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Archive for the ‘Patagoniathon 2010 – 2011’ Category

Saturday, 11 December, 2010 – Junín de los Andes to Villa La Angostura

We started the day with a quick stop on the Plaza of Junín de los Andes, where, opposite the restaurant where we had treated ourselves to huge steaks during the last two nights, there was an Araucaria tree, decorated like a Christmas Tree. We just had to have its picture. Weather was grim – overcast and cold.

Friday, 10 December, 2010 – around Junín de los Andes

Chatting with Angie, it seems that we had very similar weather today. She reported temperatures of 6 C in Amesbury while here in Argentina, in summer, it was 9 C when we left the Hosteria and 5 C when we reached the lava flows a few miles from the Chilean border.  Unfortunately is poured down with a steady rain all day long, rather like a UK Spring day. The gravel track had become quite treacherous – John reported that at times it was like gliding through butter as the top layer of fine gravel had turned to mud. The car went where it wanted which fortunately most of the time was the same way where John was pointing it.

Our goal was the lava flow at the western end of Laguna Verde. On a sunny day this would have been a spectacular ride, through meadows, then forest (beech followed by araucaria trees) along lakes and often with glimpses of a tall snow capped volcano to the north. Unfortunately the rain was coming down so hard that we could hardly see the other side of the lake.

The lava flow turned out to be ‘recent’, resulting from an eruption 400 years ago, still too fresh to accommodate the plants that we had hoped to see.

On the way back our previous passing in the other direction and the continued rain had made the track only worse – not better. Congratulations to John for getting us back safely. 

All 44 images taken are filed as S2121 – No Cacti.

Tomorrow we move on, hopefully driving out of the rain and towards the sun.

Thursday, 9 December, 2010 – Villa Pehuenia to Junín de los Andes

Our hosts in Hosteria Al Paraíso in Villa Pehuenia were a mine of information to help us with our trip. They had suggest Martin as our guide yesterday and he certainly took us to places that we would never have found on our own, recommended places to eat, arranged taxis to those restaurants and now suggested that Junin de los Andes was a good place to stop for a night or two and recommended a hosteria. It was only 122 km so we took things at a very steady pace, made more stops over the distance than usual, whenever the conditions looked promising.

The first stop (S2117) was a mistake. We had been travelling on a dirt road and I had noticed that at times, the strong wind, coming up from behind us, seemed to overtake the car (it was my driving day). We were in an area that could house some Pterocactus – a flat area, sandy with some rocks. But after 10 -15 minutes it was clear to me that there were no cacti there, so I returned to the car. Before reaching the car I was engulfed in a sand storm. It only lasted a few minutes and was quite local, but my decision to return to the car seemed a sound one. It was a no cactus Stop but I did take a few ‘before & after’ pictures as first there was a hillside with a line of Araucaria at the top, then just a shadow through another blast of the sandstorm. By now John had joined me, Juan was in the thick of it, videoing and Cliff was somewhere in the lee of a hillside. Eventually we were all back in the car and Cliff reported to have seen a small plant of Maihuenia patagonica in flower – and has pictures taken with his new camera to proof it. We believed him and decided that we did not have to see them ourselves.

 S2118 was another No Cactus Stop, but nice scenery and roadside plants with a river in the back ground. 

S2119 was because Juan woke up, looked out of the car window and spotted cacti on the cliff face along the road. How do you do it?!?! These were Austrocactus bertinii but they were only visible through the zoom lens as John caused a minor landslide trying to get to one of the clumps high on the hill. In the mean time, Juan walking along the road, found plants growing at eye level and lower – much better. Again the plants were in flower, but sadly, the sun had gone and the low light made good picture taking unlikely.

 S2220 and Juan spotted cacti again – this time on low rocks, about a meter high. The similarities with small clumps of Echinocereus are remarkable – until you see the flowers.

Found another very nice hotel with very helpful staff to put together tomorrow’s program – if only the weather holds out.

