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Archive for January 9, 2009

Friday 9 January 2009 – Up the Pisco Valley

No, ‘Up the Pisco Valley’ is not a variation on the question ‘Are you up for a piss up’, but after a few days of cactus-less photography it was time to put on our cactus explorer’s costumes and head into the hills in search of Peruvian cacti. And not a bad start for the first full day.

Let me start by explaining that the coastal strip here in Peru is quite different to that in Chile, where the Coastal Cordilleras often come almost straight out of the Ocean and can stretch for many km. inland, acting as a fog & cloud catcher, preventing humid air from reaching the plain farther inland. There is a similar ‘water shadow’ in the east, preventing moist air from the Atlantic Ocean & Brazilian rainforests to penetrate. The really dry bit in between these mountains is the true Atacama Desert.

In Peru, the coastal mountains are missing and there is a broad plain, around 30 – 50 km wide around Pisco, before you reach the Andean foothills. Travel up into these hills and eventually you reach the Altiplano, the high plains, that receive quite a bit of rainfall during their summer months of late December, January and February, as Angie & I discovered last year at Machu Picchu, that we saw, dressed in plastic rainwear, through clouds.  

The coastal plain is often a stretch of apparent sand dunes, without obvious vegetation as you speed through it on the Pan Am (here called Ruta 1S) at 100 km p h. But there are many more Quebradas with water flows from the Andes that cross the plain and empty into the Ocean. In Chile, many such streams dry up in the Atacama Desert, stopped by the coastal mountains from reaching the Ocean. Few get through, such as the R. Chopa, R. Limari, R. Elqui, R. Huasco and R. Copiapo.  It is these river systems that influence the diversity in cacti and other vegetation.

The Peruvian Quebradas create oases that have been exploited by human endeavours for centuries, particularly by the Incas, by building extensive irrigation systems, so that these valleys become the centre of agriculture. It was impressive to see the stark contrast between the lush green Pisco Valley and the barren mountains that rise up behind them, as though someone had drawn a line: ‘no vegetation beyond here!’

As we entered the mountains, there was just a narrow band of vegetation, due to the irrigation and used for agriculture. The road we followed was the main Pisco to Ayacucho road. At about km 56 we were beginning to ask ourselves: ‘So where are the cacti?’ as we expected tall (ceroid) cacti to appear on the hillsides, and if by magic, there they were, around the next bend. Tall thin stems that from a distance look as though someone had tied string around the stem, dividing them into (annual growth?) sections.

It took some time before we found a ‘parking place’, some where that allowed us to pull the car off the road and get access to the cacti without having to use mountaineering ropes etc. We succeeded around km 70 (S1158) and Wow!!!

On our gently sloping hill side we found the following cacti, in order of ease of identification:

  •  Neoraimondea arequipensis ssp roseiflora
    What a strange plant, with areoles (the bits where the spines grow, for the non cactophile audience) that carry on growing. They give the impression of being not too tall, but stems get to 2 m (7 ft) and the many stems that offset from the base form a giant from close up.
    Got some nice pictures against a ‘blue-with-white-fluffy-clouds’ sky.

  • Armatocereus procerus
    This is the tall thing with growth sections on the thin upright stems. They get to 3 m (10ft) tall and sway alarmingly in the wind.

  • Melocactus peruviana
    There were a number of dead globular plants and some young, live seedlings around and once we found a mature plant, alive and with cephalium, the ID was easy, as there is only one Melocactus sp. from this part of Peru.

  • Cleistocactus hystrix (syn. Loxanthocereus peculiaris)
    At least that is the name that no less a person than Graham Charles suggests when he lists plants from a stop just a km or so up the road. The stems crawl along the rocky slopes (upwards) and have cleistogamous flowers, so ….

  • Haageocereus acranthus
    Easily confused with stems of Cleistocactus, but flower and seed pods differ – much more robust than for Cleistocactus and flowers open (not that we saw any in flower, but judging by the flower remains) and fruits that we saw – no ripe seed, before you ask.

Haageocereus decumbens = syn. H. australis and Mila caespitosa are also reported from around here, but did our cameras see them? Some plants do look like Mila, but may just be young Haageocereus or Cleistocactus. Who knows.

We moved on to Huaytara and were attracted by the twin towers of its church to take a look around (S1159) the village. There were Agave (A. americana?) and Trichocereus around, but was the latter an escaped cultivated plant or a natural species?

We had seen the clouds come in from the east and as we reached the Mirador that overlooked the town and the Valley that we had driven through, the first drops of rain started to fall. Just a quick shower? No! We had lunch for a change, fried chicken with a pile of rice and chips. But it still dripped down as we got back into the car. We had details of Matucana heynei growing around here, some 30 km up the road, but we had driven straight into a cloud that made it difficult to see the line down the middle of the road, let alone cacti growing along the side of it.

We climbed another 500 m but were still in thick cloud, so decided to turn back. We made a few more brief stops (grouped under S1160) for plants seen from the road but out of reach on the hills. It seemed that there was another Armatocereus here, not thin and upright, but shrub-like with thicker stems. And another plant, that is probably another Cleistocactus, or a Weberbauerocereus (W. rauhii), we’ll need to check out a few Peru experts when we get back.

And I know that it sounds unbelievable, but last night we failed to drink our first Pisco Sour in Pisco, Peru. We found a small back street restaurant, aimed at local regulars rather than passing tourists. We managed to obtain two cervezas but even if they had the concoction, it just didn’t seem right to lord it over these people coming to terms with two major earth quakes in two years. The devastation, particularly from the 2007 one that destroyed the cathedral with many people inside killed, is still very evident.

This time we had dinner in a more upmarket restaurant and it was Friday night, so not an issue. We had earlier driven by the impressive sign of Hospital Pisco, where presumably you go to get the stuff via a drip, intravenously. Anyway, we did the right thing, just had a glass each, but were disappointed by the variation on a straight fruit juice that seemed to lack alcohol. A couple of Cusquenia Negra beers made up for the disappointment. Perhaps it was just the bar man’s off night, we’ll have to make another test sample in days to come before pronouncing judgement on the Chile / Peru Pisco war, but at the moment Chile is well ahead!