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Archive for December, 2008

Saturday, 20 December 2008 – San Antonio de los Cobres to Cachi

I said yesterday that it was difficult to imagine how things could get better and today proved that I was right. It was not that we had a bad day, just that it paled into insignificance when compared to the previous few days. We had  high expectations, as on the map, both the Quebrada del Toro and the Valle de Calchaquies run south east and south of San Antonio de Los Cobres respectively. They would appear to go through very similar geography and therefore we were looking forward to finding similar plants to yesterday, but in a different setting. The first difference was that instead of going down from San Antonio d.l.C, we went up. The second was that soon after turning on to the Cachi road, the quality of the dirt went the opposite direction: down. So our average speed was around 20 km.p.h., or 10, if you took account of the stops for scenery and cacti.

One thing we wanted to check was the maximum altitude where we find cacti. The other was to put some cactus locations on the map, as every one seems to shoot up and down the famous Quebrada del Toro, while we struggled to find any stops in our database along this route. The poor quality of the track was one obvious reason. We were advised to check that the road was open with the police at the check point into town. They had not a clue. We were advised to travel at least as a two car group. We had met a couple of Germans who were going the same way, but they had a slow puncture when they looked at their car in the morning so wanted to get that fixed first. We did not want to hang around, so left on our own. The track goes over what is reported to be the highest pass in Argentina at close to 5,000 m. above sea level. We were now well in tune with high altitude and did not particularly suffer any problems accept getting out of breath quickly, but even that was improving surprisingly well.

I managed to take 261 images at 9 stops, but, as I was driving, only 1 movie clip. But many of the images were taken as a record of what we found at each location, rather than to add to the already alarming number of candidates for inclusion in talks, articles etc.

We left Hosteria de las Nubes at 3,774 m altitude around 9:48 after a quick email check. By 10:28, we made our first stop, S1083 at 4,168 m, in brilliant sun shine and those nice fluffy Andean clouds in the sky. Unfortunately there were only opuntioids: Maihueniopsis glomerata (must look up how this differs from M. hypogaea.)  When we moved on again, I kept taking occasional pictures as Cliff & Juan kept spotting more opuntioids, higher and higher, recording their altitude with the camera’s GPS.

At 4,368, Juan spotted a Echinopsis (Lobivia) formosa along the road, half hidden under a shrub. Nice spot, Juan! (S1084). It was the only one we found, but due to the altitude, we did not search too far from the car. M. glomerata, C. boliviana and Tunilla sp were also spotted.  By 4,476 m, the cacti were gone.

S1085 was a stop for a group of Condors circling around over the track. As we got closer, we noticed the carcass of a vicuna or guanaco (it’s hard enough to tell them apart when they are alive), with some hawks actually bopping on and off the carcass, as though it was their kill. I’m sure Mike can put me right on the Hawk ID.

S1086 is just a series of scenic shots, including some at the highest pint of this track.  The sign claimed we were at 4,895 m  while both my and Juan’s GPS claimed that we were at 4,963 m.

From Wikipedia: The abra del Acay may be the world’s highest point over a National Route. It is in La Poma Departament, in the Salta Province, Argentina; around 30 km southeast from San Antonio de los Cobres. Its geographical coordinates are 24°23′S 66°14′W / 24.383°S 66.233°W / -24.383; -66.233 Coordinates: 24°23′S 66°14′W / 24.383°S 66.233°W / -24.383; -66.233, and its altitude (measured by GPS) is 5061 m, even though an old sign informs visitors it stands at 4895 m.

The abra del Acay was inaugurated on 1960-07-08, after three years of construction.

This unpaved part of the National Route 40 is only suitable for all terrain vehicles, with the exception of some months in the year when meteorological and maintenance conditions allow normal vehicles to transit. The road inclination of 4.5 % and the oxygen reduction due to altitude make the crossing difficult for both vehicles and humans.

Retrieved from “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abra_del_Acay”

Whatever, it was cold and we rushed to take a group photo, that included the car, now a beloved member of the team. Juan also spotted a small plant in flower that he identified as a sp. of Viola. I’ll ask Roger Ferryman to ID it. I carried on using this stop number until we spotted the first cactus, C. boliviana, at 4,483, just 107 m higher than on the other side of the pass. Remarkable. I wonder what the highest cactus recorded in nature is and at what altitude. Our data base shows 4,899 m for an Opuntis sp. from Abra Lizoite 50 km east of Yavi, so I’ll have to check my GPS data for stops around Yavi on 17th, and check the height claimed for the GPS coordinates in Google Earth for the location in the data base. The database selection was for Argentina only, so expect higher values when we do a global  search!

Just before La Quesera the track crossed a stream that we had been following from the highest point. As I slowed down to avoid making a big splash, Juan spotted another E. formosa from the car, so a good excuse for a short stop (S1087). It was one of only two found. But there was a nice clump of Tunilla with 10 flowers, right along the road as well. And C. boliviana. A bit farther along the track, across the water, there were more E. formosa, not huge as we have seen elsewhere in 2005 and in Chile and across the stream, too far to get to, but close enough for some telephoto zoom pics.

