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Monday, 16 March 2009 – Gomez Palacio to Hidalgo del Parral, Chichuahua

Today we said goodbye to Durango, which had restored our faith in Mexico as a country to see cacti. We moved on to Chihuahua, yet another time zone, so that we gained / lost (which ever way you want to look at it) an hour.

One thing we have found is that Mexico is big, Real BIG! There is a farm in Chihuahua that has an area equivalent to the sum of the area of Belgium, Denmark, Holland and Switzerland! I’m sure that they could have squeezed in Luxemburg and Liechtenstein as well if they had tried or knew about those countries as well.

Our first stop of the day was an impromptu leg stretch, still in Durango. If it had been up to me I would have waited a few minutes as the hills seemed to be approaching MEX 49 (this was the ‘Libre’ – free road instead of the quite expensive Cuota = toll road), but general consensus was that coffee drunk at breakfast needed to be set free.  Even this apparently flat uninteresting waste land along the road was a cactus gold mine.  S1347 at km 63 on MEX 49 offered a clumping Coryphantha sp. (C. werdermannii ? tight spination in the dry, so difficult to any tubercle grooves), Cylindropuntia sp (2), Echinocactus horizonthalonius, (looking very similar to Thelocactus bicolor ssp heterochromus or was it?), Echinocereus enneacanthus (it seems that the plants here go by the name ‘variety dubius’ – honest!), Ferocactus hamathacanthus – again, large clumps that would have been impressive if they were less overgrown by grass and weeds, Fouquieria splendens (standard red flowers),  Mammillaria sp. (M. grusonii?), Opuntia sp. (3) and Sclerocactus uncinatus ssp wrightii.

We had earmarked a stop (S1348) known as the Microondas Conejos (the Conejos Microwave tower).  It seems to be a popular place among cactophiles, probably because this had been recorded as a Charlie Glass stop in 1974. We saw all the taxa reported for S1347 plus Agave lechuguilla, A. scabra, Echinomastus unguispinus (since seeing my first Echinomastus in habitat I have been doing a bit of on-line back ground reading and it seems that this taxon has a list of synonys as long as your arm, that include E. durangensis and E. mapimiensis), Mammillaria lasiacantha (again just a single snow white plant) M. pottsii (large clumps) and Thelocactus bicolor. No wonder that this is such a popular location. The views are not bad either! 

Eunice had been keen to go to the Zona del Silencio, a nature reserve that is in the corner of three states: Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango. It is a huge reserve and we made it to the visitor’s centre, 7 km from the main road, where we were the only visitors and the live-on-site caretaker had to open up and give us a presentation in fluent Spanish – not a problem for him, a bit of a challenge for us, although I was surprised how much I could understand. Try this for size:

http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zona_del_Silencio

The main centre, where meteorites are reported to have fallen, was another good hour’s drive away on average dirt. It was very hot and there was no guarantee of seeing cacti – or at least anything that we could not see here, so one the 3:1 decision rule, we headed back to MEX 49. We had stopped on the way into the reserve, at the visitors centre and again on a track off the main track between the entrance and the centre. As all the plants seen were the same, they are all recorded under one stop number – S1349. We saw: Cylindropuntia sp (kleinei?) Echinocactus horizonthalonius, Echinocereus enneacanthus ssp dubius, (several in flower), Echinomastus unguinispinus, Ferocactus hamatacanthus (really very common here and very large), Fouquieria splendens, Opuntia sp (3), one of which may be Opuntia microdasys ssp rufida or the other way round.

It was time to leave Durango and enter the last state on our Mexican sojourn, Chihuahua. So far we have only seen plain, flat cultivated land and we used the toll road to get here, but tomorrow we’ll have more time – I hope!

Sunday, 15 March 2009 – North west of Gomez Palacio

Wrong! We did not go back to S1342. I should have mentioned though that the Fouquieria splendens at S1342 had white rather than red flowers – something that Ian had told me to look out for after an Alan Phipps talk in Exeter.

