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Thursday, 24 November 2011 – Villamontes to Sucre (Toledo)

It was still sweltering hot as we stepped out of our air-conditioned hotel room. We were all a bit quiet as today was our last day together and due to concerns about the other car that needed to make it to Santa Cruz in time for their flight home on Saturday (we have since learned that they arrived in time and, as I write this catch-up report on Sunday 27 November, should have arrived safely in the UK, ready for a day’s work on Monday!

The road to Santa Cruz was as good as John had promised. This made life a little boring as we drove through the flat, featureless landscape. Brendan was in front, in case they should run into more problems and we followed all doing a steady 80 km.p.hr. We made three stops, S2442, S2443 and S2444 and the plants photographed included Stetsonia coryne and many others to be listed later. Read on and you’ll see why.

S2445 was the Goodbye Stop and as we realised that we had forgotten to take the obligatory group photo we posed underneath the road sign that indicated the split of our ways, while Wiebe and Brendan ran between Wiebe’s tripod and the posing team while their camera’s self timers clicked away. Have a safe journey guys, see you in England!

As we took our pictures, there was a loud crash across the road as a pick up track had missed the narrow concrete bridge across the drainage gully between the road and a snack bar. The car was now stationary, nose down and back wheels in the air. With the help of us, the six gringos, the wheels were soon brought down to earth and the emberrassed owner thanked us for our help.

Our plan was to spend the night at Monteagudo, a manageable distance away.

Ther following is an editted extract of an MSN chat with Angie, who throughout my story kept telling me that she was shaking her head in disbelief:

We stopped (S2446) for a Cleistocactus sp. in flower. When we wanted to carry on, Wiebe could not get the car started and we commented how much easier it had been with two cars, when one could tow the other out of trouble. Anyway, the car started. So we drove on. The new clutch is still settling down so Wiebe stalled once or twice and each time had problems starting – it sounded as if the solinoid had jammed or the ignition switch had gone. Bashing with a stick only helped once.

We made a nice stop for Sulcorebutia roberto-valquesiana. No way the car would start. John took the controls and as there was a slight slope back, we bump-started him in reverse. Great – but now the tension was back again – did we have a dodgy solonoid?

We decided to take it easy on stops, only stopping on a down hill gradient, but leaving the car in gear as the handbrake is dodgy. And so we reached Monteagudo. Should we push on to Sucre? 348 km and c 8 hours drive, mostly in the dark. Let’s look for a Taller Electrico here, in case it was something simple. We were directed to a track out of town where we found the workshop. It seemed that the staff were at a Mother’s Union meeting.

It turned out the local meeting of the campesinos working party (striking party) and when it was over, we were introduced to the organiser, who briefly appraised us of all blockades in Bolivia, present and future. Our plans were OK.

The owner of the workshop introduced himself as George. He was a short, round man, with a bulging round cheek, stuffed full of coca leaves that he was chewing energetically, spitting at regular intervals. They had all been drinking beers and were therefore 3 sheets in the wind.

He got his son to take a look under the car, while he got us to give him 20 Bs for five cans of beer. Every sentence was followed by a handshake, and while he was fluent in Castallano, we were not.

I made my drinking excuses by explaining that I was diabetic. He was very sorry and offered me some coca leaves instead. No thanks, may not mix with my heart medication.

He was paranoid about having his picture taken with the big Nikon, but then I got out the Samsung, pretended that it was a mobile phone and got a couple of minutes of George in full flow.

We arrived at 4, by 5 he wanted the second 20 Bs for another 5 cans of beer while his son had stripped down the started motor and confirmed that the brushes on the thing had worn out. Son #2 was sent out on his bike for more beer and the required part.

It started raining by the time he came back – summer is the rainy season here, so we have become used to cactus spotting with the sound of thunder and the sight of lightning over the next hill top. It was hot and it did not rain long or hard.

But it was now pitch dark. Of course the carbon blocks (brushes) were the wrong size, but with a filing tool attached to a drill this was carefully taylored to the right size – very time consuming and thirsty work while George kept pumping our hands, sending his son out for more beers and reassuring us that it would soon be finished.

He had offered to put us up for the night and some mechanics were carrying pieces of a bed into the house. I became the self appointed leader (having heard that I was a Photographer, he claimed to have seen me on the Discovery Channel!)

