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Not the most rewarding day, as we made haste to head south through an area where numerous stops were made on past trips. Czech friends at ELK had suggested a spot to the west of MEX 57 to Los Colorados. Not sure if we had the rights place, but the track that we turned onto went through a gate waring us that we were on private property of Rancho San Luis ‘Prohibido cazar o tirer basura’ (Hunting and rubbish dumping prohibited. So looking for and taking photos of cacti was assumed to be OK. We drove 24 km along a dead straight road and saw no one. Then there was the track to the south that we had to follow for another 6.5 km. After 4 km the track became very poor with deep ruts, much wider than our wheels so common sense decided to make this our turn around point. Another 2.5 km would have taken us nearer the foothills, but not actually to them, so we decided to drive back to a small hill that we had passed on the way and try our luck there. A nice enough crop of cacti, but nothing spectacular.

S3188 Scenery

S3188 Scenery – Echinocereus and Opuntia

We found rooms in the wonderfu;l Hotel Santa Rosa in the village of General Cepeda, having miossed it somehow on previous drive pasts in 2010 and 2011. Found a nice enough and very friendly restaurant on the village square and on the way ‘home’ passed a shop that sold ‘cowboy hats’, so another one was added to the PK Hattery collection – just about one for every trip. Pictures will have to wait until day light tomorrow.

It was a short drive, just 4.7 km from the Hotel to the location where I had been at least twice before, usually at the end of the day, tired, with no great memory of previous visits. This visit (S3184) I will remember, as we were greeted within a couple of steps from the car by Ariocarpus fissuratus in full flower – when a few weeks earlier when Alain and Eunice visited here, there had not been any flowers.

First plant to greet me at the Ariocarpus fissuratus stop (S3184)

First plant to greet me at the Ariocarpus fissuratus stop (S3184)

All the cacti spotted during previous visits were still here, including some large Astrophytum capricorne, that had been in flower during Alain’s previous visit but now had finished – you can’t have it all! 107 images later, mostly of Ariocarpus in flower, I was beginning to suffer from Ariocarpus indigestion! How many flowering Ario pictures do you need? Quite a few more it seems, as we moved on to our usual A. kotschoubeyanus location along MEX 30 (S3185). Of all the Kots locations that I have seen, this has the densest gathering of tiny cacti. Despite the mass flowering here, the flowers were still too small and the plants too far apart to create a true ‘purple haze’ affect, although I feel optimistic about what can be done with some time in PhotoShop – Christiaan, please take note!

Mass flowering at S3185, but the flowers and plants were unable to create the stunning purple haze effect that I had seen in the Atacama Desert by Calindrinia in flower.

Mass flowering at S3185, but the flowers and plants were unable to create the stunning purple haze effect that I had seen in the Atacama Desert by Calandrinia longicarpa in flower.

It was very hot, 34 C according to the car’s thermometer, and another 82 images later, Ario indigestion was complete. So on for a few more km to the turning where in March we had emerged after a tortuous track through the desert from Parras. It can be done, but I would not recommend it! This time we stopped at the junction with MEX30 (S3186) and some very nice, tall, Thelocactus bicolor subsp bolaensis. Previous visitors have called the plants here ‘Thelocactus wagnerianus’, so a bit more reading is due. The remarkable thing here is that we found one Thelo still in flower. Many more had been in flower during our March visit. There is also a very nice Echinocereus here. Is it E. stramineus? E. longisetus? Answers on a postcard please (or by email).

Echinocereus ID please!

Echinocereus ID please!

And so,  still very early in the afternoon, we decided on one more stop (S3187), along MEX 30, opposite the turning to S3185, before spending the afternoon at the poolside of the hotel with cool beers and a refreshing breeze.  The T. bicolor subsp. bolaensis were here too, and again there were some plants still in flower – great!

Thelocactus bicolor subsp. bolaensis (S3187)

Thelocactus bicolor subsp. bolaensis (S3187)

We have reached the northern most part of our trip, so tomorrow we start heading south again.

Lots of driving, mostly on excellent asphalt and four stops where the expectations regarding plants were met.