At 3,565 m altitude (S1088) E. pasacana was back on the scene. But not weighed down by Tillandsia etc as in the Quebrada del Toro. All the flora indications were that this valley was a lot drier, both in terms of rain and relative humidity than the Querada del Toro.

S1089 was made because I needed a stop and had spotted a globular cactus that I thought was a Parodia as we drove by it. It turned out to be an Echinopsis, probably a form of E. (Acanthocalycium)  thionantha, and there were lots of them, some in bud, others with spent flowers, but none actually in flower. The other globular cactus here was Gymnocalycium spegazzini, known as ‘spegs’ from now on. Here it was not the super spiny form called fa. major, but its spination was pretty good and a number of plants looked very good in any collection or show, but best in nature, or as a digital image to share with friends at talks etc. in time to come. Other cacti present were C. boliviana plus several other opuntioids, many in flower, such as Tunilla sp., E (Trichocereus) atacamensis spp. pasacana.

S1090 was a stop on land similar to S1089, to establish the range of the cacti that we had seen. Again, the E. thionantha (?) was the dominant plant, closely followed by G. spegazzini, the latter often hidden in dense acacia  and palo verde shrub, or growing in the open, flat to the ground, almost covered in grit and twigs. Eagle eyed Juan found two plants that were ‘different’, one an Echinopsis sp. and the other ‘like a Thelocephala with some 8 long hooked spines’, with most of the body hidden below ground. The main difference on this site was that all the opuntioids were missing.

S1091 again extended our knowledge of the two main cacti, but here Opuntia sulphurea, in full flower, was more abundant and there were some more E. pasacana around too.

And so on to Cachi, or as Cliff is fed up hearing: ‘Cacti with an h’, where we are staying in the Hosteria, as in 2005. It has now got wifi, if you are wiling to sit outside the dining room, in reception and are not afraid to unplug the Christmas decorations so that your laptop gets enough juice.

Friday, 19 December 2008 – Campo Quijano to San Antonio de los Cobres

We were saying over dinner (and a coupe of nice bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon) that it was difficult to see how we could match or beat the things that we’ve seen cactus wise during the last week or so. And that is with 3 months and a week pus to go!

Today was again amazing! Not just because of the plants and scenery that we saw, but because we started off in subtropical conditions with the temperature at 8 a.m. of around 24 C and high relative humidity of 49% and by the end of the day we had experienced thunderstorms and rain and while I write this report, the wind is howling around the bleak but bright town of San Antonio de los Cobres.

For those who were on the 2005 Argentina tour, we only saw part of the Quebrada del Toro, made the lowest stops to see what there was to see and then went back down again.

Today turned out to be an 11 stop day, resulting in 465 images and 21 movie clips. We started with S1072, the old and now disused railway yard in Campo Quijano, where we found Gymnocalycium marsoneri and a trio of Echinopsis, where the stop list suggests E. albispinosa, E. ancistrophora and E. hamatacantha. We took the pictures. We’ll match the names to the pictures when I get home and can look them up in the NCL. I might ask Brian to ID them beforehand. There was also one of the stinging Jatropha, like the Jatropha urens that ‘got me’ in Brazil, 9 years ago. Once seen, never forgotten! This one has been reported as Jatropha macrocarpa.

S1073 was at El Chorro, some 3 km before the sign post for Puente del Toro, where we found Rebutia xanthocarpa, Cleistocactus hylacanthus (syn. C. jujuyensis), Begonia dregei, Pepperomia sp., Oxalis sp., Abrometeile brefifolia, Tillandsia (airplant) sp., Bromeliad sp. and Echinopsis macrancistra. The spelling of all these names needs checking as I’m writing this from memory and after a bottle of wine.

The Rebutia, growing in thick moss, was our target plant here, the others were a bonus.

S1074 was meant for another (?) Rebutia, but we failed to find any in the fragile rock face at the side of the road where road widening schemes were likely to have removed this plant from this locality. We did find a Clematis sp., Tillandsia sp. and C. hylacanthus seedlings, some tiny and only weeks old, while the parent plants, higher on the rockface, were still in flower and fruit.

S1075, 7 km south of Chorrillos, was prompted by a rock face covered in C. hylacanthus – an impressive sight! Again there were plenty of various bromeliad sp. around and Opuntia picardoi was showing off its yellow flowers. We also managed to find the Rebutia that we failed to find at the previous stop.

S1076 was near El Candado, where the remnants of the once glorious railway to the clouds had a magnificent viaduct that still seems to hang in the air. I suspect Health & Safety had nightmares when they saw this structure. Here we found a stand of massive Echinopsis (Trichocereus) terscheckii, in full flower and covered in Tillandsia, while O. picardoi provided a nice splash of yellow to the scenery. We found our first Gymnocalycium spegazinni (in flower) and the Cleistocactus were also still abundant. The temperature was still up at 22C.

S1077 was just before the police control point at Ing. Maury. We were supposed to find Parodia nivosa here, but to me the plants looked more like P. stuemeri. Never mind! The plants were again in flower. Late December seems a good time to travel for cactus flowers! There were some nice Spegs around and the Trichocereus seemed to be hybrids between T. terscheckii and T. pasacana, with an interesting range of spine variability.

