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Archive for March, 2009

Friday 20 March 2009 – Creel to La Junta

First an update to yesterday’s missive: The Echeveria found at S1363 was Echeveria chihuahuensis.

Today’s target was the waterfall at Basaseachi in the north west of Chihuahua with a stop on the way to attempt to find Mammillaria saboa. We had a GPS location on the Cta. de los Peyotes, so I was quite optimistic that we would find the plants. That soon changed when I saw my first cactus here (S1366), Echinocereus polyancistrus, at least that is the name reported from this general area. The plant was so dry that it was difficult to recognise. The exceptions were two Coryphanta sp. plants found by Eunice that looked almost nursery grown, in excellent shape. We were on the exact GPS coordinates and searched meticulously in a 15 m. diameter circle around it. No saboas. I did record Opuntia sp. as well. We decided that we could waste hours here without finding the plants and that I’d have to come back at a time that the plants might be in flower. Looking at the location data it turned out that the eagle eyed mam. spotter recorded his find on 12 March! So also in the dry.

S1367 was just a quick leg stretch along MEX 16 with only an Opuntia sp (boring) spotted.

S1368 was our target, Basaseachi. The walk to the falls took us through exceptional scenery. I have said it numerous times on this trip – the scenery was worth coming for, even if we did not see any cacti or other succulent plants. The bonus was again that we did: A couple of Agave sp. (one probably A. filifera), Echinocereus sp. (E. scheeri or E. polyancistrus) and a Sedum sp.

Cliff had somehow become detached from the party and in the morning had not been feeling his best – overtired due to lack of sleep. Eunice and Alain asked if we should go back to look for him, but Cliff had enjoyed wandering off in different directions in the past – no need to walk in each other’s footsteps and as we got lower to the floor of the canyon the temperature increased quite noticeably. The distances sign posted to the various view points seemed very optimistic and I began to get worried that something had happened to him and even if he had just returned to the car for a rest, we would not be able to get in as we had the keys. I decided to march back with the keys, arriving some 25 minutes ahead of Alain & Eunice. I need not have worried, Cliff came wandering from behind some rocks, had followed some different trails and had returned to the car at various intervals. Our next concern was where to sleep. The accommodation in Basaseachi itself seemed half built and did not appeal.

We decided to make a run for it to La Junta – a larger town some 130 km away. We arrived in the dark, but found a very reasonable hotel that even had the benefit of wifi so that I can send out today’s missive on time.

Thursday, 19 March 2009 – south of Creel

As we drove from yesterday’s last stop into Creel we passed a couple of signs to water falls that we decided to visit today. They always make a good scenic subject and so far we had always found cacti and other succulents near by.

And so we  took the turning east off MEX 25 to the Cascade de Cusarare except we should have turned west. Never mind. We drove through the village and sneaked photographs of the Tarahumara people, women washing clothes in the river, men ploughing fields with a horse and simple plough. We stopped (S1362) along the stream and took a look on the rocks on either side of the now almost dry river. No cacti or other succulents found.

S1363 was the stretch from MEX 25 to the west where we parked the car in a flat area with waste bins for tourists but again no one in sight.  Half way along this track Eunice spotted Echinocereus scheeri, a small plant growing in moss on one of the huge boulders along the side of the road. Plants were  covered in pine needles and leaf litter from the deciduous trees and each needed a tidy up before I took their picture – just to give Angie some competition in a future cactus photo contest. I took some ‘before clean up’ pictures as well to show plants in their natural state. This boulder also had Echeveria chihuahuensis growing on it. So far Echeveria have been hiding from us.

Before we knew it, we were back in Creel. It was only 12:30 – what next? We decided to go to Divisadera, regarded by many as the best spot on the Copper Canyon railway line. It promised to offer some excellent views in the area and did not disappoint. (S1364 – no cacti or other succulents). We took a look at the station and it seemed that a train was due to arrive – apparently the timetables for this train are for guidance only. Sure enough, just as we had taken up positions for some good shots, its loud whistle announced its imminent arrival. This is one of the few places on the line where there is a double track so that the train from Chihuahua could pass the train from Los Mochis. Alain has worked for the Belgian Railways for 30 years and realised that we were on a cactus & succulent plant trip, but his colleagues were clearly expecting him to have travelled on this famous train. Here was the opportunity!  Cliff owned up to being a train spotter as well as a plane spotter and happily joined him, while I took video clips of them boarding the train. The other train, the one from Chihuahua also arrived and nearly ran Cliff down as he crossed the track to join his train.

