Sunday 15th April 2012 (Letter 19th February 1880)

GCC travels through deep mud to Cajabon, and consorts with a priest

This letter details a visit that George Charles Champion made from the very rainy highland town of Cobán, eastwards to the village of Cajabon, situated in a depression in the hills, and known to be very hot and windless. His first stop was at Chiacam, a finca that still exists, but which I was unable to reach during my recent time in Guatemala. From here he travelled on downwards, stopping at Lanquin before making his final push towards his destination. I did reach Lanquin, but left GCC’s trail there, venturing instead to the wonderful series of pools at Semuc Champey instead. For details of my visit, please see diary entry of Sturday 15th October 2011.

The hills close to Chiacam, where GCC spent a night on his way to Cajabon


February 19th 1880

My dear Mother,

I received your letter of January 1st on February 7th, while in Cobán, it having been brought to me by a friend from Salamá; only the day before – that is on the 6th – I wrote to you via Belize; have also received the three newspapers for which I was very glad.

I was very glad to hear that Walker had been to see you; he spoke about it in his letter and said he spent one or two hours very pleasantly with you. Now as to my own doings, I have perhaps a little to tell you. I left Cobán on February 10th after a detention of four days waiting for it to leave off raining. By the time I left the house, you could scarcely stir out of the house for the mud. I was only too glad to get out of it and arrived in Cajabon on the evening of the 12th; though only about 18 leagues from Cobán, it took three days to get here. I thought I had seen roads in this country as bad as they could possibly be, but compared with the road to Cajabon they were very good, mud at times up to the bellies of the animals, narrow places in the forest where the road was only about a foot wide, slippery rocks, in parts the road as steep as a flight of stairs where it was absolutely impossible to pass except on foot – I can tell you it was hard work getting here. For this reason, very few Europeans get to Cajabon, which is certainly one of the queerest places I have yet visited in Guatemala. The first day’s journey from Cobán was to Chiacam, travelling all day through tortuous valleys between mountains, the second day we got to Lanquin and on the third to Cajabon; the last day’s journey was not quite so fatiguing, the road being a little more level, and passing alongside of the River Cajabon for many miles, but scarcely a quarter of a mile of level road for the whole journey. I brought with me my boy Leopoldo, who suits me very well, and a man from Cobán just for this trip.

I am staying here with the priest – the only decent house in the place. Cajabon is a good sized Indian village, the houses of mud and sticks all on little hills or slopes, there is scarcely a level piece of ground in the place excepting the plaza on one side of which is an enormous church in a very ruined condition. The natives go about as near as possible naked and I don’t wonder at it, for it is as hot in the daytime as the nether regions; at night however it is cool, the climate of this part of Alta Vera Paz being excessively humid. We are only 800 feet above sea level, coconuts grow well, also cacao, bananas, pineapples, sugar, coffee, cotton, etc.

But the Indians don’t care to work much and plant only maize, at one time they were averse to strangers, and killed all that came, now they are very different, very timid. The women, instead of wearing the enormous red pigtails as in Cobán, do their hair chignon fashion but on the top of the head and look queer objects, many go about in the boiling sun quite bareheaded and seldom if ever wear a hat.

The priest has been here for years and seems to get on very well with them. But I should think he must find it dull at times, especially as they do not speak Spanish. Eatables are very scarce in Cajabon, it is eggs, frijoles, tortillas for every meal, rarely a little fish, meat or bread, no vegetables or milk, of course coffee. I don’t suppose I shall get further into the interior of Guatemala than Cajabon, am only a few days from Peten, but I see nothing at present to tempt me hence. Shall probably return in a few weeks to Cobán and then make another trip. Am getting very little for Mr. Godman just now but it cannot be helped. The priest seems glad to have a visitor though we cannot talk very much; he has never been out of Guatemala.

With best love to all.

The Rio Cajabon, not far from Lanquin


Saturday 14th April 2012 (Letter 23rd January 1880)

GCC complains of the high prices in Guatemala City, circumnavigates the Lake of Amatitlán and prepares to set off for rainy Cobán

The letter here provides a little information about the high prices of goods and services George Charles Champion found in the capital (prices are in UK shillings), and shows how he tried to keep his visits to the city to the minimum.

Jan 23rd, 1880

My dear Mother,

I am writing to Chancey (???) and enclose a few lines for you. I received your letter of Nov 27th on Jan 18th, a few days after I had written to you. I was sorry to hear that father had been so unwell. I hope by the time you receive this you will both be better and that you will have lost your cough. Business must be dreadfully bad.

