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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