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Sunday, 17 October, 2010 – West of La Quiaca

Yesterday’s predictions turned out to be right – the desiccated plants of Yavia cryptacarpa were hard to find, but not to the eagle eyes of Juan and Florencia and also for Ian. It’s difficult to see how many different pictures you can take of these tiny plants. After snapping just 32 images of Y. cryptacarpa, Parodia maassii, Echinopsis ferox and Cumulopuntia boliviana at the Yavia Type Locality (this time S1927) we moved on to S1928 for more of the same, although, as in 2008, the plants were more plentiful here. Juan and Flo were quite successful in spotting and collecting fruits. The name ‘cryptocarpa‘ is for the feature where the fruits (carpa) remain hidden (crypto) inside the plant body. It seems that these plants in December / January, after some summer rains, but that during October, buds are already present, pushing the fruit out of the plant body. So when the rains come, last year’s seed is ‘sown’ while this year’s production cycle starts afresh. Ian and Angie had walked into the hills north of the track, an area that may well be part of Bolivia. Ian came back excitedly with stories of a small mostly buried cactus with spines protruding above ground. He then found a plant in flower: yellow flowers and we agree with his opinion that he had found a Weingartia sp. possibly W. neumanniana. We decided to carry on west but soon found ourselves out of the hills (at 3,600 m altitude, it seems confusing to call the low hills around us ‘mountains’) and entered a flat plain. Juan advised that his GPS showed lakes in this area. S1929. The name of the village we arrived at gave us a clue: Cienaguillas indicates marsh land. A lonely policeman at the check point in the village was pleased to see passing traffic on this Sunday morning. He inspected my passport and car documents. Then asked me what ‘Nederland’ meant. ‘Hollanda’ I replied proudly. ‘Ah’, he said, ‘you keep coming second in World Cup Soccer finals!’ Thanks very much! We decided to go back to see Ian’s find at S1928. It seemed that as the track twisted and turned, there was an easier access point, so this time stop number S1930 was allocated. There were some nice white flowers growing in a sandy plain across the track. No idea for an ID yet. No leaves visible and we did not take the trouble to inspect below ground level. Ian strode up the hill and as we struggled to follow in his slip stream (this was 3,800 m. altitude!) he found time to find a Neowerdermannia vorwerkii in flower as well. At the top of the hill he quickly found the yellow flower spotted on his earlier visit and by the time I arrived, huffing and puffing, several plants without flower had been neatly marked by Cliff and David so that they could be easily found again for the benefit of my camera and Juan & Flo. An exiting find and full credit to Ian for his eagle eyed observations. Just wait until you get to our age! Angie, David and I decided that we had had as much excitement as we could handle today, but Ian, Cliff, Juan & Flo made one more stop to try to add to their Yavia cryptocarpa seed collection.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008 – Uspallata to Pichidangui, Chile

Another strange but wonderful South American day. We woke up at about 2,000 m altitude, drove up to around 3,200 m around the base of the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas and ended up having a beer and photographing a sunset over the Pacific Ocean at 0 m. altitude. It can only happen in South America.

We set off nice and early and had selected one last Argentinean cactus stop, (S1143) about 22 km out of Uspallata for a last look at Eriosyce strausiana. It was the first time that The Database let us down. The area was (recently?) fenced off and fresh cow & horse dung indicated that it was used for grazing. The nice yellow grass outside of the fenced of area disappeared inside the wire and we concluded that with the grass, the cacti too had been destroyed.

We carried on towards the pass, looking for the track off the main road that would take us over the Andes, but failed to find any official roads or tracks to fit the bill. We turned round a bend to be confronted with the road passing through a valley, with tall, snow sprinkled mountains and a queue of cars as far as the eye could see. Our experience at the Paso Jama had not been great and we wondered how long this would take. It was 11:30 a.m. An hour later and we had moved on about a hundred yards. Lorries and busses seemed to enjoy special rights and zoomed past us. One or two cars with Chilean plates did the same. Half an hour later we decided that enough was enough, and if the cars with Chile plates managed to get through (we had not seen them come back) than so could we. We put on the 4 way hazard blinkers and went into the fast lane. You could tell by the looks on the Argentinean faces that this queue jumping was not appreciated. When we reached the front of the queue, closely followed by another Chilean car, awe found the road blocked by a stern looking policeman / border guard who told us to go back at the end of the (7 km long!!!) queue. He then went to the car behind us. At the sametime his colleague, ten meters closer to the border, blew his whistle and directed us to the end of the queue waiting to get into the customs hall. Those of you who know me will know that I always do as I’m told, so we followed this second gentleman’s instructions to the letter! Once in the hall, we had to park the car and join short queues of people at 5 different counters, one to formally exit Argentina, the second to clear the car out of Argentina, the third was immigration, to enter Chile (there was no problem with the wrong stamp put in our passports at San Pedro) then another to pay just £5 for the toll into Chile and finally one for the fitosanitary official to inspect and clear the car.

He found and confiscated the two Gymnocalycium striglianum fruits that we had collected the previous day and that had been over looked during Juan’s seed clearing session the previous night. Some people who cleared customs at the same time as us (c. 14:45) had been queuing since 8 a.m. in the morning, so we were lucky to get away with our stunt.

