Thursday 24th November 2011

Bamboozled in the bamboo!

Today has been our most intensive Drucina hunt yet…we started off from Quetzaltenango at around 09.00, and then drove down the valley towards Zunil, where we turned off on a back road towards the thermal baths of Fuentes Georginas. Strangely, although I had never visited this location before, somehow it seemed familiar to me. When I first learned about the butterfly Drucina championi, which my great grandfather George Charles Champion discovered on the slopes of the Cerro Zunil in 1880, I searched for information about Zunil, and I found images of the town, but also descriptions of the thermal baths and the road leading to them. Perhaps these images and descriptions gave me this feeling of déjà-vu I felt as we drove up the switchback road to the thermal baths, with the Volcán Santa Maria towering above the valley on the opposite side.

The rather messy town of Zunil

Santa Maria from the road up to Fuentes Georginas

When we arrived at the entrance of the thermal baths, we parked up the trusty Nissan Sentra, and both of us thought it best to visit the toilets before starting our Drucina quest….but interestingly, both Luisa and I found unusual moths in the Ladies and the Gents toilets! We visited each other’s respective facilities in order to photograph these nocturnal insects; perhaps the most unusual was a newly-described Tiger-moth that was hiding behind the paper towel dispenser in the Ladies. I have just been informed of its identity by José Monzón Sierra, who saw the photograph a few moments ago (Saturday 26th November). Luckily no other potential toilet users were in the vicinity!

Homoeocera georginas, a species of Tiger-moth only named last year, by Michel Laguerre

We then set off along the path, above the cabins that are for rent here, towards the baths themselves. Here we admired the reconstruction work that has gone on since last year’s storms washed most of the installations away. The overall standard of reconstruction was excellent, although the network of white plastic pipes snaking their way along the stream just below the baths could perhaps have been better concealed.

The hot springs of Fuentes Georginas

Our route took us through the bathing area, across a bridge over the stream, and then onto a switchback trail, extremely steep, in places with wooden steps but elsewhere just rock and earth – and despite the steepness, I seemed to have benefited from the recent volcano-climbing I have been doing; I hardly noticed the fact that this was a long and steep path.

Self on the ascent through the bamboo forest

Some areas of forest were exposed to the sun, and here there were large numbers of butterflies, and as this area was absolutely full of bamboo, our hopes of finding Drucina were high. Never have I seen so many Oxeoschistus hilara, the species of Satyrid butterfly that we believe associates with Drucina, in any one place. All the bamboo clumps that were exposed to the sun had at least three or four Oxeoschistus flying around them, plus there were several other species of Satyrid. Initially my hopes were raised when I saw through my binoculars two apparently pointed-winged Satyrids with what looked like a row of greenish spots along the outer margin of the forewings…but I did not see any sign of the tell-tale blue splashes on the hindwings.

On and up we trekked, until we eventually reached the ridge, beyond which the upper slopes of the Pico Zunil could be seen. We walked a little to the left (East), and almost immediately came into contact with a workman who was busy maintaining the trail. We immediately showed him our Drucina photographs, and asked him if he had ever seen such a butterfly. He sat down, and very slowly introduced himself, with something of a chastisement to us for not having been polite enough to do the same. He then proceeded to tell us that, yes, he had seen this species….IN THE TOILET BLOCK down at Fuentes Georginas!! He informed us that such “butterflies” always appear after 18.00, attracted by the lights. No matter how hard we tried to convince him that our butterfly was a diurnal species, and not a nocturnal moth, he was not having it!! Nonetheless, he meant well, and he did make one very telling and valid point: he said that many U.S. and European researchers come along, expect logistical support from local people in Guatemala, and then the results of their research is never seen here. How true – I can see it with my own students in Wageningen University, most of whose PhD theses are published and never seen again.

We finally managed to extract ourselves from this conversation, and Luisa suggested we visit a viewpoint from where a magnificent view of Santa Maria could be had. So began a real adventure – the trail had become totally overgrown since she had last visited, and we literally had to force our way through thick vines, ferns, bushes and even small trees – real “bush-whacking”. After perhaps 20 minutes of stooping down to get through beneath the vegetation, we finally emerged at the very extreme end of this ridge, and what a view presented itself, with the volcano towering into the blue sky on the other side of the valley.

