Tuesday 13th September 2011

Antigua and Volcan Pacaya

Today was a real highlight. After an admin-catching-up morning including a long overdue haircut, I spent an enjoyable hour or so locating the precise spots where Muybridge had taken his photographs around the Parque Central in 1875, and then taking the same views myself 136 years later. Although this main square of Antigua, which used to be an open market place, is now filled with trees, it is amazing how little has changed, despite the ravages of earthquakes. My attempt at recreating Muybridge’s shot of the cathedral from the upper floor of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (headquarters of Spanish imperial government of most of Central America for more than 200 years) was not fully successful as Muybridge took his shot from the upper floor, which I was unable to reach due to earthquake-related restoration works.

Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Muybridge, 1875

Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, 2011

The cathedral, Antigua, Muybridge, 1875

The Cathedral from a slighly different angle, Antigua, 2011

After lunch I was joined by my new tour-guiding friend Chofa, and we set off by minibus towards Pacaya, at 2552 metres not one of the highest volcanoes, but easily the most accessible. Our bus took us up to the starting point for the hike, which though not technically challenging in any way, nonetheless worked up a good sweat in my case (though not in Chofa’s as she had already done this trek more than 50 times!).

At first the trail leads up through a strange low forest, with the ground being almost entirely made up of small volcanic stones left over from last year’s major eruption. Our leader, Rodolfo, set a swift pace, and we kept going until suddenly we emerged from the trees onto a black volcanic ridge, from where we were treated to the spectacular view of a very fresh, blackened lava flow, with smoke or steam emerging from numerous patches.

Volcan Pacaya, showing the smoking lava

We then descended ONTO the lava, and scrambled our way up towards a hut, which was positioned next to a deep crevasse, from which blazing heat radiated. Here we paused while our guide Rodolfo impaled marshmallows onto a branch, and proceeded to cook them by holding them in the mouth of the ravine…they melted almost immediately.

Cooking marshmallows, Pacaya

From here we climbed a short distance, and then descended INTO a cave in the lava flow. It was definitely hot here, in the bowels of the lava, and we were shown a small recess in the roof where Rodolfo had cooked some meals in the recent past.

Up till this point the visibility had been extremely poor due to cloudy weather, but as we emerged from our cave, the clouds suddenly began to clear, and we could finally not only see the summit of Pacaya, but we were also treated to a truly breathtaking view across the deep valley to the Volcan de Agua (3766 m), and further away both Volcan Acatenango (3976 m) and the Volcan de Fuego (3763 m) were peeking out above the swirling clouds.

Volcan de Agua from Pacaya

Finally we began our descent by a different route taking us down the west side of the volcano, before finally reaching our minibus just as dusk was falling. The fabulous views made this a truly memorable experience.

Pacaya panorama, looking across to the Volcan de Agua, with Fuego and Acatenango just visible

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Monday 12th September 2011

Guatemala City, Lago de Amatitlan & Antigua

I am now back in Antigua after another two action-packed days. Yesterday was election day in Guatemala, and after dropping Jacqueline at the airport, I accompanied my hosts to a nearby polling station, where I was impressed by the apparent efficiency and smoothness of the voting procedure. Apparently there were some troubles in other parts of the country, but certainly not here.

Shortly after democratic duties had been performed, we set off southwards, descending by car to the Lago de Amatitlan, where my hosts have a house on the shore, with a magnificent view across the lake with the active Volcan Pacaya directly opposite, and the Volcan de Agua towering over the end of the lake. We took a walk along the lakeside road, admiring different views of the lake, which looked much cleaner here than it had been at the Villa Nueva end when we visited and took a boat tour a month ago. Guisela even plunged in for a swim, but the green waters failed to tempt me to follow her!

Amatitlan panorama from the house

The sunset behind the Volcan de Agua, with a lightning show alongside it was a sight to behold. My great grandfather visited the lake on 13th January, 1880. His letter to his mother of 23rd January contains the following:

“On the 13th I made a flying trip to the Lake of Amatitlan (distant 6 leagues) returning to the capital in the evening; had previously travelled here but never round the lake, the view was very fine indeed.
The bright blue water of the lake and the very lofty mountains (with the two volcanoes Agua and Pacaya) on every side, seen under a cloudless sky, it made a splendid picture.
I have not seen the mountains so clear of clouds for many months, often the sun sets in a cloudless sky and as it goes down behind the distant mountains, we get magnificent views, the mountains gradually changing in colour, till very suddenly we find it dark, but as a set-off against all this we have the heat and the dust, which make travelling very unpleasant.”

Volcan de Agua at sunset

After a rather short night, I was up again and on the road to Antigua with my new birding friends, this time heading straight for the wonderful Finca El Pilar, complete with hummingbird feeders, thermal swimming pools and a road that leads through a quarry and upwards into mixed broadleaf and pine forest, ascending to a high clearing with a splendid view across the valley to the volcanoes Acatenango and Fuego on one side, and Agua on the other. Here Karen had arranged to meet up with Thor Janson, one of the most famous nature photographers and conservationists in Guatemala, and she disappeared up into the cloud forest on foot with him, while we started the long descent through the beautiful, lush forest, finally dropping rapidly down a series of steep but very well constructed wooden staircases, before finally emerging at the hummingbird feeders again, which were not particularly well patronised today, although we did have excellent views of a very cooperative Rufous Sabrewing, which darted about, showing its very distinctively marked tail pattern very clearly.

