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Thursday 15 January 2009 – Sicuani to Cabanillas

So yesterday was not the most perfect day so far in terms of cactus exploration, but today we made up for it.

As there was nothing to do, we had had an early night so did not mind too much being woken by electric drills and saws of the folk building the next floor of the hotel, starting at around 6 a.m. We had looked at Google Earth (in cache mode, as there was no internet connection) and decided to follow the main road to Santa Rosa and from there take the turn off to the north, to Nunoa and Macusani (105 km away).

Just before Santa Rosa, we made the first stop of the day (S1176) where we found Austrocylindropuntia floccosa and Echinopsis (Lobivia) maximilliana (or was it L. pentlandii?). We only found one plant in flower, but quite a few in fruit (although not much was collected) and Cliff tells me that Lobivia with that bicoloured flower goes under the name E. maximilliana in the UK. There was also a cute (honestly) white to light pink flowered Oxalisand various other wild flowers that could distract from the cacti on future talks. How often have you been asked for the ID of a plant behind or to the side of that precious cactus that took days to find? As though speakers are supposed to be expert botanists familiar with every plant they see or allow into a photograph.

We drove into Santa Rosa, as I was still trying to find the tourist stop we made along the Cusco to Puno road that we made last year, where Angie & I photographed the various South American cameloids and were tempted by the products produced from their wool. Didn’t seem to be this village either. I’m sure that Angie will chime in with the answer.

Soon after leaving the village of Santa Rosa, we found the (variable quality) track to Macusani. And minutes later there appeared the first signs of Puya raimondii (S1177). For the uninitiated, this is the largest Bromeliad (Pineapple Family) in the world, taking some 150 years to flower, reaching heights in excess of 3 m; very imposing plants. These were four ‘youngsters’, growing on a hill side, that had not yet started to form their inflorescence. When you start looking for a plant that is said to be rare, but distributed over a significant area in both Peru and Bolivia, you never know what to expect. I have vague memories from last year when Angie & I were on a coach without opportunities to stop, of being woken up with Angie asking ‘What is that?’ pointing at a large P. raimondiiin flower silhouetted in the distance in a side valley, but I have no idea where that was. So how rare are they when we trip over them without trying?

Once the plant has flowered, it dies (taking a few years to disappear altogether) and it seems that plants in small local populations are all of a similar age, so that they all reach flowering age at the same time and then die, so that when years later, people check out the location, they come back disappointed.

S1178 was prompted by me shouting ‘Stop’ as I had spotted a plant in flower by the side of the road that we had passed too quickly to ID – might have been a cactus!. It wasn’t, but it was quite an interesting thistle like plant with un-thistle like flowers. As we had stopped anyway we had a look among the rocks higher up and sure enough found more E. maximilliana. And large ‘puff-ball’ fungi; not what you tend to expect along (generally) drought loving cacti. And there was a A.floccosa but without hair – still, happens in humans too. We did added another Peperomia sp. location to the potential beer voucher scheme with the University of Gent. I have no idea of the taxonomy and classification of these plants but have a few friends and contacts that seem to dote on these plants, so we’ll take their picture where ever we see them and hope that they can enlighten us later with names.

Some 25 km from our main road turn off, just before reaching Nunoa we spotted a Puya raimondii hillside. (S1179). Or at least, that is what they seemed to be – the largest Bromeliads that I had ever seen, but how many other species exist that are large but not as large as P. raimondii? There were a few individuals with inflorescence, looking impressively big, but as they seemed ‘quite common’, we decided to wait until we’d pass some growing next to the road, rather than walk up the hill here. Wrong! These were the last we were to see, even though we would later pass a recorded population near San Anton – presumably the plants had all died after flowering.

We arrived at the ‘new-town’ village of Nunoa, built as a government funded project between 2003 and 2006. But what then? They had made an impressive dual carriage road into town with three giant llama statues at the entrance. They had paid less attention to the sign post and quality of the road out of the village, but we eventually found our way out.

