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Archive for February, 2011

Monday, 28 February, 2011 – around Monterrey

Last night we checked that Argentinean Malbec (Norton Reserva) tastes as nice in Mexico as it does in Mendoza. I think that it does, but we have brought along some more, to get a second and third opinion in nights to come. As a result, I was rather slow to get going this morning.

We went to the Cascada Cola de Caballo (the Horsetail Waterfalls) from where Mammilaria plumosa had been reported. A bit farther on, M. glassii was said to grow. With SatNav systems and GPS systems loaded we eventually got on the road for a nice drive on MEX 57 south. We left the Highway at the well signposted exit to this significant tourist attraction and found ourselves on Ruta 20, a reasonable quality tarmac (by Wiltshire, UK standards) but one bit was being repaired – looked like a bad flood damage – and we had to take a very adventurous detour for a couple of km.

We reached the centre fro the waterfalls, paid our 20 Pesos (£1) for the car park – I think we were the only visitors there and were greeted warmly by the stall holders of the various tourist focussed material for sale. It seemed that each vendor used the same wholesaler as all stalls offered the same good. They had worked hard to put down a good path, fenced off to satisfy Health & Safety no doubt, so that it became clear that we were unlikely to find Mammillaria plumosa here. We did however spot some Selenicereus sp. growing on a rock and a epiphytic Opuntia hanging from a tree. Nice waterfall though and nice big swallow tail butterflies. (S2264)

After the waterfall we decided to carry on, on the 20, which seemed to loop back to Saltillo (a 120 km loop) that took us up very scenic zigzags, up and down mountains with potentially spectacular views – potentially, as it was very hazy due to the heat – although it was much cooler (21C) in the mountains than in Monterrey.

We failed to find Mam. glassii at the next stop. I remembered hearing last summer about heavy rains and floods in this area and we saw evidence of lots of damage to roads and nature, washing lots of plants down hillsides.

With c. 80 km to go to the main highway to Saltillo, we were down to a crawl with a track barely wide enough for our car with the proper road just washed away or blocked by a landslide. Should we go on or go back? Either option could mean driving in the dark. Turning back certainly would – going on – who knows? The scenery just got better and better – this is just the other side of a huge mountain range from Huasteca Canyon that we enjoyed last year and plan to visit again tomorrow. I can certainly recommend this route for the scenery, but not for the cacti – or at least with the uncertainty that lay ahead we did not want to stop to explore so found none. Just three short stops to photograph the hills and canyons with brief rock wall inspections that gave us at S2265: 2x Agave sp., Bromeliad sp. (in flower), Opuntia sp., Echinocereus sp (probably E. scheeri) and some very nice Echeveria and Sedum (?) sp. all snapped thanks to the 200 mm end of the zoom lens – and Eunice’s 400 mm monster.

S2266 was another wall full of Agave sp. plus A. lechuguia and clumps of Echinocereus (E. vierecki?), Tillandsia usenoides, Yucca sp. and some Echeveria. The images also include a stretch of tarmac that we had driven over. It seems that there was nothing (!!!!) underneath the tarmac – just hanging there. We had watched a truck go over it before so dared to do it as well.

S2267 was for a group of Agave montana (?) with flower stalks boldly announcing their presence. By now we had moved out of the mountains and seemed to be in a high plains area with farming activities around us.

All’s well that ends well. We hit the main toll road to Saltillo around 5:30 and arrived at the hotel in Monterrey shortly after 6, exhausted. Dinner was a Chinese take away delivered to the room where we sorted images, did the accounts and were ready for bed by 9:30.

Tomorrow we’re off to Huasteca Canyon, but after today we realise that it may be quite different from last year, due to flood damage.

Sunday, 27 February, 2011 – Bustamante to Monterrey

We just had one stop planned for today a John Miller stop for Ariocarpus trigonus was right along MEX85 as we headed for Monterrey. The weather forecast for today was HOT. 40C in Monclava, 38 C in Monterrey. We were in between, but in an airconditioned car. One stop sounded just fine.

And yet …. we followed MEX 30 from Villaldama to MEX85 and for part of the way were joined by a river to the left of the road, and a sheer rock wall, in the shade, to the right. As we drove by Eunice spotted Agave lophantha growing on the rockwall. We soon found a place to park and invited the greetings of cars passing by (hooting their horns at us pedestrians) as we explored the flora of this wall, S2261: Agave lophantha, Echeveria sp., Echinocereus scheeri, Escobaria sp., Ferocactus hamatacanthus, Mammillaria heyderi ssp meiacantha and Opuntia sp. (huge tree like plants hanging from the rocks) – not a bad rockery! and a great unexpected stop. And Honk Honk back to the cars that passed us!

