Sunday 4th December 2011

By helicopter to El Zapote!

Today’s diary entry actually starts about two weeks ago, when I was sitting with friends in the amazing Cargo Room restaurant and bar, hosted by celebrity jeweller Lex Cargo, who has turned out to be a great friend and a total fan of the Drucina butterfly story. I suddenly overheard a phrase from a conversation at the next table. The precise words were “el lado sur del Volcan de Fuego” (the south side of the Volcan de Fuego). As one of the fincas in which my great grandfather stayed in 1879/1880, El Zapote, and one which I had not yet managed to visit, was situated on the south side of the Volcan de Fuego, my ears pricked up.

I realise fully that it is rude and indiscreet to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, but in this case I could not help it, and eventually, I summed up courage to move across and ask in what context they were discussing that area. As soon as I had given a brief outline of why I was interested, the ice was broken, and it turned out that one of my new friends, Mitchell Denburg, owns a tree farm RIGHT NEXT TO El Zapote, and that Silvia Mansilla is setting up an education project in a neighbouring village….a visit looked suddenly possible!

In the meantime, I obtained the telephone number of one of the brothers who jointly own El Zapote itself, and, full of enthusiasm and still flushed with the warmth of having found the butterfly Drucina championi, I called…never have I received such a frosty response: “We are not interested in history, nor in insects. The whole place has changed since the 1880s, our finca is not open to the public. This type of visit is not for us.”

In some degree of shock, I telephoned Mitch to tell him about this, my ONLY outright rejection here in Guatemala, and he and Silvia immediately jumped to the rescue, inviting me to join them for the day in the area, and so it was that yesterday I found myself sitting next to Mitch in a helicopter, rising out of his wonderful garden in Antigua, and heading up into the blue sky between the volcanoes Acatenango and Agua!

Mitch by the helicopter

We flew low over three fincas in which my great grandfather had stayed: Urías, El Capetillo and finally El Zapote – I am not one to gloat, but it did feel good swooping over the very place I had just been told I could not visit! It was also amazing to see the whole area from the air, and this flight gave me a much better perspective of the kind of terrain my great grandfather had to travel through, on his mule.

The Finca El Capetillo from the air

Our first destination was the very top of one of the strangely-shaped volcanic hills below the Volcan de Fuego, where we landed in order for Mitch to look for a pair of reading glasses that he had left there during a picnic a few days before – sadly the great rush of wind that the chopper’s rotor blades made may have blown them away as there was no sign.

Hunting for glasses on the volcanic hill

From here we took off again, this time for the short flight to the centre of one of Mitch’s tree farms, where he is growing such species as teak, mahogany, palo blanco, and many others. As we walked around, admiring his many trees, Mitch told me a little about his charity project, the Fundación Nuevas Raices (New Roots Foundation), and about how he and the foundation had effectively saved the Laguna Brava, on the Mexican border, from environmental devastation. Mitch’s idea is that impoverished local communities should be encouraged to learn how to help themselves, and forestry is one of the main tools. As well as growing trees, he provides the expertise and financial backing, teaching the communities how to maximise the value of their timber, for example by manufacturing high-end wooden products for sale. He is also a firm believer that the land on which the commercial tree crops are planted should be well used, so between the trees other crops such as oranges, pineapples, plantains, etc are also raised. It was fascinating to walk around with Mitch, listening to his explanations, all the time with the great bulk of the Volcán de Fuego towering into the sky to the north of us.

Part of Mitch's tree farm

The Zapote area from the air, with Fuego in the background

Following this tour, we climbed back into the helicopter, and flew on to the small village of San Vicente Los Cimientos, where we landed on the soccer field. Silvia was there in a Jeep to meet us, and it was not long before what seemed like the entire community had gathered around us and the chopper, and Silvia began to explain about how she would like to help this village, which is made up of people from the highland area of Ixil, which was particularly hard hit during Guatemala’s civil war.

San Vicente Los Cimientos just before we landed - the soccer field is on the right

Mitch with a new friend

Finally, we made our way to the Jeep, and bumped along the few kilometres of rough track to San Andrés Ozuna, where Silvia’s project is already underway. She aims to create a model community of five villages, which she hopes will become models of successful and integrated development, with the population cooperating for the greater good of all, and with education at the centre of its existence.