Wednesday, 8 December, 2010 – around Villa Pehuenia

Two months after I left England and I’m already well into my third trip. ‘Doesn’t it get boring?’ Not as long as you have days like today!

Our local guide, Martin, arrived promptly at 9 and waited patiently while we created space in the car for him. There is an area that is ‘owned’ by the original native people that is only accessible by main roads at the weekend. But Martin knew the back roads very well and so promised to take us to above the tree line – and into the snow – to show us some more Violas. Stops S2110 to S2114 were for four segments of this trip for different flora and scenery – no cacti found. We are looking for the book that our guide had brought along, to get all the names for these plants, but that will have to wait until we reach a larger town.

We drove through pine tree plantations into Araucaria forest and out onto bare scree made up of pumice and other volcanic rocks and sands. Although we are only some two weeks from the longest day in the middle of summer here, we were driving through snow covered patches on the south facing slopes. The car’s outside temperature gauge suggested 13 C. We were happy to walk around in shirt sleeves in the sun, although jumpers came out when the sun disappeared briefly behind clouds and a biting cold wind stirred up.

For now I can tell you that we saw a Viola sp. that was new to us, Viola cotyledon, Nassauvia lagascea (Asteraceae), Senecio boelckei as well as a remarkable Oxalis, O. adenophilla, with, for me, delicate, most un-oxalis like leaves and, for the plant’s size, huge pink flowers. There are others, still awaiting identification. As well as these fascinating plants, growing in pure pumice, the scenery was breath taking.

The tricky part, photography-wise was to strike a balance between fast exposure times, to freeze petals blown about in the strong winds and using small apertures to achieve maximum depth of field. And to handle the contrasts: white snow v. dark volcanic rock etc.

For S2115 we had a small misunderstanding. Guillermo had sent me a message that they had found a location where Pterocactus had been in flower – some 200 plants flowering at the same time. We had been two days behind him and had driven through the same area, but on a different road as we discovered later. So this afternoon we hoped to find this spot. Martin had understood that we wanted to go to Laguno Blanca and Zapala, in that order and had taken us the long way round, thinking that the order of seeing these places was important. It was not, in fact we would only needed to go some 56 km towards Zapala to hit Guillermo’s location. Instead we took a 156 km ride but did stop at a huge rock formation where Martin remembered having seen cacti. Cacti were not his specialty. But we had hit the jackpot with a large number of Austrocactus bertinii in flower. Austrocactus are strange plants with various growth habits from thin wispy stems growing through shrub and stones to robust stems, not unlike Echinocereus in North America, but with buds and flowers superficially resembling Eriosyce.

S2116 was for a strange dried out lake that had very bright salt crystals colouring the sides of the rocks that contained it. Once we were out of the car we naturally started looking for plants and soon found another viola. Juan then found Maihuenia patagonicus and Cliff found a strange plant that at first sight reminded us of Toumeya papyracantha from Utah or Colorado or some other Pediocactus or miniature Sclerocactus. A bit of digging revealed a long neck attached to a large tuber: Pterocactus. Pterocactus araucanus comes from this area, but the pictures and description in Roberto Kiesling’s Cactus de la Patagonia for P. australis were a much better match. That will be the name I’ll use until I’m persuaded differently.

This threw doubts on the plants found by Guillermo that he had reported as P. araucanus. Based on what was reported from here or on appearance? We found no flowers but a bit of surgery revealed that the above ground stems were no more than ripening fruits. The coordinates for his stop were still in the hotel. Likely places had goats grazing on them – this seems to be the time that goat herds move their flocks around. Well, after all, Christmas is approaching ….

Pressed for time, we did not find Guillermo’s stop.

Tuesday, 7 December, 2010 – Chos Malal to Villa Pehuenia

I guess that today’s weather is typical of what we can expect in days to come. A nice sunny start as we packed to leave Chos Mala. Apparently this means ‘Yellow Pen’ in the Mapudungun language, although Wikipedia does not offer a solution as to why. At around 9, we left with 21C on the thermometer.

