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Sunday, 30 October 2005 – Cordoba – last official day and post scripts

It’s the usual mixture of sadness and relief when I get to the last Diary page. Sad, because the trip is now really over, I have no further excuse for the daily session of escapism. Relief, because I can relax a bit now that the pressure to produce daily reports has gone.

For me, the day was nice and relaxed – Guillermo had invited us to a BBQ at his home and to meet his family and some friends. Sylvia and Guillermo had put on some great hospitality and young Xavier entertained us by showing that even at his young age, he was a better footballer than the Brits, while the Americans watched. And better than the Dutch? Of course not 🙂 I believe I can speak for all the trippers when I say that we had made some great friends in Argentina. Do let us know when you next visit England!

All too soon the time had come for the Americans to leave for the Airport and the flight home and not too long afterwards, for the remaining Europeans and Woody to return to the hotel. We said thanks you and goodbye to Emilio and also asked Guillermo pass on our very best wishes and thanks to Diego Gurvich, who could only guide us on the first part of the trip.

Looking back, it was good to have some days to relax before being thrown back into work on arrival in the UK. I was able to catch up with some world news on CNN – I had not missed anything, but it was good to make sure in case of unpleasant surprises later. I have no TV at home, but tend to use it as ‘moving wallpaper and back ground noise’ at Angie’s.

I copied all the original images on to 6 CDs, then started the task of editing the remainder – reduce size to XGA screen resolution (the same as my digital projector), create header slides for each day and each stop in PowerPoint, reject substandard images (I keep everything on the ‘Originals CDs’ – you never know if they contain something that is essential to settle an argument later, even if the picture is not up to scratch for talks.), rename all the images so that their file names are Sxxx_yyy, where xxx is the stop number and yyy the sequential number of the images at that stop; move all the GPS images to a separate folder, move all Hotel shots to the Hotel folder etc.

On Monday 31 October, Anne, Woody and I took a taxi into the centre of Cordoba and enjoyed quite a few hours of sightseeing, photographing cathedrals, universities, government buildings and anything else that attracted out attention. There were some really impressive buildings in a wide range of architectural styles. Woody spotted a replica of a bright red English telephone box and wanted to pose in it. As we got closer, Anne and I could regrettably confirm that it was an impressively accurate replica of the real thing: it had been vandalised and used as a toilet, just as so many of the ones found back home.

Bryan, Paul Shipsides and Ian had been to visit the local Zoo, while Cliff had stayed in the hotel to get over the final stages of Clifftonnaires Disease (or was it to chat up the ladies in room service?). Paul is the horticulturist at Chester Zoo in England, so it was back to work in a sense.

Tuesday 1 November, for me was finishing off the image editing tasks that I had set myself, mixed with walks to the local shopping mall to use up some more pesos on essentials and souvenirs.

Wednesday 2 November, and we had until midday to pack and leave the room. I discarded the jeans worn for three weeks in the field, torn and ripped by Acacia, bromeliads and cacti and the surplus T shirts brought from the UK, now dirty and replaced with various Argentine tourist T shirts with artisan motifs. To my surprise, everything fitted – just – and was within our weight allowance.

Guillermo met us for the trip to the Airport. None of us like long goodbyes, and anyway, it was more like Hasta la Vista, Guillermo, and thanks for looking after us so well on an excellent trip.

When I started these Diaries, I asked web-masters / moderators to let me know if they objected to some publicity for these trips. No responses were received, so if any of you feel inspired to check things out for yourself, rather than take my word for it, check out

http://www.cactusexpeditions.com.ar/

for details of future trips. Guillermo will be happy to consider special customised trip requests providing that you have sufficient numbers in your party. Don’t forget to request the extra wine tasting sessions – they are a great way to wind down for dinner and good fun.

Saturday, 29 October 2005 – San Javier to Cordoba

The last day on the road, and for John, the last day of the trip as his plane would leave Cordoba in the afternoon. The weather, after the previous night’s thunderstorm, had joined in with our rather down mood – thick fog provided an extra challenge for driver Jorge.

By 8:45 we arrived at ‘Alberto’s Cactus Garden’ (S506) – Alberto is a very nice guy who had planted some local and not-so local cacti out in his garden and made some money by selling cacti to passers by. Light conditions were poor and dripping wet cacti photographed through tick fog soon lose any novelty value as our body temperature dropped. As usual, the Gymnos were in bud, but no flowers. Clearly there was a plot to delay flowering until we left the country. I guess that in preparing my script for future talks I could say: ‘Based on my extensive experience gained during a three week field trip in Argentina, I conclude that Gymnos do NOT flower in habitat.’ See how easy it is to draw the wrong conclusions from one trip?

