Category Archives: September 2011

Thursday 29th September 2011

Cobán, Alta Vera Paz

I am now listening to the rain pouring down on the tin roof of the historic Posada, in Cobán, a highland town in Alta Vera Paz, a new region for me, and one much frequented by my great grandfather George Charles Champion in 1879 – 1880.

I left Antigua by high speed (literally, again!) shuttle bus, and much enjoyed the company during the six hour journey of my co-passengers, a Frenchman and his Guatemalan wife, two British girls and the Australian boyfriend of one of them, a very congenial bunch. As the others were all headed on beyond Cobán to the caves of Lanquin and the waterfalls of Semuc Champey, I found myself the only passenger leaving the bus in the town. However, there was not a moment to be lonely as my new hosts, Rob and Tara Cahill, were there to meet me. I had been introduced to them a couple of weeks before at the hummingbird feeders at the Finca El Pilar, and having heard the story of my unusual journey, they had very kindly offered to host me on this leg of my quest.

I soon checked into my hostal, and with the help of a bottle of wine, the plans began to materialise. It turned out that both of Rob and Tara’s sons are keen, and I must say extremely skilled, birders, and they were both willing to act as my guides. The Cahill family, originally from Pennsylvania, have lived in Cobán for around ten years, and all are fluent in English, Spanish and Keq’chi, the indigenous language of these highland areas. The elder one, Peter, aged 17, was to act as my driver for the next three days, and I must say he did brilliantly on the EXTREMELY rough mountain roads we took, and gained more driving experience than one would normally expect a 17-year-old to have had.

The following morning, he and I headed out towards the Biotopo del Quetzal, a protected area of cloud forest set aside specifically to protect the habitat of that almost mystical bird, the Resplendent Quetzal. One can do a number of hikes through the forest, but ironically one of the most reliable sites for the bird is in the garden of a small lodge right by the road. We, however, were unlucky, but we did find a sheet strung up with some splendid moths on it; clearly an entomologists’ moth trap! Inquiries revealed that this had been set up by Jose Monzon, one of my key contacts and one of the few people who have observed my chief target butterfly, Drucina championi, alive. We actually saw him leaving, without realising who he was, as we drove in! We resolved to return in the evening to request further information regarding that most special of all butterflies (to our family at least, it having been discovered by my great grandfather in 1880).

Following our unsuccessful Quetzal attempt, we drove the short distance to our accommodation for the next two nights, the Posada de la Montaña del Quetzal, where we checked into our attractive bungalow, after which we set off on a quest to explore a region visited by GCC in 1879, Chilascó. Our route took us 12 km off the main road on a dirt track, passing through mixed pine/oak forest, to the village of Chilascó, where we were shown around by our excellent guide, Genaro, who first took us on a tour of the slightly scruffy village, even taking us into the school to show us a remarkable classroom block constructed of empty plastic drinks bottles, set in chicken wire and then plastered over. This eco-friendly way of making use of some of the vast amounts of plastic waste that litters many parts of the Guatemalan countryside was encouraging to see…and we were certainly the stars of the classrooms when we walked in!

Genaro and Julio in front of the classroom made of plastic bottles

Following the tour of the village, Genaro fetched his seven-year-old son Julio, and we started the somewhat rough hike towards the remarkable waterfall of Chilascó, which claims to be the highest in Central America. The going along these tracks, especially in the rubber boots that I had hired, was hard going, but I am glad we did it as these horse and mule trails, completely churned up and muddy, are far more like the “execrable roads” that GCC so often refers to in his diaries than the modern roads we travel on today.

GCC would have described this road as execrable

After perhaps an hour of walking through mixed farmland, scrub and secondary woodland, we finally reached the ridge, where the cloud forest began. We then descended ever lower along the steep switchback trail, occasionally managing to glimpse these truly spectacular falls, until we finally reached the bottom of the cascade, and were able to gaze up in wonder at this natural marvel.

