travelog 57

Field Trips

Normally we're on our own in the field because we don't want to look after somebody. We have as much time as we want, we can climb around wherever we want, and we can even stay for the night where we like it (if they let us). But from time to time it's pretty funny and always interesting to go into battle with other plant freaks. We get to know new places and plants and we can mix with people. This time we want to tell you about our different experiences on shorter field excursions that we undertook within the last couple of months.

1) In the field with Betty & Fitz

Everything startet when we met the Fitz Maurice's somewhere in the field. They invited us to visit them in San Luis Potosi. We had many interesting plants on our list for this area and why not combine this with an excursion together!? Betty & Fitz always have some Mammillarias (their special field) that they want to revisit to push their studies ahead. We join them and discover many very interesting plants. Once we drive to the area of Ojuelos de Jalisco where the two had rediscovered the original type locality of the well-known Mammillaria schwarzii. Unfortunately this place was heavily robbed in the meantime but we are still able to find a few plants. One cluster is even flowering! The same cliffs also look very tempting for Crassulaceae and soon we find Pachyphytum aff. hookeri in flower. The pink inflorescences stand out well against the grey rocks. We don't have to walk much, and that's very abnormal for us. One of the Fitz Maurice's principles is to drive as closely to a plant locality as possible to save energy. And Fitz always finds some kind of road, whether it's a more or less traveled dirt road or a path, that brings us closer to the rocks. Once we end up in the middle of a stubbly corn field, clear the way, ask a man on a bicycle for the exit and finally end up on a somewhat passable road that leads us to the next canyon.

On our next trip Fitz'es Suburban is giving up. The car makes loud noises and finally we have to stop and crawl under the vehicle to check it out. There, we have it! The exhaust pipe broke off. We have to turn around but Fitzenjoys our ride terribly. He really likes to drive through the villages with a car that sounds really Mexican. He pushes the pedal to the metal particularly in populated areas so that everybody can hear us from far away.

Other excursions take us into the mountainous region east of San Luis Potosi. On these trips everything's going as we want. We can take our time in each place we visit. The Fitz Maurice's have each a book with them because they already know that it can take a while until we've taken all our pictures. We climb around and search for the plants we have on our list. If Fitz picks up the scent of his Mammillarias, he climbs around in the rocks with his two artificial knees like a mountain goat. Sometimes there's still not enough time because we all love to try out new roads

that take us into unknown corners of San Luis Potosi where we didn't plan to go to in the first place but that are very interesting anyway. No wonder we find it difficult to be home before nightfall.

But not every trip takes us out into the field. You can also combine seeing plants with other nice things. For example the manufacture of rebozos in Santa Maria del Rio, the production of mezcal in Jaral de Berrios, or even the visit of the botanical garden Charco del Ingenio in San Miguel de Allende, where we marvel at a probably undescribed Calibanus and take pictures of the plant.

Lunch on these trips is always an experience on its own! In contrast to that we live a Spartan life in the Unimog: salads, bread and whatever cheese and sausage we have in the fridge. Nothing like that with Betty! The girls prepare our lunches the day before in the kitchen and pack everything. We experience culinary highlights in the field: stuffed artichockes, breaded chicken breasts, fried egg-plants, pasta salad with green sauce, and much more. For dessert little muffins, fresh strawberries or grapes. Between we nibble on popcorn or little bits of cheese. Of course salt or napkins are never missing, Betty thinks of everything. We really enjoy that luxury.

2) In the field with Miguel Cházaro & Co.

The excursions with Mexican botanists, for example with Miguel Cházaro Basańez from Guadalajara, turn out to be totally different. We know each other by e-mail and finally we get to Guadalajara where we plan to go on some excursions together. Miguel is enthusiastic about it and meets us with a three-page list of places that we should visit. The Barranca de Colimilla at the city limits of Guadalajara is on top of our agenda. He wants us to confirm if the agave growing in the canyon is indeed Agave impressa or not. Unfortunately he can't join us on this trip but he sends us with a friend, Jesus Cortes Aguilar, nicknamed "Chuy". From the main road we rumble over cobblestone roads down into the deep canyon of the Rio Santiago. On a plateau below the outskirts of Guadalajara they're already constructing new homes - the second largest city of Mexico sprawls cancer-like. Soon we reach shady cliffs where Echeveria pringlei grows. A little further down we come to vertical cliffs where Agave vilmoriniana cling to the rocks like huge spiders. And in between we can spot the "unknown" agave with the binoculars. We know Agave impressa from the type locality in Sinaloa and we can say right away that this is certainly not Agave impressa but a species out of the same group. Still further down we pass hot springs where entire families enjoy the day. The men wash their cars, the women do the laundry, and the children splash in the little natural pools by the road side. Garbage piles are everywhere but this obviously doesn't spoil anybody's good mood. Then suddenly it starts to smell really badly. Soon we see from where the bad stench comes. We drive over a bridge and below us the white-grey sewage of Guadalajara is foaming and rushing into the Rio Santiago. Untreated, of course! Far above we can see a huge pipe from where the sewage plunges over the cliffs. A little further we come over another bridge over a sewage river. The Rio Santiago flows white and foaming and stinking, past some little farms and grazing cattle and horses. Further down there's a sewage treatment plant, they tell us, but it's too small for the amount of sewage water.

