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Seeking nightshades in South America

6 Posts tagged with the solanaceae_blog tag
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Back to nightshade heaven...

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 20, 2014

Well, I am off to Peru again, this time with entomologist and blogger Erica McAlister (@flygirlNHM) to look for insects on Solanaceae in the north of Peru.

 

We plan to go north from Lima to Trujillo, then over the mountains to the Marañon River, then a sort of unplanned meander through valleys and over peaks. I’ve been on some of these roads before, but never to collect insects, so we are anticipating exciting things! From my previous experience these slopes are Solanaceae heaven – full of endemics and we hope to find some good things.

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Prime wild tomato habitat on the road to San Benito.

 

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Further up the road we might just see Browallia sandrae S.Leiva, Farruggia & Tepe - named after me by my good Solanaceae colleagues Segundo Leiva, Frank Farruggia and Eric Tepe; last time I saw it I didn't realise what this plant was, so I now want to pay a return visit!!

 

This work is a continuation of the field component of the Crop and Pest Wild Relative strand of the Natural Resources and Hazards Initiative at the Museum and with it we will further improve our method for collecting the insects that are resident, using or otherwise interacting with individual populations of nightshade species. Our targets are the wild relatives of tomatoes and potatoes, but we rarely pass a nightshade by, and there are lots where we intend to go.

 

But first I will be in Lima for about a week before Erica joins me – there are things that need sorting out from the last trip and people to see. There will be further herbarium work (every time we go to Peru more collections have been deposited in the national herbarium) and more visits to the International Potato Center (CIP) to talk about future project ideas. These human interactions are as important as the collecting – every scientist here at the Museum is usually doing a piece of scientific work while at the same time thinking about the next thing; it often seems we think several years in advance, I suppose that is good planning! Some ideas work, some don’t, but the process of mulling them over and talking to colleagues is a big part of what makes being the sort of scientist I am a real pleasure.

 

So I have my GPS, my plant press and my herbarium identification annotating things (glue and labels, terribly high tech). I have the permits, and will give a seminar at the Ministry about our work when we come back to Lima from the field. I have probably forgotten a lot of things, but that is what shops are for, and besides, shopping in Peru is a real adventure in itself when you shop for the things I need (like metres of plastic sheeting). So off I go...

 

Let’s see what transpires over the next month – what will we find? It’s bound to be fun…

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In the bad old days, biologists from places like the Museum would just go to a country, collect and then bring everything home. This was great for building our collections, but bad for the country involved. It didn’t help build up capacity in-country for biological inventory and understanding at all; many of the places the early explorers went were only just beginning to develop academic communities of their own. Things are different now though – and for the better.

IMG_7282_resized.jpgMy colleague Asunción Cano and his some of his students at the meeting of the Peruvian Botanical Society – academic life is certainly vibrant in Perú!

 

The Convention on Biological Diversity that was negotiated by the world’s governments in 1992 and subsequently ratified by most countries has meant, among other things, that permission to collect in countries not your own must be sought from the relevant authorities. This might seem like a bit of a pain – but what it does is gets you in contact with local scientists and tends to lead to some great collaborations! In Peru we have our research and collecting permits for both of our projects from the Dirección Forestal y de Fauna Silvestre of the Ministerio de Agricultura y de Rienda (Ministry of Agriculture and Water). The process is very straightforward; it involves a project plan, a list of people involved, and a promise to leave half the collected material in Peru. Sensible.

 

DNA permits - a different beast

 

For much of our work, however, we want to use DNA sequence data to look at evolutionary relationships for both the plants and the insects. This means we need a different and additional permit – a permit for use of genetic resources. All DNA has been identified as 'genetic resource' regardless of use. In a way this has created a huge problem for evolutionary biologists like us. Our use of DNA data has been equated with the plant samples kept in gene banks. So genetic resources permits can be notoriously difficult to negotiate and obtain.

 

We submitted our application of the DNA extraction from all Solanaceae and all insects associated with them in early December of last year, made some corrections based on observations from the people in the Ministry, and to my amazement and total surprise we were granted permission to extract DNA from specimens of Solanaceae and their associated insects we collect in Peru for evolutionary analysis! I signed a contract with the Ministry affirming each other’s rights and responsibilities in Lima, then headed for the mountains to join the team.

 

We really appreciate the efforts our colleagues at the Museo in Lima have made to help guide all these permissions through the system, and the efforts our colleagues at the Ministry have made to allow the genetic resources permit to be granted. I am really excited about the future collaborations we will have, and the new data and hypotheses we can generate. Doing all the permissions the right way has taken time, but I feel it has us all on a good solid, collaborative base for developing the research in the future.

 

Off into the field

 

The next day off I went to join the rest of the team – Erica, Mindy, Dan and Paul had gone to Canta the same day I had to stay in Lima to sign the genetic resources contract – so I followed by public transport, always exciting in Peru.

