Saturday 10th September 2011

Guatemala City

Today was a really interesting and varied day. We were up early, although perhaps not as early as real birders should be, and after a quick breakfast were on our way to the Botanical Garden of the Universidad de San Carlos, a real oasis of tranquillity within the hustle and bustle of Guatemala City’s traffic and fumes.

Although not normally open to the public on Saturdays, our two new birding friends Annabel and Karen both work as volunteers within the gardens, and they had kindly arranged for us to have exclusive access to this walled paradise, which seemed truly like a secret garden, featuring mature trees, secluded paths and even a bust of Linnaeus in the middle.

Bust of Linnaeus, Jardin Botanico

We managed to observe a number of bird species that are otherwise hard to see in the city itself, including Grey Silky-Flycatchers, Yellow-winged and Blue-grey Tanagers, Azure-crowned Hummingbirds and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, as well as Melodious Blackbird and the ubiquitous Clay-coloured Thrush and Great-tailed Grackle.

Birders in the Jardin Botanico

After a very pleasant morning here, we headed to a truly extraordinary pair of neo-Gothic buildings, the Casa and Iglesia Yurrita, the former of which was built in the 1920s, and now operates as a restaurant, where we enjoyed a late breakfast, followed by a fine photographic performance by a newly emerged Dione juno butterfly, which posed cooperatively for pictures before it took its first flight.

Casa Yurrita

Dione juno newly emerged

In the afternoon we were driven into the heart of the old city, known as Zona 1, by Annabel, who having spent much of her childhood living in this old colonial heart of the city, was able to give us extensive background information on the area, which had suffered serious neglect and become a haven for robbers and street criminals before undergoing something of a rebirth recently, with a heightened security presence on the streets to combat crime.

We were dropped off in the main square in front of the imposing cathedral, and it was here that we were able to locate two of the precise spots from which pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge had taken his wonderful pictures in 1875, one featuring the cathedral itself from across the square, and the other looking up the main aisle inside the building itself.

The Cathedral, Guatemala City, Muybridge, 1875

The Cathedral, Guatemala City, 2011

A short walk around the blocks adjacent to the main square brought us to another place of considerable historical significance for me: the Gran Hotel. Now sadly derelict and very forlorn-looking, it was in this building that my great grandfather George lodged during his first month in Guatemala in 1879, and where he stayed on several of his subsequent visits to the capital. I would have loved to see inside the building, but it was barricaded and locked.

The Gran Hotel, where GCC stayed in 1879 and 1880

Shortly after this we were joined by our friend Brenda and her younger sister Maria Elisa, and we joined a guided tour of the magnificent Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, completed in 1944 under the orders of President Ubico…who apparently believed he was a reincarnation of Napoleon; hence the splendour of the building.

Our guide battled valiantly to make herself heard during the tour, but it was a hard task due to the TREMENDOUS claps of thunder and roar of the TORRENTIAL rain that started falling outside, causing the lights, including the 122 bulbs in a splendid Czech chandelier in one of the state reception rooms, to flicker and fade worryingly! Also within the building was a temporary exhibition celebrating 100 years of Chinese – Guatemalan cooperation…but not mainland Chinese. It seems that Guatemala is one of the few nations that have maintained diplomatic relations with the Nationalist Chinese administration in Taiwan rather than recognising the Communist government in Beijing, and that the grateful Taiwanese authorities provide generous aid to the Guatemalan state. Perhaps most interesting for me was a beautiful photograph of a large flock of the highly endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, which nests mainly on islands off the North Korean coast and winters mainly in Taiwan. I had seen a number of these birds myself in South Korea and Japan in the late 1980s and early 90s, when it was thought that they might well become extinct.

After a visit to the amazing underground handicrafts market, where Jacqueline bought presents for her children, we headed along the pedestrianised 6 Avenida, a lively street with breakdancers twirling and doing mid-air backward somersaults, and one even spinning on his head, and singers, and lined with seemingly endless shoe shops apparently all selling almost identical products, we left the old city, pleasantly surprised considering its poor reputation, described graphically in the Rough Guide as “…the run-down centro histórico, a squalid world of low-slung, crumbling nineteenth century town houses and faceless concrete blocks, broken pavements, car parking lots and plenty of noise and dirt”. All of those things are true, but somehow we enjoyed our visit.

The Cathedral interior, Guatemala City, Muybridge, 1875

The Cathedral interior, Guatemala City, 2011

We finally returned home in order to allow Jacqueline time to do her packing, and this morning (Sunday 11th September) she flew out on an early flight to London via Dallas-Fort Worth. I am now on my own for the next leg of the adventure.


