Category Archives: GCC’s letters

Friday 24th February 2012 (Letter 30th May 1879)

John’s Big Year!

With reference to my post of yesterday, in which I wrote about my bird totals for Mexico and Central America, and also thanked the Cahill family for helping me to boost up my Guatemala score, it turns out that John Cahill is going for an all-out mega-birdlist for Guatemala in 2012. You can find it by going to, or by clicking on it in my Links. So far he has reached 373 species in Guatemala this year – and it’s still only February!!! Good luck to him!

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

My own post for today contains the next letter of my great grandfather’s to his mother, dated May 30th, 1879, and sent from the Finca El Zapote. This place, rather like El Capetillo, does not have particularly good memories for me, as when I phoned one of the brothers who now own it, to ask if I could visit as my great grandfather had stayed there, the response was: “I am not interested in history, I am not interested in insects, and I am not interested in you. This finca is not open to the public. This is not for us!”. However, as with El Capetillo, Mitch Denburg came to my rescue and FLEW me over the finca in his helicopter!

El Zapote from the air

This letter shows a few of the difficulties my great grandfather faced: diarrhoea, unsuitable clothes, ants and ticks, humidity, his “old enemy” (an unknown disease he suffered from), language problems, etc. He often seemed somewhat gloomy in his writings; perhaps if I had had to endure some of the hardships he endured, I might also have seemed less than cheerful!

Central America
May 30th, 1879
My dear Mother,

No letter from you yet, I hope in about another fortnight (4 months later from date of starting) to hear how you all are. I received a note from Walker (his future brother-in-law, fellow entomologist J J Walker, RN) addressed care of British Consul the other day (this is the second from him); he is still at Portsmouth. I have been very unwell for a fortnight with incessant diarrhoea; none of my medicines seemed to do me any good, but am now better again and have regained my appetite, so I hope to rub on again for a little longer. At El Zapote the heat and damp are very trying to a newcomer, hence I suppose my indisposition; we have had but little rain during the past week and the place began to smell a little more wholesome, but it is raining heavily again. I have been lucky so far to escape getting wet; you can always depend upon the morning being fine; if you were to see how the people live near here, you would not wonder at fever or anything else. No fruit of any kind at Zapote (though there is abundance in Escuintla, the nearest town 15 miles off) but rarely bread, they have plenty of oxen at this place and killings once a week, then we get some beef, but it will not keep any time so they have to salt the greater part; we occasionally have fresh venison, and wild boar, both of which are very good eating, never mutton in this part of Guatemala; they have plenty of vegetables in the garden, but in cooking they mess them up so with sauce, grease, etc that you hardly know what you are eating.

I got a lot of things washed the other day, but collars they evidently do not understand, they utterly spoilt the whole of mine; one thing people don’t trouble to wear collars here, it is a great nuisance as I shall want them again hereafter. My clothes are all too thick for this climate. I ought to have brought a thin holland coat with me; it should have been very useful, I cannot of course get anything whatever near here.

The lightning is very vivid at Zapote in the evening, quite lights up the sky, often continues for a long time. No return of the old enemy by now; I ought to be seasoned to heat by now one thing there is no dust here but rather too much mud, the roads are very bad indeed.

I hear through M. Blancaneaux (the French botanist) that there is in Guatemala a French schoolmaster of the name of Champion and that letters of mine have been delivered to him. Mr. Blancaneaux, who was sending me a parcel from Guatemala, applied on my behalf for these, but he said he would only give them to me. As I may not be back until July in the city, have written to Mr. MacNider, the British Consul about it, perhaps one of yours is with this man, anyway I want to know what they are.

I went the other day with a party of men and dogs who were going to shoot wild boar high up in the forest on the slope of the Volcano; here the vegetation was very fine indeed, and very different from that lower down, under the enormous lofty trees a dense growth of great broad-leaved plants, small palms, tree ferns (upon the trunks of which innumerable other ferns were growing), the growth so dense the sun did not penetrate. They got one boar but not while I was with them.

Am doing a little better with collecting at this place. There are enormous butterflies in the forest (5-6 inches in expanse of wings). I go about a good deal on horseback (must soon buy an animal for myself) and rather begin to like this method of travelling. For short distances my usual companion is a dog who is only too glad to accompany me, sometimes Don Ramón, or Don Joaquim goes with me; it is not often I can get a man or boy to go; when I do they are more trouble than they are worth. Am up every morning before 6 a.m., and often go to bed before 9 p.m; insect pests in the house are a great nuisance, ants swarm all over the place, great cockroaches everywhere; ticks are so bad in the forest I usually strip and have a bath when I return to get rid of these gentry. Don Joaquim is away now in Guatemala with his family, he only spends about half his time in El Zapote, but his brother Don Ramón is constantly here. I manage to talk to them somehow in broken Spanish.