S2262 was more of the same on road cuttings along MEX85. The Escobaria here has tentatively been identified by Juergen Menzel as Escobaria muehlbaueriana – not a name that I am familiar yet, but then I’m not a student of Escobaria. Thank you Juergen! The plant that Eunice sent Juergen a picture of was growing in a sheltered position while those growing in the open had a much denser spination but were not yet in flower or had already passed over. A bit more searching of the internet suggests that E. emskoetteriana may be the one favoured by followers of the New Cactus Lexicon – it has E. muehlbaueriana and E. runyoni, another candidate, as synonyms. Another great bonus stop – so often the unscheduled stops provide more interesting finds than hunting down a known location and not finding the target plants.

Talking of which, about 30 minutes later we arrived at our target stop, S2263. There had been a fire along the side of the road and as a result the fence posts had turned to piles of ash. It was as though someone left the door open and all we needed to do was walk in. Eunice used her handheld GPS to get to the exact coordinates while I walked around in the believe that plants grow in more than one finite spot. I found two small Coryphantha that were reported as C. salinensis but after some 15 minutes Eunice was the first and only one to claim her Ariocarpus find and then another, and another and another! Faster than I could photograph what I had found already. But then, despite another 15 minutes in the burning sun, no more Ariocarpus could be found. There were a number of square holes as though someone had used a machete to cut out a plant. Collecting? Who knows.

Eunice (again!) did find a huge very flat Ferocactus that I mistook for Ferocactus macrodiscus, but that would be way out of its range and the buds were wrong – our plant had dense bristly buds where as F. macrodiscus has bald buds, almost like a Gymnocalycium. Current thinking favours a very large Echinocactus texensis that was also reported from this area.

I can tell you that whether it was 38 or 40C out there, it was not healthy to be out in the sun for long.

Following the Baja trip I had already bought a 2 stop neutral density filter because even at the lowest ISO setting on my camera (L1.0), three licks less than ISO 200, many pictures still seemed over exposed. The filter works just great at ISO 200 but I have to remember to remove the filter when taking images of plants on shaded rock walls (or walk by the wall again to take the images again)

Tomorrow we revisit Huasteca Canyon, this time looking for the cacti that we missed in ignorance of their existence last year, distracted by so many other wonderful things to see and photograph.

Saturday, 26 February, 2011 – Monclova, Coahuila to Bustamante, Nuevo Leon

Yesterday we got up in Alpine to sub-zero (centigrade – i.e. freezing) temperatures but during the day the temperatures soared, It seemed that Mexico seemed to be ‘enjoying’ a mini heat wave – after all, it is only February!

In 2010 we managed to get lost in an extensive quarry near Castaños, south of Monclova, that meets the need of the local cement factory. We had found some exciting plants, but failed to find Turbinicarpus valdezianus that seems to grow a bit farther along and a bit higher up. Then I was a bit sceptical to find Turbinicarpus so far north, expecting to have to travel farther south, but after doing some homework in the intervening summer months I learned that this plant does indeed get as far as Monclova, so we had another go, this time ignoring the reference to Ariocarpus, Epithelantha and friends that we already found last year. It took us several stabs to avoid the warren of tracks that would only have taken us to last year’s spots. But we were now farther away from the foot of the hills and a couple of hundred meters below where the books says it should grow – but plants don’t read books, do they?

S2257 was in a river bed that seemed not to have seen a drop of water in years. Now, looking for Thelocephala in the dry and bare Atacama Desert is one thing, especially when they are in flower, but these Turbinicarpus are at least as small and although the area was dry, it was covered by plants that included: Agave asperrima (s.n. A. scabra), A. lechuguilla, Coryphantha nickelsae, Echinocereus enneacanthus, E. pectinatus, Epithelantha micromeris (var. greggii is reported from here), Euphorbia misera, Mammillaria sp. and Opuntia sp. plus lots of dried grasses. So plenty of things to distract the camera and hide the plants that we were hoping to find. We did not find any Turbinicarpus.

Time was approaching noon and it got unbelievable warm – above 30C according to the car’s thermometer (yes Cliff, I realise that this is not the ‘real’ temperature, but it was the only indicator we had to quantify how hot it was.)