Self, Julio and Genaro in front of the waterfall

Finally it was time to begin the steep and seemingly endless return climb, a slog which was punctuated by an interesting stop in a shelter built by the local village tourism association….it turned out the little Julio would have been an accomplished assistant of my great grandfather, GCC! No sooner had we sat down than he began to rip strips of bark off the half-rotted timbers of our shelter, revealing numerous unusual insects, which my great grandfather would have undoubtedly keenly added to his collections!

Julio ripping off bark in a quest for insects

The following morning, by which time we had been joined by Rob and Tara’s 15-year-old son John, who is already a highly skilled bird observer and expert on the calls of many Guatemalan species, we birded around the hotel grounds, which are remarkably bird-friendly, with Magnificent Hummingbirds buzzing around the trees, Hairy Woodpeckers tapping on the pine trunks, some beautiful Black-headed Grosbeaks soaking up the first rays of the morning sunshine, and around 35 other species, and then we descended gradually towards a fast-flowing river where John had taken some truly wonderful pictures of an American Dipper the previous afternoon. Our route took us along a row of stepping stones across the river, before dropping still further to another beautiful, though much smaller, waterfall, where we waited in vain for the Dipper.

Little did I know while I experimented with shutter speeds as I photographed the falls with my beloved Nikon Coolpix 4500, which had served me so faithfully since 2004 and had taken more than 30,000 photographs, its unique twisting facility having proved so excellent for butterfly photography, was about to meet a watery end. We walked back along the trail, my guides almost skipped across the stepping stones, me following at a rather more sedate pace, and possibly due to being too careful (but more likely due to my usual lack of balance), halfway across I felt my foot go, and arms flailing in all directions, down I went, crashing into the water, completely drowning the camera, my binoculars AND my small rucksack which contained my passport, driving licence, bird book and several other vital objects….and all that for an American Dipper, which would not have been a new species for me, and which I did not see! Dipped for a Dipper!

The Coolpix's last fling - fast shutter speed

The Coolpix's last fling - slow shutter speed

Our plan to climb the nearby Cerro Verde was immediately put on hold, and the rest of the morning was spent dismantling the Nikon Coolpix screw by screw, drying out the soaking interior of the camera with tissue paper, laying all the parts out on our breakfast table, all in an attempt to resurrect the camera. Water had penetrated even between the lenses, into the view-finder, in fact everywhere in both halves of this remarkable camera. But even after all this work, when we replaced the battery and turned it on, there was not a flicker of life. Disappointed, we reassembled the entire camera, but found to our surprise that we finally ended with 12 extra screws at the end!!! Where they should have gone we are still not clear about! So I fear the Coolpix is dead, barring a miracle! Anyone out there who can repair Nikon Coolpix 4500s, please make contact!!!

The binoculars were also in a parlous state, filled with moisture and droplets, and these too had to be immediately dismantled, but after some initial disappointment, I am glad to report that they seem to have almost completely recovered. Another “camera” I have, a Sony “Bloggie” also appeared to be dead, but it gradually recovered, at first producing pictures that appeared to have been taken IN the cloud forest, but it now appears to have survived its ordeal quite well. The passport and other documents, sealed as they in were in a waterproof plastic bag, survived unscathed.

In the late afternoon, we finally ventured out, passing Purulha, another village frequented by GCC, turning off towards the cave of Chicoy, which we reached by driving a short distance up a dirt track and then hiking a short way uphill. This cave, sadly surrounded by plastic litter, serves still as a religious site for local people, and its vast cavernous opening was filled with smoke from the incense that local people had placed inside. There was an extremely steep switchback trail leading down into the cave, but I felt that one accident was quite sufficient for one day, and remained at the top!

That evening a fire was lit for us in the fireplace in our cottage, and all the soaking equipment and clothing was laid out in front of the hearth in an attempt to further remove any moisture, but this was not successful in the case of the Nikon!

Yesterday proved to be another highlight of my journey so far. We headed out after breakfast to Purulha, where we turned off the main road and began what turned out to be a far longer and infinitely more challenging drive over two high passes draped in cloud forest, and then down and down through secondary forest and coffee plantations, with muddy patches next to unguarded precipices, until we finally reached a concrete bridge over the Rio Panimá, another locality frequented by my great grandfather, and indeed it was soon clear why this hot, narrow valley had been one of his most productive butterfly localities – these insects were everywhere.