It is very difficult to see what real benefits countries obtain from these bureaucratic and ineffective capers at their borders.  It causes no end of inconvenience and frustration for those wanting to cross borders and so must have a negative impact on international trade and tourism. This comment is not just aimed at the Argentinean and Chilean border processes, but at similar events all around the world. It used to be the same at the borders in Europe, before the European Community more or less did away with borders between member countries and no one can claim that this has had a detrimental affect on security, health and safety or whatever other reasons may be quoted in defence of border controls. The fact is that any one hell bound on breaking the law can do so by simply bypassing official border controls as it is just too costly and impractical to implement a totally tight system, without being compared to the Iron Curtain systems from say 40 years ago.

We arrived at Pichidangui around 18:00 hours and met up with Florencia on the rocks of the Eriosyce chilensis (albida) site in view of the church-that-sticks-into-the-Ocean. She was accompanying Steve & Phyllis Frieze from LA for whom they were arranging a tour in Chile. I  had met Steve at a talk I gave at the Los Angeles Cactus & Succulent Society last February and at his request had introduced them to Juan & Flo.

Flo had contacted Maria and Juan Carlos Johow, whom we had met on the 2003 and 2007 Copiapoathons and who have a summer house at Pichidangui. We again enjoyed a look around their garden and watched the sunset over the bay and Pichidangui before finishing the day with a Pisco Sour, Lenguado & chips and ensalade paltas y tomate, words that in Chile ensure that I don’t go hungry.

Flo had found us a new set of Cabanas that will do nicely for future trips.

Monday, 29 December 2008 – San Carlos to Uspallata

Today, our last full day in Argentina on this trip, more than made up for the disappointment of yesterday. Juan noticed that in San Carlos we were at the same latitude as Lonquen in Chile.

Good cactus spotting days all come down to planning, and we had used our early hotel stop yesterday to do just that, so that today, we managed a stop just 32 km from the hotel, on the same Ruta 40 stretch of ‘boring with little prospect of cacti’ status that we had driven through in ignorance yesterday.

S1137, north of Zapata was a stop recommended by The Database as a location for Gymnocalycium striglianum, its n.n. var. herminae and some intermediates. Now why would a species and its subspecies and their intermediates grow side by side in the same habitat and form hybrids? What biological barriers could be found to prevent one from crossing with the other? None! In fact the intermediates were an indication that they did.  I therefore assume that the species and its variety are merely a demonstration of the variability within that species and of the idiotic naming craze by some hobbyists keen to give names to things that they can not understand. And here, the Gymno was not common; in fact we only found about half a dozen plants, growing with Cereus aethiops, Echinopsis leucantha and of course Opuntia sulphurea.

We left Ruta 40 and turned on to Ruta 7, that ultimately leads to the border with Chile, and made a stop just before Portrorillos (S1138), in the Andean foothills. The familiar sight of thunderstorms over the mountains to the west, accompanied by the equally familiar sound of thunder meant we kept an eye on its progress while photographing Opuntia sulphurea, Cumulopuntia bolivana (? we were only at 1,479 m altitude), E. leucanthus, two Tillandsia sp., Denmoza rhodacantha,   E. (Trichocereus) candicans, another ‘Trichocereus sp? and our target cactus: Eriosyce straussiana were all readily found. I’d have to say that once we had recorded E. straussiana, that it is not the most dynamic of cacti, best filed with E. leucantha and most Gymnocalycium under ‘boring’.

Next, we decided to drive on to the farthest away stop planned for today, at Los Tambillos (S1139), on the road that we had found blocked in San Juan yesterday, but today we managed to get to the spot I particularly wanted to see, from the south side, near Uspallate, the last main settlement with hotels before crossing back into Chile tomorrow. 

So what was so special about this stop? It is the only location listed in The Database for Opuntia clavarioides, a strange cactus that in cultivation can grow into strange shapes, with the shape of a hand as a common one seen in collections. Now, The Database is good, but not necessarily the font of all knowledge. I wonder if it occurs anywhere else?

You’d expect such a rare and small plant to be difficult to spot. Not at all, we managed to dodge some spectacular thunderstorms to arrive at The Spot in the dry, but with the plants still fresh and damp from the wash they had just enjoyed. Within a minute, Juan had found the first plants of O. clavarioides and they did look very cute. I wonder if it has changed name during the preparation of the New Cactus Lexicon, and if so, what its new name might be. Pterocactus gonjianii is also listed from here, but no obvious candidates for this name were found unless it is another name for O. clavariodes. But once we walked outside an area of roughly 10 x 10 m, no more plants could be found. RP 39 seems to follow an ancient Inca trail that I hope to find out more about on the internet once we manage to get connected.

This find was for me the icing on the Argentina Cake that we have enjoyed now since 13 December. We only managed to see selected cactus high lights but got to know the country much better and I’m sure that I’ll be spending more time in the North West, around La Quiaca and Tilcara and in selected places coming south.

I should of course mention the other plants found at S1139: Maihueniopsis hypogaea and Eriosyce atrospinosus – well, that is the name in The Database, alongside E. strausiana, which it is not. The spination on these plants was wonderful and varied, some yellow – horn coloured, others were almost black.

With the thunderstorms having moved south, towards Uspalata, we decided to move that way as well, with brief stops (S1140 and S1141) at roughly 10 km intervals. At S1140, the Eriosyce were the same as at S1139, but more plentiful and with less evidence of recent cattle grazing.  C. hypogaea was also present at both.

S1141 was only a token stop to confirm the extend of the populations, as we were distracted by a thunderstorm that had changed direction and was coming our way. On this area of flat open desert, our bodies were very much the tallest things around and we had no intention of becoming a lightning conductor, but at the same time we wanted to record the noise and lightning on video. Nature in Argentina was early with its New Years firework display!

