Monday 29 August 2011

Return from Las Nubes

We are now back in Antigua, after a truly magical visit to the Finca Las Nubes, where we were guests of the Castillo family (to whom our sincerest thanks). Las Nubes (meaning the clouds, referring to the fact that it is often enveloped in the clouds that hug the slopes of the Volcan Santo Tomas, on whose slopes it sits) had long been a dream destination of mine, partly because pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge took some of his most impressive pictures here in 1875, allowing us to see precisely how the estate and buildings looked then, and partly because my great grandfather George Charles Champion also stayed here twice in 1880, like Muybridge as a guest of owner William Nelson.

Lago de Atitlan

Our journey from Lake Atitlan to Las Nubes on Wednesday 24th involved a huge almost circular detour because of landslides that had blocked the more direct route, but allowed us to enjoy another panoramic view of the lake from beyond Godinez, from where we dropped rapidly from the cool temperate zone into the steamy Pacific lowlands, along which we then sped westwards as far as Mazatenango, where we left the main highway and began to climb through small villages towards the volcano….and we were soon lost!

After asking locals for directions on several occasions, we finally made it up through the village of Zunilito, and after having considerable difficulty negotiating a rushing torrent which we had to ford, and sliding about in some particularly slippery mud, as well as having to phone to ask for further directions, we finally found ourselves on the correct entrance road, and it was not long before we came around a corner, and there it was, the to me almost mythical house that I had seen in Muybridge’s photos from 1875, and in which my great grandfather stayed in 1880.

We were welcomed most warmly by the Castillo family, with whom we then enjoyed the most delicious meals for the next four days, as well as a lot of very interesting chat about the history of the finca. I was very pleased to be able to provide them with a considerable amount of extra information, contained in GCC’s diaries and letters, about the historical origins of the house itself, which we discovered had belonged to a German family before William Nelson acquired it….previously, as Muybridge’s photograph shows the house under construction in 1875, we had assumed that Nelson had had the house constructed in 1875.

The house at Las Nubes by Eadweard Muybridge, 1875

The house from approximately the same angle today

Our days involved early rises before dawn, drives up through the coffee plantations in one or other of the two splendid Land Rovers they have at Las Nubes (one of which is a 1959 model, and still going strong, and the other is a mere youngster built in 1983), along tracks that truly only a Land Rover could tackle, as far as the edge of the forest, where some very attractive observation balconies have been constructed, affording panoramic views over the forest canopy. From one of these were able to observe some of the many spectacular birds that the reserve offers, including Highland and Crested Guans, Blue-crowned Motmot, Elegant Euphonia, and the legendary Resplendent Quetzal, which treated us to three separate viewings, although at this time of the year the long plumes that normally trail behind the male bird in flight have been moulted and are not to be seen.

Dawn above Las Nubes

The birds went a long way to make our stay a memorable event, but it was of course for another purpose that we had long dreamed of visiting Las Nubes….it was here that, in September and December 1880, my great grandfather had discovered the butterfly Drucina championi, and it was this that was perhaps our most important target species.

On three mornings we headed up to the highest point we could reach in the Land Rover, and from here we climbed steeply through degraded forest until we reached the edge of the pristine cloud forest that extends from here right up to just below the summit of the volcano, which is in the pine zone. Our excellent guide, Fernando, having been shown a picture of the butterfly, was quite sure that he had seen this very species less than a year ago precisely here with a visiting group of veterinarians, and they had even counted the blue flashes on its hind wings. It felt as if we were in the trail of Drucina!

Cloud forest in the cloud!

Here too we found quite extensive areas with what we assume must be the chusquea bamboo with which the butterfly is associated, and even caught and photographed a pair of another Satyrid butterfly species, Oxeoschista hilara, which we know associates with Drucina championi, but despite three attempts, we were unlucky. Perhaps the adult butterflies had not yet emerged, perhaps we were not quite in the right place, perhaps….there are many possible explanations. What was clear, however, was that attempting to climb still higher on the extremely steep, muddy and slippery slopes of the volcano would be foolhardy at this time of the year, being as it is the height of the rainy season. I tried to start along the almost imperceptible trail that climbs up into the forest from the last clearing one can relatively easily walk to, and I slid around so much that I beat a hasty retreat.

This was indeed a disappointment, especially for Jacqueline, who will have no further opportunity to see the butterfly named after G C Champion, its discoverer, as a thank you present to him by his employers Godman and Salvin, but I shall try again in November, by which time the ground should be drier and the going somewhat easier. In the meantime, Fernando will keep a close eye out and let me know if he finds this wonderful insect.

