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Goodbye western side!

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 18, 2012

from Tiina:

Today was a day of goodbyes. First we had to say goodbye to Sandy who is flew to Lima to catch her flight back to London. She has to teach in Spain in a week’s time, so it’s time to get things ready for the next trip. We have had great weeks together collecting Solanum and talking Solanaceae research with our colleagues in Peru and Argentina. Now the challenge is to continue our field work successfully with just three of us left!


We drove to Cusco to drop Sandy off at the airport. Cusco is a large city in a small valley, and by now the city has spread to the surrounding hills. As we navigated through the old and curvy streets of Cusco to get to the airport, I took a photo of the beautiful scenery over Cusco taken from the northern hills.

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We continued our day after sad goodbyes to collect in the surrounding hills of Cusco. It was wonderful collecting in such a historic place – we were basically collecting around old ruins! The whole area of Cusco surroundings is full of ruins, where ever you look. Each stone seems to have a carving or human made shape to it. One large rock that I went around turned out to have stairs carved into it! Here is a great sight of the caves in the ruins of Qenqo with Andrew and Paul.


Amongst these wonderful areas we found a new Salpichroa species we haven’t seen on this trip yet, Salpichroa gayi. Unlike other species of Salpichroa, it has very unusual yellow-purple flowers. The corolla lobes curve very unusually at their tips, which we only spotted once we looked at our close-up photos in the evening!

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Another species we collected near Cusco was Solanum probolospermum, the usual suspect. This species is very common all through the department of Cusco west of the Eastern Cordillera. It’s a climbing species that scrambles on top of shrubs and roadside vegetation. It has attractive large purple flowers, and usually softly pubescent leaves. During our collections we have observed that the species varies enormously in habit and leaf shape, as well as corolla colour, shape and size. You might ask if there is nothing it doesn’t vary in… We are asking the same question by now. Despite all this trouble the species is giving us, here is a nice shot of the individuals we found growing in sunny hillside in Cusco. Sandy will be happy to see Paul is learning how to use our wonderful camera increasingly well!

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After a nice stroll around Cusco, it was time for second goodbyes. This time we are saying goodbye to the western side of the Andes. We are moving on to our next grand tour – a triangle route to the city of Puno through Puerto Inambari. This trip will take us through the Eastern Cordillera via the highway Interoceanica that goes through Peru all the way to Brazil. The road crosses the Andes at a pass at 4750 m elevation – can’t wait to see the views! After the high pass the road descents to the Amazon basin to 500 m elevation or so. This route will allow us to collect in the humid eastern slopes of the Andes where many interesting species of solanums live. We will take the Interoceanica highway all the way to Puerto Inambari which is way into the Amazon. You can see the pencil pointing to the city on the map above. Here we will turn south-east, where we turn south east towards Puno. The road from Puerto Inambari to Puno will take us over the Andes once again back to the western side.

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So goodbyes it was to the western side! We started off on the Interoceanica at four in the afternoon, with km0 saying 4700 km to São Paulo. It’s very tempting to think we could drive to São   Paulo for a lovely dinner, sushi perhaps as they have famously good sushi bars there, but perhaps we have to leave that for another day L. No need to be sad for too long though, there will be great plants to see J!

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We were aiming to stay the first night of our tour in a city called Ocongate, which is roughly three hours into the highway. The area we passed is full of small Andean villages, where most people speak Quechua, language very different from Spanish or English. Some of the local villages we passed had wonderful names – but we just didn’t know how to pronounce them! To give an example, here is a picture of a road sign to one of the villages:

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In case you are still trying to cough the name out, here is how it goes: cc is pronounced with a dry throat sound of “kha”. As there happen to be two double cc in the village name, it becomes a little problematic. Definitely not a word to pronounce whilst eating your dinner! So once you know how to pronounce double c, then it all goes smoothly, or does it?! We are still awake and trying!


from Sandy:

For my last day of collecting with Team Solanum we decided to go down another of the roads out of the Sacred Valley up over the mountains and to the Amazon slope. This one made a loop, so we thought it would be a good idea! Well, it was, but it made for a VERY long day. First we ascended up a shale scree slope on a road (yes a road) to 4578m elevation over the Abra de Amparaes….


