Monday 5th December 2011

¡Es una hembra – agárremela!

Today’s title, roughly translated as “It’s a female – grab it!”, sadly does not refer to a female Drucina championi, but rather to a female Morpho helenor…but more of her later!

We set off, virtually the entire Drucina team of Luisa, Matt and myself, on our way down to the La Sarita restaurant near Escuintla, where we were picked up by José Monzón, our entomologist friend from the Universidad del Valle, and who had accompanied us on the day when we finally found Drucina championi. José had invited us to join him on a visit he was due to make to the university’s reserve on the southern slopes of the Volcán Atitlán. We even had hopes of locating Drucina there; as it definitely occurs on the Volcán Santo Tomás, and on the Volcán de Agua, and Atitlán is in between these two, it almost certainly will be living there too.

Our journey first took us along the Pacific highway, past the grotty junction at Cocales, and shortly afterwards we turned off northwards, passing through the pueblo of Santa Barbara only with difficulty as almost all roads had been blocked due to a fiesta.

Volcán Atitlán seen from the Finca Panamá

From here we headed closer and closer to the towering bulk of the Volcán Atitlán, eventually reaching the beautifully maintained and run Finca Panamá, such a contrast to the broken down mess that I had seen the day before in San Andrés Ozuna. Forgive the political comment, but perhaps those who are opposed to all forms of private ownership and favour community projects, where there is often nobody in charge and nobody with vision, should visit the two extremes of the Finca Panamá and the totally rundown, shambolic San Andrés Ozuna, which I had been distressed to see the day before, before making their judgments.

A quina plantation on the lower slopes

It was not long before we really started to climb, at first along well maintained stone-surfaced tracks – here they even still place individual round stones into the road surface by hand, more labour-intensive but far more durable in the long term. Then we eventually reached the upper limit of the cultivated area and entered the native forest…José’s driving skills and the strength of his Mazda 4X4 pickup were well tested, and both passed!

After rounding many bends that were so sharp that José had to back up in order to drive on, and lurching up seemingly ever steeper inclines, we finally reached the biological station belonging to the Universidad del Valle, where we parked up and were introduced to the resident guard, known as Chico. The wooden chalet-style house here is beautifully situated and well maintained, with a spectacular view down through the forest and out towards the Pacific coast. I am not quite sure of the exact situation, but it seems that the funding for José’s role as administrator of this site is due to expire, after which there will be nobody to keep an eye on this wonderful place. In addition, the university no longer sends students here on field trips, as two guards mysteriously disappeared some time ago, and the wife of one of them managed to extract a large sum of money from the university authorities in compensation. No bodies were ever found, and rumour has it that the two guards are now living happily in the United States!

The Drucina team at the biological station

Our first question to Chico was to ask how far it would be to hike to a bamboo zone where we might find Drucina. Chico replied that it would be at least four hours of extremely rough, straight upwards hike, requiring machetes as there was no trail. After some thought, it was decided that we would not do this, partly as by the time we reached a suitable area, the clouds would have built up and we would not find the butterfly.

Instead, we hiked out from the biological station on another, more horizontal track that took us a short distance along the contour of the volcano, eventually reaching a more open area where some quina trees (from which quinine is made) had been planted some years previously. Butterflies were surprisingly scarce, but suddenly, when I was perched in a distinctly precarious position, sandwiched between a tree and a precipice, there came a cry from José: “¡Es una hembra – agárremela!”, roughly translated as “It’s a female – grab it!”. I turned, somewhat gingerly, and saw a huge female Morpho helenor flapping gracefully towards me. Somehow, and I am still not sure exactly how, I made a surprisingly elegant sweep of the net…and caught the Morpho!

Butter-fingers Champion before the disaster

José has a collection of the foodplants of Morpho helenor in his house, and it is one of his dreams to rear the larvae of this species and to observe their development. Now we had a female, which had quite likely already mated, and José could then take this home with him in the hope that she would lay eggs and he would then have the chance to fulfil this dream.