Back in Uspallata, we booked into a hotel that, on later inspection seemed to be the only one without internet facilities. From our room, we kept getting weak connections from surrounding wifi routers that would disengage before you had a chance to log onto your email provider’s site. Very frustrating.

We celebrated our last night in Argentina of this trip by eating the largest steak I have seen for years, cooked to perfection and washed down with an excellent bottle of Malbec, all at ridiculously low prices by UK standards, but the high cost of living in Rip Off Britain is one thing that we certainly have not missed these last eight weeks.

Argentina, we’ll be back!

Sunday, 28 December 2008 – San Juan to San Carlos

After another night of thunder & rain (so I’m told) the day started great, bright sun shine, nice and quiet on the roads of San Juan and we were off to look for Eriosyce to the west of town, around Pachaco (E. strausiana ssp pachacoensis).

 Before too long we were out of town, on a nice semi-rural hardtop, lined with mature Eucalyptus trees behind which we could see the vineyards that are the source of the famed San Juan Cabernet Sauvignon. It promised to be another great day. Except I was having a problem with one eye that kept running – possibly a mild allergy reaction to all this lushness in nature – back in the UK I can have interesting hay-fever attacks. As there were loads of cyclists on the road at the side where I wasn’t seeing properly, I asked Cliff to take a turn.

By now we had entered the hills to the west of San Juan and while we stopped (S1135), Juan spotted a few Eriosyce on the hills along the road. Much too far away for Cliff & I to be able to see. So we poodled around at the foot of the hill while Juan went to take a look and confirmed that they were indeed E. strausiana. And we took his word for it that they looked just like the pictures in Katterman’s book! Because Juan likes a challenge, we asked him to find us some cristate forms, in flower, at eye level along the road. Needless to say. we’re still looking.

The day continued to improve as the scenery in the hills was great. We were following a river (the Rio San Juan) and could see a small dam that controlled the flow of water. We passed by the dam and then ….. Damn! a barrier across the road! A police officer scrambled out of a hut and informed us that the road was closed. How long for? we asked, hoping that it might be only for an hour or so. ‘Well, it’s been closed for the last five years, while they are building a new, bigger dam.’ came the reply. ‘Thanks for not updating the signs along the road’, we thought as we had to drive the 56 km back to San Juan. We were only a few km from our goal, very frustrating.

I mentioned that Juan likes a challenge, and not too far from his stop, he discovered some Eriosyce growing on the rock slopes nearer the road (S1136). A quick inspection revealed that these were well within zoom lens range, so cameras clicked. Now, back at the hotel, a look at Kattermann’s book shows that the Eriosyce at this second stop are in fact the much denser spined E. strausiana ssp pachacoensis! So doubly well done, Juan.

It took the sting out of the disappointment we felt, as the road we had selected (R 412 to Calingasta) had all sorts of other goodies growing alongside it, including E. famatinensis fa San Juan. By midday, we were back where we started, in San Juan, and there was no alternative route to where we wanted to go, except ‘the long way round’. We decided instead to do the hard driving that was due tomorrow now, or at least, to split it over two days. So we drove to and through te town of Mendoza and continued south until we reached the town of San Carlos. The Database suggests that there are some E. strausiana around here, but as we had not planned to be here, Juan’s magic GPS did not contain the relevant data. So today became a partial rest day as we booked into a nice hotel / casino, where it looks as if again, we might be the only guests.

Let’s hope that tomorrow turns out to be more productive!

Saturday, 27 December 2008 – Around San Juan, looking for Eriosyce

Last night again was one of lightning, thunder, and heavy rain. As usual, I slept well and heard about it in the morning.

The weather was bright; blue skies and fluffy clouds already building for tonight’s storms somewhere.

We decided to go to the ‘eastern cluster’ of Eriosyce, around Marayes. It was a good 150 km drive, but once we were out of San Juan, an average speeds of 100 km.p.h. meant that we made good time, so that we could allow ourselves a leg stretch (S1129) as we passed through an area where a Portulaca sp. was in full bloom with piercing magenta coloured flowers. It made a nice and different back drop for the Tephrocactus articulatus fa. papyracantha, but almost spineless (fa. inermis) and T. alexanderii fa nigrispina. Also photographed here was Cereus aethiops.

We drove past the Marayes turning and stopped soon afterwards S1130), west of the bridge across an almost dry river. Here we found Eriosyce bulbocalyx var. marayensis (syn. E. megliolii), Echinopsis (Trichocereus) huascha, E. leucantha, T. aleaxanderi, T. articulatus var papyracantus / inermis, and a single Gymnocalycium sp., most likely G. schickendantzii, or what ever it is called these days. I had gone to the north side of R141, but Juan & Cliff had just as much luck on the more hilly south side. Between us we should have enough seed of E. marayensis to supply various continents!

Next we drove passed the sign claiming that we were in Marayes and on until we saw the same sign from the other side. It seems that this dot on the map and cactus taxonomy consists of a radio mast and the remains of half a dozen houses, but seems no longer inhabited from what we saw. 

A bit farther along we made another stop (S1131), feeling that we now knew what to look for, habitat wise. We were spot on. Low hills with most of the Eriosyce preferring the shoulder of the slope, with some growing farther down and onto the flat floor of the valley. Here we found another Portulaca sp. in flower, with smaller flowers than the one we found at S1129. There must have been a lot of rain in this area just recently as the Eriosyce, Opuntia and Tephrocactus were all full of water. One Tephro had cladodes that were 15 cm. long!!! There was also a Bromeliad here that will have to wait until I get home to consult Roberto Kieslings Flora of San Juan. Lots of large rosettes of leaves with razor sharp teeth along the edge and spikes of yellow flowers. The Gymnocalycium schickendantzii (?). was also here, with some quite tall specimens.

