Saturday 29th October 2011

Mixco Viejo – unexpectedly in the footsteps of GCC

Today, having been very kindly invited by birding friends Karen and Anabelle, turned out not only to be a very pleasant day out from Guatemala City, but also to be an added bonus in my quest to find the locations visited by my entomologist great grandfather George Charles Champion (“GCC”).

We headed out of the city at 6.00 AM, and after a brief breakfast stop at a Pollo Campero fast-food restaurant on the outskirts, we started winding our way through wooded hills, past incredibly litter-strewn roadsides, and through the towns of San Pedro Sacatepéquez and San Juan Sacatepéquez (try saying those names after a glass of premium Zacapa rum!), following the old road which leads to Rabinal, and eventually to Salamá. This was a road I had long wanted to travel on, as it follows more closely (although not precisely) the route taken by GCC on his three-day mule-ride from Guatemala City to San Gerónimo, from 8th to 11th August, 1879. In a letter to his mother, written from his final destination of San Gerónimo, GCC describes his journey:

August 19th, 1879

My dear Mother,

I received your letter of July 15th yesterday, it having been forwarded to me from Guatemala.

I left Guatemala on the 8th instant, in company with a young Canadian – Mr. Hutchison, of Montreal, who is at present living here. Mr. Morgans could not get through his business in time and is still detained in Guatemala. I was very glad to get away from the hotel, the lazy life there did not suit me and one’s expenses are very heavy there. We started about midday on the 8th and spent the first night at Carrizal, where I tried sleeping in a hammock, but though a hammock is very comfortable indeed for an occasional rest in the daytime, I cannot say I liked it very much for the night; next morning at daylight, we were again on the road, rested a short time at Trepeche Grande, spent the second night here, then on again for a long spell till nearly dusk when we arrived at Llano Grande, starting again at 2 a.m. the next day for San Gerónimo, the mules and ourselves being nearly worn out with this long journey of 70 miles. The road and mule track all the way kept ascending or descending ranges of mountains, crossing rivers (some difficult to ford), some places very bad indeed to pass, the mud on the road occasionally up to our animals’ knees.

I shall long remember the last stage of the journey, we started by the aid of a little moonlight, but this soon failed and we almost had to feel our way over the most fearful roads I have ever seen; between Llano Grande and San Gerónimo we had to cross the high mountain range of Chuacus, we were over three hours passing this place, getting to the top soon after daylight, and to make matters worse, it commenced to pour with rain; as we descended the other side, we had the broad green valley of Salamá at our feet, and on the opposite side more ranges of mountains, at the extreme end of this valley San Gerónimo is situated.

Mr. Morgans kindly forwarded my luggage, and one of his servants accompanied us on the road. I am very comfortable here, once more with civilised people, the food is also very good and everything is more comfortable. This place is about midway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, much hotter than Guatemala but not so hot as Zapote, the thermometer in the house is usually between 70 and 80; we have all our meals in the verandah, which is much more pleasant in a tropical country, all round the view is backed up by mountain ranges on three sides quite close in; only the upper part of house is used for living in, so everything is very dry. This house was formerly a monastery, consequently is very large with many rooms.

We did not follow this route precisely, in our 21st Century “mule” (Karen’s Nissan Sentra), and eventually reached the carpark of the Mayan archaeological site of Mixco Viejo, described in Wikipedia as follows:

“Mixco was the capital of the Pocomam Maya Kingdom, and was sometimes known as Pocomam and Saqik’ajol Nimakaqapek in addition to Mixco. The site was founded on a defensive location mountain top in the 12th century. The peak population in the early 16th century may have been around 10,000 people. It was conquered by Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado in 1525 after a siege of more than 3 months. The Conquistadors then had the city burnt and depopulated.”

Karen in front of the landscape surrounding Mixco Viejo, through which GCC rode on his mule

Karen and Anabelle deep in discussion

Topographical model of the Mixco Viejo site

Clearly of great interest from a historical and archaeological point of view, this site was also of considerable ornithological and entomological significance for me as well, as it is located in the area of dry forest that I had driven through several times along the main highway to Salamá and San Gerónimo, without ever being able to stop and explore it. As it turned out, apart from American Kestrel, a lone female Blue-hooded Euphonia and a few Tropical/Couch’s Kingbirds, there was little of note around.

