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Sunday, 23 October 2005 – Tilcara to La Quiaca

Refreshed after our rest day, we were ready to make our assault on La Quiaca. We had observed most of Guillermo’s tips of how to best prepare for high altitudes. We had at least moderated our alcohol intake (In case there is a suspicion that we are all alcoholics; not so, we just enjoy making up for our favourite plants’ lack of thirst).

If there had not been any cacti between Tilcara and La Quiaca, I would still score this section of the trip 10/10, as the scenery is outstanding. To the east of the road north, the hills that had created such an impression at Purmamarca, Maimara and Tilcara were still with us. I say hills, because their peaks were ‘only’ some 250 – 300 m (800 – 985 ft) above us, but we were already at 3,338 m (10,959 ft) when we stopped at S472 at Churquiagada. We were treated to Austrocylindropuntia shaferi, Echinopsis longispina (syn. Lobivia ferox) Maihueniopsis boliviana, a very densely spined Opuntia sp. and Oreocereus trollii. M. boliviana obliged with several clumps with several flowers, or rather, flowers that had closed for the night and that at 9 in the morning were waiting to open for another day or more. The E. longispina was also in flower – nicer than the standard Echinopsis sp. white flower, as these plants all had red buds, while the outer sepaloids of the open flower remained red. All the cacti listed were shy and insisted on hiding below and in the middle of the usual range of very spiny shrubs. It’s quite interesting to see Oreocereus trollii competing on ‘spinyness’ with Acacia (I assume) scrub.

Twenty-five minutes later we stopped near Azul Pampa (S473), where, alongside the cacti listed for S472 we found Parodia maassii and Trichocereus atacamensis. At least, we think it was T. pasacana and not T. poco that is supposed to join in with the telegraph poles around here. From memory, T. poco has red flowers, mainly from the area immediately at the stem apex, while T. pasacana has fairly wishy-washy white flowers that can appear anywhere along the top section of the stem. As there was no evidence of buds, flowers or their remains, I was unable to provide a reliable ID. P. maassii was interesting, I have had some in my collection in the past and found them fairly boring plants, until they rotted. I could never respond to the challenge to grow them well – I don’t know why, some plants just ‘speak to you’ while others leave me cold. This is dangerous territory: ‘plants that speak to you’ but I think that most of you will understand what I mean. For the others: the men in the white coats are coming to collect me later! Back to the Parodias – Brian Bates compares them to ‘weeds’ in Bolivia, they’re everywhere. The plants here had wonderful long curly spines and if I was to come plants that looked like this in a European nursery and could be sure that it was not an ex-habitat plant, then I would certainly buy one. Shame there were no flowers. Most of us took a picture of a group of O. trollii, some twelve stems, most with flowers. It was this plant that had been spotted from the bus and was the reason for our stop.

S474 was a scenic rather than cactus stop. I believe that Guillermo used the term Devil’s Backbone (Espinazo del Diablo) for this continuing rock formation. As I write these Diary notes I like to do searches on anything that I like to know more about and find time to look up. Google came up with some interesting missed for Devil’s Backbone: One for a houseplant by this name, also known as the Redbird Cactus, although the plants pictured on the link that followed have nothing to do with a cactus (or a bird for that matter). It is in fact Pedilanthus tithymaloides in the Family Euphorbiaceae – all very interesting, but of no relevance to our rock formations. Then there is a film (also available on DVD) that goes by that name and was written by Guillermo del Toro. Another, more promising, link took me to Devil’s Backbone Open Space, in Larimer County, Colorado and another to an interesting place in Durango, Mexico. That’s why it takes so long for me to write these reports – I get too easily sidetracked.

I forget why we stopped at S475, I believe it was to look for Lobivia pugionacantha, a plant reputedly growing almost completely hidden below he soil and extremely hard to find unless it is in flower. So we were quite excited as we took pictures of three bright yellow flowers that seemingly came out of nowhere. But wait a moment – these are not Lobivia flowers! Typical Opuntia (probably Maihueniopsis)! Never mind, they still looked very nice and strange, just coming out of the soil.

S476 was just a quick stop to look at some more yellow flowers on the desert soil. This time the plant was visible above the soil. I have similar plants in my collection labelled Tephrocactus pentlandii (Maihueniopsis pentlandii sensu Kiesling).

