Sunday 8th July 2012 (Letter 12th May 1881)

GCC heads inland, has to rough it more than in Guatemala, and witnesses a horrible sight

The "main street" of Nance Bonito

This letter from my great grandfather entomologist George Charles Champion, from the westernmost province of Panama, where he was to spend the following two years, shows the sort of hardships he was to endure. The more I read of his matter-of-fact letters, the more I wonder at the endurance of the man. When I visited this very area in the winter of 2011/2012, I only needed to escape the heat by nipping into my air-conditioned car and driving up the mountains; the humidity was harder to avoid – the hotel room I had was damp and gloomy, yet nothing compared to what GCC must have had to put up with.

Part of my goal in visiting these areas was to try to locate the precise spots where George had done his collecting, and to find where he had stayed. Even today, the province of Chiriquí is very sparsely populated, but by means of a detailed map on the wall of the restaurant in the hotel where I was staying, I was able to pinpoint many of the localities he mentions in his letters and diaries, including Nance Bonito, today a small hamlet on a dirt road, with one small store. There was, however, no sign of the Finca Eureka – it may have been swallowed up by the large citrus farm that now surrounds the village. For more details, please see my diary entries for December 2011 and January 2012.

The chapel in Nance Bonito

May 12th 1881

My dear Mother,

A gentleman is leaving here by steamer on the 14th for Panama, so take the advantage of sending a letter by him.
There may not be a chance of writing again for some time.

I left the town of David on April 30th and am now staying on a coffee plantation on the slope of the Volcano, or mountain of Chiriquí, about 20 miles inland, and a much cooler place; the estate is 3000 feet above the sea, and probably a very pleasant place in summer; now, however, we are well into the rains, or winter season, and it is raining nearly all the time. In all my ramblings in Guatemala, was never in such a humid place as this, you can keep nothing dry, even this paper is wet. We have an hour or two fine in the morning early, the afternoons always wet and often foggy. If we are going to have six months of such weather, I have not a very lively prospect to look forward to; however, I hope it will not be so all the time. Am staying with the owner of the estate, a Costa Rican, who by the way, has been in London since I left. Things are cheaper than in Guatemala, but except in David, money is not much use; one lives almost entirely in these places on rice and salt beef (often bad) and coffee, very rarely a little bread. I greatly miss my old friends, the tortillas; here they do not make them, so in consequence we have a substitute for bread. The custom is coffee at 6 a.m. (nothing to eat with it), breakfast 10-11 a.m., dinner 5-6 p.m., almost exactly the same for every meal. Meat is very cheap, but you cannot get it fresh here; you can buy 25lbs for a dollar (4/-) in the towns.

The Volcan Baru, known to GCC as the Volcano of Chiriqui

Chiriquí is very thinly settled as yet, very few towns indeed, the Government is now giving land free to people who like to cultivate it, so prospectors are now beginning to plant coffee, but as there are scarcely any Indians here, there is no labour to work on the plantations.

I shall have to rough it even more than in Guatemala, the best hotel in the chief town, David, is a miserable hole, accommodation will of course be worse in the smaller places, Bugaba, Dolega, Qualaca, etc. In fine weather, there is a splendid view of the sea coast, and the Point Burica (dividing Colombia from Costa Rica) below us, and above the high mountain of Chiriquí, but as yet only at daybreak are these places visible. The steamer came in again yesterday from Panama, I hope she brought letters for me; it is now about 2 months since I heard from you or Mr. Salvin. I got a letter from Walker just before I left Panama; he was at Callao, and seemed enjoying himself.

Near the coast, there are enormous plains with great quantities of cattle, more inland on the mountain slopes all is forest, the coffee plantations are all in clearings of the forest and likely places for my work, only just now one cannot stir without getting wet, the roads little better than shallow rivers. Shall have great difficulty in this country in finding any sort of accommodation; am fairly comfortable here, but cannot remain many days longer; the people, as in Guatemala, will invite you for a week or so, but if you want to stop longer you cannot. Directly you talk of money, they get offended, and say they do not keep an hotel; it is against the custom of these countries, to receive any payment, and to stop a long time, you cannot. We had a strong shock of earthquake the other morning in David. I was in bed at the time, but it was all over before I had time to turn out. People come here for Orchids, Chiriquí producing several rare species; plenty of tree ferns and palms in the forest here.

As I was travelling across the plains recently on horseback, saw a distressing sight, a horse dying, but with enough strength left to enable it to kneel; waiting there were, I should think nearly 100 vultures (these had already picked his eyes out) and a lot of dogs, could not look on without a shudder, a human being dying in these places would undoubtedly meet with the same fate. Scarcely any roads in the place, mule tracks, nothing more, rivers have to be forded, no bridges, Guatemala is paradise compared to Chiriquí. There is a sprinkling of foreigners here – a few Germans, French, Chinese, Italians, English, etc., but they are widely scattered, most of the people in David are natives of Panama, a few of them speak English. In David, I could not stand a blanket, here can put up with two, for the damp, more than the cold, thermometer about 70-75 here, David 85-90.

Am writing this under difficulties, I expect you will find it almost illegible. Am in hopes of hearing from you in a few days, the steamer ought to have brought letters for me but being 20 miles away, shall have to wait until I have a chance of sending to David.

With best love to all,

Believe me etc.

Self photographing the wall map, having located Nance Bonito

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