Most of the stops planned for the day had to be cancelled, as the conditions were too wet and, whilst we would have found the cacti, the light was very poor for photography. However, by 11:30 legs had to be stretched and bladders emptied so a ‘toilet stop’ was requested (S507). Sometimes these ad-hoc stops produce surprising results, so we designated the right hand side of the road as ‘toilet’ while we explored the left hand side for cacti. We found Gymnocalycium calochlorum, G. monvillei and G. quelianum and Parodia (Notocactus) submammulosa. I’ve learned since that the name G. quelianum has ‘disappeared’ as it was not clear which seed group the plant in the original description was based on. It is therefore proposed to use the later name G. stellatum for a member of the Trichomosemineum seed-group while a very similar looking plant found near Quilino, but in the Ovatisemineum seed-group, has now been named G. robustum. However, here I’ll be consistent and use the naming in Kiesling’s Catalog. We found no seed, so couldn’t tell you the seed group, even if I wanted.

The weather had cleared slightly and the light was not too bad – in fact Rob must have been very pleased at the diffuser that Nature had provided. This area must have had quite a bit of moisture during the last few weeks as the plants were in peak shape, bursting with vigour. Don’t even ask about Gymno flowers – there were some that had passed over in recent days – none open.

And so to S508, the last stop on my list for the trip, along the main road to Cordoba. The stars for the cameras’ delight here were Echinopsis aurea, Gymnocactus mostii, G. quehlianum, Parodia submammulosa and Opuntia sulphurea. The Opuntia must have been at every stop on the trip, even if I may not have seen, listed or photographed it. Does it earn the title of ‘most widely distributed Argentinean cactus species’? Where would this feature on a world wide ranking? Any flowers? Yes, one, but barely open: on the Parodia (Notocactus).

And that was that, at least as far as this year’s cacti in habitat were concerned. We arrived safely back in Cordoba, said our goodbyes to John who was off to the airport, settled in our rooms and prepared for tonight’s farewell dinner – a treat arranged by Guillermo: a meal in a Tango restaurant in town. When he first mentioned this I was a little concerned; I can tip-toe through an Opuntia patch, but put me in a formal dance hall setting and my legs and feet refuse any coordinated activity. Guillermo laughed and put my mind at rest – we would watch professional Tango dancers perform a series of dances with singers performing some traditional songs accompanied by the typical small band. Great food and drink and for me a very pleasant new cultural experience. There was another side to the evening that I know must have irritated Guillermo enormously. He had booked the main table with the best view of the stage months in advance, yet when we arrived we were shown to other tables to the right of the stage. The main table had been given to a large traditional Argentine family. Earlier on the trip, Guillermo had told us that some 75% of the population were Italian descendants. While I do not wish to insult those that had taken over ‘our’ main table, I was intrigued to see the respect with which the guests treated the elderly gentleman at the end of the table and how the women would sit and giggle. It was like watching a scene from the film ‘The Godfather’, but I stress that I do not want to imply any criminal background to these characters. Although …. Guillermo, take a horse’s head next time you book?
🙂

The other memorable item that comes back as I think of the evening is the state of the taxi that drove us back to the hotel – the front passenger seat was no longer bolted to the floor, but was held in place by Woody’s weight as we bumped through town. We argued if there were two lights or just the one on the car that was working. The answer turned out to be three – one head light, the interior light that came on when the driver had to count out his change and the light on the top of the taxi that was switched on to attract new passengers as he drove off into the night, having safely delivered us to the Hotel. For me it was part of the country’s charms. In England we often moan about the ‘Nanny State’ where everything has to be regulated and anything that is fun is forbidden. The collapse of the Argentine currency some four years ago had a devastating impact on a wide range of the population, but like the cacti we saw, the Argentineans appear to be a resilient people, had survived the worst and were busy rebuilding their country – there was a feeling of optimism rather than despair.

Tomorrow we say goodbye to the Americans, with the exception of Woody, who was staying on for another trip with Guillermo, to Patagonia..

There had been some complications with our return flight when we had booked and rather than fly back via Santiago, we had decided to stay until Wednesday 3 November for a cheaper and more direct flight back. I won’t do daily Diary reports for these days, so tomorrow I intend to post the last report in this series and will include highlights of our remaining days in Argentina.

