Friday 21st October 2011

Antigua

“Dos cobardes y una aventurera”

Following our drenching at Tikal, we returned to our very welcoming but very humid hostel, Mon Ami (finding a dry place during these rains is impossible), and attempted to balance all our soaked items, including Natalia’s passport, numerous banknotes and other vital documents, my butterfly book (which nearly a week later is still wet and the pages have fused together), all on top of a wardrobe, with a large electric fan blowing on them….but then the electricity went!!!

Natalia and the soaked documents

The following morning we decided to take it easy, and it would have been hard to do anything else – the rain had been pouring down all night, and continued throughout the morning, until finally at about 14.00 it stopped, and there was even a short period of sunshine. Immediately we set off in our minibus along the north shore of the lake, and stopped at various places to watch birds, finally stopping at a mirador, from where I telephoned our boatman, Lou Simonich (tel: 50367923), with whom, if the weather looked promising, we were to do an evening boat tour of the lake and two rivers that run into it. The weather did indeed look good, and the decision was YES, let’s go for it!

We at once jumped back into the bus, slightly concerned about the time because a political rally of the Partido Popular was taking place ON the road through the small village of Jobompiché, and the local candidate was speaking to the crowds across the road, completely blocking our progress. We edged our way forwards through the crowd, and at one point it looked as if we would not get through, but finally the crowds parted, and the candidate himself, microphone in hand, motioned us through, shouting to the crowd “¡Aplauso para los turistas!”, and we moved on through the clapping and cheering crowd – almost enough to make one vote for the Partido Popular in the forthcoming presidential election, due to be held on 6th November!

Screeching to a halt in front of the hostel at 15.55, we found Lou already waiting for us at the pier just below in his lancha, and we headed out across the lake, looking forward to an evening of bird observation in the two rivers on the south side. At first, all seemed well, but within a short space of time, rain clouds had swept across the lake, and we were utterly drenched again! The rain, coupled with a sudden strong wind that sent waves scudding across the surface of the lake, made further progress impossible, maybe even dangerous, so it was decided that we should abandon the mission, and we ploughed our way back to the jetty, where we disembarked onto the slippery pier, and took refuge under the palm-leaf shelter, watching Lou disappear into the rain on his way back to his side of the lake.

Lou, Marvin and self before the rain struck

Marvin and Natalia sheltering under the palm-leaf shelter

View from the shelter - the rain cascading down

At this point the rain started coming down even harder, and the walk back along the narrow wooden pier looked treacherous, so we were virtually marooned under the shelter. Finally, perhaps twenty minutes later we heard muffled shouts coming apparently from nowhere, and we were amazed to see the gallant Lou, who had moored his boat on the other side of the lake and then come round in his pickup while we were waiting under the shelter, splashing his way along the pier with a large umbrella, ready to rescue us!

After a quick “dry”-out (impossible), we sat down to share a bottle of wine, and Lou told us his astonishing life story. An original anti-Vietnam war protesting hippie, and with a truly amazing family lineage in Slovenia, Belgium, Ireland, England, and with a 96-year-old mother who can apparently trace her family back to Roman times, Lou has ended up living on the shores of the Lago Petén Itzá in Guatemala, where he runs bicycle, canoe, birdwatching and crocodile tours and bakes the most delicious bread and cakes! A mine of information, it was easy to chat to Lou for a long long time while the rain sploshed down around the palm-leaf roof that covers the communal restaurant area of the Hostal Mon Ami.

Finally, after another very humid night, through which my bites were increasing both in number and viciousness, we had to say goodbye to our delightful hosts, and our special thanks go to Patrick, a Swiss traveller and jewel-maker who has got caught by the charms of Guatemala while on a long trip down through Latin America and was standing in for the French owner of the Hostal, and Nora, the helpful and charming receptionist/manager. Then we were on our way, heading southwards through SUNSHINE, on the long drive down to Rio Dulce, where we joined the road that Jacqueline, Julie and I had travelled along back in August, until we finally arrived at the small town of El Estor, on the shores of the Lago de Izabal.