S477 was one of the highlights of the itinerary: an opportunity to see Yavia cryptocarpa in habitat. Cactoholics are strange people: we travel half way round the world to cactus country, then get shaken and stirred on bumpy roads to end up standing in awe at the sight of some minuscule cactus that we are already familiar with because we have mature, attractive cultivated specimens in our collections back home. Once we arrive at the goal of our pilgrimage, we break our backs searching the ground to be the first to spot what we came to see. We all point our cameras at the first plant found, then start hunting for our own find and take pictures from a number of angles before calling our friends to show off our discovery and then take a look at theirs. I have witnessed this process in Brazil for Discocactus horstii and in Chile for Copiapoa laui and for several Thelocephala. We feel great at having succeeded and will go back to show our pictures at talks and lectures. Sadly, some folks need to go a step further and dig up some of the plants to take them back home as trophies from a big game hunt. Fortunately I am not aware of this last activity on our trip, but the original type locality for this species has apparently been stripped – no doubt by parties like ours, but where every member took ‘just one or three plants’ each – not many, but when cactus tourists come by the bus load ……. A real shame, because a significant effort was made by the authors of the original description to make sure that there was a significant amount of seed available around the world to meet the demand from the hobby for this interesting plant. So why are there still people who need to have a habitat specimen? There were a few plants found, no evidence of recent digging and some justification for optimism in the knowledge that there are now a number of locations in the area where this plant has been found. Looking at the landscape, there is no obvious reason why this area should not extend into Bolivia. There were also some nice P. maassii and Oreocereus celsianus, all worth of having their picture taken. It was good to have the images of O. celsianus, taken at the botanical gardens in Tilcara, in reserve, but I was glad now to be able to add pictures of the same ‘in the wild’. Our coughing and wheezing reminded us that we were in thin air at around 3,800 m (12,400 ft) and suffering the affects of ‘Cliftonnaires Disease’ (Geoff, am I using enough quotes to see if we have cracked this issue?)

S478 took us to the other side of La Quiaca, through the village of Yavi to a spot where Guillermo had in the past found Lobivia pugionacantha in flower. The sun was low in the sky at around 5 p.m. and we found plenty of Maihueniopsis boliviana. We found one incredibly spiny plant growing below a bush that we identified as the Lobivia. I’m still sceptical – I see a ball of spines and later found less regular shaped mounds that we identified as M. glomerata. I was unable to find our original find again for closer examination – often the way in habitat, where even a tripod left unattended can ‘disappear’ in the landscape. We were quite sure that we were in the right area for the Lobivia, as there were quite a few holes – evidence of recent selective digging – what a shame!

I had hoped against hope that somehow Brian Bates might have found a way around the lack of appropriate stamps in his Bolivian passport, to allow him back into the country, that had forced him to cancel his meeting with us in Tilcara and joining us on today’s trip. There must be some back roads that he could have slipped through, but I guess that his car with Bolivian plates is too well known in La Quiaca and he could not risk falling out with the authorities as he was due to take three German cactus tourists across the border a month later. Brian had left some (quite a few actually) of his slides with me in the UK, for use in presentations on future trips to the UK. However, these slides were now becoming quite dated and he had been able to update his slide collection with much more recent and better material. So the Brits had been asked to bring as many files with slides with us. The plan was that Brian would collect these in La Quiaca. Brian asked us to leave them with the manager of the Hotel, where he would pick them up later in November. Unfortunately, there appeared to have been a change in management at the hotel. The lady that Guillermo had booked trips with on previous occasions was no longer there and there seemed to be a great deal of uncertainty about who did what. Guillermo recommended that instead I’d leave the slides with the owner of the restaurant where we went for our dinner and fortunately, he was happy to cooperate, after I had shown him the contents of the rucksack and cardboard box of files containing slides of cacti. Quite right – they may have contained drugs or explosives!

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Brain will be able to collect his slides any day now.

Saturday, 22 October 2005 – around Tilcara

Today was a rest day, dedicated to sightseeing, souvenir shopping and a visit to the ancient fortifications at the Purcara de Tilcara, which also included the local botanical garden. At 2,500 m (c 8,200 ft) it was also a good place to acclimatise to high altitudes before our trip north to La Quiaca, tomorrow. In this respect, the town currently serves the same purpose as San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, towns focussed on tourists with pan pipes music coming from most artisan souvenir shops and bars.