Shall not go to stop at La Trinidad. I went last Sunday evening to see the place, but it will not do, the accommodation is even worse than Zapote and goodness knows that is bad enough. I greatly fear if I stay over June as is not improbable in this neighbourhood, shall have to make a journey to Guatemala and back, am constantly wanting things I left in the city; it takes 2 days to go to Guatemala from here yet it is only 60 miles!

Believe me etc.

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


Wednesday 22nd February 2012 (Letter 26th April 1879)


The word I came to dread during my stay in Central America

Today I add a letter of my great grandfather’s dated 26th April, 1879, sent from the Finca El Capetillo, near Alotenango, in Guatemala. At the risk of appearing ungrateful (which I am absolutely NOT – I received an extraordinary amount of hospitality and kindness during my stay in that country, for which I shall be eternally appreciative), I shall use this opportunity to vent a little frustration at one aspect of Guatemalan life that I would find it hard to adapt to were I ever to settle there – and it is summed up perfectly by the word “¡Fíjese!”. This is an untranslatable word meaning something like “Look here!”. If you have an arrangement or a meeting in Guatemala, and just before you are due to meet, you receive a phonecall, and the other person says “Fíjese……”, then you can be sure that the meeting is about to be cancelled….and those cancellations are VERY common.

Looking down at El Capetillo from near the summit of Acatenango

I may be being unfair to the person concerned, but I cannot resist the opportunity to recount this story. My great grandfather having stayed for lengthy periods at El Capetillo, and having found a large number of insects there, it was one of my greatest desires to visit that finca. Another of my contacts gave me the name of the current owner, and I called and received a friendly reception, even being informed that his uncle was very interested in the history of the finca, and that he would love to meet me and discuss the visit of my great grandfather. We duly arranged that I would travel down from Antigua the following week and spend the day looking around the farm, and meet the uncle if he could be there.

As I had no transport of my own, and I thought it would be interesting for her too, I asked my guide and friend Luisa if we could possibly go in her car, to which she agreed, although she had to make considerable alterations to her plans. Finally, the appointed day arrived, and Luisa arrived outside my hotel at 09.00, with plenty of time to spare for our 10.00 meeting at the finca.

Always one to confirm and reconfirm appointments, I thought it wise to call before we set off, just to be sure…..and the answer came: “¡Fíjese, hoy es muy difícil. ¿Por qué no vienen a las 12.00?” (Look here, today is very difficult. Why don’t you come at 12.00?). This was something of a blow, and meant that Luisa had wasted a whole morning when she could have been working, but we killed the hours until 11.00, when we called again, just to be sure; the same answer came: “Fíjese, hoy es muy difícil. ¿Por qué no vienen a las 15.00?”. Luisa’s temper was wearing thin, but it seemed there was still a chance of at least seeing something of the finca before dark, so we duly returned to the car at 14.00, this time having decided NOT to call so as NOT to give him the opportunity to ” fíjese” us.

View down towards the town of Alotenango, with the Finca El Capetillo in the foreground

However, this strategy did not work at all, as no sooner had we sat down in the car than my mobile phone rang: “Fíjese, hoy es muy difícil. ¿Por qué no vienen a las 17.30?”. At this point my politeness came under heavy strain, and I said: “But if we come at 17.30, we will hardly have any time to see anything before dark”. He agreed that that would be a pity, and suggested 17.00 instead. Duly, still with a glimmer of hope in our hearts, we returned to the car at 16.00, only to receive another call, saying: “Fíjese, hoy es muy difícil. Hay mucho tráfico. ¿Por qué no lo hacemos otro día?” (Look here, today is very difficult. There’s a lot of traffic. Why don’t we do it another day?). Well, there WAS a lot of traffic as it was a day when many people go on long runs, bearing flaming torches with them, causing severe traffic problems, but WHY he could not just tell us from the start that that day was not suitable, instead of fíjese-ing us ALL day and thereby messing up a whole day for us, I do not know. It seemed symbolic of a certain carelessness that exists among some members of the local populace when it comes to other people’s arrangements, as I experienced similar situations on several other occasions during my stay, not only in Guatemala, but also in Panama and Ecuador.

I must, however, give this man his due – he did later try to reschedule my visit, but it never coincided with a time when I was in the area…and Luisa was extremely wary of taking another day off for such an arrangement! Never mind, though – I was later, thanks to Mitch Denburg, given the wonderful opportunity to FLY low over the Finca El Capetillo in a helicopter, and I also looked down on it from the upper slopes of the volcano Acatenango, so I ended up seeing it pretty comprehensively without even needing to enter!