Friday, 28 October 2005 – Olta to San Javier

As we lugged our luggage down the narrow stairs of the hotel we were at least able to recognise some positives in the knowledge that our trip would soon come to an end. We’d need to repeat this daily ritual one more time before arriving in Cordoba, where the hotel staff at the Holiday Inn would take care of such matters until we were due to fly home. The bus was loaded but then a flat tyre was spotted, so a quick trip to the nearest gomeria (tyre repair centre) was indicated, where all the luggage had to be unloaded to get to the spare wheel. While waiting patiently on the pavement, we noticed the total disregard of the local motorists to the traffic lights at the junction. Why? Then we noticed that at least one set of lights was completely hidden from sight by the foliage of a tree that had been allowed all around the lights. Another interesting picture, even though not of a cactus.

With all tyres in good shape, we drove towards a near by beauty spot at Dique de Olta and stopped along the road (S503) to photograph Cereus forbesii, Gymnocalycium castellanosii, Parodia microsperma (syn. P. fechseri) and Stetsonia coryne. Again we were being teased by Mother Nature, plenty of buds, but no flowers.

The previous evening John had checked his flight tickets and discovered that somehow there had been a mix up and that he was due to fly out tomorrow, a day before the rest of the Americans so that discussions focussed on the increasing pressing need to find an appropriate setting for the inevitable ‘Group Photo’. It was as though we had been putting off this ceremony as it was another reminder that the trip was coming to an end. We soon spotted some large Stetsonia along the road that provided a suitable back drop. We formed two groups, those with cameras on tripods at one side of the road while the rest of the group lined up beneath the Stetsonia, leaving gaps in the group for the photographers once they had coordinated and set their remote / delay releases. We had two goes and both were successful, at least as far as my images are concerned. A quick picture of the one flower found on the Stetsonia and it was back on the bus to the Dique de Olta beauty spot. As we pulled up along a saloon car parked at the view point, hoots of laughter came from the off-side of the bus. It would appear that we had disturbed a courting couple in the kind of gymnastics usually reserved for bedrooms. Our laughter continued as they quickly pulled some clothes on, started the car and disappeared in a cloud of dust. We took some pictures of the lake (man made water reservoir?) and were still chuckling as we arrived at our next stop (S504).

There were no other cars about. We did however find Gymnocalycium castellanosii, Opuntia salmiana and Trichocereus candicans. High on the rocks I managed to get a shot of a single white flower (and two buds) of the Tricho, peeping over the thick layer of Bromeliads, but these were the only cactus flowers to be seen here. I enjoyed seeing Opuntia salmiana in habitat. I was familiar with this species from a specimen that grows in the Cactus Garden at the Holly Gate Cactus Nursery in Ashington, England. Some years it puts on good growth of cylindrical joints, some 5 cm (2 “) long with numerous flowers, while in other years it sulks during the rest period, dropping most joints. It was one of the first cacti that I tried my first digital camera out on, in 2000 and experimented in Photoshop to replace each flower with the head of one of my friends – John Ede, thus creating Opuntia edei n.n. When I arrived home, a week later, and unpacked my case I found that some of the fruits of this habitat plant had become stuck to my socks and had travelled all day with us, before disappearing with the socks into my laundry bag. At Holly Gate, such fruits would readily form roots and produce more plants, so these stowaways have been given a chance to try this too.

We enjoyed a late picnic lunch at the Balneario el Muro near Quines (S505). A small river passed by a tranquil picnic area under some trees, before dropping gently over a man made waterfall. Guillermo was surprised to see so much water in the stream that prevented us from walking across the ‘wall’ without getting our feet wet. On the other side of the stream were Acanthocalycium klimpellianum. Only Guillermo, Mark, Woody and Mike thought it worthwhile to take off shoe and socks and wade across the stream. Nothing they told us on their return motivated the rest of us to follow their example, but Cliff and I did some exploring up-stream and without having to cross the stream found A. klimpellianum, Harrisia pomanensis and Trichocereus candicans. At least this Acanthocalycium justified its name (Spiny calyx), unlike some of the other species we had seen at earlier stops where the buds were soft and fluffy.

It took another three hours before we arrived in San Javier and were able to admire our lodgings in the unusual Posada el Pucara. Two of us shared a room that could accommodate a family of five. When I told Angie about this hotel she had already seen it – on their website.

Unfortunately, today, the link to the website at http://www.posadaelpucara.com.ar/ seems not to work, but as I’m writing this report a day ahead of sending it, I hope that all is well again as you read this. The pictures tell the story so much better than I could.

Cliff visited my house on Saturday (November 26) and showed of his images. This reminded me that our night in San Javier was livened up by a tremendous thunderstorm. He had stayed out in a (failed) attempt to catch images of the spectacular lightning. Pictures of the dark skies and the rain pouring down are impressive enough. And amazing as our rooms were, it seemed that the roof was constructed from corrugated metal and plastic sheets, which turned the sound of large hailstones coming down into a deafening thunder. As usual, I went to bed and slept. Very little keeps me awake once my head hits the pillow, giving rise to one of my nick-names, dating back to 1970s Martini adverts on TV: Anytime, anyplace, anywhere ….. The Martini Sleeper!’

