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I’m having trouble to imagine that exactly one month ago today we were at about 22 degrees south of the Equator, enjoying seeing the signs of spring, while today I’m at about 51 North, where a week of night frosts was followed by a couple of warmer but very foggy days that today were followed by a sharp wind from the north providing a polar blast that promises snow. Cars have been driving with their lights on for most of the day. What a contrast!!!

Monday 24 October 2005: La Quiaca to Cabra Corral

In previous Diaries I have commented on that sad feeling you experience on the morning that you realise that you’ve gone as far from the starting point of your trip as you are going to get and that today we’d start the journey back. We had taken 15 days to get here and as we were due back in Cordoba on Day 22, 30 October, we’d be doing some more intensive driving during the coming week. Today, we’d push from 22 deg S down to 25 deg S. and from 3,500 (11,500 ft) to about 1,000 m (3,283 ft).

S479 was really two stops in quick succession. The first was a last opportunity for some pictures of the Devil’s Spine as well as a wonderful traffic sign warning of llamas crossing the road – similar to the UK sign warning of deer crossing roads. The trouble with these herd animals is that if they find themselves on opposite sides of the road when they are frightened by an oncoming car, bus or lorry, their instinct is to get together into a group, even if that means crossing the path of the speeding vehicle. We had llama steaks for dinner, earlier in the trip and enjoyed the flavour, but I did not fancy taking the fur of bits of road kill and barbequing it over a fire of cactus wood. I hope that they recognise the signs and take extra care crossing the road – or was the sign meant for drivers?

The second part of S479 – the cactus bit – was a quick one and gave us Maihueniopsis boliviana (in flower), Opuntia sp. Oreocereus trollii (in flower) and Trichocereus pasacana or poco – again there were no buds or flowers to make the conclusive ID. By 11 a.m. we arrived at Tilcara to pick up Dick and Phyllis. Dick felt much better after their extra rest date at a more comfortable altitude.

Around 1 p.m. we arrived at an electricity substation (?) proclaiming to be Central Los Reyes no 1. So, is there a Top 10 of these stations? We took a hike up the Rio Reyes riverbed (S480) and immediately spotted some Echinopsis ancistrophora on the cliffs on the west bank. Some were in bud and flower, much higher up, with too much vegetation between us for a good picture with our tele lenses. It was easier to get some nice pictures of Parodia chrysacanthion and Rebutia fiebrigii (syn. R. jujuyana), growing in the cracks of the rocks and in mats of moss at just about eye level In one spot, I took an image where just now I counted 70 + Parodias, ranging in size from a 5 pence (UK) / dime (US) upwards. The parodias were either in bud or had just finished flowering, luck was not on our side in this respect. I bet that the images of these plants will still produce a few ‘Oohhs and Aahhs at future UK Branch meetings. The Trichocereus sp. had some large flowers appearing from the apex, but grew too high up the rocks for a closer look.

I spotted some of the mountain goats in our party (Guillermo and Mark spring to mind) some 30 m up the rock face, taking pictures of the Rebutia in flower. Did they have access to the Startrek ‘Beam-me-up-Scotty’ facility? I must have been feeling better than on previous occasions like this on the trip, because I parked the tripod with D70 at the base of the rocks and found my way up to the right height but still some meters away from the plant. As usual, the last few meters are the hardest, not so much the getting there – because you have your goal firmly in sight, but the way back. This is where my small Coolpix came into its own – Guillermo and Mark had lugged their SLR’s up the hill, but I was able to stand with my right foot on a 5 cm wide ledge, clinging on (no more sci-fi jokes please) with my right hand to another 5 cm ledge (but how stable was it?) while my left leg and arm (with Coolpix hopefully pointing straight at the plant in flower) were waving around in space. I felt pleased with my achievement as I feel that I have a reputation to keep up for participating in at least a few foolish stunts like this on each trip. Hopefully the images that some of the others made from the river bed will confirm this daring stunt, perhaps it was all in my mind. The three pictures I took show a nice Rebutia jujuyensis in flower in the moss, but there is no hint in any of the three images of the effort I was making to take them.

We made our way back to the bus, near a tourist attraction consisting of swimming pool and snack facility where Guillermo et all had set out today’s picnic.

Two hours later, the scenery had changed dramatically at S481 where we were back taking pictures of the subtropical rainforest scenery of trees bedecked with epiphytic plants including Pfeiffera ianthothele, Rhipsalis / Lepismium sp., orchids and bromeliads. Once again we arrived at a very comfortable hotel (Hosteria Cabra Corral) where another very nice meal was waiting after we had enjoyed a refreshing shower.

I was aware during the trip that I was making comparisons between this type of guided bus tour and the previous DIY trips. Not having to worry about accommodation and food each night was certainly a luxury, but then I think of nights around the Eulychnia fuelled fires at Botija …. I have come to the conclusion that both approaches have their pros and cons and that many of these come down to personal preference. The guided tours open the opportunity of seeing cacti in habitat to a much larger group of people and are the ideal way of getting to know a new bit of cactus country. I know from experience of how much time can be wasted looking for a particular plant without the benefit of a local guide. Even a precise GPS location is sometimes of limited help – was it taken at the place where the car / bus was stopped and from where it is then necessary to make a short walk (in which direction?) or was it actually taken from the spot where one of the plants in question was growing – in which case, where is the best spot to park the car – it is not always the nearest that is best.

Tomorrow we head to Tafi del Valle.

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