Santa Maria from the viewpoint

This ridge top was being used by many butterflies, some of which were engaged in “hill-topping”, whereby the males take up territories on the tops of hills, and patrol these territories, chasing off any other intruding males, and hoping to attract passing females. Sadly though, no Drucina males were to be seen.

Having admired the view and the butterflies for some time, we started our return bash through the jungle…at one point we lost the trail altogether, and it took some time for us to relocate it. Finally, however, we emerged, covered with leaves, fern spores, branches and twigs, and we then took the more established main trail along the ridge the other way, towards the Pico Zunil, stopping wherever we could see suitable, sunny patches among the extensive stands of mature bamboo…but NO DRUCINA.

Luisa in the jungle

We found a good spot for our picnic lunch, again overlooking a suitable-looking bamboo grove, but no sign at all, although again Oxeoschistus hilara was much in evidence. Shortly afterwards, the clouds began to build up, the sun disappeared, and we started to wend our way back, somewhat at a loss as to how to search further for the clearly highly elusive Drucina championi. At one point on the ridge, we passed a grave of someone who had died here in 1981. Without meaning to cause anyone any offence at all, we attached our picture of the Drucina to the cross for a photograph, as we somehow felt that this was perhaps symbolic of our hunt for Drucina…does it still exist, or has it become extinct?

The grave of Drucina - no offence intended

A dejected-looking Luisa

Last night I contacted Roberto de la Maza, one of the few biologists, along with his brother Javier, who have actually seen this species alive. Roberto immediately suggested that we try to attract the butterflies using a stinky mix of molasses, old beer, rotten bananas, and other horrors! Perhaps that will work. We shall see.

Clouds building up in front of the Pico Zunil

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Wednesday 23rd November 2011

Pink-headed Warblers, Cloud-forest Monarchs, Volcanoes and a Crater Lake

Tuesday 22nd November 2011

Today started with a boat trip along the shores of Lake Atitlan to Panajachel, where we rejoined our trusty Nissan Sentra, and began our journey towards the high mountain town of Totonicapan, where Luisa was sure she would be able to show me one of the World’s cutest birds, the Guatemalan near-endemic Pink-headed Warbler – it only occurs in the Mexican state of Chiapas outside this country.

We headed ever westwards, climbing all the time, until we finally passed over the highest point on the Panamerican highway at the aptly named Alaska pass – almost exactly the same altitude as the summit of the Volcan San Pedro, which we had toiled up the previous day…and our legs were certainly feeling the after-effects!! The near perfect cone of the Volcan Santa Maria was showing clearly in the beautifully crisp, clear sunlight – our original plan had been to climb this peak today, but it would have killed me, coming so soon after San Pedro!

Self at the highest point on the Panamerican highway

Finally, we turned off the main highway, and found ourselves in the bustling market town of Totonicapan, where we headed to the Casa de la Cultura, and arranged a guide for our planned visit to the magnificent high-altitude pine forests that characterise this mountainous area.

The guide, Carlos, was someone with whom Luisa had worked the previous year on an eco-tourism project (who does she not know in Guate?!), and he hopped into our car for the short journey to the entrance of the forest track, where we started our hike.

The pines here are quite magnificent, some individuals towering into the sky, with a rich undergrowth of bushes and wild-flowers. This type of fresh-smelling high altitude forest is something very special to me – whilst I may enjoy short spells in lowland tropical forest, I feel far more at home here, away from sweat, biting insects and humidity. And it is not only to me that these forests are so important – as well as providing a safe and pure water supply to the people living hereabouts, they are also home to several highly localised species of birds, plants and insects, one of which was our target bird for this afternoon, the Pink-headed Warbler.

A forest giant, but burnt at the bottom

At first there was no sign of the Warbler, but I was thrilled to hear, and then see a flock of Crossbills feeding on the cones high in the trees. Crossbills occur right round the Northern Hemisphere, and in just a few high places they are to be found further south, including the Philippines, Taiwan, and here in Guatemala. Some authorities believe that the Crossbill should be split into up to twenty different species, based on their vocalisations. I find this argument totally ridiculous – if humans were split up into different species based on language, dialect or accent, I would be a different species to every person I have met here in Central America!

