travelog 104

Echeveria cante revisited

What is there to do in Mexico in September? First and most important of all is the big party to celebrate Mexico's independence. Then you can go see some plants that are flowering at this time of the year. You could also search for an Echeveria that has been lost for more than 100 years. Doing all of that, you will be able to admire the delicately green landscapes of Zacatecas. So let's get on with it!

Just in time for the Mexican national holiday on September 15 we arrive at the Fitz Maurice's house in San Luis Potosi. In the garden we're already greeted by the green-white-red decoration for the big day. Flags, sombreros, garlands, fairy lights, just about everything one can buy in the Mexican national colors with the hundreds of street vendors that can be found at almost every street corner in September. Of course the inside of the house is decorated equally beautifully for the big event. We enjoy an intimate party with "Chiles en Nogada", a dish that is an absolute tradition for the 15th. To Fitz's surprise Betty has bought a bottle of the mezcal which won the gold medal for best mezcal at an event in London - but then, what do these people know of mezcal? To the enjoyment of all, we each receive two shot glasses with each a taste of the super-mezcal "La Penca" from Zacatecas with two agave worms inside and Fitz's "normal" mezcal which he buys inexpensively and in large quantities in Jaral de Berrios, Guanajuato. The Jaral de Berrios mezcal has an unmistakable taste. The prize winning mezcal smells and tastes more of burnt agave. The group is divided and while both mezcales find their aficionados, the Guanajuato mescal wins.

From San Luis Potosi we drive towards Zacatecas and on to Fresnillo where we find a place to stay in the center of town. Almost all stores are closed but at last we find a small restaurant in the local market where we are treated very nicely. In the early evening the Fresnillanos gather on the main plaza in front of the church, eating ice cream, munching on corn on the cob and chatting. We engage in one of our favorite activities: watching people.

Until now Echeveria cante has only been reported from the Sierra Chapultepec north of Fresnillo. If you study the maps a little closer you will find that there's a mountain range close to Fresnillo, aptly named Sierra de Fresnillo, the highest points of which are at an altitude similar to those in the Sierra Chapultepec. Our assumption is that said Echeveria does not only occur on one isolated mountain but can be found on other mountain ranges too, and that's what we want to find out today. It's a little bit difficult to get into the mountains from Fresnillo because most of the surrounding areas are fenced in by a large mining company and the guards at the gates can't be moved by our official papers, but finally we find a way to get higher into the mountains with a car. There's mining activity going on everywhere and there are many dirt roads always ending at a drilling station with a mobile toilet. On the first hill we find a colony of small Agave parryi and various cacti in the rocks that seem familiar to the Sierra Chapultepec. We are at about the same altitude and encounter the same flora so it must be possible to find Echeveria cante around here. Now we're driving along a no longer used dirt road and have to cross an extremely rocky river bed. With our binoculars we can spot white rosettes far up in the cliffs. Indeed, our guess was correct! In an arduous climb we get on top of the cliffs and find some Echeveria cante, but most of them are inaccessible in the vertical rock faces. After an improvised lunch in the shade of a pine tree we drive back to the rocky river bed. This time we're not that fixated on getting over the rocks and suddenly discover that the entire slope to our right is covered with Echeveria cante. Almost all of the adult plants are flowering and for the next couple of hours we are busy taking pictures. We spend the rest of the afternoon on some of the other small roads, driving further into the mountains. It's a beautiful landscape with many interesting looking canyons and high mountains but we can only discover Sedum glabrum, S. moranense aff., Villadia painteri and Echeveria paniculata. For today we have achieved our goal: we have found Echeveria cante in the Sierra Fresnillo and we have photographed the plants in flower.

After yesterday's success we save ourselves from the strenuous hike up Sierra Chapultepec. Instead we drive to Mina Mercurio, a mine long abandoned and a small village, to try and get up Sierra Chapultepec from the backside. We end up in front of a locked gate but the first cliffs are not that far away and we shoulder our backpacks and start hiking. Soon we find Villadia painteri and Echeveria mucronata and a little later Sedum jaliscanum. Polianthes mexicana thrives in the rocky areas and everywhere there are the bright red flowers of Dahlia coccinea. Agave filifera grows in the cliffs but there's no trace of Echeveria cante. Unfortunately there's no road crossing the Sierra Chapultepec as marked in our road atlas and so we have to return to the main highway. Late in the afternoon we arrive in Sombrerete, a small town with a many churches for its size. Right in the center of town we find a restaurant and a hotel. The comfortable rooms are all accessible from the restaurant which closes its doors at 7PM. On our early evening tour through town we visit all the churches most of which have a beautiful facades but a boring interior.

The next day we drive south on dirt roads. We would like to go to El Naranjo, an old abandoned mine somewhere up in the mountains according to our map. People in a small village explain how to get there and it sounds pretty complicated, besides we also would have to go and ask for the key at another ranch. We realize that the dirt road we're on will also be gaining altitude and that El Naranjo is also accessible from Vasco de Quiroga, even without a key we're told. On a cobblestone road we now go up. Echeveria mucronata flowers along the road. At a pass we enjoy the view over endless oak and pine forests. Nolina durangensis aff. and Agave filifera are flowering. Small Agave parryi are growing above the cliffs. Despite searching for quite a while we can't find any really interesting Crassulaceae in the cliffs. Now we go southeast through sparse forest. On a high plain we stop for an very blue colored clone of Agave parryi and discover beautiful cristalline rocks of which we collect about half a ton. While doing that we also discover a Mammillaria Series Stylothelae and fat Echinocereus pulchellus. As always, time flies by too quickly and when we finally get to the turn-off to El Naranjo it's already too late for a detour. Soon we drive down the mountain again, passing through a number of small villages until we finally reach a paved road. The fields here in Zacatecas, as in northern Mexico in general, look really sad. The state of emergency has been declared in most municipalities in Zacatecas due to the extreme drought. The corn stalks are not taller than 40cm (16"), the beans and chilis don't even reach 20cm (8"). People tell us that it really rained just once during the entire rainy season and if the fields are not irrigated there will be no harvest this year. The drought makes field work easier for us though, because we don't have to fight our way through tall grasses and other greenery hiking up the mountains. On the main road we make a quick detour to see Graptopetalum saxifragoides var. farinifera for which we had searched in vain on the eastern side of the Sierra Fresnillo. Many of the plants have died in the February freeze and we can find only a few living clusters at the base of the rounded cliffs. In another hour we reach Valparaiso where we enjoy real Mexican cuisine in the restaurant "Alpes Suizos". We leave best wishes from genuine Swiss people for the owners.

Now we head south to Monte Escobedo where we want to search for Echeveria tenuis, a species that has been lost for more than 100 years. But we will write about this adventure in the next travelog.

August-September 2011

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen