Wednesday 23rd November 2011

Pink-headed Warblers, Cloud-forest Monarchs, Volcanoes and a Crater Lake

Tuesday 22nd November 2011

Today started with a boat trip along the shores of Lake Atitlan to Panajachel, where we rejoined our trusty Nissan Sentra, and began our journey towards the high mountain town of Totonicapan, where Luisa was sure she would be able to show me one of the World’s cutest birds, the Guatemalan near-endemic Pink-headed Warbler – it only occurs in the Mexican state of Chiapas outside this country.

We headed ever westwards, climbing all the time, until we finally passed over the highest point on the Panamerican highway at the aptly named Alaska pass – almost exactly the same altitude as the summit of the Volcan San Pedro, which we had toiled up the previous day…and our legs were certainly feeling the after-effects!! The near perfect cone of the Volcan Santa Maria was showing clearly in the beautifully crisp, clear sunlight – our original plan had been to climb this peak today, but it would have killed me, coming so soon after San Pedro!

Self at the highest point on the Panamerican highway

Finally, we turned off the main highway, and found ourselves in the bustling market town of Totonicapan, where we headed to the Casa de la Cultura, and arranged a guide for our planned visit to the magnificent high-altitude pine forests that characterise this mountainous area.

The guide, Carlos, was someone with whom Luisa had worked the previous year on an eco-tourism project (who does she not know in Guate?!), and he hopped into our car for the short journey to the entrance of the forest track, where we started our hike.

The pines here are quite magnificent, some individuals towering into the sky, with a rich undergrowth of bushes and wild-flowers. This type of fresh-smelling high altitude forest is something very special to me – whilst I may enjoy short spells in lowland tropical forest, I feel far more at home here, away from sweat, biting insects and humidity. And it is not only to me that these forests are so important – as well as providing a safe and pure water supply to the people living hereabouts, they are also home to several highly localised species of birds, plants and insects, one of which was our target bird for this afternoon, the Pink-headed Warbler.

A forest giant, but burnt at the bottom

At first there was no sign of the Warbler, but I was thrilled to hear, and then see a flock of Crossbills feeding on the cones high in the trees. Crossbills occur right round the Northern Hemisphere, and in just a few high places they are to be found further south, including the Philippines, Taiwan, and here in Guatemala. Some authorities believe that the Crossbill should be split into up to twenty different species, based on their vocalisations. I find this argument totally ridiculous – if humans were split up into different species based on language, dialect or accent, I would be a different species to every person I have met here in Central America!

Self in the pine forest

After a while, we turned off the track into the forest itself, and it was not long before we started to hear the “chip” calls of warblers….and suddenly we were amongst a flock of the almost impossibly cute little Pink-headeds, which responded actively to me “pishing” (making a pish pish sound which small birds tend to be curious about). We admired these little gems for some time as they gleaned their way through the bushes, before finally starting our walk back.

Luisa and Carlos in the forest

Apparently these precious forests are cared for by the local indigenous community, but if so, we saw some worrying signs. Some of the largest trees of all had been burned hollow at the base, perhaps in local Mayan religious ceremonies, and some had been severely slashed for the production of resin. My suspicion is that local people are only permitted to remove dead trees, so they quietly set about killing the trees. We could hear the constant plunk plunk of axes resounding through the trees as we walked – I can only hope that this was selective felling, for to lose these forest giants would be an incalculable loss.

We finally returned to the car, dropped our excellent guide Carlos Chacla off in Totonicapan, and drove onwards to Quetzaltenango, where we crashed into our beds, both suffering from volcano after-effects in the legs, as well as a couple of heavy colds!

Volcan Tajumulco in the distance

Wednesday 23rd November

Still stiff from San Pedro two days ago, I crawled out of bed at around 07.00 AM, and met up with Luisa, whose cold was worse, and mine was really getting going – I pitied our fellow breakfast guests in the dining room!

Our plan for today was to drive a short distance and then hike up to the lip of the crater of Volcan Chicabal, and then to descend and camp by the crater lake, but we decided that our colds would not appreciate another freezing night in tents, so we turned it into a day trip…and a worthy one it turned out to be! We started off out of Quetzaltenango on the road to San Marcos, and according to the map we needed to turn off at San Mateo. We asked for directions, and the two indigenous ladies we asked said we needed to continue on the main highway as far as San Juan, and then turn off for San Martin – the saints were certainly busy hereabouts!!!