Eunice and I looked round the Tamahumara souvenir seller’s market and then decided to drive on towards Urique, realising that we’d never get there, as the road turned from hard top to dirt and our speed reduced accordingly.

Not a bad day at all. Tomorrow we’ll look for more waterfalls and their associated cacti & succulent plant flora.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009 – Guachochi to Creel

It was only 153 km from Guachochi to Creel, so there was plenty of time for a side trip, to the Barranca de Sinforosa. This is quoted as a major tourist attraction as it is the deepest Canyon on the North American Continent, with the floor 1,830 m (6,000 ft) below the rim.  For  such a potentially important attraction there were surprisingly few signs and out of town, the road soon turned into a poor dirt track. After some lucky guesses, we finally arrived at a gate with a sign to say the we had arrived, or rather, that we were now entering private land and had to pay admission to proceed with our car. The admission was the princely sum of 10 peso each, a little more than 70 pence (UK) or 80 cents (US) depending on how the markets have been behaving recently. Just follow the trail, we were told in Spanish. We did.

About 1 km / mile along the track we arrived at a car park, deserted, from where we could walk to a view point. (S1358). No shops, info stands, ice cream salesmen etc. just us and silence. As we walked to the edge of the mirador a scene unfolded that was absolutely amazing. Cliff and I have each visited the Grand Canyon and had been disappointed because the vista was just too large to absorb, too remote. This was much better. The only way to convey the impressiveness of this scenery is to make you wait for pictures and film clips when I get home. For readers in the USA, just ask Eunice to do a presentation of her Mexico 2009 trip. No, I’m not on commission. Plants photographed included Agave sp. (maximilliana?), Dasylirion wheeleri, Opuntia sp. (boring).

After we had taken our pictures and movie clips, we considered the track to the waterfall, the Cascade de Rosalinda – 4×4 WD vehicles only, it said. 4 km away. Cliff took over the steering wheel as my back is still touchy and a sudden jolt might have caused a jar that makes controlling a car an extra unnecessary challenge. Good choice, as for Chile travellers, this track equalled those up the Cerro Perales near Taltal or ‘Horror Hill’ near Caldera. We made it to a small car park (S1359) (also deserted) with a suspension foot bridge hanging over a narrow canyon with a 100 ft drop offering a view of the waterfall. This could be spectacular in the rainy season, but that is in Summer, so we just had a small trickle to admire. I crossed the bridge twice, in both directions while the others went plant hunting upstream. Having moved back some more ‘barriers of fear’ – a few of the planks of the bridge were missing, others were broken and if you moved too fast, the bridge started swinging – I joined in with the plant hunt. Cliff and Alain had already found a rock with cacti: Opuntia sp. (boring), Echinocereus scheerii and Mammillaria (Mammillopsis) senilis, in flower! This was a great find and while the others carried on their plant hunt, I climbed over this rock and took pictures of the (few) plants there from every conceivable angle. It turned out that I should have gone with them as they found more M. senilis, a multi headed plant with several flowers and apparently visited by butterflies. I haven’t seen the pictures yet, but I bet that they are out of this world!

It was about 13:00 when we left, still with some 170 km to drive to Creel. The MEX 25 (shown as MEX 23 on our maps) was a very good tarmac road with very few cars, so the only thing to slow us down were the spectacular views that appeared around every other corner. These pictures and a few taken at a couple of brief leg stretch stops are recorded as S1360 and included Agave sp. (shrevei ssp. magna ?) and A. filifera ssp. multifilifera (= A. leopoldii).

S1361 was at km 143, although the 4 was missing from the sign, but it was still possible to see where the stencil had been. This was a location suggested by Werner Rischer’s Chihuahua book as a location for Echinocereus scheerii and it did not take long, walking up a side track, before we had found the plants. As at the waterfall, these rocks were covered with patches of moss and it seemed that these locations were favoured by cacti and other succulents such as Echeveria sp. (E. craigiana?), tiny plants growing between the moss and the leaf litter that had been caught by them. There were a number of young seedlings from both plants here. Unfortunately the light between the hills was now too poor for photography, so time to push on.

