Cardones

Rude plants

While living in Bolivia, in the early part of this century, someone told me a story of the war when Bolivia lost its exit to the Pacific Ocean to Chile. It was apparently during this conflict that a Bolivian General[1], aware that his chances of winning the war were dimming, tried to cheat the incoming Chilean ground forces by dressing the cactuses present in the area with the uniforms of the Bolivian army, pretending that his men were more numerous than they really were! The ruse failed and we all know that Bolivia is now a landlocked country!

I have had the story in my mind since then and recently, when I tried to confirm it by Google for this post, I failed to find any reference to it! In any case, it is a good way of starting to tell you about one of the most emblematic plants that populate parts of the Andean Puna[2], the Cardones [3]. We had a chance to see many of them during our trip to Cachi (Salta Province) that traversed the Los Cardones National Park.

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A view over the Los Cardones National Park. Amazing place!

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A Cardon forest as far as the eye can see.

The park has an area of 65,000 hectares and it was created in 1987, to preserve a sector of Andean biomasses including the Puna, Pre-Puna and related dry forests. It ranges in altitude from 2,700m (Tin-Tin valley) to 5,000m (Malcante hill). Although it only gets an annual rainfall of less than 200mm, its aridity does not stop many plant and animal species to thrive there, too many to mention here but well described elsewhere [4].

Apart from the cardones there are other interesting finds in the area. In the plant world the Jarilla (Larrea divaricata) provides the cardones with needed shelter for them to grow under its protection until reaching suitable size to continue its growth alone.

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A cardon growing under the protection of a Jarilla.

Another amazing plant found at higher altitudes is the haermaphroditic Yareta (Azorella compacta) also known as pasto de piedra [5].This plant is literally a vegetable stone whose leaves develop into an extremely compact and hard mat that reduces heat loss in order to survive. The result is a very rare plant that looks like a giant moss. Of extremely slow growth, some of the specimens in the Puna are estimated to be over 3,000 years old! Unfortunately, because of its slow growth and its traditional harvesting for firewood, it is becoming scarce.

The guanaco (Lama guanicoe) population is not as large as I expected and we only saw three or four groups of these special camelids. Their observed scarcity is apparently the consequence of the competition for food from thousands of feral donkeys (Equus asinus) that once got established there and continue to multiply despite past efforts to control them through culling schemes that will need to be reinstated to give the guanacos a chance to expand. Unfortunately, my pictures of both guanacos and donkeys are still in the deep recesses of my now comatose hard disk!

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Guanacos ahead!

Puma (Felix concolor) are present and they predate on the young of both guanacos and donkeys. Luckily, they are seen with certain regularity and the park is one of the areas where the visitor can, if lucky, spot these beautiful cats.

The dead from both donkeys and guanacos are fed upon a number of scavengers among which the condor (Vultur gryphus) is the most prominent and best known. These veritable flying colossus of about one metre in height have a wingspan of three metres or, to be more graphic, a line of about a dozen school children standing side by side! With such wings they can only be superb flying birds, capable not only to cover great distances but also to reach amazing heights.

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A condor flying overhead.

I was pleasantly surprised to be able to spot (of course after my wife!) quite a number of condors flying high in the very blue sky. Showing similar skills to African vultures, condors are not easy to spot on the ground as they inhabit and nest in difficult terrain. I am proud to announce, though, that I was able to contribute to our condor observations by spotting a far away nest with a fledgeling! I made sure that my companions noted this but, as usual, my effort was largely ignored.

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Although mammals and birds are really fascinating, the cardones were the real stars of the show for me. These very thorny plants are everywhere and they can occur singly, in groups or form true forests that reach as far as the eye can see. Although the majority were very rude by showing me their middle finger, some were polite and welcoming. Admittedly the latter were very few! Clearly, nature comes in all shapes and moods!

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A rude cardon!

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Exasperated by so much plant rudeness the bushsnob attempts at giving some back…

 

The cardones start their life under the protection of the Jarilla bush and they produce their first flowers at about fifty years old. These white flowers are known locally as “pasacana” that gives the species name to the plants. The flowers are eaten by animals and people and it is estimated that when the plants reach 3m high they are three hundred years old so some of the ones we spotted must have been much older, probably near one thousand and I never stop from being amazed when watching such creatures that can exist for such a long tie and still look like they would continue being there for another millennium.

 

[1] I was told that it was President Melgarejo.

[2] Basically a very dry, cold, high and silent area by the Andes mountains.

[3] Spanish for cacti of the species Trichocereus pasacana.