José then extracted this huge butterfly carefully from the net, and asked me if I would like a photograph of me with the butterfly in my hand, before placing her in a container for transport back to Guatemala City. He handed over the butterfly to me, while I tried to extract my own camera from my pocket so that he would be able to take a picture with it as well as with his camera. Somehow, this movement, plus the extremely unstable position I was standing in, right on the edge of a cliff, caused me to lose concentration…..and suddenly the Morpho slipped from my hand and flew jerkily away! Luisa’s comment was: “That wasn’t a butter-fly, it was a butter-flew….and it escaped from butter-fingers Champion!”. Oh dear, will I ever live that down?!!

José close to where the Morpho butter-flew away

The biological station from above

After this disaster (but perhaps a lucky escape for the Morpho!), we retraced our steps, took another very short walk above the biological station, and then climbed back into the Mazda for the descent. At one point we stopped at a corner where many butterflies were flying and feeding on the damp volcanic soil. Here I slightly redeemed my reputation by netting a Memphis (Anaea), a new species for José, but the butter-flew was still flapping around in my brain, and it will be for some time to come!

A tree fern next to the house

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Sunday 4th December 2011

By helicopter to El Zapote!

Today’s diary entry actually starts about two weeks ago, when I was sitting with friends in the amazing Cargo Room restaurant and bar, hosted by celebrity jeweller Lex Cargo, who has turned out to be a great friend and a total fan of the Drucina butterfly story. I suddenly overheard a phrase from a conversation at the next table. The precise words were “el lado sur del Volcan de Fuego” (the south side of the Volcan de Fuego). As one of the fincas in which my great grandfather stayed in 1879/1880, El Zapote, and one which I had not yet managed to visit, was situated on the south side of the Volcan de Fuego, my ears pricked up.

I realise fully that it is rude and indiscreet to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, but in this case I could not help it, and eventually, I summed up courage to move across and ask in what context they were discussing that area. As soon as I had given a brief outline of why I was interested, the ice was broken, and it turned out that one of my new friends, Mitchell Denburg, owns a tree farm RIGHT NEXT TO El Zapote, and that Silvia Mansilla is setting up an education project in a neighbouring village….a visit looked suddenly possible!

In the meantime, I obtained the telephone number of one of the brothers who jointly own El Zapote itself, and, full of enthusiasm and still flushed with the warmth of having found the butterfly Drucina championi, I called…never have I received such a frosty response: “We are not interested in history, nor in insects. The whole place has changed since the 1880s, our finca is not open to the public. This type of visit is not for us.”

In some degree of shock, I telephoned Mitch to tell him about this, my ONLY outright rejection here in Guatemala, and he and Silvia immediately jumped to the rescue, inviting me to join them for the day in the area, and so it was that yesterday I found myself sitting next to Mitch in a helicopter, rising out of his wonderful garden in Antigua, and heading up into the blue sky between the volcanoes Acatenango and Agua!

Mitch by the helicopter

We flew low over three fincas in which my great grandfather had stayed: Urías, El Capetillo and finally El Zapote – I am not one to gloat, but it did feel good swooping over the very place I had just been told I could not visit! It was also amazing to see the whole area from the air, and this flight gave me a much better perspective of the kind of terrain my great grandfather had to travel through, on his mule.

The Finca El Capetillo from the air

Our first destination was the very top of one of the strangely-shaped volcanic hills below the Volcan de Fuego, where we landed in order for Mitch to look for a pair of reading glasses that he had left there during a picnic a few days before – sadly the great rush of wind that the chopper’s rotor blades made may have blown them away as there was no sign.

Hunting for glasses on the volcanic hill

From here we took off again, this time for the short flight to the centre of one of Mitch’s tree farms, where he is growing such species as teak, mahogany, palo blanco, and many others. As we walked around, admiring his many trees, Mitch told me a little about his charity project, the Fundación Nuevas Raices (New Roots Foundation), and about how he and the foundation had effectively saved the Laguna Brava, on the Mexican border, from environmental devastation. Mitch’s idea is that impoverished local communities should be encouraged to learn how to help themselves, and forestry is one of the main tools. As well as growing trees, he provides the expertise and financial backing, teaching the communities how to maximise the value of their timber, for example by manufacturing high-end wooden products for sale. He is also a firm believer that the land on which the commercial tree crops are planted should be well used, so between the trees other crops such as oranges, pineapples, plantains, etc are also raised. It was fascinating to walk around with Mitch, listening to his explanations, all the time with the great bulk of the Volcán de Fuego towering into the sky to the north of us.

Part of Mitch's tree farm

The Zapote area from the air, with Fuego in the background

Following this tour, we climbed back into the helicopter, and flew on to the small village of San Vicente Los Cimientos, where we landed on the soccer field. Silvia was there in a Jeep to meet us, and it was not long before what seemed like the entire community had gathered around us and the chopper, and Silvia began to explain about how she would like to help this village, which is made up of people from the highland area of Ixil, which was particularly hard hit during Guatemala’s civil war.

San Vicente Los Cimientos just before we landed - the soccer field is on the right

Mitch with a new friend

Finally, we made our way to the Jeep, and bumped along the few kilometres of rough track to San Andrés Ozuna, where Silvia’s project is already underway. She aims to create a model community of five villages, which she hopes will become models of successful and integrated development, with the population cooperating for the greater good of all, and with education at the centre of its existence.

We first made our way through the ramshackle, unpaved streets of the village, arriving finally at the community hall, where three of Silvia’s daughters were busy teaching a dance to a group of local children. Here, Silvia and Mitch presented graduation certificates to some of the locals who had just completed a course in how to grow vegetables, make jam, improve diet, etc, and then the girls performed their dance routine.

Silvia and Mitch at the diploma ceremony

Silvia and the girls in action

Silvia leading the dance troupe, with daughters helping

From here we drove the short distance to an old building set beneath four magnificent ceiba trees. Silvia intends to renovate part of this construction to use as her home in the village. As I walked around this atmospheric place, I wondered whether my great grandfather George Charles Champion might have slept here in 1879/1880 – he could not have missed the ceibas.

The house which Silvia intends to renovate

We drove Mitch back to the helicopter, as he had a meeting to attend in Antigua, and then returned to San Andrés Ozuna, where we turned off left, driving up through the derelict coffee mills to a higher point, where a crystal-clear, fast-flowing channel, originally built to provide water for the machinery, now provides a wonderful location for Sunday swimming. Silvia and the girls, following their athletic dancing performance, jumped into the water to cool off, but I took the opportunity to walk away from the people, balancing my way along the edge of this wonderfully constructed canal, set high on a hillside overlooking a deep and well forested gorge, leading down from the slopes of the Volcán de Fuego. I could well see why GCC had found El Zapote such a productive area in terms of his insect collecting – there were numerous butterflies, and the whole scene was one of natural richness – it seemed sad that this area at present harbours such a dysfunctional community of people in considerable poverty, and with severe social problems and crime.

The fast-flowing mill stream

The forest in which GCC found so many insects

After a delicious salad made by Silvia and her hostess in the house in which she and the girls sleep when they visit the village (all in one room, two girls to each single bed and Silvia on the floor, and with no bathroom and a pit toilet), we headed back towards the village hall, where the girls were to perform another routine. Silvia had kindly arranged for me to be given a guided tour of the derelict coffee mills, so I hopped out and was introduced to my guide.

Part of the coffee mill complex, with the cablecar mast to the left

German technology - the cablecar line

This finca and its coffee processing plant originally belonged to German settlers, who installed the most modern equipment for the time, and even set up a cable-car route to transport the coffee beans to the relevant parts of the complex. Expropriated from the German owners during the Second World War, the farm was then mismanaged and portioned off to some of the most notorious secret police killers during and after the Guatemalan civil war. It now belongs to the community itself, but its amazing machinery finally ground to a halt, probably in the late 1980s, and it is tragic now to see this magnificent site mouldering away, the roof letting rain through, the planks of the staircases and floors rotting away, and machines rusting quietly into history.

Part of the complex, with the roof open to the elements

The days when Made in Great Britain could be seen around the World

Soon, the President of the Community came to join us, and he explained how he and a few enthusiasts would dearly love to get the complex running again, providing employment to the many families who now have little income and little to occupy them, but due to lack of funds, but more importantly, lack of a cooperative spirit within the community, nothing happens, and more and more of the buildings start to collapse, and more and more of the movable metal objects get stolen for sale as scrap. He told me how on one occasion he and a few others had visited a house where they knew part of the cable from the cable-car had been stashed by the thieves. Although they managed to retrieve the cable, they received death threats in exchange – and death threats are not just hot air here in Guatemala.

