Friday 19th August 2011

Antigua – the Mariposario tragedy

Today was our last day in Antigua. We started off by going to the INGUAT government tourist office, where we did not find a huge amount of useful advice, but we did obtain a map of the town, on the top left-hand corner of which we noticed a Mariposario, or butterfly house/garden. We were informed that there was a free shuttle bus to close by, on the hour every hour, but as it was 10.05 and it did not appear too far on the map, we started walking.

Suddenly, a tuk-tuk appeared as if by magic, and I spontaneously flagged it down, a move which we were later glad of as it was much further than we thought. However, our adventures were soon to commence, as we suddenly had a puncture! It was all hands to the pump to change the wheel, which included the driver holding the whole vehicle up while I changed the wheel for the spare, which had a TOTALLY bald tyre with the canvas showing through and a large slash in the wall!

Luckily it held out until we arrived at the Mariposario, where we were welcomed by a tiny girl who told us that her mother would soon be there to look after us. The lady began by showing us all stages from egg to adult of the Monarch butterfly, which she was rearing, followed by a lot of broken off old butterfly wings, which we enjoyed identifying and placing on the relevant pages on the book and photographing them.

Gulf Fritillary and Mexican Silverspot on their page in the book

She then showed us around the project, which incorporated a complex of covered greenhouses (with netting rather than glass) containing both the food and nectar-source plants of many species of locally occurring butterflies. This was fascinating, and we were able to observe at extremely close range several females egg-laying, numerous caterpillars, and of course lots of adult butterflies.

Full of enthusiasm for the project as we were, suddenly the lady told us in hushed and sad tones that we would be almost her last guests as they were about to be forced to close down on Sunday (this was Friday) forever, due to lack of visitors and therefore funds. This seems a real tragedy as the operation is up and running, HIGHLY educational and beautifully run. So, if anyone would like to invest quickly to save the Mariposario of Antigua, Guatemala, please let me know! Its lack of visitors must be entirely due to a lack of marketing as it is really well worth a visit – or several visits.

Feeling deeply saddened, we walked a short way back along to road to the Centro Cultural La Azotea, a beautifully maintained coffee plantation, museum of coffee and of Mayan musical instruments and an outdoor reconstruction of indigenous houses from different regions of Guatemala. I much enjoyed wandering around the gardens photographing the numerous butterflies and dragonflies, until finally we returned to Antigua in the free shuttle bus – but not before I had suggested to one of the ladies running the visitor centre that perhaps they could offer a new home to the Mariposario, as they seem to have plenty of land and I think it would add an extra dimension to the visitors’ experience of the Centro Cultural. She said they were considering it, but without much enthusiasm. The Mariposario appears to be doomed – a real tragedy as the whole operation is up and running, lovingly created and maintained by its creators; a lack of marketing and publicity would appear to be the cause of its downfall.

Anna's Eighty-eight, Diaethria anna, La Azotea

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Thursday 18th August 2011

Antigua

The morning was spent organising the onward leg of our journey, but by midday we were walking up towards the base of the Cerro de la Cruz, where our butterfly-watching immediately began at the base of the steps leading up through the forest to the cross. No sooner had we sat down on the first bench to extract camera, net, binoculars and books from my rucksack than the first insects appeared. Slightly out of practice at catching, and a little nervous as our permits have not yet materialised and there were several signs saying “No cazar animales” – we do not intend to “cazar” (hunt), but when carrying a net even if only for identification purposes it is better to have official authorisation – it took some time for me to get my hand in, but soon the first new species were being caught, photographed, identified at once where possible, before being released back into the forest.

After a long while at the first bench, we made our way slowly up through the forest, stopping at various places along the way, before emerging from the trees at the cross, from where we took time to admire the magnificent view of the city below us, with the towering presence of the Volcan de Agua beyond, its head still in cloud.

From here we climbed past the monument to Santiago (Saint James), patron saint of Guatemala, and continued along a track leading up into the forest, eventually emerging on a road beyond. Here we made several insect sightings, including a huge wasps’ nest suspended from a eucalyptus branch and several interesting butterfly species, before gradually retracing our footsteps down into the old city of Antigua.

This may be the last diary entry for a few days as we are due to leave Antigua tomorrow en route for Lake Atitlan, and I am not sure when I will next have internet access.

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Tuesday 18th August 2011

First moves in the footsteps of GCC and photographer Muybridge

Today we hired a pick-up with an excellent driver, with the aim of attempting to locate some of the localities associated with my great grandfather, as well as with the famous photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

We started with a short but steep drive up to a forested hill overlooking the town of Antigua, the Cerro de la Cruz. Muybridge had taken a series of shots of the town from here in 1875, and it was remarkable how little had changed – I was able to recreate his view with some degree of precision, although sadly the Volcán de Agua, towering in the background in Muybridge’s photograph, was obscured by cloud today. The same churches, especially La Merced, were prominent, and there is still not a modern building to be seen in the town.

Antigua in 1875, Muybridge

Similar view of Antigua, showing how little it has changed since Muybridge was here in 1875

From here we drove to Ciudad Vieja, the original capital of Guatemala, but which was completely lost beneath a mudslide in 1541, after which the administrative centre became Antigua, where it remained until 1773. GCC visited here on several occasions, but we were unable to find precisely where he stayed, although a number of buildings from the period when he visited still survive.

Our next destination was the nearby small town of San Miguel Dueñas, where with the aid of copies of the paintings by Caroline Salvin, wife of GCC’s employer Osbert Salvin, we hunted for the buildings in which she and her husband had stayed in in 1873, and where GCC had also lodged in 1879/1880. There was no sign of the views Caroline Salvin had painted, but as the house appeared to be more like a farmhouse, we started investigating fincas on the outskirts, each time making sure that the twin peaks of the Volcán de Fuego and the Volcán Acatenango were in the same position in the background as they were in Caroline Salvin’s painting.

The finca we were searching for, with the Volcan de Fuego behind

The most promising looking candidate we found was the Finca Santiago, but this property was heavily barricaded and gated, and the security guard at the gate, although interested in our quest, was unable to allow us in. He indicated also that he thought the picture looked more like the Finca Tempixque, to which we drove with some optimism, and where the security guard, fascinated by our story, made several calls in order to request permission for us to enter. This was soon granted and we were unexpectedly treated to a private tour of this magnificent property, now operating as a coffee plantation and centre for the cultivation of orchids and other tropical plants. We were shown around the beautifully maintained hothouses by the Director of Operations Ing. Jorge Luis Gomez and the Greenhouse Director Juan Antonio Garcia, and we spent a while admiring the many varieties of orchids grown here. But sadly, there was no sign of GCC’s lodgings and neither of our two hosts recognised the picture. The search will continue.

Our next, more distant destination was the Lago de Amatitlán, situated in a deep basin to the south of the modern capital, Guatemala City. The drive took us over a high ridge, down through the now rundown satellite towns of Bárcenas and Villa Nueva, bringing us finally to the shores of the picturesque but grossly polluted lake. Although unable to say precisely where GCC had stayed, we took a boat ride out across the lake, and admired its still beautiful situation, wishing only that some steps could be taken to clear the endless pieces of plastic rubbish floating in the algae-laden green waters.

Lago de Amatitlan

From here we returned to Antigua, impressed by the landscapes and the still heavily forested hills so close to the capital, and ready to continue our search in the coming days.

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