[4] Chebez, J.C. (2012). Noroeste. Guia de las Reservas Naturales de la Argentina. Editorial Albatros. pp. 88-93.

[5] Spanish for stone grass.

 

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Apunado [1]

I am well aware that one of my numerous weaknesses is not being able to handle heights. I am not talking about vertigo here but high altitude and the absence of O2. During our five years spent in the Bolivian highlands we realized that our family has two clear gene lines when it comes to live in high places. While I am pathetic, my wife does not bat an eyelid when it comes to highness.

While there we also had ample time to discern that the genes ruling altitude resistance are passed independently to your offspring. Our son inherited his mother’s altitude resilience while our daughter had the bad fortune of getting, among several of my bad traits, the one of very low altitude tolerance!

We were of course oblivious to this pairing until we arrived to La Paz in 2001. While my wife and son enjoyed a quasi-normal daily life, my daughter and I acquired a greenish skin tinge and felt sick most of the time until we reached a kind of equilibrium at 3,400-3,800 m in La Paz where we spent most of our time. The situation improved remarkably when we discovered that sleeping with a window opened increased the oxygen content of our bedroom although the temperatures decreased dramatically.

However, as soon as our travels took us to higher places such as Potosí at 4,070m our precarious balance got tilted in favour of the altitude and our discomfort would come back. It was enough for us to see the “Cerro Rico [2]” in the distance to start feeling unwell! Conversely and to our great annoyance, wife and son continued with their usual unresponsiveness to altitude!

During our recent trip to the Calchaqui valleys in Salta I had a “reliving” of that experience. We drove from our farm in the Gallinato (1,300m) to Cachi. This meant a climb to areas of higher altitude that crosses a really picturesque area and the road goes through a number of mountain passes and climbs to finally reach the Puna. On the way we passed through the Los Cardones National Park [3] (3,350m) to finally reach Cachi, a nice village in the confluence of the Cachi and Calchaqui rivers, located at 2,300m and framed by mountains, including the “Nevado de Cachi” [4] above 5,000m.

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Going through Los Cardones National Park.

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The Nevado de Cachi from the distance.

It was after the 180km drive, and parking the car at the hotel that I felt the start of my predicament and I had difficulties reaching the reception! The headache came without warning, suddenly and, although it was not the worst I had suffered, it was bad enough. Together with a general feeling of malaise comparable to that of a strong cold, it lingered on for the rest of the day and you could not ignore it. The combination was not conducive to enjoying my stay and by dinner time I felt truly dreadful!

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I was already apunado when I arrived at the hotel entrance in Cachi.

It was time to consider the options at my disposal. Remembering old advice from Bolivia I decided to have a light dinner in the shape of a garlic soup (I could refrain from kissing my wife good night for once!). In addition, I discussed my predicament with the locals and they advised me to chew coca leaves -legal in these parts- as this would make me feel much better.

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Coca leaves for chewing.

Of course I knew of coca, having supervised alternative development projects in Bolivia aiming at substituting coca growing for other forest-related activities. I am also aware of the controversy that surrounds the issue of coca and cocaine so I was reluctant at first. However, I had already seen large number of people “coqueando”[5] in Salta so I decided to take the plunge and chewed the dose I was recommended to take: about four leaves! Regrettably, the only clear effect I noticed was that my tongue went to sleep before the rest of my body and I could not detect or see any advantage in the chewing!

Disappointed by the lack of reaction of my organism to the “hoja milenaria”[6] I decided to cut my losses and retire to bed well before my companions. While walking to my room I went through the ABC of altitude sickness control: sleep alone, eat little, walk slowly and drink lots of water. It was then that I realized that the latter was the obvious cause of my trouble as, during the long drive I had –for some reason- not drank the water amount that I normally take.

I reached he room and drank as much water as I could hold. I also took one gramme of paracetamol for the now splitting headache and went to bed. Sleep came immediately and –luckily- the following morning I was as good as new. I returned the remaining coca leaves to the hotel management with thanks and I managed to feel well for the rest of the holiday and explore the attractions of the area in good health while drinking profusely to avoid being apunado again!

 

[1] In Spanish, someone with altitude sickness.

[2] Rich hill in Spanish. Potosí‘s landmark from where the Spaniards extracted tons of silver, activity that continues today.

[3] The park is named after the cardon cactus, Echinopsis atacamensis.

[4] Snowy mountain of Cachi in Spanish.

[5] Chewing coca leaves.

[6] Millenary leaves in Spanish, another name for coca leaves.