We first made our way through the ramshackle, unpaved streets of the village, arriving finally at the community hall, where three of Silvia’s daughters were busy teaching a dance to a group of local children. Here, Silvia and Mitch presented graduation certificates to some of the locals who had just completed a course in how to grow vegetables, make jam, improve diet, etc, and then the girls performed their dance routine.

Silvia and Mitch at the diploma ceremony

Silvia and the girls in action

Silvia leading the dance troupe, with daughters helping

From here we drove the short distance to an old building set beneath four magnificent ceiba trees. Silvia intends to renovate part of this construction to use as her home in the village. As I walked around this atmospheric place, I wondered whether my great grandfather George Charles Champion might have slept here in 1879/1880 – he could not have missed the ceibas.

The house which Silvia intends to renovate

We drove Mitch back to the helicopter, as he had a meeting to attend in Antigua, and then returned to San Andrés Ozuna, where we turned off left, driving up through the derelict coffee mills to a higher point, where a crystal-clear, fast-flowing channel, originally built to provide water for the machinery, now provides a wonderful location for Sunday swimming. Silvia and the girls, following their athletic dancing performance, jumped into the water to cool off, but I took the opportunity to walk away from the people, balancing my way along the edge of this wonderfully constructed canal, set high on a hillside overlooking a deep and well forested gorge, leading down from the slopes of the Volcán de Fuego. I could well see why GCC had found El Zapote such a productive area in terms of his insect collecting – there were numerous butterflies, and the whole scene was one of natural richness – it seemed sad that this area at present harbours such a dysfunctional community of people in considerable poverty, and with severe social problems and crime.

The fast-flowing mill stream

The forest in which GCC found so many insects

After a delicious salad made by Silvia and her hostess in the house in which she and the girls sleep when they visit the village (all in one room, two girls to each single bed and Silvia on the floor, and with no bathroom and a pit toilet), we headed back towards the village hall, where the girls were to perform another routine. Silvia had kindly arranged for me to be given a guided tour of the derelict coffee mills, so I hopped out and was introduced to my guide.

Part of the coffee mill complex, with the cablecar mast to the left

German technology - the cablecar line

This finca and its coffee processing plant originally belonged to German settlers, who installed the most modern equipment for the time, and even set up a cable-car route to transport the coffee beans to the relevant parts of the complex. Expropriated from the German owners during the Second World War, the farm was then mismanaged and portioned off to some of the most notorious secret police killers during and after the Guatemalan civil war. It now belongs to the community itself, but its amazing machinery finally ground to a halt, probably in the late 1980s, and it is tragic now to see this magnificent site mouldering away, the roof letting rain through, the planks of the staircases and floors rotting away, and machines rusting quietly into history.

Part of the complex, with the roof open to the elements

The days when Made in Great Britain could be seen around the World

Soon, the President of the Community came to join us, and he explained how he and a few enthusiasts would dearly love to get the complex running again, providing employment to the many families who now have little income and little to occupy them, but due to lack of funds, but more importantly, lack of a cooperative spirit within the community, nothing happens, and more and more of the buildings start to collapse, and more and more of the movable metal objects get stolen for sale as scrap. He told me how on one occasion he and a few others had visited a house where they knew part of the cable from the cable-car had been stashed by the thieves. Although they managed to retrieve the cable, they received death threats in exchange – and death threats are not just hot air here in Guatemala.

Chaos in the old mill

Finally, saddened by this massive waste of potential, I headed back to the village hall to watch the end of the girls’ routine, and we then began the long and bumpy drive out to the main highway, fording six rivers along the way, some of which become virtually impassable in the rainy season, when great boulders as well as soft volcanic ash get washed down from Fuego. We passed in front of the imposing gates of the Finca El Zapote – my great grandfather must have stayed here, although the actual gatepost was marked 1898, so probably some remodelling took place after his visit.

El Zapote - GCC must have passed under this great Ceiba tree

I ended the day with a great feeling of admiration for both Silvia and Mitch in their endeavours to improve the lives of local people through empowerment and to change broken communities for the better. Silvia’s idea is based on five strands: the person (building self-confidence and the belief that an individual can achieve), the wider family, the family within society, minimising environmental impact, and developing for a more successful, more positive future. As a woman fighting in a male-dominated society, she has to work hard to achieve acceptance, but the first steps have been made, and positive signs are there for the future. My best wishes go to her, and to Mitch in his Nuevas Raices project, and my sincerest thanks are due to Mitch, Silvia and the girls for a truly fabulous day, and for giving me the chance to share their experiences and to see at first hand what it means to set your hands to trying to change a broken rural community in backwaters Guatemala for the better.

