In 2008 we had found Maihueniopsis clavaroides north of the town, but missed the Pterocactus that is said to grow here as well. With an extra pair of eyes, we thought that we might see if we could find it this time.
As we approached the area, our hearts sank as there was now barbed wire along a much wider paved road with evidence that bulldozers had built the road by just scraping top gravel from the areas next to the road – exactly where our plants had grown. Fortunately the road went back to dirt about 1 km before ‘our’ 2008 spot, but I think that the future for this location is doomed. Let’s hope that their distribution is wider than we found in 2008.
At this spot, this time S2079, it took a little while to find Maihueniopsis clavarioides. It had been very dry here, while in 2008 we saw them in the middle of a thunderstorm, soaking wet. Some plants were in bud and looked as though they may open later. We also found Eriosyce (Pyrrhocactus) strausiana, in flower, but again very dehydrated. Rains should start by the end of the month, but are unreliable in timing and volume. We continued to find Maihueniopsis glomerata here, with some plants still in flower, but fruits indicating that we had missed the peak of flowering. The strategy seems to be to flower before the summer rains begin, so that ripe seed will be available to germinate and establish itself before the next dry spell.
We moved about 10 km farther north for S2080, mainly because of our curiosity in the dried ‘salt lake’ at the foot of some low hills. It turned out to be a dried up mud lake, used as a watering hole for cattle when water is available, judging by the cow pats and goat droppings. Maihueniopsis glomerata had somehow survived, but the rest of the area seemed thrashed. Just as we were about to give up and return to the car, Juan (who else?) found Pterocactus gonjanii, in bud. Just two flower stems sticking out above the soil. They must have shot up after the cattle moved on to better watering holes. Maihueniopsis clavarioides was here too, but looking very shrivelled.
S2081 must have been a floral continuation of yesterday’s S2078 to the west rather than the east of Uspallata with the same plants present. The hillside was full of Denmoza as well as some Echinopsis leucantha and more M. glomerata. We passed a plaque in the middle of nowhere to commemorate an 1835 visit by Charles Darwin and the 200th Anniversary of his birth in 1809.
We agreed on a bit more exploration east of Uspallata and soon had found a microwave tower perched high on the top of a hill. There was a good track to the top and excellent views, but once we arrive at the top the wind was so strong that we could hardly open the car doors. A miserable looking Maihueniopsis glomerata prevented S2082 being marked up as a No Cactus Stop.
We continued a bit farther along the Ruta Sanmartinianas, the historical route taken by General San Martin and a small contingent of Chileans that cleared the Conquistadors out of first Argentina, then Chile.
S2083 was 4 km on, where we found Cumulopuntia boliviana and a red-flowered bulb to please John.
Then it was time to return to Uspallata, briefly stopping at S2084 for a hillside full of Opuntia (O. sulphurea?). We had arranged a meeting with Guillermo Rivera and his South American Expedition tour who were staying in the same hotel as we were. In addition to Guillermo, other friends and acquaintances included Leo van der Hoeven, Graham Hole (UK), Winnie Pfendbach from Germany, Dick and Phyllis from Houston, Texas, who had been on Guillermo’s 2005 NW Argentina tour that was my introduction to this beautiful country. It also provided an unexpected opportunity to meet Craig Howe, who with his wife Liz have been on several of Guillermo’s tours and published a Diary of their 2004 experiences on cacti_etc, thus inspiring us to make the 2005 trip. As you can imagine, the beer flowed freely and the evening passed by much too quickly, so we decided that we would meet up again tomorrow night, but would take things a bit slower than the bus party.
The good news was that we had all seen the same cacti, but as Guillermo’s party had passed through the area of our first two stops in the afternoon, the Maihueniopsis and Pterocactus buds that we had seen in the morning had now opened up, so that they have pictures of the plants in full flower.