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While I was dead to the world (as usual), Cliff reported a night of heavy rains and thunder, with video clips to prove it. It seems all the water was spent, because it was dry and sunny during breakfast and for most of the day the shower and thunderstorm clouds hang over the mountains on both sides of the wide valleys.

In my original plan, we hoped to spend the night in Fiambala, however, yesterday’s trip of being bounced around on variable dirt tracks (indicated as ‘main roads’ on maps and road number systems) made us decide to aim for Belen instead. However, as we sped along great and straight tarmac at 100 – 120 km.p.h. (the only thing holding me back were the cows, goats, donkeys and horses grazing by the side of the road and some carcasses of their erstwhile cousins near by) for stretches of an hour on end, we kept revising the plans, but then, when tarmac turned back to dirt, they were reviewed again. Juan’s GPS, with maps down loaded for free from the internet, proved invaluable – a kind of hand held sat nav system, with Juan using his brain to give clear and sensible instructions rather than the voice of an actor speaking into a microphone in a studio on a different planet. We ended up driving 436 km, quite a bit more than we had planned.

We passed through the four houses that are Quilmes and saw the signs to the Ruinas de Quilmes, where we stayed in (for me) one of the best hotels of the 2005 trip. ‘Let’s show Juan’, we agreed and we drove up the 5 km drive that led to the monument that is a tribute to the Quilmes people who were defeated by the Spanish Conquistadors and marched to Buenos Aires where a whole suburb and the most famous beer in Argentina is named after them. Many did not survive the journey. After the 5 km drive, we were met by a gate where a man was collecting 10 pesos (£ 2, at least by our reckoning when we left Chile for Argentina) per person to come in. ‘But we want to go to the hotel.’ we protested, ‘Surely we don’t have to pay to go to the hotel!?’ ‘The hotel is closed.’ came the reply, so we turned around and went on our way.

As a result, we made our first stop (S1099) after some two hours of driving, just before Fatima (no, not a spelling mistake for the famous Famatina)  and found E. thionantha, Parodia sp (microcarpa complex), Gymnocalycium saglionis (it was a huge specimen that had persuaded me to stop, although on closer examination, it was not a show stopper), Tephrocactus webberi and Opuntia sulphurea.

S1100 was just after the Fatima sign, mainly because I had spotted Echinopsis leucantha that Juan had heard us talk about, but had never seen. There were great Gymnocalycium here which I think were still Spegs, but these were large globular plants, not the flat pancake form. We also saw Cereus aethiops as well as the taxa mentioned for the previous stop.

The day was going great, and then, the track went through a ford, a fast flowing stream in a usual dry arroyo that crossed the road. But we were in a Hilux, so what? Then there was another, wider and deeper, again no problem, but then we were faced with a broad river bed now with various bits in full flow. It took a while to figure out where the track was supposed to go. There were no other cars around to prove that this part was passable. We skipped across the various bits of river, each time sitting on a sand / gravel bank to evaluate the risk of the next crossing. We  got to the last one, but this seemed deeper and faster than all the others. A young couple standing on the other shore shrugged their shoulders when we asked if it was safe to cross. As the driver at the time, I decided that it was best to turn around and not to risk cars and luggage, and who knows, personal safety. No one objected although I bet that if Leo had been in the car, he would have taken the gamble and probably would have gotten through OK – remember Carrizal Bajo in 2001?

So, it was a silent drive 15 km back to Santa Maria where there was a bridge across the Rio San Jose and then on a main road (hard top!) that took a loop around the trouble spot, contributing to some of today’s extra km.

It was another 2:30 hours and a few more dodgy river crossings later that we felt we had caught up and could afford the time for other stops (S1101 and S1102 were close together) where we saw another Trichocereus that I’ll call Echinopsis (Trichocereus) pseudocandicans for now, mostly in fruit, but two had buds of yellow flowers that were just opening (or closing). C. aethiops, E. leucanthus, E. terscheckii, E. thionantha, G. saglionis and Opuntia sulphurea were also all present at both stops, most of the growing in the shade underneath Palo Verde and Acacia shrubs.

As we approached Tinogasta, Cliff & Juan reported seeing Tephrocactus articulatus in flower along the side of the road, but we agreed that it was late and the light not the best for photography.

We arrived in Tinogasta around around 7, booked into Hotel Viñas del Sol  and by 9 p.m. were ready to ‘hit the town’, which was as busy as any South American town, two days before Christmas, bustling with last minute shoppers but also with young folks ‘cruising the plaza’. We found a restaurant on the corner of the plaza from where we could observe all the action, the volunteer policeman directing the traffic because the traffic lights would be fixed after the holidays, the mothers dragging crying kids past toy shops. We had a huge 3 course BBQ, carefully watched by some local (canine) dogs; you could see the think balloon coming from their head when we asked for the bill and left without feeding them the bones and other left overs: ‘Bloody tourists!’

We looked for, but failed to find, an Internet cafe to post this and yesterday’s Diary Reports – still, it will give you something to do over the Christmas break. For 54 years I have been cold and shivery outside over Christmas. Today, we were complaining that it was too warm. We are hard to please.

Tomorrow we plan an easier day, going to Fiambala, only 48 km up the road, but into the mountains, with a visit to the ‘Termas-with-the-tadpoles’ and all the Tephrocacti. Every day, the task of selecting the best pictures and film clips for talks becomes harder and harder.

We are around the longest day in South America and the winter Solstice in the UK, where it will only be 182 days before the days will get shorter again. I hope that the druids at Stonehenge managed without me.

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