S1078 just produced a few pictures of a yellow spined Tunilla sp. – again in flower and Cumulopuntia boliviana, usually a high altitude plant, had appeared on the scene. We were after all now at 3057 m above sea level. The temperature had dropped to 16.5 C and Juan had put on his ‘cactus terrorist’ hood and face mask to protect himself from the cold. Youngsters! 🙂

S1079 was an Eriosyce umadeave stop. There was a thunderstorm threatening over the hill and to be honest, I had seen better populations. First prize in the show here went to a mature plant that had produced 9 offsets around the apex, presumably after being damaged at the growing point. So if you want offsets on your umadeaves in cultivation, just cut out the tops! The Tunilla and C. boliviana were still around nand E. pasacana watched over this flat area from the nearby hills.

S1080 was prompted because Cliff had spotted another E. umadeave on a low hill along the road. We climbed the hill and were dumbfounded by the densest population of E. umadeave we have ever seen. I say ‘population’ but it was obvious that this was part of a large population where we had just seen it at a few spots. There were plants of all ages and sizes, from tiny seedlings to impressive monsters to 60 cm (2 ft) tall. We used Cliff’s leg (in shorts) as a yardstick. While most plants were in (still unripe) fruit, there were a few plants still in flower. I guess that we were a month too late for peak flowering and a month too early for tons of seed. The cold rain started to come down as the thunder rolled around the hill sides. Still, there were plants to be photographed, so we ignored the drops and saw more spegs, and Opuntia.

Just after Las Cuevas we made S1081 for a dense stand of E. pasacana. But it was still chilly and wet, so it was a very brief stop.

We picked up a hitch hiker, a local man with two smelly carrier bags, which Juan believes contained dead rabbits, who claimed he was waiting for a bus – we had not seen a bus all day – and gave him a lift to a rubber tyre, stood on edge in the middle of nowhere, from where he walked into nothingness. Was the altitude playing tricks on us? No, we have the photos as evidence!

S1082 was a brief stop as Juan had spotted a Echinopsis in flower. The database suggested E. formosa, but this plant was very different in spination, flowers and fruit to plants that I have seen elsewhere as Soehrensia taxa, and which botanists regard as synonymous with E. formosa. I’ll have to show them the plants and their flowers and ask them to help me to understand why these are one and the same thing. The treatment of the taxon in the NCL suggests that the different subspecies recognised are geographical forms, failing to provide characters to help us to distinguish between the different names. I suspect that we were looking at E. formosa ssp. korethroides.

A sign along the road claimed that we had reached the highest point on the Salta – San Antonio de los Cobres road at 4,080 m above sea level. The GPS on the camera taking the picture of the sign showed an altitude of 4,097 m.

And so we arrived at San Antonio de Los Cobres.

Tomorrow we aim to cross the highest Andean pass, at 5,000 m, to drop back down to Cachi or Cafayate, after checking road conditions with the local police.

Thursday, 18 December 2008 – La Quiaca to Campo Quijano

Another amazing day, but in quite a different respect to previous days. After breakfast we parted company with Brian Bates. It was great to see him again, this time in South America and great to be shown some very special cactus places. Many thanks, Brian! See you in the No Star Stonehenge Cactarium, Wine Bar and Cinema on your next visit.

As he made his way north to the Bolivian border and a 9 hour wait for his bus journey home, we headed south for some 425 km to Campo Quijano, at the foot of the Quebrada del Toro. The first 100 km or so along R9 from La Quiaca are quite boring but fast, with the only brief delay some check points where the first one wanted to see our car papers, but the others must have been radioed that we were OK. 

It had rained hard during the night (as it had done during the previous night) and this time the Devil’s Backbone was over cast with heavy clouds. But the different light produced a nice alternative to the pictures taken on the way up, so a quick stop was made (S1067). We found Cumulopuntia glomerata here, in flower.

Just as I remarked that we had lost the ceroids from the scene, some 6 km north of the Iturbe turn off, as if by magic, the road went through a rocky quebrada and Echinopsis (Trichocereus) was back. (S1068)  But this was not the white flowered E. pasacana, all the plants here were red flowered, i.e. E. poco! Great! Except that there was a huge cut out made by the Rio Grande, that separated us from the plants. Telephoto lenses are good, and certainly proved that these were red flowered plants, but it would have been better to touch the plants and take a cross section of the flowers, as Juan had done for ‘Oreobivia cerox’ yesterday.

I remembered that the road had crossed a river only a 100 m. back and sure enough, walk back, across the bridge and then risked our lives by climbing up the slope to where the plants were in flower.

Cacti here included Parodia maassii, Tunilla corrugata,  Cumulopuntia boliviana, Austrocylindropuntia shaferi, Oreocereus trollii, Echinopsis (Lobivia) ferox / longispina and all but the Oreo were in flower! There were also two species of Lily in flower.

A few km later, at the turn off east to Churquijaguada, (S1069) we spotted the first white flowered E. pasacana, growing side by side with a red flowered E. poco. From there on they were all white flowered. Other cacti seen included: Opuntia sp, Austrocylindropuntia shaferi, Echinopsis ferox (Lobivia longispina) and  Parodia maassii.