S3180 was an ad-hoc stop, because we needed to stretch our legs and provided most of the cacti that you might expect to find anywhere in Coahuila. SatNav tells me that we were near General Cepada. Plants photographed, in the order that the pictures were taken include Echinocactus horizonthalonius, Agave lechuguilla, Fouqueria splendens, Thelocactus bicolor and its subsp. bolaensis (so much for the rule that a species and its subspecies are not supposed to grow together), Lophophora williamsii, Opuntia rufida, Echinocereus stramineus, Corynopuntia sp., Mammillaria heyderi, Coryphantha sp (probably more than one – Ian has names) Astrophytum capricorne, and Epithelantha micromeris or one of its many names, real or imagined. Not a bad start for an unplanned Coahuila stop, but not  completely unexpected.

For S3181 we turned off Mex 40 at Estacion Marte, having pulled towards it by a table mountain called El Pillar. I had been here before in 2010 when some Mexicans were processing Agave leaves by turning them through a ‘mill’ to obtain pulp and fibre. This time the equipment was still there, but not in use. We crossed the railway before a long train with a variety of freight wagons passed through. Another 2 km past the village, the track offered access to a vast area of dried mud flats where in the past (Spring time) we had found Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus and an assortment of other cacti struggling for survival. This was supposed to be their flowering time and we were not disappointed, but instead of the 100 % mass flowering that I had hoped for, this was a rather modest show by those plants, covered in dried up silt that had managed to push their flowers through the mud. Some of these had their flowers eaten by (we presume) a beetle that was seen marching around, leaving flower remains near the plants. I set myself the challenge of taking a picture of a plant in flower, with a wide angle setting that also included the expanse of desert and El Pillar in the background. I might need the help of my son, Christiaan, and his CGI wizardry, to convey both my expectations and reality for future presentations.

Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus (S3181)

Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus (S3181)

As we approached El Pillar, we drove along huge silt flats that were sure to contain huge numbers of A. kotschoubeyanus as well, but in true cactus tourist style we had driven straight passed these to our intended target. With our objective reached, we relaxed and made a random stop along the road that we had passed on Mex 40 to our turning to E. Marte and made a ‘quick’ ad-hoc stop, S3182. By the time that two cars have pulled over, released their passengers and equipment into the desert, get their bearings, take plenty of pictures before being shepherded back towards the car, at least an hour had passed – just to give you an impression of what a ‘quick stop’ means.

Next a stiff drive at speeds between 100 and 120 kph to La Paloma where we turned into the desert to a spot where in the past we had found crested Ariocarpus retusus. Would the whole crest be in flower? We will never know. Many of the plants were still in advanced bud, some had today opened their flowers. The crest that Ian had found in March was looking unwell, the crests that Alain had found three weeks earlier were not seen. I asked Alain for the information, which he said he had given to Ian, I asked Ian, who said it was stored away on his computer. In any event, the plants were not found, until I read Ian’s report of the day.

Ariocarpus retusus (S3183)

Ariocarpus retusus (S3183)

Fortunately I had found a number of crested retusus plants here before in 2010 when John Bleck showed me the plants that he had found. This time, and last March, we were distracted by a gate that had since been built to reach the exact spot where we had parked that time.

Ten minutes after continuing our journey to Cuatro Cienegas, Alain asked if we would see Ariocarpus agavoides. May be, but as I have seen it already  …..

We’ll probably pass that way, and it would be churlish to avoid sharing past experiences with friends.

Some 50 km south of Monclova, traffic suddenly came to a halt. Of course those in a hurry (most) just had to overtake, trucks, salloon cars and everything. The queue went as far as the eye could see. There was nothing coming the other way, just as well, as there was no way through for them. The usual characters, you get them all over the world, got out of their cars and marched purposefully towards the assumed couse of the hold up, but outside their air conditioned car soon found that the temperature rather soon ‘cooled’ their tempers. After some 45 minutes, traffic suddenly started moving our way – still nothing coming through from the north. It appeared that police had just closed the road and at a gravel track, sent us south east, towards MEX 53. We must have looked quite a convoy on Google Earth, if that had been life, a stream of cars several km. long throwing up lots of dust, moving through the desert at some 50 kph.