Self in the pine forest

After a while, we turned off the track into the forest itself, and it was not long before we started to hear the “chip” calls of warblers….and suddenly we were amongst a flock of the almost impossibly cute little Pink-headeds, which responded actively to me “pishing” (making a pish pish sound which small birds tend to be curious about). We admired these little gems for some time as they gleaned their way through the bushes, before finally starting our walk back.

Luisa and Carlos in the forest

Apparently these precious forests are cared for by the local indigenous community, but if so, we saw some worrying signs. Some of the largest trees of all had been burned hollow at the base, perhaps in local Mayan religious ceremonies, and some had been severely slashed for the production of resin. My suspicion is that local people are only permitted to remove dead trees, so they quietly set about killing the trees. We could hear the constant plunk plunk of axes resounding through the trees as we walked – I can only hope that this was selective felling, for to lose these forest giants would be an incalculable loss.

We finally returned to the car, dropped our excellent guide Carlos Chacla off in Totonicapan, and drove onwards to Quetzaltenango, where we crashed into our beds, both suffering from volcano after-effects in the legs, as well as a couple of heavy colds!

Volcan Tajumulco in the distance

Wednesday 23rd November

Still stiff from San Pedro two days ago, I crawled out of bed at around 07.00 AM, and met up with Luisa, whose cold was worse, and mine was really getting going – I pitied our fellow breakfast guests in the dining room!

Our plan for today was to drive a short distance and then hike up to the lip of the crater of Volcan Chicabal, and then to descend and camp by the crater lake, but we decided that our colds would not appreciate another freezing night in tents, so we turned it into a day trip…and a worthy one it turned out to be! We started off out of Quetzaltenango on the road to San Marcos, and according to the map we needed to turn off at San Mateo. We asked for directions, and the two indigenous ladies we asked said we needed to continue on the main highway as far as San Juan, and then turn off for San Martin – the saints were certainly busy hereabouts!!!

It turned out that their directions were pretty accurate, and we managed to find our way as far as San Martin, where we asked somebody by the side of the road how to reach the Laguna de Chicabal. This man was extremely precise, telling us we should drive over five “tumbulos” – the correct word is “tumulos” (speed bumps), and then turn off left. This we did, and we found ourselves driving up a series of super-steep roadways through an extended village. The concrete gave way to a dirt track, in places reinforced with stone, and miraculously, the Nissan Sentra (a low-slung saloon car with no four-wheel drive) made it all the way to the park entrance, where we parked up and paid our entry fee for the lake.

We took the opportunity of showing our plasticated Drucina championi photographs to the warden, and asked him if he had ever seen this butterfly. He hesitated for a moment, and said that he had definitely seen it. Full of excitement, we asked him where. “Aaah, en Xela”, he said….oh dear, in Quetzaltenango….no chance whatsoever.

Undaunted, we started our hike up into the woods, enjoying the beautifully clear, cool weather, and suddenly we found an impressive-looking butterfly that kept returning to the same bush, even when we disturbed it. This turned out to be a Cloud-forest Monarch (Anetia thirza), an addition to my life-list.

Cloud-forest Monarch, Anetia thirza

Shortly afterwards, having made our painful way slowly upwards, we found ourselves in a promising-looking patch of bamboo forest, and it is in areas of bamboo that my holy grail, the Satyrid butterfly Drucina championi, is supposed to live. We hunted high and low (literally), but to no avail. There were plenty of other butterflies around, but none that really even approached D. championi in appearance.

Onwards we climbed, my legs protesting strongly at this hard treatment so soon after San Pedro, and eventually we turned off on a more level track towards the Mirador de la Laguna, from where we began a dramatic descent by means off a series of 570 broad (and in some cases steep) wooden steps, all the way down into the crater to the lake.

The crater lake of Chicabal

A short section of the horrendous staircase

Laguna de Chicabal

The Laguna de Chicabal is located at an altitude of 2712 metres above sea level (the lip of the crater must be at around 3000 metres, and as well as harbouring a number of sacred Mayan sites, is an important area for wildlife. Perhaps, apart from its serene beauty, what made the lake especially interesting for me was that it is SURROUNDED by bamboo forest, and I feel it could so easily be a place where Drucina championi might be found.

Bamboo and the lake

Sadly, if that were the case, it was not to be today that we were going to find it. The clouds rolled into the crater, and, although they later dissipated, butterflies were no longer to be seen at all. We did spot one Belted Kingfisher, but remarkably little else. Nevertheless, this enchanting place was well worth visiting, and perhaps it may yet yield the elusive Drucina championi as a part of its fauna at a future date.

