A Journey in Southeastern Mexico

A Journey in Southeastern Mexico

Henry Howard Harper
Henry Howard Harper

Author: Harper, Henry Howard, 1871-1953
Veracruz-Llave (Mexico : State) — Description and travel
Tuxpan de Rodríguez Cano (Mexico)
A Journey in Southeastern Mexico
La Casa
(The House at the ranch)
An orange tree stands at either side of the front steps. See p. 70



Copyright, 1910,
By Henry H. Harper

All rights reserved



The volume here presented to the reader does not profess to be a history or description of Mexico as a whole, nor does it claim to be typical of all sections of the country. It deals simply with an out-of-the-way and little-known region, accompanied by a history of personal experiences, with comment upon conditions almost or quite unknown to the ordinary traveler.
Many books upon Mexico have been written—a few by competent and others by incompetent hands—in which the writers sometimes charge each other with misstatements and inaccuracies, doubtless oftentimes with reason. However that may be, I have yet to discover among them a narrative, pure and simple, of travel, experiences and observations in the more obscure parts of that country, divested of long and tedious topographical descriptions. Narrations which might be of interest, once begun, are soon lost in discussion of religious, political, and economic problems, or in singing the praises of “the redoubtable Cortez,” or the indefatigable somebody else who is remembered chiefly for the number of people he caused to be killed; or in describing the beauty of some great valley or hill which the reader perhaps never saw and never will see.
I have always felt that a book should never be printed unless it is designed to serve some worthy purpose, and that as soon as the author has written enough to convey his message clearly he should stop. There are many books in which the essential points could be encompassed within half the number of pages allotted to their contents. A good twenty-minute sermon is better than a fairly good two-hour sermon; hence I believe in short sermons,—and short books.
With this conviction, before placing this manuscript in the hands of the printer I sought to ascertain what possible good might be accomplished by its issue in printed form. My first thought was to consult some authority, upon the frankness and trustworthiness of whose opinion I could rely with certainty. I therefore placed the manuscript in the hands of my friend Mr. Charles E. Hurd, whose excellent scholarship and sound literary judgment, coupled with a lifelong experience as an editor and critical reviewer, qualify him as an authority second to none in this country. He has done me the honor voluntarily to prepare a few introductory lines which are printed herein.
In view of the probability that very few, if any, among the restricted circle who read this book will ever traverse the territory described, I am forced to conclude that for the present it can serve no better purpose than that of affording such entertainment as may be derived from the mere reading of the narrative. If, however, it should by chance fall into the hands of any individual who contemplates traveling, or investing money, in this district, it might prove to be of a value equal to the entire cost of the issue. Moreover, it may serve a useful purpose in enlightening and entertaining those who are content to leave to others the pleasures of travel as well as the profits derived from investments in the rural agricultural districts of Mexico.
Possibly a hundred years hence the experiences, observations, and modes of travel herein noted will be so far outgrown as to make them seem curious to the traveler who may cover the same territory, but I predict that even a thousand years from now the conditions there will not undergo so radical a change that the traveler may not encounter the same identical customs and the same aggravating pests and discomforts that are so prevalent today. Doubtless others have traversed this territory with similar motives, and have made practically the same mental observations, but I do not find that anyone has taken the pains to record them either as a note of warning to others, or as a means of replenishing a depleted exchequer.
In issuing this book I feel somewhat as I imagine Horace did when he wrote his ode to Pyrrha,—which was perhaps not intended for the eye of Pyrrha at all, but was designed merely as a warning to others against her false charms, or against the wiles of any of her sex. He declared he had paid the price of his folly and inexperience, and had hung up his dripping clothes in the temple as a danger-signal for others—

Ah! wretched those who love, yet ne’er did try
The smiling treachery of thine eye;
But I’m secure, my danger’s o’er,
My table shows the clothes[1]I vow’d
When midst the storm, to please the god,
I have hung up, and now am safe on shore.

So am I. Horace, being a confirmed bachelor, probably took his theme from some early love affair which would serve as a key-note that would strike at the heart and experience of almost every reader. The apparent ease with which one can make money and enjoy trips in Mexico is scarcely less deceptive than were the bewitching smiles of Horace’s Pyrrha. Indeed the fortune-seeker there can see chimerical Pyrrhas everywhere.
Although it has been said that truth is stranger than fiction, it is observable that most of the great writers have won their fame in fiction, possibly because they could not find truths enough to fill a volume. In setting down the narrative of a journey through Mexico, however, there is no occasion to distort facts in order to make them appear strange, and often incredible, to the reader. We are so surfeited with books of fiction that I sometimes feel it is a wholesome diversion to pick up a book containing a few facts, even though they be stated in plain homespun language. It is fair to assume that in writing a book the author’s chief purpose is to convey a message of some sort in language that is understandable. In the following pages I have therefore not attempted any flourishes with the English language, but have simply recorded the facts and impressions in a discursive conversational style, just as I should relate them verbally, or write them in correspondence to some friend.
H. H. H.