It turned out that their directions were pretty accurate, and we managed to find our way as far as San Martin, where we asked somebody by the side of the road how to reach the Laguna de Chicabal. This man was extremely precise, telling us we should drive over five “tumbulos” – the correct word is “tumulos” (speed bumps), and then turn off left. This we did, and we found ourselves driving up a series of super-steep roadways through an extended village. The concrete gave way to a dirt track, in places reinforced with stone, and miraculously, the Nissan Sentra (a low-slung saloon car with no four-wheel drive) made it all the way to the park entrance, where we parked up and paid our entry fee for the lake.

We took the opportunity of showing our plasticated Drucina championi photographs to the warden, and asked him if he had ever seen this butterfly. He hesitated for a moment, and said that he had definitely seen it. Full of excitement, we asked him where. “Aaah, en Xela”, he said….oh dear, in Quetzaltenango….no chance whatsoever.

Undaunted, we started our hike up into the woods, enjoying the beautifully clear, cool weather, and suddenly we found an impressive-looking butterfly that kept returning to the same bush, even when we disturbed it. This turned out to be a Cloud-forest Monarch (Anetia thirza), an addition to my life-list.

Cloud-forest Monarch, Anetia thirza

Shortly afterwards, having made our painful way slowly upwards, we found ourselves in a promising-looking patch of bamboo forest, and it is in areas of bamboo that my holy grail, the Satyrid butterfly Drucina championi, is supposed to live. We hunted high and low (literally), but to no avail. There were plenty of other butterflies around, but none that really even approached D. championi in appearance.

Onwards we climbed, my legs protesting strongly at this hard treatment so soon after San Pedro, and eventually we turned off on a more level track towards the Mirador de la Laguna, from where we began a dramatic descent by means off a series of 570 broad (and in some cases steep) wooden steps, all the way down into the crater to the lake.

The crater lake of Chicabal

A short section of the horrendous staircase

Laguna de Chicabal

The Laguna de Chicabal is located at an altitude of 2712 metres above sea level (the lip of the crater must be at around 3000 metres, and as well as harbouring a number of sacred Mayan sites, is an important area for wildlife. Perhaps, apart from its serene beauty, what made the lake especially interesting for me was that it is SURROUNDED by bamboo forest, and I feel it could so easily be a place where Drucina championi might be found.

Bamboo and the lake

Sadly, if that were the case, it was not to be today that we were going to find it. The clouds rolled into the crater, and, although they later dissipated, butterflies were no longer to be seen at all. We did spot one Belted Kingfisher, but remarkably little else. Nevertheless, this enchanting place was well worth visiting, and perhaps it may yet yield the elusive Drucina championi as a part of its fauna at a future date.

Self hunting for Drucina championi

Finally, we had to sum up the courage to ascend the 570 steps all over again! I thought I was never going to make it up this stairway!

Luisa preparing herself for the ascent

So, another Drucina hunt ended fruitlessly. I wonder if I shall find it. Time will tell!

Volcan Santa Maria


Monday 21st November 2011

Sunday 20th November 2011

El dia de “Los Encuentros”!

I am now sitting in perhaps one of the most beautiful hotel rooms I have ever stayed in, at the Hotel Casa del Mundo, overlooking an amazing panorama of the Lago de Atitlán, with the volcanoes Toliman and San Pedro (which we are due to climb tomorrow) rising sharply on the opposite side of the lake.

View from outside my room at La Casa del Mundo, Atitlan

So far, today has been yet another day of truly amazing happenings; Luisa says that if I wrote a book and included all the incredible coincidences that have happened to me during my stay in Guatemala, nobody would believe me, and yet they are absolutely true, as she herself can testify.

The day started with me picking up the old faithful Nissan Sentra, the very same one that I had rented from Tabarini Rentacar when we went to Quetzaltenango, Tilapita and the wonderful Paredon Surfhouse, and then driving to Luisa’s home, where we loaded up with all our volcano-climbing gear.