Yesterday we had visited two outliers of the northern cluster of Eriosyce villicumensis or P. vertongenii or intermediates between the two but the core of the population cluster seemed to be around Las Lomitas (obviously a different one from the one in Pan de Azucar in Chile) and Termas La Laja . We made three stops in this area, after again determining where we thought that the plats would grow and again, we were spot on.

S1132 was caused by Juan spotting a plant in flower. These plants looked like white waxed Copiapoa cinerea, but obviously there flowers and spination was quite different. Quite photogenic though as I snapped away 87 pictures at this stop, including some of Tephrocactus.

Too near to warrant a different stop number and again prompted by Juan spotting an Eriosyce in flower, Cliff reported excitedly to have been standing on ‘another cactus’ while taking the Eriosyce in flower picture. Juan and Cliff found some more, including one fruit that contained the tell tale wing like seeds of Pterocactus. Back at the hotel, on checking The Database, we found that Pterocactus megiolii is reported from here. As usual, once you ‘get your eye in’, it becomes easier to find a few more of the same, some in bud, but none with wide open flowers. Here both the Eriosyce and the Pterocactus grew on the flat floor of the valley / river bed. Here the Eriosyce looked a bit like Gymnocalycium spegazinni, in as much that they too became pancake-like in shape and in this case, with much shorter spines.

S1133 was another expanse of flat riverbed, as Juan thought that this would be ideal Ptero country – and it was, but also Eriosyce and Tephrocactus liked it. We estimate that the temperature was around 35 C and I found it unpleasant to be out in the heat too long, as my eyes had already been dried out by the air-conditioning in the car, so after snapping the evidence of what grew here, I’d get back to the cooler car. As well as the heat, there were the flies and mossies to content with.

S1134 was more of the same, but just to establish the extent of this population. We really could have stopped anywhere along this track and would have found the Eriosyce.

Hot and tired, but satisfies we returned to the hotel Alhambra, just off the Plaza in San Juan for a cold beer (Quilmes Negra) and a cool shower, while downloading images and charging umpteen batteries. Such is the life of a cactus explorer 🙂

Friday, 26 December 2008 – Famatina to San Juan

The first stop of the day, S1119, was the cactus garden and nursery Chirau Mita, run by Patricia Granillo and Sebastian Carod, in Chilecito. We had visited here on 12 October 2005. This time (Boxing Day) nobody was home, so after taking a few pictures over the fence, as proof that we had been here, we moved on. More info on their website (http://www.chiraumita.com.ar),

Cactus Chirau Mita
Ruta Provincial Nº 12
(5300) La Rioja – La Rioja
Tel: +54 (3825) 42-4531

Today was going to be a driving day, 436 km on what looked on the map to be fast roads with a few short stretches winding through the mountains to get from one boring valley to another. Boring or not – they provided the fastest way of getting between two places. I had counted on an average speed of around 100 km. p. h., ignoring stops, but I had not counted on the numerous arroyos that would cross the road that were either in full stream, only an inch or two deep, but still required the car to be slowed down to check that there were no nasty surprises in store; or which had been flooded, but had now dried up, leaving an inch or two of wet mud to slow you down. Just as you had changed up to 4th gear (out of 5) it was time to slow down again for the next crossing.

Our database of cactus location showed a baffling number of possibilities, but we decided to focus on Eriosyce – after all, Juan is webmaster of http://www.eriosyce.info that so far had ignored the Argentinean taxa. A bit of analysis showed that there were three ‘clusters’ of Eriosyce centred on the capital, San Juan: one to the north, where we came from, one to the west and another to the east. We’ll forget about names for the moment. When you have a database of 7003 entries, just for records with GPS data from Argentina, it becomes clear that many people have visited identical sites but report seeing entirely different taxa, or rather, naming the same plant in a number of different ways. Some may be ‘right’, some use ‘old splitter names’, some use combinations already superseded by other names and some are just plain ‘wrong’.

We made a total of ten stops, but on a driving day like today, these were brief and more geared to our need to stretch legs or stunning scenery, than to the pure exploration of cacti. Each time, I’d take at least one image of all the cacti & other succulents spotted, just for the record. Rather than give you a boring list of ten stops with the same old names appearing over and over again, I’ll summarise matters by saying that in the flat river valleys, we saw lots of Tephrocactus, which were fairly stable in appearance where ever we stopped, but showed some variation at different stops with some 50 km or more between stops. They were all of the T. alexanderi type. In some places they were in flower, but only, say, 1 plant out of 1,000, so hardly a mass flowering event; while at another stop there were no flowers to be seen at all. We (mainly Juan) spotted a few Gymnocalycium that all looked of the ‘boring’ type, and that are sure to have some wonderful names according to the splitters, or are considered to belong to only one species, if you are a lumper. There were no flowers here.

The last two stops (S1127 & S1128) were two odd balls from the northern cluster, in a different Sierra to the main cluster that we hope to see tomorrow. Names used for these plants include E. villicumensis and E. vertongenii and supposed intermediates between the two. We were fortunate to find two plants in flower and a few in fruit from which we collected what looks like viable seed.

By tomorrow we hope to have seen the core northern population and the ones in the east and west, but to some extent, this may depend on the weather. As we went out to dinner tonight we were caught in one of those glorious thunderstorms that seem to be regular in this part of the world.

We’ll check tomorrow’s TV forecast to see which areas can expect rain when and try to schedule the order of the day accordingly.