It was 8:20 when we paid the final bill, 300 Bs (GBP 30 for labour) and hastely made our escape. The militant leader had asked for a lift to Sucre in the morning, so we decided to make a run for it.

The Rough Guide says that the road from Sucre to Villamontes (where we had stayed the previous night) is among the most scenic roads through the Andes, when it is passable!

We saw it in the dark, with huge trucks + trailers and coaches coming at us with enough lights to further increase our sun tan.

There was the familiar rockwall on one side and a steep drop on the other, with the usual crosses marking previous victims’ resting places.

We tried in another village, Padila, knocking  on the door of the only hotel, already closed and in darkness, but were told that there was no room.

Around 3:30 a.m we could see the lights of Sucre in the distance, some 11 km away and decided to pull up and sleep in the car

Wednesday, 23 November 2011 – Tarija to Villamontes

We had said our goodbyes to Ariacha, our favourite receptionist in Hotel del Sol, Tarija. Her command of the English language had made it so much easier to ask simple questions rather than having to find things out for ourselves. It was even more remarkable to learn that she had taught herself English by watching English language films on TV! Perhaps I should start watching Spanish TV. The next logistical challenge was to meet up with our cars. Ours was parked in John’s usual car park when he stays there, two blocks up from the hotel, while Brendan was in the free hotel car park three blocks away. So having paid our bills, we struggled with our heavy luggage through crowded streets with vendors blocking up the pavement, to our respective cars. We were likely first to be ready so had agreed to drive to Brendan & Co’s car. There we learned that we had all been over charged by one night’s stay so a small ‘accounting party’ went back to the hotel to sort matters out – embarrassed faces money was paid back, then on our way out of town.

We had by now had the hang of Tarija and soon found the same way out that we had used on 20th November, across the CondorPass. That time our car had been limping on with a dodgy clutch, but now, with the repairs carried out, the car was fine.

As we passed the stops from last Sunday, I was beginning to feel quite at home in Bolivia.

We made eight plant stops as we drove on twisty tracks (the main road to Villamontes!) enjoyed spectacular views of the Andes and saw some great plants that provided more ticks on my ‘plants seen in habitat’ list. But sadly I need to keep the details for later as there were more car problems, this time for Brendan’s car. They were late turning up at one of the afternoon stops and we assumed that they had made an ‘in-between’ plant stop. When they did arrive, they had a quick chat with John while Wiebe and I were on the hillside photographing cacti, and then they drove off. We learned that they had suffered a broken rear suspension and were now limping on to the next town, Palos Blancos, to see if they could get things fixed.

When we got there, we drove through the village (three streets) and could not see their car, so assumed that they had moved on. After a long drive and a few more stops we arrived in Villamontes. We had left Tarija at c 2,400 m altitude and had now dropped down to 390 m. above sea level. This is the western end of the Chaco that continues in Brazil and Paraguay. With the drop in altitude there was a sharp increase in temperature, with the car’s outside sensor recording 36C as the sun was setting. It was 32 C the following morning, around breakfast time. We were very glad of the rather noisy air-conditioning. Rather worrying, there was still no sign of Brendan & Co.

After we had finished our Brazilian style Churrasco the other car at last arrived. No idea how we missed them in Palos Blancos, where Lucy and Chris had been standing in obvious places on street corners. They had managed to find a Taller Metalurgica – who had managed to weld a bar to prop up the suspension and fix the rear break pipe. The car crawled a bit but their road to Santa Cruz should be easy on asphalt for most of the way. All’s well that ends well, at least for today!

Details of S2434 to S2441 to follow in due course.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011 – around Tarija

Brief update, mainly about car matters, John spent another day in Tarija waiting for car news, while Wiebe and I joined Brendan, Lucy and Chris for a drive through the mountains.

S2425: Rebutia (Aylostera) deminuta – s.n. Rebutia fusca, Echinopsis sp. – in flower

S2426: Rebutia sp. – in flower, Zephyranthes andina? – Red flowered bulb, Llareta – Azorella compacta, Echinopsis (Lobivia) chrysochete? – In flower, Unidentified genus species – white flower, low perennial?

S2427: Cumulopuntia boliviana, Llama (Lama glama)

S2428: Cumulopuntia boliviana, Llama (Lama glama), Echinopsis (Lobivia) pampana s.n. Lobivia glaucescens; in flower (yellow).

