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Refreshed after our rest day, we were ready to make our assault on La Quiaca. We had observed most of Guillermo’s tips of how to best prepare for high altitudes. We had at least moderated our alcohol intake (In case there is a suspicion that we are all alcoholics; not so, we just enjoy making up for our favourite plants’ lack of thirst).

If there had not been any cacti between Tilcara and La Quiaca, I would still score this section of the trip 10/10, as the scenery is outstanding. To the east of the road north, the hills that had created such an impression at Purmamarca, Maimara and Tilcara were still with us. I say hills, because their peaks were ‘only’ some 250 – 300 m (800 – 985 ft) above us, but we were already at 3,338 m (10,959 ft) when we stopped at S472 at Churquiagada. We were treated to Austrocylindropuntia shaferi, Echinopsis longispina (syn. Lobivia ferox) Maihueniopsis boliviana, a very densely spined Opuntia sp. and Oreocereus trollii. M. boliviana obliged with several clumps with several flowers, or rather, flowers that had closed for the night and that at 9 in the morning were waiting to open for another day or more. The E. longispina was also in flower – nicer than the standard Echinopsis sp. white flower, as these plants all had red buds, while the outer sepaloids of the open flower remained red. All the cacti listed were shy and insisted on hiding below and in the middle of the usual range of very spiny shrubs. It’s quite interesting to see Oreocereus trollii competing on ‘spinyness’ with Acacia (I assume) scrub.

Twenty-five minutes later we stopped near Azul Pampa (S473), where, alongside the cacti listed for S472 we found Parodia maassii and Trichocereus atacamensis. At least, we think it was T. pasacana and not T. poco that is supposed to join in with the telegraph poles around here. From memory, T. poco has red flowers, mainly from the area immediately at the stem apex, while T. pasacana has fairly wishy-washy white flowers that can appear anywhere along the top section of the stem. As there was no evidence of buds, flowers or their remains, I was unable to provide a reliable ID. P. maassii was interesting, I have had some in my collection in the past and found them fairly boring plants, until they rotted. I could never respond to the challenge to grow them well – I don’t know why, some plants just ‘speak to you’ while others leave me cold. This is dangerous territory: ‘plants that speak to you’ but I think that most of you will understand what I mean. For the others: the men in the white coats are coming to collect me later! Back to the Parodias – Brian Bates compares them to ‘weeds’ in Bolivia, they’re everywhere. The plants here had wonderful long curly spines and if I was to come plants that looked like this in a European nursery and could be sure that it was not an ex-habitat plant, then I would certainly buy one. Shame there were no flowers. Most of us took a picture of a group of O. trollii, some twelve stems, most with flowers. It was this plant that had been spotted from the bus and was the reason for our stop.

S474 was a scenic rather than cactus stop. I believe that Guillermo used the term Devil’s Backbone (Espinazo del Diablo) for this continuing rock formation. As I write these Diary notes I like to do searches on anything that I like to know more about and find time to look up. Google came up with some interesting missed for Devil’s Backbone: One for a houseplant by this name, also known as the Redbird Cactus, although the plants pictured on the link that followed have nothing to do with a cactus (or a bird for that matter). It is in fact Pedilanthus tithymaloides in the Family Euphorbiaceae – all very interesting, but of no relevance to our rock formations. Then there is a film (also available on DVD) that goes by that name and was written by Guillermo del Toro. Another, more promising, link took me to Devil’s Backbone Open Space, in Larimer County, Colorado and another to an interesting place in Durango, Mexico. That’s why it takes so long for me to write these reports – I get too easily sidetracked.

I forget why we stopped at S475, I believe it was to look for Lobivia pugionacantha, a plant reputedly growing almost completely hidden below he soil and extremely hard to find unless it is in flower. So we were quite excited as we took pictures of three bright yellow flowers that seemingly came out of nowhere. But wait a moment – these are not Lobivia flowers! Typical Opuntia (probably Maihueniopsis)! Never mind, they still looked very nice and strange, just coming out of the soil.

