Wednesday 31st August 2011

San Gerónimo

We are now in a hotel near San Gerónimo (or San Jerónimo), one of my great grandfather’s favourite locations, and one in which he based himself for much of 1879 and the early part of 1880.

Our journey started in Antigua, where we had planned to stay two nights, but when our friend Brenda told us that she would be driving from Guatemala City to Salamá THAT day, we thought it was too good a chance a miss, especially as she even offered to come to pick us up from Antigua as well – many thanks indeed to her.

After leaving Antigua, we headed through the complex streets of Guatemala City, where there appeared to be no road signs at all, and were finally on the road heading north away from the city. The road, mostly of quite good standard and currently being upgraded by a joint Taiwan-Guatemala government funded project, led us through beautiful, mountainous country with splendid views across deep valleys, with the wild and almost untouched Sierra de las Minas in the distance.

After about four hours, we finally came over the hill, and there below us was the village and agricultural valley of San Gerónimo, now containing many plastic-covered fields used for growing tomatoes and other crops. We soon checked into our hotel, and almost immediate set out again for the short drive to the restaurant where we were due to have dinner, where we met several of Brenda’s friends, including Eduar, who works as manager on an ostrich and other exotic livestock farm, Pablo, a colleague of Brenda’s working on crops with Monsanto, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Jiichiro, a Japanese entomologist working with an NGO protecting wild areas in the Verapaces provinces, with funding from the Japan International Cooperation Agency. He is working on BUTTERFLIES and BEETLES, conducting an inventory of species within one of these areas. If ever there was someone who is following up on GCC’s work here in Guatemala, it must surely be Jiichiro.

The following day we were treated to a fascinating tour of some of the locations closely associated with GCC in the San Gerónimo area. We started off by driving through the town itself, which looked pleasant and peaceful….we entered the town through a triumphal arch with San Jerónimo written in gold letters across it; a large “George” had been graffitied across one of the columns. As the arch was built to commemorate the 2000 millennium, sadly we could not take it as evidence of George Champion’s presence!

Our first stop was a beautiful hotel built in colonial style, close to the aqueduct that used to take water to the sugar mill of El Trapiche. Although this was not the actual home of GCC during his stay (both he and Osbert and Caroline Salvin stayed in the old convent next to the sugar mill; the convent has since disappeared), it was located close to some of the 124 arches of the aqueduct, on one of which could still just be made out the crest of the Dominican friars who founded San Gerónimo in the sixteenth century.

Part of the old aqueduct of San Geronimo

From here, the intrepid Eduar took us up an EXTREMELY rough (in parts) track in his Toyota Hilux pick-up. I was reminded on several occasions of the BBC TV Top Gear team’s attempts to “kill” a Toyota Hilux, and how hard it was – this road would have been a good test, but of course this rugged vehicle passed with flying colours!

The track wound up through pine and broad-leaved woodland, providing wonderful views back towards San Gerónimo below. We stopped to identify some of the numerous butterflies, as well as some orchids growing on the branches of some of the larger trees here – Eduar is a passionate orchid-watcher. The richness of the habitat here, coupled with the beautiful scenery and peaceful atmosphere, show why George had found this area such a wonderful base.

Amazing spider by road to El Jicaro

After skidding around on slippery rocks, plunging through rock-filled stream beds and crashing through deep ruts, we finally came out on the main road at La Cumbre, where we stocked up on essential supplies (Fanta and Coke plus biscuits – George did not enjoy such luxuries in 1879!) before heading really off the beaten track, down a back road that GCC took on his mule. Even today this dirt track is little used, and it winds through the beautiful, still well forested mountains, before reaching the settlement of El Jicaro, which seems to consist purely of an elementary school serving a widely spread out community of farming families, all of whose children have to walk miles to receive their classes…which they do, all beautifully turned out in their neat school uniforms.

El Jicaro panorama

Bordered Patch, Chlosyne lacinia

From El Jicaro, our route took us back up to rejoin our original road at El Encuentro, from where we headed back on the main road to San Gerónimo. Here we attempted to enter the museum of the sugar mill and refinery of El Trapiche, next to which the Salvin’s and George most likely slept, but due to a payment dispute, the museum was closed. However, Eduar is not a man to give up easily, and he jumped over the barbed wire fence and disappeared to look for a guard to ask if we, as very special visitors, might be allowed to enter.