Thursday, 27 October 2005 – El Rodeo to Olta

Mark and Paul Shipsides were kind enough to give the bus windows a good clean. The drivers did a good job at cleaning out the bus each night, while we were preparing for dinner and having our wine tasting sessions, but perfectionist photographers needed to remove those few little smears that were left behind in the dark the previous evening. We dropped Emilio off in town to do the shopping for the daily refreshments while we returned to yesterday’s last stop, then S497, now S498 (another rule I have set myself is that each stop number represents plants at a particular location at a particular time, so repeated visits (some times years apart) attract different Stop numbers. The plants that showed such promise late last night were still there – unchanged. At 8:48 in the morning it was still too early. We had other places to visit and there had been a slight change to plans as road closures due to repairs necessitated a night in Olta, rather than Ulapes.

An hour later we reached another location where Guillermo had found G. baldianum in the past (S499) and expected that the plants would be in flower. Wrong, the plants were found, but again, buds – no flowers. Spring was late in Argentina, just as it had been in England in May.

Quarter past eleven and we had reached the capital of the Province of Catamarca, or to give the town its full name: San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca. We stopped on the outskirts of town (S500) as we had spotted a crested Stetsonia coryne – something different is always worth a picture. We also found fully opened flowers on some of the other Stetsonia and noticed how similar the naked buds looked to Gymnocalycium buds, but that’s where the similarities stop, so please, no super-lumping these two genera in future! Competing for space with Stetsonia was Cereus forbesii (no flowers) and a large Opuntia sp. with lovely red flowers at eye-level – too good an opportunity to miss. Across the road, another Opuntia showed off its yellow flowers – probably O. sulphurea – while in between the shrubs Cleistocactus baumannii was also in flower with Harrisia pomanensis in bud.

I had to double check the map as for our next stop (S501) we were back in Concepcion, a town we had also stopped at yesterday – what was going on? Not for the first time we found that town names are not unique. This was Concepcion in the Province of Catamarca while yesterday’s garage stop had been in Concepcion, Province Tucuman. While the picnic lunch was being set up, we disappeared into the Acacia scrub to find Cereus forbesii, Opuntia sulphurea, Stetsonia coryne and Gymnocalycium oenanthememum (G. carminanthum) – you guessed it: Gymno in bud – not in flower! During lunch we observed the activities of some brightly coloured birds in a large tree across the road, identified by he ‘twitcher brothers’, Mike and Bryan, as the Oven Bird. A quick search on Google reveals: ‘The ovenbird gets its name from the unusual nest it builds. This odd-looking structure, made from mud and strengthened with fibres and grass, is shaped like an old-fashioned baking oven. It is distributed across Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Argentina, in open country and flood plains. Common near human settlements. In South America, the ovenbird is called el hornero, “the house builder,” and belongs to one of the largest families of birds. The ovenbird can be recognized by its distinctive song and is seen in settlements and on the edges of towns. Although populations have been affected by land clearances in some areas of the ovenbird’s natural habitat, conservation measures do not appear to be necessary as this species has adapted well to man’s intrusion on its habitat.’ I managed to get some nice images of mum or dad landing next to the nest, promising some light relief from the on-slaught of cactus pictures at future talks.

We were also entertained by super collector of everything, Mark, who had found a sizeable lump of Trichocereus wood that he was now reducing to a more manageable length with the handsaw that was part of Dick’s Transformer style toolkit. Disturbed by the sawing, several spiders and bugs crawled out of the wood and must have woken up other insects that later crawled around the bus – thanks Mark! The next day, the 1 m (3 ft) piece of wood was given another clean up at a local garage, with the benefit of the compressed air more usually used to fill car and bus tyres.

And so on to Villa Mazan (S502) where we found Echinopsis leucantha, Pyrrhocactus bulbocalyx, Tephrocactus alexanderi, T. articulatus and Trichocereus strigosus. It was great to find T. alexanderi in flower – pretty delicate flowers on such a fiercely spined plants, one of the paradoxes that attract me to the Cactaceae. Tephros have certainly leaped towards the upper part of My 100 Favourite Cactus Taxa list and the images I took of them throughout the trip are among my favourites, ranging from extremely dehydrated, desiccated plants on the edge of survival, to well fed specimens in flower. What a shame that it is almost impossible to get near their wonderful spination in the UK.