Boston, Mass.,
October, 1909.


The present volume in which Mr. Harper tells the story of his personal experiences and observations in a section of Mexico which is now being cleverly exploited in the advertising columns of the newspapers as the great agricultural and fruit-growing region of the North American continent, has a peculiar value, and one that gives it a place apart from the ordinary records of travel. The journey described was no pleasure trip. The three who took part in it were young, ambitious, and full of energy. Each had a fair amount of capital to invest, and each, inspired by the accounts of visitors and the advertisements of land speculators setting forth the wonderful opportunities for easy money making in agricultural ventures along the eastern coast of Mexico, believed that here was a chance to double it. There was no sentiment in the matter; it was from first to last purely a business venture. The scenery might be enchanting, the climate perfect, and the people possessed of all the social requirements, but while these conditions would be gratefully accepted, they were regarded by the party as entirely secondary—they were after money. The recorded impressions are therefore the result of deliberate and thoughtful investigation,—not of the superficial sort such as one would acquire on a pleasure-seeking trip. They differ essentially from the unpractical views of the writer who is sent into Mexico to prepare a glowing account of the country’s resources from a casual and personally disinterested view of conditions.
The story of the trip by land and water from Tampico to Tuxpam is photographic in its realism. In no book on Mexico has the character of the peon been as accurately drawn as in this volume. Most writers have been content to sketch in the head and bust of the native Mexican, but here we have him painted by the deft hand of the author at full length, with all his trickery, his laziness and his drunkenness upon him. One cannot help wondering why he was ever created or what he was put here for. In this matter of character-drawing Mr. Harper’s book is unique.
The results of the investigations in this section of the country to which the party had been lured are graphically set forth by Mr. Harper in a half-serious, half-humorous manner which gives the narrative a peculiar interest. He perhaps feels that he has been “stung,” but yet he feels that he can stand it, and enters no complaint. Besides, the experience is worth something.
Of course the volume does not cover all Mexico, but its descriptions are fairly typical of the larger portion of the country, particularly as regards the people, their habits, morals and methods of living. Aside from its interest as a narrative the book has an important mission. It should be in the hands of every prospective investor in Mexican property, especially those whose ears are open to the fascinating promises and seductive tales of the companies formed for agricultural development. A single reading will make nine out of ten such restrap their pocketbooks. The reader will be well repaid for the time spent in a perusal of the volume, and it is to be regretted that the author has determined to print it only for private and restricted distribution.
Boston, October 25, 1909.


There are few civilized countries where the American pleasure-seeking traveler is so seldom seen as in the rural districts of southeastern Mexico, along the coast between Tampico and Vera Cruz. The explanation for this is doubtless to be found in the fact that there is perhaps no other civilized country where the stranger is subjected to so many personal discomforts and vexations resulting from incommodious facilities for travel, and from the multiplicity of pests that beset his path.
The writers of books on Mexican travel usually keep pretty close to the beaten paths of travel, and discreetly avoid the by-ways in those portions far removed from any railroad or highway. They acquire their observations and impressions chiefly from the window of the comfortable passenger-coach or from the veranda of some hotel where three good meals are served daily, or from government reports and hearsay,—which are often unreliable. It is only the more daring fortune-hunters that brave the dangers and discomforts of the remote regions, and from these we are rarely favored with a line, either because they have no aptitude for writing, or, as is more likely, because, wishing to forget their experiences as speedily as possible, they make no permanent record of them. Tourists visiting Mexico City, Monterey, Tampico and other large cities are about as well qualified to discourse upon the conditions prevailing in the agricultural sections of the unfrequented country districts as a foreigner visiting Wall Street would be to write about the conditions in the backwoods of northern Maine. I can readily understand the tendency of writers to praise the beauty of Mexican scenery and to expatiate upon the wonderful possibilities in all agricultural pursuits. In passing rapidly from one section to another without seeing the multifarious difficulties encountered from seedtime to harvest, they get highly exaggerated ideas from first impressions, which in Mexico are nearly always misleading. The first time I beheld this country, clothed in the beauty of its tropical verdure, I wondered that everybody didn’t go there to live, and now I marvel that anybody should live there, except possibly for a few months in winter. If one would obtain reliable intelligence about Mexico and its advantages—or rather its disadvantages—for profitable agriculture, let him get the honest opinion of some one who has tried the experiment on the spot, of investing either his money or his time, or both, with a view to profit.