We tried another track to get to nearby S2258. We agreed a mark of a tree with large Agave to its right as the marker of how far we would try before turning back. We reached the spot and found only what we had seen already. A car engine started up at a nearby house and the truck went off along the track that we had come in on. He must have spotted us on the hill, because he turned round, parked his car near by and walked a couple of hundred meters to our car. Eunice was first back. What did we want? Photos. Of plants. Of cacti. We showed him some pics on the monitor of our cameras. Large or small? he asked. Small. I showed him the pics in the Turbinicarpus book (thanks Angie, for the loan). Ah, he said, overthere! pointing into the hills beyond his farm. How much time to get there? Eunice asked. 10 – 15 minutes. And so we abandoned our search at S2258 – to discover later that we had been 211 meters from the GPS co-ordinates for Turbinicarpus valdezianus.

The track that he had pointed to was soon getting to a state where we needed to think about our tyres and hence our health and safety. Why do rental companies provide meaty all weather / terrain tyres. I guess they do if you ask, then charge a lot more for the heavy duty off-roading that they expect you need them for.  Common sense told us to turn round and we agreed.

I’m convinced that the 211 m. distance did not prevent us from finding the turb. It was probably where we had been looking and it was just too dry and overgrown for us to spot them. The time budget was spent and the heat made the airconditioned car a much more attractive place and so we moved on.

We had to drive right through Monclova to take Highway 30 towards Candela and Bustamante. Eunice had a spot for Agave victoria-reginae. My worst fears were confirmed when we got there – S2259. ‘Vicky’ tends to like growing on sheer rockwalls and although the hillsides here were not sheer, they were across a fence with a good 500 m. walk to get to the bottom of the hills. A few km earlier we had been stopped and questioned by an army patrol. These ad-hoc blockades are always more tense than the fixed inspection points where the soldiers are usually bored after days of routine checks that turn up nothing – all the bandits know how to avoid them! I felt uncomfortable about crossing the fence here – Eunice agreed and the sun was a good partner to convince us – too hot!

We did look through binoculars and zoom lenses and blew up the images later, but the stalks that we saw were wrong for ‘Vicky’.

We drove on to Bustamante and after in to Hotel Ancira where we were greeted as old friends after our stay last year we went to the last stop of the day, this time S2260 (S1793 last year). The sun, now low in the sky, was giving plants and landscape a warm hue but a brisk wind was cooling us down. Followers of the Stonehenge Hattery will be glad to know that the new hat I bought at REI (Recreation Equipment Inc.) in LA has a chin strap that made sure that this hat stayed on. Oh yes, what did we see? Agave asperrima (s.n. A. scabra), A. lechuguilla, Cylindropuntia leptocaulis, Echinocereus enneacanthus, E. pectinatus, Epithelantha micromeris and Mammillaria sp.

Bustamante is a really nice cozy village and I can recommend it to anyone travelling through the area, with Hotel Ancira as a good place to lay your head.

Friday, 25 February, 2011 – Alpine, TX to Monclova, Coahuila

We have driven 1,100 miles from LAX to Alpine and have travelled about half the width of the USA. So far we have few cactus images to show for our troubles, but that is all part of the plan. The elite of Mexican cactus flora, the Connoisseur Cacti as John Pilbeam might call them, occur farther south then we managed to get last year when Saltillo was about as far south as we travelled. Our options are to fly into Mexico City, rent a car there and head north or to drive from where I was staying in the LA area, following much the same route that we had followed last year.

As a result we had been very disciplined as far as making time consuming stops was concerned and had been eating miles and now, in Mexico, kilometers.

Today’s thirteen images are all scenic and are not filed under a specific stop number.

This time we crossed the border at Del Rio into Acuna. This is a small crossing, open 24 hours per day and probably the most relaxed and friendly crossing between the US and Mexico yet. Last year we crossed at Eagle Pass, a bit farther to the east, but had to drive some 50 km south to Allende to complete the temporary car import formalities. At Acuna, this could all be done at the border so that once formalities had been completed we could drive to our destination without interruption.

For anyone wishing to try this themselves in a rented car, our experience is that Dollar are (possibly the only) one that allows renters to take their vehicles into Mexico. You need to buy Mexico Insurance on top of the usual rental / insurance costs and the current cost is US$27.80 per day. You also need a letter of authority from the rental company, granting you permission to take the car out of the US. The Mexican authorities require photocopies of all these documents plus copies of your passport page with the photograph, of your driving licence and of your Mexico Tourist Visa. Passport and driving licence photocopies are also needed for any co-drivers. If you are smart, you can save time by taking these in advance. We were not that smart and so had to we walk a couple of hundred meters in the burning sun (temperatures were up to 30C) to a money change office that also did photocopies, all for the sum of US$1. By the way, there was a photocopier behind the lady that wanted the copies, but it was not allowed for her to take the copies. There was no one else in the queue, but the whole process still took one hour.