We’re in Villa Pehuenia, Province Neuquen, only some 10-20 km from the Chilean border. It’s right in the Argentinean side of the lake district. So the view from the lounge area is over snow topped wooded hillsides, covered in Araucaria trees and a lake. This morning we left Chos Malal around 9, with 21C on the thermometer. By midday the temperature had dropped to 4C, and we were in the middle of a hailstorm. Coats and jumpers, not used since October’s departure from London, were somewhere in the back of the car, but the icy wind just blew through everything.
The plan was to only stay here one night, but it is very comfortable and the owners introduced us to a friend of theirs who is a Viola tour guide. We got chatting and he’ll take us round the sites that he knows in the area and that are usually closed to the public, tomorrow.  So we should get a good crop of pics! But the forecast is rain! Usually that seems to mean that the bright skies, with white Andean clouds briefly close in, temperatures drop, rain falls and after an hour things are back to sunny, a bit like England in May. Stop lists for today:

S2106 offered Maihuenia patagonica, Maihueniopsis darwinii (?) and Austrocactus dusenii (?) as we nearly got blown of the low hill. ‘Windy like fish!’ as Mark would have said.

S2107 is for scenic shots – first as the roadside was covered with yellow flowers and then, as the temperature dropped some 12 C to 4C as we found ourselves in an Araucaria forest surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

S2108 was in the Araucaria forest as we finally plucked up courage to stop the car and make a dash for the luggage to get out jumpers, gloves and coats. Nature was getting its revenge for my jokes about the early winter snow in Europe! There were yellow orchids, Chloraea alpina,blowing in the icy wind and the poor light made it difficult to ‘freeze’ them with a fast exposure. There were also low mounds of a bright red-flowered plant that John believes is a Mimulus cupreus. No cacti found.

S2109 had Calceolaria aff biflora, Azorella sp. (there appear to be some 70 species!), and a yellow-flowered alpine, Oreopilus gracillis, and some large fungi, all still with Araucarea and snow capped hills as a backdrop! Quite different to what we had seen since 8 October! 

Sunday, 5 December, 2010 – Malargüe to Chos Malal

It’s Sinterklaas Dag in the Netherlands and surrounding civilised countries. Kids are on their best behaviour because tonight the Goedheiligman and his (politically incorrect) Zwarte Pieten helpers, will be bringing presents to all children who have been well behaved during the last year.

Our ‘present’ today consisted of six stops, starting with S2096 where we soon decided to wear our hats under our shirts for fear of having them blown off our heads. The wind gusts were unbelievable and made sure that we did not go too near to the edge of the cliff. Talking of Cliff, Juan took a picture showing him about to push me down a 100 m. drop! Good to know who your friends are.

Despite the seemingly unsuitable environment for cacti here, Juan and John soon found some very dehydrated plants that we believe are Austrocactus patagonica.

Huge stands of Mimulus sp. with yellow trumpet flowers with a dark centre made us stop for S2097. A quick, more detailed look revealed that yesterday’s Viola was also present. And some small miniatures yet to be identified, including another, small Mimulus sp. possibly M. luteus. John ‘scored’ a bulb. And cacti were represented by Maihueniopsis darwinii (?) and Maihuenia patagonica.

‘Always include something in your pictures that allows the viewer to judge size’ is a common photography tip. At S2098, goats were disappearing behind mounds of M. patagonica. If I could have driven a Volkswagen beetle in, it would probably also have been hidden from view! These were seriously big! We made a group photo here, but standing behind a relatively low clump. John proved its toughness by standing on top of a mound and promptly regretted it, having to get a pair of pliers to extract half a dozen spines that had embedded in the soles of his boots. Some had gone all the way through! There was also a Portulacaceae sp in flower and as that Family is closely related to the Cactaceae, it seemed worthwhile to take a few pictures. The Violas were still present too.