Just before San Salvador de Jujuy, we saw a turning to the Thermas de Reyes, a location that both Cliff & I remembered from 2005. On arrival, (S1070) we both admitted that although we immediately remembered  this spot, it was not the Thermas (where some of the bus party had a swim and with frogs and tadpoles in the water) that we had thought of when we decided to take the turning. This was the one where we walked down the riverbed of the Rio Reyes and found Parodia chrysacanthion and Rebutia fiebrigii (syn. R. jujuyensis). This time there was no time for a hike, so we crossed a narrow bridge to take the loop road back to Yala on R9.

We passed the town of S.S. de Jujuy and took the scenic route to Salta, staying on R9 which now had become almost single track. Both Cliff & I believe we recognised this (S1071) from 2005, as one of the roads through the subtropical rainforest around Salta. Again we enjoyed taking pictures of Rhipsalis / Lepismium sp, Pfeiffera ianthothele, orchids and a host of different Tillandsia and other Bromeliaceae.

What was really staggering was the contrast between the cactus habitats here and 24 hours ago. Two different worlds, in such a short time.

We struggled  through Salta at rush hour where everybody seems to have a favourite colour traffic light to go on and where lane discipline seems to be an unknown concept.

Before too long we were heading west on R 51 and found nice lodgings in Hosteria Punta Callejas; the ideal launch pad for our trip up the Quebrada del Toro, that starts just 4 km from our hotel’s front door, to San Antonio de los Cobres, 140 km up the road. Let’s hope that those heavy rain clouds hanging over the mountains in that direction will clear during the night.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008 – Around La Quiaca

We had booked a triple room, not knowing if Brian was going to be here or not. There were no double or quadruple rooms, so we asked permission for Brian to kip in a sleeping bag on an air mattress that we had brought along, and then went out for a meal (same restaurant where we had left his slides in 2005).

We overslept, waking up just after 8, but before long had showered, breakfasted and were standing at S1062, the new housing being built (since 2005!) on the road heading east out of La Quiaca. There, on a piece of wasteland between two blocks of building work, We found Cumulopuntia boliviana, Echinopsis (Lobivia) pugionacantha, some in flower, E. ferox / longispina, Maihueniopsis glomerata (or M. hypogaea?) and M. (Puna) subterranea, Tephrocactus nigrispina, Tunilla erectoclada and / or T. tilcarensis!! Not bad for what had seemed a ‘no hope stop’.

S1063 is for a brief stop on the road from Yavi to Suripujio, with most of the above cacti, in flower but without the back drop of a housing estate.

We found Cumulopuntia boliviana, Echinopsis (Lobivia) pugionacantha, some in flower, E. ferox / longispina, Maihueniopsis glomerata (or M. hypogaea?) and M. (Puna) subterranea, Oreocereus celsianus, Tephrocactus nigrispina, Tunilla erectoclada and / or T. tilcarensis!

The next stop (S1064) was the famed ‘Oreocereus forest’ at Suripujio. The area is known among the cognoscenti as the ‘Blossfeld site’, as it was first reported by Harry Blossfeld, when he found it in July 1935 during his Andean Expedition. We had seen it before in Brian & Leo’s pictures. They had not exaggerated, this was breath taking, awesome, we were speechless. The Oreos were O. celsianus and O. trollii and one or two plants that we found were hybrids with Echinopsis ferox. Brian is planning to describe these as Oreopsis cerox, or any other combination of the two names. Video clips were the only way to capture it. Once we had feasted our cameras on these plants, we started to look for other cacti and found: Neowerdermannia vorwerkii, Rebutia pygmaea,  Cumulopuntia chichensis, C. boliviana, Tunilla corrugata, Lobivia ferox / longispina and probably a few more opuntioids yet to be IDed.

xOreopsis/xOreobivia
In 1931 (?) Friedrich Ritter found an Oreocereus sp. that he recorded as FR 409, near Abra Pampa 1931? (Ritter Band 2, Page 481). Unfortunately he did not find flowers or fruits.

Harry Blossfeld, on his Andean Expedition in July 1935 was north west of Abra Pampa near the Bolivian-Argentine border on his way to the famous Oreocereus hillside which among cognoscenti is known as ‘the Blossfeld Site’ Although many plants came to Europe from this Expedition, the hybrid remained unknown for many years. In 1995, Graham Charles, Roger Ferryman und Chris Pugh visited this site and found the plants noteworthy and gave information to Martin Lowry who, with his travel companions was on his way to look for Lobivia sanguiniflora near Santa Victoria. The Blossfeld Site was on the way. Lowry found in this Oreocereus forest also specimens of this hybrid and wrote an article in the British Cactus & Succulent Journal No4, Volume 18, December 2000: “A remarkable find at Yavi”

‘Cyrill’, from northern Switzerland writes on the Cactus Hybrid Forum: ‘On my first trip to North West Argentina in 2001/02 I wanted to see these plants in habitat. We were very fortunate and found plants with fruits! The resulting seedlings have since grown into young plants. Some are very slow growing and have strongly curved spines ‘und wirken eher verkrüppelt. Die Behaarung/Bedornung ist uneinheitlich’ and very variable.

Humming birds build their nests in the Oreocereus plants in habitat but I can not confirm if they play a role in pollination, probably assisted by insects. I’m curiously waiting when my plants will be ready to flower.

