Monday 13th February 2012 (Letter 21st March 1879)

This is the letter from my great grandfather that details his arrival in Guatemala and his eventful journey up from the coast to the capital. I add a number of photographs to give more of an idea of the areas through which he travelled:

From Gran Hotel, Guatemala, March 21st, 1879.

My dear Mother,

I am here at last, arrived last night about 7 p.m. I wrote a few lines from San José, and entrusted the letter to a Spanish gentleman who was on his way to Europe.

I had to remain at Mr. Magee’s from Saturday night till Wednesday morning before I could get a conveyance here; the dust and heat of San José was very trying, the roads were simply ankle deep in dust so was very glad to get away. On Wednesday morning, I started at 6.30 a m. by diligence en route for this city, there were 6 other passengers, one or two of whom luckily for me spoke English; we arrived at Naranjo about 11 a.m., remained there till 3 p.m. to avoid travelling in the hot midday sun, and at 8 p.m. arrived at Escuintla, about half way to Guatemala; here we had to stop all night at the Hotel del Comercio, and started again at 6.30 next morning, got to Amatitlán at 1 p.m., and after stopping there an hour, finally started on the last stage here, altogether about 21 hours riding.

A view of Amatitlan, Muybridge, 1875

I have never experienced such travelling as this before, an open diligence drawn by 5 horses, or mules, driven over a road full of great holes, with great loose stones lying about in all directions, trunks of trees, dead oxen, and many inches deep in dust, it was fearful, you had to hold on for your life. I might say in Amatitlán, the whole vehicle turned right over, and we were pitched out; from Amatitlán to Guatemala we travelled over miles of hilly road, the first 45 miles was all forest and had it not been for the dust (we were as in a fog) and heat, would have been very fine country, orchards full of orange and other trees covered with ripe fruit, then passed close to the Volcano de Fuego, which was smoking away, and lava running down the sides, and to the Volcano del Agua, and then we came into the most barren and dry country I had ever seen, and this continued nearly all the way to the city. I am told this is only so in the dry season, but I never beheld such a place – of course the view was fine enough at a distance with great mountains all around, still it was uncomfortable to see such a barren place and was very disappointing to me.

I am staying here a few days until I can arrange to get away to Dueñas or elsewhere, my heavy luggage is now on its way from San José. I find great difficulty in making myself understood, very few people indeed speak English. Living is very expensive in this country, and as for the people, they seem to be drinking, smoking, gambling or idling about half their time. People seem friendly and polite but I know not what they say to me.

Guatemala (City) is a very large place, it is not very hot, full of large tumbledown looking buildings all of mud or plaster, whitened over, streets wretchedly paved, and there is a fine large theatre. I went last night, being too tired to do anything else. There is nothing for me to do here, shall get away as soon as possible, have seen several people to whom I have letters of introduction, one or two unfortunately are away just now; it will take me a long time to get used to this country, and am afraid I shall not do much good for Godman or self till I speak Spanish, and get used to the ways of the people. I am all right in money matters, as yet, drew some money from the Bank today, had to pay 16 dollars for journey from the coast.

The houses and hotels here have an open square inside with rooms all round, many have a fountain in the middle of the garden or square. The town is full of soldiers, they are everywhere, it seems strange to see them with naked feet, very few appear to wear boots.

Barefoot Soldiers, by Muybridge, 1875

I miss beer very much, have to drink bad water or vile spirits, coffee is of course very good, oranges very good and cheap. I bought 8 for a quarter of a real (about 1 and a half pence). We have coffee about 6.30, breakfast, meat etc., 9 – 10, dinner 3 – 4 and tea about 7, no supper, really only two meals a day. All heavy loads are drawn by oxen here, never by horses, the people are fully clothed, and not half-naked as in the interior or near the coast. I was surprised to find it such a large town, the more so after travelling over their only road from the coast, whence they receive many of their supplies. Shall be glad to see a little rain and to see the trees look green; you might imagine it was the winter, except for the heat, in this elevated region everything seems burnt up by the sun.

City of Guatemala from the south, by Muybridge, 1875

I went up on to a hill this evening, the view was very fine, the sun gradually disappearing behind the great mountains was a grand sight. I lose myself every time I go out, the streets are so much alike, of course there is no gas here, in the streets they have oil lamps projecting out from houses etc. I expect I shall be too busy to write again for some weeks, I hope to write about every third week, but when I get away into the country, the post will be very uncertain, letters had better be addressed to me care of Señor Juan Magee, Guatemala, Central America, he will manage various little matters for me while I remain in this country.

With best love to all, I remain, dear Mother, …..

The Gran hotel, in which GCC slept, photographed in 2011 - it is now a discotheque!

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