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Archive for October, 2013

Thursday, 31 October 2013 – around Pichidangui

This was going to be a calm rest day, to use up the spare day in Angie’s itinerary. What better way to spend the morning than to take more pictures of the flowering cacti on the rocks of the Pacific coast at Pichidangui? It would have been better if there had been a bit more sun. We also tried to find the lenscap to Angie’s Nikon Coolpix 8800, that had fallen through the hole in the pocket of her fleece during our previous visit. By late morning even we die-hard cactophiles needed a change of scenery and went on a drive through the Quilimari Valley. We had been through here before and increasingly had found signs of agricultural development with vineyards appearing on the hill. But things here were very dry – no water in the dried riverbed and apparently failed vines on the hill. At one point, the road used to ford the river and herons would stand guard as we drove through, ensuring that we did not steal their fish and frogs. That was in the past. Now the ford was dry and no waterbirds to be seen.

We reached the Embalse Culimo. I did not recall seeing the dam before. Clearly the intention had been to build up a reserve of water to provide a constant supply for irrigation. But the reservoir too was bone dry.

The plentyful Echinopsis (Trichocereus) chiloensis were in flower, but quite a few looked less happy, showing signs of heavy infection of the parasite Tristerix aphyllus. Time will tell if nature can recover here. Today, it all looked rather sad!

The loop returned to R5, at Los Vilos and we decided to have afternoon tea at the beach. In fact, I settled on coffee and some shellfish empanadas – all very civilised. No doubt the weeks to come would involve more cactus explorations.

Back in Pichidangui the streets were as crowded as they had been for New Years Eve; what was going on? It turned out that today was a public holiday – Reformation Day and that tomorrow, there was another: All Saints Day. And so the Chileans had come out to play – crowding into their holiday homes, as Pichidangui’s recent growth is mainly due to holiday homes for the better-off inhabitants of Santiago. Better go to dinner a bit earlier, as yesterday the restaurant had been full up by 8 p.m.

As we sat and enjoyed our last meal together in the newly discovered Restaurant Nautilus, news came on the always-on TV that there had been an earthquake of 6.4 on the Richter Scale near Coquimbo with the epicentre in Guanaqueros, where Angie and I had stayed earlier for our first night in Chile and where Jonathan Clark and I are planning to stay next Saturday, meeting up with Bart & Marijke Hensel. A quick look on the internet reveals that Coquimbo had experienced another similar earth quake during the last 7 days and a total of 14 in the past year, all around magnitude 6.

This one was at a depth of 29 km but the earlier ones had been at 55 km depth. Check out http://www.earthquaketrack.com for details.

According to the waiter, there were no fatalities or major damage. Traffic on R5 was busy according TV images.

As the sun went down, the fishingboats in the bay put their lights on. Are earthquakes not commonly followed by Tsunamis? We are staying in a prime potential tsunami area. The earlier quakes had no tsunamis reported, so we’ll assume the same this time, unless we hear otherwise. No tsunamis are expected according to the news, but coastal areas are keeping an eye out for any unusual signs.

Just now, the internet reports that earlier today buildings swayed in Santiago, but no details at this time. Earthquakes are very common in Chile and we’ve been in some before, notably the 2007 Tocopilla earthquake, when bouncing along the road in our 4x4s we had been unaware of what had happened until we drove into town. That time we drove on to Calama where we witnessed two more quite severe aftershocks – well, my fellow travellers did – I slept through it all.

We are watching CNN Chile, but apart from a regular mention reporting that it had happened, there’s nothing on, with the news focus on the national elections on 17 November,and the news that Barrick Gold has suspended its mining operation at Pascua Lama, but I’m not clear if there is any relationship between the two items or indeed the earthquake.

Tomorrow we drive to Santiago where we meet up with Jonathan Clark and where early Saturday morning, Angie flies back home to the UK.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013 – Uspallata to Pichidangui (Chile)

Today our paperwork for taking the car into Argentina ran out, so we’d better get back. We had finished in Argentina for this trip anyway and have learned that for Andean Alpines we need to come in December / January.

Border crossings where you’re not familiar with the language are always stressful. And we had seen the Christo Redentor Pass, possibly at its most stressful on 31 December 2008 when we had joined what seemed to be the whole population of western Argentina in wanting to cross the border into Chile to celebrate New Year’s Eve on the seashores at Pichidangui. We got stuck in a 12 km queue that did not move for hours. In the end, we just got into the fast lane, overtook all the waiting cars, whose drivers hurled abuse and stones at us to arrive at the front of the queue where we received a severe telling off that went mostly over our heads. We had to turn around and get back to the end of the queue. Yes Sir! Can we just turn round in the space some 100 m ahead of us? Sure! There, another official directed us straight into the ‘crossing borders circus’ where hundreds of people were pushing to take their turns at the five different windows at which we had to present our papers.

So today we arrived back to cross back to Chile at the tunnel through Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas. We reached 3,400 m and only left the car to participate in the circus called immigration & customs. Slight hiccup as the dear lady at the ‘import the car from Argentina back into Chile’ window could not find Paso Icalma, where we had entered Argentina, on her list of border passes. ‘Update your list’ came to mind as a reply, as she did not speak or understand English. Her colleague had a much better idea: just accept the formal customs stamp on the paper work at Paso Icalma, I’m sure that if they can do this, they must be on the list. Well done!

The drive up & down the hill and the passage through the tunnel is always impressive, scenery wise. Angie was using my camera to take pictures. There were car wrecks that I’d be worried to even take to the shop on the corner who were attempting the climb & descend. Some were left steaming at the side of the road.

Back in Chile, it took ages to drive out of the clouds. In fact, by the time that we booked into Hotel Rosa Natica in Pichidangui, we were still under a thick layer of low cloud and in a light drizzle. So much for Chile in spring time. We hope for a sunny day tomorrow.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013 – around Uspallata

Yes, last night’s dinner at El Rancho’s in Uspallata was as good as I remember it from previous occasions. A rib-eye steak, twice the size, including thickness, as any steak that I have enjoyed this trip, with a nice Malbec, La Chamiza 2012 Reserva, to wash it all down with. Angie’s stomach had been a bit of colour, so she had a Cola, leaving me to drink the whole bottle on my own! It’s a hard live! Fortunately, the restaurant was only just round the corner from the Los Condores Hotel, so I did not have to stagger too far!

Today, I had promised to show Angie Maihueniopsis clavarioides in nature, at a spot were I had been before in 2008 and 2010. Although it is a very small population – we’ve never seen more than a dozen or so of the plants – it’s quite easy to find off the road north out of Uspallata, following the Andean foothills north, until the barely visible remains of an Inca settlement at Tambillos was seen on the west side of the road. The M. clavarioides grow across the track, less than 10 m. from the road. Easy. So I had left GPS details etc back at the hotel as we set off on a lovely sunny morning, still chatting about the devastation caused by storms in Europe during the night. Peter reports that everything at home is fine – just lots of rain, what’s new?

As soon as we had left town, there were changes. The road that I thought that we should take had a devisio – diversion, umleitung, omleiding, it doesn’t matter what language, such signs often spell trouble! Once we rejoined the road, it was wonderful, fairly new hard top. But there were many more trees around than I remembered. We drove a dozen km. and everything felt ‘wrong’ so we headed back to town and ignored the divisio sign, heading straight north instead of doing so after the turn west. We now drove through scenery reminiscent of a Dutch country road with poplar trees, in fresh green young leaves, along either side of the road. Once we had left the stream that had provided the water for such lush flora, the road turned east, rather than west. we were now heading for the next string of mountains. Never mind, these would have Denmoza rhodacantha growing on them that Angie compares to lovely red teddy bears. We soon had found a hillside full of them, parked the car and got the cameras fired up. Plenty of plants, quite photo genic, with the snow capped Andes in the background and some lovely white fluffy Andean clouds in the sky. 

Amazing how variable these plants were – Angie found one youngish (10 years old ?) plant, that she first thought might have been a Gymnocalycium, but the red bud soon confirmed it as yet another Denmoza.

Also at the stop, and more at the next stop, were very dehydrated clumps of Maihueniopsis hypogea. Well, at least it prevented the second stop from being a ‘no cactus’ stop.

With the Denmoza having satisfied our immediate need of exercising our shutter fingers on the cameras, we headed back to town where, after consulting Google Earth on the internet, I found the exact location of M. clavarioides – just a few km. farther along than where I was having doubts about the exact location. We set off again, this time with my other hand held GPS unit and after a brief stop at the Uspallata tourist information stop to obtain a local map. Had the ladies ever heard of the Inca ruins at  Tambillos and did the new track still go past there? Blank faces, while they took it in turns to answer mobile phone calls from friends. There is no such place – they told me – until I found it on the map, pointed it out and left them embarrassed, probably only until their next mobile call. Everywhere else in Argentina these Tourism kiosks have been manned by extremely friendly, helpful and knowledgeable people. I guess that in Uspallata, people only pass through, from the near by border with Chile. They also rapidly lost interest once they realised I was not about to purchase an adventure day out for some white water rafting.

Now, with renewed confidence we headed back into the desert, after passing through the tree lined track. There was a new concern though. In 2008 and 2010 the plants grew close to the track. Now, that track had been replaced by wonderful asphalt. Would the plants have survived this? About 2 km before Tambillos the usual disastrous sign marking the end of the paved road appeared. In our case I cheered – they had been saved from roadwork destruction! Or had they? The ripio had clearly been widened and opposite the fenced off area that is Tambillos, there is know a nice car park and a new aquaduct taking water safely underneath the road at the rare times of rainfall. By my reckoning and that of the GPS, these works had destroyed the population that we had so admired before. In a state of denial we searched for nearly two hours. We did find all the other plants found here on previous occasions: four Eriosyce (Pyrrhocactus) strausianus, more Maihueniopsis hypogea, looking extremely dry, and even a small Pterocactus reticulates.

