travelog 85

Echeveria kimnachii

In 1998, Jorge Meyrán G. and Rito Vega A., two Mexican botanists, described a new Echeveria species from near Culiacan, Sinaloa. Since then, nobody has visited the locality or found the plants, and Myron Kimnach, after whom the small plant was named, besieged us for years to clarify the issue of this new species. He thinks that it's not an Echeveria at all but a Graptopetalum - specifically Graptopetalum occidentale. Whiel we wanted to go and visit the site, at the moment Culiacan doesn't belong to one of the most attractive holiday destinations in Mexico. There's too much news about kidnappings and murders, the majority of it in the milieu of fights between rival drug gangs. Understandably, one does not want to be caught in the cross-fire. But when we finally arrived Mazatlan, Culiacan is a "mere" 200kms (124 miles) away, a distance that is not even worth mentioning in Mexico. We now had no excuse not to visit the site in the Sierra Tacuichamona, a little off the beaten path.

First we visit Cosala, a small town that we had visited back in 2001. Agave filifera ssp. microceps, a very small and compact form of Agave filifera, grows on the way to this town. The cliffs are relatively inaccessible and we have to fight our way through the presently leaf-less, but nonetheless dense, forest. Everything you touch either pricks, sticks, or burns on your skin. An almost impenetrable liana jungle doesn't make our lives easier either. Cushions of Mammillaria, Echinocereus scheeri var. koehresianus with buds, Pilosocereus purpusii, Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum, a Hylocereus and Opuntias are the cacti we encounter. After climbing around just a little bit you're bathed in sweat and thursty.

Cosala lies about 50kms (31 miles) inland from the main highway. It was declared a Pueblo Magico in 2005. We can cleary see the difference from our last visit in 2001. Then, the paint flaked off the houses and many buildings were badly dilapidated. Now those same houses are newly painted and shine in bright colors. The main square has been planted with greenery and benches have been placed around it. Little stores advertise with pretty signs and only in some very small alleys we see run-down walls and houses. Nonetheless, Cosala still seems to be a sleepy village and we seem to be the only tourists. In the early evening we sit down with the locals at one of the many taco places along the cobble stone street next to the church where we fill our tacos with grilled meat, vainly flap off millions of flies, and try to protect our beverages from hungry bees. Then we sit on a bench on the plaza and observe the activity. The magic town Cosala loses some of its magic when heavily armed soldiers take positions on all four corners of the main square and police officers patrol around it. When we ask some of the police officers for the hinterland dirt road to Culiacan, they immediately advise against it. When even some local people take the same line, saying that it's too risky to drive through that area with foreign license plates and such light skin, we finally give up the idea and drive back on the same road we came in on.

And that's how we discover interesting looking cliffs that we hadn't seen on the way in. It takes a long while until a young man appears from his small house. But he finally seems to be convinced that we can't be very dangerous people. He even agrees to guide us to the cliffs that seem to be so interesting to us. Something that didn't look difficult from far away turns out to be a very difficult hike and we're glad to have a guide who knows the place well. He knows every path and every single rock and guides us purposefully to just below the cliffs. From far away we had already spotted Agave vilmoriniana with the binoculars. Now we look around a little bit and suddenly discover a clump of Crassulaceae high on the cliffs, completely out of reach. We now climb along the base of the cliffs and discover more of those small plants. Our guide, shoed with huaraches, leather sandals, climbs up the cliff like a monkey, makes his way, like Tarzan, hand over hand from the roots of fig trees to some ledges and finally gets down some plants for closer study. The small rosettes look like a Graptopetalum to us. Julia even assumes that it could be the notorious Echeveria kimnachii - a guess that is not that wrong as we discover later. A little further along we discover another interesting plant, Sedum copalense, a species that we hadn't been able to take pictures of in the past. Back at the hut of our guide we chat for a while with him and his wife. Their three kids play in the shade of the veranda while the parents relax in hammocks. The hut is put together with planks and consists of one airy room where the five people live. The kitchen with various fire places, is outdoors under the veranda. Since the climate is hot for most of the year, it does make a lot of sense to have the fireplace outside the house.

