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Wednesday, 22 December 2010 – Osorno to Santa Cruz

A very brief report to say that we ‘at up’ some 750 km today to run out of steam around the town of Santa Cruz on the Ruta del Vino. Juan and I are staying in the Merlot Room – they could not split the double bed in the Malbec Room and we do like ouir space. Cliff and John are in the Pinot Room. The whole place is like a museum full of wine themed antiques, but with a price to match.

No cactus stops today (2nd day running) although we did see some Echinopsis (Trichocereus) chiloensis on the hills along the road as soon as we left Ruta 5, some 160 km south of Santiago.

We have cooked up some ambituous plans for our remaining time in Chile and this includes showing John, who is still a Chilean cactus virgin, a wide selection of plants farther north with hopefully New Year’s celebrations in Taltal! We’ll see.

In the short term, we hope to see Echinopsis (Trichocereus) bolligeriana at Punta Lobos and Eriosyce aspillagea a bit farther north tomorow.

PS: It is not often that I add a postscript to a day’s Diary entry, but today is an exception. We were told at the hotel that there was a good restaurant on the plaza. A few years ago I joined Angie and her kids for a family Christmas in Cologne, Germany. Christmas Markets are a big thing in Germany. Well I can tell you that they are also big business in Chile and the advantage is that the weather allows you to walk around in shorts and shirt sleeves rather than wrapped up in umpteen layers of clothing.

I realised by now that I had been in Santa Cruz before and had bought a rather expensive artisan belt during a visit with Leo, Juan and Florencia in December 2007. In fact I was wearing the belt as I walked past the shop where I bought it! Today I bought two identical belts for a fraction of the cost on the market. This will test if my sons read my Diaries and as a result have some idea of what I got them as a Christmas present. There was also a wonderful statue of a horse, made out of gypsum that I know Angie would have loved, but when I tried to lift it, I realised that its weight was probably more than my total luggage allowance for the flight home, and so Juan took a picture of me holding the statue but I’m afraid that the statue stays in Chile.

The stall holders suggested that I should stay in Chile and send the horse to England. I suggested instead that Angie should come to a future Christmas market in Chile and personally admire the horse and be prepared to leave all her other luggage behind in order to take the horse statue home.  Again, time will tell……

Tuesday, 21 December 2010 – Esquel (Argentina) to Osorno (Chile)

Today is the longest / shortest day, depending on where in the world you are. or Cliff and I it is the sixth ‘longest day’ in a row, having spent the last three 21 Decembers in the southern hemisphere and celebrating 21 June in England. No regrets there, especially when we listen to tales of doom and gloom from the UK.

Our plan had been to spend our last night in Argentina tonight, in Villa La Angostura, but the roads out of Esquel were much better than we had dared to anticipate, so there we were, 2 p.m. and only 34 km from the Chilean border. We decided to do a bit of shopping to spend some of the last Argentinean Pesos, then did the usual battle with uana and Immigration. It all went very smoothly. We did have to empty the car at the Chilean SAG control, so that a totally disinterested dog could walk through our bags before we could load up again. Scenery wise too, this is the nicest pass I have used between Argentina and hile to date.

Just 33 pictures today – I was driving, otherwise I would have taken many more – just scenery, no cacti

Monday, 20 December, 2010 – Los Antiguos to Esquel

Only a week ago we stayed in Esquel and made a mid trip adjustment to our itinerary, taking a detour to the east coast to get some sunshine, escape the wind and see penguins. Today we were back, again as a result of a change in plans.

So are cacti rare in Patagonia? Not at all, is our conclusion. We made very few stops that did not produce cactus finds, once we were out of the Andes.

We proved it today. Today was really all about driving north, 590 km with no reliable information about available accommodation. We should manage this without incident. What we had not appreciated was that after the by now familiar 58 km to Perito Moreno, the next 230 km was on a gravel track – average speed 50 km p. hr. and much greater risks of tyre troubles instead of cruising at 120 km p. hr on smooth hard top.

Even when we reached the good stuff, at around 13:00 hrs, it was full of holes, reminiscent of the roads in Wiltshire!

Back to the theme: are cacti common here? Throughout Patagonia it is almost impossible to spot cacti from the road, giving the impression that they are rare, but anytime that we stopped and took a look, we’d find sometimes one, usually two and sometimes three species growing together, even if on stopping the car you’d think ‘This is a complete waste of time!’