In the end we gave up, with a note of optimism that perhaps it was just too dry and that all the plants were there but had shrunk into the ground.

Nothing left but to go back to the hotel and to prepare for our last night in Argentina in 2013, back at El Rancho, for another rib-eye and another excellent bottle of wine – somebody has to do this!

But not before reporting another success story. As you will have read on previous pages, although we had been very pleased with our rented car, a Dodge Durango, that was extremely comfortable on asphalt, we had been more than a little critical of the tyres that had little or no grip and made the car bounce around dangerously on the ripio tracks.

This morning I thought I’d drop a line to the .rentalcars rep who had arranged an excellent deal for me for cars on this trip and later in LA, Baja California and Mexico City. I explained the issue, the fact that the number I had called in Chile only had a Spanish speaking person answering. We had both been fluent, but unfortunately in different languages. Our rep, Dylan, had an automatic reply email to say that he would be back in the office at noon, UK time. Before setting out for our afternoon session, he had replied to say that the rental company would take the car on arrival at Santiago Airport, where we are staying on Friday night and after Angie flies back to the UK on Saturday morning, they would deliver the car with some legal and proper ‘wellies’ for the remaining 4 weeks of the holiday. What a relief and an experience that fills me with confidence for the remaining trips. No one can guarantee that nothing goes wrong on these trips, but when things do go wrong, it is how they are resolved that sets the standard of the quality of service which here was far exceeded. Many thanks, Dylan!

Monday, 28 October 2013 – Malargüe to Uspalata

Continuing the theme from previous days’ reports, I must start with a brief account of dinner, that more then made up for the disaster of the previous night: we enjoyed a rib-eye steak – rare, with all sorts of Argentinean side thingies – spiced tomatoes, squashed potatoes etc according to their Google translate menu, washed down with a bottle of Trapiche Malbec Reserva 2011, from Mendoza of course, that just hit the spot. Excellent!!

Today was due to be a driving day with the choice between 469 km on asphalt (according to the map) or 398 km of which at least 100 km would be on ripios. The most significant consideration were the tyres – already in a poor condition, I did not want to expose them to more slipping & sliding. So I decided on the longer way round, saving lots of time – in theory. I had failed to include a drive through the town of San Raphael, where the main highway went straight through town, with traffic lights every hundred meter, that all seemed to conspire in being red, except for the one where a white van man had broken down right on the crossroads.

The road went away from the Andes so that we were driving through some very uninspiring flat terrain. For those who have seen my Namibia & South Africa presentations, think of the most boring 500 km of road from Windhoek to Keetmanshoop. This had some saving graces: during the ‘I don’t believe there are no cacti’ leg stretch, Angie found one (1) Maihueniopsis darwinii (?) and just before San Raphael (we seem to have missed the San Raphael by-pass) the road went through some hills with nice twists and cacti visible, even at 80 km.p.hr. We stopped to photograph Echinopsis (Lobivia) huascha (?), Opuntia sulphur, a Pterocactus and Denmoza rhadacantha, showing off its peculiar flowers. Then it was back to flat agricultural land with a few tractors and local trucks, in such poor condition that they held all the through traffic up.

Things speeded up once we were back on RN40 and became interesting once we climbed along RN7 towards Uspallata at 1,900m and with just 85 km to the Chilean border. But we’ve stopped off at Uspallata for tonight and tomorrow night with a look around the local cacti on Tuesday.

We’re just off to visit a few of the restaurants where we enjoyed great steaks & Malbec in previous years – yes, there is genius behind my madness!

Sunday, 27 October 2013 – Chos Malal to Malargüe

You may remember that I left you yesterday facing the task of appeasing Angie after a ‘no(t enough) cacti’ day. But a larger challenge awaited us. Just round the corner of the Hotel was Restaurant Petite that on Friday night had served up an excellent meal (fillet steak & mushrooms for me). And that, after I had read on the Lonely Planet website:’For a good meal in pleasant surrounds Chos Malal doesn’t have a whole lot of options’, so we were pleasantly surprised by our discovery and I had every intention, after another great meal tonight, to give the tiny restaurant a great write up on Lonely Planet. We had checked to see if she’d be open on Saturday night and she replied in fluent Spanish: ‘yes of course, starting sometime between 20:30 and 21:00’. Excellent, sorted! So last night we rolled up at 20:50, but everything was shut, no lights on. Ah, well, we must be early. Let’s take a stroll around the block.

We arrived back at 21:05 to find the owner watering the pavement in front of the Restaurant and the surrounding plants. We greeted her all smiles, looking forward to another feast. Again, she was fluent in Spanish, most of which went over my head but by the tone and hand gestures we understood. ‘Sorry, I don’t feel like opening up tonight – we’re closed.’