View from bridge over the Rio Panima

Our intrepid driver Peter stripped off and plunged into the water to cool off after his exhausting morning battling with the stubborn Landcruiser, which was not a forgiving vehicle, but what was most worrying us was our lack of fuel. Not having had any idea of the length of this journey, we had neglected to fill up with diesel before starting out. The gauge read half full when going down, and way below empty when going up, so we guessed we must have about a quarter left, but were very unsure.

John trying his hand with the net

Despite our concerns, however, we pressed on towards our goal, the forested cliff known as La Peña del Angel, passing through the tiny village of Panimá, where my great grandfather and his faithful servant Leopoldo had stayed in 1879, and where we inquired if anyone had any spare diesel for sale….the answer was No!!

La Peña del Angel

We finally reached the roadhead, with the Peña towering above us, but as it was starting to rain, and due to our fuel worries, we turned the car (with considerable difficulty), and began the long, steep and tortuous journey back up to the passes, the needle way below empty all the way, but we did indeed make it back to Purulha, where we headed to a restaurant to recover….and here another of those amazing coincidences which seem to have so frequently here in Guatemala occurred: who should be sitting in the restaurant but my friend and Jacqueline’s and my guide to the Lago de Izabal and Lívingston, Julie (Juliana) Skaggs!!!

The adventure continues…today we head out to the Finca Cubilguitz, the scene of GCC’s accident with his mule, and his temporary starvation due to the locals’ unwillingness to sell him anything…….


Sunday 25th September 2011

El Paredón Surfhouse, Pacific coast of Guatemala

Since the last update, many things have happened! We started off from Quetzaltenango on Wednesday, and descended towards the coastal plain, stopping first at Zunil, where we visited the impressive but rather sombre church. We then continued down the valley before meeting the main highway leading towards the Mexican border, dodging the numerous potholes where possible. We finally turned off, onto what turned out to be the best road I have seen in Guatemala, leading down to the Pacific shore at Tilapa, where we left the car and boarded a launch for the short journey to our hotel, the El Pacífico, which was highly recommended in both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide. Full of expectation, we checked in, but this shabby place, with windowless rooms and sullen, unsmiling staff, was a huge disappointment. The pool was empty, and although the man did try to pump water into it using a generator, the generator immediately broke down!

The church in Zunil

We then walked out to the beach, which although strewn with plastic rubbish, turned out to be excellent for shorebirds. There was a river mouth just to the west, complete with pigs rummaging through the trash, which attracted among other birds Black-bellied, Wilson’s and Snowy Plovers, Whimbrel, Willet, Sanderling, Turnstone, Black-necked Stilt and Royal Tern.

We headed back along the beach, and found to our surprise in this out-of-the-way corner of the Pacific coast that two gringos were walking towards us. Naturally we started chatting, and it turned out that they were cousins, Jan and Moritz, and they were also staying in the dismal Hotel El Pacífico. We agreed to meet up later to drown our sorrows and to perk up the mood together over dinner.

Our route then took us a long, long way along the endless volcanic sand shoreline, until we finally turned inland to explore the seemingly deserted beachfront apartment complexes and cabins, none of which looked as if they had been occupied for a long time. One particularly eerie compound we wandered into contained the broken off tail fin of an aircraft, bearing a Colombian flag – we decided not to investigate further!

The evening, despite the unsmiling service of our hosts and the glum surroundings of the hotel, turned out to be another highlight…literally, as we fled to the beach, and our two new German companions insisted on making a fire. At first, the damp driftwood would not catch light, but on a return visit to the hotel, the owner (whom we must not malign too much) smashed a plastic chair to help with the fire!! We finally ended up not using the pieces of chair, but after considerable effort, the drier bits of wood did catch, and we enjoyed a roaring blaze on the beach, listening to the breakers crashing onto the Pacific shore.

Numerous flashes in the darkness revealed the presence of turtle egg poachers, who were scouring the darkness in the hope of finding a female turtle that might have come ashore to lay her clutch of precious eggs. These they would then steal – apparently to sell them as an aphrodisiac, which is drunk raw. How many animals around the World are placed in danger because of the desire for human potency? Perhaps we should spread a rumour that these animal products cause impotence and shrinkage!

The following morning we were picked up by the boatman who had ferried us over to the hotel the previous day, Ivan, and we began a magical boat tour into the Reserva Natural de Manchón Guamuchal. We started off along the main channel that runs behind the beach for much of the length of the Pacific coast of Guatemala, but suddenly we veered into what looked like an impenetrable wall of mangrove trees, and an opening revealed itself. Ivan switched off the motor and we glided into a cathedral-like world of winding channels, which we paddled through for more than an hour, surprising crabs with yellow pincers that scuttled up the mangrove roots to avoid us. We were treated to good views of the magnificent Lineated Woodpecker, numerous Great Kiskadees, Mangrove Yellow Warblers, complete with their red hoods, Little Blue and Green Herons, impressively enormous Ringed Kingfishers flying along ahead of us, and a formation of Wood Storks gliding gracefully southwards overhead through a gap in the foliage head above us.

The mangroves of Manchon Guamuchal, with Jan in the bows

After a brief return to the Hotel El Pacífico to pick up our bags, we were taken by Ivan back to the port where we had left the car, and we squeezed the four of us plus large rucksacks into the Nissan Sentra, and we began our journey parallel with the Pacific coast all the way along to Siquinalá, where we turned off during a DRAMATIC thunderstorm and cloudburst. Darkness was already falling, and we were not entirely clear about how to reach our destination, but after enquiring at a petrol station, where we received several conflicting pieces of advice, we headed on along the asphalt road for a short distance before turning off onto a corrugated dirt track, which we followed for a seemingly endless journey in the darkness, with the eyes of Pauraques (a species of Nightjar) glowing red in the darkness on the track ahead of us.

Finally signs of “civilisation” appeared in the form of two brothel bars, where we did not stop to ask for directions, but we eventually found ourselves on what was familiar ground to Luisa, and we finally drew to a halt at the wonderful Paredon Surf House, where we were welcomed by the super hosts – nothing could have provided a greater contrast to the Hotel El Pacífico.

Activities at the Surf House included relaxing in the pool, boogie-boarding (a new experience me!) in the Pacific surf, chatting with the Swiss owners, our two German companions and more German, Canadian, American and Guatemalan surfers who arrived after us, drinking rum and spraying ourselves with “Off!” in an attempt to fend off the rapacious mosquitos!

I left the group twice to walk a couple of kilometres along the beach to the mouth of a river, where I have enjoyed such avian highlights as a flock of around twenty Black Skimmers, with their extraordinary oversized lower mandibles cutting through the water as they skim the surface for food, White Ibis, Tricolored Heron, numerous waders, Royal, Elegant and Common Terns, Laughing Gulls and Brown Pelicans.

Yesterday afternoon came perhaps one of the most nostalgic of all my great grandfather’s footstep retracing activities so far – a visit to the old pier at Puerto San José, where he first set foot on Guatemalan soil on 16th March 1878, and from where he left on 7th April 1881, marking the beginning and end of the Guatemalan half of his Central American journey.

The old pier at Puerto San Jose, where GCC landed in March 1879

We parked in front of the ruined station of the Puerto San José to Escuintla section of the railway, which operated from 1880 until the mid 1990s, although judging by the fact that shops and stalls have been built all over the railway tracks, one might be forgiven for thinking that operations had ceased earlier than that. We then picked our way through the shacks behind the beach, and came out at the base of the old pier, now without a top and with its iron supports rusting away in the salty atmosphere. I found the whole scene emotionally quite strange, partly as this place was so important in the visit of my great grandfather, and partly as it symbolises the transience of such engineering masterpieces as the pier itself, which provided such a vital link with the outside world for Guatemala for just over 110 years, and the railway, which started operating during my great grandfather’s stay, and is now gone. As a closet railway enthusiast, I find its demise quite tragic….as I did in Ecuador and in Costa Rica, both of whose railway networks have also been allowed to fall into disuse.