Natalia trying to dry her shoes

We checked into our historic hotel, the Vista al Lago, which dates back to 1890, and housed the original store, set up by British loggers, and from which the town takes its name: store, pronounced in Spanish, which cannot allow a word to begin with an s followed by a consonant, became estor. 1890 was too late for the town to have been visited by my great grandfather on his visit in 1880, but this hotel, with its colonnaded balcony, gives a nineteenth century feel nonetheless.

The hotel Vista al Lago, formerly the store, from which the name El Estor derives

The temperature in the blazing sun, coupled with the extreme humidity, made it almost imperative for us to seek a place to cool off, and what better place could there be than the cool pools and hot waterfall of El Paraiso, which I had also visited with Jacqueline and Julie on my previous trip to this area? We were the only tourists this time, and the water was much higher and faster flowing than then, and it was here that the subtitle of this blog entry stems from: “Dos cobardes y una aventurera” – “Two cowards and an adventurer”! The two cowards refer to Marvin and myself, both of whom chickened out of crossing the narrow but powerful channel of water sweeping between the rocks, and the adventurer refers to the intrepid Natalia, who forged her way across, swam to beneath the blazing hot waterfall, and then climbed barefoot up the opposite bank, finding footholds on roots, and disappeared over the top of the cliff, where she apparently enjoyed a soak in the hot spring pools high above the falls, out of sight of the two chickens below!

The hot waterfall of El Paraiso

Finally she returned, and we then headed back to the bus, and drove the short distance to the lakeshore section of the Finca El Paraiso, where we were not exactly “welcomed” by a slightly mentally challenged lady sporting an “Ireland” t-shirt, who insisted we should pay 30 Quetzales for the swim which we planned to take in the lake after a birdwatching walk, “ahorita”. This provoked an interesting linguistic misunderstanding: for Guatemalans, ahorita means now, whereas for Natalia, a Colombian, ahorita meant later, or shortly. Finally we did end up paying there and then, and headed off for a walk behind the finca, passing a cage housing two Crested Guans, and more worryingly, two Great Curassows, highly endangered gamebirds that are in heavy decline due to habitat destruction and excessive hunting.

We were treated to sightings of a beautiful White-tailed Kite and a pair of Crested Caracaras here, as well as a “concert” of the almost frightening roars of a small troop of Black Howler monkeys. A passing local on his bicycle shouted jokingly to us: “¡Cantan para Guate!” (they sing for Guatemala) – this became a catchphrase of our trip, along with “¡Aplauso para los turistas!”!

Marvin and I then waded into the balmy water of the lake, leaving Natalia attempting to photograph toads in the gathering dusk, perhaps very slightly making up for our lack of adventurousness earlier in the afternoon.

Sunrise view from the Hotel Vista al Lago, El Estor

The following morning we were up at 05.30 for our boat tour of the wonderful flooded forests and marshes of the Bocas del Polochic, with the very same boatman, Benjamin Castillo, who had taken Jacqueline, Julie and me on our excellent tour the previous time. We took a different route this time, at first running along parallel to the north shore of the rivermouth, and Benjamin pointed out the wooded shore that used, before the construction of the nickel mine, to attract large numbers of tapirs, known in Spanish as dantas, the name that is to this day is given to this shoreline. Interestingly, the small indigenous village that my great grandfather visited here was called Danta. A passage of a letter to his mother of 20th May, 1880, reads:

Am only two or three days by water here from the Atlantic Ocean, it is one day to Yzabal and another two days to Livingston. I left La Hamaca on the 12th for Telemán, where I remained till the 18th, then came on here. For the last 3 weeks I have been in places excessively hot, in fact so hot at midday that one is obliged to rest for a few hours, and unless there is rain in the night, which in this place at end of the dry season is usually the case, it gets hotter and hotter till you are almost stifled, then comes a heavy thunder storm with a great deal of sheet lightning, and this cools the air till morning – you cannot sleep.

In Telemán, a little Indian village, I could not sleep from mosquitoes; here also the mosquitoes are a plague, though as yet not many indoors. You cannot stir without getting wringing wet with perspiration, my clothes fall to pieces and wear out in no time from this cause, knives, keys, etc. all get very rusty.