Near Nunoa was another funded project, (S1180) an ecological reserve to protect three species of Polylepis tree, about which we know nothing – another Google search might tell us more later. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polylepisand a synopsis below)*.

Between the shrubs and low trees were more Echinopsis (Lobivia)and the pink rock also seemed to have a commercial potential as it seemed to be quarried in small quantities.

S1181was at a small lake where we took pictures of flamingos.

S1182 and S1183 were both stops to take pictures of the amazing mounds of Opuntia / Tephrocactus (or  Austrocylindropuntia, the name used in the NCL) malayanus, lagopus and floccosa. The exact taxonomy is less important – they are extremely photogenic plants, enhanced by their setting. We had called Cumulopuntia boliviana‘sleeping sheep’; well, these were sleeping llamas! And just to prove the point, we took pictures of them all together for a ‘How many of each’ question for a future quiz.

We arrived safely in Macusani, which turned out to be much larger than expected, presumably due to the massive prison that it is host to. This place is in the middle of nowhere, with hardly a village on the map between it and the Brazilian border, hundreds of miles to the north.

It was still early – about 2:30 and this place is high up at 4,800 m  and while we were not suffering from altitude sickness, it does tire you quickly, so we decided that we could make it back to Juliaca in daylight – just. We did, but did not find the Puya raimondii that we were supposed to have seen south of San Anton, probably because there were three spectacular thunderstorms that we were zig zagging between, so that trying to spot large Bromeliads against a dark hillside was impossible.

I remembered Juliaca from last year as a nightmare city for traffic with no one observing any particular rules. Well, it is worse when driving your own car (Well done Cliff!) with no idea of where you are going and relying on none existent direction signs.

We finally came across a petrol station and asked directions. We were on the road out of town to Arequipa! That was our goal for a few days time! So we might as well go on. By now it was dark and we don’t like driving in the dark in South America, but needs must. Driving through the small village of Cabanillos, not on my maps, we I saw a sign for Hostal.

Yes, they had a doble, but with shared bathroom. Usually not a problem, but both Cliff & I were having tummy problems and the other guests seemed to have set up home in the bathroom! We survived. More later…..
Cheers
PK

* Polylepis is a genus of trees and shrubs restricted to the Andes of South America. The genus belongs to the Rosaceae family and to the tribe Sanguisorbeae. It is wind-pollinated and can be recognized by its pinnate leaves and a multi-layered, papery bark, the latter feature also prompting its scientific name, a combination of Greek and Latin meaning “many-scales”. There are 15-30 recognised species.

Distribution
The Polylepis species frequently grows at or above the natural tree line in the Andes. Polylepis tarapacana is especially remarkable for being the woody plant occurring at the highest elevations worldwide. It forms monotypic stands at 3,800 – 4,600 m.a.s.l. (12,000-15,000 feet above sea level), far above the natural tree line which is typically between 3,200-3,500 m.a.s.l (10,000-11,000 feet above sea level). These Polylepis forests are separated by the true tree line of the forests of the humid yungas or dry Interandean valleys by shrubs or grasses of the puna.

Controversy exists between tropical ecologists whether its currently fragmented distribution is natural or the result of human land-use. Some scientists believe that much of the open grasslands of the Andean altiplano that currently separate isolated Polylepis forests were in fact one continuous forests before early native Andean peoples cleared or burned the ancient forests.

Conservation issues
Polylepis
forests exist primarily as small, widely isolated fragments, which are being rapidly depleted by rural communities. Remaining Polylepis forests are used for firewood and building material and provide protection against erosion and habitats for endangered animals. In some countries, conservation and reforestation measures are underway.

Wednesday 14 January 2009 – Abancay to Sicuani

Today marks day 76 of our 152 day long cactus adventure, so were half way through. I used to get a sad feeling when we were on 3 or 4 week trips when the half way stage was reached, but this time isn’t so bad. After all, we still have half the Peru trip left, followed by a 3 week tour of California and a one month trip to Mexico before arriving back in the UK! The picture stats so far are 12,190 files (Jpegs, a few RAW and MPEG2 Movie clips) taking up 89.5 GB, but I left home with an empty 500 GByte drive, so should be OK.