The main buildings of El Capetillo from the air

April 26th, 1879

My dear Mother,

I am at last away from the city of Guatemala, and very glad I was to leave the Gran Hotel; had just a month there. I left the city on the 15th per diligence, then walked on to the finca of Señor Arzú, at Ciudad Vieja (3 miles distant); stopped here one night, and next day came over here on horseback (another 6 miles) and about 35 miles from the city. I am very comfortable here in the house of Señor Juan Rodriguez; can do just as I like; he is but little here, the estate is managed by Señor Jorge Seravia, who is very kind to me indeed, but does not speak a word of English; however, I manage to talk to him somehow in the few words of Spanish I know. Capetillo is a very large sugar estate, so large that they travel about it on horseback, very pretty place, just between the two volcanoes. They have a fine garden and many fruit trees; there are 80 families living on the place, all in Rodriguez’s employ. Señor Rodriguez (who speaks French and Spanish but very little English) returned to Guatemala from France about 3 weeks after I arrived in the country, and should probably have been here sooner had he not been away; he made his first visit to Capetillo after having been away a year, travelling first to Capetillo after having been away a year, travelling in Europe. They had triumphal arches, fireworks etc, to celebrate his return. I saw him many times in the city; he is a good naturalist and very wealthy; he has two brothers, both of whom have large coffee and sugar estates; hope to stay with one or both of them this summer.

The Finca El Capetillo from the air

I remain here a few weeks, then on to San Cayetano, belonging to Señor Arzú, who like Rodriguez, has been to London, then perhaps to El Zapote, after that I return to the city, may be away two months altogether; letters had better be addressed care of Mr. Magee, Guatemala. I received a letter from Walker on April 15th, he was then at Portsmouth. I had a visitor here for 2 days, Mr. Blancaneaux, the French botanist, who came over here to get Orchids from the adjacent forest. I had a day out with him; he was not very successful, however. There are thousands of orchids here on the trees in the forest (I might say they have thousands in the garden here in the open air) of different species, but very few, and those very small, of the species required by Veitch. Travelling in the forest is hard work, you constantly have to cut your way through vegetation; it does not look very tropical, except for a small Fuchsia and the many orchids and other epiphytes owing of course to us being so high up above the level of the sea. The climate here suits me very well indeed, also the food. M. Blancaneaux thinks I am too comfortable at Capetillo. I shall feel it later on, he says, when I have to rough it.

Looking towards El Capetillo - greenhouses left of centre in the distance - showing location beneath the volcanoes Acatenango and Fuego

The Volcán de Fuego towers just above us, and although looking exceedingly close, yet it takes two or three days to get to the summit and back. I find plenty of work to do here, am not in the least “dull”. Can walk in the garden or watch their sugar machinery when I have nothing else to do. There are lots of Indians here in the village of Alotenango (3 miles off) and many Indians on the Estate, they seem very quiet and friendly, and appear rather afraid than otherwise of Europeans. I take one with me sometimes when I go in the forest, give them 1/- for a day’s outing; they are well satisfied. The Guatemalan people are very slow and quite different to us, they never hurry about anything, are not fond of soap and water, never seem to think of dusting or cleaning up the house except on special occasions; they feed, however, very well, here dinner takes at least an hour, also breakfast. They seem fond of animals etc. Many have a tame deer here; in the house at Ciudad Vieja, they had a tame eagle, pheasant, parrots, monkeys etc. Most of the people are fond of natural history, are very hospitable, and ever ready to lend you horses, Indians etc. The greatest trouble to me just now is the language. Till I can speak Spanish better, shall have many difficulties; as for Señor Rodriguez, did I not know a little French, should have much difficulty in talking to him

I send this letter on this morning by Señor Seravia, who is going to Antigua. We have had a lot of rain at Capetillo (4100 feet above sea level) the last two days. Am rather glad to see a little rain than otherwise, for the roads at present are inches deep in black dust. Have not yet felt any signs of an earthquake; the Fuego smokes a little, that is all. Am gradually getting used to the dust of this country; it is a work of time, I suppose. Father would be at home here in the garden; they have a fine lot of flowers and gardeners to look after it, but of course, no greenhouses, everything is in the open air; in the rooms, there are no fireplaces, it is never cold enough to make a fire necessary. Grass is so scarce that they plant and cultivate it on purpose to feed the cattle.

Trusting you are all well, I remain etc.

