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The road to Ayacucho...

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 5, 2012


Day 1

We left Lima in the midafternoon to miss the traffic – but miss the traffic we did not! Lima traffic ressembles a bumper car ride in the funfair – just about anything goes.

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We headed south on the Panamerican highway – through amazing desert areas where absolutely nothing was growing, the coast of Peru is part of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth. This partly due to the rainshadow from the Andes to the east and also to the presence of the cold Humboldt Current that flows north up the coast until it turns out to sea at the equator.

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Despite the almost complete lack of water (although there are some rivers that flow from the moutains all the way to the sea – that is where the towns are), people are builiding loads of vacation beach houses along the coast – not very sustainable. We drove to the little town of Paracas to spend the night. Paracas is a fishing village but is also the point of departure for tours of the Islas Ballestas. These islands are the nesting sites for seabirds galore – boobies, comorants, pelicans, penguins, terns…  etc. In the late 19th and early 20th century the guano (or bird poo) was mined for use as fertilizer – that industry has become much less important, but still continues to some extent.

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Day 2

A day of unbelievable changes. We began the day at sea level and ended up in the town of Castrovirreyna at 4000 metres elevation! Never in my life have I driven up that sort of elevational gradient except in Peru once before and then only to go straight back down again, the habitat gradient was totally amazing. Our first plant of the day was right at sea level – Solanum americanum – a superweed in the Morelloid group that has what we think is a global distribution. How does it do it? Collecting the same species in many different habitats will hopefully let us begin to unravel the answer.

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We carried on up the dry valley of the quite swollen Rio Pisco. Pisco is the grape-growing region of Peru and we saw fields of irrigated cotton and vineyards along the way; the cotton here is a type with very long fibres and is highly valued.

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As the valley narrowed the crops were more scattered in smaller fields. We came across a group of people harvesting their pepino crop – pepino is a fruit that has a taste sort of midway between melon and cucumber – and it is a solanum – Solanum muricatum. These kind farmers gave us several pepinos for the road, and on we went.

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The road got narrower and narrower, and twistier and twistier – Andrew was driving and he did amazingly. At times it felt as though we were clinging onto the cliff edge by the tyre edges. We had decided to take a smaller road loop rather than follow the main road - it was a great idea but gut-wrenching at times!

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In the drier parts of the valley we found wild tomatoes – Solanum corneliomulleri – whose leaves smell like a mixture of citrus and mint, and many other interesting plants. Solanum americanum accompanied us up the valley, dropping out at about 2000 metres above sea level.

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At the little town of Tilcrapo we left the main valley of the Rio Pisco and really began to climb, the switchbacks were almost on top of one another. When we got to a lovely view place and stopped to have a bite of lunch, we met a Swiss fellow named Joachim who had come from Santiago de Chile – on his bicycle!! This trip we are really finding a lot to make us seem quite normal.

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We kept on climbing and we kept on stopping to see wonderful plants – as it began to rain slightly we stopped along a stream (well more like a torrent) to look for solanums. We found several and a fantastic species in another solanaceous genus – Jaltomata bicolor – with flowers about 3 cm long.

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We arrived in the tiny little town of Castrovirreyna where we looked for the municipal hostel (most Peruvian towns that are provinical capitals have them and they are usually pretty basic but always clean and nice). Along the street came dancers dressed as devils and whirling around, all to the tune of Andean huaynos – a particular type of music from the high Andes with harps, drums and whistles. We were invited to the party, but we needed to do our plants, so declined (anyway, these village affairs always involve copious quantitites of alcohol, and at 4000 m elevation, we were not really very keen!).

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At this high elevation it is definitely NOT warm, so we shivered and got wet trying to find something to eat (it had begun to rain in earnest by then) – eventually some kind locals took pity on us and found us some food…  it was warm and lovely! We set up our field dryer and began to process the plants we had collected – it was great to see them again.


Day 3


Morning broke in Castrovirreyna and we all felt a bit light-headed from the altitude – altitude sickness is called soroche in Peru; Andy had been bad the nght before, but Tiina was hit badly once we began to drive on towards Ayacucho. So I will do this first bit – as she was not in any shape to even look at the scenery. What one needs to do with soroche is get down in elevation, but first we had to go up. And up and up – into the snow zone, where the plants were minute and often formed huge cushions, covered with snow, they still bloomed.

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At these elevations the main farm animals are llamas and alpacas – llamas are bigger and are used as pack animals, alpacas are shorter and are kept for their wool. Most of the herds we saw were mixed, and all had newborn lambs who looked beautiful and white.

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Eventually we made it to the pass on the road – at 4700 metres. As we descended we got back into solanum-collecting territory. We found a wonderful plant in an other Solanaceae genus – Salpichroa – hanging from a rock face.

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As we found our second solanum (Solanum excisirhombeum) of the day Tiina re-emerged, feeling much better – so I will hand over to her now…..

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Whilst all this was going on, I was on the back seat of our lovely pick-up – which we have now named Freddy – and did not want to see anything, not even Solanums. The thing with altitude sickness is that it totally takes you over. My head felt like it was about to burst, which is not a nice feeling to have. Any light, especially strong sun Andean sunshine at 4,700m elevation hurst your eyes. Then, on top of this all, you feel nautious… great, but at least I heard Sandy, Andy and Paul telling how wonderful the scenery was!


By mid-day I started picking up and made it out of the car to see my first Solanum of the day (as Sandy allready mentioned). Solanum excisirhombeum was worth the effort, it’s an incredibly attractive high elevation plant, and it manages to produce large flowers despite all the hardship!

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The day progressed whilst we were slowly moving down the road towards Ayacucho. We saw great fields of Puya raimondii, a large terrestrial bromeliad that grows for years before finally sending out a flowering shoot over 2 meters in height. Then, once it has flowered, it dies. Sad really.

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Coming over the next high pass we passed through landscapes that were almost lunar – vicuñas in the distance and clouds coming down…. The number of different landscapes we have come through today boggles the mind!

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In the afternoon we passed from Huancavelica to the department of Ayacucho. The area around the province of Vinchos was full of Polylepis forests. That’s where we found our second target Solanum of the day, Solanum gonocladum. Yesterday we found it in lower elevation, but it actually quite enjoys higher places. It hides underneath Stipa grass humps, rocks or anything that provides shade from the tough climate.


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At five o’clock we finally reached Ayacucho, ending our first road tour in the back and beyond. Ayacucho has been a no-go area for a long time due to the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) terrorist group’s activities. Now it’s a shining departmental capital, producing great handicrafts famous around Peru. It’s surrounded by mountains, and when the skies opened at seven whilst we were having our dinner, all the water running down into the city formed rivers on the streets. On our way home we figured out that the flood had reached the sewers as well…

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Tomorrow we start our second tour. This time we are heading southwest of Ayacucho on a smallish road to Vilcashuamán. The rains we experienced tonight might have caused some issues on local roads – how far will we get?


(PS - sorry the photos aren't centred - blogging on the road can be tricky!!!)