Thursday 7th June 2012 (Letter 11th February 1881)

GCC ascends the Volcan de Agua, and desperately awaits instructions from his employers in London

Today’s letter, one of my great grandfather’s last from Guatemala before his departure for Panama, brings back horrible memories of my own attempt to retrace his ascent of the volcano, precisely 131 years later to the day. My misadventure, in which I was robbed at gunpoint with two friends, prevented me from reaching the summit of the mountain – a full description can be found in my diary entry of Friday 13th January 2012.


February 11th 1881

My dear Mother,

I received your letter of January 1st yesterday, was very glad to hear you had passed Christmas so pleasantly. I thought of you often enough during the day at San Agustín. Letters from you, Mr Salvin, etc., of the mail of December 2nd or 17th arrived in Guatemala some time back and were sent on to me by Mr. Weams, but I am sorry to say I have not received them, am in great trouble on this account – have heard nothing from Mr. Salvin since his letter of November 1st, know not whether I am to go to Chiriquí or to remain, it only wants about a month to finish my two years and I cannot leave at a moment’s notice. It is most unfortunate, but there is nothing to do but wait, I cannot move without instructions.

I will now tell you a little of what I have been doing since I last wrote. Well, on January 11th, I left the capital for Antigua, next day on to Santa Maria high up on the slope of the Volcano de Agua; from this place I made the ascent of the volcano, starting with my servant and an Indian to carry water, blankets etc, at 9 p.m., a beautiful moonlight night and arrived at 1 a.m. at the crater, passed the remainder of the night there, but so cold at this elevation (12,500 feet) I could not sleep; saw white frost for the first time since I left England, but as soon as the sun rose it cleared off, shall long remember the view from the Volcano at sunrise, grand in the extreme, the enormous mountains from Mexico to Salvador, the ocean for an enormous distance, the smoking Volcano de Fuego close by, though separated by a broad deep valley, down in the bottom of which my old quarters – Capetillo, the city of Guatemala, and Antigua, the Lake of Amatitlán and so on; it was well worth the journey to see, but at the same time, I hardly want to go up again, the descent is so steep that it takes the skin off one’s toes coming down. The Volcano is extinct, no smoke or anything issuing, started down at noon and in evening arrived at Antigua.

The Volcan de Agua seen from near the summit of Pacaya

Crater of the Volcan de Agua, Muybridge, 1875

On January 14th left Antigua for Pantaleon, a large sugar estate in the coast region (14 leagues distant) passing by Zapote on the road, arrived in evening very tired. Remained at Pantaleon till the 2nd of February, about three weeks in all, but so very hot, could not work well, the sun hot enough to roast one almost. This is a very pretty place low down on the slope of the Volcano Fuego (the estate suffered a good deal from the last eruption). Below we can see the sea for many miles; with its coconut trees about the house for shade, but so hot, dry and dusty now in the height of summer or dry season; now and again we were treated to clouds of very fine dust, brought down by the wind from the Volcano, only too glad to bathe every day for the heat.

Volcan de Fuego and Volcan de Agua from helicopter

One Sunday, I rode over to the small town of Santa Lucia (about 5 miles away) but there was nothing to see here beyond cock-fighting; this is a favourite amusement on Sundays in many places, and I think is even more cruel than bull fighting, and rum shops.

Am getting very little for Mr. Godman just now, it is too dry everywhere and the forests so swarm with ticks and creatures like our harvest bugs, that I am obliged to oil myself all over before I go out, to keep them off.

On February 2nd, I came on from Pantaleon to this place, Mirandilla (8 leagues), which is only a few miles from the town of Escuintla and low down on the slope of the Volcano de Agua. I shall remain in this neighbourhood till I hear again from Mr. Salvin. I am working now on my own resources without instructions. It is nearly two years since I entered Escuintla, scarcely knew the place again, the newly made railway has attracted a lot of people to Escuintla which is the present terminus, half way from the port of San José to the capital. Spent a few hours in the town last Sunday, the place very gay, the President there on a visit, and many officers and men from the U.S. man of war ‘Pensacola’ which is in at San José for a few days, and I met several people I knew. This railway is on American style and very different from ours at home, more like a tramway. Very hot here also, great place for fruit, coconuts etc.

USS Pensacola - photo US Library of Congress

The old pier at Puerto San Jose, from where the railway began

Mirandilla, a sugar estate also; there are very many hereabouts, sugar and rum making a profitable business but just imagine, the estates get nearly 6d a pound for their best sugar wholesale, while we at home get it for half that price. The managers of both Mirandilla and Pantaleon made me very welcome, both are natives of this country, in Pantaleon I dined with a German, a Frenchman and an Italian and the native manager, once we had visitors, a Swiss and an Englishman, a Mr Akers, an engineer living in Escuintla, many years employed by the South Western Railway and residing then in London. What a mixture. Pantaleon is the finest sugar estate in Guatemala, while Mercedes is the best coffee plantation, and belongs to one of the Ministers of the Government and possesses a great deal of machinery. Though one finds much better accommodation on this coast, the places are not nearly so productive as on the Atlantic side – in the Polochic Valley etc.
This the hottest time is the most unproductive, all too dry everywhere.

Am writing to Walker direct, tomorrow I go to Escuintla, to post, the day after I probably leave Mirandilla. Mr Salvin will be sending things to meet me in Panama. I know of nothing you can send me, probably he will write and ask.

Feb. 12th. Missing letters turned up today, yours of Dec 16th with them. Am to leave Guatemala in March or April for Panama en route to Chiriquí, shall try and take my servant with me.

Believe me, dear Mother,

Lake Amatitlan, Muybridge, 1875


Tuesday 5th June 2012 (Letter 4th January 1881)

GCC spends a lonely Christmas, but then goes to the opera in the Capital

January 4th 1881

My dear Mother,

On my return to the capital on the 2nd, I found yours of Nov. 15th awaiting me. Another Christmas has come and gone, I must say I spent mine rather dismally, was rather unwell and was with Spanish speaking, unsociable, people, and what with the heat was glad to rest in a hammock the greater part of the day, and read. Christmas is not thought much of by people here; Good Friday, and some other days they observe much more, but except in the towns, weekdays and Sundays are much the same. Mr. Morgans is back again but he does not return to San Gerónimo; there is great trouble again in the management, I left just in time.

Left Las Nubes finally on December 14th for San Agustín, a coffee estate on the slope of the Volcano Atitlán – a very hot, dry place, remained till Boxing Day, then went up into the mountains to a cooler place and spent about a week at San Lucas and Panajachel (Indian villages) and in Godines (7000 feet); magnificent scenery here – the Lake of Atitlán, surrounded by lofty mountains (including the volcanoes), very hot in the day, and equally cold in the night – but all too dry and dusty for my work. The lake seen at sunrise and sunset was well worth a long journey to see; had occasion to cross in an Indian canoe, starting long before daylight, and the sun rose while I was crossing; in daytime in dry season, the mountains look too brown and colourness, they are best seen at sunrise or sunset.

Lake Atitlan in the dawn, as GCC would have seen it

On January 1st, I started for the capital (having various business matters to attend to there) 22 leagues distant, left Godines early in the morning and arrived at Guatemala in afternoon of the 2nd, travelling through high mountainous country all the way and passing many towns and villages – Patzún, Patzitzía, Chimaltenango, Zumpango, Santiago etc. The crops of maize and wheat are now nearly all in and the country looked very barren, very windy and dusty all the second day, arrived very tired on the Sunday afternoon, so after dinner to finish up the day I went to see ‘Il Trovatore’ at the Theatre. Shall be here a few days and then go on once more to the Pacific coast region. I have given my headman, Leopoldo, six days’ holiday, so he has started off today to San Gerónimo to see his friends. It is now a year since I was in Guatemala, only come now from necessity, the place has but little attraction for me. I find many new things and shops (including several Swiss watchmakers) but most people grumbling about trade.

Public Market, Guatemala, Muybridge 1875

I think the prices of almost everything would astonish you if you were to come here, how the middle class live, I scarcely know. There is a German barber here many years in Kennington in business; here, however, he gets 2/- for hair cutting and shaving instead of about 4d or 6d as in Kennington. This is the best time for fruit and flowers – the beginning of summer, the rains are all over now till May. Mr Salvin still sends very satisfactory letters; he is by himself for a time, Mr Godman having gone to India for a few months returning in April, am expecting now daily to hear more from him about the Chiriquí business.

I seem to know now almost all the foreigners here, so do not find Guatemala so dull as before, I suppose I return once more to settle up manners finally. The Gran Hotel was full, so am located this time in the Globo.

I am writing to Walker direct to Valparaiso. Splendid weather now, almost cloudless sky, but rather too dry and dusty for me.

I enclose the photo taken by Mr Boy while I was in Las Mercedes, it is better than nothing. It was taken while I was in the rough, travelling with scarcely any clothes to my back.

Steamer came without making connection at Panama, so am obliged to leave without letters from Mr. Salvin; it is very unfortunate, as he may direct me to go to some other place, and time in Guatemala is short; address care of Weams as before.

Believe me,

Lake Atitlan seen from near Godines

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