But we had such a good time these last two days that we decided to have another night at Gomez Palacio and spent the day driving north, out of the town on MEX 40 until the town of Bermejillo where we turned left (west) on to MEX 30. After a few miles,  was our first stop, S1343, across the road from the Bermejillo cemetery. This was the other Ariocarpus intermediate location that we had in the database, spirits were high when we got to the place. It was fenced off and along Mex 30, a fairly main road, but quiet on a Sunday morning. There was a gently sloping area alongside a fairly steep hillside and Alain, Cliff and I explored both, while Eunice felt uncomfortable about going on to private land and stayed near the car. We all felt that the area was ‘rightish’ for Ariocarpus (limestone rock and gently sloping silt like areas) but that the time was wrong – at home, Arios tend to be dormant until late summer (August – September) and flower in October. Whether the theory was right or not, we failed to find any Arios but did find Agave, Yucca and Opuntia sps. plus Echinocereus sp. #1 (enneacanthus?) and E. sp. #2 (stramineus?), Escobaria sp., Mammillaria sp. (heyderi? or meiacantha?), M. pottsii, Sclerocactus uncinatus and Thelocactus bicolor, so not a bad stop.

S1344 was along MEX 13 at km 13. No fences! We found all the same plants as at S1343, plus Ferocactus hamatacanthus – including a huge specimen made up of a number of heads that measured 170 cm from one end to the other – we have the pictures to prove it! E. enneacanthus (?) was here forming large clumps with some flowers and one of the Opuntia sp. was also flowering in abundance. Were there steroids in the soil here?

We decided to carry on up MEX 30 and were treated to a military security stop – quite intimidating as all soldiers wore facemasks, so that any ‘baddies’ could not recognise them and single them out later, and carried larger than life assault rifles and machine guns. Their commander spoke fairly good English and was keen to re-assure us that there was no problem, just a routine check and asked us if we had experienced any problems in Mexico, plus added that tourists still go to countries like Israel where there is much more violence. We reassured him that we had found Mexico great, friendly and welcoming. Why wouldn’t we? We had not had any bad experiences plus they had the guns!

We drove on to km 50, (S1345) where the hills (Sierra del Rancho Espiritu Santo)more or less met the road. We had become spoilt and found many of the cacti and succulents before – the list is long and those who are interested will get the full plant list once it is ready on my return to the UK.

The last stop of the day (S1346) was a ‘tourist stop’ and why not! A few km east of Mapimi is the Puente Colgante de Ojuela. Rather than me explaining all about it, read for yourself (in Spanish!) and look at the pictures at:

  http://www.torreon.gob.mx/laciudad/turismo/alrededores/ojuela.php

Here we saw Yucca sp #1 & 2 but were distracted by the 318 m long bridge hanging over a 98 m deep canyon, and by young folks (God that sounds nas though I’m getting old), making the return journey by hanging from a pulley attached to a cable across the canyon. We thought about having a go as well, but were happy to see that the queues were far too long.

We had a reasonably early night back, arriving at the hotel before dark.

Saturday 14 March 2009 – South west of Gomez Palacio

I’m starting today’s Diary while waiting to go to breakfast. Choosing where to go today (and what to miss as a result) is a nice but almost stressful experience, particularly when you need to consider the wants and needs of fellow travellers. To solve the issue I have promised myself a return visit, pencilled in on my ‘wish list of places to see (again)’, when it seems a good idea to take at least a month,  based for example in Torreon, and spend a week each on the 4 quarters of the compass. Not sure if it will ever happen, but at least it makes me feel better about the plant stops that we just can not fit in this time.

When we left, after breakfast, we were surprised to find that it had rained during the night, making the dust covered car look a real mess. As we drove out of Gomez Palacio (= GP), we were even more surprised to find that it was raining again! About an hour later, as we approached the turn off the main Mex 40, we were not only surprised but also a bit worried, that it was still raining, but relieved to see bits of blue sky between the clouds.