Chaos in the old mill

Finally, saddened by this massive waste of potential, I headed back to the village hall to watch the end of the girls’ routine, and we then began the long and bumpy drive out to the main highway, fording six rivers along the way, some of which become virtually impassable in the rainy season, when great boulders as well as soft volcanic ash get washed down from Fuego. We passed in front of the imposing gates of the Finca El Zapote – my great grandfather must have stayed here, although the actual gatepost was marked 1898, so probably some remodelling took place after his visit.

El Zapote - GCC must have passed under this great Ceiba tree

I ended the day with a great feeling of admiration for both Silvia and Mitch in their endeavours to improve the lives of local people through empowerment and to change broken communities for the better. Silvia’s idea is based on five strands: the person (building self-confidence and the belief that an individual can achieve), the wider family, the family within society, minimising environmental impact, and developing for a more successful, more positive future. As a woman fighting in a male-dominated society, she has to work hard to achieve acceptance, but the first steps have been made, and positive signs are there for the future. My best wishes go to her, and to Mitch in his Nuevas Raices project, and my sincerest thanks are due to Mitch, Silvia and the girls for a truly fabulous day, and for giving me the chance to share their experiences and to see at first hand what it means to set your hands to trying to change a broken rural community in backwaters Guatemala for the better.

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Saturday 3rd December 2011

El Paredon Surfhouse – return to paradise

Today’s diary entry requires a very special note of thanks to Mathias and Christoph, of the truly wonderful El Paredon Surfhouse, on the Pacific coast between Sipacate and Chulamar/Puerto San José.

Following my announcement of our having managed to locate the butterfly Drucina championi, I was very touched to receive a large number of congratulatory messages, particularly on Facebook, but also by e-mail, text message, and personal contact. One of the messages came from Mathias, and it said: “Congratulations on finding the butterfly – free night at the Surfhouse!”!

And so it was that I found myself heading down towards the coast again, and receiving the warm welcome that is one of the many aspects of El Paredon that make it one of my favourite places to stay.

The wonderful El Paredon Surfhouse

In the late afternoon I walked the four kilometres along the beach to the mouth of the river, where as on my previous visit, there were many shorebirds to be found, including at least 200 Black Skimmers, extraordinary relatives of the terns, but with a hugely enlarged lower mandible, which they dunk into the water as they skim over the surface, ready to snap their bills closed when they come into contact with a fish. Other birds in evidence here were numerous Royal Terns, Brown Pelicans, several Laughing and Franklin’s Gulls, as well as various plovers.

Sunset over the Pacific

Another of the attractive aspects of El Paredon is the dinner, at which all guests sit together around one table, next to the pool, and the conversation is always interesting. My neighbours this time were Julia, from Kentish Town in North London, who is doing a PhD on biofuels, and Lars, from the U.S., with both of whom I decided to do a boat trip through the mangroves the following morning.

The mangrove trip

This proved to be an ornithological feast, with sightings of Osprey, Mangrove Black Hawk, many species of Heron including the bizarre Boat-billed, both extremes of Kingfisher, ranging from the almost crow-sized Ringed to the absolutely minuscule American Pygmy, one of which shot past our boat at high speed before disappearing round the next corner. But perhaps the most astonishing of all was the vast number of both adult and young White Ibis, which erupted from the mangroves as we poled our way into the narrow channels away from the main watercourse. Our boatman told us that many local people poach these Ibises for food, but the numbers still seemed impressively high here.

Osprey on its regular perch

By late afternoon it was time to leave El Paredon, reluctantly as before, but Mathias was quick to ask me to draw a picture of the by now famous butterfly Drucina championi in the visitors’ book. Unaccustomed as I am to drawing these days, several false starts were made, but finally the result was not too bad, and the butterfly, at least in the Surfhouse, has achieved a certain kind of immortality!

Self with the Drucina drawing

My thanks go again to Mathias and Christoph for that wonderful invitation, and I can only reciprocate by recommending El Paredon Surfhouse to all potential visitors, whether they be surfers, birders or just people who would enjoy long walks along the beach, good conversation and a friendly welcome in a beautiful place.

View from my bedroom at El Paredon Surfhouse

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