Back on the plain (S2099) Maihuenia darwinii ssp hickenii was on show – brilliant yellow flat spines! Also found Pterocactus sp. (P. fischerii?)

S2100 was a scenery – no cacti found stop and S2101 was a repeat of S2099 plus Austrocactus patagonicus (?) and it was in flower! Very densely spined!

Not a bad way to spend St. Nikolaas day!

Saturday, 4 December, 2010 – around Malargüe

It was fun to have another evening with friends last night, especially as Graham offered us the opportunity to reduce his supply of Auchentoshan 18 year old single malt whiskey! Cheers Graham, we owe you one!

Despite last night’s drinking, Guillermo’s party had already left by the time that we managed to raise ourselves for breakfast. We look forward to meeting you all again somewhere, sometime. Have a good trip!

Our dilema today was to push west, into the Andean foothills to see some Andean Alpines,  or to follow up on Guillermo’s tip of looking at the scenery and cacti along the road to the north east around Nihil. As true cactus explorers we did both, of course!

First we took the road west to the ski resort of Las Leñas and stopped at around 1,690 m altitude to take pictures of Denmoza rhodacantha and Maihueniopsis sp. (S2091).

Past the ski resort, at 2,340 m altitude (S2092), the vegetation had changed dramatically and we were now seeing our first (two?) roseolate Viola and a very cute, tiny Oxalis sp. with yellow flowers. Plenty of flowers, but sadly no fruits.

On the way back down the hill, at 2,112 m. altitude, (S2093) we stopped to inspect the overflow area of the river for more Viola. We found clumps of Maihueniopsis darwinii (in flower) and Maihuenia patagonica  (in flower – but the flowers could only fully open after we had removed a few heads. How do these flowers get pollinated?), a Viola sp. and the miniature Oxalis sp. again.

It was about 13:00 hrs as we returned to Malargue, too early to go to the hotel, so onwards, north east, towards San Rafael. Before the town we turned east towards Nihil and from there followed the track along the Cuesta de Nihil with dramatic scenery (S2094). The Rio Nihil passes through a narrow canyon that in several places was damned to allow electricity to be generated as the water was allowed to pass by generators on its was down. The track was full of climbs and drops with switch backs to quickly gain or lose height. Fortunately there was hardly any traffc in the opposite direction. Denmoza rhodacantha grew on the rocks with large clumps of Echinopsis (Trichocereus) candicans and added to the dramatic affect as the sun rays played through the spines. Although there are plenty of cacti in the pictures, the scenery was the main attraction.

It seemed a lot of hard work, but eventually we reached the spot that Guillermo had recommended for Pterocactus tuberosa. As we stepped out of the car at the GPS coordinates suggested, we practically stepped on the plants – no longer in flower but many showing the evidence of earlier flowering.

We arrived back at Malargüe quite late and tired. It’s not every day that we drive 555 km just to see some cacti and scenery!

That night there was a wedding reception in the hotel, so we had to go out to eat. The party continued noisily until c. 4:30! liff, John and Juan appeared red eyed, late for breakfast. We demanded and got a 10% discount on our hotel bill. I, of course, had slept through it all!

Friday, 3 December, 2010 – Uspallata to Mallargue

Our friends in Guillermo’s party were moving on by the time that we came down for breakfast. We would see them again tonight.

We made six stops today:

 S2085 was at Dique de Carrizal, a man made lake that seemed to provide for local tourism at the height of the tourist season in a month’s time. Tday it was deserted with sign posted indicating the attractions and eateries. It was also very much developed for agriculture, so we had little hope of finding cacti, so were pleasantly surprised (S2086) by Cereus aethiops, Tephrocactus articulata, the papyracantha (papery spines) form, Opuntia sulphurea, Echinopsis leucantha and Eriosyce (Pyrrhocactus) strausiana.

As we drove back towards the main road, we stopped near a rocky outcrop that I had spotted on the way in. How could we have missed the large clump of Echinopsis (Trichocereus) candicans in flower?

Back on the main road, we stayed on RN40, even though it changed from hard top to a gravel road, driving through a rather flat and featureless landscape for about 140 km.  We stopped (S2087) to confirm that there were no cacti hiding between the flowering shrubs. None were found.

At S2088, to re-confirm our previous (non-)findings we found a Tephrocactus sp. (very dehydrated), a bulb, to be identified later, and our first Maihuenia of the trip, M. patagonica, again very dried up.

We were nearly all asleep with the monotony of the track when the road made a sharp bend to reveal a Lago surrounded by steep hills with an Embalsa (Agua de Toro) at the end. We stopped (S2089) for scenic shots but also found Denmoza rhodacantha and Echinopsis (Trichocereus) candicans in large numbers on the hillside as an unexpected bonus.

After driving over the dam, the road went through a tunnel. We blinked like pit poneys when we emerged again into  the bright sunlight and almost immediately spotted small globular cacti in flower – Eriosyce (Pyrrhocactus) strausiana, forcing us to stop again (S2090).

We still had 113 km to go to Mallargue, where we arrived before Guillermo’s party who had taken a different route that we intend to explore tomorrow.

Thursday, 2 December, 2010 – around Uspallata

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.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010 – Lonquen (Chile) to Uspallata (Argentina)

The Patagoniathon 2010 kicked off as planned with our departure from Lonquen at about 9:30.

The roads taken (Lonquen to Santiago ring road, past the airport, then R5 north, as for any regular Copiapoathon) until the turning east to Los Andes.

A fast dual carriage was got us into the mountains and when things slowed down a bit, as roads narrowed we made a brief stop to stretch our legs (S2076 – km 24, Los Espinos) and spotted a few Alstroemeria – a different sp. then encountered thus far on our travels. John was obviously more fired up and climbed through a fence to get closer pictures. Cliff was singing the praises of his new camera with incredible x30 optical zoom capability and claimed that he could almost count the anthers on the flowers some 50 meters away. Do check the lens for dust particles, Cliff!

The road climbed steeply and in places was covered by strong concrete sections not unlike a journey through the European Alps. Another leg stretch stop (S2077) and a chance to point zoom lenses at Eriosyce aurata on the opposite side of the valley. A fast flowing river made it impossible to get closer.

Then another example of the chaotic and pointless bureaucracy that is border control. It’s not just so here between Chile and Argentina, just take a look through past Diaries about the problems we have experienced trying to get ourselves and our cars in and out of Mexico / USA!

Things were not helped by the fact that there seemed to be a customs strike in progress that fortunately seemed to affect trucks and lorries only.  As usual we wqere passed from pillar to post – or kiosk to kiosk to be more precise, before a smartly dressed uniformed lady smiled and told us ”That’s all!’  Nice thought, but she was wrong, as 20 km down the road at a police checkpoint we were told that one of the forms only had three istead of four stamps. This on a form generated by the Argentinean authorities themselves. We joined another (Argentinean) car to wait to hear what should happen and were soon joined by a queue of motorbikes and cars in the same predicament. The outcome was predictable: shrughs of shoulders and we were on our way, despite the missing stamp.

It was not far to Uspallata and we made one more stop, so as not to be emberrasingly early at the hotel. S2078 gave us tall Denmoza rhodacantha, including one specimen over 2 m. tall, two Maiheniopsis glomerata and one (dead) Echinopsis leucantha. We returned to the car happy with today’s photo catch except that John, who had chosen to explore on the north side of the road, had not found any cacti at all.

We found Hotel Gran Uspallata without trouble on the oputskirts of town. We’ll stay here two nights and hope that tomorow we’ll be joined by Guillermo Rivera and a bus full of enthusiasts on his Patagonia Expedition. The passengers should include friends from Europe, so this should prove an interesting re-union! Perhaps a challenge to the annual ELK event in Belgium?