S2429: Echinopsis (Trichocereus) sp, Opuntia sulphurea? – In flower, thicker, almost globular pads, Echinopsis (Lobivia) ferox (syn. Lobivia longispina), Parodia maassii, Echinopsis (Lobivia) pugionacantha ssp haemantha? Cumulopuntia chichensis? Or C. bolivianus? Tunilla soehrensii?

S2430: Cleistocactus buchtienii – s.n. Cleistocactus tupizensis, Echinopsis (Lobivia) lateritia?Echin opsis (Trichocereus) tacaquirensis? Blossfeldia lilliputana,  reported by BB on a previous visit, but not seen by us this time.

S2431: Cleistocactus buchtienii – s.n. Cleistocactus tupizensis

S2432: Oreocereus celsianus, Opuntia sp., Tunilla sp?- Dense mats, yellow flowers, Echinopsis (Trichocereus) sp

S2433: Oreocereus trollii, Oreocereus celsianus, Tunilla soehrensii, Cumulopuntia chichensis?

On our return, our car was back, fitted with a new clutch and other bits and a bill of Bs 2280 (11:1 for GBP). John is confident that the car rental company will repay him the money as he has been a loyal customer since 2006.

So tomorrow we continue on our way to Villa Monte. It is unlikely that we’ll have internet for the next two nights but should be OK once we reach Sucre on Friday.

Monday, 21 November 2011 – around Tarija

I’ll start today with a brief news update about the clutch – as it happens. John found a Toyota dealer 1 km from the hotel. They will look at the car today and by 5 pm will be able to tell us what needs doing. So today will be a mixture of taking in the local sights, exchanging some money, sorting images etc and at 15:00 hrs we climb on a bus for a tour of the wine route with a visit to one of the vineyards. Life as a cactus explorer is tough!

I spent the morning with various stop admin tasks on the internet including chats with Angie. Our guided vineyard tour was conducted by Jeff, a young Californian from near Palm Springs whose parents had moved to Bolivia. So no language barriers here. Great!  Our first stop was at Campos de Solana. This was a modern winery, full of shiny equipment, similar to the much larger operations that we have seen in seen at Concha y Toro and Santa Rita near Santiago in Chile, that are better known in the UK. In fact, I have never seen Bolivian wine offered for sale in the UK. Their sales pitch is that the highest vineyards in the world provide them with exceptional grapes. The vineyards are located in Santa Ana  with grapes and oak barrels imported from France. The Wines of Campos de Solana are produced in modern facilities with the latest equipment and technology from France.

The second establishment was more like a wine store – we saw no vineyards and no evidence of actual wine making in progress – a bit disappointing. We could taste one of the wines, but even at low Bolivian prices, none of us were tempted to buy a bottle.

The third establishment was a step back in history, old rustic buildings, including a restaurant, lots of old casks and a shop where we were invited to try the various wines on offer, but from a glass for each wine, passed around our group – I trust that none of us had foot in mouth disease! We found the drinks offered rather too sweet for our pallets, but a few bottles in attractive artisan containers were bought for friends back home. I hope that the wine does not strain the friendships too much! I resisted the temptation, having already bought a bottle for John at the first Bodega, in gratitude for his staying at the hotel to manage any repairs need on our car. Thanks John

Sunday, 20 November 2011 – around Tarija: up El Condor Paso and back

Many of you have asked me how I go about writing up the Diaries. Today’s missive is actually written on 15 December, while I’m cozily tucked up in front of the telly in Amesbury, Wiltshire UK, but when ever possible, I like to get the daily report out ‘from the field (hotel)’ on the actual day. So how does this work? As soon as we check into the hotel I look for the bed nearest the mains socket and switch on my laptop. This allows fellow travellers to take showers, or find the bar to (hopefully) come back with cold beers or similar. First task is to down load today’s images, so that I can reformat the memory card and have a capacity for up to 739 images for the next day. Next the search is on for an internet connection. If found, I check if Angie is still up, for a quick chat – unless she is my roomy on the trip of course, in which case we have already been chatting all day and need a break. The MSN chat is a bit like a brain dump, a muddle of the significant events of the day in the order of their importance or the order in which they happened. Often I save these chats as MS Word documents that I can then edit, to get the events in the right order, run spell check (honestly!) and cut and paste them into wordpress. If time runs out, they may appear as ‘to be continued’ reports that need to be tidied up later, possibly at home. By now, the image download has probably finished (time for another beer! – cactus exploring is a thirsty business!) and I quickly open today’s folder (created by the download process) and look for the images that mark the start of each stop.

In the past, this marker image would be the hand held GPS unit informing me where we had parked the car. Now that I have a GPS unit on my camera that records the coordinates for every image I take (when I remember to switch the unit on) I take a close up picture of the car or anything else that stands out as not being a plant or scenery image.

These marker images enable me to quickly move the images taken at a particular location to stop folders in that day’s folder. Next, if time permits, I open up my Stop Database, created in MS Access, and by going through the images of each stop, I noted the taxa that we saw. Some of the Diary audience only read the Diaries for this information, so I cut and paste the plant stop information into the Diaries and pad it out. For today, the plant data reads as follows:

S2419: Opuntia sulphurea – in flower, Unidentified genus species – Tradescantia?, Echinopsis (Lobivia) mamillosa – this is reported from a few km south at BB1369.04.

S2420: Cleistocactus strausii, Echinopsis mamillosa, in bud and in flower (red),  E. (Trichocereus) sp, Rebutia (Aylostera) fiebrigii, R. (A.) heliosa, E. calorubra var. cardenasiana ?, Lichen.

S2421 and S2422:  Rebutia (Aylostera) heliosa var condorensis, R. (A.) deminuta ssp kupperiana – s.n. R. robustispina (reported at nearby BB 289.02), E. calorubra var. cardenasiana (reported at nearby  BB 289.03),  Lichen,  Echinopsis mamillosa.

I only started to record the presence of Lichen around this time and, when time permits, will go back and check images from earlier stops too. Rebutia s.l. were often found growing in ‘moss’ – I’m not sure of its botanic status. Some seem similar to a species of Selaginella that I have seen around other cactus habitats, e.g. ‘spike moss’ and Echinocereus viridiflorus ssp davisii south of Marathon, Texas, USA. The presence of such ‘mosses’ may be significant. In 2003, part of my collection survived a damp but relatively warm winter on Angie’s patio in Amesbury, Wiltshire, UK. Many of the pots of the smaller cacti developed quite a dense growth of ‘moss’ around the cacti, that as a result seemed to be more resistant to damp cold, almost as though it made the cacti more resistant to the fungi and bacteria of plants that were not ‘protected’ in that way. Could there be a symbiotic relationship? Should we use moss rather than gravel as a top dressing for our plants?

Saturday, 19 November 2011 – Camargo to Tarija

Our last morning at Hostal Cruz Huaso and we were all sad to say goodbye to the lovelycouple who had looked after us so well.

A small change to plans meant that we had stayed an extra night at Camargo. We had an extremely good night sleep as the trucks and coaches had seemed to have taken the night off. But on thinking about this silence, this might actually be bad news, as it could indicate yet another blockade on one of the feeder roads. We are purely reliant on what we see on the TVs – always on in restaurants – and what our hosts in the hotels tell us. And all this information is based on hear say and can change any minute for better or worse.

Soon after we left town, John took us on a track into the mountains towards the village of Culpina. We made one stop (S2410) soon after leaving the main road as large golden spined Parodia and Weingartia lined the road. The Parodia was P. ritteri and the other plant was Rebutia (Weingartia) fidiana ssp. cintiensis. But our goal for the day lay farther into the hills and our first two attempts (S2411 and near by S2412) were disappointing. We had hoped to find Parodia occulta / P. subterranea here. Both plants are reported from the area but none of us were too sure of the current status of these plants. Are they the same or are they different? For now I’ll refer to them as one ‘name’ that may well be corrected once I have done my background reading. [PS: a search on the internet suggests that the current accepted name is P. subterranea Ritter 1960, with P. occulta Ritter 1980 as one of a number of synonyms. There are a number of variety names that are perhaps no more than population names].  Photos were taken of one shallow hole in the ground with the remains of a plant, found by Chris, that certainly would have been hidden (occulta) and below the ground (subterranea). Also there were battered Oreocereus celsianus, and the omni-present Opuntia sulphurea and Echinopsis (Lobivia) ferox, with the usual very long spines, hence its synonym Lobivia longispina.

