Today, our last full day in Argentina on this trip, more than made up for the disappointment of yesterday. Juan noticed that in San Carlos we were at the same latitude as Lonquen in Chile.
Good cactus spotting days all come down to planning, and we had used our early hotel stop yesterday to do just that, so that today, we managed a stop just 32 km from the hotel, on the same Ruta 40 stretch of ‘boring with little prospect of cacti’ status that we had driven through in ignorance yesterday.
S1137, north of Zapata was a stop recommended by The Database as a location for Gymnocalycium striglianum, its n.n. var. herminae and some intermediates. Now why would a species and its subspecies and their intermediates grow side by side in the same habitat and form hybrids? What biological barriers could be found to prevent one from crossing with the other? None! In fact the intermediates were an indication that they did. I therefore assume that the species and its variety are merely a demonstration of the variability within that species and of the idiotic naming craze by some hobbyists keen to give names to things that they can not understand. And here, the Gymno was not common; in fact we only found about half a dozen plants, growing with Cereus aethiops, Echinopsis leucantha and of course Opuntia sulphurea.
We left Ruta 40 and turned on to Ruta 7, that ultimately leads to the border with Chile, and made a stop just before Portrorillos (S1138), in the Andean foothills. The familiar sight of thunderstorms over the mountains to the west, accompanied by the equally familiar sound of thunder meant we kept an eye on its progress while photographing Opuntia sulphurea, Cumulopuntia bolivana (? we were only at 1,479 m altitude), E. leucanthus, two Tillandsia sp., Denmoza rhodacantha, E. (Trichocereus) candicans, another ‘Trichocereus sp? and our target cactus: Eriosyce straussiana were all readily found. I’d have to say that once we had recorded E. straussiana, that it is not the most dynamic of cacti, best filed with E. leucantha and most Gymnocalycium under ‘boring’.
Next, we decided to drive on to the farthest away stop planned for today, at Los Tambillos (S1139), on the road that we had found blocked in San Juan yesterday, but today we managed to get to the spot I particularly wanted to see, from the south side, near Uspallate, the last main settlement with hotels before crossing back into Chile tomorrow.
So what was so special about this stop? It is the only location listed in The Database for Opuntia clavarioides, a strange cactus that in cultivation can grow into strange shapes, with the shape of a hand as a common one seen in collections. Now, The Database is good, but not necessarily the font of all knowledge. I wonder if it occurs anywhere else?
You’d expect such a rare and small plant to be difficult to spot. Not at all, we managed to dodge some spectacular thunderstorms to arrive at The Spot in the dry, but with the plants still fresh and damp from the wash they had just enjoyed. Within a minute, Juan had found the first plants of O. clavarioides and they did look very cute. I wonder if it has changed name during the preparation of the New Cactus Lexicon, and if so, what its new name might be. Pterocactus gonjianii is also listed from here, but no obvious candidates for this name were found unless it is another name for O. clavariodes. But once we walked outside an area of roughly 10 x 10 m, no more plants could be found. RP 39 seems to follow an ancient Inca trail that I hope to find out more about on the internet once we manage to get connected.
This find was for me the icing on the Argentina Cake that we have enjoyed now since 13 December. We only managed to see selected cactus high lights but got to know the country much better and I’m sure that I’ll be spending more time in the North West, around La Quiaca and Tilcara and in selected places coming south.
I should of course mention the other plants found at S1139: Maihueniopsis hypogaea and Eriosyce atrospinosus – well, that is the name in The Database, alongside E. strausiana, which it is not. The spination on these plants was wonderful and varied, some yellow – horn coloured, others were almost black.
With the thunderstorms having moved south, towards Uspalata, we decided to move that way as well, with brief stops (S1140 and S1141) at roughly 10 km intervals. At S1140, the Eriosyce were the same as at S1139, but more plentiful and with less evidence of recent cattle grazing. C. hypogaea was also present at both.
S1141 was only a token stop to confirm the extend of the populations, as we were distracted by a thunderstorm that had changed direction and was coming our way. On this area of flat open desert, our bodies were very much the tallest things around and we had no intention of becoming a lightning conductor, but at the same time we wanted to record the noise and lightning on video. Nature in Argentina was early with its New Years firework display!
Back in Uspallata, we booked into a hotel that, on later inspection seemed to be the only one without internet facilities. From our room, we kept getting weak connections from surrounding wifi routers that would disengage before you had a chance to log onto your email provider’s site. Very frustrating.
We celebrated our last night in Argentina of this trip by eating the largest steak I have seen for years, cooked to perfection and washed down with an excellent bottle of Malbec, all at ridiculously low prices by UK standards, but the high cost of living in Rip Off Britain is one thing that we certainly have not missed these last eight weeks.
Argentina, we’ll be back!