest, a splendid highway once, built for automobiles by the combined efforts of the government and an American mining company farther up in the hills, but now suffered to fall here and there into a disrepair that made it as useless for such traffic as a mountain trail. The first day of thirty miles brought us to Sabana Grande, with a species of hotel. During the second, there were many down-grade short-cuts, full of loose stones and dusty dry under the ever warmer sun, with the most considerable bridge in Honduras over the Pasoreal River, and not a few stiff climbs to make footsore my entrance into the village of Pespire. Here was a house that frankly and openly displayed the sign “Restaurante,” in a corner of which travelers of persuasive manners might be furnished tijeras, scissor-legged canvas cots on which to toss out the night; for Pespire is far below Tegucigalpa and on the edge of the blazing tropics.

For which reason we rose at three to finish the half-day of sea-level country left us. The stars hung brilliant and a half moon lighted up a way that was hot even at this hour. From sunrise on huge lizards scurried up among the wayside rocks as we passed, and sat torpid, staring at us with their lack-luster eyes. Natives wearing spurs on their hoof-like bare feet rode by us now and then, and mule-trains or screaming wooden carts crawled past on their way up to the capital. All traffic between Tegucigalpa and the outside world passes either over this route or the still longer trail from Puerto Cortez, on the north coast, from which a toy railroad limps a few miles inland before losing its courage and turning back. By daylight the fantastic ranges of the interior had disappeared and the last low foothill soon left us to plod on straight across a dust-dry sandy plain with brown withered grass and mesquite bushes, among which panted scores of cattle. Honduras runs so nearly down to a point on its Pacific side that the mountains of both Salvador and Nicaragua stood out plainly to the right and left.

By sweltering ten we were swimming in the Pacific before the scattered village of San Lorenzo, though there was visible only a little arm of the sea shut in by low bushy islands. It was our good fortune not to have to charter by telegraph and at the expense of a Honduranean fortune means of transportation to the island port of Amapala; for before we could seek the shelter of our sun-faded garments a launch put in for a party that had been forming for several days past. The passengers included a shifty-eyed old priest in charge of two nuns, the rules of whose order forbade them to speak to men, and the mozo of an influential Honduranean who had shot a man the night before and was taking advantage of his master’s personal friendship with the judge of the district. The launch wound between bushy banks and came out at last on a rich-blue bay shut off in the far distance by several jagged black volcanic islands, toward one of which it wheezed a hot and monotonous three hours. This was “Tiger’s Island,” named evidently from the one moth-eaten specimen that had once been landed here by a passing circus. At a narrow wooden wharf of this we at length gradually tied up. Ragged, barefoot soldiers stopped us to write our pedigrees, as if we were entering some new country, and addressed us in monkey signs instead of the Spanish of which experience had convinced them all traveling foreigners were ignorant.

Amapala is a species of outdoor prison to which all travelers to or from Honduras on the Pacific side are sentenced for a term varying in length according to their luck, which is generally bad. Those who do not sleep in the park toss out their imprisonment on a bedstead of woven ropes in a truly Honduranean building that disguises itself under the name of “Hotel Morazán,” the slatternly keeper of which treats her helpless inmates with the same consideration as any other prison warden devoid of humanity or oversight. The steamer I awaited was due before I arrived, but day after day I lay marooned on the blazing volcanic rock without a hint as to its whereabouts. Not even exercise was possible, unless one cared to race up and down the sharp jagged sides of the sea-girt volcano. The place ranks high as an incubator of malignant fevers and worse ailments, and to cap the climax the ice-machine was broken down. It always is, if the testimony of generations of castaways is to be given credence. Our only available pastime was to buy a soap-boxful of oysters, at the cost of a quarter, and sit in the narrow strip of shade before the “hotel” languidly opening them with the only available corkscrew, our weary gaze fixed on the blue arm of water framed by the shimmering hot hills of Salvador by which tradition had it ocean craft sometimes came to the rescue.

But all things have an end, even life imprisonment, and with the middle of January we awoke one morning to find a steamer anchored in the foreground of the picture that had seared itself into our memories. All day long half-naked natives’ waded lazily back and forth from the beach to the clumsy tenders, exchanging the meager products of the country for ill-packed merchandise from my own. Night settled down over their unfinished task, the self-same moon came out and the woven-rope cots again creaked and groaned under unwilling guests. But by noon next day we had swung our hammocks under the awning of the forecastlehead and were off along the tropical blue Pacific for Panama.