El Capetillo, showing the gate we never made it through


Tuesday 21st February 2012 (Letter 12th April 1879)

Here is the next of my great grandfather’s letters from Guatemala to his mother. I was unable to locate Aceituno during my recent stay in the country, but Capetillo featured prominently as one of the few places that I did manage to locate, and yet was unsuccessful in my attempts to visit. I shall explain in the following diary post.

April 12th, 1879

My dear Mother,

I am still detained here in the Hotel, but hope to get away next week into the country; after a second bilious attack, I have been very well here, and am now getting used a little to the diet of the country; can now eat frijoles and bananas and many other things I could not touch at first. We only have two meals a day, breakfast at 9, and dinner at 2, coffee at 6.30 and at 8 p.m., if we like. If I am not in at 9 a.m., which often happens when I go out in the morning, I lose my breakfast. It is very hot, dry and dusty here in the middle of the day and cold at night. If I go out for a walk, I generally start about 7, and get back to dinner.

Señor Vizcaino, who came up from the coast with me, left this morning on his way back to Mexico. I shall miss him very much as he shared my room here with me and spoke very good English. I went with him last week to Ciudad Vieja (about 10 miles off) and remained two days there, stopping on a coffee estate in the country, and a very nice place too, just at the foot of the volcanoes. I hope to be ?? again before long, with Señor Arzú (a Guatemalan). He made me very welcome. While at Ciudad Vieja, I went over to Dueñas to see an Englishman, with whom I was to remain some time, but he cannot find room for me at present, as his house has been shaken to pieces by earthquakes, and is not yet rebuilt. He looks in excellent health; the country suits him well enough apparently.

I have also been on a short visit to Aceituno, a very fine estate a few miles from the city. The owner, Señor Carlos Rodriguez (a Guatemalan) made me welcome. I rode over with him on a mule to the estate, returning in the evening. When he goes back to reside there (he is living in the city now), I hope to go and remain with him some time; he is very fond of natural history, also of flowers etc. He has a beautiful garden, orchards of orange trees, bananas etc. This is a sugar estate, and a fine lot of cane he has too, with a great deal of machinery. While at Aceituno on the 9th, it rained for a short time: the first rain since my arrival nearly a month ago.

I hope next week to get away from here to an estate about 40 miles away called San Cayetano, from there I may go to Capetillo so may be away a month altogether, must come back here then to arrange various matters; shall leave a great deal of my heavy luggage here. Everything is very dear here and my hotel expenses are of course heavy, still I hope they will (inclusive of all other expenses) not exceed half my salary; of course while away in the country, my expenses will be light enough. It has been very quiet here for the last two days. Good Friday and the day before, the churches are all lit up with candles and filled with gilt ornaments etc. I went to look at the cathedral out of curiosity. People must not travel on horseback, or carry on business while this festival lasts; as for Sunday, except that the shops are closed, it is noisier than any other day; two performances in the circus etc. They have bullfights also, but not while I was here. There are a lot of Germans, also Americans, French, but very few English in the town. I have come across a French botanist, M. Blancaneaux, collecting for Veitch people in Holland, I have been out with him, was with him yesterday and we saw a few Humming Birds, some lovely orchids in flower (Odontoglossum grande) so I have not been dull, have had plenty, indeed too much, to do. Not knowing Spanish, it is hard work for me.

People are very polite and friendly in the towns. The Indians are not very prepossessing in appearance, but they work. They will walk 30 miles and carry a heavy load for about 2 reals, 1/-. The only time they are to be avoided is when they are drunk, which is pretty often. Breakfast and dinner last about an hour – so many courses; meat is poor, if you were to see it in the shop, I think it would spoil your appetite for a long time and as for fruit, I don’t like any of it except pineapples and oranges.

In going to Ciudad Vieja the other day, we passed over mountains about 6000 feet and it was really cold at this elevation. The roads are awful, you seldom travel more than five miles an hour on the average. I don’t know which is worst, riding in a diligence or on a mule. I expect I shall soon have to buy a mule. They cost about 320. On my return from Capetillo, I may perhaps go to Ocotopeque to stay at the Silver mine with the owner, a German who is now in the city. He is going to stay there a month and has asked me to go with him. It is about 100 miles or 3 days journey from here.

Tea is a ruinous price and many other things also. Living for a European is at least double here to what it costs at home. I did quite right in bringing plenty of clothes; people of the better class dress in the height of fashion, top hats, black cloth etc.

I find it utterly impossible at present to write many letters, am too much worried with other things. It is like being out of the world here, the difficuly of travelling, getting lettings etc.
Must now say goodbye with best love to all

I remain etc.,

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