Part of the Mixco Viejo site

Self at Mixco Viejo

What was interesting for me, however, was the fact that Mixco Viejo is located very close to Llano Grande, where GCC had spent his short night on his rather less comfortable journey in 1879, and therefore allowed me to get a feel for the type of terrain he had travelled through. As he described, the landscape is very hilly, with sharp descents, rivers rushing along the valley bottoms – I can well imagine how difficult they must have been to ford.

Part of a stone map showing Llano Grande in relation to Mixco Viejo

After a very pleasant morning spent wandering around this peaceful and apparently relatively little visited site (today was a Saturday, and we saw a total of four other visitors!), we finally began the journey back to Guatemala City, where, after a delicious Chinese dinner, I am now about to start packing for my early departure for Quito tomorrow morning.

The landscape through which GCC travelled in 1879

Mixco Viejo view


Wednesday 26th October 2011

Antigua – new glasses and a smoking volcano – and perhaps the spirit of GCC flying by!!??

I noticed, while re-reading my previous diary entry, that there is a black triangle high in the sky above the farmhouse at Urias in one of the photographs. When I zoomed in on this object, it turned out to be a long-tailed skipper butterfly in mid-flight. A friend has just suggested to me that perhaps this is the spirit of my insect-enthusiast great grandfather appearing mysteriously and unexpectedly in my photographs!!! Thor Janson, one of my companions on today’s excursion, is a great believer in UFOs – and this is indeed an unidentified flying object – these long-tailed skippers are hard enough to specifically identify when they are stationary, let alone in flight!!!

The skipper butterfly passing above the Hacienda Urias

Today is another beautifully bright, clear day in Antigua – it is astonishing how quickly the rainy season can disappear, leaving this sparkling blue weather in its wake. However, perhaps I should not speak too soon, as a hurricane is headed this way, and torrential rain (at the very least) is forecast for the coming weekend, so this may be a short-lived interlude.

Smoke emerging from the active Volcan de Fuego

Anyhow, the Volcan de Fuego is blowing plumes of grey smoke into the clear blue sky as I write this….and I can actually see it clearly, as I have just picked up my new glasses. Special thanks to Optyma Vision here in Antigua for fixing them up so quickly, and again to Peter Foulds in Newton Stewart for reacting so quickly to my urgent appeals for my prescription!

Luisa Zea pointing to the peak of Volcan Acatenango, to which she is due to guide me in three weeks' time

Yesterday was another day spent literally in the footsteps of my great grandfather George Charles Champion (“GCC”). Shortly after breakfast I set off together with Luisa Zea, my super guide, and Thor Janson, photographer and conservationist par excellence, down again to the Finca Urías, just outside the small town of San Miguel Dueñas, where I had been two days before with Larry. We arrived at the gates where Natalia and I had been denied entry (understandably) only a few days before. This time the gates swung open and our two vehicles, including Thor’s amazing 1992 camper van, in which he lives, were welcomed in. We drove along the tree-lined driveway, finally arriving at the parking area of this finca, in which both my great grandfather GCC had stayed in 1879, and Osbert Salvin, one of his two employers, had lodged with his wife Caroline in 1873.

Fuego (left) and Acatenango - both appear to be active, thanks to the clouds near their peaks

My special thanks go to the Valdés family, who had authorised us to enter, and we were soon being given directions by Rubén Valdés to the mysterious almost disappeared Laguna de Dueñas, which GCC mentions as being a prominent local landmark during his stay. After a quick attempt to find the exact position from which Caroline Salvin had painted her picture of the house with the Volcan de Fuego erupting in the background (please see previous diary entry) – unsuccessful, probably due to the fact that the buildings were remodelled in 1928 – we headed off through the coffee plantations, until we finally reached a heavily padlocked red metal gate, which we decided against attempting to climb.

Self at the padlocked gate

Luckily, from this vantage point, we were rewarded with a panoramic view of the remains of the Laguna itself. Now almost completely clogged up with water hyacinths and only showing small expanses of open, very shallow water, with Moorhens and Great Egrets pecking through the marshy vegetation, it was nonetheless clear to see that this had indeed been a major lake, and its situation, nestled as it is in a basin surrounded by partly forested and partly agricultural hills, with the twin peaks of Acatenango and the smoking Fuego behind, gave this peaceful place a tranquil, untouched feel. We gazed quietly at it for a while over the barricaded gate.