Just as last year you have to pay US$35.82 for the equivalent of a UK motor vehicle licence and a US$ 400 deposit (cash or credit card) that you get back when you leave the country. We had the correct amount of cash and thought that the Mex Government holding this was probably safer then us carrying it around with us for 4 weeks.

During this time we were watched by armed soldiers with machine guns and Balaclava masks, on the square, at the entrance to the Customs office and even inside the offices. Perhaps the most worrying time was when suddenly they all disappeared on the double. Did they know of something coming? No idea. Everything went smoothly and the town of Acuna is actually a very nice little town for a bit of tourist shopping or a bite to eat. On the US side, there are plenty of good hotels to use as a spring plank for an early crossing into Mexico or to find a bed if you arrive from Mexico late at night.

Tomorrow we head for Bustamante for a bit of plant hunting.

Thursday, 24 February, 2011 – around Alpine

We had a day sightseeing in Big Bend. Unlike last year, when we hunted down some 6 GPS locations and found the plants expected at these stops, this time we went to tourists spots such as an overlook and a canyon in the Rio Grande and watched people walk through the water from Mexico and the US. Stop numbers are S2252 (scenery), S2253, at the northern entrance to the park, coming from Marathon, S2254 at the Fossil Bone Exhibit, S2255 at the Rio Grande Overlook and S2256 at the Boquillas Canyon Trail. We asked at two of the visitor’s centres to see the local cactus experts. As usual they were out elsewhere. At one of the centres, a nice lady, who was on leave from her regular job as a warden at a Park in Alaska, tried to remember what she had been taught when she joined, which took us to the Rio Grande Overlook where we failed to see Epithelantha and Lophophora, but we had seen plenty of those elsewhere last year.

Tomorrow we cross into Mexico

And of course we looked around for cacti and found Echincereus engelmannii, E. dasyacanthus, lots of Cylindropuntia and Opuntia sp., Escobaria tuberculosa, Mammillaria pottsii and Ariocarpus fissuaratus – some dozen plants before we got fed up with taking their picture.

The most interesting information gained today came from a geology book (too heavy to bring back to the UK, and a cactus book that I bought here last year – but of course left back at home in the UK. Echinocereus viridiflorus ssp davisii and Coryphantha nellii are said to occur near Marathon and we were driving backwards and forwards along US Highway 385 from and to the town. The cactus book told us to look along the 385, around c 10 miles south of Marathon where it has a very restricted distribution growing on novaculite. The geology book told us that south of Marathon novaculite occurs folded so as to form horseshoe shaped layers, similar in shape to those that we saw in NW Argentina. The map told us that we were driving along the Caballos Mountains, with geological structures as described. Caballos is Spanish for Horseshoes. Stories picked up back home in the UK suggest that the plants grow on private property with owners who do not take kindly to visitors on their property. I am glad to know where to look on a future occasion and to try to contact the owners by email in advance for a future visit.

Wednesday, 23 February, 2011 – Tucson, Az to Alpine, TX

In exactly 4 weeks, Angie arrives in California for a whirlwind 2 week look at the highlights of my previous visits. We hope to squeeze in a trip to Tucson so I’ve been making notes of things to see and what to avoid.

But today we focus on Day 2 of the 2011 Mexico trip as we drive to Alpine, Texas where we aim to stay in the Best Western which impressed us last year.

This is another driving day and much of the landscape is flat and boring with any cactus or succulent that resides here having been snapped on previous trips. So the ideal conditions to set the cruise control to the maximum speed permitted plus the 5 mph grace on top and take it in turn to hold the steering wheel, with toilet breaks as necessary.

The result was just one plant stop, S2251, as we turned off Interstate 10 about one exit before last year’s exit at the Dragoon Road. At this spot we found Ferocactus wislizeni, Yucca sp. and Opuntia santa-rita, that I think is called O. macrocentra these days.

We had agreed not to stop at Van Horn for the night that provided one of the worst nights in the US last year, mainly because of the rather sleazy customers at the fast food places on the outskirts in town that seemed the only places open when we arrived after dark. That time we had also ‘enjoyed’ a thorough search of car and clothes by the US Border Patrol station just out of town, triggered by the sniffer dog finding Eunice’s ground coffee for the trip. This apparently is a popular decoy to put sniffer dogs off illegal drugs. Needles to say we left with a clear record but the thoroughness of the search when we were tired after a long drive was unsettling.

This time we had left earlier and made fewer stops so that we could drive straight on to Alpine, Texas.

Tomorrow we take another look at Big Bend.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2011 – Bellflower to Tucson

Today was an essential driving day We took Interstate 10 towards Phoenix but took the 89 Phoenix by-pass (new to us and to Eunice’s SatNav system).