Self hunting for Drucina championi

Finally, we had to sum up the courage to ascend the 570 steps all over again! I thought I was never going to make it up this stairway!

Luisa preparing herself for the ascent

So, another Drucina hunt ended fruitlessly. I wonder if I shall find it. Time will tell!

Volcan Santa Maria

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Monday 21st November 2011

Sunday 20th November 2011

El dia de “Los Encuentros”!

I am now sitting in perhaps one of the most beautiful hotel rooms I have ever stayed in, at the Hotel Casa del Mundo, overlooking an amazing panorama of the Lago de Atitlán, with the volcanoes Toliman and San Pedro (which we are due to climb tomorrow) rising sharply on the opposite side of the lake.

View from outside my room at La Casa del Mundo, Atitlan

So far, today has been yet another day of truly amazing happenings; Luisa says that if I wrote a book and included all the incredible coincidences that have happened to me during my stay in Guatemala, nobody would believe me, and yet they are absolutely true, as she herself can testify.

The day started with me picking up the old faithful Nissan Sentra, the very same one that I had rented from Tabarini Rentacar when we went to Quetzaltenango, Tilapita and the wonderful Paredon Surfhouse, and then driving to Luisa’s home, where we loaded up with all our volcano-climbing gear.

We then set off on our way towards Lake Atitlán, passing through Chimaltenango and then along the Panamerican highway. At one point, we passed a mirador on the opposite side of the dual carriageway, apparently with a view of the lake in the distance. Luisa asked me if I would like to stop. I hesitated for a few moments, especially as it meant driving on until we found a place to do a u-turn, but finally said “Ok, why not?”.

We turned the car, and drove back to the mirador, where we immediately spotted a man with a large TV-type camera and a hat marked History Channel. Curious as to what he was filming, I asked him, and he told us that he and his team were making a film about how a particular species of fish had managed to make its way from Lake Atitlán to the relatively newly formed crater lake of Chicabal. He then asked what we were doing, and I began to explain a bit about my quest to follow my great grandfather’s footsteps.

By this time, several other people had joined the group, and one of them, Filadelfo Guevara, from the Universidad San Carlos, when I explained about the entomological aspect of my journey, suddenly announced “Yo también soy entomólogo” (I am an entomologist too). He had joined the group a little after I had mentioned what I was doing, and he told us that he had heard from a colleague who is working in Holland about someone who is here in Guatemala retracing the footsteps of his great grandfather, who was an entomologist working on the Biologia Centrali-Americana. Luisa asked him the name of that colleague in Holland….and indeed it was my friend Luis Montes, who I was introduced to by Natalia, and who introduced me to his girlfriend Brenda, who introduced me to Julie, who introduced me to Luisa, etc, etc. Guisela, Julie’s mother, who does not believe in coincidences, would say that this was the hand of God guiding me into the right places at the right times.

Filadelfo, Luisa and self by the Panamerican highway

Whatever, or whoever, is guiding me was really doing an amazing job this morning. I could so easily have decided not to bother to stop when Luisa asked me if I wanted to, and in fact, just around the next corner there was another mirador, where we could equally well have taken photos of the lake. It feels as if something uncanny is happening to me here. Guatemala, although a relatively small country, nonetheless has 14 million inhabitants, and to stop the car right next to someone who KNEW ABOUT my great grandfather, in a parking space by the busy Panamerican highway, is definitely too much of a coincidence to believe – but Luisa is my witness.

We exchanged contact details, and showed these entomologists our newly plasticated photographs of the butterfly Drucina championi, and they have PROMISED to keep a close eye open and to inform me if they find it. They were in fact on their way back to Guatemala City having been on an insect- and fish-hunting expedition to the Laguna de Chicabal, where Luisa and I may go next week.

Luisa pointing at the Volcan San Pedro, our target for tomorrow

Following this, we felt we had to stop at the major road junction for a photo of the sign indicating “Los Encuentros”, or The Meetings, as it absolutely summed up what had just happened to us.

Self pointing to the the sign for Los Encuentros

Evening view from near the Casa del Mundo

Monday 21st November 2011

Volcán San Pedro conquered!!