We then set off on our way towards Lake Atitlán, passing through Chimaltenango and then along the Panamerican highway. At one point, we passed a mirador on the opposite side of the dual carriageway, apparently with a view of the lake in the distance. Luisa asked me if I would like to stop. I hesitated for a few moments, especially as it meant driving on until we found a place to do a u-turn, but finally said “Ok, why not?”.

We turned the car, and drove back to the mirador, where we immediately spotted a man with a large TV-type camera and a hat marked History Channel. Curious as to what he was filming, I asked him, and he told us that he and his team were making a film about how a particular species of fish had managed to make its way from Lake Atitlán to the relatively newly formed crater lake of Chicabal. He then asked what we were doing, and I began to explain a bit about my quest to follow my great grandfather’s footsteps.

By this time, several other people had joined the group, and one of them, Filadelfo Guevara, from the Universidad San Carlos, when I explained about the entomological aspect of my journey, suddenly announced “Yo también soy entomólogo” (I am an entomologist too). He had joined the group a little after I had mentioned what I was doing, and he told us that he had heard from a colleague who is working in Holland about someone who is here in Guatemala retracing the footsteps of his great grandfather, who was an entomologist working on the Biologia Centrali-Americana. Luisa asked him the name of that colleague in Holland….and indeed it was my friend Luis Montes, who I was introduced to by Natalia, and who introduced me to his girlfriend Brenda, who introduced me to Julie, who introduced me to Luisa, etc, etc. Guisela, Julie’s mother, who does not believe in coincidences, would say that this was the hand of God guiding me into the right places at the right times.

Filadelfo, Luisa and self by the Panamerican highway

Whatever, or whoever, is guiding me was really doing an amazing job this morning. I could so easily have decided not to bother to stop when Luisa asked me if I wanted to, and in fact, just around the next corner there was another mirador, where we could equally well have taken photos of the lake. It feels as if something uncanny is happening to me here. Guatemala, although a relatively small country, nonetheless has 14 million inhabitants, and to stop the car right next to someone who KNEW ABOUT my great grandfather, in a parking space by the busy Panamerican highway, is definitely too much of a coincidence to believe – but Luisa is my witness.

We exchanged contact details, and showed these entomologists our newly plasticated photographs of the butterfly Drucina championi, and they have PROMISED to keep a close eye open and to inform me if they find it. They were in fact on their way back to Guatemala City having been on an insect- and fish-hunting expedition to the Laguna de Chicabal, where Luisa and I may go next week.

Luisa pointing at the Volcan San Pedro, our target for tomorrow

Following this, we felt we had to stop at the major road junction for a photo of the sign indicating “Los Encuentros”, or The Meetings, as it absolutely summed up what had just happened to us.

Self pointing to the the sign for Los Encuentros

Evening view from near the Casa del Mundo

Monday 21st November 2011

Volcán San Pedro conquered!!

Today was a truly memorable day – and my muscles will remember it for some time to come, I suspect….. We set off by fast motor boat at 05.30 AM, and crossed the lake in the dawn, the Volcán San Pedro, our target, towering ahead of us, completely clear of cloud.

Atitlan in the dawn

On arrival at the pier, we quickly completed the necessary formalities for our climb, and hopped into a tuk-tuk for the relatively short but very steep drive up to the starting point. Here we met our guide, José, and the trek began. Our route took us first through coffee plantations, then patches of degraded forest, across a river of lava from an earlier eruption, through some maize fields, and then into the real forest….and then the going got tougher. The path, very well constructed and complete with small logs to form steps, rose relentlessly, onward and ever upward, with not even a hint of a flat area to give the muscles some relief through variety of movement.

José set a vigorous pace, and at first I felt honour-bound to match it, but my very experienced guide Luisa advised against tackling my first real volcano like a madman, and thereby exhausting myself long before even getting anywhere near the summit, so I slowed down. A brief interlude came when José thought he heard one or more Horned Guans, the almost mythical large gamebird with an extraordinary red pointed bump on its crown, high in the trees off the side of the trail. Horned Guans, mainly due to the fact that they are good to eat, but also through habitat destruction and disturbance, have become very rare and elusive, but there is still a population on San Pedro. We stopped and listened to some grunting calls, as well as sounds of movement high above us, but they finally turned out to be a pair of Emerald Toucanets, which performed well for their audience far below.