Rudolf mentioned the varied Peruvian cuisine that he finds great. Unfortunately we have seen little evidence of it. In Nazca, Puquio and Abancay, there are hundreds of Pollo (=Chicken) Shops. They warn you when you sit down ‘Pollo only!’ Which is tough when you fancy steak!

All along the coastal plain from Lima to Nazca we saw hundreds of chicken farms, with a similar number under construction, just as they were building at Maitencillo in Chile, so I hope that they are not signs of things to come. One Bird Flue outbreak and there’ll be severe hunger!

The first thing that we noticed driving out of town was that there were no cacti on show. Why? Intensive agriculture I expect, but was it really that more intensive than on the way in?

The second observation was that unlike the hillsides in Argentina and Bolivia, that looked promising for globular cacti like Blossfeldia, Parodia, Rebutia etc. here there were none. Lots of Tillandsia and in some selected canyons, ceroids (Neoraimondia hertlingiana and Weberbauerocereus sp.), but no ‘cactus small stuff’. Why?

And the third observation was of how much ‘import’ rather than endemics dominated the scene: Agave, Furcrea and Eucalyptus were very dominant. But how long ago had they arrived here? The native Peruvians are suggested to have arrived here from Tibet via the Berring Straits thousands of years ago, so their migration south would have taken them through Mexico etc. Their agricultural skills were already very advanced, before the Inca were in power. Did they bring seed of the Agavaceae along or did these arrive later, when the Spanish brought slaves from Africa (via the Caribbean Islands?) to work in the cotton & sugar cane fields along the coast? And what about the Eucalyptus?

Many questions on a very pleasant sunny day driving on an excellent road through a wonderful landscape. But few cacti to report and photograph today.   

Last year Angie & I enjoyed Cusco (as everyone here now spells it with an s, so will I) exactly a year ago, and I was looking forward to showing Cliff some of the impressive architecture, but today we found it a nightmare! Last year we were bussed around and shepherded into a safe and cosy hotel. This time, not knowing our way round and having to consider parking our car safely as well, became a hell. In Lima I recognised places and lay out of the city and this year we had an adequate street plan to guide us along. In Cusco I managed to find the hotel we had stayed, but this was way out of our price league this time as a similar place was asking US$ 180 for a double room!

So, what  to do? Head out of town and hope to see something suitable on the outskirts. We found one reasonable looking place but they claimed to be full up. Lies – I believe that they were so empty that it was not worth their while to open. And then the hotels, hostals and hospedajes ran out. The scenery was still stunning, but still no obvious cacti to be seen, and I had not yet done my homework to see what we should be looking out for, beyond Cusco.

We reached Sicuani, intended to be tomorrow night’s stop and found a Hostal sign lit up. At least we had a roof over our heads: two rooms at 10 Soles (c 2 GBP) each.

The young lady receptionist pointed us to a light across the road where we found an eating establishment. We joined in with the locals and had what was on the menu today (and probably every day): Soup with pasta shells and a main course of (you guessed it) chicken, rice, a slice or two of boiled potato and a cup of matte, all for the princely sum of 5 Soles in total! Having just been to the bank, we only had a 100 Soles note! Never mind, it seemed that a local education class had just arrived for food and a lesson from the TV, so our landlord managed to rustle up the required notes, while I introduced myself to some of the guys on the table, who mentioned things like Margaret Thatcher, Bobby Charlton, Chelsea, Manchester United and David Beckham and all things British, while I tried to explain that I was Dutch. They did not speak Spanish, but a local dialect that they claimed was similar to Portuguese.  

It seems that The Database is also light on cacti in this area, until we head farther north to Macusani for some Opuntia spotting, so at least we had not driven past some ‘must see’ plants.