This place is very little above the level of the sea, not very far from the Lake of Yzabal and at the mouth, so to speak, of the long Polochic Valley; higher up the mountain ranges come in closer, here they are rather distant. This is by far the most tropical country I have yet seen, would like to transport Father here for a short time (though I expect he would soon want to leave for the heat and mosquitoes) to see the palms; the forest is full of them, the long leaves arch over the road, making a pleasant shade, they are like enormous shuttlecocks and are worth a journey to see; here in Panzós, there are a few coconut also. In the forest, there are trees of enormous height, they grow right above all the palms etc. without sending out a single branch, from 60-80 feet, they begin to send out branches; in forest also many acacia trees, on the ground Lycopodiums and sensitive plants. Here you hear howling monkeys (but they always keep out of sight); this, with the chattering of the small parro toucans and other birds, lets you know you are in the Tropics.

Panzós is but a small village, but one fares a little better, though it is usually eggs, tortillas, and frijoles for every meal, sometimes a little meat, but meat we should not care for at home, bread; however, a decent bed here, the first for the last five weeks.

In these places, ants swarm in the houses, and indeed, everywhere, so that unless people are careful, they get in everything. Have no end of trouble to keep them away from my collection, scorpions also, and many other objectionable creatures. The Tropics are all very well, but unless you can live as the better class live in the West Indies, a little more comfortably, one is far better off in England. The natives here are very fond, especially on Sundays, of doing a little insect collecting in one another’s heads, feet etc. and often when you are eating, if this does not spoil your appetite, I don’t know what will.

Our route then took us up the river, and then we turned off into similar narrow channels to those we had explored in the Rio Oscuro back in August, and although there was not a huge amount of birdlife visible, we did manage to find such species as Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, a superbly cooperative Lineated Woodpecker playing hide-and-seek with us the top of a bare tree trunk, Limpkin, Boat-billed Heron, Violaceous Trogon, Ringed and Belted Kingfishers, and a real, original, wild Muscovy Duck, the origin of so many farmyard ducks the World over, but now quite rare in the wild.

The magical Bocas del Polochic

We finally re-emerged from the tunnels of vegetation into open water, and we were treated to views of at least two manatees, which came up for air and then dived, showing their amazing rounded tails most cooperatively for us. And so ended another excellent tour with the skilled and informative boatman Benjamin Castillo, highly recommended (tel: 46387379). We packed our things and headed off for the long drive back to Antigua, where I urgently needed to visit an optician to set in train the replacement of my broken glasses. We arrived in the early evening, and so ended our excellent tour. Our special thanks go to Marvin Ordóñez, who drove us impeccably, as well as being a friend to us throughout the trip, and to Maibely Pérez, of Ash Travel (tel: 78326325), for organising the trip and for obtaining a very reasonable rate for us.

Yesterday, Natalia and I braved the “chicken bus” (retired US school bus) for the short trip to the Finca Valhalla, a macadamia farm just outside the small town of San Miguel Dueñas, where my great grandfather GCC had based himself several times in 1880. Not only was the tour of this remarkable place, which as well as growing macadamia trees here at this location, also promotes the planting of macadamia trees in indigenous villages across the country as an alternative source of income for local people, highly interesting, but it also enabled us to make the acquaintance of its entertaining founder, Lorenzo Gottschamer, whose highly blue jokes were enough to split any stubborn macadamia nut shell open! I explained the purpose of my mission to Lorenzo, and in particular that I was looking for the mysteriously disappeared Laguna de Dueñas, on the shores of which GCC had lodged in a finca, and he immediately pointed us to a finca across the road from his, on which the remains of the semi-drained lake are to be found!

Amazing toilet at Finca Valhalla

We immediately headed off on foot towards the entrance, stopping to admire a truly beautiful Scissor-tailed Flycatcher that was perched on a tree stump, opening and closing its spectacular tail streamers as if deliberately showing them off to us. We soon reached the entrance of the finca, but sadly (and yet understandably) the guard was not able to let us in. However, he did tell us about the Laguna, which has apparently been drained since GCC’s day in an attempt to prevent flooding of the surrounding plantations, but which still survives as a wetland.