So, where do two hungry tourists, not familiar with the local language, get a meal late in the evening. As some of you may know, I’m diabetic and do need my food at regular times – no food was not an option! Would the muesli bars that we had in the room be enough? Back in the room we consulted the internet again. There was just one Restaurant listed, but as we walked into town, we found many of the ‘streets’ being in the progress of refurbishment, with street furniture such as street names missing. We had reached the Plaza without having found the necessary road to the right. There was another long queue at the fuel station – favourite pastime is queueing for fuel, even when there seems to be no apparent reason for it? The Fuel Station had a snack bar that advertised empanadas. That was better than nothing – except: they had just run out. The girl serving was highly embarrassed and with as much English knowledge as we spoke Spanish, signalled us to follow her. We struggled to keep up as she took us a few houses up the road where, next to what we had assumed to be a clothes shop – shut – there was a door to a room where a man was folding cardboard boxes. She explained our need for empanadas. A head poked round the corner and with the help of the girl’s best English, we ordered a cheese and a meat one each – a real Saturday night feast! With a muesli bar as afters and a can of Quilmes beer, our feast was complete. I hope the owner of Restaurant Petite had a rotten evening!

After a good night’s rest and breakfast we were off. Angie was familiar with the 2010 group photo of the four of us posing behind a huge mound of Maihuenia and I had established that this would be on the 145, off RN-40 quite close to Malargüe – just some 70 km each way. So let’s go and take a look. I had also loaded some locations of the day in 2010 into SatNav, but without Argentine mapping, it could just tell us how many km. away it was, in a straight line – 110 km. We also had location data for a new discovery of Denmoza rhodacantha found for the first time (?) outside the Province of Mendoza. So I was quite confident that Angie’s hunger for cactus images could be satisfied.

Again, it was a wonderful sunny day. The lined trousers and jumpers packed for this trip were just spare luggage – bet it would have been freezing if I had left them at home!

After just over an hour I needed to stretch my legs (S2874). There was a low hill alongside the road and it reminded me strongly of a 2010 location (S2097), the one that we were looking for, 110 km away!

Soon I stumbled across small clumps of what we had called Maihueniopsis darwinii in 2010 but that taxon is limited to Santa Cruz Province, so this time I’ll use the suggestion from others that it is Maihueniopsis glomerata ssp hypogaea . I called Angie over and we happily snapped away as more clumps were found. Next success: a kicked out stem of Austrocactus! OK, it had been dead for quite a while, resembling plants in my collection back home in the UK – but where there is a dead plant, there may be live ones? But first, I stumbled over a small clump of Mauhuenia patagonica, then another and another, each larger than the previous one. Great! Two out of the three species that I might have hoped for, plus a dead example of the third! So the search was on for the Austrocactus, it just had to be here. Eventually the search was rewarded with a plant, some 15 cm (6”) tall. Not only was it alive but it had 4 small buds and signs of new growth at the apex. One thing was sure – they were not abundant! We managed to find two or three more plants and were about to return to the car, happy with our booty of cactus images when I stumbled across Pterocactus – probably P. fischeri, if that is an accepted name these days. Quite a few of them and some in bud. A really great stop for Patagonia after the long period lacking cacti.

This attractive geology prompted S2874

This attractive geology prompted S2874

Pterocactus sp. showing off its underground tuber

Pterocactus sp. showing off its underground tuber

Pterocactus sp - two plants? more likely two stems from a single tuber

Pterocactus sp – two plants? more likely two stems from a single tuber

Pterocactus sp.

Pterocactus sp.

Austrocactus bertinii

Austrocactus bertinii

Angie and Mahuenia patagonica

Angie and Mahuenia patagonica

Maihueniopsis glomerata subs. hypogaea

Maihueniopsis glomerata subsp. hypogaea

We were still excitedly talking about our finds when we crossed a river. Was this the Rio Colorado that formed the northern border of Patagonia? The sign at the bridge said Rio Barrancas. According to our tourist map, we had already passed Buta Ranquil, where without noticing it, we must have crossed the Rio Colorado.

We crossed from Neuquen Province into Mendoza and now had time and fuel budget issues. There had not been a fuel station since we left Chos Malal, with 334 km to go, on a tank that showed nearly full when we left. That soon dropped and although we should have plenty to get to Malargüe, it made it less certain if we added the 2 x 75 km for the excursion to the Maihuenia mounds along ruta 145. Nature provided a helping hand by sprinkling the hillsides, right along RN40, with huge mounds: no need for the detour! (S2875)

Maihuenia patagonica mounds (S2875)

Maihuenia patagonica mounds (S2875)

More Maihuenia patagonica mounds

More Maihuenia patagonica mounds

Maihueniopsis glomerata ssp hypogaea

Maihueniopsis glomerata ssp hypogaea

Maihuenia patagonica close up

Maihuenia patagonica close up

More Maihuenia patagonica mounds

More Maihuenia patagonica mounds

Just as well, as soon after entering Mendoza, RN40 turned into a ripio, with a maximum speed of 40 km.p.hr. recommended for our Kojak tyres. The signs of roadworks in progress seemed fairly permanent. Were these still the same road works as in 2010? The signs warned that these roadworks would be with us for 40 km. That’s one hour at 40 km.p.hr., longer, allowing for photo stops. After a short spell of new asphalt it was back to ripio and so on and on. We passed a village with a couple of fuel pumps. Great! But they had diesel only, not recommended for a petrol engine! Nafta would be available in 50 km. Well, that turned out to be 67 km and then we got stuck at the pumps where the driver in front of us left his car blocking the pumps, presumably for a call of nature, returning some 10 minutes later with a couple of milkshakes from the nearby restaurant!