Tuesday 13 January 2009 – Around Abancay

As reported yesterday, GPS data in The Database suggested that yesterday we were very close to a location for Oroya peruvianus. The trouble was that although in terms of ‘km as the crow / condor flies’ we were almost on top (19.8 km) off the location, in reality we were some 2,000 m below it. and 63 km along a patchy track. Still, the relatively short distance and the novelty (for us) of seeing Oroya in habitat was enough to devote today to finding it.

Cliff was feeling marginally better and took control of the car. Having a steering wheel in his hand gave him better anticipation of bumps and turns and so helped him.

S1172 was for things seen between the turning to Andahuaylas and S1173 where we saw Oroya peruvianus. It included one scenic stop and lots of ‘from the car window pictures’ – throughout the day, the views were magnificent as we travelled through a range of climatic zones.  We saw Agave sp (aff americana), Furcrea sp., Weberbaurocereus cuzcoensis (?), Browningia hertlingiana, Opuntia sp., Orchidaceae sp., Oxalis sp., Ferns and ‘Rape seed’. I’ll ignore all the crops that we saw, interesting as they were.

Eventually we reached the GPS coordinates and were a little worried that by now we had driven into the cloud zone and had had the windscreen wipers going flat out for a while. Fortunately the rain reduced to a light drizzle but our surroundings still looked extremely unlike prime cactus country. Things changed however as soon as we stopped the car and got out, as we could spot at least a dozen of cacti growing on a rocky hillside between areas of cultivated crops. We soon found a place to access the hillside and finally were face to face with our target for the day. Just as a bonus they were in fruit with ripe seeds! We also photographed Austrocylindropuntia floccosa here, as well as a couple of species of Peperomia. It was clear from the mud-bath road that had led us here and from the vegetation that included mosses, liverworts and lichen, that this place was usually wet. I’ll apologise to plants in my collection in the UK and change their environment as soon as I get back (if they have survived the ‘severe’ winter that we keep reading about on the internet. Did it freeze?)

S1174 is for the short stretch of road from the Oroya stop until we had enough. The rain was coming down so hard that even if a rare cactus had jumped out into the road in front of us, we would probably have missed it and certainly would not have got out to take its picture. From the car we did however photograph a very nice tree lupine with silvery leaves – would do great as a garden ornamental in the UK!

I was also dumbfounded by a Volvo truck coming from the opposite direction, claiming to be the property of Gebr. Groot BV from Bovenkarspel, Holland! What on earth was a Dutch lorry doing here (although clearly with Peruvian plates and occupants). I might search the internet to see if the Brother Groot from Bovenkarspel still exists and send them a picture of their truck. Was it stolen and sent abroad? Sold off? In any event, most unexpected.

S1175 was for pictures taken on the way back down. It took nearly 4 hours to cover the 63 km with only very brief stops for some scenic shots. These included some nice pictures and movie clips of humming birds feeding around the large inflorescence of the Agave and various natives dressed appropriately. We were practically forced off the road into a rain course along the track by a local bus (more of a people carrier) but escaped miraculously without scratches and as we approached Abancay, we looked for the place where water runs from the mountains across the road and found a young lad keen to clean our car. He had quite a nifty set up with a powered hose that soon made our car look like new. He (Juan) was extremely conscientious and for about 45 minutes insisted to clean the car inside and outside, underneath and on the roof (fortunately he left no dents) so that our car looks as clean as it did when we picked it up in Lima. All for the princely sum of 7 soles. We realise that we were probably done but gave a 10 soles note anyway – great value for money by UK standards. He seemed happy too.

Monday 12 January 2009 – Puquio to Abancay

This morning we were glad to get away. The hotel had not been great, but I guess value for money. It was at least dry, but the town was a mud bath, as I had to walk with Max (the caretaker) to the secure lock up for the car.

A detailed study of The Database revealed that last night, in torrential rain, we had driven by and missed Matucana haynei. We hoped that it would also occur on similar land on the other side of Puquio, but found that cows, goats and sheep were competing for things to trample.