Another excursion takes us into the Sierra de Tapalpa. Miguel can't join us, but we don't find out about that until 5 minutes before we leave. Chuy picks us up again. This time he's accompanied by a student who studies the agaves of Jalisco. It seems a little odd to us, as Swiss, that Miguel doesn't show up without telling us earlier but later we're glad because we have more room in Chuy's little car. On dirt roads we drive to the Salto del Nogal. At the canyon rim we spot the first agaves: Agave pedunculifera, Agave inaequidens ssp. inaequidens, and Agave filifera ssp. schidigera. Far below us the waterfall plunges down into the depths and signs remind the hikers of some unlucky souls who were careless enough to get too close to the edge. We find Sedum ebracteatum and Graptopetalum fruticosum in the sahdy cliffs. Another wall is plastered with light blue farinose rosettes of Echeveria colorata. Huge Tillandsia pamelae adorn themselves with red-yellow inflorescences. We reach a pretty river after a steep descent and soon get to the waterfall where we can sit in the shade of huge trees. Sedum longipes thrives close to the water and we can spot another succulent with our binoculars. Recklessly we jump from rock to rock over the river and climb up to the big rosettes through the spray of the waterfall. It's only Graptopetalum fruticosum, forming huge rosettes in the constant spray of the waterfall. The climb in the afternoon heat is a little more exhausting but afterwards we enjoy a cold beer and something for the palate in the pretty town of Tapalpa with its wooden houses, arcades, and balconies.

Finally Miguel manages to join us on an excursion. We arrange to meet at a certain lagoon from where we want to drive to the vacation house of a doctor friend of his. Miguel arrives in time with Chuy. On the way to the house Chuy has a flat tire. His tools are of not much use, certainly not for this size of bolts. Fortunately we drive around with a rolling garage and so we can change the tire quickly. Unfortunately now we're on our way without a spare tire in the camioneta! Not a very bright idea on Mexican dirt roads. Until the Unimog is parked and everything stuffed into the camioneta, much time passes. We leave late for Agua de la Virgen. 64 km (40 miles) without a spare tire. First on a bad gravel road where we get dusty in the not very tightly sealed vehicle. Bright red flowers of Disocactus speciosus glow in the trees. Soon we ride on another, even smaller and poorer road that finally leads us to Agua de la Virgen. We walk along one side of the canyon until Miguel decides that it's time to descend. That's easier said than done, particularly for people who are afraid of heights! We climb down hand over hand along trees and shrubs, down the cliff and finally reach the stream. Instantly tiny little insects attack us, so-called "barillitos" (mini-wasps that bite a little piece of flesh out of your skin). We soon give up our attempt to take pictures of Sedum multiflorum to escape the insect pest. Further down the stream Miguel shows us some specimens of an echeveria that he calls Echeveria viridissima. If it really is that species that normally occurs only in Oaxaca, remains to be found out. We don't have much time. The insects are still harassing us and it's already very late in the afternoon. We find an easier way back out along the other side of the canyon. Back at the car we sit in the grass and eat our picnic: Pan Bimbo (soft bread slices) and a cheese that has already melted in the heat. We contribute dried fruits and fruit tee. We drive back in the twilight. From time to time we stop to take pictures of a flowering orchid but soon it's too dark for that too. We're finally back at the Unimog at 11pm and fall into bed.

The next day the two are already game again for anything and want to risk driving on the bad gravel road without a spare tire. But we learned from yesterdays experience and drive behind them in our Unimog so that we can park wherever we feel like staying for the night. Our destination is the Cerro Borracho (the drunken mountain), a mountain that Miguel wanted to climb for a long time. Again he choses the steepest place and we climb onto the plateau with great difficulty. The only things we find are dried up Sedum jaliscanum, Agave inaequidens ssp. inaequidens, Pitcairnia heterophylla with red inflorescences, an Agave sp. (Manfreda or Polianthes), Opuntia jaliscana, and epiphytically growing orchids. Back at a little stream we say goodbye to Miguel and Chuy and move on alone, subject to our own timing.

The most recent excursion we make with Miguel takes us again into the Barranca de Colimilla. But this time onto the other side of the Rio Santiago. We arrange to meet at a gas station where Miguel shows up with a student working on the agaves of Jalisco and a professional climber. Late, but it's the pickup's fault that didn't want to start in the morning. That's why they come in an old American car. The tires are too wide and thus bumping into the bodywork at every unevenness of the road (and there are no really even roads in Mexico), causing a nasty noise. The original plan has completely changed since we've seen Miguel a few days ago but we're already used to that. Over cobblestone roads and later dusty gravel roads we drive to the other side of the Rio Santiago, through little settlements until we reach the end of the road at a small farm. Astonishingly Miguel remembers exactly where we have to walk to get to the canyon rim. We make our way through scratchy bushes and soon reach the canyon where the cliffs drop about 300m (900 feet). After a longer search and some climbing around we finally discover what we came for: the dark purple inflorescence of an agave (and it really isn't Agave impressa). The plant grows about 20m (60 feet) below us on a ledge that isn't accessible without climbing gear. Now our climber goes into action! Alberto dragged his entire equipment including 50m (150 feet) of rope to this place. Now he prepares to lower himself over the cliff to the inflorescence. The rocks are loose but he gets there without any problems. He saws on the stem with a little knife until he finally holds the upper part of the inflorescence in his hands. We pull our prey up on the rope. In the end we also have to pull up Alberto because he doesn't trust his rope and the terrain an inch. He climbs over the last rocks soaked in sweat and has to relax while we take pictures of the dark purple flowers. Meanwhile Gabi cuts the flower and the ribs of a Pilosocereus alensis and sorts other herbarium specimens in her improvised plant press. The temperature's already very high but it's still ok in the half shadow of the practically leafless forest. Slowly we climb back up to the car, Alberto heavily burdenend with his climbing gear. In the nearby settlement we buy the last ice-cold drinks and suddenly feel a lot better. We leave the original plan of visiting Cerro Colli (on the opposite side of Guadalajara) too for another day due to the late time in the day and the hot summer weather. The plants will not slink away!

March/April 2003

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen