Category Archives: GCC’s letters

Thursday 17th May 2012 (Letter 9th September 1880)

GCC samples some luxury at Las Nubes, and enjoys locally shot venison

Today’s letter finds my great grandfather George Charles Champion at the Finca San Isidro, having trekked from the highland town of Quetzaltenango via the wonderful Finca Las Nubes, which I also much enjoyed staying at as a guest of the Castillo family in August 2011 (please see my original diary entry of 29th August 2011). Las Nubes is a truly remarkable place, still a working coffee farm, but also welcoming groups of birdwatchers who come to experience its rich cloudforest habitats. The finca had been visited in 1875 by pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who was a guest of the the then owner William Nelson, who also owned the nearby Finca San Isidro, which sadly I was not able to visit. Muybridge’s photographs allow me to see what the place must have looked like at almost the same time as my great grandfather’s visit, only five years later.

The house at Las Nubes, Muybridge, 1875

The house from approximately the same angle in 2011

SAN YSIDRO, MAZATENANGO, COSTA GRANDE

September 9th, 1880

My dear Mother,

I wrote to you last from the town of Quetzaltenango, which place I left on August 19th for Las Nubes (The Clouds) and aptly so called on the slopes of the Volcan de Zunil and five leagues from this place; have spent about three weeks in Las Nubes, coming on here this morning, once more in hot country. Was fortunate enough to meet the manager of the Las Nubes coffee estate in Quetzaltenango and travelled down with him. Las Nubes is about 30 miles from Quetzaltenango and is 4000 feet above the sea, and a very nice place, not too hot, nice house and nice people, quite a treat after roughing it so much; from the house on one side we see the coast region for an immense distance and beyond in clear weather, the Pacific Ocean, about 50 miles away. On the other side, we look up to the Volcano of Zunil, with the Volcano Santa Maria to the north and the Volcanoes Atitlán and San Pedro to the south. Spent a very pleasant three weeks in Las Nubes, thanks to the kind hospitality of Mr. Cuthbert, and am now the guest of a Mr. Nelson (the owner of Las Nubes) and stopping on a coffee and cacao estate, one league from the town of Mazatenango.

Volcan Atitlan as seen from Las Nubes

Coffee picking has already commenced here, large numbers of Indians (especially women) are at work picking, who as usual in hot country wear very little clothing; we are only 1600 feet above the sea in San Ysidro and very hot in consequence. The house is of wood and very comfortable, in place of glass windows, Venetian blinds for the heat, and as usual an open corridor or verandah all round. Many coconuts planted in this place and the country looks very tropical.

Coffee harvesting at San Isidro, Muybridge, 1875

I remain a week or two in San Ysidro, then go to Retalhuleu, Las Mercedes, Reposa, and possibly on to the Department of San Marcos on the Mexican frontier. We get beautifully fine mornings, but in this rainy season, wet afternoons. Often in Las Nubes the clouds descended on the Volcano and we were surrounded by mist for a time, then it would clear off, and we would have a fine evening. Have tried to get my letters sent on from San Gerónimo but have received none since I left, am getting anxious to receive news from Mr. Godman or Salvin; my last letter from them arrived about the middle of June, nearly three months ago. Shall probably get on much better for accommodation in this part of the country – there are many English, Americans and other foreigners hereabouts who have coffee, sugar and other estates. San Ysidro is in about the centre of the chief coffee estates of Guatemala. From Las Nubes alone, the coffee crop is about 4000 quintals (a quintal is about a cwt); most of this goes to London. Mr. Nelson has three estates in Guatemala and is very wealthy, he also has been very kind to me.

Original coffee bags at Las Nubes, marked William Nelson

No more return of the intermittent fever (Malaria?) thank goodness, have enjoyed very good health indeed since I left Cubulco. I liked the climate of Las Nubes very much indeed, was almost sorry to leave, have picked up again in weight (147 lbs now) and have first rate appetite. I wish I could get letters more regularly, but while rambling about so much, there is only one thing to do – wait. Mr. Cuthbert is a great sportsman; he often went out shooting before breakfast and seldom failed to get a deer, so we often had fresh venison in Las Nubes. This makes my 38th place this year, always on the move. This constant change of climate requires change of clothing also, am now back to white things. There have been several more eruptions of the Volcán de Fuego, but none so severe as the first – but have always been too far away to see anything of it; have felt several slight earthquakes, nothing more. Would like to hear from you that you are all very well. It is getting late and I am tired from the journey, so must end now.

Mario Castillo and Jacqueline Ruffle at Las Nubes

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Wednesday 16th May 2012 (Letter 16th August 1880)

GCC’s mule recovers, and he and Leopoldo make an epic trek across Guatemala’s highlands

Quetzaltenango
Los Altos
Guatemala,
August 14th/16th 1880

My dear Mother,

I arrived here this afternoon, a day too late for the mail but take the opportunity of writing now (though the letter will not leave for a week or more), my future movements being so very uncertain at present; leave the day after tomorrow for the Volcanoes Santa Maria and Zunil, Costa Grande etc. Left San Gerónimo on July 26th en route for this place, 130 miles distant, should have arrived in about 5 days, but on the way had occasion to visit a place about 25 miles out of the way. This made an additional 50 miles, and with other shorter trips, in all about 200 miles since I started; my mule is now in good condition after 3 months’ rest.

Started with my servant Leopoldo and two Indians to carry my luggage (these Indians renewed every day), travelling by way of Rabinal, Cubulco, Joyabaj, Quiché etc. and Chimente, where I spent 6 days on the slope of the mountains, then on to Totonicapan; from here I visited many places high up on the mountain range, all the time from 8000-11000 feet above the sea, had to rough it a great deal in these places: from the hottest place in the country, Panzós, found the change to the coldest, Desconsuelo at 10300 feet, very trying, still no more fever, only fierce catarrhs; principal food in the mountains, maize and potatoes (have certainly eaten more of the latter in the past fortnight than during the year previous), sometimes a little mutton.

It is quite another country in Los Altos; instead of the tropics, it is quite cool, this place 7600 feet above the sea, much of the ground is under cultivation with wheat, potatoes, broad beans, maize etc, only maize you see in the hot country, potatoes grow quite well in the coldest places. We are two days from the port of Champerico, and only one day to the hotter country of the coast region; here so close to the hot and cold country, you see great variety amongst the Indians – in dress, language, habits etc, and you can easily get the productions of both climates. Quetzaltenango is a large town, next in importance to the capital, quite different to any other I have visited, as usual, shut in on all sides by mountains, an old volcano very close on one side. Many shops, chemists especially, lots of tailors, shoemakers, linendrapers, a few watchmakers (Swiss or French) and as in the capital, all the goods are inside, no window business. Totonicapan is also a large place, but not to compare with Quetzaltenango.

Volcan Santa Maria from the route to Quetzaltenango

Shall be glad to settle down for a few weeks in one place, as I hope to do on some of the coffee plantations on Pacific Slope. So much travelling, though one sees a great deal, is wearisome, moreover, the rainy season has set in in earnest; we only get a few hours fine early in the morning, the afternoons being wretchedly wet and this will be the case for the next six weeks, not a very lively prospect. As you may guess, expenses have mounted up very high, to about double the average, but I hope only for a time; the people on the road think a stranger travelling with servant and luggage must be very rich, consequently a good chance for spoil; they have given me a lot of trouble, not content with charging about double what they expect to get, they make all sorts of objections to your money, saying it is not good, constant hagglings from this cause alone; in one place, they helped themselves to some of my things, including money, fortunately they were content with a little, they might have taken a good deal more, all these things one must needs put up with, they are unavoidable in travelling.

Have just written to San Gerónimo to get my letters forwarded to this place, but when I shall get them, I know not. There may be a chance of sending to Quetzaltenango for them, that is all; you had better address San Gerónimo for the present.

Self in the main square of Quetzaltenango, close to where GCC must have stayed

Have put up at a French hotel, but start the day after tomorrow. Shall leave my luggage in the hotel and send for it afterwards, cannot constantly carry it with me; fancy an Indian carrying a heavy trunk on his back 30 miles in one day, it is wonderful the amount of endurance they possess … often they travel quicker than one goes on horseback. There is a slight difference in the cost of travelling in this country to England; the coach fare to the capital (about 120 miles journey) is from £4 – £5; in England by rail, it would be 10/; instead of about 3.5 hours, it takes as many days! From one point in the mountains near Totonicapan at an elevation of about 10800 feet (the main road to the capital passes as high as this), about equal I think to the height of Mont Blanc, or Etna, I obtained a splendid view of the Lake of Atitlán and the innumerable ranges of mountains forming the great “Cordillera” and five or six volcanoes, including the Fuego, which is now quiet again, only smoking more than before. Thousands of sheep (nearly all black) in these mountains and the only people you meet are Indian shepherds. I slept three nights in shepherd’s huts for want of better lodging. Obtained a few things for Mr Godman in these places, but very few however. Would get double as many and certainly finer species in Scotland or Switzerland, though of course different – I hope Mr. G. will be pleased with them that is all. No snow on these tropical mountains, wood or forest to the top, excepting one or two volcanoes.

A view of Lake Atitlan

People in out of the way places never tire of asking me about my country – am put down as German by most, the Indians also, for a black man is a rare sight in this part of the country, and a white and a black travelling together puzzles them, they certainly ask me where I come from. I like the Indians better than the whites (or half breeds), they are not such liars and are far more willing to work; it is only when they are drunk that they are troublesome. Would like to get a peep into the letters now probably lying idle at San Gerónimo and hope they contain good news.

With best love to all,
Believe me,

A panorama of Quetzaltenango, known as Xela

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Wednesday 9th May 2012 (Letter 25th July 1880)

GCC reports about an eruption of the Volcan de Fuego, and the first train runs in Guatemala
HACIENDA DE SAN GERONIMO
SALAMA
BAJA VERA PAZ
GUATEMALA
July 25th, 1880

My dear Mother,

I have about finished with Vera Paz and have to make fresh headquarters in another part whether I like it or not; have letters of introduction to English and American people in the Costa Cuca and Costa Grande about a day’s journey from the capital of the cold country, Quetzaltenango. Am afraid Mr. Jansen frightened you a little about these countries; you may be sure I shall not stay to the detriment of health; it is rather odd though I was ill when I received this last letter with a return of fever but it only lasted a day. I go now to a cold country for a time; elevation 6000-8000 then afterwards to warmer places on the Pacific slope of the Cordillera. I believe Mr. Jansen did not live a very steady life in Nicaragua, that may have been something to do with it. There is an Englishman living in the mountains here over 80 years of age and has been upwards of 30 years in Guatemala. I lose a little in weight and feel languid at times, but beyond this do not feel much the worse; most people get a touch of fever sooner or later, I wonder I have not done so before.

Mr and Mrs Pollin gave a ‘soirée’ the other evening to the military chief of Baja Vera Paz and others, it ended as usual in this country with a number of people getting drunk (the chief included). You would be astonished I think if you saw the ladies, they drink and smoke just the same as the men.

The Volcano Fuego has recently broken out again, after smoking quietly for several years, and caused a little consternation in Guatemala and Antigua; it threw out enough ashes in one night to cover everything to a depth of 18 inches. We were too far off to see it here, but had I been at El Zapote I should have seen rather more than I wanted I expect, for Zapote is right below the crater; the eruption of July 4th was said to have been a grand sight.

Steffi's fabulous picture of Fuego in action

I don’t like leaving without receiving news of Mr. Godman but shall have to do so; it is some time since I heard from them but have been here a month and must start; in this country letters are generally taken by relays of Indians on foot, and this of course occupies a lot of time. The first railway was opened recently from the Pacific port of San José to Escuintla (half way to the capital) and a small steamer has just started from the Atlantic side from Lívingston to Panzós; they are beginning to wake up at last in Guatemala and it is quite time they did so I think.

A map of the first railway in Guatemala, from Puerto San Jose to Escuintla

Mr. Morgans has arrived in Bristol, I heard he was taken ill at New Orleans on his way and delayed very much on the road, he is expected back again before very long. This is Sunday, a quiet day in this place; while in San Gerónimo, seldom go out on this day.

Must now bring this to a close, goodness knows from where shall direct my next.

Guisela Nanne de Skaggs, great grand-daughter of William Nanne, chief engineer of the railway