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Saturday 3rd December 2011

El Paredon Surfhouse – return to paradise

Today’s diary entry requires a very special note of thanks to Mathias and Christoph, of the truly wonderful El Paredon Surfhouse, on the Pacific coast between Sipacate and Chulamar/Puerto San José.

Following my announcement of our having managed to locate the butterfly Drucina championi, I was very touched to receive a large number of congratulatory messages, particularly on Facebook, but also by e-mail, text message, and personal contact. One of the messages came from Mathias, and it said: “Congratulations on finding the butterfly – free night at the Surfhouse!”!

And so it was that I found myself heading down towards the coast again, and receiving the warm welcome that is one of the many aspects of El Paredon that make it one of my favourite places to stay.

The wonderful El Paredon Surfhouse

In the late afternoon I walked the four kilometres along the beach to the mouth of the river, where as on my previous visit, there were many shorebirds to be found, including at least 200 Black Skimmers, extraordinary relatives of the terns, but with a hugely enlarged lower mandible, which they dunk into the water as they skim over the surface, ready to snap their bills closed when they come into contact with a fish. Other birds in evidence here were numerous Royal Terns, Brown Pelicans, several Laughing and Franklin’s Gulls, as well as various plovers.

Sunset over the Pacific

Another of the attractive aspects of El Paredon is the dinner, at which all guests sit together around one table, next to the pool, and the conversation is always interesting. My neighbours this time were Julia, from Kentish Town in North London, who is doing a PhD on biofuels, and Lars, from the U.S., with both of whom I decided to do a boat trip through the mangroves the following morning.

The mangrove trip

This proved to be an ornithological feast, with sightings of Osprey, Mangrove Black Hawk, many species of Heron including the bizarre Boat-billed, both extremes of Kingfisher, ranging from the almost crow-sized Ringed to the absolutely minuscule American Pygmy, one of which shot past our boat at high speed before disappearing round the next corner. But perhaps the most astonishing of all was the vast number of both adult and young White Ibis, which erupted from the mangroves as we poled our way into the narrow channels away from the main watercourse. Our boatman told us that many local people poach these Ibises for food, but the numbers still seemed impressively high here.

Osprey on its regular perch

By late afternoon it was time to leave El Paredon, reluctantly as before, but Mathias was quick to ask me to draw a picture of the by now famous butterfly Drucina championi in the visitors’ book. Unaccustomed as I am to drawing these days, several false starts were made, but finally the result was not too bad, and the butterfly, at least in the Surfhouse, has achieved a certain kind of immortality!

Self with the Drucina drawing

My thanks go again to Mathias and Christoph for that wonderful invitation, and I can only reciprocate by recommending El Paredon Surfhouse to all potential visitors, whether they be surfers, birders or just people who would enjoy long walks along the beach, good conversation and a friendly welcome in a beautiful place.

View from my bedroom at El Paredon Surfhouse

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Tuesday 29th November 2011

“That’s it!”

Today the dream, and all the effort that I and my many friends and helpers here in Guatemala have been putting in, came to fruition: WE FOUND DRUCINA CHAMPIONI!!!

The day started with Matthew Ryan Hartell, of Old Town Outfitters, arriving outside my hotel at 08.00 AM on the dot, followed by Luisa and her mother, who drew up immediately afterwards. We were ready to set out on our very special mission.

Matt has been busy constructing and preparing a series of mountain bike trails through the high altitude forests on the south side of the Volcán de Agua, and as such has privileged access to a private finca that is not normally open to the public. In addition, his Toyota Landcruiser was to come in handy as the area is definitely only reachable by tough 4-wheel drive vehicles with a high clearance.

We headed off down the valley that has by now become so familiar to me (and which was also very familiar to my great grandfather George Charles Champion in 1879/1880), the Volcán de Agua towering into the blue sky on the left, and the twin peaks of Acatenango and the smoking Fuego on the right. We passed the entrance to the Finca El Capetillo, one of GCC’s bases, and then further down noted the entrance road leading to El Zapote, where he also spent much time insect collecting.

On the way in the car, Luisa set to work constructing an extra net, using a gauze anti-mosquito net that was stored in the flap of my Trekmates hat, combined with a coat hanger! The result was remarkably satisfactory!