After our apparent initial difficulties in finding Pterocactus, these have proven to be the most common cacti, no matter how badly life stock has trampled the ground. Their subterranean life style is perfect protection. Austrocactus are a bit more difficult to find and when we do, they tend to grow in ones and twos. Maihuenia is far less common than we imagined from the location database and from the relevant literature. We can not believe that this information is accurate – perhaps people are using lists of flora that has been reported from the area and tick the name as they drive through the scenery at high speeds. In that way lots of low mound forming shrubs can look like Maihuenia but we have learned that after closer inspection these are just spiny shrubs. Similarly Maihueniopsis darwinii has been recorded and reported as ‘quite abundant’ in the area where we have travelled during the last week. Not so – they are plenty full along the Atlantic coast but disappear when you get to the west of the country. They seem to like the company of Gymnocalycium which do the same thing.

Most of today’s drive was through the flattest and most featureless landscape. Yes, it was full of these low bushes and some bright yellow flowers – many of the dandelions! but for scenery, this must rate as some of the most boring areas on the planet. We made three stops – absolutely random and caused by the need to stretch our legs rather than because we had hit a spot that looked interesting and suitable for cacti.

Here is what we found:

  • S2148: Pterocactus hickenii – too windy for me to look further after we had photographed the first plants.
  • S2149: Actually a ‘proper plant spot’ as we drove through a small canyon, the first change in landscape for ages, where John spotted ‘a different yellow flower’ that turned out to be Alstroemeria luteus and a bit farther along there were some mauve coloured Anemone. Is it coincidence that the name ‘Anemone’ is derived from the Greek anemōnē meaning “daughter of the wind” – No cacti found.
  • S2150: at the gate to Estancia Los Rosales, where my exploits to the east of the road did not reveal any cacti, but where John, on the other side of the road had managed to find Maihuenia patagonica with pink flowers and Pterocactus hickenii, also with some plants in flower. After taking their pictures I spotted an Austrocactus desunii, most of its heads chopped off but with one head that had two woolly buds.

A typical day in Patagonia if you want to get from one hotel to another.

We’re now back in the Andean foothills, so the scenery has improved and will continue to do so tomorrow as we head for Villa La Angostura.

Sunday, 19 December, 2010 – South of Los Antiguos pt II

We made another visit to the bus station where again a cleaner and two security guards seemed to be the only people in the know: ‘There would be busses along sometime today!’ A couple of back packers, looking like snails with the entire contents of their homes loaded on their backs, looked on with disbelieving smiles. We left, again none the wiser.

Yesterday’s explorations had taken us south on a rather variable track. Today we aimed to get farther south but taking less time, so we headed some 58 km back east, to Perito Moreno and then south along Ruta Nacional 40. By the way, RN 40, the road that runs along the west of Argentina and RN 3 that runs south from Buenos Aires following the Atlantic Coast, are the subject of marketing to given them a Route 66 type cult status. Both Juan and I now have the T Shirts, as it seemed safer for me not to wear the newly acquired Conga y Toro T shirt until we’re back in Chile.

But (and not for the first time) I digress. Once on to RN 40 we were impressed with the high quality of the road. Unfortunately GPS location data that we had been given seemed to relate to another road, presumably the old road that seemed to have run some  2-3 km farther east.

Once on RN 40 we made a stop (S2145) at the by now familiar traffic sign of a palm tree being blown over. Of course there are no palm trees here and the traditional windsock sign used in Europe seems to be even less familiar, so a nearly blown over palm tree it is. I’ll probably use it to introduce the Patagonia part of next year’s ‘What I saw Last Winter’ talks. When we passed back this way later we could see an enormous dust cloud hanging over the road. As we got closer the cause became clear – a couple of thousand sheep – freshly sheared and the lambs with their tails docked – were being driven along the side of the road to their summer pastures. Driven? No, not in a car, being walked in the right direction by a group of gauchos, on horseback and each with two dogs to help to keep the sheep moving along the side of the road rather than in it. This immediately destroyed my theory, published on these pages a few days ago that the best place to find cacti was the road side of a fence – not the area inside the fence where animals grazed. It will take some time for that road side part of RN40 to have recovered from the trampling hooves and the teeth snatching at anything. We surmised that the wool taken from these animals would be full of heads of Pterocactus.