Friday 9th September 2011

Guatemala City

We are still in the capital city, being most kindly looked after by our hosts Richard and Guisela, and daughter Julie, and Jacqueline’s time in Guatemala is rapidly drawing to a close. Apart from a short trip up to a mirador offering panoramic views over the city, we have not made any major excursions. Yesterday we ventured to the Museo de Historia Natural in the vague hope of finding some specimens obtained by my great grandfather George Charles Champion. I know that someone from the Royal Entomological Society in London visited in the 1980s, and did find a substantial insect collection, including some GCC specimens, but this person found the collections in a very poor state…..there was even talk of the RES sending out a small team to help restore them, but this never happened.

We visited the director of the museum, who was fascinated to hear of our story, but sadly he could not help us much. Apparently after the founder of the museum, Dr Jorge A Ibarra, died, the family retained ownership and custody of the insect and bird collections, and in the following years they disappeared. An export permit was apparently applied for but not granted some years ago, but there the trail goes cold. Anyhow, even if the collections did remain in Guatemala, the specimens are probably so badly deteriorated as to be beyond repair. A sad story indeed, and in some ways a national shame.

Today we headed for the Parque Zoologico La Aurora, a pleasantly laid out zoo near the international airport with a fairly well housed collection of both native and exotic animals. Apart from those in the cages, we did manage to observe a few butterfly and bird species in liberty in the park grounds.


Tuesday 6th September 2011

Lago de Izabal, Rio Dulce and the Atlantic coast

Following on from the last entry, describing our day with the Japanese insect specialist in Salamá, we were picked up the following morning by Juliana Skaggs (Julie), an intrepid friend of Brenda’s (everyone is a friend of everyone else here in “Guate”!) in a large Mitsubishi 4-wheel drive vehicle, and it was not long before we were speeding (literally!) along the road towards the Caribbean (Atlantic) side of Guatemala.

I had hoped to follow my great grandfather’s route more precisely by going down the less used road through the Polochic valley, but as several bridges had apparently been washed out, we were forced to take the main road back as far as the road junction at El Rancho, where the road from San Jerónimo joins the Carretera del Atlántico, and from there we shot down towards the steamy tropical lowlands, stopping briefly at San Cristóbal Acasaguastlán to view a beautiful church.

Church at San Cristóbal Acasaguastlán by Juliana Skaggs

Our next stop was at the magnificent ruins of Quiriguá, set in a beautifully laid out patch of parkland and natural forest surrounded by the seemingly endless banana plantations laid out by the United Fruit Company. It was like walking in a sauna here, but we took time to admire some of the stelae, gigantic carved brown sandstone monoliths dating from the 8th century AD. There was sadly some more modern graffiti on some of the structures…and one particular year was clearly legible: 1881. Oh dear, I thought, surely great grandfather George Charles Champion could not have been responsible for such vandalism. Luckily, although he was in Guatemala in precisely that year, we know for sure that the closest he came to this site was the western end of the nearby Lago de Izabal, so it was not him!

The ruins of Quirigua

The graffiti showing the year 1881, not written by George Champion!

From here we headed on towards the coast, but then turned north, crossing over the river at the bustling, chaotic town of Rio Dulce, where we turned off this road, and headed round the eastern end of the great lake of Izabal and powered our way along the northern shore road, before finally reaching our destination, the lakeside town of El Estor. It was not long before we had checked to our “ecological cabins”, and had waded out into the deliciously warm waters of the lake. Here we wallowed like manatees as the tropical night fell, watching the splendid natural firework display of lightning flashes in the distance in all directions, with bats flitting around our heads.

The following day was one of the highlights of my time in Guatemala so far. Our boatman arrived early to spirit us across the lake in the dawn towards the great forested delta area of the Bocas del Polochic. George came this way in a canoe on his travels in 1879, and although we did not head directly up the river towards Panzós as he did, we explored the winding side channels through the flooded forest, venturing into the Rio Oscuro and various other channels, admiring the abundant birdlife that uses this refugio, including several Bare-faced Tiger-Herons, Limpkins, Snail Kites and Laughing Falcons, as well as several enormous shimmering blue Morpho helenor butterflies.

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron by Juliana Skaggs

Laughing Falcon by Juliana Skaggs

Snail Kite by Juliana Skaggs

Bocas del Polochic

We stopped at the biological research centre of Selempim, where we had originally thought of spending the night….but somehow the comparative comfort of our ecological cabins back at El Estor seemed more attractive, and Julie proved to be highly adept at butterfly and even dragonfly-catching, an activity she had never tried before!

Rio Oscuro, Bocas del Polochic

We then retraced our tracks (or perhaps better stated, our wake) back out into the open water, where we were treated to quite reasonable views of two manatees, one of which actually rose out of the water before splashing back in. I do hope that boatmen will not molest these shy and peaceful mammals too much in the future, as this area is one of the few potentially undisturbed breeding areas they have. Despite the ubiquitous floating plastic bottles and other man-made detritus that plague every stretch of water, the lake seems relatively clean, although the presence of a large nickel mine west of El Estor, and a filthy palm oil processing plant that was belching dirty brown smoke, could prove problematic in terms of pollution here in the coming years.

