Cliff had admitted that one thing he would not miss was doing the traditional Christmas dinner for who knows how many people. Going on a 5 month cactus trip in South America seems a bit extreme for getting out of cooking a meal, but today really did not need an excuse, it was great!
In 2005 we had managed to get the bus up to a track to a point where the road became impassable (for a bus). Guillermo guided us on foot to a hillside full of Denmoza rhodacantha and Echinopsis (Lobivia / Soehrensia) formosa and then went back to the bus to prepare lunch.
As we were here for three days, we decided to spend the first day looking up sites for ‘special cacti’ for the area which in this case had to be Echinopsis (Lobivia) famatinensis (famatimensis in the old spelling) and Eriosyce (Pyrrhocactus) andreaeani. We consulted ‘The Location Database’ and loaded stops for those plants into Juan’s GPS unit, that also has the Argentina mapping on board. We were staying in Hospedaje Mejicana, and many of the locations were along a track (4×4 recommended) to Mina Mejicana, so we saw our choice of accommodation as a good omen and, when the track split into two, we decided to follow the track to the Mina. This had all the Eriosyce stops on it, while the other had the E. famatinensis stops on it – something to look forward to on Christmas day.
Soon after the split in the track, I recognised the farm named ‘Wamatinag’ with a story about conservation on a board in the yard. This is where Guillermo had taken us and a bit farther along was the hillside where we had been lose for an hour or so. Great for the way back.
We decided to mark the locations suggested by the Database mentally as we passed them, but to drive on to the farthest away one. As usual there were threatening skies and as the track often was part of the river bed, there was a slight concern that a good storm could cut us off for a few hours, particularly if we had been in the dry, but the rain had come down out of sight, but in the drainage area of the Rio Amarillo arroyos that we were crossing or using as road. The Mina seems to have been abandoned some time ago and as we approached its alleged location, the track became worse and worse. We had already passed the last of the planned locations and were really only going on because we were so close to the mine.
Eventually, common sense prevailed and we marked our turn around spot with the first stop of the day (S1109). A few rain drops fell on the windscreen and we could hear the sound of far away thunder, but on the other side of the Famatina Valley, no need for us to be concerned about the rain that we could see coming out of the clouds. So what did we see? Some shrubs and perennials in flower, including Digitalis (Fox glove) – an import?- a small opuntioid sp. with many small cladodes, Cumulopuntia bolivianus (we had climbed by car to 2,544 m), Echinopsis formosa and Denmoza rhodacantha, where I should have known not to confuse the robust spination of young plants and the dense, fine spination of the large plants that has resulted in me having numerous specimens in my collection, because I thought that they were different species during my visits to nurseries. Then the surprise of the day when I found a group of E. famatinensis! But they were not supposed to be from here! We can only suggest that the Eriosyce-freaks who had been here were not looking for this plant and hopefully this means that tomorrow’s trip along the other track will yield more and also some Pyrrhocactus. One of the plants had two fruits, that Juan told me seemed to contain viable seed, as I left it for the others to photograph the plant with fruit. As usual, when you get your eye in, you see many more, especially as you are on your knees taking pictures and look around before getting up. I’m very pleased with the pictures from this location.
On our way to the next stop we photographed huge clumps of Puya (?) sp and Abromeitella sp. on the steep mountain sides. We had learned that E. umadeava prefers flat rather than steep habitats, so at the first suitable flattish alluvial area we made S1110. Here we found D. rhodacantha (in bud and in flower), O. sulphurea and Tunilla sp., but no Pyrrhocactus.
At S1111 we saw Echinopsis (Trichocereus) candicans (or was it E. huascha? Must look up the differences when I get home, if I remember.) These were huge clumps, but none would have even been considered for a place, let alone a prize, on a UK show bench – these were tatty plants. From a distance, the dense groupings looked impressive. Consider as a ground cover plant, planted in large numbers, rather than as an individual specimen plant. Each fruit contained enough seed to supply any national C&S Society ten times over! And there was plenty of fruit! Juan complained that if he had known he would have brought a supermarket carrier bag.
S1112 was a E. andreaeani stop from the Database, but looked unlikely to live up to its promise. All the plants from the previous stops (except E. famatinensis) were here, but where was E. andreaeani hiding? In fact, what did it look like? How big was it?
As we clambered around on the rocks (great to be 55 years of age and spend Christmas Eve clambering around rocks!!), Juan came up with the answer as he found a small cactus with tell tale Eriosyce fruits – and ripe seed! And as usual, if you find one, you find more, growing underneath the shrubs, making it difficult to get good pictures. After the initial excitement and a good crop of pics, we had to admit that this plant was not as photogenic as its cousin E. umadeave, farther north. Still, it was another tick on our ‘taxa seen in habitat’ list that just keeps on growing. There’s little point in listing all the other cacti found here, as I’d just repeat the list of the previous stops today.
The remaining stops were just caused by ‘cacti of interest along the road’ rather than a search for a specific species. S1113 was for an impressive ‘stand’ of E. candicans (?) with one flower that had already closed suggesting a yellow flower earlier today. BTW: when cacti have a ‘decumbent’ (laying down) growth habit, is the collective group name still ‘a stand’?
S1114 was just after the ‘Wamatinag’ farm, for two large red flowers on a decumbent Echinopsis (Trichocereus) sp. stem, suggesting that the drop in altitude had now brought us into E. huascha territory.
S1115 was on the junction back on R11 to the town of Famatina, where Juan spotted large numbers of Tephrocactus alexanderi.
It was still hot and sticky as we arrived ‘home’ at our hotel, in time to download the images, write up today’s report and select an image taken earlier of a decoration on the door of our room (109) at the Hosteria in Tilcara, that will have to do as my Christmas Card for 2008.