It was still relatively early as we drove back, satisfied, to La Quiaca, with good photography light, so we decided to take another look at the Yavias, first at a site recommended by Brian for its numerous plant (S1065) and second back to the Antenna Site (this time S1066), but alas, still no flowers. Brian believes that the pictures that he and Leo took here on Boxing Day 2001 were taken in the morning. Never mind.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008 – Iturbe to La Quiaca

After a surprisingly comfortable night (well, for me anyway) we set off around nine and made good progress on R9, heading for La Quiaca. We even allowed ourselves time for a brief stop (S1060) to photograph and film ‘the Devil’s Backbone’, an impressive display of colours imbedded in the hills to the east of the road. The light was just right and those magical fluffy Andean clouds where hanging in an azure blue sky. We could not help but point our cameras also at Maihueniopsis glomerata, in flower, with black bees diving in and out of the flowers. We also found one Maihueniopsis subterraneae in flower.

Finding Brian Bates was never going to be as easy as just driving into town and find him waiting next to the appropriate lamp post. We could not even be sure that he was able to come, because last night in Iturbe, they had heard of the Internet, but did not have it in town. At just after 11 we were on the outskirts of La Quiaca. In a long row of busses and lorries. We were advised by a military policeman that the road was blocked by strikers and that we would have to turn around and go back  At Tres Cruces, a military check point some km before La Quiaca, we were told that the road might be blocked but that at Puesto de Marquese, the advice was that the road was clear until La Quiaca. At least to the outskirts it seemed. An alternative road meant driving back to La Intermedia and then taking a dirt road to the east of R9.

We finally arrived at La Quiaca at around 13:15, looked for the ‘mining truck’ where Brian had suggested that we’d meet at noon, but found only an old bus, now serving as a snackbar at the end of the road to the border crossing.

While Cliff refuelled the car, I walked around the crossing area and back to the ‘snack-bus’ where we asked if a short balding Englishman with poor Spanish had been there earlier in the day. No. We decided to at least get a roof over our heads for the night and booked in to Hotel Turismo La Quiaca. Next we went to an internet cafe to check news from Brian. Yesterday he had written to say that he was definitely coming and would arrive early and probably take a look at ‘the subterranea site’. But which one?  I sent him an email to confirm that we were here and where we were staying. There seemed little point to hang around so we decided to go Yavia spotting.

We quickly found the road west out of La Quiaca, and there, standing by the side of the road, was Brian Bates! His bus had also been delayed and had assumed that either we would go Yavia spotting, or had already done and would be coming back this way.

After exchange of greetings we went Yavia spotting, while Brian told us the last 20 or so hours of his life history. His bus had arrived 4 hours late from its 740 km, 16 hour journey. Good to see that we were still on the same wavelength.

We passed lots of Lobivia ferox / longispina in flower along the side of the road and decided we would photograph them on the way back. We made it to the ‘Antenna site’, the same one that we had visited in 2005  and that is probably the best known location (S1061). So well known in fact that it had been rumoured to have been cleared by collectors. Seeing is believing. Fortunately, there were lots of plants that looked well watered, as well as Cumulopuntia boliviana, Rebutia haagei or R. pygmaea, Parodia maassii, Oreocereus celsianus, Echinopsis / Lobivia ferox / longispina and Tunilla soehrensii.Some Yavia were in bud, others seemed to have just flowered and Juan found a small number of fruits that contained just a few seed.

As the light became less than perfect for photography, we drove back – great day! But there was more to come. There was a herd of some 50 llama coming down the hill to cross the road right in front of us. We drew to a halt (1061a) and I took some photographs and then decided that video would be better. It was. The herd was being driven by a shepherdess making blowing noises and a sling with which she was able to encourage strays to rejoin the herd. It seemed that it was the end of her working day as she asked us for a lift in to town. Sure, we can squeeze one more in! Juan managed to take a photo of himself and our new passenger. I don’t think you need to worry Flo, she looked a bit like her llamas and smelt the same.

Monday 15 December 2008 – Tilcara to Iruya & back to Iturbe

Another great day!

We started off with breakfast in the dark cellar where in 2005 we had been treated to an evening of Argentinean folk music. Then off to the ATM machine that again insisted that my daily limit was 300 peso (roughly £60). I thought that I’d give it another go, and hey presto, another 300 peso. Cliff was able to get the money he needed in one go.

Next to the petrol station on the main road, Ruta 9, which is the main Jujuy to La Quiaca road where now we were able to fill the tank.  It was very quiet on R9, the main Jujuy to La Quiaca and on into Bolivia road. I had memories of quite a bit of heavy traffic along this road in 2005, but obviously the recession has damaged the trade between the countries and the tourist busses are rare.

By 10:20 we needed a leg stretch and exercise our shutter fingers so made a random stop (S1052) along R9, a few km before the turn off to Iturbe. There was a wire fence a few meters from the road, but there were dry aroyos where you could almost walk underneath the wire. The best spots were the rocky areas, where we found Echinopsis (Lobivia) ferox (syn. L. longispina), Cumulopuntia boliviana, Tunilla sp., and  Austrocylindropuntia shaferi (not the most dynamic of cacti).