But again, I digress. S2145 confirmed the accuracy of the traffic sign. We were nearly blown out of our skins! The car’s outside thermometer indicated 17 C but the wind chill factor must have been -17 C!. As per usual it took only seconds for my eyes to be streaming as the wind blew in around my glasses. I must check out the possibility of prescription goggles to avoid this in the future! Still convinced of my ‘on the roadside of the fence’ strategy, I had found my first cacti in minutes – Pterocactus hickenii. Juan found a single short stem of Maihuenia patagonica, these were certainly nothing like the massive clumps that we had seen farther north. This could explain why we had not found this plant at locations provided to us by friends. We had been looking for something far bigger. I was very pleased with my woolly hat that I had bought earlier today at the petrol station – at least my ears stood a chance of surviving this trip.

John, who had taken the super windy trail up a ridge, reported having found plants in flower. So had we, but it was still worth a look. His Pterocactus hickenii grew ‘inside’ low shrubs which showed that the stems could indeed reach more than the usual one ‘ joint’ that was visible in sandy locations.

As we drove off, I made a suggestion. The conditions in which we were exploring, while tolerable, were not fun. We were unable to meet our objective of seeing these self same plants across the border in Chile as we had not been able to resolve the riddle on how to (legally) take our car in and back out of Chile and the taxi driver who had promised to come up with a proposal to pick us up in Chile once we had taken a bus in, had not been seen again. Time for a reality check. There seemed to be little point in staying here for another four nights, filling the time with day trips around the area where we were not going to find anything new on the cactus side. So I suggested that tomorrow we’d head north to Esquel (600 km – a driving day!). This had been earmarked as our ‘safe’ hotel (it accepted credit cards and would be open over Christmas), but that would just waste another three days. So instead, on Tuesday we’d move on to Villa La Angustora the plan would be to carry on into Chile aiming for a night in Osorno, along R5. The R5 corridor is more populated and offers more options for us to find accommodation during the Christmas period.

This plan received a favourable response, so we’ll work over the details in days to come. Meanwhile, back to reality, we made stop S2146. As if to suggest that Nature had beaten us, there was no wind and the temperature was up to 19 C, so that I could take off the coat and jumper that were essential at the last stop. Plants found: M. hickenii and Austrocactus dusenii  the latter with a pink (!) flower.

Back on the road, the wind was back in force and buffeted the car around – we made the right decision!

Saturday, 18 December, 2010 – South of Los Antiguos pt I

All our questioning yesterday seemed to indicate that the best place to get transport to take us across the border to Chile Chico was by public transport and so we drove to the bus station – where we found everything closed. Well, it was Saturday after all! So over to plan B. Our maps showed that there is a track that runs south from Los Antiguos, running parallel to the border.  So if our cactus targets exist this far south and just ended up in Chile by the quirk of human geography drawing a line, than they must also exist down this road.

Our first attempt ended up at a locked gate (S2140) and a quick walk around confirmed that this was not an area for cacti – too close to the river and probably subject to regular flooding. We went back to town, quickly stopped at our hotel to pick up Juan’s spare camera battery and found a much more promising track.

Not only did it head south, but also up, to the top of the mesas that had surrounded us at S2140. And as we reached the top it offered a nice view of the Argentinean border station. S2141 offered nice views up and down the Rio Jeinemenia valley and some nice examples of Andean flora including a very attractive grass with almost black flowers – but still no cacti. S2142, a bit farther along, looked very similar to the last stop, but this time the shout went up ‘Cacti!’, accompanied by mad waving, as the strong wind again blew any sound away. There were several small clumps – or rather, we believed that the heads that we found were connected to the same tuber – of Pterocactus hickenii. Cliff was also indicating a find on the other side of the road, but by the time that I arrived after taking pictures of Juan’s find, he had already moved on, believing that we had found the same plants. However, inspection of some of the heads that had been quite loosely attached to the tuber revealed that he had found P. australis.