So S1168, just outside Puquio, provided Corryocactus quadrangularis (in flower), Echinopsis (Trichocereus) sp. (we’re calling it E. puquioensis) and Cumulopuntia boliviana (?) quite an open plant, not like the clumps that we found in Bolivia, Argentina & Chile. Austrocylindropuntia subulata or ssp exaltata was also everywhere. Agave americana seems as abundant as any endemic, but obviously is not, which makes us think about some of the cacti mentioned above: endemic or imported? The bonus at this stop was a hummingbird humming away. European minds are easily pleased where hummers are concerned.

S1169 gave us Austrocylindropuntia floccosa, as single stems or small clumps and most remarkably in some ways, a common dandelion that could have come straight from my back garden in the UK, in a few months time – so much is different and yet there are so many commonalities as well.

S1170 was visited 6 hours later. In between we had driven over the altiplano, through the tail end of a snow shower, just in case you lot think we are ignoring your hard luck stories about snow & ice in Europe, but here we were along the fast flowing Pachachaca river, next to hundreds of meters of Andes going straight up, covered in Tillandsia and other Bromeliads, an Echinopsis sp and a Weberbauerocereus sp., complaining about the heat! An amazing country! Swallowtail butterflies, the same as we saw in Chile, provided an additional attraction, drinking from the storm drains.

S1171 provided a parking space along the Rio Pachachaca  to get better shots (and fruits) of the Weberbauerocereus sp. (cuzcoensis?), and of the Tricho that turned out to be Browningia hertlingiana (syn Clistanthocereus / Azureocereus hertlingianus) and an Opuntia sp. that looks like O. salmiana that we saw in Argentina. And many, many bromeliads. We’ve been looking for, but not found yet, Pepperomias, to photograph and swap for beer vouchers with folks from the University of Gent in Belgium.

We seem to be near to a spot for Oroya peruvianus which would be a nice ‘first time in habitat’ for both Cliff & me. And we would love to see Puya raimondii, but habitat locations seem rather elusive.

Sunday 11 January 2009 – Nazca to Puquio

We discovered just why our hotel had been so cheap. The rooms were small and the sound proofing practically non existent. The room next door had a young family, with a baby at the teething stage, waking (us as well) up every hour or so and the parents relying on the TV (too loud) to induce sleep again. I used my iPod to provide music to block out the noise, but Cliff had a bad night.

We had decided to move on to Puquio that according to the map was ‘just’ 128 km away. Wrong, a sign post out of Nazca said 155 and proved to be correct. This had not been a fast road yesterday, as it twisted and turned up the mountains, although it did provide some glorious views. Being Sunday, there was little traffic around. Unfortunately Cliff’s bad night was catching up with him and affecting his digestive system (or vice versa), so that we made another stop at yesterday’s S1165, with Cliff leaving a deposit rather than taking pictures this time. I took some pictures of Tillandsia that I had missed yesterday.

Cliff really was not well enough to do our usual cactus stop walks, so we limited ourselves to some quick dashes out of the car to take pictures of cactus species that we had not seen before. At km 45 (S1166) we saw a huge Armatocereus – the sprawling type, that we had also seen earlier in the Pisco Valley. That day, rain stopped play and today there were very dark skies above where we were heading. Cumulopuntia sphaerica put in an appearance, but nowhere near as dense as it had been in Chile and Argentina.

The road rapidly deteriorated and it became a sport to miss all the pot holes. ‘Perhaps I should aim for them. If my success rate for that is as good as for missing them, we should have a smoother ride’ I suggested. ‘I thought that you were aiming for them.’ came Cliff’s reply, indicating that he was feeling marginally better.

By S1167 we had climbed to 3,577 m. and the Browningia had disappeared. We wondered if this meant that Oreocereus would soon take over and this stop confirmed that it does. The Database suggests that we should call this O. leucotrichus fa ritteri and it certainly fits into the concept of O. leucotrichus that we saw in northern Chile, where it also took over from Browningia candelaris. But were as the fruits of O.leucotrichus appear to release their seeds through a basal pore, the fruits here seemed to split along the side of the fruit. We later discussed the feature with Paul Hoxey who confirmed this and believes that this justifies the repositioning of the taxon as a good species in its own right.