We arrived at our hotel in Olta, where some of the group renewed their obsession with finding a post office that was open AND had stamps. Personally, I have a ‘Don’t expect any cards’ policy for the folks back home. We tend to be in the field when tourist shops and post offices are open. I have also learned that souvenirs bought during the trip necessitate leaving old jeans and T shirts behind to stay within airline luggage limits – I can’t be bothered to mail excess bits home in advance of our departure. But it is good to see that diversity found in nature also exists amongst the habits of the folks on our bus. I wonder if all the stuff sent back home arrived safely and undamaged.

Wednesday, 26 October 2005 – Tafi del Valle to El Rodeo

It was good to see Chris up and about for breakfast, much recovered from his bout of Clifftonnaires disease after receiving The Needle the previous day. Others who were still suffering were putting a brave face on things, to avoid a similar experience (The Needle was getting longer as the word of Chris’ experiences were whispered around the group.) The point was, that the previous day, Chris had appeared semi conscious for a good deal of the day and had been unable to put on a brave face, so that action was necessary. The most amazing part of the experience was that when it came to paying his bill for the visit, the cost was No Charge! Thank you!

We managed to get on the road shortly after 8 a.m. and the mood was a little down, as the realisation that the trip was coming to an end at the end of the week became stronger. The low thick cloud cover, making everything look grey, did not help matters. Guillermo must have anticipated this and somehow we managed to fit in 10 stops today. The first, S488, took us back into the Yungas, the subtropical rainforest, some 48 km (30 miles) south-west of Tucuman city. This was one of the amazing things on the trip, the dramatic change from one climatic zone to another in next to no time at all. According to the tourist guides, Tucuman Province is popularly known as the Garden of the Republic. The photography was mainly scenic, with a few close ups of Tillandsia, with more of the same at S489. I may have mentioned before that my strategy for Stop numbers is that the first image of a ‘Stop’ is an image of the GPS, which sort of indicates where the images that follow were taken, until the next image of a GPS appears. The principle works fine: each evening as I transfer the images from their cards to my laptop, the software sorts them into ‘time created’ order (so it is important to synchronise the clocks if you use more than one digital camera) and the software then allows me to do a batch rename, so that the image file name of stop number_sequential number allows me to organise the images later on. This trip, without the need for me to drive or navigate, I had added quite a few more images of scenic shots out of the window. Many have been deleted since, as they suffered from camera shake or a tree suddenly leaping into the picture, blocking the view of the hillside on the other side of the valley. As a result, the images of a particular Stop are now a mixture of images taken at or near the location of the GPS reading, plus pictures on the bus. As a result, S489 includes a few images of El Indian, a statue of a very large indigenous warrior (I nick-named it the FBI) that formed the focus for a typical artisan market for passing tourists. The weather was still dull and grey – we had sufficient souvenirs – for now, so we just took a few pictures from the bus and proceeded to S490 – the town of Concepcion, quite a busy bustling town along Ruta 38. We needed to stop at a garage, so used the occasion to take some pictures of Tillandsia growing on electricity / telephone lines and TV aerials. I’m not clear if the Tillandsias improve TV signal reception or not.

S491 at Escaba was a much more rewarding stop as right alongside the road we came across thousands of small Parodia rigidispina in full flower. The plants were growing up the steep rock face and could have been photographed through the window as the bus was driving by, but where’s the fun in that? Soon we had spread along the side of the road for about half a km., each with our own patch taking pictures of ‘our’ plants, while dodging squadrons of the Argentinean Airforce. These were in fact very large (by European standards) members of what we called ‘wasps’ – I’m sure that an expert would tells us the difference between these insects and ‘the true wasp’. Suffice to say that these creatures had made their nests (it seemed at least one for every ‘patch’ that we had claimed as our own) hanging from the same rock face as the Parodias and seemed to hang on to these nests as threatening fighter space ships, protecting the mother ship – just as reported a few days ago – here though they were much more abundant and seemed bigger. On the other side of the road was a steep slope down to a small river, some 100 m (300 ft) down, with the densely wooded hills on the other side of the valley accommodating a trio of very large tubes that ran down the hillside to Central Escaba of Hydroelectrica Tucuman S.A.

The wasps and our party were not the only parties interested in the Parodia; several saloon cars stopped and filled carrier bags with plants, some picked up from the roadside along the hillside, as they had become dislodged and had fallen down, where as others were picked from the rock face. The people turned out to be locals who just collected these plants to decorate their homes – probably an annual event as they did not give the impression that they knew how to look after the plants once the flowering season had passed. Looking at the numbers of plants there, it did not seem to unduly endanger this population.

