Saturday 20th August 2011

Antigua – Panajachel

Today it was time to bid our farewells to the charming town of Antigua, and to follow my great grandfather’s route (in reverse) across the high country to the jewel of Guatemala, Lake Atitlán. Our route took us through a number of places where GCC stayed in 1880, including Chimaltenango, Patzicía and Patzún, all of which must have grown beyond recognition in the 140 or so years since he passed through on his mule. There were hardly any old buildings to be seen, so although it was interesting to see these highland, indigenous towns, we did not feel an immediate bond with George Charles as we travelled through.

We took a back route, known as La Culebrita (the little snake) as it twists and turns so much, through at times spectacular mountain scenery, which we were pleased to see is still quite well forested with pine and oak – indeed I observed a group of Acorn Woodpeckers boring acorns into the bark of a huge tree, at equally spaced intervals, for later use, much as squirrels hoard nuts.

Oh dear, what's happened to the road?

Finally we came to the small village and road junction of Godinez, also frequented by GCC but sadly lacking today in traces of his era, although we did see some beetles that he would have been able to identify at once, and then we had our first glimpses of the wonderful Lago de Atitlán, nestled almost like an inland Norwegian fjord in a basin between the volcanoes.

GCC's dream come true

Our route brought us down to the lakeside town (and tourist mecca) of Panajachel, where we checked into our hotel for the next four nights, before venturing along the shores a little further to the attractive little village of Santa Catarina Palopó, from where we enjoyed splendid views along the lake. Our stay here looks promising!

Lake Atitlan

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Friday 19th August 2011

Antigua – the Mariposario tragedy

Today was our last day in Antigua. We started off by going to the INGUAT government tourist office, where we did not find a huge amount of useful advice, but we did obtain a map of the town, on the top left-hand corner of which we noticed a Mariposario, or butterfly house/garden. We were informed that there was a free shuttle bus to close by, on the hour every hour, but as it was 10.05 and it did not appear too far on the map, we started walking.

Suddenly, a tuk-tuk appeared as if by magic, and I spontaneously flagged it down, a move which we were later glad of as it was much further than we thought. However, our adventures were soon to commence, as we suddenly had a puncture! It was all hands to the pump to change the wheel, which included the driver holding the whole vehicle up while I changed the wheel for the spare, which had a TOTALLY bald tyre with the canvas showing through and a large slash in the wall!

Luckily it held out until we arrived at the Mariposario, where we were welcomed by a tiny girl who told us that her mother would soon be there to look after us. The lady began by showing us all stages from egg to adult of the Monarch butterfly, which she was rearing, followed by a lot of broken off old butterfly wings, which we enjoyed identifying and placing on the relevant pages on the book and photographing them.

Gulf Fritillary and Mexican Silverspot on their page in the book

She then showed us around the project, which incorporated a complex of covered greenhouses (with netting rather than glass) containing both the food and nectar-source plants of many species of locally occurring butterflies. This was fascinating, and we were able to observe at extremely close range several females egg-laying, numerous caterpillars, and of course lots of adult butterflies.

Full of enthusiasm for the project as we were, suddenly the lady told us in hushed and sad tones that we would be almost her last guests as they were about to be forced to close down on Sunday (this was Friday) forever, due to lack of visitors and therefore funds. This seems a real tragedy as the operation is up and running, HIGHLY educational and beautifully run. So, if anyone would like to invest quickly to save the Mariposario of Antigua, Guatemala, please let me know! Its lack of visitors must be entirely due to a lack of marketing as it is really well worth a visit – or several visits.

Feeling deeply saddened, we walked a short way back along to road to the Centro Cultural La Azotea, a beautifully maintained coffee plantation, museum of coffee and of Mayan musical instruments and an outdoor reconstruction of indigenous houses from different regions of Guatemala. I much enjoyed wandering around the gardens photographing the numerous butterflies and dragonflies, until finally we returned to Antigua in the free shuttle bus – but not before I had suggested to one of the ladies running the visitor centre that perhaps they could offer a new home to the Mariposario, as they seem to have plenty of land and I think it would add an extra dimension to the visitors’ experience of the Centro Cultural. She said they were considering it, but without much enthusiasm. The Mariposario appears to be doomed – a real tragedy as the whole operation is up and running, lovingly created and maintained by its creators; a lack of marketing and publicity would appear to be the cause of its downfall.

Anna's Eighty-eight, Diaethria anna, La Azotea

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Thursday 18th August 2011

Antigua

The morning was spent organising the onward leg of our journey, but by midday we were walking up towards the base of the Cerro de la Cruz, where our butterfly-watching immediately began at the base of the steps leading up through the forest to the cross. No sooner had we sat down on the first bench to extract camera, net, binoculars and books from my rucksack than the first insects appeared. Slightly out of practice at catching, and a little nervous as our permits have not yet materialised and there were several signs saying “No cazar animales” – we do not intend to “cazar” (hunt), but when carrying a net even if only for identification purposes it is better to have official authorisation – it took some time for me to get my hand in, but soon the first new species were being caught, photographed, identified at once where possible, before being released back into the forest.

After a long while at the first bench, we made our way slowly up through the forest, stopping at various places along the way, before emerging from the trees at the cross, from where we took time to admire the magnificent view of the city below us, with the towering presence of the Volcan de Agua beyond, its head still in cloud.

From here we climbed past the monument to Santiago (Saint James), patron saint of Guatemala, and continued along a track leading up into the forest, eventually emerging on a road beyond. Here we made several insect sightings, including a huge wasps’ nest suspended from a eucalyptus branch and several interesting butterfly species, before gradually retracing our footsteps down into the old city of Antigua.

This may be the last diary entry for a few days as we are due to leave Antigua tomorrow en route for Lake Atitlan, and I am not sure when I will next have internet access.