S1053 was a few km before Iturbe as we were now driving on a variable gravel track and was prompted by Juan spotting an Echinopsis ferox in flower. I’ll have to check the Cumulopuntia etc. section in the NCL to identify the one that we found here with pretty yellowish spination, and a few solitary heads poking through the sand looked as though they might be Maihueniopsis (Puna) subterranea.

S1054 was a little farther along and Juan this time spotted a red flower on a cactus. He had to walk up to the plant and touch it before we saw it: Parodia sp. in the P. maassi complex. As we were out of the car, we decided to take another quick look around. Just about every time you put your foot down you were standing on another Parodia.  I made it to a bush under which an Oreocereus trollii was seeking shelter from the sun. The various opuntiods were also still around to confuse us.

We decided to press on to Iruya and select places to stop on the way back, as this track was a lot slower than anticipated. S1055 was to break that rule, as Juan, in the back passenger seat, spotted a flower in the wall of the cutting at about his eye level. Bingo! A Rebutia sp in flower! Which one? No idea. A ‘Mediolobivia type’ with a pinky-red flower. My field notes indicate that Rebutia pygmaea was found nearby, so if that was correctly identified …. Echinopsis ferox (syn. Lobivia longispina) and Oreocereus trollii were there too. And Cumulopuntia what-ever.

S1056 were just scenic shots as we approached Iruya and drove through the streets. On the internet I got the impression of a bustling tourist town. We saw only three ‘non-native’ people and having taken the pictures, could not wait to get back to the cacti.

On the way up, we had passed a nice looking clump of O. trollii and we stopped (S1057), just so that I could take it’s picture. On closer observation, there were ripe fruits on this plant and a near by cousin, so that I walked away with about a pound of Oreocereus seed! Then Cliff did a little war dance and chanted the word ‘Neowerdermannia‘ over and over and sure enough, there they were, hundreds just on this small patch! All sizes and ages! And then the game was to try to get the Neowerdermannia, Lobivia and Parodia all in the same picture with a few opuntiods thrown in for good measure. We found one or two ‘different’ Parodia, with straight white spines. It looked like Parodia nivosa, but I’ve not seen that (or any other Parodia other than P. maassii) listed from this area.

S1058 was another extra rocky area where we could see huge P. maassii. The cracks in the rocks looked like promising Rebutia country and sure enough, Cliff & Juan soon found a few, including a largish mature multiheaded plant. Rebutia haagei (syn. R atrovirens) has been reported from here. I also spotted some Peperomia but have no idea of the species. It was cold and windy and as we made our way back to the car, we could not help one more look at that large Parodia…. and found almost next to it another N. vorwerkii. The Echinopsis listed from the area is E. marsoneri and while cleaning today’s fruit, Juan reports that some were hairy while others were quite smooth with some large scales.

S1059 was a Rebutia location suggested from the database, but although the area looked promising, it was cold, light was not good under a cloudy sky and we were tired. We also found Peperomia sp. and Tunilla tilcarensis.

On the way up we had found basic lodgings in Iturbe and we now returned to down load our pictures, write up the notes. After days like today, expensive hotels are a waste of money. A clean bed was about all we needed. The bathroom / toilet was outside, and in the dark main room that also acted as the ‘restaurant / bar’ for two locals who seemed to be drinkers by profession, we were served a simple meal of pasta, potatoes, pumpkin and a bit of meat, washed down with a litre of beer, before falling into bed.  There was no wifi, no TV, no towels or soap, the car was left parked in the street but for the grand sum of £4.80 for the night for the three of us (plus food) we were happy. Perhaps we would not want to do this every night or live here in this style, but after a satisfying day cactussing, it was great.

Sunday, 14 December 2008 – Maimara to Tilcara

We went back up the Cuesta de Lipan. We came down this yesterday, but it was getting late, there was low cloud and we were tired and anxious about rooms and no Argentina currency, so we promised to do it again today.

The scenery is breath taking and when we did a check against our 2005 stop list, we learned that we had passed an Eriosyce (Pyrrhocactus) umadeave stop, and the Blossfeldia stop at Pulmamarca, so plenty of excuses to go back. It was nice to be able to ‘be in control’, to stop when you wanted, even if only to take that scenic picture that hit your imagination, and not to have to share a habitat with 16+ people trying to take shots of the same plants. Today we could spread out and not get into each other’s way. That is not to say that Guillermo Rivera’s tours are no good – they gave us a tremendous overview of Argentinean cacti and helped us to select what we wanted to see again and guided us to places to stay and some (Pulmamarca, hyper touristy) to avoid.

I filed today’s pictures under 5 stop numbers; four were on the Cuesta de Lipan, starting with S1047 at Quisquiri. Here we found Echinopsis (Trichocereus) atacamensis ssp pasacana (from now on referred to a T. pasacana), Opuntia sulphurea, another opuntiod (Tunilla soehrensii?) with dark green stigmas on yellow flowers, Echinopsis (Lobivia) ferox.

I don’t really remember the Tunilla sp. from 2005, other than that there were dead looking opuntioids everywhere. In growth and in flower, it is actually quite cute, forming fairy rings where the original plant has died but pads on the outside of the clump had rooted and carried on the family tradition. In some places there ring had become so large that there were several rings in one.