As usual, internet cafes were closed when you needed them – I had been unable to send messages home to Angie for quite a few days. There are three time adjustments that need to be made on these trips. The first and obvious one is due to the different time zone where we find ourselves, with, in my case, four hours difference with the UK. The second is caused by the different seasons – it was Spring in Argentina with nature waking up for another growing season, while in England the days were noticeably shortening when we left. The third adjustment is down to local custom and our routines during the trips that just did not fit in. We’d be up early with the sun rising and the sound of cockerels ringing in our ears.(there were a few cockerels in mortal danger by insisting on crowing all night long). We were eager to get on the road and take in today’s cactus adventure. The staff of the hotels in general were used to tourists enjoying a lie in after enjoying themselves in the local bars the previous evening. So it was not unusual to find 14 tourists pacing up and down on the pavement outside the hotel to welcome the staff who would have to climb over our luggage in the foyer, ready and waiting to be squeezed onto the bus, while they went to the kitchen to squeeze our oranges and prepare breakfast. As we’d set off, towns began to bustle with kids walking to school – yes kids can still walk to school, unlike in England where mums drive a fleet of Chelsea Tractors through narrow streets not designed for this purpose, blocking roads as they stop for a chat or try to reverse into parking spaces large enough to park a bus. . At this time, we’d settle down and doze off during the drive to our first stop of the day, usually about an hour later. We’d be oblivious to the village pace of life, expecting dinner to be waiting when we’d arrive at the next hotel at around 6:30 in the evening. Argentineans rarely start thinking about their evening meal before 8:00 p.m. Any night life as such starts around 11:00 p.m. as we found this evening as we waited in a bar, watched the band set up and groups of exchange students arriving for their Saturday night on the town, just as we were ready to turn in for the night, ready for an early start the next day. Perhaps I was just becoming a grumpy old man. Naahh!!

Anyway, back to the main activity of the day – sightseeing. at one of the extensive (8 hectare) fortifications (Purcaras) built by the indigenous people along the Rio Grande valley, intended to stop the invasion by the Incas some 900 years ago, from the north. Some 500 years later, they had to defend themselves against the enemy from the south – the Spanish Conquistadors. The small botanical garden at the foot of the hill on which the fortress was built contained a cactus garden with most of the local cacti displayed in one place. Oreocereus celsianus was on tomorrow’s list of ‘first-time-in-habitat’ plants, but as they were in flower here, it did no harm to take a few images of flowers in captivity. Small rebutias, single headed specimens, planted out, some in flower looked out of place – I’m just too used to see large clumps covered in flowers in cultivation. (Ralph, these looked ‘cultivated’ – planted out, but not cared for and I wrote this before our discussion in cacti_etc). Here they were of course growing in habitat-like conditions with a ‘survive-or-die’ approach to the maintenance activities. Then on to the restored ruins of the fort. If each of the Trichocereus pasacana cramped onto the hill had been an indigenous inhabitant back in history, it must have been a bustling town. As the tourist guide says: ‘the long gorge of intensely coloured rock, arid mountains of warm terracotta, yellow, pink, cream and malachite green, speckled with giant cacti…’ could not help but impress. As we followed the trail through the fort, we spotted many Opuntia sulphurea and Gymnocalycium saglionis, with Tillandsias hanging from the Tricho stems. More than enough plants to merit the award of a PK Stop number (S471) – just to help me to arrange the images later.

I’ll extend the concept of a rest day to this short report.

Friday, 21 October 2005 – Maimara to Tilcara

It’s only some 7 km from Maimara to Tilcara, but we used the day to make a side trip west. We zigzagged up the Cuesta de Lipan – more camera fodder with spectacular views.

My GPS for our first stop (S467) showed an altitude of 3,851 m (12,643 ft). Having found the lat/long coordinates on Google Earth, the elevation is shown as 3,843 m – close enough for me! We found Maihueniopsis boliviana and M. glomerata as well as more Pyrrhocactus umadeave, but only with flowers on M. boliviana. It could be argued that the spination of the other two species is more impressive than the flowers, but it would have been nice to have seen some flowers to make the judgement ourselves.

S468 was the road crossing the Salinas Grandes, a huge snow-white and desolate salt lake with no plants, but with small groups of llamas and guanacos seen on the greenish vegetation growing on the edge of the lakes. The animals had a knack to turn their backs to any camera that was pointed at them, so I have plenty of pictures of llama rump on the hoof.