When we hit MEX 53 we were still 47 km south of Monclova, so arrived in Cuatro Cienegas in the dark, but fortunately Restaurant El Doc stays open until 23:00 hrs, so we didn’t go hungry. Alain and Eunice had eaten here a few weeks earlier and Alain was able to recommend the rib-eye but warned against the T-bone, so four rib-eyes were ordered, but, disappointingly, four T-bones were served. Never mind.

Not the best of days. Today the clocks changed, both in Mexico and in Europe. Ian had suggested an early start as we wanted to go to a location near China – still in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, but a good long drive away. Bart and I were the only ones up on time and there was no breakfast to be had, other than a hot chocolate and a piece of cake at the OXXO near the Hotel. My laptop played up again, I probably tried to shut it down while it was doing a mega software update, so this morning the system just hung.

We arrived at our destination and walked around a set of coordinates for almost two hours without any different outcome. Astrophytum (Digitostigma) caput-medusae was as impossible to find now as it had been last March. This time the herbacious ground cover was even thicker and only the more robust cacti pocked out from between them – Echinocereus viereckii and Mammillaria sp. to name but a few.

Disappointed but not entirely surprised we headed back to a main road and nother longish drive to Ramos Arispe where tomorrow we have some more nice target plants.

I had assumed incorrectly that Ian and crew wanted to see Geohintonia today, having missed out yesterday, but Ian said that he and Cliff were happy with what I had shown them in March and wanted to head straight for the Ariocarpus scaphirostris site. Fine no problem. The track to Rayones was generally improved but still had 5% of places where recent rains made the going ‘adventurous’, so we fell a little behind Cliff & Ian’s car, providing the excuse for a stop where in March we had found some Ariocarpus retusus. They had not been there long, so had not found any plants yet, leaving Alain to be the first to find the local Ario. It did not take long to find a few more, but only one or two in flower. This was not the flowering feast that we might have anticipated given the time of year.

There was another tricky bit of road, so I suggested that our car would stop at the  Aztekium ritteri on the way to the ‘Scaph’ site to see the plants in the best light and give us the option of a better, but longer, road back to the hotel. Ian said they would see us at the ‘scaph’ site, but changed his mind and decided to join us, after overshooting the turn to the track that led to the village with the ritteri hill. His competitive nature got him first to the spot. Fortunately the plants had not moved since our March visit but this time were bathing in a short spell of sunlight. Those of us who give A. ritteri top of the greenhouse positions to receive the maximum of UK / northern European sunlight might like to know that these days, we have only found the plants in narrow canyons where they grow on vertical gypsum cliffs where they grow in mud – just like Turbinicarpus alonsoii, Aztekium hintonii and Geohintonii mexicana elsewhere in Mexico. These plants are not used to getting long periods of intense sun in nature. It may be that once upon a time they lived on the main hillsides, fully exposed to the Mexican sun, where previous visitors might have collected all these easy to find plants, rendering them close to extinction and from what we observed, seeming to justify a conservation status of ‘threatened’. These days, they live in small narrow canyons off the main cliff face in locations that only receive the intense sun for brief spells, a couple of hours at most. I managed to pick up a good crop of images to add to those from previous visits.

S3177 Aztekium ritteri growing on a sunny cliff face

S3177 Aztekium ritteri growing on a sunny cliff face

Expectations rose as we approached the Ariocarpus scaphirostris site. Would we find the plants pumped up by recent rain and bursting with buds and flowers? Looking at the Selaginella lepidophylla (resurrection fern, rose of Jericho) there had been recent humidity here, as the plants were wide open. It did not take long to find ‘Scaphs’ but they still looked like drought victims, although most were in bud. With six people spread out over the hillside, it did not take long to find four or five plants in flower and on these too the tubercles looked like drought victims with this one probably the nicest I saw:

S3178 Ariocarpus scaphirostris in flower

S3178 Ariocarpus scaphirostris in flower

 

Just a minor blip in this morning’s departure, our tyre pressures were down on the rear left hand tyre, according to the on-board diagnostics, so off to a garage to check them out. Conclusion: tyres fine, diagnostics dodgy.

We headed east to Dr Arroyo, much quieter now than when we tried to get rooms here a few days ago – it seemed there was a Policia Federales convention in town and all rooms were taken.

We missed the turning to La Solidad, La Trinidad and Sandia – no wonder, apparently they were sign-posted to Monterrey! So while Ian realised what was going on and turned around to try some brief stops along that road, we blundered on towards La Ascencion – Ariocarpus Hill, where in March the idea had come to my mind to see this Ariocarpus covered hill in October, during the flowering season.

But first an ad-hoc stop along NL 61 with some large Ferocactus pilosus and some clumps of a Thelocactus multicephalus to entertain my camera shutter finger at S3173.

Thelocactus multicephalus (?)

Thelocactus multicephalus (?)

On to S3174, just north of La Ascencion. Although the Ariocarpus retusus were as densely packed on to the hillside as I has expected, the mass flowering I had expected to see did not come off. About 25% of the plants had already flowered,, some were in bud, some 25% were in full flower, but the hilly terrain and the plants’ tendencies to grow very flat to the ground, among grasses and annuals did not produce the anticipated mass flowering shots. Still plenty of individual plants in flower shots, plus a couple of crested plants (without flowers)

Ariocarpus retusus crest

Ariocarpus retusus crest

Alain, Bart and I had taken all the images we needed, and more, progressing on to the higher ‘Hill #3′ for the first time – same plants as hills #1 an 2.and it was still early, so we decided to head on to the Geohintonia mexicana site (this time S3175). Again did not know the tract that we were on that leads to the location, trying to send us down a a non existent track. I stuck to my guns and we arrived safely at the spot. The cacti that had previously caused us a head ache to ID looked very pumped up this time, but no easier to give them a reliable name. Are they Coryphantha sp? Neolloydia sp? or a Thelocactus?

Mystery cactus at S3175

Mystery cactus at S3175

The narrow canyon where in March we had seen the best Geohintonia was now flooded so rather than getting our feet wet, I risked broken limbs by climbing a low gypsum rock face to take pictures of the Geohintonia there:

S3175 - Geohintonia mexicana

S3175 – Geohintonia mexicana

 

Ariocarpus bravoanus at El Herrero

Ariocarpus bravoanus at El Herrero

Today’s breakfast in the wifi restaurant was a real shock: my laptop refused to start up despite having been charged all night. Had I lost all my Australia images and all Mexico images to date? Rather anxiously I got back to the Hotel, plugged my charger back into the mains and try again – Bingo!!! I quickly backed up all the files that I had worried about to my plug in HD drive.

Great! I was also worried that the data for future stops during the trip would be inaccessible, so quickly wrote down coordinates for a stop I had made with Eunice in 2011 and where after some searching we found Ariocarpus bravoanus, or was it subsp. hintonii? Without Internet access I can’t get to the relevant data in Google Earth. A task for the days back in England. Not only did we find it again, but not at the exact spot, but in the same area and Ian found it some 500 m farther along as well all recorded as S3170.

From this site I saw and recognised the large white cross on the hill at El Herrero, where again in 2011, Eunice and I went to have a look for Ariocarpus and Turbinicarpus, but where on that occasion a group of Mexican young man started following her as she searched for the plants. This time (S3171) we were not bothered by any of the local people and therefore found the plants (Ariocarpus bravoanus and A. retusus ‘horachecki’, in flower and a Turbinicarpus reported as T. frailiana by previous visitors. A good stop with excellent spots by Ian and Cliff. Alain spotted the A. bravoanus plants in flower – what did he have for breakfast?

For S3172 we drove 84 km south of Matehuila to El Huizache, the famous road junction often visited by Charlie Glass and Bob Foster. Again, Ariocarpus retusus were in flower – the best being a plant with eight flowers! All the other cacti were as in March, but not in flower.

Again, we had a great day!

 

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