The boats remained here until morning, and the passengers distributed themselves over the two boats and thus diminished the crowd. There were no berths. Luckily I had bought a hammock of a virgin at Virgin City, and more luckily Captain Merry had had a nice lunch put up for us. We opened it at midnight after a fast of twenty-one hours.
At daylight the rest of the passengers were transferred and we went down the river two miles to some rapids. Here we got off and walked around the rapids, some two or three hundred yards—a railroad with rude horse cars carries the baggage. This is at Castillo and Castillo Viejo, two little towns, with a curious mud fort on the hill just above. This was Tuesday, November 29. The rainy season had not finished, and it rained part of the day—hot, steamy showers. The shallow river, the rich and varied shades of green in the forests, the strange forms and species, the gorgeous colors of flowers, the great masses of rich foliage and festoons of vines, screaming parrots and paroquets and other birds of brilliant plumage, monkeys jumping about on the trees and chattering at the steamer as it passed, lazy alligators lying alongshore and tumbling into the water at shots from pistols, scaly iguanas almost as brilliantly colored as the flowers themselves—all these sights and sounds, not to mention the smells, told us we were in another clime from that of our homes. It brought back all the old stories I had ever read of tropical countries, of Spanish adventure, and the romance of Central America.
We got into the harbor at Greytown, or San Juan del Norte, after dark. Some of the passengers went ashore, but I stayed on board. I bought some bananas and bread for supper and got a good night’s rest in my hammock.
We slept on the ship [last] night and were off at dawn for Virgin City. Our party was about a dozen—all the rest had crossed the day before or in the night. We presented an imposing appearance. Ahead was your humble servant on a poor mule, who went better than he looked, his nose (the mule’s not the writer’s) begirt with a hackamore which answered as a bridle, and with curious native saddle in which it was hard to see which predominated, wood, rawhide, or straw—a small American flag fastened on his umbrella floated to the morning breeze. Next came Higby, M. C. from California, a capital fellow; next Captain Roberts, a millionaire from California, also a capital fellow; then Captain Merry of the America. Not the least of the party was Ossian E. Dodge, the concert singer, on a poor horse, a great linen coat fluttering, and a bunch of bananas hung to his saddle, which every few rods left one of their number along the road, so he had scarcely any when he got through.
As we crossed the summit Lake Nicaragua came in view, with its deep, blue waters, its rich shores, and its sharp volcanic cones. We arrived at Virgin City in due time. All the passengers were there, and soon the whole of the baggage had arrived. Baggage is hauled over on carts of the most primitive character—the wheels cut from some big trees, no iron used in their construction, only wood and rawhide—four or six oxen hitched to each by yokes that are strapped before the horns.
At noon we were on the lake steamer City of Leon and the minute the last baggage was on board the boat left the wharf, leaving behind thirteen passengers who had been tardy without excuse—the brutal captain would not even send a boat for them. They shouted wildly on the wharf, scarcely thirty feet from us, but all in vain—they were left at that miserable hole for a whole month, all because of the bullheaded stubbornness of Captain Hart of that steamer. The passengers will have no redress, of course, as it was owing mostly to their own carelessness that they were left. Nearly a thousand of us were crowded on that boat, with bad food and but little of it, and berths for about one hundred.
The lake is about a hundred miles long by twenty or twenty-five wide. In the middle, on an island, are two volcanic cones rising from the water to 4,200 and 5,100 feet, respectively—perfectly sharp and regular. We ran down the lake about fifty miles before we entered the River San Juan. Toward the foot of the lake are many small rocky islands, all covered with rich vegetation. We continued down the river some miles after dark until we got to where the water was too shallow for our boat, when we came to a little river steamer.
[Today] we ran down close to the land all the morning and before noon anchored in the little harbor of San Juan del Sur, where we landed in launches.
The transit company was on hand with wagons, horses, and mules to transport the passengers to Virgin Bay, on Lake Nicaragua, twelve miles distant. Our little group of six or eight, called by envious passengers “The Committee,” had taken means to get good animals, ordered for half-past one. Captain Merry of the America was to go with us. For five tedious hours we waited in the heat for those animals. We could not go out for fear they would come, for they were often promised in a few minutes. Well, the animals did not come until night, and we found out that we could leave [tomorrow] morning and reach the lake steamer in time, so we went back on board the America…
First, however, we looked around the village. Houses were scattered here and there among the trees, without any order, and of very primitive construction. The furniture is very scanty, and the people live very simply….They appear to be the genuine descendants of the aboriginal natives, with but little foreign blood intermingled. The women appear finer than the men, and many of them struck me as decidedly beautiful—too dark for brunettes, yet not black—complexions rich and soft, lips well set, magnificent teeth, large and liquid black or hazel eyes—hair long and flowing, fine as silk and gently wavy or straight, which they had put up in the neatest manner—fine forms, which their very thin dresses showed off to good advantage. The climate is such that dress is worn merely as a matter of taste and decency rather than for warmth. That of the men consists of pants and shirt, that of the women consists of a very thin skirt extending to the ankles, and a jacket or sack which hangs over the skirt. They go bareheaded, or with a gay, light shawl thrown over the head. Such are the natives of Nicaragua as I saw them in three towns—San Juan del Sur, Virgin City, and Castillo Viejo.
Along the coast of Central America the grand volcanic cones rose against the sky, some in sharp outline, others with clouds curling over them, but all very grand. [This] morning a fellow passenger awoke me before five o’clock to see a grand sight, the volcano of Pecaya in eruption. It was forty or fifty miles distant, but the night was clear. A pillar of clear, white smoke or steam curled up into the blue sky from the sharp cone, and a great stream of lava ran down, forming a broad, glowing belt down the side of the mountain. At times great volumes of steam and smoke would roll up, while along the line of the lava stream steam curled up here and there, perhaps where the hot lava found moist ground or water. It was less distinct after day broke, but for nearly a hundred miles we could see the smoke rising from it. This volcano is in the southern part of Guatemala.
[Today] we passed a steamer of the French blockading fleet off Acapulco, which some thought a pirate of the Rebel persuasion until we were fairly up to her.
As we ran down along the coast a change came over the spirit of the scene. We left fogs behind and entered the sunny climate and balmy air of the Mexican coast. Bright skies and blue sea came on, the days waxed longer and the nights shorter. We passed Cape San Lucas [yesterday], scarcely half a mile from the forbidding shore, and [today] crossed the Gulf of California. We had an unusually cool passage—the captain says the coolest he has ever made on this route.
We soon settled down to the monotony of ocean life. We got acquainted with genial or congenial friends, we gazed off on the ocean, we ate, we read, we smoked, we slept. Occasional glimpses of the rugged coast of California, a school of porpoises, a whale, or the miseries of some seasick passenger as he hung over the gunwale of the ship and contemplated the mighty deep, were our only excitements. We were not yet acquainted and did not feel at home.