El Pilar panorama

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Saturday 10th September 2011

Guatemala City

Today was a really interesting and varied day. We were up early, although perhaps not as early as real birders should be, and after a quick breakfast were on our way to the Botanical Garden of the Universidad de San Carlos, a real oasis of tranquillity within the hustle and bustle of Guatemala City’s traffic and fumes.

Although not normally open to the public on Saturdays, our two new birding friends Annabel and Karen both work as volunteers within the gardens, and they had kindly arranged for us to have exclusive access to this walled paradise, which seemed truly like a secret garden, featuring mature trees, secluded paths and even a bust of Linnaeus in the middle.

Bust of Linnaeus, Jardin Botanico

We managed to observe a number of bird species that are otherwise hard to see in the city itself, including Grey Silky-Flycatchers, Yellow-winged and Blue-grey Tanagers, Azure-crowned Hummingbirds and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, as well as Melodious Blackbird and the ubiquitous Clay-coloured Thrush and Great-tailed Grackle.

Birders in the Jardin Botanico

After a very pleasant morning here, we headed to a truly extraordinary pair of neo-Gothic buildings, the Casa and Iglesia Yurrita, the former of which was built in the 1920s, and now operates as a restaurant, where we enjoyed a late breakfast, followed by a fine photographic performance by a newly emerged Dione juno butterfly, which posed cooperatively for pictures before it took its first flight.

Casa Yurrita

Dione juno newly emerged

In the afternoon we were driven into the heart of the old city, known as Zona 1, by Annabel, who having spent much of her childhood living in this old colonial heart of the city, was able to give us extensive background information on the area, which had suffered serious neglect and become a haven for robbers and street criminals before undergoing something of a rebirth recently, with a heightened security presence on the streets to combat crime.

We were dropped off in the main square in front of the imposing cathedral, and it was here that we were able to locate two of the precise spots from which pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge had taken his wonderful pictures in 1875, one featuring the cathedral itself from across the square, and the other looking up the main aisle inside the building itself.

The Cathedral, Guatemala City, Muybridge, 1875

The Cathedral, Guatemala City, 2011

A short walk around the blocks adjacent to the main square brought us to another place of considerable historical significance for me: the Gran Hotel. Now sadly derelict and very forlorn-looking, it was in this building that my great grandfather George lodged during his first month in Guatemala in 1879, and where he stayed on several of his subsequent visits to the capital. I would have loved to see inside the building, but it was barricaded and locked.

The Gran Hotel, where GCC stayed in 1879 and 1880

Shortly after this we were joined by our friend Brenda and her younger sister Maria Elisa, and we joined a guided tour of the magnificent Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, completed in 1944 under the orders of President Ubico…who apparently believed he was a reincarnation of Napoleon; hence the splendour of the building.

Our guide battled valiantly to make herself heard during the tour, but it was a hard task due to the TREMENDOUS claps of thunder and roar of the TORRENTIAL rain that started falling outside, causing the lights, including the 122 bulbs in a splendid Czech chandelier in one of the state reception rooms, to flicker and fade worryingly! Also within the building was a temporary exhibition celebrating 100 years of Chinese – Guatemalan cooperation…but not mainland Chinese. It seems that Guatemala is one of the few nations that have maintained diplomatic relations with the Nationalist Chinese administration in Taiwan rather than recognising the Communist government in Beijing, and that the grateful Taiwanese authorities provide generous aid to the Guatemalan state. Perhaps most interesting for me was a beautiful photograph of a large flock of the highly endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, which nests mainly on islands off the North Korean coast and winters mainly in Taiwan. I had seen a number of these birds myself in South Korea and Japan in the late 1980s and early 90s, when it was thought that they might well become extinct.

After a visit to the amazing underground handicrafts market, where Jacqueline bought presents for her children, we headed along the pedestrianised 6 Avenida, a lively street with breakdancers twirling and doing mid-air backward somersaults, and one even spinning on his head, and singers, and lined with seemingly endless shoe shops apparently all selling almost identical products, we left the old city, pleasantly surprised considering its poor reputation, described graphically in the Rough Guide as “…the run-down centro histórico, a squalid world of low-slung, crumbling nineteenth century town houses and faceless concrete blocks, broken pavements, car parking lots and plenty of noise and dirt”. All of those things are true, but somehow we enjoyed our visit.

The Cathedral interior, Guatemala City, Muybridge, 1875

The Cathedral interior, Guatemala City, 2011

We finally returned home in order to allow Jacqueline time to do her packing, and this morning (Sunday 11th September) she flew out on an early flight to London via Dallas-Fort Worth. I am now on my own for the next leg of the adventure.

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