We had agreed on just 3 locations today: Eunice had requested a stop to see Agave victoriae-reginae (‘A. vicky’) that had been reported from near the lake were we made our last stop yesterday and Alain had requested two stops, very close together, along Mex 34, in the hope that we’d find Echinomastus durangensis and Leuchtenbergia principes.

We had good data for all these stops and very happy with what we had found the previous day in this area, so confident that we’d find plants of interest.

Imagine our surprise when the data for ‘A. vicky’ turned out to be less then 100 m from yesterday’s S1337. Today, after the rain, and now in the morning sun, the plants looked very refreshed. I’m using a new Stop number, S1339, as my stop numbers reflect both location and time (when I remember). We knew that we had to look in different places for ‘Vicky – not in front of our boots, but high on the edges of the rock face, just like A. impressa earlier in Sinaloa. And so, zoom lenses were set on the max zoom range and binoculars were trained on the rock face above us and sure enough, I spotted five impossible to get to plants within five minutes. But with Eunice’s 400 mm zoom lens, on tripod. I was able to fill the frame with each plant. They tended to be silhouetted against the sky, but were clear enough to see. We each went our own way to see if we could find plants closer to our lenses (we did, only some 5 m (15 ft) away.)  So the species list for S1339 is the same as yesterday’s S1337 plus Agave victoriae reginae and also plus Mammillaria pottsii that Cliff found, but I did not.

While looking like a professional photographer, in the road, with my camera on Eunice’s tripod and her 400 mm lens on my camera, an elderly Mexican came along on his bicycle. He got off for a chat, until he discovered that I spoke no English. He turned out to be a ‘Volunteer vigilante’ – a neighbourhood watch man, and suggested politely that our car would be better parked 10 m. along the road. In my best Spenglish (which is becoming more like Spanglish), I explained that we were taking pictures of plants and that my friends – including Eunice with the car keys, were on the hillside. He then started talking about Indians and I started losing the plot (again) until he asked me to follow him, to the base of the cliff where he showed me some petroglyphs, that he said were ‘very old’. Keen to compete with Juan who found petroglyphs in San Ramon. Eunice joined us and agreed to act as decoy for our Mexican friend while I carried on with the photography. As a result we have a set of very interesting plant and other points of interest pictures for this stop.

S1340 was a simple stop because Alain spotted a large clump of Echinocereus sp. in flower. Naming the plant was the tricky bit – I know I have it at home in my collection, but I can’t read the label until April. Echinocerei reported from here include E. enneacanthus, but it is not like the E. enneacanthus that we used to grow at Holly Gate Cactus Nursery by that name, so it’s a case of going back to first principles (checking out original descriptions) to see if that name fits what we saw.

S1341 was a location from the database near Nazas on Mex 34, for Echinomastus durangensis and we were not disappointed, finding large and small specimens and even some plants in flower and a tiny amount of seed, not enough to share I’m afraid. The species list was impressive: Various Agave, Yucca and Opuntia sp – I’ll spare you the details, Coryphantha sp., Echinocereus sp. (the name E. stramineus keeps cropping up, but plants look very similar to E. engelmannii that I have seen in habitat elsewhere, more so than like the E. stramineus that we grow in the UK. The taxon is said to have the largest flowers of any Echinocereus. The ones in my collection certainly do. In habitat we were too early for flowers.

S1342 was another location from the database, just 7 km up the road, this time for Leuchtenbergia principes. The shadows were getting long, so it became more difficult to find cacti but we found one plant at the exact coordinates in the database – usually such coordinates are from the place that the Cactus Explorer parked his car, and you have to use your guile and experience to see where the plants might be.  All the other plants from S1341 were here too. Once we got back at the hotel, we had a nasty sense of deja vu, as it turned out that S1342 should also have shown us Ariocarpus intermedius! Arrrrgggghhhh!

So guess where we are going tomorrow!?

Friday, 13 March 2009 – Durango to Gomez Palacio

Friday the Thirteenth. Another one! Still, the last one turned out OK (was that really a month ago?!)