Another excellent day plant and scenery wise.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009 – Hidalgo del Parral to Guachochi

Eunice had asked if we could drive in the opposite direction to where we would spend the night, so that we could see Agave flexispina, about 30 km south of Hidalgo del Parral on MEX 45. As we have tended to find interesting cacti where ever we have looked for Agave, we raised no objections. As we approached the area where Gentry reported these plants some 50 years ago, things did not look too good. We had developed the art of Agave stalking, and there were no stalks to be seen.

We took a turning to the Presa Santa Rosalia, a water reserve. The scenery was as illustrated in Gentry’s book: open grassland hills, but without the Agave. We went on to the water’s edge of the Presa, (S1350) and a good job too. We just went through the motions of looking for plants when really we felt that there were none to be found and BINGO, a globular cactus. But what was it? I thought for  moment that I was back in Argentina, as this cactus had naked buds and looked very much like a Gymnocalycium. After consulting my colleagues, we narrowed the choice down to Coryphantha or Thelocactus – do Thelocactus have a grove along part of their tubercles? And then the naked buds clinched it: Thelocactus bicolor ssp heterochromus – the form known as ‘var. pottsii’.  And then another cactus: Mammillaria sp. (heyderi?), flat as a pancake. And of course there were the usual selection of Cylindropuntia and Opuntia (one each). But no Agave.

Very pleased with our cactus stop, but disappointed that we had not found the Agave, we drove back and made a brief stop before reaching MEX 45 (S1351) where I thought that I had seen some cacti earlier. The Opuntias here had enormous pads – Alain measured a couple at 40 cm diameter. I heard a crunchy sound underfoot and found that I had stepped on a dead globular cactus with very distinct spines – Echinocactus (Homocephala) texensis. We carried on looking, following the principle that if you find one, there have to be others, but to no avail. Just one more Mammillaria sp. (heyderi?).

Still on the track back to MEX 45 we stopped to let Cliff close a cattle gate behind us. (S1352). As I looked out of the window, I could not believe my eyes. There, underneath the barbed wire fence, stood a small Agave! Agave flexispina! And as others looked for more plants, I spotted another from the car, also under the wire. Alain took a look at the other side of the road and there he found a hillside full of the plants! They were on a gently down ward slope that took them out of our field of vision. Any flower stalks had been cut down, as though in an attempt to conceal the plants. No wonder that we had not seen them on our way to the Reservoir.

Eunice asked if we could drive the few miles farther south to Gentry’s reported location (S1353) where we found a couple of plants right alongside the road. While taking their picture, Eunice shouted: ‘What is this?’ The plant next to Agave flexispina was Echinocereus pectinatus, a large and venerable plant. Again, where there is one ……. And so we found a dozen or so more, all ages, some in bud. And a few specimens of Thelocatus bicolor ssp heterochromus ‘var. pottsii’ and just a couple more Mammillaria sp. (heyderi?).

We found our way back into H.d. Parral and out again, this time on MEX 24 heading west. After a while this road seemed to become MEX 432 before turning into the MEX 23. We had left he flat plains that were characteristic of the south east of H.d. Parral and were back into the Sierra Madre Occidentalis with wonderful scenery. S1354 was a quick stop at km 21, La Piedra, for a couple of large Agave parryi along the side of the road.

S1355 was for scenery shots taken from the car. and S1356 was a ‘leg stretch’ stop where I spotted some Echinocereus pectinatus growing out of the rocks along the side of the road and Fouquieria splendens and Opuntia sp. on the rocks above the road. Alain and Cliff had taken the opposite side of the road and were outside earshot. On their return they reported E. sp. (enneacanthus?), E. pectinatus,  Mammillaria sp. (heyderi?), M. sp. #2 (grusonii?) and T. bicolor ssp heterochromus.

