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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!

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