We set off late. We needed to decide which way we wanted to head home to the US. Where as in Sonora & Sinaloa the obvious choice was limited to one main highway, we now had a number of options open. And while in the previous states it was reasonably easy to select targets for a plant hunt, here we were really spoiled for choice. the list of 1,500 plant names and locations (some no more than the name of a town) was like browsing through a Mexican Cactus Lexicon. Just like kids in a sweetie shop with only a few minutes to decide what they wanted. The time budget is relentless. Because of the late start (due to deciding what was where and what, sadly, could not be fitted in) we decided to head for Gomez Palacio, part of a trio of towns that had merged together (the others were Ciudad Lerdo and Torreon, which is across the border in the State of Coahuila.

Again, to make the best of the time available, we used the (expensive – but empty and reasonable quality) toll road to get to a selected side road from where ‘cactus clusters’ had been reported. After our experiences to date, we had become quite cynical about today’s success rate.

We left the Mex 40 toll road at  Guadelupe Victoria and continued on the free Mex 40, liberally strewn with topes and vibrasiones to keep our speed down and massage my back (which has improved nicely) and made our first stop of the day (S1335) when Eunice spotted a Yucca in flower along the road. It was not long before we had spotted a few Coryphantha sp. growing behind a barbed wire fence – no problem for experienced Cactus Explorers. Eunice in the mean time found more Corys at the ‘legal’ side of the fence than we did behind it. Other plants recorded were Cylindropuntia sp. with bright yellow fruits and very dark body contrasting nicely with each other, Fouquieria splendens, Opuntia ‘santa rita’ (the name everyone understands, pending a look as to what current name is in favour this time) Opuntia robusta (again, needs a check when I get home), Opuntia sp. #1 & 2.

The next stop was just outside Pedriceña, as Eunice had spotted two Agave sp. and no fencing on her side of the car. ‘Just a quick one then’, we grumbled, as we grudgingly went for a ‘stomp about’ to see what else might be here (S1336). BINGO! Sclerocactus uncinatus ssp wrightii, ironically called the Chihuahuan Fishhook cactus, while we were far south in Durango. It is quite impressive how this plant has been moved around by botanists, having been in Ancistrocactus, Echinocactus, Ferocactus and Glandulicactus, probably lined up for a spell in Thelocactus when Cliff gets home.  The area was covered by A. lechuguilla and on the hills (and also a few dotted along the road) was A. scabra. Other very welcome surprises included the species recorded at the previous stop, plus Coryphantha sp. (these looked different from those at the previous stop), Cylindropuntia kleiniai, or was it C. leptocaulis? Echinocereus sp. (probably E. stramineus), a small opuntioid that looked a bit like O. standleyi, Mammillaria laisiacantha fa. and a Yucca sp. Not bad at all, and clearly more than just a quick stop. 

S1337 was again prompted by Eunice spotting some Agave, Yucca and Hechtia (2 different sp.). Ah well, the last stops she had called turned out excellent, so let’s take a look. Ferocactus hamatacanthus! Opuntia sp. #1 and #2 and a plant that could be a Coryphantha sp, Mammillaria sp. or Neoloydia conoidea – no flowers, fruits to give the game away and the plants were dry and not showing off their tubercles to allow us to look for groves etc. Come to thing of it, I would not be surprised if all three genera were here and photographed.    Looking for Agave etc. turned out to be not such a bad thing, as they seemed to like similar habitats to cacti and their spent flower stalks were easy to spot. The plants grew in very photogenic situations on a steep rock face – attractive but tricky to get close to plants.

The last stop was at the Presa Francisco Zarco, a dam and a man-made lake with a very nice view across the lake that made it tempting to wait for sunset, but common sense prevailed and we managed to pull into our Best Western hotel before it was dark.

Let’s hope that today’s great day heralds a change in fortunes.

