Saturday 29th October 2011

Mixco Viejo – unexpectedly in the footsteps of GCC

Today, having been very kindly invited by birding friends Karen and Anabelle, turned out not only to be a very pleasant day out from Guatemala City, but also to be an added bonus in my quest to find the locations visited by my entomologist great grandfather George Charles Champion (“GCC”).

We headed out of the city at 6.00 AM, and after a brief breakfast stop at a Pollo Campero fast-food restaurant on the outskirts, we started winding our way through wooded hills, past incredibly litter-strewn roadsides, and through the towns of San Pedro Sacatepéquez and San Juan Sacatepéquez (try saying those names after a glass of premium Zacapa rum!), following the old road which leads to Rabinal, and eventually to Salamá. This was a road I had long wanted to travel on, as it follows more closely (although not precisely) the route taken by GCC on his three-day mule-ride from Guatemala City to San Gerónimo, from 8th to 11th August, 1879. In a letter to his mother, written from his final destination of San Gerónimo, GCC describes his journey:

August 19th, 1879

My dear Mother,

I received your letter of July 15th yesterday, it having been forwarded to me from Guatemala.

I left Guatemala on the 8th instant, in company with a young Canadian – Mr. Hutchison, of Montreal, who is at present living here. Mr. Morgans could not get through his business in time and is still detained in Guatemala. I was very glad to get away from the hotel, the lazy life there did not suit me and one’s expenses are very heavy there. We started about midday on the 8th and spent the first night at Carrizal, where I tried sleeping in a hammock, but though a hammock is very comfortable indeed for an occasional rest in the daytime, I cannot say I liked it very much for the night; next morning at daylight, we were again on the road, rested a short time at Trepeche Grande, spent the second night here, then on again for a long spell till nearly dusk when we arrived at Llano Grande, starting again at 2 a.m. the next day for San Gerónimo, the mules and ourselves being nearly worn out with this long journey of 70 miles. The road and mule track all the way kept ascending or descending ranges of mountains, crossing rivers (some difficult to ford), some places very bad indeed to pass, the mud on the road occasionally up to our animals’ knees.

I shall long remember the last stage of the journey, we started by the aid of a little moonlight, but this soon failed and we almost had to feel our way over the most fearful roads I have ever seen; between Llano Grande and San Gerónimo we had to cross the high mountain range of Chuacus, we were over three hours passing this place, getting to the top soon after daylight, and to make matters worse, it commenced to pour with rain; as we descended the other side, we had the broad green valley of Salamá at our feet, and on the opposite side more ranges of mountains, at the extreme end of this valley San Gerónimo is situated.

Mr. Morgans kindly forwarded my luggage, and one of his servants accompanied us on the road. I am very comfortable here, once more with civilised people, the food is also very good and everything is more comfortable. This place is about midway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, much hotter than Guatemala but not so hot as Zapote, the thermometer in the house is usually between 70 and 80; we have all our meals in the verandah, which is much more pleasant in a tropical country, all round the view is backed up by mountain ranges on three sides quite close in; only the upper part of house is used for living in, so everything is very dry. This house was formerly a monastery, consequently is very large with many rooms.

We did not follow this route precisely, in our 21st Century “mule” (Karen’s Nissan Sentra), and eventually reached the carpark of the Mayan archaeological site of Mixco Viejo, described in Wikipedia as follows:

“Mixco was the capital of the Pocomam Maya Kingdom, and was sometimes known as Pocomam and Saqik’ajol Nimakaqapek in addition to Mixco. The site was founded on a defensive location mountain top in the 12th century. The peak population in the early 16th century may have been around 10,000 people. It was conquered by Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado in 1525 after a siege of more than 3 months. The Conquistadors then had the city burnt and depopulated.”

Karen in front of the landscape surrounding Mixco Viejo, through which GCC rode on his mule

Karen and Anabelle deep in discussion

Topographical model of the Mixco Viejo site

Clearly of great interest from a historical and archaeological point of view, this site was also of considerable ornithological and entomological significance for me as well, as it is located in the area of dry forest that I had driven through several times along the main highway to Salamá and San Gerónimo, without ever being able to stop and explore it. As it turned out, apart from American Kestrel, a lone female Blue-hooded Euphonia and a few Tropical/Couch’s Kingbirds, there was little of note around.

Part of the Mixco Viejo site

Self at Mixco Viejo

What was interesting for me, however, was the fact that Mixco Viejo is located very close to Llano Grande, where GCC had spent his short night on his rather less comfortable journey in 1879, and therefore allowed me to get a feel for the type of terrain he had travelled through. As he described, the landscape is very hilly, with sharp descents, rivers rushing along the valley bottoms – I can well imagine how difficult they must have been to ford.

Part of a stone map showing Llano Grande in relation to Mixco Viejo

After a very pleasant morning spent wandering around this peaceful and apparently relatively little visited site (today was a Saturday, and we saw a total of four other visitors!), we finally began the journey back to Guatemala City, where, after a delicious Chinese dinner, I am now about to start packing for my early departure for Quito tomorrow morning.

The landscape through which GCC travelled in 1879

Mixco Viejo view

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