The ex-Laguna de Dueñas

We then retraced our steps through the coffee plantations, enjoying the feeling that we were privileged guests here, and me thinking of my great grandfather butterfly- and beetle-hunting in these very spots 140 years before, until we came to a bridge over the grossly polluted Rio Guacalate, its filthy brown waters sweeping past a flock of scavenging Black Vultures, which were pecking at a garbage-filled plastic bag on a sandbank. Perhaps it might not help the vultures, but we could not help wishing that the authorities would do something about cleaning up this watercourse.

The filthy Rio Guacalate, with the Volcan de Agua in the background

Beyond the bridge, we turned left along the river, eventually reaching a weir, over which tumbled the soapy, foaming waters of this sick river, and we found ourselves below some beautifully contorted rocky cliffs, where we had been told to look out for ancient rock paintings. Although we were at first only able to spot a modern piece of graffiti, saying in large letters “¡Victor te amo!”, we did eventually find some faded shapes that could possibly have been construed as being ancient rock art.

The strange rock formations by the river

Whilst scanning the cliffs with the binoculars in search of further cave art, we were astonished to see a stream of Great Swallow-tailed Swifts emerging from an extraordinary, wasp-nest like mud structure fixed to the cliff wall. These spectacular black and white, long-tailed birds spun around in the sky above the gorge before disappearing over the lip of the hill, perhaps avoiding a Cooper’s Hawk that was circling with intent higher in the bright blue sky.

Plastic garbage swirling in the river

After another lament that this potentially beautiful spot was so disfigured by the swirling plastic styrofoam litter in the foul-smelling brown waters of the Rio Guacalate, we retraced our footsteps to the finca, where Luisa and I took leave of Thor, before heading off for a most delicious lunch of fruit salad drizzled with macadamia cream and fresh licuado de piña (pineapple smoothie) in the Finca Valhalla just across the road – I reflected on how lucky I was…I am sure that my great grandfather did not have such easy access to such filling and delicious delicacies back in 1879!

A salad drizzled with macadamia butter - GCC would have been astonished!

This is perhaps one of the aspects of this journey of mine that has struck me most strongly – in the 140 years since GCC was here, the accessibility of comfort has increased vastly (at least to those who can afford it). George had to travel everywhere, even in the extreme heat and blazing sunshine of the tropical lowlands, at a very slow pace on the back of his mule, he did not have access to running water, electricity, clean accommodation, varied food, or air-conditioned buildings or vehicles. How I could have thought that he was often complaining when I used to read his letters I do not know; now I think he was a man of great courage and resourcefulness in the most difficult of circumstances.

This may be my last diary entry for some time: if the hurricane does not affect flights out of Guatemala City airport, on Sunday I am heading out to begin two weeks of retracing my own footsteps of 28 years ago, in my favourite city and favourite country in all the World, Quito, Ecuador, and I may be so moved at revisiting this politically chaotic but marvellously varied Andean land, where I spent 1983/84 on a year out from my Spanish course at Stirling University, and which I could happily settle in, that diary updates may have to wait. We shall see!

Thor Janson, sporting an interesting hat, and self in the entrance of the finca


Sunday 23rd October 2011

Hot on the trail of GCC in San Miguel Dueñas

Although I am basically recovering from the allergic reaction I had to my numerous insect bites, I have not been held back in my quest to find the places associated with my great grandfather George Charles Champion (“GCC”), and today I feel I was right on his trail!

The day started with me taking a tuk-tuk out of Antigua, down towards the small town of San Miguel Dueñas, where I had kindly been given permission to visit the beautiful country home of one of my newfound friends in Guatemala City. She kindly contacted her step-son, who is currently resident in the house, and he welcomed me in and took me up onto the terrace, which commands a panoramic view of three volcanoes: Agua, Acatenango and Fuego, all of which were showing their peaks in the dramatically changed weather conditions we are now enjoying, after the previous two weeks of almost continuous rain.

Volcan Acatenango

After a delicious cup of coffee (what else could one expect in Guatemala, the land of coffee?!) and a chat, we walked together down the road to the Finca Valhalla, which Natalia and I had visited a couple of days earlier. Here I was welcomed warmly by owners Lorenzo (Larry) and Emilia, and Larry very kindly offered to drive me (in his 1975 Peugeot) across to one of the two fincas that Natalia and I had tried to enter previously, as he knew the owners and guardians.