Then the ascent began again. I discovered that it was better not to look up, because the never-ending flights of irregular steps stretching ever upwards, were too daunting. Luisa, who could have shot up this mountain in less than half the time I was taking, nonetheless caringly remained just behind me, her encouraging words helping me on my way.

And then, almost unexpectedly, the trail began to level off, the trees thinned out…and we were there. And what a view lay below us. The whole of the lake seemed literally spread out beneath us, with the twin volcanoes Toliman and Atitlán rising to its south, their heads (unlike ours) shrouded in cloud. Beyond, away to the east, we could just make out the Volcán de Fuego, which we had been so close to only a few days before.

On the summit of the Volcan San Pedro

Panorama of Lake Atitlan from the summit of San Pedro

Several other hikers (mostly from the UK) arrived, and we were quite a party sitting on the huge rocks that dot the summit, while we enjoyed our sandwiches and slowly recovered from the ascent…..but the descent was about to begin, and that would require a different set of muscles.

Finally, after a last gaze at the panorama below us, we turned and began to retrace our steps. At first, it was a great relief to be moving ever downwards, but after a while, the relentless pounding of my footsteps on the endless steps became more and more excrutiating, and I was glad when we came to some sunny clearings where there might have been a slight chance of finding my holy grail, the Satyrid butterfly Drucina championi, although there was no bamboo to be seen on this, the northern slope of San Pedro. We did see a beautiful Oxeoschistus hilara, the species which apparently associates with Drucina, and even as we were photographing this, José called from a little further on that he had seen a large bluish butterfly, but we did not manage to find it again.

Oxeoschistus hilara

And then it was over…we crossed the maize and coffee-growing areas, followed by the river of lava, and found ourselves back at the starting point; the challenge had been met. We hopped into a tuk-tuk, then after a breakfast (at 15.00!), into a boat, and returned to the Casa del Mundo, where although we had checked out, we hoped that there would be rooms available…but there were not. The last thing we felt like doing was getting into to another boat back to Panajachel, and then driving all the way to Quetzaltenango, which had been our original plan.

As it was, after some phoning, we found rooms in another eco-hotel, La Isla Verde, in the next village along the shore. We were kindly offered a lift in the Casa del Mundo’s boat, and soon found ourselves at the jetty near the reception of the Isla Verde. This hotel consists of cabins spread up a very steep hill overlooking the lake….and it turned out that my cabin was located right up near the top, which involved about ten minutes of more intensive step-climbing!

The one thing that would have been really welcome would have been a hot shower, but the eco-friendly solar showers did not provide one drop of warm water (as they also had not in the Casa del Mundo). Perhaps I should not complain as my great grandfather George would not even have dreamed of a hot shower, but I am very skeptical about eco-friendly systems when they do not work. Luisa, who by this time had a heavy cold coming on, sent me a text message from her cabin, saying: “These eco-showers are eco-freezing!”.

The lake from Volcan San Pedro


Saturday 19th November 2011

Volcán Acatenango – obstacles, recoveries and a truly breathtaking view

Following our day of preparation on Thursday, we were up perhaps not quite as early as we should have been, and it was not long before the first of several logistical hassles presented itself: all ATM’s in central Antigua rejected my card – perhaps due to the fact that I bent it slightly some time ago, or perhaps for some other reason, but I was forced to return to the hotel to fetch my Dutch card, which luckily worked.

This initial temporary setback was nothing compared to the second: I lost my hotel room key completely! My sincere apologies have to go to Jacqueline, my travelling companion during my first month in Guatemala, because I lost patience with her for locking her key inside her room, and now here I was doing exactly the same, only worse! I hunted through all my luggage, which I had carefully packed into separate bags, one for the ascent of Acatenango and one to be left behind, I retraced my footsteps to the ATM, etc, etc, but the key was nowhere to be found, and finally I had to pay for a new lock!

All this put me in a distinctly stressed mood, but finally I met up with my guide Luisa Zea and a friend, Steffi, and we were on our way, first to pick up our camping equipment from Old Town Outfitters, and then to Luisa’s home, where we found our driver, Carlos Nuñez, waiting in his Jeep Wrangler, a tough four-wheel-drive vehicle that was due to take us up as far as we could make it towards the upper slopes of Acatenango.