Anyway, we arrived safely in Malargüe. Brand new asphalt started some 20 km before we entered town and the whole town seemed to have benefitted from a facelift since 2010. We headed for the Microtel at the north end of town. The alterations in progress in 2010 were still in the same state, but boarded off in a more formal (semi permanent?) way. Rooms were as comfortable as I remembered them and the bar area, where we enjoyed a bottle of the late Graham Hole’s excellent single malt whiskey (Auchentoshan), still echoed to the voices of Guillermo Rivera’s Patagonia touring party and my fellow travellers. Great memories. Cheers, Graham!

Saturday, 26 October 2013 – around Chos Malal

With yesterday’s cactus count embarrassingly low for a cactus trip, I thought that we’d play it save and repeat the day trip that we made from here in 2010 (6 December 2010), heading into the Andes, to a spot where we would at least see Austrocactus bertinii (?). There was a slight concern when we spotted long queues at the one and only petrol station in town (and for miles around!) but calculated that we had enough Nafta to make it there and back.

Again, the drive to the Andes ‘proper’ was spectacular but after a few hours Angie made the point that ‘spectacular scenery’ was beginning to wear a bit thin. You should try it for a month, like in 2010!

There were various places that I recognised as ‘2010 – no cacti found’ stops, so we drove past them. At Andacollo I spotted no cars queueing at the petrol station. Useful! or had they run out? In 2010, on a day called ‘Petrol Day’ in Argentina, when they celebrate their huge stock of this natural resource, most petrol stations were on strike! Was this a repetition?

We reached Las Ovejas, a charming little village, almost deserted on a Saturday morning. And with a fuel station and an empty forecourt. Let’s give it a try. We were greeted by a lady who gains the award of the most attractive service station attendant found on the trip. Corny chat up lines such as ‘What is a beautiful girl like you doing in a place like this.’went through my mind, but just in time I remembered my age (and that of the chat up line) and though better of it. I could have gotten away with it, as she did not speak a word of English, but Angie had returned from snack purchases in the shop. Anyway – the car’s tank was full to the top. And of course there were no queues when we came back to Chos Malal at the end of the day, but it pays to be alert to unforeseen events.

And so we drove on past Las Ovejas, looking for the sign of the Mirador (viewpoint) of La Puntilla. After too long, the road dropped down to a bridge across the Neuquen River and I knew we must have passed the spot. So this became our turn around spot. Back on the hill overlooking the river valley we decided to have a look around, but, although the area ‘looked right’ no cacti were found.

It remains a challenge on these roads, particularly with numerous road works in progress to patch up the ripio, so when I found a place to pull off, I recognised signs that this was the place. In 2010 there had been a formal car park and a wooden walkway led to the edge of the mountain side and offered a magnificent look onto the Rio Neuquen in the valley below. Except: now the foot path from the car park to the start of the walkway could hardly be seen and the walkway itself had been demolished. It had been a bit rickety in 2010 so perhaps health & safety had caught up with us, even in this remote place. I remembered the area where previously a dozen plants had grown. Gone – replaced by tracks of heavy equipment to demolish the wooden structure and the concrete base on which it had stood.

Concrete base are all that remains from the wooden structure over the Rio Neuquén Valley that we saw in 2010 at Mirador La Puntilla

Concrete base are all that remains from the wooden structure over the Rio Neuquén Valley that we saw in 2010 at Mirador La Puntilla

On this trip in Patagonia - if you see a cactus - photograph it!

On this trip in Patagonia – if you see a cactus – photograph it!

Austrocactus bertinii

Austrocactus bertinii



Which just goes to show that on each trip we should enjoy what we see and be prepared to be disappointed if we should ever return. (S2973 – Mirador La Puntilla S2103 in 2010)

The challenge for tomorrow is to find enough cacti to appease Angie – even despite the spectacular scenery.

Friday, 25 October 2013 – Villa Pehuenia – Chos Malal

The trouble with being nice and relaxed on holiday is that you tend to forget that some things – like internet speed – are not quite like they are at home. So when my MacBook Air suggested that I might like to upgrade the Operating System to OS X Mavericks a few days ago, I thought, ‘yes, why not?’ Well because it seemed to hang the internet connection for the hotel as well as (probably) the whole village! It was calculating download time for the 5.3 GB in days rather than minutes and gave up when it calculated a week plus. So last night, having spotted that we were on a faster link, AirBrain (current nickname for my lappy), suggested I might try again. It reported an anticipated 5 hrs to complete the down load, but lied. Never mind, it had finished by the time that we woke up this morning. Just a few set up questions to complete and we were up & running! Very smooth! But as a result I’m a little behind with the Diaries.