We pulled over again farther along the road (S1357) and found huge Agave parryi. Alain had pulled up on a track that finished at a gate. While we were photographing Agave’s, a car pulled up behind him. We could see some discussion going on, the gate being opened and the other car and ours driving in. We walked over, as there were A. parryi here to be photographed inside the barbed wire fence. The other car was driven by a lady a few years older than we are, plus an elderly gentleman, her father. She invited us to drive along the track to her modest home (her words – and true) where we parked the car and followed her on foot down a track that ended in a mirador with a wonderful view below us into a canyon. We believe that they were members of the local Indian tribe. She (Maria Elena) explained that they had not much money, but that their farm went on for many kilometres – it was probably the size of Luxembourg! In England, few people could afford a house with a view like that and own the land that we could see and beyond. Wealth is a relative thing. She explained that she and her parents had lived here all their lives. There were no cacti here, but some on the other side of the canyon, too far for us to explore in the time before sunset.

Another great day and we arrived tired and satisfied in Guachochi, from where we will drive tomorrow through the Barranca del Cobre – Copper Canyon, to Creel.

Monday, 16 March 2009 – Gomez Palacio to Hidalgo del Parral, Chichuahua

Today we said goodbye to Durango, which had restored our faith in Mexico as a country to see cacti. We moved on to Chihuahua, yet another time zone, so that we gained / lost (which ever way you want to look at it) an hour.

One thing we have found is that Mexico is big, Real BIG! There is a farm in Chihuahua that has an area equivalent to the sum of the area of Belgium, Denmark, Holland and Switzerland! I’m sure that they could have squeezed in Luxemburg and Liechtenstein as well if they had tried or knew about those countries as well.

Our first stop of the day was an impromptu leg stretch, still in Durango. If it had been up to me I would have waited a few minutes as the hills seemed to be approaching MEX 49 (this was the ‘Libre’ – free road instead of the quite expensive Cuota = toll road), but general consensus was that coffee drunk at breakfast needed to be set free.  Even this apparently flat uninteresting waste land along the road was a cactus gold mine.  S1347 at km 63 on MEX 49 offered a clumping Coryphantha sp. (C. werdermannii ? tight spination in the dry, so difficult to any tubercle grooves), Cylindropuntia sp (2), Echinocactus horizonthalonius, (looking very similar to Thelocactus bicolor ssp heterochromus or was it?), Echinocereus enneacanthus (it seems that the plants here go by the name ‘variety dubius’ – honest!), Ferocactus hamathacanthus – again, large clumps that would have been impressive if they were less overgrown by grass and weeds, Fouquieria splendens (standard red flowers),  Mammillaria sp. (M. grusonii?), Opuntia sp. (3) and Sclerocactus uncinatus ssp wrightii.

We had earmarked a stop (S1348) known as the Microondas Conejos (the Conejos Microwave tower).  It seems to be a popular place among cactophiles, probably because this had been recorded as a Charlie Glass stop in 1974. We saw all the taxa reported for S1347 plus Agave lechuguilla, A. scabra, Echinomastus unguispinus (since seeing my first Echinomastus in habitat I have been doing a bit of on-line back ground reading and it seems that this taxon has a list of synonys as long as your arm, that include E. durangensis and E. mapimiensis), Mammillaria lasiacantha (again just a single snow white plant) M. pottsii (large clumps) and Thelocactus bicolor. No wonder that this is such a popular location. The views are not bad either! 

Eunice had been keen to go to the Zona del Silencio, a nature reserve that is in the corner of three states: Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango. It is a huge reserve and we made it to the visitor’s centre, 7 km from the main road, where we were the only visitors and the live-on-site caretaker had to open up and give us a presentation in fluent Spanish – not a problem for him, a bit of a challenge for us, although I was surprised how much I could understand. Try this for size:

http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zona_del_Silencio

The main centre, where meteorites are reported to have fallen, was another good hour’s drive away on average dirt. It was very hot and there was no guarantee of seeing cacti – or at least anything that we could not see here, so one the 3:1 decision rule, we headed back to MEX 49. We had stopped on the way into the reserve, at the visitors centre and again on a track off the main track between the entrance and the centre. As all the plants seen were the same, they are all recorded under one stop number – S1349. We saw: Cylindropuntia sp (kleinei?) Echinocactus horizonthalonius, Echinocereus enneacanthus ssp dubius, (several in flower), Echinomastus unguinispinus, Ferocactus hamatacanthus (really very common here and very large), Fouquieria splendens, Opuntia sp (3), one of which may be Opuntia microdasys ssp rufida or the other way round.