Finally, he returned having found no guards, and we decided to brave it, and we too entered illicitly! The museum is quite fascinating, with much of the original equipment (made in Liverpool in 1845) still in working order, and Eduar, as a long-standing resident of San Gerónimo (his father was mayor for 28 years) was able to give us a full explanation of the workings of the sugar mill.

Part of the old sugar works of El Trapiche, with equipment made in Liverpool in 1845

In the evening we were invited to a dinner in another local historic finca, the Finca San Lorenzo (?), where we were fascinated to meet two gentlemen who come from long-standing coffee planter families, both of whom were able to give us much background information, and small world as it is (especially in Guatemala), one of them is the owner of the Finca Senahú, down the Polochic valley, WHERE GEORGE ALSO STAYED!! He kindly invited me to visit…this quest is becoming more and more interesting as it goes on!

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Monday 29 August 2011

Return from Las Nubes

We are now back in Antigua, after a truly magical visit to the Finca Las Nubes, where we were guests of the Castillo family (to whom our sincerest thanks). Las Nubes (meaning the clouds, referring to the fact that it is often enveloped in the clouds that hug the slopes of the Volcan Santo Tomas, on whose slopes it sits) had long been a dream destination of mine, partly because pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge took some of his most impressive pictures here in 1875, allowing us to see precisely how the estate and buildings looked then, and partly because my great grandfather George Charles Champion also stayed here twice in 1880, like Muybridge as a guest of owner William Nelson.

Lago de Atitlan

Our journey from Lake Atitlan to Las Nubes on Wednesday 24th involved a huge almost circular detour because of landslides that had blocked the more direct route, but allowed us to enjoy another panoramic view of the lake from beyond Godinez, from where we dropped rapidly from the cool temperate zone into the steamy Pacific lowlands, along which we then sped westwards as far as Mazatenango, where we left the main highway and began to climb through small villages towards the volcano….and we were soon lost!

After asking locals for directions on several occasions, we finally made it up through the village of Zunilito, and after having considerable difficulty negotiating a rushing torrent which we had to ford, and sliding about in some particularly slippery mud, as well as having to phone to ask for further directions, we finally found ourselves on the correct entrance road, and it was not long before we came around a corner, and there it was, the to me almost mythical house that I had seen in Muybridge’s photos from 1875, and in which my great grandfather stayed in 1880.

We were welcomed most warmly by the Castillo family, with whom we then enjoyed the most delicious meals for the next four days, as well as a lot of very interesting chat about the history of the finca. I was very pleased to be able to provide them with a considerable amount of extra information, contained in GCC’s diaries and letters, about the historical origins of the house itself, which we discovered had belonged to a German family before William Nelson acquired it….previously, as Muybridge’s photograph shows the house under construction in 1875, we had assumed that Nelson had had the house constructed in 1875.

The house at Las Nubes by Eadweard Muybridge, 1875

The house from approximately the same angle today

Our days involved early rises before dawn, drives up through the coffee plantations in one or other of the two splendid Land Rovers they have at Las Nubes (one of which is a 1959 model, and still going strong, and the other is a mere youngster built in 1983), along tracks that truly only a Land Rover could tackle, as far as the edge of the forest, where some very attractive observation balconies have been constructed, affording panoramic views over the forest canopy. From one of these were able to observe some of the many spectacular birds that the reserve offers, including Highland and Crested Guans, Blue-crowned Motmot, Elegant Euphonia, and the legendary Resplendent Quetzal, which treated us to three separate viewings, although at this time of the year the long plumes that normally trail behind the male bird in flight have been moulted and are not to be seen.

Dawn above Las Nubes

The birds went a long way to make our stay a memorable event, but it was of course for another purpose that we had long dreamed of visiting Las Nubes….it was here that, in September and December 1880, my great grandfather had discovered the butterfly Drucina championi, and it was this that was perhaps our most important target species.