Not much to report really – today was a driving day, with spectacular scenery – again, and at one of the few stops made we found a small clump of Maihuenia patagonica. Angie insisted on ‘finding her own’ which is when I learned that she has not a clue how to pronounce ‘Maihuenia’ – it cam out like Ma-may-Ma-May-Oh, you know what I mean – that cactus clump’! As a result she will not give presentations about Patagonia! We’ll see.

Sad to report that the camera’s plug in GPS unit is no more reliable than the similar one for the D300, so it’s back to taking a picture of the handheld model at the start of each stop. Ironically, Nikon have just brought out the D5300 with built in GPS BUT it’s a DX rather than an FX model. Still, surely this will mean that they have grasped the nettle and will include the built in GPS in all future DSLR models so that I can snap away without having to check the cable every few minutes and fiddle about until it is working. All images today filed as S2872.

Nothing more to report other than we are reaching the land of great steaks!

Maihuenia patagonica

Maihuenia patagonica

Angie in the field - with Llareta - Azorella compacta? Unlikely, at 1,400 m altitude (too low)

Angie in the field – with Llareta – Azorella compacta? Unlikely, at 1,400 m altitude (too low)

Grass-scape - and not a grazing animal in sight.

Grass-scape – and not a grazing animal in sight.

Thursday, 24 October 2013 – Around Villa Pehuenia (2)

The view from our bedroom window keeps changing. This morning the same bedroom window that offered us a glorious view over the Araucania covered mountains across the lake when we arrived, snow covered Christmas scenes yesterday morning and back to normal when we returned in the afternoon, this morning gave us ….. pea soup! But very spectacular as over breakfast (with camera in hand) we watched it clear up. Should have used my tripod to do some time-lapse shots. We’re not complaining!

Our guide, Martin, is a teacher at the secondary school in Lonco Luan and had to be at work until 15:00 hrs. So we spent the early part of the day on the road to Zapala. In 2010, Guillermo Rivera’s party were travelling 2 days ahead of us and reported to have passed a spot along the Zapala road, where some 200 Tephrocacti had been in flower – 56 km from where we were. Now I wasn’t so silly to expect that they’d still be in flower, but certainly hoped that a drive to the area might suggest the spot and that one or two of the plants might reveal themselves. They did not, but we have some more shots of the spectacular scenery. We’ll drive through here again tomorrow as we move north.

Road to Zapalla

Road to Zapala

Martin was ready and waiting as we arrived at the school. What did we want to see? Cacti or Viola? Again, both was the reply. We had been warned that it was probably too early in the season for the Viola and also, with Pterocactus not in flower yet, these would be difficult to spot. So, cactus first – a location away from Villa Pehuenia and one that we had visited also in 2010 – at the base of a huge rock on private land.After the long break since last seeing cacti in habitat, I practically raced up the hillside to where I knew the plants were. They looked in excellent shape but again – too early for flowers. Angie found her first Austrocactus ever, a bit lower down on the hillside – one that I must have gone straight past on the way to my patch.

Austrocactus bertinii (S2870)

Austrocactus bertinii (S2870)

We photographed about a dozen groups of plants but then it was time to move on again. By now it was 17:00 hrs and Martin estimated arrival at the Viola spot around 18:30. I was amazed to learn that the track that we were on now – and had been in 2010 – was in fact the road to Paso Il Arco, another border crossing with Chile. Quite hairy! Particularly as the tyres provided little grip. Again, a snow field blocked our way and again we had to cross it on foot. Martin walked ahead as we changed foot wear for a short hike. At the place where he had expected to find some plants there were none. On to another spot, but again no joy. The problem was that the snow & ice was lower this time so we were still short of the 2,000 m mark that Viola seem to prefer here. We explained that the Viola at Laguna Laja in Chile had been up and flowering, but that was a day’s drive farther north (i.e. closer to the Equator) and on black rock that acts as a heat sink.

Also worth reporting that the Patagonian wind that had plagued us during 2010 had only appeared once or twice. This morning’s drive had taken us past the spot where in 2010 I had already returned to the car when Juan was caught in a mini hurricane that battered him with sand and pumice particles. John and Cliff had been observing the event from the hillside, above the turmoil. Today it had been very calm, a great photo opportunity.

It was dark when we arrived at Villa Pehuenia, around 20:30 and said good bye to Martin. He did not want to accept any money for his time – as Alejandro had already suggested yesterday – just a warm handshake of friendship. This we did plus I gave him a very rare book indeed! The only copy in existence of the Cactus Trip Diaries – Patagonia 2010! I can always print off another copy when I get back to the UK. He was over the moon!


Wednesday, 23 October 2013 – Around Villa Pehuenia

One disadvantage of being right up to date with these reports is that often they are written and sent before the end of the day. I know that some of you receive a copy by email as soon as I press ‘Publish’, so would not be aware of any post scripts. So I’ll add a bit that ‘belongs’ to the end of yesterday, here.

Cliff, John & Juan will know that when we were here in 2010, Monica & Walter, the owners of Hosteria Al Paraiso, arranged for a taxi to take us along the warren of tracks to a restaurant overlooking the lake and back after the meal, so that none of us needed to abstain from enjoying a glass or two of the local wine and run the risk of a drink driving conviction. The food, the restaurant setting and of course the wine helped to leave a lasting impression – the night ranks in my top 10 of favourite meals as I know it does for the others.

Unfortunately, the restaurant was not yet open – here it is the quiet period between the winter sport season (just gone) and the summer season – January and February, so a lot of places are shut. Walter & Monica showed us menus for a couple of places that were open and although the food was more than adequate, it failed to live up to the 2010 experience. As we picked up coats from the car it started to rain. As the taxi arrived to take us to the restaurant, huge snow flakes fell. My worry of not being able to reach Villa Pehuenia due to weather conditions now turned into a worry that we might be snowed in here for a few days! The drive to the restaurant felt a bit like a rally cross, but the driver clearly knew his way and how to avoid the pot-holes that I managed to get every time.

Two hours later he was back to pick us up. It was still snowing and some had settled along the sides of the road. I’m dreaming, of a white Christmas ….

As we woke up this morning, the view out of the bedroom window was one of those Christmas scenes that features on cards during the festive season. All I have to do is Photoshop in a few reindeer and a sleigh.

We had a nice relaxed breakfast and studied the Circuito del Lago – the Lake Loop, that would take us west, close to the Chilean border into the Andean foothills, then south, along the edge of the Lago Moquehue, before turning east towards Alumine, from where we headed back mort & west back to Villa Pehuenia, a 120 km long loop. It had stopped snowing but there was plenty of snow still on the surrounding mountain sides. The roads were clear though and steam was coming of the sides. We reached the Argentine Customs post where the officer recognised us and after a note of our passport number and a note of our intended goal, we were on our way again. We followed the lake route instead of taking the turn off to Chile, but at Moquehue were confronted with another Argentine border post. The officers here clearly were bored as they took a long time reading all the documents over and over again and commenting to each other on all the exotic places that had been stamped in our passport pages. They also checked the back of the car and my suitcase, but of course found everything in order. Finally we were off again.

It was very much a stop-start drive, with every bend in the road revealing yet more dramatic scenery. Araucaria trees look very photogenic after a dusting of snow! Angie picked up a handful of snow and posed as though it would end up in my face, but I hid behind the camera.

There was a threat of more snow ...

There was a threat of more snow …

At the southside of the lake the scenery changed and I remember taking this road in 2010 as well, finding Austrocactus and Pterocactus along the roadside. We stopped at a few rocky outcrops and slowly crawled past many others but failed to spot any cacti – yet I knew they had to be there.

More Araucaria and snow, but no cacti!

More Araucaria and snow, but no cacti!

Another reminder of our altitude - llama.

Another reminder of our altitude – llama.

At Alumine I decided to tackle another looming crisis – money, or rather lack of it. The local ATM suggested a maximum withdrawal equivalent to £30. Not a lot, as the fuel tank was approaching Empty. Unlike in Chile, Credit cards (or in fact ANY plastic) are not commonly accepted here, so ‘milking ATM machines became a new pastime. Yesterday we learned that a) you could enter an alternative amount, but that 1,000 pesos was invalid and 2) that I was allowed a maximum of 3 attempts that day and 3) I could withdraw 600 pesos. So in Alumine I tried 900 peso (c £90) and succeeded, twice, as did Angie, so we now had enough pesos to feed the car, ourselves, pay the hotel bill and our guide, Martin.

We got back in good time to meet Martin, our guide from 2010 and his friend, Alejandro, who spoke excellent English. The main purpose of the meeting was to agree the extend of any trip with Martin as our guide and the cost. Did we want to see Viola or cacti? Both! The bad news was that the flowers that we had seen in 2010 were open in December. Now, October, it was still too cold, so there were no Andean Violas to be seen in flower. Martin had found some more cacti, some 14 km south from the school where he was a teacher, but the other bad news was that he had to work for the next few days. We settled on meeting him at 15:00 hrs at the school for a look at the cacti and, if day light permitted, a look at the hillside where in 2010 we had seen the violas.

Alejandro also told us of an exciting discovery of Denmoza rhodacantha, the first time that it was found in the Province of Neuquen, south of the Colorado River and therefore in Patagonia. Wow, that was worthy of a visit – but alas, too far for tomorrow. I asked where it was and after a few phone calls to his boss and colleagues we had very clear instructions on where to find it. It is not far from RN 40, one of Argentina’s longest roads (I bought the T-shirt in 2010) and we would pass it in a few days time!