Luisa constructing the net in the car

The finished result

We then headed back up a short distance on the toll highway towards Guatemala City, where we met up with José Monzón, one of only three people alive whom I believe had seen the butterfly Drucina championi in the flesh. José had very kindly agreed to accompany us and advise us on how to locate this supposedly shy and elusive species.

Fuego and Acatenango seen from the way up Agua

I transferred into his Mazda Pickup, and we were on our way again, soon passing through the gates of the finca, from where the road immediately became steep and rough. Up and up we bumped, until finally we entered the bamboo zone. Amusingly, Luisa attempted to trawl for butterflies from the moving Landcruiser, to no avail….but suddenly, the vehicle lurched to a halt. Luisa jumped out, took a swipe at a butterfly that I had not even seen, caught it, and without even realising what it was (she thought it was probably a Morpho), came to me for me to identify it. Somehow, while she was walking towards our vehicle, something told me a momentous event had happened…and so it was: Luisa, as the first butterfly she had caught using her improvised net, which had no handle, had trapped a Drucina championi. The only words I could utter were “That’s it!”.

Self holding a Drucina, showing the blue marks on the upper hindwing

Completely stunned, we piled out of the vehicles, and it was not long before we spotted another, sailing with a remarkably elegant flight, gliding with its wings held up diagonally. The mission was to try to obtain good photographs of this beautiful and surprisingly large butterfly, but each time it settled, it only held its wings open for less than a split second, showing the row of wonderful iridescent blue spots on the upper surface of the hind wings, before it snapped its wings closed, and we could only observe the cryptically coloured under surface of the wings.

Drucina championi underside

We walked slowly on up the track, and managed to see several more of these splendid insects, named after their discoverer, my great grandfather G C Champion, who first located the species here in Guatemala in 1880. How strange it was to think that he had first found it 131 years ago, and here was I, his great grandson, setting eyes on this very special creature, so restricted in its habitat and distribution, 131 years later. Luisa’s mother commented on how happy GCC would be to know that I was observing his namesake butterfly – suddenly, a text message signal rang from my phone…was it GCC texting to congratulate us?! Sadly not, but the idea was nice! One Drucina, after we had let it go, even sat on Matt’s rucksack!

A Drucina that landed on Matt's backpack

To cut a long story short, we finally ended up seeing at least ten Drucinas, all between 1800 and 2300 metres above sea level (Matthew’s altimeter came in very handy here), and all in the bamboo zone. It was comforting to know that here in this private finca, their habitat is relatively safe…and Matt will be able to keep an eye on these precious butterflies when he is guiding his mountain bike groups here in the future.

A Drucina we found higher up, at around 2300 m

Finally, by about 13.00, the majority of the butterflies had disappeared, although the weather was still bright and sunny (they seem to hide away in the afternoons here), and we began the long and rough descent, absolutely content with our success, and full of the feeling of a mission accomplished.

The Drucinas would not sit with their wings open, but here the colour can be seen

My thanks go especially to Luisa, who caught the first Drucina in her newly-made net, as well as accompanying me through virtually the entire process of hunting Drucina since late August/early September, to Matt for driving us to this remarkable and wonderfully pristine place, to José for sharing so much of his knowledge of this little-known species, and to Luisa’s mother Sandra, for her boundless enthusiasm – the look of happiness on her face when she caught her first butterfly, a Heliconius hortense, in the improvised net, had almost to be seen to be believed!

Sandra having caught her first butterfly

Finding Drucina does not mean I have no more goals…later this week I am due to head back to the Finca Las Nubes, the place where GCC first found the butterfly – I would like to locate it there too. Then there is the female to find, and maybe even the early stages…..and then I would love to see the sister species, Drucina leonata, in Panama in a few weeks’ time. No time to sit back on my laurels, the quest continues! But for a short while, the warm feeling of success will be coursing through my veins….and Luisa will remember her moment of glory for the rest of her life, I am sure!

The Drucina team - Matt, Sandra, Luisa and Jose

“We gladly avail ourselves of this opportunity of naming this fine species after its discoverer, Mr Champion, whose successful industry has added vastly to our knowledge of the insect fauna of Guatemala.”

Biologia Centrali-Americana, Lepidoptera Rhopalocera, Volume 1, Page 113, June 1881