Back on terra firma, we stopped at a narrow gorge (S469) with large numbers of Trichocereus pasacana, many in flower. It was noticeable how much more plentiful this Tricho was in Argentina than on the other side of the border in Chile. Did this eastern side of the Andes get more moisture than the Chilean side? Or had the tourist industry in San Pedro used up all the Trichos for the building of houses and churches as well as souvenirs? How long did it take these plants to become 5 m (15 ft) plus giants? Why were there no small (say 30 cm – 1 ft tall) seedlings – was there no regeneration?

The road that we were on was the main road to San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile, via the Jama Pass. I had mixed feelings about this road, as in 2001, on the Chilean side, our 4×4 suffered a burned out clutch somewhere between the border and San Pedro and we were forced to make a descend from some 4,400 m (14,500 ft) to 2,350 m (7,715 ft) without the benefit of gears to use the engine to help us slow down and remain in control.

This time, the challenge was to keep the bus going – an automatic cut out on the engine to prevent it from overheating had been playing up on and off during the journey and Jorge and his co-driver had made daily (actually nightly) attempts to get to the bottom of the problem and fix it. It produced a number of ad-hoc stops, sometimes an opportunity for a welcome leg stretch and look around, sometimes a mild irritation as we wanted to get back to the hotels. It was a minor issue compared to having a clutch burn out!

We passed the old mining village of Susques, at 3,675 m (12,065 ft) and did not see much evidence of the town’s 18th century’s origin; it all looked very industrial and dusty. We drove on to Angosto del Taire and stopped at the summit of another minor pass – Altos del Morado (S470) where a sign proclaimed that we were at 4,170 m (13,691 ft) above sea level. Even in the best of health, it’s best to move slowly at this altitude as you soon run out of breath. With a bad cold and stuffed sinuses I could only muster up a short spell of enthusiasm to take a few pictures of tiny Lobivia einsteinii (syn. Rebutia einsteinii). I queued up with the others to take a couple of pictures of a group of four plants and managed to find another single plant, but was then exhausted with sinus pressures on my ears and eyes making it feel as if my head was about to explode. It was still 240 km to the Paso de Jama and the Chilean border and some 105 km back to Humahuaca and the lower altitudes of Tilcara. I believe I slept most of the journey back, woken up as the pressures on my sinuses reversed during the descent, despite the large quantities of Halls menthol-eucalyptus sweets that I was sucking. I was by no means the only one to suffer, but at the time, that was of little comfort to me..

I was glad to get to the hotel in Tilcara and was sufficiently recovered to enjoy the surprise of a typical altiplano band of Andean musicians giving us a private performance (we seemed to be the only guests in the hotel) of various tunes dominated by the characteristic pan flutes. I’m listening to their CD as I write this report.

Thursday, 20 October 2005 – Salta (San Lorenzo) to Maimara

Today’s first stop (S460) was at a water reservoir (Dique / Cuesta La Caldera), to see an Echinopsis (Lobivia?) for which, between us, we did not have a name. We are well aware that none of our stops were in remote, previously unexplored territory, so that the chances of finding a new undescribed cactus is perhaps marginally larger than nil. It may be that one of you reading these reports has been in the area and has found and tentatively identified a few of these plants. If you feel that you can suggest a name, or need to see an image of the plant to confirm your thoughts, I’d be pleased to hear from you.

With the benefit of hind sight, I wish I had followed the example of some of my fellow travellers who had meticulously followed our progress by marking off sections in the road atlases that Guillermo had provided. I felt confident that my GPS readings would be sufficient, as they would tell me precisely on Google Earth where we had been. While this is the case, Google Earth is not (yet?) very good for this part of the world at providing detailed location names. The Atlas I have has no longitude / latitudes marked off, just the names of towns and villages and road numbers, so it’s not until I have managed to get together with my fellow travellers that I can benefit from the information that they recorded. (Cliff, if you’re coming next weekend, please bring your road atlas and notes!).

As we carried on north, the road wound through a subtropical rainforest where Ian spotted a Trichocereus in flower between the Tillandsia covered trees. (S461). My guess would be that this was T. arboricola, but these stems were much more robust than the pot grown plant that I was familiar with at the Holly Gate Cactus Nursery in England. There, the typical white Echinopsis / Trichocereus flowers would appear from any areole at the top section of the stem, while here, the flowering zone was much more limited to the apex of the stem. The stems were 160 — 200 cm tall (5 — 6ft +) but growing in dense Acacia scrub, or high up on the steep, moss-clad rock face on the side of the road. In both events, it was difficult to get a good, unobstructed image. I also took a nice picture of a non-succulent climber with flowers and fruits very reminiscent of Clematis. Although I manage a small plant centre in the UK, the Clematis we sell are all hybrid cultivars, several generations apart from species growing in the wild. A quick search on Google suggests that an Argentinean Dr. Ruppel raised a famous Clematis hybrid named after him. More study to do –..

