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We had planned to stay a day around Fiambala / Tinogasta. We spent a pleasant morning at the Termas La Aguadita (the one with the tadpoles from 2005). Cliff slept on a bench, I dangled my feet in the pool (the one at 41C) and Juan climbed 100 m +, nearly to the top of an impossible mountain at the back of the Termas. But sooner or later, cactus explorers get restless …. but lets start at the beginning.

After breakfast we went into the town of Tinogasta.The name Tinogasta comes from the Kakana words tino “meeting” and gasta “town”. After a bit of shopping, we fuelled the car and got some more money out – you never know when things might be open over the forthcoming Christmas period. The queue at the bank went nearly round the block. A kind gent in the queue told us that if we only wanted to use the cash machine, we could get in the shorter queue (only 3 people ahead of us) saving us quite a bit of time.

In 2005 we had stayed in Anillaco, in the ACA Hosteria with the Trichocereus growing epiphytically out of a tree and the Gymnocalycium kieslingii site right on the wasteland in front of the Hotel. Anillaco was only 11 km up the road and I had high hopes of it having Internet facilities. When we got there, this Anillaco was a church and a small community of farm hands for the large Finca (farm) that had stripped all the land for the production of olives and figs. The other Anillaco is in the Province of La Rioja, scheduled for tomorrow, although the planned route will not takes us to that town.

Disappointed, we made our first cactus stop (S1103) in the broad Valle de Fiambala,  of the Rio Fiambala and Rio Ataucan.  This flat plain looked very unpromising, until guess who spotted a white-pinkish cactus flower: Tephrocactus alexanderi! The plants looked dry and were partially buried in the sand that gets blown around every where. I love Tephrocactus, as they are like multi-storey globular cacti. There are two reasons for this development: firstly, the plant need not rely on pollinators for sexual reproduction as it readily falls to bits so that each cladode roots and becomes a plant in its own right.  Secondly, we often found this plant growing in very sandy conditions where it would soon get buried. By growing a perfectly plant body on top of the older cladode, it can keep it’s head above the water (or rather the sand). The only other cactus here was Opuntia sulphurea.

S1104 was the Termas de Aguadita stop. From the pools area we could spot Tephrocactus alexanderi, Echinopsis leuacantha and Denmoza rhodacantha.

I was disappointed with the range of plants found as I had hoped for other Tephros. The Hotel in Fiambala was still having the same renovations performed that made it look like a building site in 2005. There was nothing here cactus wise to keep us.

We decided to drop back down to Tinogasta as a possible location for another night, and to drive back along R60 where yesterday, around Salado, we had seen more Tephrocactus in flower. Here (S1105), I believe the Tephro here was T. aoracanthus and again, some were in flower. With literally millions of plants around, we would of course select those in flower as camera fodder, which creates the impressions that every plant was in flower – not so. I guess less than 1 % was in flower and the number of fruits suggest that the peak of flowering was a few weeks ago, although of course fruits can be seen for weeks on end while the flowers are only around for one, may be two days. The other cacti here were the usual bunch: E. leucantha, Cereus aethiops and O. sulphurea.

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S1106 was a bit (10 km) farther east, near Cordobita, and here Tephrocactus alexanderi (very dessicated) grew with T. articulatus (or T. aoracanthus), including almost spineless forms. I’m not sure if this is T. strobiliformis, as in the UK this usually has small cladodes. These were as big as those of T. articulatus, just (mainly) spineless. Again there was E. leucantha, C. aethiops and O. sulphurea.

Originally our aim had been to drive to San Blas where in 2005 we had found just about all the species (or forms?) of Tephrocactus in one place. As we had seen just about all of them today, we considered going back to Tinogasta, but we were now so close (26 km) that it seemed churlish not to go on. When we arrived (S1107) I did not recognise the place. I briefly looked on both sides of the road and on a rocky slope to the east of the road, but there was really nothing here that we had not seen already and the Tephros looked all fairly similar, certainly nothing to justify my enthusiasm for this site in 2005. I expect that we had had a long spell on the bus that time and you always get more excited when you’re let loose among cacti. Plus, when you’re told that all these taxa grow here together, your brain is more willing to accept this than if you’ve spent the day looking at gradual transitions. This time most cladodes were quite dry and this perhaps disguised some of the features that had persuaded me that there were so many forms. I’m always interested in seeing how the mind can play tricks.

By now it was 17:30. Should we drive the 86 km back to Tinogasta and have come back this way again tomorrow or just push on the other 120 km to Chilocito, our goal for the next day? We decided on the latter and changed our mind again as we got closer and saw a turn off to Famatina. Juan’s GPS showed that there was a Hosteria in Famatina, so that became our goal.

Cliff had been driving all day and needed a rest, so we stopped for a hand over of duties. As we pulled over we found ourselves right in the middle of a population of Tephrocactus articulatus, the form with soft papery spines that had given rise to the name Opuntia papyracantha  (S1108). For the record we also found a Gymnocalycium here (1 plant, damaged, hidden in a shrub, with an Echinopsis in similar condition).

In Famatina we made straight for the Hosteria which was closed for renovations (for quite a few months, judging by the weeds growing on the piles of building materials). At the Plaza, a policeman directed us to Hospedeja Mejicana where we’ll spend 3 nights, to catch up on washing and take a look at the diverse cactus vegetation. Strange, we thought, a B&B named for Mexico, in Argentina. Next we started to look for stops recorded near by for Eriosyce andreanus / strausianus and Echinopsis / Lobivia famatimensis and found it reported from Mina Mejicana!, so that is where we’ll be heading tomorrow!

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