It was time to leave Durango and enter the last state on our Mexican sojourn, Chihuahua. So far we have only seen plain, flat cultivated land and we used the toll road to get here, but tomorrow we’ll have more time – I hope!

Sunday, 15 March 2009 – North west of Gomez Palacio

Wrong! We did not go back to S1342. I should have mentioned though that the Fouquieria splendens at S1342 had white rather than red flowers – something that Ian had told me to look out for after an Alan Phipps talk in Exeter.

But we had such a good time these last two days that we decided to have another night at Gomez Palacio and spent the day driving north, out of the town on MEX 40 until the town of Bermejillo where we turned left (west) on to MEX 30. After a few miles,  was our first stop, S1343, across the road from the Bermejillo cemetery. This was the other Ariocarpus intermediate location that we had in the database, spirits were high when we got to the place. It was fenced off and along Mex 30, a fairly main road, but quiet on a Sunday morning. There was a gently sloping area alongside a fairly steep hillside and Alain, Cliff and I explored both, while Eunice felt uncomfortable about going on to private land and stayed near the car. We all felt that the area was ‘rightish’ for Ariocarpus (limestone rock and gently sloping silt like areas) but that the time was wrong – at home, Arios tend to be dormant until late summer (August – September) and flower in October. Whether the theory was right or not, we failed to find any Arios but did find Agave, Yucca and Opuntia sps. plus Echinocereus sp. #1 (enneacanthus?) and E. sp. #2 (stramineus?), Escobaria sp., Mammillaria sp. (heyderi? or meiacantha?), M. pottsii, Sclerocactus uncinatus and Thelocactus bicolor, so not a bad stop.

S1344 was along MEX 13 at km 13. No fences! We found all the same plants as at S1343, plus Ferocactus hamatacanthus – including a huge specimen made up of a number of heads that measured 170 cm from one end to the other – we have the pictures to prove it! E. enneacanthus (?) was here forming large clumps with some flowers and one of the Opuntia sp. was also flowering in abundance. Were there steroids in the soil here?

We decided to carry on up MEX 30 and were treated to a military security stop – quite intimidating as all soldiers wore facemasks, so that any ‘baddies’ could not recognise them and single them out later, and carried larger than life assault rifles and machine guns. Their commander spoke fairly good English and was keen to re-assure us that there was no problem, just a routine check and asked us if we had experienced any problems in Mexico, plus added that tourists still go to countries like Israel where there is much more violence. We reassured him that we had found Mexico great, friendly and welcoming. Why wouldn’t we? We had not had any bad experiences plus they had the guns!

We drove on to km 50, (S1345) where the hills (Sierra del Rancho Espiritu Santo)more or less met the road. We had become spoilt and found many of the cacti and succulents before – the list is long and those who are interested will get the full plant list once it is ready on my return to the UK.

The last stop of the day (S1346) was a ‘tourist stop’ and why not! A few km east of Mapimi is the Puente Colgante de Ojuela. Rather than me explaining all about it, read for yourself (in Spanish!) and look at the pictures at:

  http://www.torreon.gob.mx/laciudad/turismo/alrededores/ojuela.php

Here we saw Yucca sp #1 & 2 but were distracted by the 318 m long bridge hanging over a 98 m deep canyon, and by young folks (God that sounds nas though I’m getting old), making the return journey by hanging from a pulley attached to a cable across the canyon. We thought about having a go as well, but were happy to see that the queues were far too long.

We had a reasonably early night back, arriving at the hotel before dark.

Saturday 14 March 2009 – South west of Gomez Palacio

I’m starting today’s Diary while waiting to go to breakfast. Choosing where to go today (and what to miss as a result) is a nice but almost stressful experience, particularly when you need to consider the wants and needs of fellow travellers. To solve the issue I have promised myself a return visit, pencilled in on my ‘wish list of places to see (again)’, when it seems a good idea to take at least a month,  based for example in Torreon, and spend a week each on the 4 quarters of the compass. Not sure if it will ever happen, but at least it makes me feel better about the plant stops that we just can not fit in this time.

