Wednesday 11th July 2012 (Letter 5th June 1881)

GCC compares monkeys to milkmen, and meets a cigar-smoking negress

In this letter, my great grandfather, entomologist George Charles Champion details his move from Nance Bonito to Potrerillas, also on the southern slopes of the Volcan Baru. I too visited Potrerillas in December 2011 (see my diary entry for then), but it was impossible to locate precisely where he stayed, partly as there are now two villages, Potrerillas Arriba (Upper) and Potrerillas Abajo (Lower), and partly because, as GCC himself describes in this letter, “This is a small wooden house with galvanised iron roof”. Such houses, unlike many of the well-established fincas in which he lodged in Guatemala, would not have stood the test of time and therefore are probably no longer standing today.

The two Potrerillas villages are still relatively small today, but are now surrounded by farms being sold off to housing developers for the construction of residential complexes, mainly for sale to Canadian settlers wishing to escape the northern winters.

Mixed forest and clearings above Potrerillas

June 5th 1881

My dear Mother,

Again we hear a rumour of a steamer coming this week, so write on the chance of being able to send this. I left Nance Bonito on May 27th for this place about 10 miles distant, still on slope of the mountain, but more to the east, and commanding a splendid view of the sea, coast and the mountains, plains and valleys to the north and east. This is also a coffee plantation, belonging to a Swiss family settled here; these people made me very welcome and appear glad to see a visitor. Still raining very much, just a few hours fine early, afternoons invariably wet with a great deal of mist and fog (though not cold as at home), enough to give one the blues at times, especially as we are only at the beginning of the rainy season, five or six months more of it yet. Can only work early in the morning. We are just on the margin of the forest, above us to the top of the mountains, all is dense forest, below great plains with thousands of cattle, above the mountains are quite uninhabited, the coffee plantations the highest settlements; the dozen or so planters are natives of either Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador or French, Swiss, German or English, a great mixture. Plenty of monkeys in the forest, one a pretty fellow with a white face, these animals when you go near them make a great chattering, and throw sticks etc down at you.

The natives when at work on the plantations make a great noise all the time, calling and shrieking out at the top of their voices, whether imitating the monkeys or not, I don’t know, they would make good milkmen; very different from the Indians of Guatemala, they live a lot together in a rancho, and the planters give them their meals, and rum also in the afternoons when working in the rain. There are not so many nice ferns in this country, though plenty of the large tree ferns, a good many small palms, orchids etc. Nearly all the people are barefoot, almost envy them at times when walking through the mud and water; except for the thorns, snakes etc, it is preferable.

I expected to be able to cross the range and work on the Atlantic side, but I find the country is unhabited except on the coast – Bocas del Toro, Fish Creek etc. and no road, except on foot. In a few weeks, shall go down to David and pack up a collection, then go perhaps to Bugaba, San Miguel etc.

No letters yet – though nearer home, seem much farther away than in Guatemala, knew what days the mail left, here mails don’t trouble the people much, they do without them, sending their letters by the first boat that comes – steamer or sailing vessel – for Panama.

The Swiss family here consists of two brothers (with their wives and families) who know England better than I do. This is Sunday evening, while I am writing one of these gentlemen is amusing himself catching moths for me and the others are reading etc. We get up very early, long before 6 a.m., have coffee first thing, breakfast about 11, dinner about 5.30, at 6 p.m. it is dark, to bed at 9. Thermometer at this elevation (3000 feet) generally 75, falling a little during the night, can sleep with two blankets; in David, a sheet is too much. This is a small wooden house with galvanised iron roof but there are few houses like this, nearly all the native habitations are miserable huts of sticks, mud and thatch. Bought two horses, but they have not turned out very good, wish I had my old mule again.

After heavy rain, the rivers smell very much and are often difficult to ford, scarcely any bridges in this country. My watch has kept gaining all the time, the spare one I brought with me I have not liked to sell in case I should injure the other. Travelling in these countries I have to make a selection of the most necessary things, as much as I can carry on the two horses – a change of clothes and boots I brought with me, bought a few cotton shirts, socks, collars, etc also lighter things for the heat, most of those I brought with me, much too heavy for the Tropics. How would you like a black or Indian servant in the house, barefooted, and with a cigar stuck in her mouth from morning till night, even when nursing a child? Such is the custom in these countries, men, women and children smoke from morning till night, tobacco is so cheap, often to be bought for 6d a pound, but they have no machinery to cut it up fine, so people smoke cigars or cigarettes. Fortunately, Mr. Salvin sent me a new waterproof coat, cannot stir out without one, generally carry a gingham also. I am getting very anxious about my letters, it is so long since I heard from you all, from Mr. Salvin the same, nothing of later date than the beginning of February, want to know very much what you are all dong; one thing, you hear from me, even if I do not from you. Expenses are lighter in Chiriquí than in Guatemala, drew money on Mr. Godman just before I left Guatemala, and again in Panama, but as yet have not had to spend much of it, in a country where people live on rice and salt beef, money will not help one much.

Hoping to hear good news when I do receive a letter, also that you have received the coffee (am afraid that you will have to pay more than I thought to get it) all right,

With best love to all,

Believe me,


Monday 9th July 2012

Panamanian Sloths

I have just added a short video compilation featuring the two species of Sloth to be found in Panama, occurring even in urban areas. There is also a short clip of the rare sight of a sloth on the ground, by night. Sloths come down from the trees once a week to perform their toilet activities, and I surprised one in the car headlights in Fort Sherman, a former U.S. military base at the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal.