PS: now back in the UK I’ll add the plant names to a full stop list:

S1119 – Stephan’s nursery at Chilecito – no body home.

S1120 – Deuterocohnia (Abromeitiella) brevifolia, Echinopsis (Trichocereus) huascha, E. terscheckii, Gymnocalycium saglione

S1121 – Echinopsis (Lobivia) sp. (thionantha?), Tephrocactus alexanderi.

S1122 – Echinopsis leucantha, Tephrocactus aoracanthus

S1123 – Echinopsis (Trichocereus) huascha (?), Opuntia sulphurea

S1124 – Cereus aethiops, Echinopsis leucantha, Gymnocalycium sp., Tephrocactus aoracanthus

S1125 – Tephrocactus aoracanthus

S1126 – Tephrocactus aoracanthus

S1127 – Echinopsis (Trichocereus) huascha (?) or E. strigonus (?), E. leucantha, Eriosyce villicumensis (E. vertongenii). Tephrocactus aorocanthus, Opuntia sp.

S1128 – Echinopsis leucantha, Eriosyce villicumensis (E. vertongenii), Tephrocactus aorocanthus.

Thursday, 25 December 2008 – Christmas Day Around Famatina

Even Cactus Explorers occasionally need a day off, or so it seems, as around 4 p.m. each day, Cliff or I would ‘hit a wall’ and just need a few minutes of shut eye. Signs of old age, I hear you say. Aged 28, Juan also enjoys a doze around this time. Fine, as long as the driver stays awake!

We had asked Mario and Gladys (honestly!) who ran the main comedores (eatery), appropriately called Comedores San Nicolas on the plaza, if they would be open for breakfast. Yes, after 10. So we had a lie in and arrived at about 10:15 to find a young lady waiting for us. The Christmas Day Mass in the church across the Plaza was being broadcast via the restaurant’s sound system. Around 11, a gentleman nervously asked if we were the owner of one of the cars in front of the eatery. And please could we move it as after the mass, at around 12:00, there would be a procession around the plaza. Having seen religious processions in South America before (Chile, Calama, 2007 springs to mind) I knew that these could be joyous, colourful affairs, so while Cliff parked the car, I put myself in a good position to video the procession. This one turned out to be a very quiet, pious one, with a group of guitarists in the middle of the small crowd accompanying the singing of hymns.  Some of the senior people in the group wore curious head dresses that reminded me more of Inca than Roman Catholic / Spanish styles. Every few minutes, a large firework banger would be let off. And so the procession shuffled around the Plaza in rather disorganised fashion.

After one side of the Plaza, we had seen enough and went back to the car and returned to the area where yesterday we had had rather a good day, intending to take the other track at the junction where yesterday we took the left fork.

S1116 was for the same stretch of track from the R11 junction to the sign posted fork in the road that we recorded yesterday as S1114 and was just to allow us to take pictures of Echinopsis huascha / candicans that had been in bud. We found one with a white-with-pink-flush and one with yellow-with-red-tipped-outer-petals flowers and also returned to yesterday’s red flowered plant which now had one flower wide open and the other closed.

So we took the right fork, sign posted to ‘Lavadores de Oro’ Washing of gold – as apparently presentations by prospectors panning for gold could be witnessed. We drove past to S1117, to consider Juan’s observations that this track did not go to the locations that we had wanted to go to for more E. famatinensis sites. We decided to have a quick look around and found A Gymnocalycium sp., flat as a pancake on flat terrain. G. rhodantherum has been reported from here, but this is not a name that I’m familiar with, so one to look up once I’m back in the UK. Theprocactus alexanderi – a densely spined form, was here and all the other cacti reported at the other stops yesterday, except E. famatinensis and Eriosyce andreaeani.

Back to the fork and down the left fork that we had taken yesterday. We needed to drive for 2.5 km before taking the right fork. When we got there, there was no sign of a fork in the track, unless you counted the river bed. The usual thunderstorm was early today and it was heavier than the few drops we had had on previous days. In fact, it was a classic down pour, making the dirt track a bit more slippery and convincing us that the track we were looking for must have been washed away. This was not good weather for photography and I had a small paranoid notion that the sum of the water falling around us and in the hills above us would at some stage want to come past us through the brooks and streams that we had crossed before and that were already fast flowing with muddy water. We decided to head back to R11 and take a look farther north, which seemed to be dry.

We picked up a hitch hiker, a chap in his early fifties, dripping in his rain coat with a massive back pack, standing in the pouring rain. He was from Buenos Aires and had spent the last 6 years here for the Christmas period, on holiday, hiking in the hills. Nice to help somebody with a lift to the main road as a Christmas gesture.

Along R11, we made two stops close together, jointly recorded as S1118. The rocky outcrops along the side of the road were made of very coarse granite, very crumbly, similar to the rocks just north of Caldera in Chile.  The cacti here were disappointing, a few Echinopsis (Trichocereus) huascha (?), including one with yellow flowers, a few Gymnocalycium sp and one Echinopsis sp. but the area did not ‘smell of cacti’ like some other spots we had been, so we decided to have an early finish and went back to our Hospedaje.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008 – Around Famatina

Cliff had admitted that one thing he would not miss was doing the traditional Christmas dinner for who knows how many people. Going on a 5 month cactus trip in South America seems a bit extreme for getting out of cooking a meal, but today really did not need an excuse, it was great!

In 2005 we had managed to get the bus up to a track to a point where the road became impassable (for a bus). Guillermo guided us on foot to a hillside full of Denmoza rhodacantha and Echinopsis (Lobivia / Soehrensia) formosa and then went back to the bus to prepare lunch.