We made just the one stop, S2250, off I10 mainly for a comfort break and leg stretch, but stayed long enough to capture two different Cylindropuntia species (C. bigelovii and C. kleinia?) and Fouqueria splendens.

It was dark by the time we rolled into Tucson, found the usual Motel 6 and arrived at the Silver Saddle for another great steak, just in time for their 9:30 closing

Monday, 21 February, 2011 – Rest day in Bellflower

We picked up the car, a nice metallic red Ford Explorer 4×4 which seems more than adequate for the task ahead. The lady helping us to check out the car looked blank when we mentioned that we needed Mexico insurance and a letter of authority to take the car out of the US and into Mexico. I suggested that she’d check last year’s booking for the same purpose and the 2009 one, when we wasted four hours in Mexico because we did not have the letter of authority. She went to see her supervisor and ten minutes later came back with a big smile complementing us on the thorough research of what was necessary.

I mentioned to Eunice that in 1997, when I visited LA for the first time, with my sons Anton & Christiaan, they traded a morning at the Huntington Botanic Garden (a treat for me) for an afternoon at a huge Retail Outlet centre – their treat. Eunice immediately knew what and where: The Citadel and mentioned that the Columbia outdoor clothing chain that I favour for my explorer’s gear, had an outlet there. Guess where we went for the afternoon! I bought three nice new shirts, the lightweight, quick drying ones with sunblock, and anti-everything treatment that retail for GBP 20 to 30 each for around GBP 5 each! It was President Day – a US Bank Holiday, so the place was heaving with people. If I had unlimited luggage weight allowance for the flight home, I could have bought a lot more! I have suggested that Angie just brings hand luggage when she comes over next month and we’ll go shopping here straight from the plane.

Tomorrow we start the next trip, driving to Tucson, from where we head to Texas, drive through The Big Bend and cross again into Mexico at Eagle Pass from where we head south for a look at the Connoisseur cacti of Mexico.

Sunday, 20 February, 2011 – Rest day in Bellflower

Today was a rest day, so we rested. Went out to lunch in Pasadena where we met with Tim Harvey, a Brit who moved to California some 15 years ago and has recently become the Editor for the CSSJournal.

The car was washed and all my clothes from the Baja trip visited Eunice’s washing machine and dryer.

Saturday, 19 February, 2011 – Ensenada to Bellflower

It had poured down during the night and it was still raining heavily as we ventured out to breakfast.

We had half planned visiting the type locality of Dudleya brittonii, off MEX1, farther to the north, but that would mean coming back to Ensenada as we wanted to take the MEX3 to cross into the US at Tecate – a much quieter crossing, especially during the weekends. There was another option, to take secondary roads from the MEX1, cross country to MEX3.

The rain continued at a steady pace and as we left Ensenada there was plenty of evidence of small landslides depositing large boulders on to the roads. What would the back roads be like? Was the poor light in the rain really worth the extra detour? In the end we settled at heading straight for MEX3, the Baja Wine Route, and just get home.

We made a stop (S2247) at yet another road cutting and again, found Dudleya – D. brittonii, with cameras popping in and out of rain coats. It felt cold and miserable, reminding me of a February day in the UK.

Another road cutting and more Dudleya spotted from the road and again we briefly braved the rain (S2248) – again D. brittonii.

Tecate was a typical Mexican border town, with a road alongthe fence that seperates it from the US. Did we not celebrate the coming down of the Berlin Wall not too long ago? This fence feels just as wrong – hope we can celebrate it coming down too during my life time. Neighbours should settle their quarrals rather than build walls and fences.

After the usual slow crawl for 30-45 minutes we reached the border and after the passport check were directed to a random control check for drugs, weapons etc. Dogs crawled in and over the car and looked utterly bored by the time they came back out. We had not taken the opportunity to give the inside of the car a good clean out to the Ministry of Food & Ag. confiscated a half dried orange that must have rolled under the seat over a week ago.

It had stopped raining as we drove along CA Route 94 to San Diego and could not resist one more stop, S2249, as we passed another road cutting covered in Dudleya. We were still close to the border and our stopped car soon drew the attention of a Border Patrol helicopter thatbuzzed the car once or twice. We gotback on the road and around the next bend found another Dudleya road cutting. Not wishing to cause unnecessary exitement for helicopter pilots in the area we took pictures on several drive bys. About half of them had to be deleted – out of focus.

And so another cactus trip came to an end. We have two rest days in Bellflower before starting on the next one – through Big Bend in Texas to mainland Mexico.