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.

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Tuesday 18th August 2011

First moves in the footsteps of GCC and photographer Muybridge

Today we hired a pick-up with an excellent driver, with the aim of attempting to locate some of the localities associated with my great grandfather, as well as with the famous photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

We started with a short but steep drive up to a forested hill overlooking the town of Antigua, the Cerro de la Cruz. Muybridge had taken a series of shots of the town from here in 1875, and it was remarkable how little had changed – I was able to recreate his view with some degree of precision, although sadly the Volcán de Agua, towering in the background in Muybridge’s photograph, was obscured by cloud today. The same churches, especially La Merced, were prominent, and there is still not a modern building to be seen in the town.

Antigua in 1875, Muybridge

Similar view of Antigua, showing how little it has changed since Muybridge was here in 1875

From here we drove to Ciudad Vieja, the original capital of Guatemala, but which was completely lost beneath a mudslide in 1541, after which the administrative centre became Antigua, where it remained until 1773. GCC visited here on several occasions, but we were unable to find precisely where he stayed, although a number of buildings from the period when he visited still survive.

Our next destination was the nearby small town of San Miguel Dueñas, where with the aid of copies of the paintings by Caroline Salvin, wife of GCC’s employer Osbert Salvin, we hunted for the buildings in which she and her husband had stayed in in 1873, and where GCC had also lodged in 1879/1880. There was no sign of the views Caroline Salvin had painted, but as the house appeared to be more like a farmhouse, we started investigating fincas on the outskirts, each time making sure that the twin peaks of the Volcán de Fuego and the Volcán Acatenango were in the same position in the background as they were in Caroline Salvin’s painting.

The finca we were searching for, with the Volcan de Fuego behind

The most promising looking candidate we found was the Finca Santiago, but this property was heavily barricaded and gated, and the security guard at the gate, although interested in our quest, was unable to allow us in. He indicated also that he thought the picture looked more like the Finca Tempixque, to which we drove with some optimism, and where the security guard, fascinated by our story, made several calls in order to request permission for us to enter. This was soon granted and we were unexpectedly treated to a private tour of this magnificent property, now operating as a coffee plantation and centre for the cultivation of orchids and other tropical plants. We were shown around the beautifully maintained hothouses by the Director of Operations Ing. Jorge Luis Gomez and the Greenhouse Director Juan Antonio Garcia, and we spent a while admiring the many varieties of orchids grown here. But sadly, there was no sign of GCC’s lodgings and neither of our two hosts recognised the picture. The search will continue.

Our next, more distant destination was the Lago de Amatitlán, situated in a deep basin to the south of the modern capital, Guatemala City. The drive took us over a high ridge, down through the now rundown satellite towns of Bárcenas and Villa Nueva, bringing us finally to the shores of the picturesque but grossly polluted lake. Although unable to say precisely where GCC had stayed, we took a boat ride out across the lake, and admired its still beautiful situation, wishing only that some steps could be taken to clear the endless pieces of plastic rubbish floating in the algae-laden green waters.

Lago de Amatitlan

From here we returned to Antigua, impressed by the landscapes and the still heavily forested hills so close to the capital, and ready to continue our search in the coming days.

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Tuesday 16th August, 2011

First post from GUATEMALA!!

After a long and rather complicated journey (the airline suddenly re-routed us from flying via Dallas to via Miami), we are here in Antigua, Guatemala! The adventures started almost immediately – we (ex-Royal Entomological Society librarian Jacqueline Ruffle and I) were picked up by my friend Luis Montes at 07.00 and driven all the way down to the tropical lowlands near the Salvadoran border to a finca where he is conducting experiments on Jatropha curcas bushes for biofuels. We enjoyed a fascinating tour of the experimental plots, which also provided an opportunity to get to grips with our first Guatemalan butterflies….but as many of them are fast-flying and rarely settle, a net was required for identification purposes. However, a catastrophe soon manifested itself: a vital part of my net, the brass tube that connects the net ring to the bamboo pole, had disappeared, possibly having fallen out of my rucksack in transit. This is a major blow, as butterfly nets are not easy to come by. Creative thinking will be required!!

STOP PRESS!!! 17th August – NET PIECE FOUND!!!!!!! Worries over!!!

After an hour or so in the field, the heat became too extreme and we were all forced to retreat to an air-conditioned restaurant to recover….a luxury that brought home to me just how lucky we are today compared to my great grandfather G C Champion, who travelled on muleback, which did not even offer the cooling breeze provided by the moving car, and he had no light, no fan, no chilled drinks, rarely the possibility to bathe, and even to retreat to the cool of the higher areas took several days. Up till today, I had always thought it strange that he complained so much in his letters home; now I fully understand why. He must have been a brave man, and his feats deserve considerable praise.

We are now back in the beautiful town of Antigua, and have just witnessed the dramatic sight of lightning flashing through the clouds surrounding the peak of the Volcan Acatenango. Tomorrow holds the promise of a tour to many of the villages surrounding Antigua where GCC did so much of his collecting, followed by a proposed visit to the lake of Amatitlan…….