S462 was at El Cargadero (The Loadingbay), which, so far, I have not been able to find on maps. The attraction was the same Trichocereus sp from S461 and more trees covered in epiphytic plans including a Rhipsalis sp. These require a completely different photographic technique to normal terrestrial cacti. Because they grow high up in the trees, cameras often record silhouettes only. The tree from which they grow, reduces the amount of available light, causing increased exposure times. The free hanging stems swing merrily in the light breeze and, as I had left my camera manuals at home, I did not know how to override the automatic flash function that would kick in when I didn’t want it and could not be persuaded to function when I needed it. (note to self and all the others on the trip with the same problem and no solution: look up manual flash override’ in manual).

We had travelled quite a bit (two and a half hours) farther north, when we stopped near Laguna Volcan (S463) for lunch. Once again, we were able to add a few names to the list of taxa seen on this trip: Austrocylindropuntia vestita and Parodia stuemeri (syn. P. tilcarensis) — poking out from clumps of Abromeitiella brevifolia; growing alongside Cleistocactus hyalacantha seen earlier.

We were now on Ruta 9, the main road from Salta and San Salvador de Jujuy to the Bolivian border at La Quiaca / Villazon. Here, the road followed the valley of (another) Rio Grande as it flowed through the Quebrada de Humahuaca. There were impressive views out of the bus window on the mountain range to our right (east) and I managed to take quite a few half decent images while we were driving past the hills at some 70 km per hour.

S464 was a brief leg stretch stop for some more scenic pictures, particularly of a nice stand of Trichocereus pasacana growing on the not so steep slopes of material that, over time, had eroded from the steeper, higher mountains. In case I had not mentioned this before, in Kiesling’s classification this plant is called Trichocereus atacamensis, while the CITES Cactaceae Checklist has it as Echinopsis atacamensis ssp pasacana (with plants over the border in Chile known as E. atacamensis ssp atacamensis). We carried on with being politically incorrect, calling them Trichocereus pasacana.

S465 was on the outskirts of Purmamarca we found a slate outcrop where Guillermo pointed out some Blossfeldia lilliputana. These are amazing tiny plants, reported to be the best of the Cactaceae at surviving an extreme amount of dehydration (some 80% of their body weight) and able to bounce back once water becomes available again. Some of the plants looked extremely dehydrated, like dried up potato chips / crisps, depending on which side of the Atlantic you learned your English. Anne was the only one to find a plant in flower, and soon a queue of photographers lined up to take its picture. As we followed the track, we walked through some very colourful hills, particularly strong on reds and found Parodia stuemeri and large Gymnocalycium saglionis. The track led to the village of Purmamarca, where the daily market was in full swing. As we walked past the stalls, it struck me that I had seen the same designs on the T shirts, woven carpets and linens during our past visits to San Pedro de Atacama, on the other sides of the Andes, in Chile. When I purchased a fine embroidered tablecloth, the bag it was packed in indicated its Bolivian origin, where labour costs appear to be the lowest in the area.

Back on the bus, we continued our journey north, with the colours of the hills to the east becoming more prominent as the sun sank lower in the sky. Around 17:30 we stopped east of Maimara (S466) where the geology was particularly fascinating and colourful. After a short stroll, the hills provided a perfect back drop for Trichocereus pasacana, with at their feet a selection of incredibly longspined Echinopsis longispina (better known in the UK by its synonym Lobivia ferox), Gymnocalycium saglionis (to basket ball size!), while we had to wade through thousands of Opuntia sulphurea. I wish that some one had told the Opuntias of our non-collecting agreement, as they attached themselves to foot wear and trousers.

Another great day! Tomorrow we’ll make a side trip towards the Chilean border and cross some salt flats.

Wednesday, 19 October 2005 – around Salta (San Lorenzo): Quebrada del Toro

This was the first time on the trip that we’d stay two nights in the same hotel, so a good opportunity to arrange for a bag of laundry to be processed while we were enjoying a day at the Quebrada del Toro.