We then descended through a wonderful glacial valley, classically shaped as a U – it was full of tiny communities with herds of llamas and alpacas. These iconic Andean animals are related to camels and are hardy enough to withstand the altitude and temperatures – although they are set out to graze every day and brought back to stone corrals every night by the local people. You can see the camel-like faces….



Our first exciting solanum of the day was the enigmatic Solanum “Cusco-branched” – a plant sort of like Solanum probolospermum of the Abra de Malaga, but with dense branched hairs all over its stems and leaves. Is it the same, is it different? We needed to really collect it intensely over the range of elevations to be sure… it seems that this branched hair thing is on the Amazon side (E slopes), with Solanum probolospermum (with simple hairs) on the western slopes. We collected this plant as often as we could over the elevational gradient to be able to see if this idea holds once we get back and compare our collections to those made by others earlier and in different places.


Down and down the valley we went, encountering more and more solanums as we got lower. We also saw lovely waterfalls and fantastic rock faces…..  this is truly a spectacular place. Driving along a one-lane road cut into the rock wall can be heart-stopping of course, but we are getting used to that!



We encountered the junction to begin our ascent up the other branch of the road at about 2500m elevation – and just a few hundred metres up that road, a real prize revealed itself – Solanum sinuatiexcisum, the relative of Solanum fiebrigii we had collected in Argentina. This was a huge herb more than 2 m tall though – quite a different beast.

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By this time we were getting a bit nervous about climbing over the pass again (different road though this time) in the dark, so kept our collecting to a minimum…. this of course meant stopping a lot, and getting excited over all the new things we were seeing. One mystery was a small tree with shiny leaves and green fruits that I think might be a new species – I will need to check in the herbarium in Lima once I am back to be sure though, I think I have been calling this Solanum maturecalvans for ages, but it is really different seen alive – this is why field work is so important…. For now it is called Solanum “not-maturecalvans”!


In a small village just before Lares we saw the beautiful solanaceous species Brugmansia sanguinea close up and personal – this is a magic plant, you can just tell can’t you by the lovely flowers!


On and up we drove, racing to get onto the paved road before dark – we saw the locals bringing in their llamas, single file along a ridge…


We made it back to Pisac just as the entire two was closing down at 8pm – a good final meal, a hot shower (the best we have had in Peru yet, in the Hotel Pisac Ayllu) and plant dryer organising finished the day. I will be really sad to leave the team here for the next set of adventures – they are hoping to take a route I have long wanted to go on, but life elsewhere is calling. I wonder what they will find, and I wonder if I will be able to resurface into the NHM again?


From Tiina:

Today we started early again – destination was Paucartambo and beyond. Paucartambo is on the western side of the Andes west of Cusco, and beyond Paucartambo in the Amazon lowlands is Pilcopata. We wanted to collect on the montane forests again on the western side (Solanum heaven!), but in order to do this we needed to drive over a pass to cross the mountains to the other side.


The slope to the east from Pisac to Paucartambo is not as steep as in Abra de Malaga. The pass this time is ONLY 4000m high (everything is relative!).

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The road from the pass down to Paucartambo descents slowly, and past Paucartambo the forest is still relatively dry. Paucartambo itself is a lovely village with a really organised looking market – labelled as to types of produce – here is the “tuber section” – where they sell potatoes and other Andean tuber crops – Sandy went in and had a long conversation with a woman about her potatoes – so many different types!



It only gets really humid once you get to the point where the road forks to Tres Cruces, where the Manu National Park begins. We got as far as the forking point and had to turn back in order to get home in time. We did find Solanum “morel-malaga” again – a sign that we had reached the humid eastern slopes again.  This individual of “morel-malaga” was a giant: the stem was 2.5 cm in diameter at the base. Again it was growing in a landslide site in very disturbed rocky soil. Everything was the same as in the previous collection we had made in Abra de Malaga, but just bigger!


Manu  National Park is wonderful. It’s massive, stretching from the high elevation moist pre-puna to the lowland Amazonian rain forest. We couldn’t collect in Manu despite how wonderful it looked – collecting in Peruvian national parks requires a special collecting permit, which we don’t have, so instead of collecting we chatted to the park rangers that were at the main reception were we stopped to turn around. They recognised Sandy by her name, as she has collected along the Paucartambo – Pilcopata road before. What a temptation to be that close to the park and not to be able to go in and collect! Maybe we’ll get to see it one day… we promised the rangers we would be back…..