Altogether another great day with some nice surprises and a list of experiences that add to the diversity of what we are seeing. But no cacti photographed at today’s stops S2866 – images from the Lake Loop, and S2867 – views in and around Hosteria Al Paraiso in Villa Pehuenia.

Breakfast at Hosteria Al Paraiso, Villa Pehuenia

Breakfast at Hosteria Al Paraiso, Villa Pehuenia


Tuesday, 22 October 2013 – Temuco to Villa Pehuenia (Argentina)

Last night at the Holiday Inn Express was one of well earned luxury after a week and a bit on the road. Our bed was larger than some of the rooms we had stayed in! But, a price to match, so it’s good that there are more affordable options around.

At the end of September I had started looking at some suitable passes to get from Chile into Argentina. Just before we were due to leave, the car rental provider advised that we would not be able to pick up the necessary papers for taking the car into Argentina until the week after our arrival in Chile. A quick bit of rescheduling left me with one main concern: would the passes in the south be open? Some stated that they would only be open from 1 November – too late for us. I explained our problem to the owner of Hosteria Al Paraiso in Villa Pehuenia and he suggested the near by Paso Icalma, so small that Google Maps had not appeared to have heard of it, instead trying to send me on a 134 km detour! A weather check at the time reported 150 cm of snow and freezing temperatures.

There had not been much information about this pass on the internet and there was a significant stretch of track that was only ripio quality on the map. I remembered some of the tracks in 2010 which were turned into mudslides by an overnight thunderstorm and remembered the rain that we had experienced just a couple of days ago. Like a good IT Project Manager, I had ‘invoke reverse processing’ as an option.

I need not have worried. But let’s start at the beginning:
We enjoyed a nice Holiday Inn breakfast and a little later than usual set off. The hotel had been ideal for access from R5, but SatNav seemed unfamiliar with the town of Tembuco. After some scary experiences where it tried to send us the wrong way up one-way streets, we learned that this was in fact a feature – it consistently got it wrong each time! Back to first principles: we needed to head into the Andes that we could see some 50 km out of town in the east. Driving in a straight line, sooner or later we had to reach the outskirts of town where skylines were more easily seen and rush hour traffic would not try to push us off the road.

Angie was familiarising herself with strange sounding names of villages on the map and soon found one that we had driven through, that proved that we were headed in the right direction. It was nice and sunny despite the TV forecast of clouds and rain and the scenery was of a typical sunny UK Spring day, with fresh green leaves breaking on the Alamo (poplar) trees. Quite a fast road too, with average speeds of 80 km.p.hr. So far so good. But I remembered the drive to Antuco a couple of days ago where it got cold and bleak fast as we increased in altitude, and the Andes loomed up fast, their peaks covered in snow.

Then the asphalt stopped and we found ourselves on good gravel, but the sort of stuff that our car, christened Dodgy, had difficulties in keeping a straight line on. I suspect tyre wear and pressures might be to blame – something to check out at a next fuel stop. With the scenery improving, the slower speed was no hardship. Araucaria trees appeared on the hills, covered in mosses and lichen, producing an eery feel to the place.

Scenery on the way to the border with Argentina

Scenery on the way to the border with Argentina

Auracaria in the snow

Auracaria in the snow

As was the case in 2010, there were also a lot of dead trees around – stripped by nature of bark, standing like skeletons on the lower hills. Workers were busy in places to clear up the dead wood. Had these trees (Notofagus – southern beech?) been hit by a disease? Taking pictures nicely distracted us and so it came almost as a surprise as we saw the name Icalma appear by the side of the road. We were there at the pass, not at all the way that I had imagined an Andean mountain pass (1,300 m)

Four Chilean immigration officers competed for the challenge of best English speaker, all very relaxed and no other customers in sight. I told him about our experiences in 2008 at the Cristo Redentor pass on the day before New Year when we had been in a 12 km long queue to get from Argentina to Chile – a night mare. They laughed. ‘Send them this way’! they said. I promised to award them best ‘Exit from Chile’ officials. 12 km later, having taken some nice shots in no-man’s land’ of the Argentinian Lakes before us, we were met by an unsmiling Argentinian custom’s official, who directed us to park the car and enter the small wooden building. Here we were met by four girls in uniform who giggled as they tried to make sense of our passports. They called on a grey haired senior colleague for help. All in all we must have been more interesting than the cyclist who seemed to have been the other crossing that day – or more likely the warm(ish) empanada delivery man.

One more call to make, to a small hut across the road, where two more officials were glad to see somebody different from the locals and with mucho gusto stamped their way through the documents that imported our car temporarily into Argentina. Was I german? they asked, looking at my passport. ‘No, Holanda’ I replied. Ah, they said, better at football than Germany! No argument there, although the number of world cup wins suggest a different story. (S2865 – Lago Aluminé)2013-10-22 S2865

And so we turned up a day early at Hosteria Al Paraiso where it took a while for me to recognise our hostess Monica. No problem, they had rooms, so we could relax and catch up with Diaries and a bit of relaxing new age music that sets the tone for the hotel.