November 2011
November 2011
8 min

Monday 21st November 2011

8 min

Sunday 20th November 2011 El dia de “Los Encuentros”! I am now sitting in perhaps one of the most beautiful hotel rooms I have ever stayed in, at the Hotel Casa del Mundo, overlooking an amazing panorama of the Lago de Atitlán, with the volcanoes Toliman and San Pedro (which we are due to climb tomorrow) rising sharply on the opposite side of the lake.

View from outside my room at La Casa del Mundo, Atitlan

So far, today has been yet another day of truly amazing happenings; Luisa says that if I wrote a book and included all the incredible coincidences that have happened to me during my stay in Guatemala, nobody would believe me, and yet they are absolutely true, as she herself can testify. The day started with me picking up the old faithful Nissan Sentra, the very same one that I had rented from Tabarini Rentacar when we went to Quetzaltenango, Tilapita and the wonderful Paredon Surfhouse, and then driving to Luisa’s home, where we loaded up with all our volcano-climbing gear. We then set off on our way towards Lake Atitlán, passing through Chimaltenango and then along the Panamerican highway. At one point, we passed a mirador on the opposite side of the dual carriageway, apparently with a view of the lake in the distance. Luisa asked me if I would like to stop. I hesitated for a few moments, especially as it meant driving on until we found a place to do a u-turn, but finally said “Ok, why not?”. We turned the car, and drove back to the mirador, where we immediately spotted a man with a large TV-type camera and a hat marked History Channel. Curious as to what he was filming, I asked him, and he told us that he and his team were making a film about how a particular species of fish had managed to make its way from Lake Atitlán to the relatively newly formed crater lake of Chicabal. He then asked what we were doing, and I began to explain a bit about my quest to follow my great grandfather’s footsteps. By this time, several other people had joined the group, and one of them, Filadelfo Guevara, from the Universidad San Carlos, when I explained about the entomological aspect of my journey, suddenly announced “Yo también soy entomólogo” (I am an entomologist too). He had joined the group a little after I had mentioned what I was doing, and he told us that he had heard from a colleague who is working in Holland about someone who is here in Guatemala retracing the footsteps of his great grandfather, who was an entomologist working on the Biologia Centrali-Americana. Luisa asked him the name of that colleague in Holland….and indeed it was my friend Luis Montes, who I was introduced to by Natalia, and who introduced me to his girlfriend Brenda, who introduced me to Julie, who introduced me to Luisa, etc, etc. Guisela, Julie’s mother, who does not believe in coincidences, would say that this was the hand of God guiding me into the right places at the right times.

Filadelfo, Luisa and self by the Panamerican highway

Whatever, or whoever, is guiding me was really doing an amazing job this morning. I could so easily have decided not to bother to stop when Luisa asked me if I wanted to, and in fact, just around the next corner there was another mirador, where we could equally well have taken photos of the lake. It feels as if something uncanny is happening to me here. Guatemala, although a relatively small country, nonetheless has 14 million inhabitants, and to stop the car right next to someone who KNEW ABOUT my great grandfather, in a parking space by the busy Panamerican highway, is definitely too much of a coincidence to believe – but Luisa is my witness. We exchanged contact details, and showed these entomologists our newly plasticated photographs of the butterfly Drucina championi, and they have PROMISED to keep a close eye open and to inform me if they find it. They were in fact on their way back to Guatemala City having been on an insect- and fish-hunting expedition to the Laguna de Chicabal, where Luisa and I may go next week.

Luisa pointing at the Volcan San Pedro, our target for tomorrow

Following this, we felt we had to stop at the major road junction for a photo of the sign indicating “Los Encuentros”, or The Meetings, as it absolutely summed up what had just happened to us.

Self pointing to the the sign for Los Encuentros

Evening view from near the Casa del Mundo

Monday 21st November 2011Volcán San Pedro conquered!! Today was a truly memorable day – and my muscles will remember it for some time to come, I suspect….. We set off by fast motor boat at 05.30 AM, and crossed the lake in the dawn, the Volcán San Pedro, our target, towering ahead of us, completely clear of cloud.