Sunday 8th July 2012 (Letter 12th May 1881)

GCC heads inland, has to rough it more than in Guatemala, and witnesses a horrible sight

The "main street" of Nance Bonito

This letter from my great grandfather entomologist George Charles Champion, from the westernmost province of Panama, where he was to spend the following two years, shows the sort of hardships he was to endure. The more I read of his matter-of-fact letters, the more I wonder at the endurance of the man. When I visited this very area in the winter of 2011/2012, I only needed to escape the heat by nipping into my air-conditioned car and driving up the mountains; the humidity was harder to avoid – the hotel room I had was damp and gloomy, yet nothing compared to what GCC must have had to put up with.

Part of my goal in visiting these areas was to try to locate the precise spots where George had done his collecting, and to find where he had stayed. Even today, the province of Chiriquí is very sparsely populated, but by means of a detailed map on the wall of the restaurant in the hotel where I was staying, I was able to pinpoint many of the localities he mentions in his letters and diaries, including Nance Bonito, today a small hamlet on a dirt road, with one small store. There was, however, no sign of the Finca Eureka – it may have been swallowed up by the large citrus farm that now surrounds the village. For more details, please see my diary entries for December 2011 and January 2012.

The chapel in Nance Bonito

May 12th 1881

My dear Mother,

A gentleman is leaving here by steamer on the 14th for Panama, so take the advantage of sending a letter by him.
There may not be a chance of writing again for some time.

I left the town of David on April 30th and am now staying on a coffee plantation on the slope of the Volcano, or mountain of Chiriquí, about 20 miles inland, and a much cooler place; the estate is 3000 feet above the sea, and probably a very pleasant place in summer; now, however, we are well into the rains, or winter season, and it is raining nearly all the time. In all my ramblings in Guatemala, was never in such a humid place as this, you can keep nothing dry, even this paper is wet. We have an hour or two fine in the morning early, the afternoons always wet and often foggy. If we are going to have six months of such weather, I have not a very lively prospect to look forward to; however, I hope it will not be so all the time. Am staying with the owner of the estate, a Costa Rican, who by the way, has been in London since I left. Things are cheaper than in Guatemala, but except in David, money is not much use; one lives almost entirely in these places on rice and salt beef (often bad) and coffee, very rarely a little bread. I greatly miss my old friends, the tortillas; here they do not make them, so in consequence we have a substitute for bread. The custom is coffee at 6 a.m. (nothing to eat with it), breakfast 10-11 a.m., dinner 5-6 p.m., almost exactly the same for every meal. Meat is very cheap, but you cannot get it fresh here; you can buy 25lbs for a dollar (4/-) in the towns.

The Volcan Baru, known to GCC as the Volcano of Chiriqui

Chiriquí is very thinly settled as yet, very few towns indeed, the Government is now giving land free to people who like to cultivate it, so prospectors are now beginning to plant coffee, but as there are scarcely any Indians here, there is no labour to work on the plantations.

I shall have to rough it even more than in Guatemala, the best hotel in the chief town, David, is a miserable hole, accommodation will of course be worse in the smaller places, Bugaba, Dolega, Qualaca, etc. In fine weather, there is a splendid view of the sea coast, and the Point Burica (dividing Colombia from Costa Rica) below us, and above the high mountain of Chiriquí, but as yet only at daybreak are these places visible. The steamer came in again yesterday from Panama, I hope she brought letters for me; it is now about 2 months since I heard from you or Mr. Salvin. I got a letter from Walker just before I left Panama; he was at Callao, and seemed enjoying himself.

Near the coast, there are enormous plains with great quantities of cattle, more inland on the mountain slopes all is forest, the coffee plantations are all in clearings of the forest and likely places for my work, only just now one cannot stir without getting wet, the roads little better than shallow rivers. Shall have great difficulty in this country in finding any sort of accommodation; am fairly comfortable here, but cannot remain many days longer; the people, as in Guatemala, will invite you for a week or so, but if you want to stop longer you cannot. Directly you talk of money, they get offended, and say they do not keep an hotel; it is against the custom of these countries, to receive any payment, and to stop a long time, you cannot. We had a strong shock of earthquake the other morning in David. I was in bed at the time, but it was all over before I had time to turn out. People come here for Orchids, Chiriquí producing several rare species; plenty of tree ferns and palms in the forest here.

As I was travelling across the plains recently on horseback, saw a distressing sight, a horse dying, but with enough strength left to enable it to kneel; waiting there were, I should think nearly 100 vultures (these had already picked his eyes out) and a lot of dogs, could not look on without a shudder, a human being dying in these places would undoubtedly meet with the same fate. Scarcely any roads in the place, mule tracks, nothing more, rivers have to be forded, no bridges, Guatemala is paradise compared to Chiriquí. There is a sprinkling of foreigners here – a few Germans, French, Chinese, Italians, English, etc., but they are widely scattered, most of the people in David are natives of Panama, a few of them speak English. In David, I could not stand a blanket, here can put up with two, for the damp, more than the cold, thermometer about 70-75 here, David 85-90.

Am writing this under difficulties, I expect you will find it almost illegible. Am in hopes of hearing from you in a few days, the steamer ought to have brought letters for me but being 20 miles away, shall have to wait until I have a chance of sending to David.

With best love to all,

Believe me etc.

Self photographing the wall map, having located Nance Bonito