In a further attempt to reach this almost mythical place, we crossed over the swollen river by the main bridge at the entrance of San Miguel Dueñas, and entered the finca just beyond, whose gates were open. Here we asked the gatekeeper for permission to enter, which he granted, but with the warning that we should be EXTREMELY careful due the presence of robbers in this area. As Natalia and I were both carrying a number of valuable optical items and documents, we decided to play it cautious here. Perhaps I will visit this place another time, in the company of a bodyguard and without carrying anything of value!

Mating pair of Disturbed Tigerwings, Mechanitis polymnia

Following a final farewell dinner with Luisa, Natalia left on the shuttle bus to the airport at 04.00 this morning, on her way to see her family, whom she has not seen for two years, in Bogotá, and I am now planning to take a few days off from travelling, mainly to sort out my new glasses, and to recuperate from the violent allergic reaction I have developed to my numerous mosquito and/or chigger bites – I have become almost paranoid when I see or hear a mosquito….and there is one buzzing around my ankles under the table in the restaurant where I am writing this now…!

A few of my bites

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Saturday 15th October 2011

Lago de Peten Itza, near Tikal

Following our departure from Antigua five days ago, we have had many adventures…mostly good! We set off in a minibus (somewhat extravagant for two passengers, but apparently cheaper than a 4-wheel drive car) guided by Marvin Ordóñez (highly recommended), who had driven Jacqueline and me several times back in August, so we knew we were in good hands!

Our first destination was Salamá, where we arrived after an uneventful journey. We checked into the Hotel Don Maco, and then headed straight for San Gerónimo, my great grandfather George Charles Champion’s base for nearly a year, and which Jacqueline and I had visited on our journey, also back in August. We had lunch in the very attractive Hotel Posada de los Frayles, and then spent the rest of the afternoon birding along the dirt tracks near the hotel and near the row of ruined arches of the old aqueduct that used to bring water to the monastery, and later to the sugar mill next to which my great grandfather had lodged for much of his stay in 1879/1880. The birding was quite successful, and we much enjoyed introducing Marvin to his first ever bird expedition! That evening we also enjoyed an excellent dinner in Salamá with friends Brenda, Eduar and Jiichiro.

The following morning dawned with torrential rain pouring from the dark grey clouds – and it has hardly stopped since! All went well until we came round a corner on the road between La Cumbre and the Biotopo del Quetzal, and found that a sizeable landslide had blocked the road, and a huge truck had slid off the carriageway and its wheels had embedded themselves in the mud at the side of the road.

Landslide and truck blocking our route

After waiting for at least thirty minutes, and watching 4-wheel drive vehicles struggling to get through (all succeeding but sliding all over the road the process), we almost decided to abandon our plan and retrace our steps, but luckily our patience was rewarded when a bulldozer appeared, followed by an even larger digger, and it was not long before the road was sufficiently clear for our minibus to slither its way through, and we were on our way again….through the seemingly endless rain. We passed through Cobán, and then began our descent towards the tiny town of Lanquín, which GCC had visited from 24th to 28th February, 1880. His description is as follows:

Returned yesterday to Cobán after an absence of about a month. I wrote to you from Cajabon on the 20th or the 23rd . I left this place from Lanquín, in company with the priest, Don Luis Mejicanos and remained with him as a guest in the convent in Lanquín till the 28th. He made me very welcome and seemed very glad of a visitor, so few Europeans going to these places; sometimes there is but little to be got to eat in these places, but what little there is I think finds its way to the priest. The Indians bring him all sorts of things as presents, he is a jolly fat priest just like what you read about and is never tired of eating even if it is only frijoles and tortillas. It seemed queer taking one’s meals with five or six nearly naked Indians standing round; on the journey of six leagues to Lanquín he took a number of Indians with him to get breakfast on the road. Lanquín is still very hot, but a little cooler than Cajabón; shall long remember the magnificent moonlight nights in these places; after the hot days it is very pleasant to rest in a hammock in the evening before going to bed, the distant mountains, the village in a hollow below, the convent, the coconut palms, and all looking so strange by moonlight. Here in Lanquín I met a young Austrian plant collector, a Mr. Klabrock, who has been eight years in these countries; together we visited the enormous cave at Lanquín, and spent some time inside, by the aid of candles, and we penetrated a long distance; it was well worth seeing; we found but little inside beyond some land crabs.