On a late Saturday afternoon we reach the village of La Estancia de los Garcia. On the way, when we ask for the right road, we have to answer many questions by suspicious people about what we want to do there and who we want to visit. In the middle of the village where some dusty roads meet, we buy cold Cokes and sit down in the shade of a huge tree with some men drinking beer during the worst heat of the afternoon. Hummingbirds buzz around us, fighting for the red flowers of a sage brush in the garden. For a long time the men don't seem to take notice of us. But finally one of them can't hold back his curiosity and wants to know what business we had here. We explain that we were looking for a certain plant. Of course we provide a good description of this plant so that the people don't get silly ideas about our plant. Now they discuss at length where our plant could grow. On the INEGI maps we had already found out from the first description and its GPS position that there must be a Cerro de la Cienega. It seems to be a well known mountain and they point to a peak in the far distance. The authors in the first description mention something like hiking 7kms (4.4 miles) and we already fear for the worst, but when we check our current GPS position with the one where the plants should grow, we realize with relief that the distance must be a lot less than 7kms. Now that we have resolved the issue of the location we have to talk about who's going to be our guide. There obviously is a path going up that mountain but nobody seems willing to take us up there. It is dangerous because of the mountain lions, they throw in. But we're more concerned about drug plantations than about shy mountain lions. But of course we don't say this too directly. When we're coming to like the idea of going on our own the next morning, a wiry man declares himself willing to be our guide. If we could have chosen between all of them our choice would have been him since he was the nicest of all from the beginning. We agree to meet the next morning at 7 AM and between the two of us, we're about to make bets that he doesn't show.

Shortly before 7 AM, with the temperatures still comfortable and fresh, we arrive in front of the small store. A young woman sweeps the floor. We stretch our legs for a while until the woman finally says that we should look for Chuy at his house at the end of a small street. Incredibly enough, there's Chuy waiting for us! We have enough water and dried fruits with us to survive the day. Our guide shoulders his machete and we the backpacks and off we go with a brisk step. Quickly we hike over stubbly corn fields and soon reach a small arroyo where we hike up in the shade of a mountain. Soon the path climbs up and up and up. Below us we see a field with young green plants that we identify as marihuana. Chuy talks briefly with the gray-haired man tending lovingly to his plantation. We're on the right path to La Cienega. Our GPS also shows that we're slowly approaching the desired location. Now we're climbing up very quickly and come closer and closer to the interesting looking cliffs. Chuy knows all the trees and birds. We hear Guacamayas and Pericos, even Koas, and he also shows us their nests in the trees. Soon we leave the path and climb steeply up to the base of the cliffs. There's nothing in the lower part of the cliffs, apart from agaves, hechtias and cacti that are interesting plants but now we're focused on Echeveria kimnachii. We now fight our way through the dry brush to finally spot some large clumps of the sought-after plant with the binoculars. After some climbing and searching around we find more plants along the cliffs that are reachable to take good pictures. The small Agave filifera ssp. microceps also thrives here but this species too prefers the highest and most inaccessible parts of the cliffs. We have reached our goal but since we're already up here we follow the path further up the mountain side. The arroyo is cool, shaded by huge trees that are overgrown with orchids. The interesting cliffs get further away and it looks as if we would have to hike a few more hours in the heat to reach the top fo the mountain, so we decide to start on our way back.

By now the relentless sun burns down through the leafless forest and we're already sweating pretty good. At the marihuana field, work is suspended and there's nobody in sight anymore. Further down we meet a father with his two young sons. They're on the way back from their marihuana crop that is hidden somewhere along this same arroyo. They were warned by radio that the military was on its way. Soon after they hide the rifle under some thick brush and get the second warning. Now we hurry down the path in a single column to avoid meeting with the militaries. What in the world would we tell them? That we were looking for a plant? Hardly, because all the plants that are of interest in this particular area are illegally planted and are being sold for good money. Planting marihuana must be worth the effort since the work associated with it is not that easy. The plantations lie far away from the villages and if the military discovers them they will be distroyed. Of course only to be planted again the next day. It's a vicious circle that will be hard to break as long as there is any demand for it in other parts of the world. The military does not only come on foot. During our hike a few helicopters circled above us, searching for green fields in the now otherwise completely dry surroundings. A little out of breath we reach Chuy's house where we treat ourselves to a Tequila with ice cubes in the shade of a tree. After all it's Sunday and we're just back from a successful but exhausting hike. Of course we toast to our success and Chuy invites us to come again earlier next year when the plants are flowering. Gladly we accept, even more so after having spent a delightful day. Thanks to him we didn't meet any wild mountain lions or even more dangerous figures. we learend something about the local flora and fauna, and we once more enjoyed the helpfulness of a Mexican who gave up his Sunday for two crazy Swiss people who were looking for a small and, for him, completely irrelevant plant. On the other hand it was probably an interesting change for him too from his lethargic afternoons in the shade of the tree at the village store.

June 2008

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen