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The New York Times, May 13, 1888, p.10:


    RETALHULEN, Guatemala, April 18.--The Pacific coast of Central America is one of the most picturesque in the world. Traveling north from Panama in the fine steamers of the Pacific Mail one is never out of sight of land and seldom more than a mile or two from the coast. The interminable and monotonous sandy beach of Florida is recalled as a tiresome dream as one passes the bold rocky headlands and beautiful green skirted bays of the Pacific.

    There are no harbors from Panama to Acapulco except the little land-locked bay of Corinto, which was first selected as the western terminus of the Nicaragua Canal. This town is built on a sand spit almost connecting with the rocky bluff of the south side of the harbor, and had the sand bar been extended a few hundred feet further the harbor would have been a lake.
    Though baking under the tropical sun, the town still affords a refreshing sensation to the traveler--the streets are lined with banana trees and coco palms, whose immense green leaves are swayed to and fro by the gentle sea breeze. Its population of about 500 souls is engaged in exporting fruit and in forwarding the small quantities of sugar and coffee which pass through their hands.

    Continuing north and westerly one passes La Libertad, the only port of San Salvador, then San José de Guatemala, and finally arrives at Champerico, the outlet of the central and northern part of Guatemala. These three ports have long iron piers jutting straight out into the ocean, not that steamers may touch at them, the water is too shallow for that, but that passengers and merchandise may be transferred far enough from shore to escape the heavy surf.

    Descending from the main deck, the passenger seats himself in a chair, is swung out into space, and by rope and pulley is lowered into a launch, to be rowed to the pier. These launches are flat-bottomed scows, about 40 feet long and 12 feet wide, rowed by 20 almost naked Indians, who use long sweeps or oars. In 20 minutes you have reached the end of the pier, the launch is made fast, and a circular iron cage is lowered, into which you enter, and you are hoisted to the top, about 50 feet, thanking God as you step out on to the pier that you have not gone to the bottom of the Pacific during some of the clumsy manipulation you have been obliged to undergo.

    There is no hotel at Champerico, but the train of the little narrow gauge railroad always awaits the steamer's arrival, and you are taken to Retalhulen, a town about 24 miles to the east, the other terminus of the road. This ride is gradually up grade through dense forests and that heavy, luxuriant undergrowth everywhere found in damp, tropical districts.

    It was in this short ride that I received a deep impression regarding traveling companions in Guatemala. Among the passengers from Panama was a very well-to-to Chinaman, a diamond broker, who seemed to be a very companionable sort of man, speaking English and Spanish fluently. Owing to the great heat he was comfortably dressed in a thin linen suit, and caused much amusement on the steamer by his dexterous and novel use of the fan, by fanning any portion of his body which felt warm, from his head to his feet.
    Shortly after the train started, Belisario, for that was his name, entered the car and took his seat alongside of a stranger. I judge the two were not speaking acquaintances, for no conversation passed between them. When approaching Retalhulen Belisario got up and went forward to the baggage-car, and in so doing a handsome silver-plated and pearl-handled revolver dropped from his loosely-fitting clothes, unnoticed by him, on to the seat he had occupied. Its glitter caught the eye of the other occupant of the seat, a dark native, who, by very careful and slow movement, picked it up and put it in his own pocket.
    In a few moments Belisario returned, looking along the floor as if he had lost something and was searching for it; finally reaching his old seat, he explained to the other occupant that he had lost his revolver and asked him if he had seen it. The other said "No," and they continued the search together, but in vain. I was a quiet spectator of the whole transaction, said nothing, and concluded that I would not care to have that or some other weapon used on me some dark night for playing amateur detective.

    Retalhulen is built upon a circular mesa about three-quarters of a mile in diameter, gently sloping on all sides to lower country, thus affording excellent natural drainage, which has not been aided artificially in any way. The altitude is about 1,000 feet above the sea, and, having cooling showers throughout the year, the town and country are ever beautifully and freshly green. The population is about 10,000, one-half being pure Indians, the other half ladinos (mixture of Indian and Spaniard) and foreigners engaged in forwarding and commission business and in agencies having branch houses in this country.

    Five years ago, before the Champerico Railroad was built, Retalhulen was one of the busiest towns of Central America. Four hundred carts of two oxen each were engaged in the carrying trade between there and Champerico. In this nearly 500 men were employed, and their wages amounting to about $1,500 per week, were spent in the town for food, clothing, and other supplies. The road to the port was always lined with loaded carts--everything was busy, smiling, and prosperous.
    The advent of the railroad killed this industry--the carts disappeared, the laborers scattered to get work where they could, and in this Retalhulen suffered to the extent of $6,000 of business every month.

    Nor has the railroad in any way benefited the country through which it runs. In the United States a railroad aids a wild country through which it is put; stations spring up at short intervals, surrounded by little towns; wagon roads are built; the railroad becomes the outlet of a rich farming country, and at the same time its fountain of supply.
    Here all is different, that stretch of 24 miles is as deserted to-day as it was 50 years ago, and with the exception of one small Indian town, Rosario, near Champerico, not a settlement has been formed and not a single house built.

    As you approach Retalhulen it appears one mass of tropical foliage; now and then tall banana trees and palms push up their lofty heads' here and there peers out the low red roof of an adobe house. All of the houses are adobe, and very few are more than one story high, and in those of recent build the thatched roof has given way to a roof of tejas.
    These are vertical sections of cylinders of red clay baked in the sun. They are placed like shingles on the sloping sides of the roof, and look like many flower pots of the same size laid on their sides and each one slightly overlapping its next lower neighbor. This makes a most excellent and water-tight roof. The dark red of tejado or roof, in contrast with the adobe or mud-colored brick, produces an effect so pleasing that it must be seen to be appreciated.

    Passing out of the town into the suburbs you find yourself in the Indian quarter of thatch houses, or ranchos, as they are called. A framework of poles is first erected; then, beginning at the bottom, plates of straw about three inches thick are fastened to the framework; row after row is thus fastened on until the ridge pole is reached, and the joint there is covered by caps of straw to shed water.
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    The Maya civilization flourished in Guatemala and surrounding regions during the first millennium A.D. After almost three centuries as a Spanish colony, Guatemala won its independence in 1821.

    During the second half of the 20th century, it experienced a variety of military and civilian governments as well as a 36-year guerrilla war.

    In 1996, the government signed a peace agreement formally ending the conflict, which had led to the death of more than 100,000 people and had created some 1 million refugees.
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click for satellite pic-map of Retalhuleu, Guatemala
Latitude: 14.537394 Longitude: -91.680222
    Ranchos have earthen floors; the fireplace is in one corner, the smoke making its escape where it may; for bedsteads the Indian plants four upright posts, with joining crosspieces; on these saplings are laid, and on this he rolls himself up in his blanket. But it is a very fastidious Indian who cares to sleep on anything but the ground. The woman is generally at home sewing or cooking; the husband and well-grown children are away doing what work they may have...

    The plaza is about in the centre of the town, and marketing being a daily duty in this hot climate it is crowded as early as 7 A. M. with vendors of all sorts of produce, who may have traveled many miles from their small farms to sell or trade to advantage. To a delicate stomach a beefsteak, no matter how tender and juicy, might not be a tempting dish after seeing huge joints of badly butchered beef in baskets on the ground, covered with swarms of large flies, and every now and then receiving a slap from the Indian butcher's dirty hand, very much as he would heartily caress a large dog.
    By tacit agreement the plaza is divided into sections--here for instance, will be poultry, there vegetables, &c. Live chickens, ducks, and turkeys are all crowded in together, and all seem to be conversing angrily with their neighbors, and in the pig quarter you can hear a dozen squealing in no amiable tones, and emphasizing each squeal with a vicious jerk of tied hind legs as if they objected to that restraint. Women seated tailor fashion on the ground selling corn, frijoes, flour, onions, cloths of Indian manufacture, blankets, and nearly everything the country produces.

    The fruits can hardly be surpassed anywhere. You may choose from the banana of the coast to the apple and peach grown further inland at an altitude of 6,000 and 7,000 feet, for by altitude you may grow the same fruits and vegetables that are secured by change of latitude.
    The cheapness of fruit is astonishing to one accustomed to fruit rates in the United States. Once when traveling in an orange district with a party of three we stopped to buy oranges. We gave the man 2 reals, 25 cents, and said we wanted oranges; but he said: "What are you going to carry them in?" We said: "Never mind, we will take them as they are; we can carry them." "No, you cannot," said he, "you'll want a sack." He gave us 85 fine large oranges.

    The grenadia, a delicious fruit, resembles the pomegranite in size, but is more elongated in shape. It is filled with glutinous-covered green seeds and sweet juice of most delicate flavor. To eat this fruit the shell is broken at the top as one would do with an egg. This leaves a cup to hold the seeds and juice, which can then be eaten as if from an ordinary cup. This fruit grows only in very hot localities, and is greatly prized by the natives, because no matter how hot the weather may be the juice is always delightfully cool. After a long, hot ride under a burning sun I know of nothing more grateful to the parched throat than the grenadia.
    He who eats the pineapple in the United States must eat one which has been picked very green, and he does not get the true, sweet flavor. The golden-colored sugar pineapple is a superior to the ordinary exported class as the ox-heart cherry is to his wild brother.

    Through the kindness of Señor Don Roque Sonza, the agent of the Pacific Mail and the principal business man of the place, I was enabled to see the town most thoroughly. Were it not for the natural drainage I believe the entire population would be swept off by typhoid and other fevers, in such filth do they live. Their interior courtyards are worse than the dirtiest pig stys in appearance, and have an odor that is worse than any slaughterhouse.
    There are no sanitary precautions. Indians use the streets and sidewalks, when there are any, for all purposes, but this is not confined to Retalhulen, many other Central American towns are no better. The streets are wretchedly paved with cobblestones, and after a rain you must hop and skip from one little island to another if you do not care to wade in mud.

The Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index shows that $1 in 1888 was equivalent to $22.79 in 2007 dollars.

The New York Times, May 17, 1888, p. 10:




    QUEZALTENANGO, Guatemala, April 30.--A traveler who spends more than a day in Retalhulen [Retalhuleu] loses time; but it requires nearly a week to get away to the beautiful surrounding country, because mañana, tomorrow, is on the end of nearly everybody's tongue. Ask a servant in a hotel for soap, and you are lucky if you get it before mañana.
    So it was with me in getting saddle and pack mules; they were promised for six consecutive mañanas, and even that length of time produced very sad-looking animals, and it was a close question whether riding or walking would be better.

    An ordinary whip or rawhide will not animate a Guatemala mule; that requires a spur with a sharp rowel of a "butter-plate size." Early one morning I made start for San Sebastian, an Indian town only five miles distant, over a level road.
    I got my mule there in three hours, and I am sure I had more exercise than he had. It seemed to me that he had been there before and had not liked it, but after a while we got used to each other and got along very well--I gave in completely, stopped driving my spurs and let him have his own way. This gave me time to enjoy the scenery, and to examine the many queer and fantastic Indian costumes one sees on every well-traveled road of the republic.

    The pueblo of San Sebastian is a thoroughly Indian town of 6,000 or 7,000 souls. A few years ago they would not tolerate a ladino or "mixed" Indian in their town, and though lately they have become more liberal, yet that prejudice has not entirely disappeared, and even to-day the civil authorities are often called upon to settle difficulties arising from that cause.
    All of the houses are built of straw, i.e., thatched houses, with a very praiseworthy endeavor to run the streets at right angles, but, like poor Con in "The Shaugbraun," if the old Indian engineer could not look crooked himself he certainly succeeded in making his streets look so.

    A small white-tailed variety of deer abounds in this low country, and these Indians, as a consequence, are hunters. Nearly all have shotguns and rifles of great antiquity, which they use with considerable skill, even if they do prefer to creep close to their game rather than trust too much to their weapon.

    Many old and curious customs prevail. For instance, it is a town regulation that whenever a man's house burns down, the whole population must turn out to help him rebuild it, and for many years this ordinance was conscientiously observed, but with the increase of knowledge and the fruitfulness of quiet thought an Indian might regard his house in poor condition or not fit for him to live in, so he would commit arson and force his townsmen to build a new house to replace the old one. Fires increased with great rapidity, and very soon the entire population became no more than a community of builders, without the power to strike. The wise old men got together, and now I understand that an investigating committee is always appointed to determine the origin of fires, and, as a consequence, the fire rate has greatly decreased.

    Many of the Indians are weavers and pottery makers. The cloths they produce are very pretty brightly-colored fabrics, beautifully embroidered in cotton or silks as the wearer may desire. The shirt of their costume is made like a square bag, with a hole for the head and holes for the arms, and when the skirt is fastened around the waist with their pretty belts the lower part of the skirt becomes a petticoat.
    Dress a prettily-shaped and well-washed Indian girl in this costume, give her a bright turban, and let her balance the earthen water jar gracefully on her head, and you have a picture not soon to be forgotten; and yet they seem to be unaware how picturesque they look.

    In the "Semana Santa," or Holy Week, these Indians will not work, and during this time they eat nothing but bread and honey, not as a penance, but because they like it.
    The city of Quezaltenango, about 12 leagues distant, is where they buy their bread for this week. They can buy just as good bread and just as cheap in Retalhulen, only five miles away, but they cannot be persuaded to buy elsewhere than in Quezaltenango.

    Each Indian has his plot of corn, frijoles, and banana and plantain trees, and truly as a class they need not work unless they are so inclined. They are experts in managing banana trees. A tree once started, its roots spread in every direction, and the root is said to have hijos, sons, because from many different points on the original root will spring up little banana trees. These the Indian carefully detaches from the main root and the "son," being transplanted in some favorable spot, soon becomes the father of many more, &c.
    A banana tree, from the time it appears, requires twelve months to produce a bunch of fruit and it bears but once. When the bunch, which appears at the very top of the tree, is fully developed, the Indian, using a sharp-pointed stick, gradually cuts through the trunk and heart of the tree until the weight of the bunch of bananas draws the summit near enought to the ground to permit gathering; this done, the tree is allowed to rot on the ground.
    Cutting through the tree with a pointed stick is a slow process, but an Indian will never cut down a banana tree with his machete, or long steel knife, for a superstition exists that steel coming into contact with the sap of the tree ruins the flavor of the fruit to be gathered.

    The "magney" plant also grows abundantly in this neighborhood, and of this rope is made for the whole republic. It is a species of cactus, much resembling the century plant, and when ripe for use a large stalk, about 20 feet high and 6 inches in diameter puts up from the root and looks like a gigantic piece of asparagus. The leaves are heavy, thick, and fibrous, which when dried in the sun expose the strong threads ready to be twisted into rope.
    It seems strange that no advantage has ever been taken of the banana leaf. It is the same as the other in composition, but it is not so thick and would require less time to dry.

    The part of Guatemala we are now in is called the "Costa Cuea," and from San Sebastian to San Felipe, ten miles away and near the mountains, the road passes through a succession of coffee plantations.
    To one not familiar with it, it [the coffee plant] would appear to be a bright, fresh-leaved tree of a rather rich and glossy green, but with its limbs covered with a parasitical green growth resembling small acorns, which illusion is dispelled when the regular rows of trees are seen and the careful cultivation of the ground noted. While great care must be taken of the coffee tree, it is not a circumstance to that required by the cacao plant, which much resembles it.

    Cacao, or in English cocoa, the source of chocolate, is more abundantly grown in Ecuador than in any other portion of this hemisphere, and the Guayaquil cocoa of commerce commands a price in Guatemala City of $18 per "carga," or 60 pounds, so it may be seen that it is a valuable crop. The cocoa of Guatemala is a much finer variety and sells for $35 per carga, right here in the country, but the amount raised is not sufficient for home consumption, and but little of it finds its way into the outside world.
    The plant has so many natural enemies that many finqueros are deterred from attempting its cultivation. The tree is planted from the seeds, which are no sooner put in the ground than a large ant searches for them and ruins many; when the tree appears and is about three feet tall, deer, attracted by the richness of the leaf, risk their lives for a feed of it; when these dangers are past and the fruit appears, squirrels come to eat it in large numbers and any decent-sized cacaotal must have two huntsmen to kill squirrels. Thus it may be seen that chocolate is a universal favorite.
    During this time the ground must be as well weeded and cleaned as a Chinaman's kitchen garden. And in addition to this each cocoa tree requires a madre or mother, which is a shade tree planted for its own particular use. With such great care necessary, it is not strange that many prefer coffee planting.

    And it occurs to me how few who sit sipping Maillard's or Mennier's chocolate ever give a thought or ever know of the immense labor of its production! On the other hand it has its advantages, for while a coffee tree is fairly on the down grade to worthlessness after bearing eight years, the cocoa tree is said to bear abundantly for 75 years, and even more. Some cacaotals near the frontier of San Salvador are so old that the oldest Indians testify that they were flourishing plantations when they were children, and the trees bear as well today as ever.
    The coffee estates near San Felipe were nearly all planted at the same time, every available space was utilized, consequently they all failed at the same time, and San Felipe, from being a thriving, busy town, became but a place to live in, and I failed to see its attractions even in that respect. When the coffee trees failed many finqueros planted sugar cane. This requires, from planting to maturity, only nine months, but is not so profitable as coffee.

    The cocoa fruit as it appears on the tree is a pear-shaped green mass about nine inches long, and in circumference not so large as the average pineapple. The inside of this pulpy sheath is divided into cells, about 20, each containing one cocoa berry. Children and women are employed to prepare it for market, and it is not a sight which would induce one to be anxious to drink the cocoa he has seen cleaned.
    Each berry is surrounded in its cell by a sweet, pasty brown and greasy substance which the Indians like, so each berry goes into an Indian's mouth, where the sweet coating is sucked off and chewed, but this in reality does not affect the berry, because under the brown paste there is a parchment-like shell which is impervious to the Indian's saliva, and comes off only in the roasting, leaving the inside meat pure.

    A marked difference is apparent between the true Indian of the Indian town and the one who has much contact with whites and ladinos. The former is always respectful and polite and he is a natural gentleman. He never approaches you to speak without removing his hat and bowing low, and he never retires without excusing himself until me may return. The latter is usually disrespectful and of an insolent disposition--eager to take every undue advantage of his master's leniency and has to be taught by the generous use of a club. The ordinary feelings of the human heart are unknown to him. You can govern him, and govern him well, by simply causing him to fear you.
    The art of lying is unknown in the United States when compared with the state of perfection it has reached among some of these Indian tribes. You may tell an individual in your employ to do a certain thing, but you must accompany him to see that he does it, because if he does not feel like doing it he will come back and lie about it. Hit one of them with your fist or kick him out of your house, and he will complain to the nearest Alcalde, and will have twenty witnesses to swear that they saw you beat him with a club until he lay insensible in his own blood, and this though they may have been miles away at the time.

    Even among Indians, the Government has made a civil marriage necessary, and by law this must be performed before the priest can perform the religious ceremony. After both forms have been complied with, the guests repair to the bride's home, each bringing a basket to carry home a share of the wedding supper. The bridegroom supplies the whiskey, and a villainous compound it is. Connoisseurs say it contains more "head" than any alcoholic drink in existence.
    The bride is dressed in bright colors, the finery of her entire family being loaned to her for the day of her adornment. Over her head, as a marriage veil, she wears a white coarse muslin poncho.
    A large table is set, and the plates are filled with sweet things and other eatables considered appropriate for a wedding. After congratulating the happy pair, the guests assemble around the table and drink whiskey "straight," but by custom they are not permitted to eat a mouthful, though toothpicks are supplied, and they content themselves by picking their teeth between drinks. The debauch continues until there is no more whiskey, when each family empties its plates of food into its own basket to be eaten on arriving at home, but the plates are replaced on the table, and the bride's mother carefully counts them before she allows any guests to depart.

    Funeral processions are proceeded by the marimba, a native musical instrument which much resembles a xylophone. The coffin is placed on a litter carried on men's shoulders, followed by the immediate family of the deceased and the general mourners. Sometimes, as in the case of a child, the corpse is dressed in white, propped up to make it appear to be standing, and surrounded with flowers.
    If the mother's grief for the loss of her little one is too great to permit her to follow in the funeral cortége she hires a chief mourner who follows in the rear of all, beating her breast, making every outward sign of grief, and uttering most heartrending cries. I have seen many funerals accompanied by these hired chief mourners, and if piercing shrieks and mournful moans are what they are paid for, in every case they well earned their hire.

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