S1048 was at km 45, at the location recorded in my (& Ian Woolnough’s) 2005 stop list as the place where we found Eriosyce (Pyrrhocactus) umadeave. The GPS took us straight to a suitable place to pull over with the car (or, in 2005, a small coach) but the rather steep terrain did not look very promising. We had now broken through the cloud layer, were in brilliant sunshine in spectacular terrain under a bluer than blue sky with cute cotton wool clouds completing the scene.

The Tunilla was thick and impressive here. Cumulopuntia boliviana (Maihueniopsis according to Roberto Kiesling) was here but a number of individuals were different to what we were used to seeing in Chile. [They were in fact Tephrocactus nigirspinus (K.Sch) Bkbg] and we also spotted a red flowered bulb sp. that will have us looking through more books in time to come.

But where was E. umadeave? First Juan found the remains of one, then Cliff bits of another, which encouraged us to think that we were in the right place. I suggested that we got back to the flat and walk towards the road, back to where we parked the car. And that is where they grew, in their hundreds. Many old plants that had already flowered and were in fruit (unripe in the main) and also a healthy number of small young plants showing that there was regeneration in the population. The spination was bright white and fitted beautifully in with the scenery. My skin tingled with excitement as I took what I think are some of my best cactus pictures. Watch out Angie! But Cliff & Juan were also snapping away at the same subject, so it could be a close contest! As we walked around the site, another cactus was spotted: Maihueniopsis hypogaea  with huge fierce spines and one plant in flower.

It was time to make the amazing journey back down the Cuesta again, this time with Cliff driving and me hanging out of windows with cameras. On the way up, we had earmarked km 25 as a place to stop (S1049) and the plants that had caused this turned out to be Echinopsis (Lobivia) ferox, with lots of fruits and ripe seed. There was also a mystery plant that could be Neowerdermannia vorwerkii, but the hooked central spines leave some doubt in our minds.

S1050 was another stop earmarked during our way up, at km 22. Here the ‘new’ cactus on the scene was Parodia stuemeri, with flower remains, but no flowers today. Cumulopuntia boliviana, E. ferox, were still around, but the Tunilla here was T. tilcarensis with long grey/white spination rather than the yellowish tan coloured spines of T. soehrensia.

Around km 3 we entered Purmamarca and tried to pin down Ian’s GPS for Blossfeldia lilliputana. It seems that the rock that we visited in 2005 had fallen victim to expansion of the village, but we managed to find the track that was the unofficial Purmamarca bypass for Cactophiles and decided to look for similar rocks, made up of vertical layers of slate. Cliff pulled up at one such rock and soon had found two tiny heads. We clattered about for another 30 minutes and were about to give up when Juan found ‘the mother lode’ two cracks with around 20 heads, looking very dry and desiccated. Mission accomplished. We know feel that, given time, we would find these plants in many more of the rocks that matched the characteristics of this one. We also introduced Juan to his first Gymnocalycium, G. saglionis, before turning our heads to practical matters such as finding petrol stations and hotels that accept credit cards, food and drink.

We were advised that the nearest fuel was in Tilcara, where we used up the 27 pesos that I had left over from last January’s visit to Argentina, to buy just over 8 litres of fuel, more than enough to drive into town and find the hotel where we stayed in 2005 – now with wifi. Bocca Juniors were playing Colon in an important match and everyone was glued to the TV. We joined them in reception with our laptops (this was the only place where we could receive the wifi signal, so that soon I was in lengthy discussion with Angie on MSN Messenger.

TV news reports that tourism is down 30% over last year. That must be a national figure, because here, in the tourist reliant north west, it seems more lie 40-50% down with again large tour busses dominating the trade centred on a few well appointed large hotels. And of course, they seem to prefer hotels along the main road rather than squeeze themselves through the back streets.

We walked to the square to the restaurant / bar where we had a few beers + live music in 2005, and, for the benefit of Alain, can advise that they now do 3 types of Quillmes beer in 1 litre bottles: the ‘blanco’, (a type of lager), ‘rioja’ described as a ‘red lager’ that tastes like a nice ale and ‘negra’, desribed as a Stout, that tastes like Mackisson. Two litres of Negra and one of Rioja ensured that there was a race for the loo when we got back to our rooms – I won!

What a great day! And another promised tomorrow!! we hope to get to Iruya, a scenic town off the main road to La Quiaca that was not suitable in 2005 for a bus.

Saturday, 13 December 2008 – San Pedro de Atacama to Maimara

Well, we made it safely to our intended destination and I’m writing these notes from Hotel Posta del Sol in Maimara, where we also stayed in 2005. The owners tell us that Guillermo has stopped coming. We still like it, as we have no Argentina money and they were happy to accept US Dollars against a good rate.

The day was not without adventure. We wasted the usual half an hour to find the Copec in San Pedro, which appears to have moved and is now in the grounds of a new hotel / cabaña complex.

We made it to the Custom’s Control area and queued behind busses and trucks. The guy stamping our passports was on the phone to his girlfriend and mechanically stamped the papers. But it all went faster than anticipated.

I then retraced the tyre marks that we laid on 19 May 2001, when our clutch burnt out at around 4,000 m and we made the decent to San Pedro (at 2,400) rather faster than we had climbed up, coasting down without the breaking power of the engine. It became clearer how we had survived that ride, as the road was really quite straight and had a few slightly uphill stretches that would have slowed us down.