Half an hour’s drive farther along (S492) still had the Parodias in flower in large numbers, so there numbers must be significant. A large bromeliad sp. in flower, an Opuntia sp. hanging down the hills with Rhipsalis sp. dangling between them provided other points of interest, while I should not forget the neat papery wasp nests dotted amongst the plants. Thanks to the magnification abilities of digital cameras I managed to take an image of a wasp at rest. It’s a beautiful creature as it fills most of the screen, although a bit frightening as well – do they sting?

Early afternoon brought the opportunity to stretch our legs at S493 for more epiphytes-on-trees pictures. The cacti once again included Pfeiiffera ianthothele and Rhipsalis sp.

Fifteen minutes later and the landscape had once again changed as we drove through a landscape of open rolling hills, before ducking back into a Yungas-like landscape. Images from this changing landscape were arranged as Stop S494.

S495 was different again – here we found Gymnocalycium baldianum (in advanced bud, but no open flowers), Lobivia sanguiniflora and Trichocereus rowley (syn. Lobivia grandiflora) but were soon back on the bus as it zigzagged up and down some more wooded hillsides. The biodiversity of this area was impressive!

Guillermo was determined to show us G. baldianum in flower and succeeded at S496 – I caught one specimen in flower and a yet to be identified (by me) Trichocereus sp. in bud. Driven on by the promise of more G. baldianum in flower at the next stop, we climbed back on the bus and in the fading light (it was now 6:30) arrived at another roadside stop, S497, at Bella Vista. The Gymno here was G. oenanthemum (syn. G. carminanthum), another red flowered species, again teasing us with very advanced buds that would surely be open the following day. We noted the exact location of these plants and drove on to spend the night at the nearby Hosteria La Casa de Chicha in El Rodeo, determined to return the following morning to catch the Gymno flowers open.

Tuesday, 25 October 2005 – Cabra Corral to Tafi del Valle

Greetings from a cold and dark Durrington,

Where the snow promised yesterday fell during the night (just a light dusting) and was gone by 9 a.m., but with another arctic blast promised for tomorrow!

Tuesday 25 October 2005: Cabra Corral to Tafi del Valle

Today’s itinerary promised ‘a beautiful trip in the heart of the Calchaquies Valleys, passing through Cerrillos, Alemannia and Quebrada del Rio Las Conchas, with magnificent landscapes.’

I managed to list 10 taxa photographed at S482: Cleistocactus baumannii, Echinopsis silvestrii, Gymnocalycium saglionis and G. schickendantzii, Opuntia anacantha, O. sulphurea, Parodia microsperma (syn. P. argerichana), Pfeiffera ianthothele, Trichocereus terscheckii and T. thelegonus – not bad for one stop! So where is S482? I tried to be a smart-ass and whenever there were road signs at a stop to indicate where we were, I’d take its picture. Only here I realise that the sign, translated into English, says ‘In 300 m – Diversion, difficult passage’. Oh well! I don’t remember this stop as well others, only that I seemed to have walked bent double to scrape under / through the branches of the low forest, and concerned about Guillermo’s warning to watch out for ticks that drop off the trees and try to bore into your skin – nice! Kind of distracts the attention away from the cacti!

The lichen and epiphytic plants growing on the rocks and trees suggested that this place received quite a bit of variable moisture. Many of the cacti looked in excellent condition, bursting with vigour, but alas, not with flowers (with the exception of a G. saglionis and the tiny flowers on the Pfeiffera).

S483 was unmistakable: El Anfiteatro – The Amphitheatre in the Quebrada del Rio Las Conchas – no cacti photographed, but wow, what rock formations! Here, each had been given a name by imaginative souls – going back in folklore and history? Or recent inventions from creative tourist guide writers? Who knows? Exotic names include La Garganta del Diablo, El Sapo, El Fraile, El Obelisco, Los Castillos etc. sounding all the more romantic to English (and Dutch) ears and might lose some of their magic on translation.

I checked Google for more information about this Quebrada and learned (for me) a new language: ‘geological English’ with terms such as ‘Neogene strata’ and ‘Strata of the Cretaceous-Tertiary Salta Group are exposed … were deposited in the Salta Rift Basin. The light-colored Yacoraite Limestone is the source rock and reservoir rock for the hydrocarbon resources found in the rift basin.’ I don’t honestly know what it means, but it sounds good when I look at my images. I’m sure that Rob, Ian and Cliff could add a could bit more to these geological phrases AND explain them

The other good sounds in El Anfiteatro were the guitarist and flute sounds by a couple of local musicians. Guillermo said that they had been there every time that he had visited this attraction – we’re guessing that there is a shift system. Woody had found the perfect place for his 14 mm wide angle lens, but found just one problem – how to capture this scenery without including any of the bus load of people.