Our experience was not so different – we arrived at the village of Lanquín, and immediately headed for the very cave that GCC had visited in 1880. With rain pouring down outside, our ancient guide Alfredo (who looked almost old enough to have guided GCC in 1880!) led us deep into the extremely slippery caves, he and Natalia carrying flaming torches. We did not see any land crabs, but we did see numerous bats flitting around in the caverns, and I saw one cricket-like insect in an area where natural light never penetrates.

Natalia and self just before emerging from the cave of Lanquin

Finally, sweating copiously in the extreme humidity, we emerged and then headed into the village of Lanquín, where we parked up our minibus and transferred to a pickup truck for the 45-minute journey to our final destination, Semuc Champey, where we checked into our excellent hostel, El Portal, perched high above the raging torrent of the Rio Cahabón, which later lulled us into a fitful sleep – all the more fitful in my case due to a column of tiny ants that were using my bed as their highway.

The following morning, after a quick breakfast, we set off into the park, and then began the steep and slippery climb to the mirador overlooking the truly breathtaking series of pools and cataracts of Semuc Champey, which these days attract numerous backpacking tourists, but which GCC did not visit – perhaps the roads were so bad in those days that he did not dare to risk his mule in an attempt to see this amazing natural wonder, or maybe he did not even know of its existence.

Marvin and Natalia by sign at Semuc Champey indicating difficulty of the trail - Dificultad dificil!

Semuc Champey from the mirador

Natalia and self high above Semuc Champey

Having admired the turquoise pools from high above, we slithered our way down the muddy trail in order to approach the water, where we stripped off and plunged into the deliciously cool water. Here we were treated to the most wonderful natural pedicure, the small fishes nibbling at our feet and removing any excess skin that needed to be cleaned off! We finally returned to the hostel just as the heavens opened again, and we enjoyed our lunch looking out from our covered perch high above the raging river and observing the birds in the tree-tops below us.

Falls just below the pools of Semuc Champey

The rain eased a little later in the afternoon, and Natalia and I took advantage of the lull to do a walk along the extremely rough road towards Senahú, observing birds busy going about their evening activities. The road had become a river in places, and we splashed our way along, passing huts of local people, many of whom in this isolated region do not speak Spanish even today.

In the evening we made the acquaintance of a Colombian father and son, Santiago Garcia and 11-year-old Nicolas, who brightened up our evening by showing us an amazing film that Santiago had made of a journey he made to a remote national park, Tuparro, on the banks of the Rio Orinoco. The evening ended with Santiago and Natalia dancing merengue, as only Colombians can!

The following morning, with the rain still pouring down, we climbed into a pickup truck for the return journey to Lanquín, where we transferred back into our own bus, and headed first back up to Cobán, and then northwards towards the flat lowlands of the Petén. In several places the road had been washed away, but we splashed our way through, and even managed to cross the extremely swollen Rio de la Pasión on a small ferry, where only the roofs of the riverside houses were showing above the waters.

Our route took us through the major town of Santa Elena, where we got thoroughly lost in the rain-filled streets before we finally found our way out onto the main highway leading to Tikal. We finally checked into our delightful hostel, Mon Ami, in the small settlement of El Remate, on the shores of the Lago Peten Itza.

Today dawned rainy again, but we headed north again for the short drive into the national park surrounding the famous ruins of Tikal, where we parked up, and were immediately treated to excellent views of a Keel-billed Toucan perched in a tree above the restaurant, and were amazed by the troops of the globally endangered but here common Ocellated Turkeys pecking around the tourists’ feet.