Still, I was pleased to have survived this journey then and to do it this time in (still) the best behaved pick up I know. Yes, I know, don’t tempt faith!

160 km and some 4 hours later we were taking pictures of Juan next to the signs welcoming him to Argentina. Next we played the queuing game again, but this time, when it came to our turn, the on the ball official spotted that our friend in San Pedro had used the ‘entry to Chile’ stamp, rather than the ‘exit’ stamp, even though he had taken our exit yellow slip. After a few minutes of discussion, with queues building, he decided that the easiest thing was to let us through, but not before warning us that we could have problems coming back into Chile later.

The rest of the day passed without excitement other than seeing impressive views and cacti. When we got back at the hotel, we confirmed our suspicion that in picking the only spot where we could park the car safely, we had repeated the Impressive Trichocereus pasacana stop from 2005. (S1046d). But for convenience, all pictures today are grouped under one stop number – S1046   San Pedro de Atacama to Maimara.

Back in the UK with a need to be more precise it’s tempting to provide more detailed stop data:

S1046a: The border control at San Pedro de Atacama

S1046b: the sign indicating the actual border

S1046c: ‘Pasacana Canyon’, Argentina, beautiful stands of Echinopsis (Trichocereus) atacamensis ssp pasacana

S1046d: Scenery off Ruta 9, south of Maimara

Friday 12 December 2008 – Iquique to San Pedro de Atacama

512 km since yesterday’s report finds us sitting in the sun at Hotel Pachamama in San Pedro de Atacama. This is the same place that we stayed at in 2001 and 2004, but that was full when we needed a room in 2006. Things have greatly improved here since. For a start it has wifi. All the ‘cabanas’ have been refurbished. For the benefit of Leo, John Ede, Marlon, Anne Adams and of course Alain (who is the only one of that bunch actually receiving this drivvel), we are now staying ‘next door’ at #2, instead of #1. Of course the other change is that the price has gone up from 19,000 pesos I believe in 2004, to 45,000 but breakfast is now included.

Did we see any cacti? Yes, at 100 km p h, some Cumulopuntia boliviana. Did we take any cactus pictures? No, not at 100 km p h! I’ll have to brush up my techniques now that Angie tells me of her success in the recent BCSS photo competition. Well done!

Tomorrow the border with Argentina opens at 8 a.m., at the same time that breakfast is served here, so we should be across by 9, says he hopefully. That is ‘through the Chilean control’, just outside San Pedro. Then there is about 140 km to the actual border and another huge distance to the Argentinean control.

Cheers

PK

Post script
For the benefit of those who have visited San Pedro de Atacama before, here is a brief analysis of the tourist industry today.

In 2001 we amused ourselves with coach loads of ‘back packers’, fresh off the plane in Santiago or Calama airports, bussed in and complaining that their Nike trainers were getting muddy in the puddles after a brief shower – their back packs still shrink wrapped in cling film. Electricity was provided by a local generator that switched off at 10:00 p.m. or 11:00 on Friday and Saturday nights. Our hotel gave out candles to provide us with light when the power was off.

At night time, the main streets were bustling with tourists, many restaurants would have no table space, unless you had booked and the place was buzzing. A recipe for success you’d say.

Wrong!

Today, it seems San Pedro has gone ‘corporate’. That is to say that large tour operators have bought or block booked the best appointed facilities. Visitors are bussed in by the tour operator, straight to their hotel, where the activities are arranged, dinner and evening entertainment are provided and where visitors are only ‘let out’ on a guided tour of the town – church, museum …. and really, there isn’t much else.

So the restaurants were embarrassingly empty, there was room at the first accommodation we called at and the restaurants were positively begging you to come in. Lots of empty seats and miserable faces.

And of course, Europe and the USA are meant to be in recession, so perhaps there are people who have decided to holiday closer to home.

What a difference with 2001, 2004 and 2006!!! And of course the town has tried to keep up with time, e.g. by putting up fancy and inappropriate electric street lights. The candles given out in 2001, when the power went off at 10 or 11 had already gone by 2004. Prices for food and drink are still 100% more than Arica, but, while this was fine when demand outstripped supply, it is no longer tenable in the current climate.

In time, San Pedro will become entirely ‘locked hotel’ tourism or a two tier system will evolve.

In the past, the excursions offered were a) the 4 a.m. departure breakfast trip to the geysers at El Tatio or b) the night time laser show at Valle de la Luna.  Now, it’s extreme sports, with day trips to the actual craters of the volcanoes that dominate the surrounding scenery, taking you with oxygen to 6,000 m plus! And ‘snow-boarding-on-sand’ on the ‘dunes’ in the  Valle de la Luna and extreme mountain biking on the outskirts of town.

In the past, exited young girls from X would meet hormonally challenged young lads from Y and have long philosophical discussions about the meaning of live, before getting down to what teenagers do. Now, a number of the pretty girls parading on the square may as well have the label ‘call girl’ tattooed on their fore heads.

As you can tell, grumpy old men, drinking a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon each at (moderate) altitude can still put the world to rights.

Oh yes, it’s an early start tomorrow!

End of rant.