 

The car I got a seat in was old, bottomed out at every bump in the dirt road, and had a completely cracked windscreen. I might know why… the road from Lima to Canta was being repaired and widened in a number of places so there were lots of stops – at one of them several men were up the side of the hill pushing rocks down with sticks – no dynamite here, just manpower!

 

IMG_7312_resized.jpgI suspect the windscreen has taken a few knocks along the way … our driver and the one from the car in front discussing the delays.

 

IMG_7309_resized.jpgIf you squint you can see the tiny men on the slope – they are pushing the slope down with sticks, levering rocks out so the roll down the hill in clouds of dust…

 

The driver of our 'colectivo' got a bit impatient, and zoomed through – despite rocks skittering down the slope. Not great. But we made it to Canta, I found the team, whose day had been Solanum-filled and wonderful. I can’t wait to go out tomorrow!!

 

IMG_7318_resized.jpgErica (with Dan’s hands) sorting some of the day’s catch – it’s looking good!

 

 

Posted on behalf of Sandy Knapp, Museum botanist on a research and collecting trip to Peru.

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After a great day in the Cajamarca herbarium, we set off to the south through the fascinating system of valleys of the western Andes. This region is dissected by many small river valleys, some draining to the Pacific, some to the Atlantic, and all with very different microclimates. This means the diversity one encounters is truly amazing; in an hour you can go from cactus scrub to fertile, moist agricultural land.

 

This is a highly settled region, so natural habitat is hard to find. Fortunately Solanum species are often plants of open spaces, so they hang on in the face of widespread habitat change as roadside weeds.

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The valleys are a mosaic of fields of barley, oats, potatoes, maize and alfalfa – interspersed with Eucalyptus trees, used for firewood. Very little original vegetation exists near the roads


We found several exciting Solanum species – including two I had described, but rarely seen in the field before! Solanum dillonii I described a few years ago grows in dry valleys – I had collected it in the 1980s in Ecuador, but never in Peru!

 

Solanum clivorum was described in the 1990s – I agonised long and hard over it, was it new, was it not, was it just a strange Solanum oblongifolium? In the end I described it as new and hadn’t seen many specimens until I hit the Trujillo herbarium a few days ago. Wow – is it different! Seeing it now in the field made me really glad I described it as new; it is quite peculiar.

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The anthers of Solanum clivorum are held splayed out in a way I haven’t seen in any other of the members of this group – they are tiny as well

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Another exciting find – a possible new species from rocky hillsides amongst cacti and verbenas – this was a straggly plant with fruits completely enclosed in the calyx and sticky leaves – I can’t think what it might be!


We had started really early, and finally begged for lunch at about 3 pm – sometimes you just get a bit carried away and forget the time, and then crackers and Nutella is just not quite enough. We stopped in the town of Cajabamba for a proper meal, and enjoyed the rest.

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Paul and Maria enjoy a sunny break and a coffee on the side of the main drag in Cajabamba


As we drove through Cajabamba we found our friend from southern Peru Solanum 'pseudoamericanum' (see my blog post from last year’s collecting trip) growing out of a wall in town – it still looks just the same, grows at the same elevations and still looks new to science. It is surprising how many new species there are that are actually quite common, merely overlooked.

 

Across the street from the Solanum we saw a family drying their beautiful multicoloured maize harvest. The maize in Peru has very large grains and is usually white, but these ears were of many colours. Dried maize kernels are traditionally served with ceviche – the Peruvian dish of raw fish cooked in lime juice, and mote, or cooked maize kernels, are a delicious side dish for many meals.

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Ears of maize are called choclo, and the grains mote – this was one of many mats of drying kernels this family had out by the side of the road drying; next to them are beans


What a day – we have been through loads of habitats, seen many wonderful solanums and found some exciting things. More valleys tomorrow, on the road to Ancash – I am anxious to find more of our little purple-flowered mystery, or is it endemic to the valley of the Río Condebamba? Or maybe it is a species already described, but just one I don’t know yet?

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End of a great day – the beginnings of sunset over the western Andes

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Field work began in earnest today – we headed from the coast up into the mountains, the destination was Cajamarca, by fast road 6 hours away – but we were taking the road less travelled. We took a tiny dirt track up a dry valley to a village called San Benito; our research in the herbarium in Trujillo told us this would be a good place to look for some special endemics. Wild tomatoes are most diverse in the dry western regions of Peru – so I was hoping to see some of the species I have not yet seen in the wild.

 

It took us a while to find the right road – road signs don’t really seem important in Peru, people generally know where they are going I guess! The area was fantastically dry, with rocky slopes and tall columnar cacti. This is the northern part of the Atacama, the desert created by a combination of the cold ocean current called the Humboldt Current coming from Antarctica and the rain shadow of the Andes to the east.

 

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The tall cactus peeking out from behind the hill is called Neoraimondia; Antonio Raimondi was a famous Peruvian botanist of the late 19th century and really began the exploration of the plant diversity of the country


The first plant we saw (well, the first one we were going to collect!) was a genus I have never seen in the field before – Exodeconus. It is an Atacama endemic, and this species is the only one to grow in northern Peru. Tiina collected a couple of other species last year in the southern part of the Peruvian coast.

