Thursday 7th June 2012 (Letter 11th February 1881)

GCC ascends the Volcan de Agua, and desperately awaits instructions from his employers in London

Today’s letter, one of my great grandfather’s last from Guatemala before his departure for Panama, brings back horrible memories of my own attempt to retrace his ascent of the volcano, precisely 131 years later to the day. My misadventure, in which I was robbed at gunpoint with two friends, prevented me from reaching the summit of the mountain – a full description can be found in my diary entry of Friday 13th January 2012.


February 11th 1881

My dear Mother,

I received your letter of January 1st yesterday, was very glad to hear you had passed Christmas so pleasantly. I thought of you often enough during the day at San Agustín. Letters from you, Mr Salvin, etc., of the mail of December 2nd or 17th arrived in Guatemala some time back and were sent on to me by Mr. Weams, but I am sorry to say I have not received them, am in great trouble on this account – have heard nothing from Mr. Salvin since his letter of November 1st, know not whether I am to go to Chiriquí or to remain, it only wants about a month to finish my two years and I cannot leave at a moment’s notice. It is most unfortunate, but there is nothing to do but wait, I cannot move without instructions.

I will now tell you a little of what I have been doing since I last wrote. Well, on January 11th, I left the capital for Antigua, next day on to Santa Maria high up on the slope of the Volcano de Agua; from this place I made the ascent of the volcano, starting with my servant and an Indian to carry water, blankets etc, at 9 p.m., a beautiful moonlight night and arrived at 1 a.m. at the crater, passed the remainder of the night there, but so cold at this elevation (12,500 feet) I could not sleep; saw white frost for the first time since I left England, but as soon as the sun rose it cleared off, shall long remember the view from the Volcano at sunrise, grand in the extreme, the enormous mountains from Mexico to Salvador, the ocean for an enormous distance, the smoking Volcano de Fuego close by, though separated by a broad deep valley, down in the bottom of which my old quarters – Capetillo, the city of Guatemala, and Antigua, the Lake of Amatitlán and so on; it was well worth the journey to see, but at the same time, I hardly want to go up again, the descent is so steep that it takes the skin off one’s toes coming down. The Volcano is extinct, no smoke or anything issuing, started down at noon and in evening arrived at Antigua.

The Volcan de Agua seen from near the summit of Pacaya

Crater of the Volcan de Agua, Muybridge, 1875

On January 14th left Antigua for Pantaleon, a large sugar estate in the coast region (14 leagues distant) passing by Zapote on the road, arrived in evening very tired. Remained at Pantaleon till the 2nd of February, about three weeks in all, but so very hot, could not work well, the sun hot enough to roast one almost. This is a very pretty place low down on the slope of the Volcano Fuego (the estate suffered a good deal from the last eruption). Below we can see the sea for many miles; with its coconut trees about the house for shade, but so hot, dry and dusty now in the height of summer or dry season; now and again we were treated to clouds of very fine dust, brought down by the wind from the Volcano, only too glad to bathe every day for the heat.

Volcan de Fuego and Volcan de Agua from helicopter

One Sunday, I rode over to the small town of Santa Lucia (about 5 miles away) but there was nothing to see here beyond cock-fighting; this is a favourite amusement on Sundays in many places, and I think is even more cruel than bull fighting, and rum shops.

Am getting very little for Mr. Godman just now, it is too dry everywhere and the forests so swarm with ticks and creatures like our harvest bugs, that I am obliged to oil myself all over before I go out, to keep them off.

On February 2nd, I came on from Pantaleon to this place, Mirandilla (8 leagues), which is only a few miles from the town of Escuintla and low down on the slope of the Volcano de Agua. I shall remain in this neighbourhood till I hear again from Mr. Salvin. I am working now on my own resources without instructions. It is nearly two years since I entered Escuintla, scarcely knew the place again, the newly made railway has attracted a lot of people to Escuintla which is the present terminus, half way from the port of San José to the capital. Spent a few hours in the town last Sunday, the place very gay, the President there on a visit, and many officers and men from the U.S. man of war ‘Pensacola’ which is in at San José for a few days, and I met several people I knew. This railway is on American style and very different from ours at home, more like a tramway. Very hot here also, great place for fruit, coconuts etc.

USS Pensacola - photo US Library of Congress

The old pier at Puerto San Jose, from where the railway began

Mirandilla, a sugar estate also; there are very many hereabouts, sugar and rum making a profitable business but just imagine, the estates get nearly 6d a pound for their best sugar wholesale, while we at home get it for half that price. The managers of both Mirandilla and Pantaleon made me very welcome, both are natives of this country, in Pantaleon I dined with a German, a Frenchman and an Italian and the native manager, once we had visitors, a Swiss and an Englishman, a Mr Akers, an engineer living in Escuintla, many years employed by the South Western Railway and residing then in London. What a mixture. Pantaleon is the finest sugar estate in Guatemala, while Mercedes is the best coffee plantation, and belongs to one of the Ministers of the Government and possesses a great deal of machinery. Though one finds much better accommodation on this coast, the places are not nearly so productive as on the Atlantic side – in the Polochic Valley etc.
This the hottest time is the most unproductive, all too dry everywhere.

Am writing to Walker direct, tomorrow I go to Escuintla, to post, the day after I probably leave Mirandilla. Mr Salvin will be sending things to meet me in Panama. I know of nothing you can send me, probably he will write and ask.

Feb. 12th. Missing letters turned up today, yours of Dec 16th with them. Am to leave Guatemala in March or April for Panama en route to Chiriquí, shall try and take my servant with me.

Believe me, dear Mother,

Lake Amatitlan, Muybridge, 1875

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