I forgot to mention in previous reports that Diego, our other guide, had to return to Cordoba and would then be flying out to Mexico to attend a botanical conference. For one day, Guillermo had to fill all the tour leader functions unassisted, but today’s images show that Guillermo’s brother-in-law, Emilio, had joined us.

So it was Emilio who joined Guillermo in the daily shopping trolley race to stock up with supplies, this time in a huge hypermarket on the outskirts of Salta. We also indulged in a bit of shopping and Rob bought a transparent washing up bowl to act as emergency stand in diffuser. A diffuser is a very useful tool when taking pictures in high contrast light conditions, such as Gymnos underneath bushes, partially exposed to full very strong sunlight, partly in the shade. Another useful tool is a reflector, such as the one that Woody had clipped to his belt, that could be unfolded to a disk, about a meter (1 ft) across. This could be used to reflect natural light into dark shadowy places. In Brazil, we would ask follicly challenged (bald) Brian Bates to fulfil the same function, but he was stuck north of the border with Bolivia.

I have 7 stops recorded for the day, ranging from 1,665 to 2,789 m (5,466 – 9,157 ft) in altitude. According to the medical profession, High Altitude is from 1500 – 3500 m (5000 – 11500 ft); Extreme Altitude is above 5,500 m (18,000 ft) and Very High Altitude is the bit in between. People who experience altitude sickness, usually complain of symptoms above 2,500 m (8,000 ft). As we’d be travelling up to the Very High Altitude level during this week, it was useful to learn how we’d react. There seems to be no guarantee that because you have not had any bad effects previously, you won’t experience problems this time. For those who want to know more, I suggest a look at http://www.high-altitude-medicine.com

S453 was at the lower end of the Quebrada, a steep rock face where the road had been built to zigzag up, hugging the mountainside. We found Cleistocactus hyalacanthus, Rebutia deminuta and R. marsoneri (syn. R. wessneriana) as well as an Echinopsis (Lobivia?) sp. Guillermo managed to climb some 30 m (90 ft) up the almost perpendicular rock face and shouted down that he found some Rebutias. ‘Send us a postcard!’ we replied, as others had found the same plant at eye-level and were clicking away with their cameras. The problem with these lower plants was that they were covered with caked on dust / mud, so that IDing the plants was even more of a challenge than usual.

20 minutes farther on was a similar location (S454) with an Euphorbia sp. added to the list. The attractions here however were four Rebutia plants with a red flower each. How different from Rebutia in a British Spring – a true riot of colour!

We made another very brief stop to allow Mark to do some field collecting – of insulators, from the top of disused (?) telephone poles. I did not bother to note the GPS and allocate a stop number, but have a nice picture of Mark at the top of his climb.

An hour later and still climbing, we found Maihueniopsis boliviana, Parodia faustiana and P. nivosa while Trichocereus pasacana towered overhead, as well as a small padded, densely spined Opuntia sp. (S455). In terms of numbers, Abromeitiella (brevifolia ?) was the dominant plant, if each head in the huge cushions counts as an individual plant. Some P. nivosa had somehow managed to germinate underneath the bromeliads and eventually managed to grow through the cushion. Despite the grey skies, they made a great picture!

On to S456, and now things got really interesting: Gymnocalycium spegazzini, Pyrrhocactus umadeave, Parodia stuemeri alongside Maihueniopsis boliviana, Trichocereus pasacana, and the Pyrrhocactus and Maihueniopsis were in flower! It was just the one Pyrrhocactus with two flowers, a third passed over, and several buds. The spegs were very nicely spined, but I had seen better on friends’ pictures.

If you look up Quebrada del Toro on an internet search engine, you’ll get an impression of the scenery that the colourful rock formations provide – great views! I was beginning to understand my friends’ original selection of Argentina as best cactus country. It’s a mixture of a large variety of aspects with very different personal weightings that make people arrive at such selections. Personally, I really like to take pictures of cacti with the sea or ocean in the background – the paradox of draught tolerance specialists and huge bodies of water in the same frame.

S457 is the same list of plants but at least now I can compete with Graham & Leo van der Hoeven’s speg pics. Lots more umadeave’s as well. And more of the same at S458. I looked desperate for a clue of why these plants thrived here, while in Europe they are often regarded as ‘impossible’ by most, even when grafted. I’m sure that this will prompt comments from those that have no problem growing this plant. Please tell us how.