We were more optimistic as we stopped at S2143, proposed by John as there was an easy ridge to explore. Prompted by Cliff’s shout, I headed off to the other side of the road where he had found a small 6-headed group of plants. But what was it? Pterocactus are not the easiest of plants to ID. The plant itself is a massive tuber below the ground. They produce a number of ‘heads’ that, once above soil level, develop to look like small individual cacti. These heads produce a flower that seems very large for the size of the head, based on what I had seen in other people’s pictures as we still had to find a plant in flower. These heads were still immature and did not have the adult spination that helps to identify the species. Near by, Juan and I soon found stems of P. hickenii so that we concluded that Cliff’s find was the same species. Although the wind often destroyed any attempts at verbal communication, occasionally it carried a message much farther than expected. That is how I heard John shout ‘Flowers!’ from his high vantage point on the ridge. It took a little while before we had joined him but sure enough, there in the sand, out of the wind was a single flower. There were lots more plants (P. hickenii again) all around, many with recent flower remains suggesting that one or two days ago this place would have been awash with flowers. I took lots of pictures and started to walk back to the car to fid that John was already there and started to take a look at the area where we had already spotted P. hickenii earlier. But this time his shout was ‘Austro!’ as he had found a few plants of Austrocactus dusenii, one of which was in flower. Excellent find! And as we looked around for more, I think that it was Juan who spotted P. australis. The interesting point here was that there were three or four seedlings pocking out of the soft sand. A quick look below the soil revealed that these were already perfectly formed plants with a healthy tuber and a small head developing.

S2144 was for scenic shots to the point where we thought it best to turn around. It took just over an hour to drive the 60 km back to our hotel. We had proven that most of the cacti that we had come to see in Chile grew on the Argentinean side of the border. We had failed to find Maihuenia patagonica and Maihueniopsis darwinii. These were not the difficult plants to find, we had already succeeded with the ‘hard ones’. As I’m writing up today’s notes we may have a solution. The owner of the hotel phoned a friend – a taxi driver – who can help, but is not allowed to take fare-paying passengers across the border. However, we can take a bus to Chile Chico where he could meet us and take us for half a day to the required locations. We’ll see what happens next!

BTW – sorry for the poor internet service – it seems that the whole town runs on one server and more than 1 user per address makes the system grind to a halt.

Friday, 17 December 2010: Caleta Olivia to Los Antiguos

On every cactus trip there are days when miles or kilometers have to be ‘eaten’ and for once plant spotting takes a back seat. Often such marathons go through the most uninspiring countryside. We had a 601 km like that a few days ago to get from the icy west to the sweltering east coast. As we had then travelled south, Argentina gets more narrow so that to make the reverse journey, from the coast to the Andes and the border with Chile was only some 381 km. Cliff was our man behind the wheel today.

Yesterday’s drive south had already reduced the outside temperature from about 33 C to 23 C and that ever-present wind would make things a lot more comfortable if it was not so strong as to drive you mad.

We went through some extremely flat terrain – it made The Netherlands look hilly! with every 500 m or so a Pumpjack (aka Nodding Donkeys in the UK and Ja-knikkers in Dutch). So we were in the ironic situation that we were driving through Argentinia’s main oil field, but where the majority of the pumpjacks were switched off – on strikes as were the small groups of workers at major crossroads. It seemed to be something that only YPF (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales) is on strike. Originally a Argentine State owned company, it had an interesting history of ownership and was privatised in 1991 with 5% of shares now owned by the Spanish multinational Repsol.

Anyway, the history of today’s oil crisis is about as interesting as the landscape that we drove through. Cliff suggested several locations for a speculative ‘stomp around’ but with outside temperatures between 10 and 13 C and the car being blown around by the ever-present strong wind, no-one else was particularly interested – how could cacti grow here?

Eventually bladder pressures encouraged us to put on jumpers and find coats for the desired stomp around (S2139). We were immediately rewarded with some typical Patagonian plants – compact and mound forming and, away from the wind, smothered in flowers. No IDs at present. Then Juan (who else?) discovered Pterocactus hickenii (for now) – just a single head poking up between the grasses.  John must be second in the unofficial cactus spotting league when he spotted two stems of Austrocactus growing close to each other. The fruit remains that were wooly, rather than spiny helped Juan to ID this as A. desunii, which is not (yet) reported in literature available to us as coming from this area. We wandered off in various directions until the cold wind had chilled us to the bone and the warmth of the car beckoned us in. Juan had found another A. desunii – a long stem, thin and spindly near the roots but quite robust at the growing point.

And John had found a few more P. hickenii but growing roadside of the fence that we had squeezed ourselves through. We had found this before, that inside a fenced off area goats, sheep and cattle do enormous damage to the flora, but that outside the fence, things are relatively undisturbed. Success on finding plants depends on how long ago the road had been built and if nature had been able to recover from that drama. 