Steffi, Carlos and Luisa before we set off

The well-loaded Jeep

We transferred all the equipment into, or perhaps I should say onto, the Jeep, as there was no way we could fit even a quarter of our stuff inside the vehicle, and we secured the rest onto the roof. It was a tight squeeze…and then Luisa suddenly received a call to say that Luke, another friend, was going to join us! So back we drove to central Antigua, where we spent some time putting together our food supplies, and where we picked up Luke, and eventually we were on our way, heading out of town with the volcanoes Agua, Fuego and our destination, Acatenango, all showing well in bright sunshine.

We passed through the by now very familiar town of San Miguel Dueñas, and then headed upwards on a dirt road that snaked its way up through the forest, with butterflies flying in great numbers – I could well see why this had been one of my great grandfather George Charles Champion’s favourite collecting localities.

Steffi, Luisa and Luke in the back of the Jeep

Suddenly, as we rounded a bend, a strong smell of burning became noticeable, and we lurched to a halt. Obstacle number three raised its ugly head, and after Carlos had spent some time tracing the problem, I had fears that our adventure would be halted, almost before it had begun. An electric cable had burned through under the car, and no supply was getting through at all. However, my fears were unfounded as the great mechanical skills of Carlos came to the rescue. He asked us to look for a plastic bottle…something which in this litter-strewn country is never hard to find, and then dived beneath the vehicle again. I am not sure exactly what the plastic bottle was used for, but finally Carlos emerged, having fixed not one but two burned cables, the car sprang into life, and we surged forward.

Luke, self and Steffi on the broken-down Jeep, with Carlos, apparently smiling, at work beneath

Suddenly, Luisa announced that the $50 entrance ticket to allow us to drive up the volcano, which we had bought at the Finca San Sebastian the day before, was still in her home – obstacle number four! Luckily, however, the gatekeeper turned out not to be as difficult as many such minor officials can sometimes be, and he allowed us to pass through.

From here, the road meandered its way up, first through agricultural areas, and then entered commercial cypress and pine plantations. Suddenly, coming around a bend, we found ourselves face to face with a huge forestry truck, completely blocking the track, and onto which huge logs were being manually loaded. We asked the driver if there was any way in which he could move, and he informed us that we would have to wait “Veinte minutos”. Knowing how long a Guatemalan twenty minutes could last, and with Luisa and I singing to ourselves “Espera un poquito más” (see previous blog post!), we got out and admired the panoramic view of the Volcán de Agua that could be seen from just along a nearby track.

The panorama of Volcan de Agua we enjoyed while waiting for the truck to move

Luisa jokingly trying to push the forestry truck out of our way

Finally, the last of the logs was manoeuvred precariously into place, and obstacle number five was cleared. We bucked our way onwards up the seemingly ever steeper track, stopping for a photo session at a mirador, before we entered native forest at about 2500 metres’ elevation. And what a forest; not only were the ancient trees festooned with epiphytes and mosses, but we were passing through a band of real genuine wild bamboo forest, and it is bamboo forest that I am so anxious to examine, for it is the habitat of my number one target butterfly, Drucina championi. I have not heard of any record of this species, named after my great grandfather, from the slopes of Acatenango, but the habitat looked ideal to me. However, it was already late, the sun was not strong, and although we had a quick look, we had to move on as we still needed to reach our campsite before dark.

Luisa, looking like Rocket-woman

Our original plan had been to drive up as far as we could get, and from there to hike up for perhaps one and a half hours (at the highly fit Luisa’s speed) to the very summit, and to pitch our tents in the crater. However, as we did not reach the highest driveable point until well after 17.00, we abandoned this idea, and opted instead to take the track that circles the upper slope of the volcano, eventually leading to a series of levelled ledges on which we could pitch our tents.

After some struggles as we slid along this trail, which is almost entirely volcanic ash, we finally made it to the campsite, which sits just below the ridge that links Acatenango with the permanently active Volcán de Fuego, and we made our preparations for the night….and little did we know what a spectacular night it was to be! I must confess that I was feeling the 3700 metre altitude somewhat, and I got extremely cold, so I retreated for a while into my sleeping bag to try to warm up. Luke and Carlos set to work collecting wood, and finally a large pile was waiting…but Carlos was reluctant to set light to it. Steffi was also getting cold, and kept asking “¿Cuándo vamos a empezar con el fuego?” (When are we going to start the fire?), which became one of the catch-phrases of the trip!