As we were here for three days, we decided to spend the first day looking up sites for ‘special cacti’ for the area which in this case had to be Echinopsis (Lobivia) famatinensis (famatimensis in the old spelling) and Eriosyce (Pyrrhocactus) andreaeani. We consulted ‘The Location Database’ and loaded stops for those plants into Juan’s GPS unit, that also has the Argentina mapping on board. We were staying in Hospedaje Mejicana, and many of the locations were along a track (4×4 recommended) to Mina Mejicana, so we saw our choice of accommodation as a good omen and, when the track split into two, we decided to follow the track to the Mina. This had all the Eriosyce stops on it, while the other had the E. famatinensis stops on it – something to look forward to on Christmas day.

Soon after the split in the track, I recognised the farm named ‘Wamatinag’ with a story about conservation on a board in the yard. This is where Guillermo had taken us and a bit farther along was the hillside where we had been lose for an hour or so. Great for the way back.

We decided to mark the locations suggested by the Database mentally as we passed them, but to drive on to the farthest away one. As usual there were threatening skies and as the track often was part of the river bed, there was a slight concern that a good storm could cut us off for a few hours, particularly if we had been in the dry, but the rain had come down out of sight, but in the drainage area of the Rio Amarillo arroyos that we were crossing or using as road. The Mina seems to have been abandoned some time ago and as we approached its alleged location, the track became worse and worse. We had already passed the last of the planned locations and were really only going on because we were so close to the mine.

Eventually, common sense prevailed and we marked our turn around spot with the first stop of the day (S1109). A few rain drops fell on the windscreen and we could hear the sound of far away thunder, but on the other side of the Famatina Valley, no need for us to be concerned about the rain that we could see coming out of the clouds. So what did we see?   Some shrubs and perennials in flower, including Digitalis (Fox glove) – an import?- a small opuntioid sp. with many small cladodes, Cumulopuntia bolivianus (we had climbed by car to 2,544 m), Echinopsis formosa and Denmoza rhodacantha, where I should have known not to confuse the robust spination of young plants and the dense, fine spination of the large plants that has resulted in me having numerous specimens in my collection, because I thought that they were different species during my visits to nurseries. Then the surprise of the day when I found a group of E. famatinensis! But they were not supposed to be from here! We can only suggest that the Eriosyce-freaks who had been here were not looking for this plant and hopefully this means that tomorrow’s trip along the other track will yield more and also some Pyrrhocactus. One of the plants had two fruits, that Juan told me seemed to contain viable seed, as I left it for the others to photograph the plant with fruit. As usual, when you get your eye in, you see many more, especially as you are on your knees taking pictures and look around before getting up. I’m very pleased with the pictures from this location.

On our way to the next stop we photographed huge clumps of Puya (?) sp and Abromeitella sp. on the steep mountain sides. We had learned that E. umadeava prefers flat rather than steep habitats, so at the first suitable flattish alluvial area we made S1110. Here we found D. rhodacantha (in bud and in flower), O. sulphurea and Tunilla sp., but no Pyrrhocactus.

At S1111 we saw Echinopsis (Trichocereus) candicans (or was it E. huascha? Must look up the differences when I get home, if I remember.) These were huge clumps, but none would have even been considered for a place, let alone a prize, on a UK show bench – these were tatty plants. From a distance, the dense groupings looked impressive. Consider as a ground cover plant, planted in large numbers, rather than as an individual specimen plant. Each fruit contained enough seed to supply any national C&S Society ten times over! And there was plenty of fruit! Juan complained that if he had known he would have brought a supermarket carrier bag.

S1112 was a E. andreaeani stop from the Database, but looked unlikely to live up to its promise. All the plants from the previous stops (except E. famatinensis) were here, but where was E. andreaeani hiding? In fact, what did it look like? How big was it?

As we clambered around on the rocks (great to be 55 years of age and spend Christmas Eve clambering around rocks!!), Juan came up with the answer as he found a small cactus with tell tale Eriosyce fruits – and ripe seed! And as usual, if you find one, you find more, growing underneath the shrubs, making it difficult to get good pictures. After the initial excitement and a good crop of pics, we had to admit that this plant was not as photogenic as its cousin E. umadeave, farther north. Still, it was another tick on our ‘taxa seen in habitat’ list that just keeps on growing.  There’s little point in listing all the other cacti found here, as I’d just repeat the list of the previous stops today.

The remaining stops were just caused by ‘cacti of interest along the road’ rather than a search for a specific species. S1113 was for an impressive ‘stand’ of E. candicans (?) with one flower that had already closed suggesting a yellow flower earlier today. BTW: when cacti have a ‘decumbent’ (laying down) growth habit, is the collective group name still ‘a stand’?

S1114 was just after the ‘Wamatinag’ farm, for two large red flowers on a decumbent Echinopsis (Trichocereus) sp. stem, suggesting that the drop in altitude had now brought us into E. huascha territory.

S1115 was on the junction back on R11 to the town of Famatina, where Juan spotted large numbers of Tephrocactus alexanderi.

It was still hot and sticky as we arrived ‘home’ at our hotel, in time to download the images, write up today’s report and select an image taken earlier of a decoration on the door of our room (109) at the Hosteria in Tilcara, that will have to do as my Christmas Card for 2008.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 23 December 2008 – Tinogasta to Famatina

We had planned to stay a day around Fiambala / Tinogasta. We spent a pleasant morning at the Termas La Aguadita (the one with the tadpoles from 2005). Cliff slept on a bench, I dangled my feet in the pool (the one at 41C) and Juan climbed 100 m +, nearly to the top of an impossible mountain at the back of the Termas. But sooner or later, cactus explorers get restless …. but lets start at the beginning.