There was also another ceroid here and more for the record than for any other reason, I took its picture too. Looking at the images on the laptop and zooming in on the buds make me feel sorry that I did not pay more attention. You’d swear that this was an Eulychnia acida fa in bud! Now that would be a novelty! In Chile we also Corryocactus brevistylus growing alongside the Oreocereus. Putting this stop data into Google Earth and The Data Base records with GPS data tell me that C. brevistylus does grow here and that I should have found Matucana haynei fa hystrix here as well. I’ll do better next time, promise.

Just before Puquio we passed through Lucanas, but Cliff was not up to any more exploring, just wanted to get some sleep, instead of having his bones rattled on the road. Planted along the road was Austrocylindropuntia subulata (ssp. exaltata is suggested by The Database, but it doesn’t look like what was grown under that name at Holly Gate. This looks like straight forward A. subulata to me). And there was also an Echinopsis (Trichocereus) growing along the road, for which the name E. puquiensis is suggested, although I have no idea what the NCL calls it. It looks similar to what we saw around Cuzco last year and called E. cuzcoensis. [PK PS: The NCL records E. puquiensis as a synonym of E. cuzcoensis.]

As we approached Puquio, the sky had turned ink black and we arrived in town driving through a river rather than the road. We found rooms in the aptly named Hostal Maverick, where we were given a room on the 4th floor, even though we were unable to detect any other guests. Cliff went straight to  bed, giving me a chance to write up 2 day’s worth of Diaries, but unfortunately again there is no Internet in the hotel and the rain makes it very unattractive to find an internet cafe in town. We’ll do better once we reach Cuzco, where everything is much more tourist focussed.

PS Interesting night as the hotel seems to have a dual purpose and the Peruvians are rehearsing for the Olympic Bonking event. Once again, the iPod blanked out the noise, but Cliff again claims a sleepless night – although he does snore a lot for someone who can’t sleep.

Saturday 10 January 2009 – Pisco to Nazca

So do you spell Nazca with a ‘z’ or ‘s’; and the same question for Cuzco? Both spellings are seen, with a ‘z’ at the toll booth, but with an ‘s’ on the sign entering the town. I just love consistency.

We started the day with a walk around the Plaza at Pisco (always spelled with an ‘s’, unless you are pizzed) to take some more pictures of the earthquake damage. This was even more poignant since we realised that the empty space next to the damaged town hall was the space where the cathedral had stood and where many people died. It seems that the decision to rebuild or not lies in Rome, with the Pope, so don’t hold your breath. It made me realise that when you hear on the news about such disasters, the affect on the people carries on for years, while the news-machine turns its attention to the next disaster. And also, that although the news may report an earthquake near the better known town, hundreds of people living in small villages are equally affected for years to come. A very humbling experience.

We fought our way through a stream of ‘put-put’ motorbike taxis (giving the place an Asian feel) to get to R1S (not R15 as reported yesterday), the Pan American highway, and headed south, turning inland at Ica. The coastal area is heavily developed for agriculture, an activity that here may date back to pre-Inca days. Crops include grapes, corn and cotton. Past Ica, we hit the ‘desert proper’, sand as far as the eye could see, with here and there some failed projects, and others doomed to fail, like a row of Opuntia ficus-indica pads planted in the sand with what looked like an irrigation hose alongside it. I guess that the folk in charge of the tap had gone on holiday, as most of the pads looked to have given up the ghost.

We passed the signs for the famous Nazca lines. I suggest that if you do not know about this World Heritage feature, you run a quick search on Google. Fascinating stuff, but nothing to see on the ground, so you need to fly over the area (on a clear day – this is a fog zone!) to observe the human endeavour dating back to a time when there were no planes.   

We arrived in Nazca in good time and by 14:00 had booked ourselves into a cheap hotel and were back on the road, heading inland, up the Nazca (?) Valley. The wifi they had promised at the hotel later proved to be non existent, but at the equivalent of GBP 8 for the two of us for one night, wifi was perhaps a little too much to expect. So what did this valley in store?