We drove through the village of Culpina with the Saturday market in full progress. We did not take any pictures as we did not want to upset the locals – we had to come back down the hill after our next stop!

Our next stop (S2413) started encouragingly with some white flowers above the desert soil, similar to the flowers that we saw in on our walk to see Weingartia neumanniana near La Quiaca in 2010. These flowers belong to a bulb and for convenience sake we referred to it as a ‘crocus’ although non of us believed this to be botanically correct. [Zephyranthes andina] Also found lots of patches of small magenta flowers that in California or Mexico I would have called sand verbena. So at least there was plant life here. Next I photographed O. sulpurea, just for the record, and two different Lobivia sp that had recently flowered. As you can see, I have lots of detail to look up once I get home and these ‘sp.’ reports will help me to look at the images with reference books alongside during dark winter evenings in months to come. And then, there it was, P. occulta / P. subterranea level with the ground with just the dark straight central spine above the soil level. A bit of blowing and brushing aside the dust and debris that had collected between spines revealed much larger plants than I had anticipated.

Soon we were also finding plants in flower, both the Parodia and Lobivia as well as a new red flower on the ground Rebutia albopectinata, that looked at first glance like R. heliosa that we hope to see tomorrow. Many pictures have an ant crawling over the flower for scale. These are big ants! I should perhaps carry a supply of standard size plastic ants with me to stage the images!

This was a great morning among the flowers in the sun. Across the road the same plants were joined by another mystery couple. Cumulopuntia rossianus / subterranea (and again I’ll have to check later if they are in fact Maihueniopsis) appeared, including one plant with yellow flowers. It seemed that each of us had their own concept as to what name belonged to what plant. They grow together, so are they in fact within the variability of a single species?

We made another 4 plant stops, to be reported in detail later.

Images of S2418 start with pictures of our car with a variety of legs sticking from underneath the car, with the bonnet (hood) up and warning triangles along the road. We had developed a badly slipping clutch! Not good news in mountainous Bolivia. Unlike my previous experiences of this problem, where the clutch eventually refused to do its job, in 1999 in Brazil in Brian Bates’ car and again in 2001 in Chile on the road east of San Pedro de Atacama, there was no ‘hot asbestos’ smell. Had health & safety forced a change in compound used? We decided to drive on until the clutch packed up. Brendan’s car carried a tow rope and could get us to safety. John took over the driving as he is clearly the most mechanically orientated of the three of us.

Three and a half hours later, John had somehow managed to tease the car up and down two high passes (over 3,500 m) and into our town for the next four nights: Tarija.

This trip is certainly not without adventure!

Friday, 18 November 2011 – around Camargo: to Culpina and back

We’re now in Chuquisaca Department, with only 35 km as the crow flies to go to our original goal of Culpina, but neither Google Earth nor Google Maps could find a road to cover the distance. But then we have John as navigator! John suggested that as Culpina only has very basic accommodation and food, we’d stay in Camargo and make a day trip to the Culpina sites.

Now (15 December and back in the UK), with today’s stops plotted, GE confirms that we travelled on some interesting tracks with plenty of zigzags! Plants photographed:

S2403: Parodia maassii or P. ritteri var. camargensis

S2404: Rebutia (Weingartia) fidana ssp cintiensis, Puya sp, Asclepiad sp.- yellow flowers, Unidentified genus species – low, white stemmed trees, reminiscent of Pachycormus discolor in Baja California, Mexico

S2405: Parodia subterranea, s.n. Parodia occulta, Rebutia (Weingartia) fidana ssp cintiensis, Parodia sp – like P. maassii, but clustering; some white spined, some golden spined (P ritteri?), Cumulopuntia chichensis, Austrocylindropuntia shaferi, Puya sp, Echinopsis sp.

S2406 and S2407: Echinopsis (Lobivia) ferox, yellow flowers, Rebutia sp., red flowers, Oreocereus celsianus, Llareta – Azorella compacta, Cumulopuntia chichensis, Echinopsis (Trichocereus) sp –  T bertramiiOreocereus celsianus, Lichen, Cumulopuntia boliviana or C. chichensis?, Puya sp

S2408: Cleistocactus sp., Echinopsis (Trichocereus) sp – T. tacaquirensis?

S2409: Opuntia sulphurea, Parodia sp, Echinopsis (Trichocereus) sp – Trichocereus tacaquirensis? In flower, Cleistocactus sp.