I took many more scenery shots from the bus as we descended back down the Quebrada. Satisfied with another day cactussing, we arrived back at our hotel in San Lorentzo, one of Salta’s outlying suburbs, with some impressive homes. The last ‘stop’ of the day, S459, was the road from the restaurant, where we enjoyed our evening dinners, to the hotel. The area’s flora was that of a subtropical rainforest, with the trees lining the road covered in epiphytes, including a very difficult to photograph Rhipsalis sp. – light was poor, calling for longer exposures while the stems were swinging in a light breeze.

Our list of Argentinean cacti included Rhipsalis lorentziana, a coincidence? Should I keep the images of the Rhipsalis ‘on the move’, including some of plants in flower and in fruit or do I ditch them – It’s getting late in the day to make such weighty decisions – good night.

Tuesday, 18 October 2005 – Cachi to Salta (San Lorenzo)

Aahh, Cachi! That’s Cacti with an h. Did it live up to its name? Well, on entering the charming local church, we were impressed to find the ceiling made of cactus wood. So was the lectern and confessional. So, does that make cactology a religion instead of a science, obsession or hobby?

S446 was on the outskirts of town, where we found an Echinopsis sp. (or was it Acanthocalycium thionantha?), Gymnocalycium spegazzini, Parodia aureicentra, P. microsperma (syn. var. cachiana) and Tephrocactus weberi. Another point of interest was a string of huge black ants carrying bits of leaf, neatly cut into chunks up to three times the size of the ant. They seemed to be taking a complete bush apart, carrying it in pieces across the piece of wasteland where the string suddenly disappeared. Were they rebuilding it there? What? Why? How? Nature is fascinating – it makes you think!

As yesterday at S445, we found P. aureicentra, growing in slate. I think it was Cliff, who pointed out the small papery wasp nest with half a dozen huge wasps, clinging to the nest, waiting for the temperature to rise. It looked like a scene from a science fiction film: fighter space ships, clinging onto the mothership before flying out on a mission.

S447 was in the Cachi mountains. Again, we found P. aureicentra, again on slate. I’ll have to ask Angie if she has this species in her greenhouse. If so, I’ll suggest she repots it into slate as well. Maihueniopsis boliviana, one of the higher altitude cacti, reminded us that we were now at 2,828 m (9,285 ft). The opposite hillside was very attractive, worthy of a picture as well, particularly as a back drop for the numerous T. pasacana.

Back on the bus, the Coolpix 995 came into its own: just switch on the camera, no need to twist the lens in the traditional position for taking pictures, this leaves the lens pointing at the scenery passing by the bus, leaving you to look out through the front windscreen to see what’s coming and occasionally to press the shutter to share the view with others back home. Tip: at the next
stop, score brownie points by being amongst the first on the bus and get one of your mates in trouble by making them the last on board, by asking them to clean your window on the outside. Beware as they seek their revenge!

S448 was a scenery rather than cactus stop in the Parque Nacional Los Cardones. We were now at 3,376 m (11,084 ft) according to my GPS, 3,348 m according to the sign along the road announcing that we were at Piedra del Molino. We were up in fog (= clouds) and was cold enough to be glad for the warmth of the air-conditioned bus. We had zigzagged to the top and could now
enjoy the sight of the road zigzagging back down on the other side of the hill.

Still in the Parque, but 250 m lower, we parked on one of the bends (S449) and took a stroll in the cold along a hillside path and found tiny Rebutia marsoneri (syn. R. wessneriana), almost the size of a 10 centavo piece (useful to indicate scale to anyone who knows the size of this coin – useless to any one who doesn’t). Why do we do this? Because we don’t carry a pocket full of our homeland’s currency around Argentinean mountainsides, I guess. In Chile, I used match sticks to provide a scale for Copiapoa laui and humilis and for Thelocephala – I had only recently given up smoking then. These days I no longer carry matches. In the UK, I’m more used to see this Rebutia filling washing-up bowls, completely hidden under hundreds of flowers for about a week sometime during end April / early May. So its size seems to be an environmental rather than genetic feature.

Among the lichen clinging to the rocks, John (or was it Charles) spotted some small Opuntiods, some very red (stressed?) in colour. Were these Puna sp.?
Later we saw some larger plants: Cumulopuntia? Maihueniopsis? Tephrocactus? Which one?

The views and scenery were impressive, even on a cold misty day. Just imagine on a bright sunny day!

We dropped another 250 m to S450. Just behind some barbed wire was another ‘first-time-on-this-trip’ cactus: Trichocereus smrzianus, in bud. I felt cold and miserable (Clifftonnaires Disease and altitudes don’t mix). I could not be bothered to climb through the wire fence, so my images show it as a convict plant, behind barbed wire. The mystery Opuntiod made another appearance too.

Two and a half hours later, we found ourselves along a dried up riverbed (S451), with trees dripping with epiphytes: bromeliads, orchids and, if we’d looked long enough, cacti (Rhipsalis and Pfeifferi) and between the mosses on the steep rocky sides of the road, R. marsoneri (R. wessneriana) again. So you can’t draw many conclusions about a plant’s cultivation needs by recording conditions at just one habitat, during a 30 minute visit. If it has not reported from anywhere else, then you have some clues. If it is reported from various locations, you can’t assume that they are all like the one that you’ve seen during that snapshot in time. Guillermo picked some great spots to illustrate the point.

We arrived in the bustling town of Salta and were amazed to see how the traffic flowed without traffic controls. We passed some camera shops and were let loose on the large plaza in front of the cathedral in the failing light on an overcast evening at around 6:30. To help organize my images I have filed them under S452. We managed to find the camera shops, where Mike was able to find a charger for his camera batteries, but Woody failed to find a replacement for the transparent protector bit for the monitor on the back of his D70. Rob had accidentally left his home-made light diffuser some stops ago and failed to find a purpose built replacement.

Monday, 17 October 2005 – Cafayate to Cachi

We were about to start our second week in the field (or was it on the bus?) and my stop numbers indicated that we had made 40 cactus stops. Not bad for a week’s work — oops – holiday.

S440 offered Cleistocactus smaragdiflorus, Echinopsis leucanthus and Opuntia sulphurea, but, at around 12 noon, provided a useful opportunity to stretch legs. There are stretches like this on all cactus trips, where there is just nothing new or special to see until you’ve put some distance between the last and next location.

Some twenty minutes later, we were at Los Sauces (S441) where Acanthocalycium thionanthum, Gymnocalycium spegazzini, and Tephrocactus molinensis provided more of interest, alongside O. sulphurea. The spegs here were solid and heavily spined — nothing yet to compete with var. major, where spines completely obscure the plant body from view, but heavy enough to be of interest to collectors, as indicated by the many holes that clearly had been home to sizeable spegs. I’m not sure what it takes to change the mind set of hobbyists for whom owning (and often killing) an ex-habitat and (outside its country of origin) illegally obtained plant, rather than a plant raised from habitat seed. Seeing large holes at a location that must have been very
impressive before the theft from nature is a very sad and unnecessary sight. I’ve seen it in Brazil, Chile and now Argentina.

The best contribution we can make is not to buy ex-habitat plants when they are on offer — no demand, no poaching.

Nearby S442 had much the same plants as S441, plus Parodia microsperma ssp horrida.

It was a late picnic lunch at Santa Rosa (S443). There were numerous single jointed ephrocactus molinensis scattered around in the sand — it reminded me of the time that I had intended to take a T. articulatus (papyracantha) to a branch show and ended up with at least 100 individual pieces before the plant had reached my car!

There were large numbers of Acanthocalycium thionanthum here, in full bud. It must have been a spectacular sight, a week or so later. Again, nursery bushes were preferred.

Again we pushed on — this was a driving day — to S444 — La Angostura, but despite the distance covered, still the same plants: G. spegazzini, O. sulphurea, T. molinensis and T. weberi. Many taxa seem to enjoy a very wide distribution area, more so than in Chile where in the narrow strip along the Pacific species seem to change of much smaller distances when traveling South — North and even more so when travel west — east where, in most places altitudes rise from sea level quickly to 1,000 m plus. In Brazil (Bahia & Minas Gerais) many taxa occur only in relatively small locations. Yes I’m aware that others (e.g. Cereus jamacaru in Brazil and Trichocereus chiloensis in Chile and Opuntias anywhere) are wide spread, but in my limited experience, this is less usual for globular cacti like the spegs and Echinopsis leucantha. There were some very clean spegs on show, and that is exactly where their show bench should remain — in nature!

We spotted a different Parodia, P. aureicentra, at (S445). So far I had not been impressed by habitat Parodia. They tended to be small and look ‘dirty’. Here the plants were growing in vertical strips of slate. Very free draining! Perhaps the reason why they looked quite de-hydrated, although this emphasized their dense golden spination.