S1163, at km 14.75, had ample cacti on display: Neoraimondea arequipensis, some in pristine condition, some ‘wrecked’; Armatocereus procerus, Melocactus peruvianus (in flower and in fruit), Cleistocactus hystrix. A bit farther along, at km 24.3 (S1164) we found Weberbauerocereus rauhii, a very variable species in terms of the colour of spination, unless there were more taxa here that we failed to recognise. All the plants from the previous stop were here as well. Although we had only driven 10 km, we had climbed 1200 m. to 2,039 m. altitude! [checking later, the real altitude was only some 1,500 m. after the GPS had settled down, confirmed by Google Earth, still a climb of some 700 m. ].

We also found a shrub / tree here that seemed to be coming just into leaf and flower. The spine like hairs on its new growth made the alarm go off in my head – Jatropha, of the stinging variety. I warned Cliff, who got stung anyway.

We made one more stop S1165, at km 36 to take pictures of Browningia candilaris and Neoraimondia arequipensis together. The waxy epidermis of the Neoraimondia seems too great a temptation for tourists, who have to carve their initials, or there name and even it seems their life story onto the stems. On the plus side, it seems that some of these messages date back to 1963, providing an indication to the age of the plant.

We drove back to Nazca, had a stroll around town and had dinner.

While writing up the notes at the end of the day, a reality check indicated that with a 240 km per day limit imposed by Budget Rent a Car  (Peru) and a US$ 0.50 per km excess charge, we were currently facing a US$ 91 dollars surcharge. Going up and back down a valley as we had been doing is nice, but not distance efficient, so we’re looking at maps and rejigging plans.   We also want to be in Arequipa on 18 January, when Paul Hoxey is due to arrive as we’ve promised to buy him a beer.

Friday 9 January 2009 – Up the Pisco Valley

No, ‘Up the Pisco Valley’ is not a variation on the question ‘Are you up for a piss up’, but after a few days of cactus-less photography it was time to put on our cactus explorer’s costumes and head into the hills in search of Peruvian cacti. And not a bad start for the first full day.

Let me start by explaining that the coastal strip here in Peru is quite different to that in Chile, where the Coastal Cordilleras often come almost straight out of the Ocean and can stretch for many km. inland, acting as a fog & cloud catcher, preventing humid air from reaching the plain farther inland. There is a similar ‘water shadow’ in the east, preventing moist air from the Atlantic Ocean & Brazilian rainforests to penetrate. The really dry bit in between these mountains is the true Atacama Desert.

In Peru, the coastal mountains are missing and there is a broad plain, around 30 – 50 km wide around Pisco, before you reach the Andean foothills. Travel up into these hills and eventually you reach the Altiplano, the high plains, that receive quite a bit of rainfall during their summer months of late December, January and February, as Angie & I discovered last year at Machu Picchu, that we saw, dressed in plastic rainwear, through clouds.  

The coastal plain is often a stretch of apparent sand dunes, without obvious vegetation as you speed through it on the Pan Am (here called Ruta 1S) at 100 km p h. But there are many more Quebradas with water flows from the Andes that cross the plain and empty into the Ocean. In Chile, many such streams dry up in the Atacama Desert, stopped by the coastal mountains from reaching the Ocean. Few get through, such as the R. Chopa, R. Limari, R. Elqui, R. Huasco and R. Copiapo.  It is these river systems that influence the diversity in cacti and other vegetation.

The Peruvian Quebradas create oases that have been exploited by human endeavours for centuries, particularly by the Incas, by building extensive irrigation systems, so that these valleys become the centre of agriculture. It was impressive to see the stark contrast between the lush green Pisco Valley and the barren mountains that rise up behind them, as though someone had drawn a line: ‘no vegetation beyond here!’