After breakfast we went into the town of Tinogasta.The name Tinogasta comes from the Kakana words tino “meeting” and gasta “town”. After a bit of shopping, we fuelled the car and got some more money out – you never know when things might be open over the forthcoming Christmas period. The queue at the bank went nearly round the block. A kind gent in the queue told us that if we only wanted to use the cash machine, we could get in the shorter queue (only 3 people ahead of us) saving us quite a bit of time.

In 2005 we had stayed in Anillaco, in the ACA Hosteria with the Trichocereus growing epiphytically out of a tree and the Gymnocalycium kieslingii site right on the wasteland in front of the Hotel. Anillaco was only 11 km up the road and I had high hopes of it having Internet facilities. When we got there, this Anillaco was a church and a small community of farm hands for the large Finca (farm) that had stripped all the land for the production of olives and figs. The other Anillaco is in the Province of La Rioja, scheduled for tomorrow, although the planned route will not takes us to that town.

Disappointed, we made our first cactus stop (S1103) in the broad Valle de Fiambala,  of the Rio Fiambala and Rio Ataucan.  This flat plain looked very unpromising, until guess who spotted a white-pinkish cactus flower: Tephrocactus alexanderi! The plants looked dry and were partially buried in the sand that gets blown around every where. I love Tephrocactus, as they are like multi-storey globular cacti. There are two reasons for this development: firstly, the plant need not rely on pollinators for sexual reproduction as it readily falls to bits so that each cladode roots and becomes a plant in its own right.  Secondly, we often found this plant growing in very sandy conditions where it would soon get buried. By growing a perfectly plant body on top of the older cladode, it can keep it’s head above the water (or rather the sand). The only other cactus here was Opuntia sulphurea.

S1104 was the Termas de Aguadita stop. From the pools area we could spot Tephrocactus alexanderi, Echinopsis leuacantha and Denmoza rhodacantha.

I was disappointed with the range of plants found as I had hoped for other Tephros. The Hotel in Fiambala was still having the same renovations performed that made it look like a building site in 2005. There was nothing here cactus wise to keep us.

We decided to drop back down to Tinogasta as a possible location for another night, and to drive back along R60 where yesterday, around Salado, we had seen more Tephrocactus in flower. Here (S1105), I believe the Tephro here was T. aoracanthus and again, some were in flower. With literally millions of plants around, we would of course select those in flower as camera fodder, which creates the impressions that every plant was in flower – not so. I guess less than 1 % was in flower and the number of fruits suggest that the peak of flowering was a few weeks ago, although of course fruits can be seen for weeks on end while the flowers are only around for one, may be two days. The other cacti here were the usual bunch: E. leucantha, Cereus aethiops and O. sulphurea.

-28 18.9038 -67 18.3578

S1106 was a bit (10 km) farther east, near Cordobita, and here Tephrocactus alexanderi (very dessicated) grew with T. articulatus (or T. aoracanthus), including almost spineless forms. I’m not sure if this is T. strobiliformis, as in the UK this usually has small cladodes. These were as big as those of T. articulatus, just (mainly) spineless. Again there was E. leucantha, C. aethiops and O. sulphurea.

Originally our aim had been to drive to San Blas where in 2005 we had found just about all the species (or forms?) of Tephrocactus in one place. As we had seen just about all of them today, we considered going back to Tinogasta, but we were now so close (26 km) that it seemed churlish not to go on. When we arrived (S1107) I did not recognise the place. I briefly looked on both sides of the road and on a rocky slope to the east of the road, but there was really nothing here that we had not seen already and the Tephros looked all fairly similar, certainly nothing to justify my enthusiasm for this site in 2005. I expect that we had had a long spell on the bus that time and you always get more excited when you’re let loose among cacti. Plus, when you’re told that all these taxa grow here together, your brain is more willing to accept this than if you’ve spent the day looking at gradual transitions. This time most cladodes were quite dry and this perhaps disguised some of the features that had persuaded me that there were so many forms. I’m always interested in seeing how the mind can play tricks.

By now it was 17:30. Should we drive the 86 km back to Tinogasta and have come back this way again tomorrow or just push on the other 120 km to Chilocito, our goal for the next day? We decided on the latter and changed our mind again as we got closer and saw a turn off to Famatina. Juan’s GPS showed that there was a Hosteria in Famatina, so that became our goal.

Cliff had been driving all day and needed a rest, so we stopped for a hand over of duties. As we pulled over we found ourselves right in the middle of a population of Tephrocactus articulatus, the form with soft papery spines that had given rise to the name Opuntia papyracantha  (S1108). For the record we also found a Gymnocalycium here (1 plant, damaged, hidden in a shrub, with an Echinopsis in similar condition).

In Famatina we made straight for the Hosteria which was closed for renovations (for quite a few months, judging by the weeds growing on the piles of building materials). At the Plaza, a policeman directed us to Hospedeja Mejicana where we’ll spend 3 nights, to catch up on washing and take a look at the diverse cactus vegetation. Strange, we thought, a B&B named for Mexico, in Argentina. Next we started to look for stops recorded near by for Eriosyce andreanus / strausianus and Echinopsis / Lobivia famatimensis and found it reported from Mina Mejicana!, so that is where we’ll be heading tomorrow!