Cheers

PK

Thursday, 12 March 2009 – Mazatlan to Durango

Let’s start with an update on yesterday’s Diaries, starting with the most exciting bit. It is not often that we take / get the time to review the pictures we took during the day, until the trip is over. Eunice was keen to see how good her pictures of Agave impressa were and zoomed in close on a plant with flower stalk. Imagine her surprise when, growing right next to it, she finds a ceroid with a pseudocephalium! Pilosocereus alensis! Just goes to show, never throw away ‘spare pictures until you have thoroughly checked if they contain anything of interest. Of course the problem is to find the time to make the thorough check. I hastily checked my pictures and yes, I too have the Pilosocereus alensis in the frame!

Correction: I reported for S1328: ‘… an Apocynaceae tree with peculiar fruits that may be Matelea porbifolia. The stem had large thorns on it, just like Ceiba.’ 

Please ignore the sentence. I did see a tree with a stem that almost certainly makes it a Ceiba sp. Ceiba are in the Family Malvaceae. The Matelea reference belongs elsewhere.

Today we headed inland for a journey of some 340 km to Durango. In the process we moved into a different time zone so that we are now 6 hours instead of 7 hours behind the UK.

I have tended to regard Opuntia s.s. in general as a genus of fairly uninteresting plants, They are so promiscuous that it is sometimes difficult to know what is a species and what is a natural hybrid. I refer here to the flat padded plants. Here in Mexico, there seem to be a number of Opuntias that have a quite distinct look about them, so that I’ll have to plough through the large section of hardly touched pages in the New Cactus Lexicon containing the pretty pictures, to see if I can put some names to them. In the mean time, forgive me when I refer to Opuntia sp #1 etc. It is never intended that O. sp. #1 at one stop is the same as O. sp #1 at another stop. The numbers are just for that stop.

All of today’s stops are along Mex 40, the Mazatlan to Durango road. We started with specific stops, as usual, but as time pressed on and we were seeing lots of different Agaves, things became a little blurred, so that some stop numbers refer to a fairly long stretch of road.

And Agave’s are still a mystery to me, so at this stage, they too will be referred to as Agave sp. #1 etc. in the hope that Eunice will provide names in tie to come.

Alain’s pictures and some of mine that come through Angie, should have GPS data embedded in their metadata, so get a browser that allows you to view this info (I use ACDSEE, but Picasa2, a free image browser is excellent and available as a free down load)

So, what did we see? Great scenery as the road climbed from sea level to 2,800 m. and wound its way into the Sierra Madre Occidentalis. The temperature dropped from much too hot to explore, to very comfortable. And plant wise? This was Agave Day!

S1330:  Hylocereus ocamponis, Opuntia sp. #1 & #2, Orchid sp., Tillandsia sp. #1 & #2

S1331:  Agave sp., Opuntia sp.

S1332: We had now hit ‘the mother lode as far as Agave’s & scenery were concerned, so took a few hours to cover very few kilometers but I collected 134 images along the way! They include: Agave schidigera, A. sp. #1, #2, #3 Bromeliad sp. #1, Disocactus schrankii or speciosa?, Echeveria sp., Nolina sp., Opuntia sp. #1, #2 plus a plant that looks remarkably like a Rhipsalis or similar epiphytic cactus, only seen & photographed from a distance. There are no records for true epiphytic cacti in Mexico in my dataset, so more homework when I get home. This stop took us all the way up to the monument at the Espinazo del Diablo, a kind of ridge pass with magnificent views to either side of the road.

S1333 are for images taken from Espinazo del Diablo, 199 km from Durango, as we drove east along Mex 40, before reaching the plain where Durango is located and are of scenery rather than specific plants.

S1334 was a leg stretch as we approached Durango – now on the plain, with an Agave sp.  Opuntia sp. and Yucca sp. (Y. filifera?).

The SatNav system seemed unacquainted with the town of Durango, sending us up one way streets or in circles without knowing where to go. As always, these things happen at the end of the day when every one is tired and problem solving becomes more of a challenge.

Sat in our hotel rooms, I find that we probably passed by some very interesting cacti without having spotted them, so the question becomes: will we see these again later on, or is the only way that we’ll see these cacti this trip a matter of returning a fair distance on MEX40 to do a more detailed search? And do we have the time? And do we have the motivation? For now my eyes are stinging and I badly need some sleep.