So yesterday was not the most perfect day so far in terms of cactus exploration, but today we made up for it.
As there was nothing to do, we had had an early night so did not mind too much being woken by electric drills and saws of the folk building the next floor of the hotel, starting at around 6 a.m. We had looked at Google Earth (in cache mode, as there was no internet connection) and decided to follow the main road to Santa Rosa and from there take the turn off to the north, to Nunoa and Macusani (105 km away).
Just before Santa Rosa, we made the first stop of the day (S1176) where we found Austrocylindropuntia floccosa and Echinopsis (Lobivia) maximilliana (or was it L. pentlandii?). We only found one plant in flower, but quite a few in fruit (although not much was collected) and Cliff tells me that Lobivia with that bicoloured flower goes under the name E. maximilliana in the UK. There was also a cute (honestly) white to light pink flowered Oxalisand various other wild flowers that could distract from the cacti on future talks. How often have you been asked for the ID of a plant behind or to the side of that precious cactus that took days to find? As though speakers are supposed to be expert botanists familiar with every plant they see or allow into a photograph.
We drove into Santa Rosa, as I was still trying to find the tourist stop we made along the Cusco to Puno road that we made last year, where Angie & I photographed the various South American cameloids and were tempted by the products produced from their wool. Didn’t seem to be this village either. I’m sure that Angie will chime in with the answer.
Soon after leaving the village of Santa Rosa, we found the (variable quality) track to Macusani. And minutes later there appeared the first signs of Puya raimondii (S1177). For the uninitiated, this is the largest Bromeliad (Pineapple Family) in the world, taking some 150 years to flower, reaching heights in excess of 3 m; very imposing plants. These were four ‘youngsters’, growing on a hill side, that had not yet started to form their inflorescence. When you start looking for a plant that is said to be rare, but distributed over a significant area in both Peru and Bolivia, you never know what to expect. I have vague memories from last year when Angie & I were on a coach without opportunities to stop, of being woken up with Angie asking ‘What is that?’ pointing at a large P. raimondiiin flower silhouetted in the distance in a side valley, but I have no idea where that was. So how rare are they when we trip over them without trying?
Once the plant has flowered, it dies (taking a few years to disappear altogether) and it seems that plants in small local populations are all of a similar age, so that they all reach flowering age at the same time and then die, so that when years later, people check out the location, they come back disappointed.
S1178 was prompted by me shouting ‘Stop’ as I had spotted a plant in flower by the side of the road that we had passed too quickly to ID – might have been a cactus!. It wasn’t, but it was quite an interesting thistle like plant with un-thistle like flowers. As we had stopped anyway we had a look among the rocks higher up and sure enough found more E. maximilliana. And large ‘puff-ball’ fungi; not what you tend to expect along (generally) drought loving cacti. And there was a A.floccosa but without hair – still, happens in humans too. We did added another Peperomia sp. location to the potential beer voucher scheme with the University of Gent. I have no idea of the taxonomy and classification of these plants but have a few friends and contacts that seem to dote on these plants, so we’ll take their picture where ever we see them and hope that they can enlighten us later with names.
Some 25 km from our main road turn off, just before reaching Nunoa we spotted a Puya raimondii hillside. (S1179). Or at least, that is what they seemed to be – the largest Bromeliads that I had ever seen, but how many other species exist that are large but not as large as P. raimondii? There were a few individuals with inflorescence, looking impressively big, but as they seemed ‘quite common’, we decided to wait until we’d pass some growing next to the road, rather than walk up the hill here. Wrong! These were the last we were to see, even though we would later pass a recorded population near San Anton – presumably the plants had all died after flowering.
We arrived at the ‘new-town’ village of Nunoa, built as a government funded project between 2003 and 2006. But what then? They had made an impressive dual carriage road into town with three giant llama statues at the entrance. They had paid less attention to the sign post and quality of the road out of the village, but we eventually found our way out.
Near Nunoa was another funded project, (S1180) an ecological reserve to protect three species of Polylepis tree, about which we know nothing – another Google search might tell us more later. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polylepisand a synopsis below)*.
Between the shrubs and low trees were more Echinopsis (Lobivia)and the pink rock also seemed to have a commercial potential as it seemed to be quarried in small quantities.
S1181was at a small lake where we took pictures of flamingos.
S1182 and S1183 were both stops to take pictures of the amazing mounds of Opuntia / Tephrocactus (or Austrocylindropuntia, the name used in the NCL) malayanus, lagopus and floccosa. The exact taxonomy is less important – they are extremely photogenic plants, enhanced by their setting. We had called Cumulopuntia boliviana‘sleeping sheep’; well, these were sleeping llamas! And just to prove the point, we took pictures of them all together for a ‘How many of each’ question for a future quiz.
We arrived safely in Macusani, which turned out to be much larger than expected, presumably due to the massive prison that it is host to. This place is in the middle of nowhere, with hardly a village on the map between it and the Brazilian border, hundreds of miles to the north.
It was still early – about 2:30 and this place is high up at 4,800 m and while we were not suffering from altitude sickness, it does tire you quickly, so we decided that we could make it back to Juliaca in daylight – just. We did, but did not find the Puya raimondii that we were supposed to have seen south of San Anton, probably because there were three spectacular thunderstorms that we were zig zagging between, so that trying to spot large Bromeliads against a dark hillside was impossible.
I remembered Juliaca from last year as a nightmare city for traffic with no one observing any particular rules. Well, it is worse when driving your own car (Well done Cliff!) with no idea of where you are going and relying on none existent direction signs.
We finally came across a petrol station and asked directions. We were on the road out of town to Arequipa! That was our goal for a few days time! So we might as well go on. By now it was dark and we don’t like driving in the dark in South America, but needs must. Driving through the small village of Cabanillos, not on my maps, we I saw a sign for Hostal.
Yes, they had a doble, but with shared bathroom. Usually not a problem, but both Cliff & I were having tummy problems and the other guests seemed to have set up home in the bathroom! We survived. More later…..
* Polylepis is a genus of trees and shrubs restricted to the Andes of South America. The genus belongs to the Rosaceae family and to the tribe Sanguisorbeae. It is wind-pollinated and can be recognized by its pinnate leaves and a multi-layered, papery bark, the latter feature also prompting its scientific name, a combination of Greek and Latin meaning “many-scales”. There are 15-30 recognised species.
The Polylepis species frequently grows at or above the natural tree line in the Andes. Polylepis tarapacana is especially remarkable for being the woody plant occurring at the highest elevations worldwide. It forms monotypic stands at 3,800 – 4,600 m.a.s.l. (12,000-15,000 feet above sea level), far above the natural tree line which is typically between 3,200-3,500 m.a.s.l (10,000-11,000 feet above sea level). These Polylepis forests are separated by the true tree line of the forests of the humid yungas or dry Interandean valleys by shrubs or grasses of the puna.
Controversy exists between tropical ecologists whether its currently fragmented distribution is natural or the result of human land-use. Some scientists believe that much of the open grasslands of the Andean altiplano that currently separate isolated Polylepis forests were in fact one continuous forests before early native Andean peoples cleared or burned the ancient forests.
Polylepis forests exist primarily as small, widely isolated fragments, which are being rapidly depleted by rural communities. Remaining Polylepis forests are used for firewood and building material and provide protection against erosion and habitats for endangered animals. In some countries, conservation and reforestation measures are underway.