Atitlan in the dawn

On arrival at the pier, we quickly completed the necessary formalities for our climb, and hopped into a tuk-tuk for the relatively short but very steep drive up to the starting point. Here we met our guide, José, and the trek began. Our route took us first through coffee plantations, then patches of degraded forest, across a river of lava from an earlier eruption, through some maize fields, and then into the real forest….and then the going got tougher. The path, very well constructed and complete with small logs to form steps, rose relentlessly, onward and ever upward, with not even a hint of a flat area to give the muscles some relief through variety of movement. José set a vigorous pace, and at first I felt honour-bound to match it, but my very experienced guide Luisa advised against tackling my first real volcano like a madman, and thereby exhausting myself long before even getting anywhere near the summit, so I slowed down. A brief interlude came when José thought he heard one or more Horned Guans, the almost mythical large gamebird with an extraordinary red pointed bump on its crown, high in the trees off the side of the trail. Horned Guans, mainly due to the fact that they are good to eat, but also through habitat destruction and disturbance, have become very rare and elusive, but there is still a population on San Pedro. We stopped and listened to some grunting calls, as well as sounds of movement high above us, but they finally turned out to be a pair of Emerald Toucanets, which performed well for their audience far below. Then the ascent began again. I discovered that it was better not to look up, because the never-ending flights of irregular steps stretching ever upwards, were too daunting. Luisa, who could have shot up this mountain in less than half the time I was taking, nonetheless caringly remained just behind me, her encouraging words helping me on my way. And then, almost unexpectedly, the trail began to level off, the trees thinned out…and we were there. And what a view lay below us. The whole of the lake seemed literally spread out beneath us, with the twin volcanoes Toliman and Atitlán rising to its south, their heads (unlike ours) shrouded in cloud. Beyond, away to the east, we could just make out the Volcán de Fuego, which we had been so close to only a few days before.

On the summit of the Volcan San Pedro

Panorama of Lake Atitlan from the summit of San Pedro

Several other hikers (mostly from the UK) arrived, and we were quite a party sitting on the huge rocks that dot the summit, while we enjoyed our sandwiches and slowly recovered from the ascent…..but the descent was about to begin, and that would require a different set of muscles. Finally, after a last gaze at the panorama below us, we turned and began to retrace our steps. At first, it was a great relief to be moving ever downwards, but after a while, the relentless pounding of my footsteps on the endless steps became more and more excrutiating, and I was glad when we came to some sunny clearings where there might have been a slight chance of finding my holy grail, the Satyrid butterfly Drucina championi, although there was no bamboo to be seen on this, the northern slope of San Pedro. We did see a beautiful Oxeoschistus hilara, the species which apparently associates with Drucina, and even as we were photographing this, José called from a little further on that he had seen a large bluish butterfly, but we did not manage to find it again.

Oxeoschistus hilara

And then it was over…we crossed the maize and coffee-growing areas, followed by the river of lava, and found ourselves back at the starting point; the challenge had been met. We hopped into a tuk-tuk, then after a breakfast (at 15.00!), into a boat, and returned to the Casa del Mundo, where although we had checked out, we hoped that there would be rooms available…but there were not. The last thing we felt like doing was getting into to another boat back to Panajachel, and then driving all the way to Quetzaltenango, which had been our original plan. As it was, after some phoning, we found rooms in another eco-hotel, La Isla Verde, in the next village along the shore. We were kindly offered a lift in the Casa del Mundo’s boat, and soon found ourselves at the jetty near the reception of the Isla Verde. This hotel consists of cabins spread up a very steep hill overlooking the lake….and it turned out that my cabin was located right up near the top, which involved about ten minutes of more intensive step-climbing! The one thing that would have been really welcome would have been a hot shower, but the eco-friendly solar showers did not provide one drop of warm water (as they also had not in the Casa del Mundo). Perhaps I should not complain as my great grandfather George would not even have dreamed of a hot shower, but I am very skeptical about eco-friendly systems when they do not work. Luisa, who by this time had a heavy cold coming on, sent me a text message from her cabin, saying: “These eco-showers are eco-freezing!”.

The lake from Volcan San Pedro