We decided that it would be wise to have breakfast before embarking on our day-long walking tour of the ruins and jungle, and it was during this meal that a real disaster befell me: while cleaning my glasses, the bridge between the two lenses snapped and I was left with two separate halves of my vital visual aids! I normally carry a pair of prescription sunglasses as a backup, but somehow on this occasion I had left them in Guatemala City!! For an extremely myopic birder, visiting the World Heritage Site and renowned birding site of Tikal without his vital spectacles, nothing could be worse. Drastic repair measures were called for, so Marvin went off to try to purchase super-glue and insulating tape, Natalia obtained paper-clips and scissors, and we set to work. At this point, who should walk past but our Colombian friends Santiago and Nicolas, and our efforts, combined with Santiago’s orthodontological dexterity, finally produced a vaguely usable pair of semi-disconnected lenses, and we set off into the jungle.

The broken glasses

Repair team one - Marvin and Natalia

Repair team two, with the addition of Santiago and Nicolas

The final result

Tikal is a truly spectacular, unique site, where archaeology and ornithology can easily be combined, and the amazing pyramids themselves provide fabulous elevated vantage points for observing birds at eye-level in the canopy of the surrounding trees. We spent the morning wandering peacefully through the site, climbing ruins, birding….and trying to avoid the numerous extremely active and ravenous mosquitoes, an absolutely lost cause!

The Central Plaza of Tikal

Our final destination was the tallest of all the structures, Temple IV, from the top of which a truly spectacular panorama was spread below us, of seemingly endless jungle (although sadly the impression of endlessness is only an impression – outside the park the forest is disappearing at an alarming rate), out of which rise these ancient architectural marvels of the Mayan world. To crown it all for us, a beautiful Orange-breasted Falcon flew in and perched on the bare branches of a nearby tree.

At this point, the heavens opened and a truly torrential downpour commenced, and it has not stopped since. We tried to protect ourselves as best we could, but by the end of the long trek through the jungle back to the vehicle, we were absolutely drenched. We thought of stopping to shelter somewhere, but even in spite of the sheets of water pouring from the sky, the shortest halt produced clouds of truly vicious mosquitoes, so we ploughed on. Natalia’s passport and money were absolutely soaked through, I was worried that I might have destroyed my third camera of this journey, but luckily it and my binoculars survived. And so ended a truly memorable visit to Tikal, one marked in my case by broken glasses and vast numbers of mega-itchy bites, as well as more pleasant memories of this awe-inspiring place.

Panorama of Tikal from Temple IV

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Monday 10th October 2011

Black-spotted Fantastic-Skipper, Antigua

The title of this post, Black-spotted Fantastic-Skipper (Vettius onaca), is the name of a butterfly we found yesterday at the Finca Filadelfia, a coffee farm/tourist complex all in one, and I loved the name! In fact, the skipper butterfly is perhaps not all that fantastic, but it was a new species for me, and one that my great grandfather did not find – in fact, it was only described (by that guru of skipper taxonomy Brigadeer W H Evans) in 1955.

Black-spotted Fantastic-Skipper

We are now in Antigua, following the arrival of my friends Natalia and Luis, both of whom I met in Wageningen University in May this year, and both of whom have had a huge impact on this journey of mine. Natalia was a student in a Scientific Writing course I taught, and on the first day of these courses I normally ask the students to interview each other in pairs, get ten interesting facts, and then write a well-structured paragraph about their neighbour. In this particular group, there was an odd number of students, so I teamed up with Natalia. One of the questions I asked her was what her hobbies were, and she replied that she loved birdwatching! What a coincidence, plus she was from Colombia, so as I knew I was coming to Latin America and had not practised much Spanish for a long time, and as she loved birds but had no car and did not know the good birding locations around Wageningen, we quickly arranged for me to take her birdwatching and for us to speak Spanish, a mutually beneficial arrangement!

Natalia soon told me that she had a Guatemalan colleague in her department, and she asked me if I would like to meet him – as I had never met a real live Guatemalan before, of course I said Yes!! And so it was that my first Guatemalan link began….and then Luis introduced me to his girlfriend Brenda, who introduced me to Eduar, Pablo and Jiichiro, plus to Julie, who introduced me to Luisa, etc, etc, all of whom have been hugely helpful to me during this quest, as well as helping to make this such an enjoyable experience. So it is nice to have Natalia and Luis with me, as the two instigators of all this contact-building that has been going on.