In March, 1896, in company with two friends and an interpreter, I went to Mexico, having been lured there by numerous exaggerated reports of the possibilities in the vanilla, coffee and rubber industries. None of us had any intention of remaining there for more than a few months,—long enough to secure plantations, put them in charge of competent superintendents, and outline the work to be pursued. We shared the popular fallacy that if the natives, with their crude and antiquated methods could produce even a small quantity of vanilla, coffee or rubber, we could, by employing more progressive and up-to-date methods, cause these staple products to be yielded in abundant quantities and at so slight a cost as to make them highly profitable. We had heard that the reason why American investors had failed to make money there was because they had invested their funds injudiciously, through intermediaries, and had no personal knowledge of the actual state of affairs at the seat of investment. We were therefore determined to investigate matters thoroughly by braving the dangers and discomforts of pestilence and insects and looking the ground over in person. We had no idea of forming any company or copartnership, but each was to make his own observations and draw his own conclusions quite independent of the others. We agreed, however, to remain together and to assist one another as much as possible by comparing notes and impressions. There was a tacit understanding that all ordinary expenses of travel should be shared equally from one common fund, to which each should contribute his share, but that each one should individually control his own investment, if such were made. Each member of the party had endeavored to post himself as best he could regarding the necessities of the trip. We consulted such accounts of travel in Mexico as were available (nothing, however, was found relating to the locality that we were to visit), conversed with a couple of travelers who had visited the western and central parts, and corresponded with various persons in that country; but when we came together to compare notes of our requirements for the journey no two seemed to agree in any particular. Our objective point was Tuxpam, which is on the eastern coast almost midway between Tampico and Vera Cruz, and a hundred miles from any railroad center. As it was our intention to barter direct with the natives instead of through any land syndicate, we thought best to provide ourselves with an ample supply of the native currency. Out of the thousand and one calculations and estimates that we all made, this latter was about the only one that proved to be anywhere near correct. In changing our money into Mexican currency we were of course eager to secure the highest premium, and upon learning that American gold was much in demand at Tampico (the point where we were to leave the railroad) we shipped a quantity of gold coin by express to that place.
Our journey to Tampico was by rail via Laredo and Monterey, and was without special incident; the reader need not therefore be detained by a recital of what we thought or saw along this much traveled highway. This route—especially as far as Monterey—is traversed by many Americans, and American industry is seen all along the line, notably at Monterey.
Upon arriving at Tampico we were told by the money-changers there that they had no use for American gold coin. They said that the only way in which they could use our money was in the form of exchange on some eastern city, which could be used by their merchants in making remittances for merchandise; so we were obliged to ship it all back to an eastern bank, and sold our checks against a portion of it at a premium of eighty cents on the dollar.
We stalked around town with our pockets bulging out with Mexican national bank notes, and felt quite opulent. Our wealth had suddenly increased to almost double, and it didn’t seem as if we ever could spend it, dealing it out after the manner of the natives, three, six, nine and twelve cents at a time. We acquired the habit of figuring every time we spent a dollar that we really had expended only fifty cents. Our fears that we should have difficulty in spending very much money must have shone out through our countenances, for the natives seemed to read them like an open book; and for every article and service they charged us double price and over. We soon found we were spending real dollars, and before returning home we learned to figure the premium the other way.
The moment we began to transact business with these people we became aware that we were in the land of mañana (tomorrow). The natives make it a practice never to do anything today that can be put off until tomorrow. Nothing can be done today,—it is always “mañana,” which, theoretically, means tomorrow, but in common practice its meaning is vague,—possibly a day, a week, or a month. Time is reckoned as of no consequence whatever, and celerity is a virtue wholly unknown.
Our business and sightseeing concluded, we made inquiry as to the way to get to Tuxpam,[2] a small coast town in the State of Vera Cruz, about a hundred miles further south. We inquired of a number of persons and learned of nearly as many undesirable or impossible ways of getting there. There were coastwise steamers from Tuxpam up to Tampico, but none down the coast from Tampico to Tuxpam. After spending a whole day in fruitless endeavor to find a means of transportation we were returning to the hotel late in the afternoon, when a native came running up behind us and asked if we were the Americans who wanted to go to Tuxpam. He said that he had a good sailboat and was to sail for Tuxpam mañana via the laguna,—a chain of lakes extending along near the coast from Tampico to Tuxpam, connected by channels ranging in length from a hundred yards to several miles, which in places are very shallow, or totally dry, most of the time. We went back with him to his boat, which we found to be a sturdy-looking craft about thirty feet long, with perhaps a five-foot beam. It was constructed of two large cedar logs hewn out and mortised together. The boatman said he had good accommodations aboard and would guarantee to land us at Tuxpam in seven days. He wanted two hundred dollars (Mexican money, of course) to take our party of four. This was more than the whole outfit was worth, with his wages for three weeks thrown in. We went aboard, and were looking over the boat, rather to gratify our curiosity than with any intention of accepting his monstrous offer, when one of the party discovered a Mexican lying in the bottom of the boat with a shawl loosely thrown over him. Our interpreter inquired if anyone was sick aboard, and was told by the owner that the man was a friend of his who was ill with the smallpox, and that he was taking him to his family in Tuxpam. We stampeded in great confusion and on our way to the hotel procured a supply of sulphur, carbolic acid, chlorine, and all the disinfectants we could think of. Hurrying to one of our rooms in the hotel, we barred the door and discussed what we should do to ward off the terrible disease. Some one suggested that perhaps the boatman was only joking, and that after all the man didn’t have smallpox. It didn’t seem plausible that he would ask us to embark for

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