I keep very well though there is a good deal of sickness about just now, as usual at end of rainy season. I was detained in Guatemala eleven days, could not leave till I got the box up from the port. I left on the 18th, leaving Mr. Morgans behind and arrived here on following evening; was between nine and ten hours each day in the saddle. Am bringing out most of my luggage to San Gerónimo; don’t want to go to the capital again in a hurry – a man need be made of money to go there.

Very hot and dry here now and nothing to be got in my way. I leave on 25th for Alta Vera Paz; shall probably make Cobán headquarters for five or six weeks, and travel all round, then return again here. Am sorry to leave comfortable quarters but it is absolutely necessary. There will be quite a break up in the establishment, Mr. Morgans going to England and Mr. Hutchison to Belize. An American and his wife are coming from Guatemala to take charge in Mr. Morgans’ absence. I know the gentleman very well so shall get on all right with him.

I am leaving a note for Mr. Morgans to take to England with him, in case he has a chance of calling to see you; he promised me to do so if possible.

To give you some idea of price of things in Guatemala:
- boots soled and heeled 8/, – a new pair 26/-, hair cutting 1/-, beer only by bottle – a small bottle holds about a glass and a half 2/-, a larger bottle 3/6 or 4/-, felt hat 18/-, hotel expenses at least 10/- a day, large necktie 7/-, small 3/-, and so on.

There are only two ways of living, very high or very low, there is no medium. One thing, if you stay at Gran Hotel, you meet all the people worth knowing, and always English-speaking people.
I went to see Mr. Graham, the English minister (the ministers are not going to Costa Rica after all, it was only a rumour), and he afterwards came to see me at the hotel. On the 13th I made a flying trip to the Lake of Amatitlán (distant 6 leagues), returning to the capital in the evening; had previously travelled here but never round the lake, the view was very fine indeed.
The bright blue water of the lake and the very lofty mountains (with the two volcanoes Agua and Pacaya) on every side, seen under a cloudless sky, made a splendid picture.

I have not seen the mountains so clear of clouds for many months. Often the sun sets in a cloudless sky and as it goes down behind the distant mountains, we get magnificent views, the mountains gradually changing in colour, till very suddenly we find it dark, but as a set-off against all this we have the heat and the dust, which make travelling very unpleasant.

I now go to a place where it is always green and verdant, here probably shall get plenty of rain, though only 50 miles distant.

With kindest regards to all,
Believe me,
Your loving son,
George .C. Champion

Lago de Amatitlan


Thursday 5th April 2012 (Letter 11th January 1880)


Today’s letter, sent by George Charles Champion home to his mother on January 11th, 1880, introduces his servant Leopoldo, who was to accompany him faithfully for the rest of his stay in Guatemala, and was even to accompany him to Panama. He then mentions the prominent German community in Cobán, and even describes a robbery from the sugar warehouse – clearly that type of crime is nothing new in Guatemala!

January 11th, 1880

My dear Mother,

I am once more in the Capital after an absence of nearly six months; I spent a very quiet Xmas as I told you in my last letter, at San Gerónimo – nothing whatever to distinguish it from any other day, not even a pudding! On the 26th, they were rather noisy in the village, what with their religious processions, they carry life size figures of saints about the streets, often accompanied by a lot of boys dressed up as devils, and continually letting off fireworks, beating drums, ringing the church bells, and altogether making a horrible din.

On Sunday the 28th, Mr. Morgans having abandoned the trip, I started off with a young negro as servant for Cobán, 50 miles to the north; by riding hard all day we reached Saltic (about 30 miles) by dark, slept here and left early next morning for Cobán, arriving about 2 p.m. I remained at Cobán till Jan 2nd. I already know one or two people of this place, and soon made many more acquaintances, German, English, and American, so the time soon passed. There are two German naturalists living in Cobán, both of whom had been expecting me for some time. There are many Germans (nearly all of whom speak English) in this town, the principal place in Alta Vera Paz, and nearly, if not all of the Europeans and Americans living here, have coffee estates; wherever you go you find coffee plantations.

GCC's servant Leopoldo

There are several thousand Indians living in Cobán also, the women do up their hair in a most extraordinary fashion, quite different to what I have seen elsewhere. At a distance they look as if they had tied one of those long red bags of sawdust we use for keeping out the draught to their hair, it reaches nearly to the ground like a pigtail and on either side is another long red tail, with a tassel at the end. It must be very uncomfortable, I should think to carry such a load about with them.

I stopped in Cobán at the Hotel Alemán on New Year’s Eve. Most of the Germans met here, and had a supper sitting up to see the old year out and the new one in; I was invited also. It is cool in Cobán but warm in the sun, the climate is very humid, nine or ten rain months in the year, and very suitable for coffee; the town is as it were on the top of the mountains and whichever way you look you see mountains, it is about the same elevation as the top of the highest mountain in Scotland.

I could not remain long enough in Cobán to visit the places I wanted, Cubilguitz, Cajabón, Lanquin, Chiacam, and so I shall have to go there again very soon; about Cobán itself there is nothing but coffee plantations, consequently little to be found in my way. On Jan 2nd I left Cobán and next day got back again to San Gerónimo; on the 6th started with Mr.Morgans for the capital, arriving about 5.30 p.m. on the 7th, travelling 69 miles in the two days; of course, all these journeys are made on mule or horseback.
There are but few cart roads in this country.

It is now in Guatemala very fine, rains all over in this part, hot in the sun, but also a strong cool wind, almost a cloudless sky today, the three volcanoes very plainly to be seen. The Fuego as usual smoking away. I know many people here now, still I don’t want to remain longer than I am obliged; expenses are very heavy indeed, 6d goes for next to nothing, you need be made of money to remain long in the capital. No sooner did I get back again to this place, than my teeth began again, so after standing it two or three days, I went to the dentist (an American whom I knew) and had the three decayed wisdom teeth extracted, and already feel all the better for it. Have not yet received the box sent by Mr. G on Oct 1; it would have remained, I believe six months at the port, had I not returned here to enquire about it. The European mail due a week or more ago had not yet arrived and goodness knows when it will, the Panama railway not being in regular working order yet.

Mr. Morgans has delayed his return a few weeks; he says he hopes to be in London for a few days, when he will call and see you, letting you know previously. I think you will like him very much, he is one of the most agreeable fellows I have ever met with.

Guatemala has improved a little since my last visit, the streets are much better lighted with petroleum gas. There is no gas like we have in England in this country but petroleum gives a very good light.

I probably return to San Gerónimo this week; it is doubtful whether I shall wait for Mr. Morgans. I want to see my luggage on the way that is all – perhaps I may go to Amatitlán (18 miles distant) – if so, shall be here a little longer, from San Gerónimo I go to San Joaquin (45 miles), then to Cobán again.

No sooner does the rain cease in this part of Guatemala, than the vegetation dries up, and everything looks very brown, and arid, but in Alta Vera Paz it is green all the year round. On the way up from San Gerónimo we slept in our hammocks in the open air, in the corridor of a house, here it was very hot, but in Guatemala it is very much cooler.

In Saltic it is very cold in the night, and often foggy early in the morning. Though a hot sun in the day, you get all sorts of climates in Guatemala, every few miles it changes. One night you sleep in a place where it is so cold that you cannot get warm, the next perhaps in a place sweltering hot like La Tinta.

Have made the acquaintance of a young German, a Mr Rockstroh, who has charge of the observatory in Guatemala, he is a good naturalist and knows this country well. I hope some day to make a joint trip with him. I wonder when I shall see a fireplace again, have not seen one since I left home. Another jeweller has started only a few doors from two others; nearly all in this trade in Guatemala and Central and South America also are Swiss and they bring out Swiss or German workmen, they make a show in the window, all the stock is inside. One of these, a Mr. Widmer, has an large stock of jewellery (but all French and watches and clocks – German, American and Swiss); have scarcely seen any English goods here, beyond common Birmingham things, they get an enormous price for everything, as they need to pay expenses, and duty which is I believe about 50 percent on all imported articles.

I think I have now told you all the news, so now close this, with very best love to all. I wish I could send you a little Guatemalan weather. I dare say you would be glad of it just now.

Believe me dear mother
Yours affectionately
George. C. Champion

P.S. I believe I did not fully answer your last letter and I came away from San Gerónimo without it..
Jan 12th: Went yesterday (Sunday) to bull fight in afternoon, theatre in evening, it seems queer going to these places on a Sunday, but it is the fashion in this country.
I forgot to tell you that two nights before Xmas several men broke into the sugar warehouse at San Gerónimo, they made a large hole in the roof and put a little boy through, letting him down, with a rope, but they were disturbed before they had time to take much away; we were running about searching for these men half the night, some were hiding in the gardens, it was broad moonlight but they all escaped, next day however the little boy confessed and the men were captured and put into prison. There were four of them, all but one were working on the estate.

The sugar warehouse in San Gerónimo, through whose roof the robber must have entered

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