On Friday, Natalia and I climbed up the Cerro de la Cruz, the hill overlooking Antigua which I had visited with Jacqueline back in August, and it was interesting to see a number of extra bird species, all North American migrants, that have arrived since then. We admired the view that Muybridge had photographed back in 1875, and then headed into the forest up behind the monument, eventually joining a quiet road leading along a wooded ridge away from Antigua. It was not long, however, before two policemen on a motorbike drew up beside us and warned us that this was a dangerous place to walk, and that we should turn back at once. Disappointed but grateful for this timely advice, we turned back and returned to the safer areas nearer the cross.

An amazing caterpillar we found near the Cerro de la Cruz

The following day, Saturday, we headed out to the Centro Cultural La Azotea, a working coffee plantation with a museum of musical instruments and other artefacts, with a number of trails that can be good for bird/butterfly-watching. Unfortunately, due to me over-sleeping and therefore us arriving late, and the unexpected fact that the finca closes at 14.00 on Saturdays, our observations were curtailed – perhaps no bad thing as the heavens opened just as we left!

Yesterday, Sunday, we took a tuk-tuk to the Finca Filadelfia, which proved to be a very enjoyable experience. We started off by wandering around the coffee plantations close to the centre of the finca, not seeing many birds, but nonetheless seeing several new butterflies for my list, including the Bold Mimic-White (Enantia jethys), the Frosted Mimic-White (Lieinix nemesis) and the Checkered White (Pontia protodice).

At 11.30 we were back at the centre because we had been informed that there was transport provided to a restaurant situated at 7000 feet up in the cloud forest, and that it was free provided one consumed something in the restaurant. This was too good an opportunity to miss, so we climbed into the back of an ancient but beautifully maintained Mercedes truck, and we wended our way up and up through coffee bushes at first, followed by cypress and pine plantations, until we finally reached the restaurant, above which the cloud forest began.

We immediately started up the track marked “Bosque Nuboso”, and we found ourselves, as could be expected considering the fact that we were in the “cloud forest”, in the clouds! Although the visibility was poor, the atmosphere in these humid mountain forests is something quite unique, and it was a pleasure to be away from human sounds and in this wonderful habitat. We soon noticed that we were being discreetly shadowed by an armed guard, but he kept a distance, stopped when we stopped, and he was somehow a comforting presence.

Cloud-forest, Filadelfia

As we climbed, gleams of sunshine appeared through the clouds, and butterflies appeared….including a Dot-banded Oxeo (Oxeoschistus hilara), the Satyrid butterfly that is known to associate with the Holy Grail of all butterflies for me, Drucina championi. Although I have no indication that my great grandfather’s namesake butterfly has ever been recorded here, we were within sight of the Volcán de Agua, where it definitely has been seen, and we were at the right altitude. There was no sign of the extensive stands of bamboo in which the butterfly is said to be found, but there were a number of up-rooted stems of bamboo along the track, so we cannot have been far from a suitable area.

When we reached a particular corner, our shadow approached and told us that he could not accompany us any further, and that we should definitely not continue alone. As the cloud had come down again, this was not too disappointing, and we retraced our footsteps, and settled down to a pleasant meal in the restaurant, after which we descended again in the ancient truck.

Today was another highlight – literally high, as we visited the Volcán Pacaya (my second visit now). Our route this time was slightly different from the one I took on my last visit, and afforded us an even more impressive view, and allowed us access to other fumaroles and areas of the lava-flow than those I visited last time. The long-distance views were not as spectacular due to extensive cloud cover, but the visit was definitely worthwhile nonetheless….and I was pleased to add another impressive butterfly to my list: the Cloud-forest Beauty (Pycina zamba).

Self emerging from the natural sauna, Pacaya

Tomorrow we are heading out of Antigua on another adventure, this time into the lowlands of Petén, which was beyond my great grandfather’s range, and I may be out of internet range for some days.

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