We drove in through the gates, and almost immediately found one of the family members (I am omitting names here, in the interests of privacy), who was officiating at a football match just inside the gates. Amid much amusement at Larry’s incredible repertoire of jokes, we made acquaintance of several family members and other local dignitaries, before heading further along the track towards the old house and buildings of this long-established finca.

Hacienda Urias

Here, I feel I came right upon GCC’s footsteps – Osbert and Caroline Salvin (Osbert Salvin was one of my great grandfather’s two employers) stayed in the Hacienda Urías in 1873/4, and Caroline painted a view of the two volcanoes Acatenango and Fuego from this very spot, and she even painted a picture of what I assume to be the house itself (she simply refers to it as “The house at Dueñas”). Although GCC, in a letter to his mother dated July 7th, 1879, does not give a precise address, in his itinerary he gives his location as “June 26 – July 21, 1879. Dueñas (about 4500 feet). Coffee and Opuntia (for rearing the cochineal insect) plantations adjacent to the Lake of Dueñas…..”

Fuego and Acatenango from Hacienda de Urias, by Caroline Salvin, 1873

The house at Dueñas by Caroline Salvin, 1873

GCC was of course put in touch with the same people with whom Osbert and Caroline Salvin had lodged, and mostly stayed with them as well, so we can be almost totally certain that this wonderful, historic hacienda was indeed the very spot in which GCC spent those three weeks in 1879 – especially as this hacienda does indeed house the remains of the now almost dried out Laguna de Dueñas. GCC’s letter of that date begins:

My dear Mother,

I am still at Dueñas stopping in Mr. Wyld’s house; instead of getting the best weather at this time of the year, here we are having the worst, the rainy season is very bad indeed; in this country they have no rain for months, then rain every day for a long time, it has rained here every day since my arrival; some days we get a few hours fine in the morning, but between noon and night there is sure to be more or less rain, sometimes it rains the whole day: we rarely see the tops of the mountains at all for the mists, it is positively cold indoors, there are no fireplaces or any means of warming the place or keeping out the damp, it is lucky for me I am in Dueñas just now. Mr.Wyld is here a good deal and if I had not his company, it would be very dull indeed not being able to go out much. I ought to have returned to Guatemala ere this to start on a fresh tour; have been long enough in the vicinity of the Volcanoes Fuego, Agua, and Pacaya but till we get a little fine weather, I do not care to leave the vicinity of Antigua.

November, December and January are the summer months of Guatemala, then I shall appreciate the change of climate, cannot say I do at the present time. Dueñas agrees with me better than Zapote, there I was glad enough for a swing in the hammock to get cool, here I am rather too cool. We get very good bread, also potatoes in Dueñas but the water is bad. The Indians living in this large straggling village are all wretchedly poor, yet on Sundays, Mondays, and fast days, of which there are about 25 in the year, they drink spirits from morning to night, finishing generally by letting off fireworks, of which they appear to be very fond. Very many of the older people especially the women are afflicted with goitre, some very badly; there is very little intermittent fever in this place; at Zapote it was only too prevalent.

I saw the way in which people are punished for petty thefts, an Indian woman was rather fond of stealing such things as a knife or a fowl or portions of clothing – every time she did this, the alcalde, a shoeless brickmaker, ordered her to be chained by the leg to a post in the verandah of Don Joaquim’s house for so many hours every morning and the article stolen put close by for everybody to see, sometimes the woman she stole from would come to the house while she was chained there, then they would abuse one another fearfully for an hour at a time, she invariably had a baby in her arms, sometimes more of the family would come also to keep her company.

Hacienda Urias - GCC must have slept in this house in 1879

Although I was not able to walk to the site of the former lake (there is no security presence on Sundays, and this is an area notorious for assaults and robberies), I have been invited to return on Tuesday, when an armed guard will be detailed to accompany me to the former lake.

Hacienda Urias

One final interesting point is that the people of San Miguel Dueñas are still fond of letting off fireworks: I was told this morning by my friend’s step-son that the bangs go on all the time at night, and I even heard two myself this afternoon!

My sincere thanks to all concerned today for their kindness in helping me to locate this spot, one of the key locations in this quest to find the places associated with my great grandfather, entomologist George Charles Champion.

Map of Antigua area drawn by Osbert Salvin in 1858