In explaining, and in answering, the geography of Central America is more illuminating, even, than its history. Central America is made up of five tiny nations, dovetailed into one another like baroche pearls on a string. México is the northern boundary, Panamá the southern, so that Central America lies between the ninth and fifteenth parallels of north latitude, stretching six hundred miles only between México and Panamá. Thus all the five countries are wholly within the tropics, all north of South America and south of Cuba and even Jamaica, and south, too, of most of the Philippine Islands.
In general the axis of Central America runs off from northwest to southeast, so that the most westerly point is nearly south of Galveston and the easternmost directly south of eastern Florida. So, strung on their slanting line from México to Panamá are the five countries; Guatemala, richest of all, at the north, then Honduras and Salvador (the latter, smallest but most thickly populated, tucked in on the Pacific side in a corner formed by Guatemala and Honduras), next Nicaragua, largest in size, and last Costa Rica with Panamá adjoining it on the south.
Although six hundred miles long, Central America is only from seventy-five to 250 miles wide, so that every point in the whole rich expanse of its territory is within a few hours, by rail or motor car, or a few days, by ox-cart or mule, from the sea and the ships and the ports of all the world. The backbone of the five countries is a comparatively low cordillera, 6,000-foot mountains with rich slopes for coffee farms. Toward the Atlantic side, down to the Caribbean Sea, are broad, low jungle valleys, rich for banana farms and for pastures, and on the Pacific side a comparatively narrow ledge, half desert and half a most luxurious garden, the site of the chief cities and of the richest of the coffee and sugar farms.
It is toward these lands and toward their promise that we now set sail. For across seas actual as well as symbolic the traveler must go to Central America. If we are inured to the discomforts of tropical railway travel, or if we find the sea sufficiently distasteful, we might go by rail all the way from New York to Guatemala City, passing through México, with many inconveniences and no great advantage in time.
And just here a word may not be amiss as to the preparations for a journey through Central America. Life there is very much like life anywhere else, but there are a few points in which the traveler from abroad will find adaptation necessary. Primarily these are due to the fact that the Central American, although his home is a model of comfort, does not, in his traveling, enjoy the luxuries which have come to seem necessities in travel elsewhere.
As to clothes, the keynote is that the travel is in the tropics, even while the formalities are of the great world. You will need tropical clothing; palm beach or mohair suits are indispensable, and "whites" if you care to take so much baggage, will be a great comfort. Riding clothes, of course, and they will be convenient, and quite the proper thing, for traveling by train or motor as well as horseback. A bathing suit and a light bathrobe should be taken.
The woman traveler needs only to know that laundry, while quick and cheap, is not very efficient and is likely to damage finer fabrics, and also (and this affects, too, the man's choice of tropical clothing) there are no good dry cleaning establishments in Central America. The woman traveler must, on the other hand, realize that she will be the happier and indeed comfortable only if she has clothes for every occasion, with almost the demands of a summer resort at home. Indeed, in spite of the fact that Central America lies in the tropics, three of the capitals enjoy an almost temperate zone climate in the mountains, and in addition, in all of them, all official gatherings and formal affairs call for proper dress, and men as well as women should provide accordingly.