As we entered the mountains, there was just a narrow band of vegetation, due to the irrigation and used for agriculture. The road we followed was the main Pisco to Ayacucho road. At about km 56 we were beginning to ask ourselves: ‘So where are the cacti?’ as we expected tall (ceroid) cacti to appear on the hillsides, and if by magic, there they were, around the next bend. Tall thin stems that from a distance look as though someone had tied string around the stem, dividing them into (annual growth?) sections.

It took some time before we found a ‘parking place’, some where that allowed us to pull the car off the road and get access to the cacti without having to use mountaineering ropes etc. We succeeded around km 70 (S1158) and Wow!!!

On our gently sloping hill side we found the following cacti, in order of ease of identification:

  •  Neoraimondea arequipensis ssp roseiflora
    What a strange plant, with areoles (the bits where the spines grow, for the non cactophile audience) that carry on growing. They give the impression of being not too tall, but stems get to 2 m (7 ft) and the many stems that offset from the base form a giant from close up.
    Got some nice pictures against a ‘blue-with-white-fluffy-clouds’ sky.

  • Armatocereus procerus
    This is the tall thing with growth sections on the thin upright stems. They get to 3 m (10ft) tall and sway alarmingly in the wind.

  • Melocactus peruviana
    There were a number of dead globular plants and some young, live seedlings around and once we found a mature plant, alive and with cephalium, the ID was easy, as there is only one Melocactus sp. from this part of Peru.

  • Cleistocactus hystrix (syn. Loxanthocereus peculiaris)
    At least that is the name that no less a person than Graham Charles suggests when he lists plants from a stop just a km or so up the road. The stems crawl along the rocky slopes (upwards) and have cleistogamous flowers, so ….

  • Haageocereus acranthus
    Easily confused with stems of Cleistocactus, but flower and seed pods differ – much more robust than for Cleistocactus and flowers open (not that we saw any in flower, but judging by the flower remains) and fruits that we saw – no ripe seed, before you ask.

Haageocereus decumbens = syn. H. australis and Mila caespitosa are also reported from around here, but did our cameras see them? Some plants do look like Mila, but may just be young Haageocereus or Cleistocactus. Who knows.

We moved on to Huaytara and were attracted by the twin towers of its church to take a look around (S1159) the village. There were Agave (A. americana?) and Trichocereus around, but was the latter an escaped cultivated plant or a natural species?

We had seen the clouds come in from the east and as we reached the Mirador that overlooked the town and the Valley that we had driven through, the first drops of rain started to fall. Just a quick shower? No! We had lunch for a change, fried chicken with a pile of rice and chips. But it still dripped down as we got back into the car. We had details of Matucana heynei growing around here, some 30 km up the road, but we had driven straight into a cloud that made it difficult to see the line down the middle of the road, let alone cacti growing along the side of it.

We climbed another 500 m but were still in thick cloud, so decided to turn back. We made a few more brief stops (grouped under S1160) for plants seen from the road but out of reach on the hills. It seemed that there was another Armatocereus here, not thin and upright, but shrub-like with thicker stems. And another plant, that is probably another Cleistocactus, or a Weberbauerocereus (W. rauhii), we’ll need to check out a few Peru experts when we get back.

And I know that it sounds unbelievable, but last night we failed to drink our first Pisco Sour in Pisco, Peru. We found a small back street restaurant, aimed at local regulars rather than passing tourists. We managed to obtain two cervezas but even if they had the concoction, it just didn’t seem right to lord it over these people coming to terms with two major earth quakes in two years. The devastation, particularly from the 2007 one that destroyed the cathedral with many people inside killed, is still very evident.

This time we had dinner in a more upmarket restaurant and it was Friday night, so not an issue. We had earlier driven by the impressive sign of Hospital Pisco, where presumably you go to get the stuff via a drip, intravenously. Anyway, we did the right thing, just had a glass each, but were disappointed by the variation on a straight fruit juice that seemed to lack alcohol. A couple of Cusquenia Negra beers made up for the disappointment. Perhaps it was just the bar man’s off night, we’ll have to make another test sample in days to come before pronouncing judgement on the Chile / Peru Pisco war, but at the moment Chile is well ahead!