Puerto San Jose panorama, with the old station on the left

After a final evening in the El Paredón Surf House (which I can quite honestly say is one of the most magical places I have ever had the pleasure of staying in – please visit it if you can:, our fantastic guide Luisa Zea (HIGHLY recommended: drove us back to Antigua, where a new drama is currently unfolding! Moritz, one of our two German travelling companions, was waiting with his cousin Jan to take the shuttle bus to Lake Atitlán, when too late he realised that his small rucksack had been inadvertently placed on the wrong bus, and he had ended up with someone else’s rucksack instead. We will see if this situation can be resolved!

El Paradon Surf House

Sunset from El Paredon Surf House


Tuesday 20th September 2011


Today was another excellent day! We started off by driving up the Cerro Baul, a steep hill overlooking Guatemala’s second largest city, Quetzaltenango, or Xela (pronounced Shella). Although clearly popular with early morning joggers, this hill seems to offer good birding possibilities within close proximity of the city, and is heavily wooded with oaks, pines and cypresses. It was not long before the birds appeared, and I managed to see among others Rufous-collared Robin, Steller’s Jay, Mountain Trogon, Brown Creeper, Bush-tit, Yellow-eyed Junco and several others. In addition, the views of Xela, complete with its morning rush hour coating of smog, were truly spectacular.

Xela from Cerro Baul

Cerro Baul panorama looking away from the city

After this early morning escape from the morning rush hour, followed by a quick breakfast, we headed out of town to San Andrés Xecul, where we admired a truly incredible church, its façade painted bright yellow, and featuring an interesting mix of indigenous and traditional Christian motifs.

Iglesia de San Andres Xecul

From here, we decided spontaneously to climb up out of the town on a switch-back trail that led towards a prominent cross high in the forest above. At first the way led up through the outskirts, but we soon found ourselves on a stone path leading up into the forest, offering panoramic views of the rather messy-looking town, dominated by its bright yellow church.

San Andres Xecul from above

After a while we found ourselves veering too far away to the right to reach the cross, so we took a smaller track off into the forest. This track became smaller and smaller until it eventually virtually petered out. Nothing daunted, we scrambled on along the very steep slope, hoping eventually to find ourselves near the cross. However, this was not to be as the Heavens opened and we were forced to retrace our steps, becoming completely soaked in the process!

On our way down, we were joined by a little boy of about seven; we asked him if he had any bothers or sisters; oh yes, ten he said. We asked if they were younger or older than him. Younger, came the answer. We then asked if he had any older ones. Oh yes, he said, there are twenty of them!! Who knows if there was a misunderstanding, or what!!!

Soaked as we were, we returned to our hotel to change into dry clothes, and we then looked around the main square of the city, with its impressive buildings, some of which were inspired or sponsored by the extensive German community here in the latter part of the nineteenth century. There was no sign, however, of the Hotel Europa, in which my great grandfather had stayed in August 1880. Perhaps it has been demolished, or it still stands but is no longer a hotel.

Facade of old cathedral of Quetzaltenango

Main square of Quetzaltenango

In the late afternoon we drove through heavy traffic to the Museo del Ferrocarril del Norte, the railway museum. This highlights the extraordinary German-built electric railway that was completed in 1930, linking the highland city of Quetzaltenango with the Pacific lowlands. Sadly, after all the effort expended in constructing this engineering masterpiece, it only operated for three years, until in 1933 a terrific storm washed away many of the bridges and numerous sections of track, and the president of the day decided not to proceed with reconstruction…and consequently, the railway faded into the memory of a few old people who could still remember the electric trains that ran out of the Quetzaltenango station back in the early part of the 1930s.

All in all, an excellent day, with much observed; I could well imagine myself spending more time in this highland city, surrounded as it is with beautiful countryside, and apparently some spectacular volcanoes, although these were well and truly obscured by thick fog and mist.

No sign of my great grandfather's hotel, but perhaps he did leave something behind!