Monday, 22 December 2008 – Cafayate to Tinogasta

While I was dead to the world (as usual), Cliff reported a night of heavy rains and thunder, with video clips to prove it. It seems all the water was spent, because it was dry and sunny during breakfast and for most of the day the shower and thunderstorm clouds hang over the mountains on both sides of the wide valleys.

In my original plan, we hoped to spend the night in Fiambala, however, yesterday’s trip of being bounced around on variable dirt tracks (indicated as ‘main roads’ on maps and road number systems) made us decide to aim for Belen instead. However, as we sped along great and straight tarmac at 100 – 120 km.p.h. (the only thing holding me back were the cows, goats, donkeys and horses grazing by the side of the road and some carcasses of their erstwhile cousins near by) for stretches of an hour on end, we kept revising the plans, but then, when tarmac turned back to dirt, they were reviewed again. Juan’s GPS, with maps down loaded for free from the internet, proved invaluable – a kind of hand held sat nav system, with Juan using his brain to give clear and sensible instructions rather than the voice of an actor speaking into a microphone in a studio on a different planet. We ended up driving 436 km, quite a bit more than we had planned.

We passed through the four houses that are Quilmes and saw the signs to the Ruinas de Quilmes, where we stayed in (for me) one of the best hotels of the 2005 trip. ‘Let’s show Juan’, we agreed and we drove up the 5 km drive that led to the monument that is a tribute to the Quilmes people who were defeated by the Spanish Conquistadors and marched to Buenos Aires where a whole suburb and the most famous beer in Argentina is named after them. Many did not survive the journey. After the 5 km drive, we were met by a gate where a man was collecting 10 pesos (£ 2, at least by our reckoning when we left Chile for Argentina) per person to come in. ‘But we want to go to the hotel.’ we protested, ‘Surely we don’t have to pay to go to the hotel!?’ ‘The hotel is closed.’ came the reply, so we turned around and went on our way.

As a result, we made our first stop (S1099) after some two hours of driving, just before Fatima (no, not a spelling mistake for the famous Famatina)  and found E. thionantha, Parodia sp (microcarpa complex), Gymnocalycium saglionis (it was a huge specimen that had persuaded me to stop, although on closer examination, it was not a show stopper), Tephrocactus webberi and Opuntia sulphurea.

S1100 was just after the Fatima sign, mainly because I had spotted Echinopsis leucantha that Juan had heard us talk about, but had never seen. There were great Gymnocalycium here which I think were still Spegs, but these were large globular plants, not the flat pancake form. We also saw Cereus aethiops as well as the taxa mentioned for the previous stop.

The day was going great, and then, the track went through a ford, a fast flowing stream in a usual dry arroyo that crossed the road. But we were in a Hilux, so what? Then there was another, wider and deeper, again no problem, but then we were faced with a broad river bed now with various bits in full flow. It took a while to figure out where the track was supposed to go. There were no other cars around to prove that this part was passable. We skipped across the various bits of river, each time sitting on a sand / gravel bank to evaluate the risk of the next crossing. We  got to the last one, but this seemed deeper and faster than all the others. A young couple standing on the other shore shrugged their shoulders when we asked if it was safe to cross. As the driver at the time, I decided that it was best to turn around and not to risk cars and luggage, and who knows, personal safety. No one objected although I bet that if Leo had been in the car, he would have taken the gamble and probably would have gotten through OK – remember Carrizal Bajo in 2001?

So, it was a silent drive 15 km back to Santa Maria where there was a bridge across the Rio San Jose and then on a main road (hard top!) that took a loop around the trouble spot, contributing to some of today’s extra km.

It was another 2:30 hours and a few more dodgy river crossings later that we felt we had caught up and could afford the time for other stops (S1101 and S1102 were close together) where we saw another Trichocereus that I’ll call Echinopsis (Trichocereus) pseudocandicans for now, mostly in fruit, but two had buds of yellow flowers that were just opening (or closing). C. aethiops, E. leucanthus, E. terscheckii, E. thionantha, G. saglionis and Opuntia sulphurea were also all present at both stops, most of the growing in the shade underneath Palo Verde and Acacia shrubs.

As we approached Tinogasta, Cliff & Juan reported seeing Tephrocactus articulatus in flower along the side of the road, but we agreed that it was late and the light not the best for photography.

We arrived in Tinogasta around around 7, booked into Hotel Viñas del Sol  and by 9 p.m. were ready to ‘hit the town’, which was as busy as any South American town, two days before Christmas, bustling with last minute shoppers but also with young folks ‘cruising the plaza’. We found a restaurant on the corner of the plaza from where we could observe all the action, the volunteer policeman directing the traffic because the traffic lights would be fixed after the holidays, the mothers dragging crying kids past toy shops. We had a huge 3 course BBQ, carefully watched by some local (canine) dogs; you could see the think balloon coming from their head when we asked for the bill and left without feeding them the bones and other left overs: ‘Bloody tourists!’

We looked for, but failed to find, an Internet cafe to post this and yesterday’s Diary Reports – still, it will give you something to do over the Christmas break. For 54 years I have been cold and shivery outside over Christmas. Today, we were complaining that it was too warm. We are hard to please.

Tomorrow we plan an easier day, going to Fiambala, only 48 km up the road, but into the mountains, with a visit to the ‘Termas-with-the-tadpoles’ and all the Tephrocacti. Every day, the task of selecting the best pictures and film clips for talks becomes harder and harder.

We are around the longest day in South America and the winter Solstice in the UK, where it will only be 182 days before the days will get shorter again. I hope that the druids at Stonehenge managed without me.