On three mornings we headed up to the highest point we could reach in the Land Rover, and from here we climbed steeply through degraded forest until we reached the edge of the pristine cloud forest that extends from here right up to just below the summit of the volcano, which is in the pine zone. Our excellent guide, Fernando, having been shown a picture of the butterfly, was quite sure that he had seen this very species less than a year ago precisely here with a visiting group of veterinarians, and they had even counted the blue flashes on its hind wings. It felt as if we were in the trail of Drucina!

Cloud forest in the cloud!

Here too we found quite extensive areas with what we assume must be the chusquea bamboo with which the butterfly is associated, and even caught and photographed a pair of another Satyrid butterfly species, Oxeoschista hilara, which we know associates with Drucina championi, but despite three attempts, we were unlucky. Perhaps the adult butterflies had not yet emerged, perhaps we were not quite in the right place, perhaps….there are many possible explanations. What was clear, however, was that attempting to climb still higher on the extremely steep, muddy and slippery slopes of the volcano would be foolhardy at this time of the year, being as it is the height of the rainy season. I tried to start along the almost imperceptible trail that climbs up into the forest from the last clearing one can relatively easily walk to, and I slid around so much that I beat a hasty retreat.

This was indeed a disappointment, especially for Jacqueline, who will have no further opportunity to see the butterfly named after G C Champion, its discoverer, as a thank you present to him by his employers Godman and Salvin, but I shall try again in November, by which time the ground should be drier and the going somewhat easier. In the meantime, Fernando will keep a close eye out and let me know if he finds this wonderful insect.

On Sunday morning the Castillo family had to leave for Guatemala City, and we found ourselves the sole occupants of the house, but finally through the torrential and sustained downpour of rain that seems to be the norm in the afternoons at this time of the year, there appeared Bitty Ramirez-Portilla, her husband bird photographer Renato and their son Jose Miguel. Bitty is the highly efficient director of Guatemala Nature Tours, and is one of those rare people who can organise anything at short notice; a quick phone call here, an e-mail there, and everything comes together!

On our last morning the five of us went up again with Fernando to the balcony overlooking the forest canopy, and were treated to some magnificent views of the volcanoes poking out of the clouds in the dawn, and were able to see the plume of smoke rising from the erupting Santiaguito, poking up beyond the Volcan Santa Maria away to the north-west.

And so ended our stay at Las Nubes, a truly wonderful place that combines a highly efficient working coffee business, a private nature reserve offering visiting birders the chance to see an excellent selection of the mid to higher elevation species in a beautiful and historic setting, coupled with excellent and friendly service, delicious food and fascinating conversation….the perfect combination. I shall certainly be back….and I shall be keeping my fingers crossed for success in my quest to find Drucina championi on my next visit!

Our thanks again to the Castillo family, and to Bitty, Renato and Jose Miguel for a most enjoyable time together, for driving us all the way back to Guatemala City, and for further organisational help.

The house at Las Nubes

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Tuesday 23rd August 2011

First real trace of GCC!

Today we headed back along the shores of Lake Atitlán towards the Reserva Natural. From the entrance we walked back along the access road, and it was not long before we found ourselves butterfly-watching in front of a row of small cabins. Seeing us behaving strangely (wielding a butterfly net and crouching on the ground in order to photograph insects are not usual activities here!), an American lady came out of one of the cabins, curious to know what we were up to.

I explained our story, and the fact that my great grandfather had been here in December 1880….and by chance I added the fact that he had slept overnight in a flour mill. The husband suddenly announced that there was a large, derelict mill a few hundred yards behind the cabins, hidden by trees.

He led us into the vegetation along a barely perceptible path, and pointed us in the right direction. Sure enough, after ploughing through the undergrowth for a short while, there before us was the mill building itself, complete with mill stones and the hop down which the grain would have fallen. The building appeared to have been abandoned relatively recently; I leant in to photograph the interior through the metal bars. So here, for the first time, we had found a PRECISE location visited by George – it was a strange feeling indeed to feel we were so close to him.

The mill, nestling beneath the forested hill

The mill interior - did George climb these stairs to sleep?

We are off tomorrow to the Finca Las Nubes, another location where GCC definitely stayed…..there will be much to tell when we return from there. As there is no internet access at Las Nubes, I shall be out of communication for a while.

Golden-banded Dartwhite, Catasticta teutila

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