By 12:30 we had arrived at S484 where we found another Parodia microsperma – ssp horrida (syn. P. dichroacantha). As I don’t know the genus Parodia very well, I have included the splitter names that are now considered to be synonymous with P. microsperma. Also here were Acanthocalycium thionanthum (in flower!) and Gymnocalyciums: G. saglionis and G. spegazzini. This was a very hostile environment (at least during the time that we were there) with a strong wind blowing hats around and the plants growing on a very crumbly rock – three steps up, two steps worth of sliding backwards. I made my way from one yellow A. thionanthum flower to the next, taking snaps of any other interesting cacti on the way. I must have looked a sight – looking like 6 months pregnant with my hat stuffed under my T shirt! There is no space for vanity on these trips!

Our friends had done their best to set up today’s picnic in the shelter of the bus, but I’m sure that I had quite a bit of sand with my cheese and cold meat baguettes.

We needed to make up more distance, so we were glad to stretch our legs after three and a half hours on the bus, at S485, here with Acanthocalycium ferrarii, Gymnocalycium spegazzini, Parodia microsperma (syn. var. cafayetensis), Tephrocactus weberi and Trichocereus pasacana. The majority of T. weberi we had seen were white spined, but the ones I photographed here had nice yellowish spination.

We stopped off at the nearby Pachamama museum at Amaiche del Valle, near the Hosteria Ruinas del Quilmes where we had stayed on 16 October. It was just a short stop to top up with some more nice souvenirs. And on, until the bus over heated and created an unscheduled stop (S486) where we took some more pictures of Maihueniopsis boliviana, Opuntia sp. and T. pasacana.

We feared that another unscheduled stop would be necessary as the bus struggled up hill. Had we all put on weight during the trip? On the contrary! The daily exercise and Clifftonnaires Disease had helped me and many others shed a few pound in the right places. But we had all acquired a range of souvenirs – some official, from the tourist shops and markets, some less formal, like the pretty rocks that would come on board at various stops and slide around our feet. I gather that may of these were evantually mailed to the USA – I dread to think of the cost – while some were left at locations thousands of km from their original collection location – so baffling geologists who follow in our tyremarks..

We made it to the last stop of the days, S487, and were amazed at the size of the Lobivia (Soehrensia) bruchii (considered to be Echinopsis, alongside Tricocerei etc in other classification systems). Again we found plants in bud but no flowers. Seeing these mature plants in nature made me question (again) the usefulness of placing so many diverse taxa in one genus. But then I had always regarded Lobivia as a genus to consist of much smaller plants than these. So had it all started to go ‘wrong’ earlier? I must read up the history of Echinopsis lumping. I hear rumours of a reverse in the lumping trend for Echinopsis – the pendulum usually swings between extremes
– let’s hope that it will come to rest at a point that mere mortals can appreciate and understand. I enjoyed seeing bruchii in habitat, irrespective of the genus name, and now realise that I’m unlikely to see the couple that I have in 2.5 inch pots reach this size in cultivation. The inevitable question ‘How old must these plants be?’ again remains unanswered.

Paul Shipsides and I enjoyed chasing a lizard around a rock, taking its pictures (and many images with just rock) before climbing back on the bus and the final miles to Hotel Tafi del Valle, where I managed to persuade Chris to see a doctor who rewarded him with the ‘large injection needle’ that motivated others to get moderately better, but which saw Chris greatly improved at breakfast the following day.

I apologise in advance if tomorrow’s episode should be delayed: I have to cover at work for a colleague enjoying a holiday and look forward to welcoming Cliff (now suffering from a good old English cold – not dissimilar to Clifftonnaires Disease) and Leo van der Hoeven, just back from his trip to Peru, for an exchange of tall stories over bottles of Argentinean Malbec and a few pints of Guinness.

Feeling envious?

Monday, 24 October 2005 – La Quiaca to Cabra Corral

I’m having trouble to imagine that exactly one month ago today we were at about 22 degrees south of the Equator, enjoying seeing the signs of spring, while today I’m at about 51 North, where a week of night frosts was followed by a couple of warmer but very foggy days that today were followed by a sharp wind from the north providing a polar blast that promises snow. Cars have been driving with their lights on for most of the day. What a contrast!!!

Monday 24 October 2005: La Quiaca to Cabra Corral

In previous Diaries I have commented on that sad feeling you experience on the morning that you realise that you’ve gone as far from the starting point of your trip as you are going to get and that today we’d start the journey back. We had taken 15 days to get here and as we were due back in Cordoba on Day 22, 30 October, we’d be doing some more intensive driving during the coming week. Today, we’d push from 22 deg S down to 25 deg S. and from 3,500 (11,500 ft) to about 1,000 m (3,283 ft).