On Sunday morning the Castillo family had to leave for Guatemala City, and we found ourselves the sole occupants of the house, but finally through the torrential and sustained downpour of rain that seems to be the norm in the afternoons at this time of the year, there appeared Bitty Ramirez-Portilla, her husband bird photographer Renato and their son Jose Miguel. Bitty is the highly efficient director of Guatemala Nature Tours, and is one of those rare people who can organise anything at short notice; a quick phone call here, an e-mail there, and everything comes together!

On our last morning the five of us went up again with Fernando to the balcony overlooking the forest canopy, and were treated to some magnificent views of the volcanoes poking out of the clouds in the dawn, and were able to see the plume of smoke rising from the erupting Santiaguito, poking up beyond the Volcan Santa Maria away to the north-west.

And so ended our stay at Las Nubes, a truly wonderful place that combines a highly efficient working coffee business, a private nature reserve offering visiting birders the chance to see an excellent selection of the mid to higher elevation species in a beautiful and historic setting, coupled with excellent and friendly service, delicious food and fascinating conversation….the perfect combination. I shall certainly be back….and I shall be keeping my fingers crossed for success in my quest to find Drucina championi on my next visit!

Our thanks again to the Castillo family, and to Bitty, Renato and Jose Miguel for a most enjoyable time together, for driving us all the way back to Guatemala City, and for further organisational help.

The house at Las Nubes


Tuesday 23rd August 2011

First real trace of GCC!

Today we headed back along the shores of Lake Atitlán towards the Reserva Natural. From the entrance we walked back along the access road, and it was not long before we found ourselves butterfly-watching in front of a row of small cabins. Seeing us behaving strangely (wielding a butterfly net and crouching on the ground in order to photograph insects are not usual activities here!), an American lady came out of one of the cabins, curious to know what we were up to.

I explained our story, and the fact that my great grandfather had been here in December 1880….and by chance I added the fact that he had slept overnight in a flour mill. The husband suddenly announced that there was a large, derelict mill a few hundred yards behind the cabins, hidden by trees.

He led us into the vegetation along a barely perceptible path, and pointed us in the right direction. Sure enough, after ploughing through the undergrowth for a short while, there before us was the mill building itself, complete with mill stones and the hop down which the grain would have fallen. The building appeared to have been abandoned relatively recently; I leant in to photograph the interior through the metal bars. So here, for the first time, we had found a PRECISE location visited by George – it was a strange feeling indeed to feel we were so close to him.

The mill, nestling beneath the forested hill

The mill interior - did George climb these stairs to sleep?

We are off tomorrow to the Finca Las Nubes, another location where GCC definitely stayed…..there will be much to tell when we return from there. As there is no internet access at Las Nubes, I shall be out of communication for a while.

Golden-banded Dartwhite, Catasticta teutila


Monday 22nd August 2011

January 4th 1881,

“My dear Mother,

On my return to the capital on the 2nd, I found yours of Nov. 15th awaiting me. Another Christmas has come and gone, I must say I spent mine rather dismally, was rather unwell and was with Spanish speaking, unsociable, people, and what with the heat was glad to rest in a hammock the greater part of the day, and read. Christmas is not thought much of by people here; Good Friday, and some other days they observe much more, but except in the towns, weekdays and Sundays are much the same.

Left Las Nubes finally on December 14th for San Agustín, a coffee estate on the slope of the Volcan Atitlán – a very hot, dry place, remained till Boxing Day, then went up into the mountains to a cooler place and spent about a week at San Lucas and Panajachel (Indian villages) and in Godines (7000 feet); magnificent scenery here – the Lake of Atitlán, surrounded by lofty mountains (including the volcanoes), very hot in the day, and equally cold in the night – but all too dry and dusty for my work. The lake seen at sunrise and sunset was well worth a long journey to see; had occasion to cross in an Indian canoe, starting long before daylight, and the sun rose while I was crossing; in daytime in dry season, the mountains look too brown and colourless, they are best seen at sunrise or sunset.”

Orange-striped Eighty-eight, Diaethria pandama

So described my great grandfather George his experience of Lake Atitlán…..and although we did not have the occasion to cross the lake today in an Indian canoe, we did take a full day’s tour by fast launch around the lake, stopping in the lakeside villages of San Marcos La Laguna, San Pedro La Laguna, Santiago Atitlán and San Antonio Palopó, where a most colossal rainstorm broke out, almost preventing our return to Panajachel.

Orange-spotted Skipper, Atarnes sallei

It is interesting how GCC experienced the lake region as being arid; at this season it seems green and lush, whereas he must have seen it at the height of the dry season.

Whatever season it is seen in, Lake Atitlán is undoubtedly, as George says, well worth a long journey to see – and not just at sunrise and sunset.

Lake Atitlan from Panajachel