After watching the manatees for some considerable time, we sped back across the lake, during which time I noticed an interesting entomological phenomenon: crossing the lake was an almost constant stream of the large Brimstone-like Yellow Angled Sulphur butterfly, Anteos maerula, all heading southwards. Whilst some butterflies that spend the summer months in North America, such as the famous Monarch, migrate south for the northern winter, it seems strange that a tropical species that spends its entire life in warm climes should need to move further south, but I observed this phenomenon not only on this day, but also on the following two days further east; vast numbers of these showy butterflies were on the move, all heading southwards.

Once we had reached our cabins and taken a short break, we headed out by car for the short drive to the waterfalls of Boquerón, where we again boarded a boat for a short journey into a deep and mysterious canyon, with vast, forested limestone cliffs towering above us. We then headed to the nearby Finca El Paraiso, where we again plunged into the lake to cool off (hardly possible in these tepid waters) and to admire the lightning show once again.

The following morning we headed back to the north side of the road opposite El Paraiso, where we hiked the short distance up a forest track to a most amazing hot spring waterfall that drops about 12 metres into a deep pool in the river, allowing one to stand in cool water while taking a natural hot shower, or even to duck under an overhang into a tiny, narrow grotto complete with mini stalactites.

From here we moved on to the beautifully restored Castillo de San Felipe, dating from 1652, set at the strategically important mouth of the Rio Dulce, leading into the eastern end of the Lago de Izabal. The castle was captured and re-captured several times, as well as serving as a prison, and I was surprised to see some British cannon dating from the reign of George 1st.

El Castillo de San Felipe

Detail of a cannon at San Felipe

We abandoned our land transport here at Rio Dulce town, and boarded our launch for a really magical journey down the river, through the great lagoon of El Golfete, and into the breathtaking chasm that the river winds its way through, before finally reaching the open Caribbean Sea at the town of Livingston, headquarters of the Garífuna community in Guatemala, who trace their roots back to the Caribbean island of St Vincent, where shipwrecked African slaves mixed with the local Carib Indians before being deported to the Honduran coast by the British in 1796, from where they have spread along the coasts of Honduras itself, southwards into Nicaragua and northwards into Guatemala and Belize.

Our boat took us past the town of Lívingston itself, which cannot be reached by land and is only accessible by boat, a few kilometres further along the Atlantic shore to our delightfully located hotel and cabins, the Hotel Salvador Gaviota, where we had a wonderful dinner with a candidate for the post of mayor of Lívingston, Magno, his wife Lucy and their two children Ugundany and Nanigi. I mentioned to Magno that George had had an assistant who must have come from the Garífuna community named Leopoldo, who even accompanied him on his two-year stint in Panama as well, and he immediately mentioned that he personally knew of a couple of Leopoldos in Lívingston….as Leopoldo is an unusual Christian name, it could indeed be that the descendants of my great grandfather’s much trusted assistant are now living here. How interesting it would be for the great grandson of GCC to meet the great (or even great great) grandchildren of GCC, 140 years later! Further investigation will be carried out!

Leopoldo, GCC's assistant in both Guatemala and Panama

After a final wander out onto the jetty in front of the hotel to watch the nightly lightning show, this time with flashes over Belize to the North and Honduras to the South-east, we retired to bed….but not to sleep in my case, as I was viciously attacked (and am still being) by fleas, one of which I saw but did not manage to catch, and I am left covered with horrible suppurating bites which itch like fury…..perhaps George arranged for me to suffer this experience, as he himself complains of the most dreadful flea attacks in his accounts.

Our destination the next morning was the series of seven pools of deliciously cool water known as Los Siete Altares, formerly the scene of some very violent assaults and robberies (including of one of Julie’s close friends), but peaceful since the locals took matters into their own hands and despatched the culprits without recourse to the law….it is better not to know too much about that. Anyhow, I savoured the cold water soothing my flea bites, but the relief was only temporary!

Finally we had to drag ourselves away before returning to our hotel for a delicious taponada, the local dish containing a whole crab, fish, shellfish, banana and coconut milk, which was supposed to be breakfast but rapidly became more of a brunch.

Fully replete after our feast, we reboarded our launch and returned by the same route, passing in front of the township of Lívingston, entering the wonderful canyon of the Rio Dulce, with its towering sides impressively still covered with luxuriant primary tropical forest, through the broad lagoon of El Golfete, and back to Rio Dulce town, where we reclaimed the vehicle before the long drive up to Guatemala City, where we are now enjoying the extremely kind hospitality of Julie’s parents.

Seafront of Livingston