S479 was really two stops in quick succession. The first was a last opportunity for some pictures of the Devil’s Spine as well as a wonderful traffic sign warning of llamas crossing the road – similar to the UK sign warning of deer crossing roads. The trouble with these herd animals is that if they find themselves on opposite sides of the road when they are frightened by an oncoming car, bus or lorry, their instinct is to get together into a group, even if that means crossing the path of the speeding vehicle. We had llama steaks for dinner, earlier in the trip and enjoyed the flavour, but I did not fancy taking the fur of bits of road kill and barbequing it over a fire of cactus wood. I hope that they recognise the signs and take extra care crossing the road – or was the sign meant for drivers?

The second part of S479 – the cactus bit – was a quick one and gave us Maihueniopsis boliviana (in flower), Opuntia sp. Oreocereus trollii (in flower) and Trichocereus pasacana or poco – again there were no buds or flowers to make the conclusive ID. By 11 a.m. we arrived at Tilcara to pick up Dick and Phyllis. Dick felt much better after their extra rest date at a more comfortable altitude.

Around 1 p.m. we arrived at an electricity substation (?) proclaiming to be Central Los Reyes no 1. So, is there a Top 10 of these stations? We took a hike up the Rio Reyes riverbed (S480) and immediately spotted some Echinopsis ancistrophora on the cliffs on the west bank. Some were in bud and flower, much higher up, with too much vegetation between us for a good picture with our tele lenses. It was easier to get some nice pictures of Parodia chrysacanthion and Rebutia fiebrigii (syn. R. jujuyana), growing in the cracks of the rocks and in mats of moss at just about eye level In one spot, I took an image where just now I counted 70 + Parodias, ranging in size from a 5 pence (UK) / dime (US) upwards. The parodias were either in bud or had just finished flowering, luck was not on our side in this respect. I bet that the images of these plants will still produce a few ‘Oohhs and Aahhs at future UK Branch meetings. The Trichocereus sp. had some large flowers appearing from the apex, but grew too high up the rocks for a closer look.

I spotted some of the mountain goats in our party (Guillermo and Mark spring to mind) some 30 m up the rock face, taking pictures of the Rebutia in flower. Did they have access to the Startrek ‘Beam-me-up-Scotty’ facility? I must have been feeling better than on previous occasions like this on the trip, because I parked the tripod with D70 at the base of the rocks and found my way up to the right height but still some meters away from the plant. As usual, the last few meters are the hardest, not so much the getting there – because you have your goal firmly in sight, but the way back. This is where my small Coolpix came into its own – Guillermo and Mark had lugged their SLR’s up the hill, but I was able to stand with my right foot on a 5 cm wide ledge, clinging on (no more sci-fi jokes please) with my right hand to another 5 cm ledge (but how stable was it?) while my left leg and arm (with Coolpix hopefully pointing straight at the plant in flower) were waving around in space. I felt pleased with my achievement as I feel that I have a reputation to keep up for participating in at least a few foolish stunts like this on each trip. Hopefully the images that some of the others made from the river bed will confirm this daring stunt, perhaps it was all in my mind. The three pictures I took show a nice Rebutia jujuyensis in flower in the moss, but there is no hint in any of the three images of the effort I was making to take them.

We made our way back to the bus, near a tourist attraction consisting of swimming pool and snack facility where Guillermo et all had set out today’s picnic.

Two hours later, the scenery had changed dramatically at S481 where we were back taking pictures of the subtropical rainforest scenery of trees bedecked with epiphytic plants including Pfeiffera ianthothele, Rhipsalis / Lepismium sp., orchids and bromeliads. Once again we arrived at a very comfortable hotel (Hosteria Cabra Corral) where another very nice meal was waiting after we had enjoyed a refreshing shower.

I was aware during the trip that I was making comparisons between this type of guided bus tour and the previous DIY trips. Not having to worry about accommodation and food each night was certainly a luxury, but then I think of nights around the Eulychnia fuelled fires at Botija …. I have come to the conclusion that both approaches have their pros and cons and that many of these come down to personal preference. The guided tours open the opportunity of seeing cacti in habitat to a much larger group of people and are the ideal way of getting to know a new bit of cactus country. I know from experience of how much time can be wasted looking for a particular plant without the benefit of a local guide. Even a precise GPS location is sometimes of limited help – was it taken at the place where the car / bus was stopped and from where it is then necessary to make a short walk (in which direction?) or was it actually taken from the spot where one of the plants in question was growing – in which case, where is the best spot to park the car – it is not always the nearest that is best.

Tomorrow we head to Tafi del Valle.