When we left, after breakfast, we were surprised to find that it had rained during the night, making the dust covered car look a real mess. As we drove out of Gomez Palacio (= GP), we were even more surprised to find that it was raining again! About an hour later, as we approached the turn off the main Mex 40, we were not only surprised but also a bit worried, that it was still raining, but relieved to see bits of blue sky between the clouds.

We had agreed on just 3 locations today: Eunice had requested a stop to see Agave victoriae-reginae (‘A. vicky’) that had been reported from near the lake were we made our last stop yesterday and Alain had requested two stops, very close together, along Mex 34, in the hope that we’d find Echinomastus durangensis and Leuchtenbergia principes.

We had good data for all these stops and very happy with what we had found the previous day in this area, so confident that we’d find plants of interest.

Imagine our surprise when the data for ‘A. vicky’ turned out to be less then 100 m from yesterday’s S1337. Today, after the rain, and now in the morning sun, the plants looked very refreshed. I’m using a new Stop number, S1339, as my stop numbers reflect both location and time (when I remember). We knew that we had to look in different places for ‘Vicky – not in front of our boots, but high on the edges of the rock face, just like A. impressa earlier in Sinaloa. And so, zoom lenses were set on the max zoom range and binoculars were trained on the rock face above us and sure enough, I spotted five impossible to get to plants within five minutes. But with Eunice’s 400 mm zoom lens, on tripod. I was able to fill the frame with each plant. They tended to be silhouetted against the sky, but were clear enough to see. We each went our own way to see if we could find plants closer to our lenses (we did, only some 5 m (15 ft) away.)  So the species list for S1339 is the same as yesterday’s S1337 plus Agave victoriae reginae and also plus Mammillaria pottsii that Cliff found, but I did not.

While looking like a professional photographer, in the road, with my camera on Eunice’s tripod and her 400 mm lens on my camera, an elderly Mexican came along on his bicycle. He got off for a chat, until he discovered that I spoke no English. He turned out to be a ‘Volunteer vigilante’ – a neighbourhood watch man, and suggested politely that our car would be better parked 10 m. along the road. In my best Spenglish (which is becoming more like Spanglish), I explained that we were taking pictures of plants and that my friends – including Eunice with the car keys, were on the hillside. He then started talking about Indians and I started losing the plot (again) until he asked me to follow him, to the base of the cliff where he showed me some petroglyphs, that he said were ‘very old’. Keen to compete with Juan who found petroglyphs in San Ramon. Eunice joined us and agreed to act as decoy for our Mexican friend while I carried on with the photography. As a result we have a set of very interesting plant and other points of interest pictures for this stop.

S1340 was a simple stop because Alain spotted a large clump of Echinocereus sp. in flower. Naming the plant was the tricky bit – I know I have it at home in my collection, but I can’t read the label until April. Echinocerei reported from here include E. enneacanthus, but it is not like the E. enneacanthus that we used to grow at Holly Gate Cactus Nursery by that name, so it’s a case of going back to first principles (checking out original descriptions) to see if that name fits what we saw.

S1341 was a location from the database near Nazas on Mex 34, for Echinomastus durangensis and we were not disappointed, finding large and small specimens and even some plants in flower and a tiny amount of seed, not enough to share I’m afraid. The species list was impressive: Various Agave, Yucca and Opuntia sp – I’ll spare you the details, Coryphantha sp., Echinocereus sp. (the name E. stramineus keeps cropping up, but plants look very similar to E. engelmannii that I have seen in habitat elsewhere, more so than like the E. stramineus that we grow in the UK. The taxon is said to have the largest flowers of any Echinocereus. The ones in my collection certainly do. In habitat we were too early for flowers.

S1342 was another location from the database, just 7 km up the road, this time for Leuchtenbergia principes. The shadows were getting long, so it became more difficult to find cacti but we found one plant at the exact coordinates in the database – usually such coordinates are from the place that the Cactus Explorer parked his car, and you have to use your guile and experience to see where the plants might be.  All the other plants from S1341 were here too. Once we got back at the hotel, we had a nasty sense of deja vu, as it turned out that S1342 should also have shown us Ariocarpus intermedius! Arrrrgggghhhh!

So guess where we are going tomorrow!?