Today was a truly memorable day – and my muscles will remember it for some time to come, I suspect….. We set off by fast motor boat at 05.30 AM, and crossed the lake in the dawn, the Volcán San Pedro, our target, towering ahead of us, completely clear of cloud.

Atitlan in the dawn

On arrival at the pier, we quickly completed the necessary formalities for our climb, and hopped into a tuk-tuk for the relatively short but very steep drive up to the starting point. Here we met our guide, José, and the trek began. Our route took us first through coffee plantations, then patches of degraded forest, across a river of lava from an earlier eruption, through some maize fields, and then into the real forest….and then the going got tougher. The path, very well constructed and complete with small logs to form steps, rose relentlessly, onward and ever upward, with not even a hint of a flat area to give the muscles some relief through variety of movement.

José set a vigorous pace, and at first I felt honour-bound to match it, but my very experienced guide Luisa advised against tackling my first real volcano like a madman, and thereby exhausting myself long before even getting anywhere near the summit, so I slowed down. A brief interlude came when José thought he heard one or more Horned Guans, the almost mythical large gamebird with an extraordinary red pointed bump on its crown, high in the trees off the side of the trail. Horned Guans, mainly due to the fact that they are good to eat, but also through habitat destruction and disturbance, have become very rare and elusive, but there is still a population on San Pedro. We stopped and listened to some grunting calls, as well as sounds of movement high above us, but they finally turned out to be a pair of Emerald Toucanets, which performed well for their audience far below.

Then the ascent began again. I discovered that it was better not to look up, because the never-ending flights of irregular steps stretching ever upwards, were too daunting. Luisa, who could have shot up this mountain in less than half the time I was taking, nonetheless caringly remained just behind me, her encouraging words helping me on my way.

And then, almost unexpectedly, the trail began to level off, the trees thinned out…and we were there. And what a view lay below us. The whole of the lake seemed literally spread out beneath us, with the twin volcanoes Toliman and Atitlán rising to its south, their heads (unlike ours) shrouded in cloud. Beyond, away to the east, we could just make out the Volcán de Fuego, which we had been so close to only a few days before.

On the summit of the Volcan San Pedro

Panorama of Lake Atitlan from the summit of San Pedro

Several other hikers (mostly from the UK) arrived, and we were quite a party sitting on the huge rocks that dot the summit, while we enjoyed our sandwiches and slowly recovered from the ascent…..but the descent was about to begin, and that would require a different set of muscles.

Finally, after a last gaze at the panorama below us, we turned and began to retrace our steps. At first, it was a great relief to be moving ever downwards, but after a while, the relentless pounding of my footsteps on the endless steps became more and more excrutiating, and I was glad when we came to some sunny clearings where there might have been a slight chance of finding my holy grail, the Satyrid butterfly Drucina championi, although there was no bamboo to be seen on this, the northern slope of San Pedro. We did see a beautiful Oxeoschistus hilara, the species which apparently associates with Drucina, and even as we were photographing this, José called from a little further on that he had seen a large bluish butterfly, but we did not manage to find it again.

Oxeoschistus hilara

And then it was over…we crossed the maize and coffee-growing areas, followed by the river of lava, and found ourselves back at the starting point; the challenge had been met. We hopped into a tuk-tuk, then after a breakfast (at 15.00!), into a boat, and returned to the Casa del Mundo, where although we had checked out, we hoped that there would be rooms available…but there were not. The last thing we felt like doing was getting into to another boat back to Panajachel, and then driving all the way to Quetzaltenango, which had been our original plan.

As it was, after some phoning, we found rooms in another eco-hotel, La Isla Verde, in the next village along the shore. We were kindly offered a lift in the Casa del Mundo’s boat, and soon found ourselves at the jetty near the reception of the Isla Verde. This hotel consists of cabins spread up a very steep hill overlooking the lake….and it turned out that my cabin was located right up near the top, which involved about ten minutes of more intensive step-climbing!

The one thing that would have been really welcome would have been a hot shower, but the eco-friendly solar showers did not provide one drop of warm water (as they also had not in the Casa del Mundo). Perhaps I should not complain as my great grandfather George would not even have dreamed of a hot shower, but I am very skeptical about eco-friendly systems when they do not work. Luisa, who by this time had a heavy cold coming on, sent me a text message from her cabin, saying: “These eco-showers are eco-freezing!”.

The lake from Volcan San Pedro