After Perito Moreno the scenery changed again, now with snow-covered mountains to the west and a huge lake (1,850 km sq and up to 585 m deep) – Lago Buenos Aires in Argentina and Lago General Carrera in Chile – the border runs right through the middle. Surprisingly, the lake drains into the Pacific Ocean, not the Atlantic, so we have an indication of being on the ‘continental divide’.

Our theoretical goal for this expedition is to reach Chile Chico, the small village on the Chilean side of the border because some 10 km south of the town the southernmost reported  Chilean cacti have been found. In 2007 Cliff, Juan, Flo and I had driven to east of Antugo in Chile to find ‘the southernmost Chilean cactus’ – Maihuenia poeppigii. We had been aware of the plants around Chile Chico but at that time had dismissed them as ‘Argentinean plants that were growing some 10 km to the west of a man-made border’. If the legislative hands that had drawn up the border had shaken slightly, they would have been Argentinean plants and they clearly belonged to the Argentine rather than Chilean flora. This year’s trip was aimed at exploring Patagonia, irrespective of national borders, so a good excuse to put the matter right.

We just have once complication to resolve. To take a rental car from Chile into Argentina we had to take out a temporary licence to export the car from Chile and, within a month, import it back again. Simple – you’d think. Not so, because while we can legally enter Chile, we can’t then drive through Chile back to Santiago. We  have to make the final crossing farther north, probably around Villa La Angostura, after Christmas.

So tomorrow it looks as though we will be taking a local bus ride across the border into Chile and, on arrival, we’ll try to get a taxi to take us to the locations that we want to visit – all along a paved road. We’re keeping our fingers crossed!

Thursday, 16 December 2010 – Camarones to Caleta Olivia

Today we moved to the southern most state planned for this trip, Santa Cruz. We’re still on the Atlantic Ocean, but tomorrow will probably head west to Perito oreno or Los Antiguas, on the Lago Buenos Aires. Our target for this trip, Chile Chico, is just across the border, but border bureaucracy means that we can only bring the car back into Chile the once, and this is not the place to do it, as the road is said to be blocked by the fall out of a Chilean volcanic explosion some 2 years ago. We’ll know more when we get there.

Today was a relaxed day’s driving following the Atlantic coast line that kept popping into view.

We made one, rather lengthy cactus stop S2138. It did not start very promising. I walked into the hills on one side of the car while the others took the otherside. Half way up the hill I looked over my shoulder and saw Cliff waving energetically – time for me to shift hills.

On arrival the cause of the excitement became clear – a large crested Gymnocalycium gibbosum. any pictures were taken from many different angles. Yesterday’s camera problems turned out to be lens problems – it seems that after 4 years in the field my 18-200 mm  zoom lens has developed a nasty rattle that suggests that one of the elements has become undone. I had a poor attempt at getting to the problem, but without a toolkit the better option seemd to be to fit my 60 mm macro-lens instead. So my brain has to get used to ‘seeing’ shots differently and that no matter how much I twist the lens, I c’t zoom in or out. That means that I have to move closer in or farther away from the subject, as required. With moving away, I need to be aware of the space restrictions and not walk back wards off a cliff, as nearly happened today.

I can now add Gymnocalycium to the range of cactus genera photographed with the Ocean in the background.  While we were busy with this magnificent plant, John found another that would also make an interesting show plant. But we were not the first people to admire this plant – a previous visitor had left a digging tool by its side. This plant was probably much too large for a European or US collector, but there were suggestions that some small plants might have been taken. Here, the tool was just used to indicate size.

I’m calling the ymno ‘gibbosum’ because that is the only species reported from Patagonia. ssp. chubutense is listed as a synonym that fits plants here. But today’s plants had different fruits from those on previous days and very variable when it came down to spination.  Gymno’s are usually differentiated on seed rather than fruit, but that might be a weakness in this case. Juan has collected fruits from both so we shoud be able to check seed size sometime in the future. 

The landscape that we were driving through had little more to offer, so we headed for the main road where we could drive at 140 km p hr and reached Comodore Rivadavia where we were able to top up with diesel – a tanker was supplying the petrol station as we had our car filled.

Tomorrow we head west towards our ultimate goal of this trip, Chile Chico.