S476 was just a quick stop to look at some more yellow flowers on the desert soil. This time the plant was visible above the soil. I have similar plants in my collection labelled Tephrocactus pentlandii (Maihueniopsis pentlandii sensu Kiesling).

S477 was one of the highlights of the itinerary: an opportunity to see Yavia cryptocarpa in habitat. Cactoholics are strange people: we travel half way round the world to cactus country, then get shaken and stirred on bumpy roads to end up standing in awe at the sight of some minuscule cactus that we are already familiar with because we have mature, attractive cultivated specimens in our collections back home. Once we arrive at the goal of our pilgrimage, we break our backs searching the ground to be the first to spot what we came to see. We all point our cameras at the first plant found, then start hunting for our own find and take pictures from a number of angles before calling our friends to show off our discovery and then take a look at theirs. I have witnessed this process in Brazil for Discocactus horstii and in Chile for Copiapoa laui and for several Thelocephala. We feel great at having succeeded and will go back to show our pictures at talks and lectures. Sadly, some folks need to go a step further and dig up some of the plants to take them back home as trophies from a big game hunt. Fortunately I am not aware of this last activity on our trip, but the original type locality for this species has apparently been stripped – no doubt by parties like ours, but where every member took ‘just one or three plants’ each – not many, but when cactus tourists come by the bus load ……. A real shame, because a significant effort was made by the authors of the original description to make sure that there was a significant amount of seed available around the world to meet the demand from the hobby for this interesting plant. So why are there still people who need to have a habitat specimen? There were a few plants found, no evidence of recent digging and some justification for optimism in the knowledge that there are now a number of locations in the area where this plant has been found. Looking at the landscape, there is no obvious reason why this area should not extend into Bolivia. There were also some nice P. maassii and Oreocereus celsianus, all worth of having their picture taken. It was good to have the images of O. celsianus, taken at the botanical gardens in Tilcara, in reserve, but I was glad now to be able to add pictures of the same ‘in the wild’. Our coughing and wheezing reminded us that we were in thin air at around 3,800 m (12,400 ft) and suffering the affects of ‘Cliftonnaires Disease’ (Geoff, am I using enough quotes to see if we have cracked this issue?)

S478 took us to the other side of La Quiaca, through the village of Yavi to a spot where Guillermo had in the past found Lobivia pugionacantha in flower. The sun was low in the sky at around 5 p.m. and we found plenty of Maihueniopsis boliviana. We found one incredibly spiny plant growing below a bush that we identified as the Lobivia. I’m still sceptical – I see a ball of spines and later found less regular shaped mounds that we identified as M. glomerata. I was unable to find our original find again for closer examination – often the way in habitat, where even a tripod left unattended can ‘disappear’ in the landscape. We were quite sure that we were in the right area for the Lobivia, as there were quite a few holes – evidence of recent selective digging – what a shame!

I had hoped against hope that somehow Brian Bates might have found a way around the lack of appropriate stamps in his Bolivian passport, to allow him back into the country, that had forced him to cancel his meeting with us in Tilcara and joining us on today’s trip. There must be some back roads that he could have slipped through, but I guess that his car with Bolivian plates is too well known in La Quiaca and he could not risk falling out with the authorities as he was due to take three German cactus tourists across the border a month later. Brian had left some (quite a few actually) of his slides with me in the UK, for use in presentations on future trips to the UK. However, these slides were now becoming quite dated and he had been able to update his slide collection with much more recent and better material. So the Brits had been asked to bring as many files with slides with us. The plan was that Brian would collect these in La Quiaca. Brian asked us to leave them with the manager of the Hotel, where he would pick them up later in November. Unfortunately, there appeared to have been a change in management at the hotel. The lady that Guillermo had booked trips with on previous occasions was no longer there and there seemed to be a great deal of uncertainty about who did what. Guillermo recommended that instead I’d leave the slides with the owner of the restaurant where we went for our dinner and fortunately, he was happy to cooperate, after I had shown him the contents of the rucksack and cardboard box of files containing slides of cacti. Quite right – they may have contained drugs or explosives!

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Brain will be able to collect his slides any day now.

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