Self, complete with Garhwali hat and the newly-purchased yellow fleece, with Fuego behind

Finally, the combination of some highly sophisticated fire-lighters called Mister Fuego, which Carlos had brought along, and the fire-making skills of Luke and Luisa, allowed the fire to be lit, and we settled down (as far as the freezing temperature would allow) for the evening.

A minor plume of smoke from Fuego

This campsite literally faces the peak of the Volcán de Fuego, and at intervals an orange glow would appear at the very top of the volcano, followed by a shower of molten volcanic rocks, lava would cascade down the slopes, and eventually, a few moments later, the bang of the explosion would reach us. Steffi, by balancing her Canon camera on a makeshift tripod in the form of a tree-stump, managed to obtain some truly spectacular shots – I hope she will send me a few, in which case I shall put them (acknowledged of course) in a future diary update.

It was not long before the bottle of wine that Steffi had brought with her was empty, and then there came a debate about what we should drink next. The inventive Luke came up with the brilliant idea of pine-needle tea!!! He disappeared into the night, eventually returning clutching several bunches of fresh pine-needles, which he then stuffed into the empty wine bottle, then filled this with water, and placed the bottle in the fire. It did not take long to boil, and the resulting liquid was surprisingly drinkable! Someone even said “It tastes like Christmas!”. Steffi’s second catchphrase quickly became “¡Más té por favor!” (More tea please!).

As well as the spectacular volcanic firework displays, the sky was full of stars, Jupiter was shining brightly above us, with its four Galilean moons clearly visible through my binoculars, and the lights of the towns of Esquintla, Alotenango, part of Antigua and even a section of the more distant capital, all combined to provide a breathtaking nocturnal panorama. But there was one more feature that we hoped to witness: that night, there was due to be a meteorite shower, and it was not long before both Luisa and I had seen separate shooting stars. It is always difficult to help others to see shooting stars, as by the time you have pointed one out, it has gone. Steffi, who was lying shivering, gazing up at the sky in the hope of seeing one, finally gave up and had to return to the fire to warm up.

Just before we went to bed, and in fact after Luke had retreated into the tent, our patience was rewarded when one spectacular, relatively slow-moving shooting star, far larger and brighter than normal, appeared in the southern sky, and we were all able to turn in for the night with the satisfaction that nobody (other than Luke) had missed the grand finale of this freezing but wonderful evening.

After an uncomfortable and distinctly chilly night, one interspersed with loud reports from the erupting Volcán de Fuego, the new day dawned bright and clear, and once the sun started beating on the campsite, the ice that had formed on the inside of the outer cover of my tent, and I finally felt able to emerge – and what a scene to emerge into! The volcanoes Agua and Fuego were set sharply against the swirling clouds below us, and in between, the peaks stretched away into the distance, the Pacific coast clearly visible to the south.

Agua panorama in the morning

The ridges stretching away towards El Salvador

Fuego in the morning

After a strange breakfast of bagels, peanut butter, cream cheese, blackberry jam, cookies and water (the fire had gone out, so no more pine-needle tea), we took down our tents, struggled to fold them up and to get them all into the correct bags, with the correct poles and pegs, and started the return slither to the Jeep. We finally never made it all the way to the summit, as Luisa had to be back down by midday, in order to be ready to attend the first half of her cousin’s wedding in Guatemala City this afternoon – the second half, the religious ceremony, will be held next weekend.

Our campsite, perched on its ledge

This time there were no obstacles, although at one point Carlos stopped the Jeep, turned it to face a seemingly almost vertical embankment, and started driving up it, reaching an angle of 45 degrees! He had told us that Jeeps can manage to move upwards even on such an amazingly steep incline, and he just wanted to show us – the “inclinometer” indeed registered 45 degrees!

The inclinometro reading 45 degrees

Carlos looking relaxed at this strange angle

We eventually made it back down to Antigua, and so ended a truly memorable excursion. My thanks to Luisa for her as usual excellent planning, to Carlos for being a great driver and repairman, and to Steffi and Luke for being excellent travelling companions, and respectively a wonderful photographer, fire-builder, pine-needle tea-inventor, and poetry reader!

The Volcan de Agua, with Pacaya to the right

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