 

The plants we saw in this valley were tremendously variable in size, from tiny with only a couple of leaves to large and fleshy and extending to a metre or more. It all depends on water, as is usual in a desert. Desert plants are masters at making do.

 

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Exodeconus maritimus growing in a shady  place under a rock – some leaves on other plants were the size of saucers! The flowers are beautiful, bright white with a deep purple centre


The tomatoes soon began to appear, like Exodeconus growing in slightly wetter microhabitats. The first species we saw was Solanum pennellii – the closest relative of the tomatoes proper. It doesn’t have the pointed anther cone of the rest of the group, so was placed in the genus Solanum, rather than Lycopersicon, as the tomatoes used to be known.

 

We now recognise all of the wild and cultivated tomatoes as members of the genus Solanum, based on the molecular studies done by my colleague David Spooner in the early 1990s. His results showed tomatoes are closely related to potatoes; many characteristics of the plant form also support this evolutionary relationship. So we now group the tomatoes as part of the large genus Solanum, reflecting their ancestry and evolution more accurately.

 

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Solanum pennellii has stubby anthers – here being buzzed by a small bee


All Solanum species are buzz pollinated by bees – the anthers open by tiny pores at the tips and female bees grasp them and set up a resonance inside using their flight muscles, pollen squirts out lands on the bee and she carries it to another flower – if you sit by flowering tomatoes long enough anywhere, bees will come and buzz, the sound is quite audible!

 

Tomatoes proper have a long beak on their anther cone, but there are pores inside – the beak is a shared evolutionarily derived character that tells all tomatoes are closely related to one another.

 

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Solanum arcanum – a northern Peru endemic species only recently described by my colleague Iris Peralta (with whom I was recently collecting in Argentina), has the elongate beak typical of wild tomato relatives. This species began to appear a bit further up the valley towards the mountains

 

The small fruits of wild tomatoes are usually green and hairy, but even from them you can tell the species apart. The sepals of Solanum pimpinellifolium – the progenitor of our cultivated tomato – are strongly turned back, while those of Solanum arcanum (below) are always held flat – easy!

 

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Solanum pimpinellifolium

 

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Solanum arcanum

 

We were elated with our success at finding the wild tomatoes, all in flower, but were becoming disappointed about one special species we were seeking – Solanum talarense, an endemic to the dry coastal valleys of northern Peru and rarely collected.

 

We had almost given up, the road was going up the valley into wetter habitats and higher elevations, but then we saw it – possibly the rattiest plant I have ever seen! Eaten by goats, despite its ferocious prickliness, there it was hanging on in rocks by the roadside.

 

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Solanum talarense amongst the rocks, completely eaten by goats (we think, but it certainly had been munched by something!)

 

Jumping out of the truck I felt prickles in my shoes – only to discover that several 2 cm long thorns had gone right the way through the bottom of my boots; it will be interesting to see how this affects them when we get to wetter places! Solanum talarense was most definitely THE plant of the day, totally weird and wonderful – a plant only a Solanum taxonomist could love.

 

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The 'spines' on the stems and leaves of Solanum talarense are technically prickles, outgrowths of the surface – true spines, like those that went through my boot, are bits of stem. Prickliness does not seem to have deterred the animals eating this plant at all!

 

Ascents from the coast to the Andes in Peru are amazing – in a single day you can go from sea level and a dry desert to 4000 metres elevation and dripping wet cloud forest. This time we went over a pass that was only 3500 metres elevation, to descend again into the dryer valley of Cajamarca (via a couple of other passes – the geography is incredibly complex in northern Peru).

 

DSC_7103_resized.jpgWet cloud forest beckons ahead in the mountains

 

In the village of San Benito, in the cloud forest – in the pouring rain – we found our last wild tomato of the day. Solanum habrochaites used to be called Lycopersicon hirsutum, but when the time came to change its name to put it into Solanum, there already was a Solanum hirsutum (a European species) – so we had to think of another species name for it. The name we chose – habrochaites – means softly hairy in Greek; we thought it described the plant exactly.

 

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The fruits of Solanum habrochaites are covered with long hairs each of which has a small sticky gland on top. These glands exude a substance that gives each wild tomato species its particular smell, and gives us that lovely smell of ripe tomatoes fresh from the vine

 

We reached Cajamarca at about 11 pm, a bit later than planned – maybe we spent too much time collecting in the desert, but none of us thought so! This first day collecting was a great success – lots of other wonderful northern Peru endemics and some real surprises and firsts for me (Leptoglossis schwenckioides, Browallia acutiloba and on and on).

 

Now for a day in the herbarium of the University of Cajamarca and a visit to the wonderful Peruvian botanist Isidoro Sánchez Vega, for whom I named a lovely species of Solanum a couple of years ago. I am hoping we find Solanum sanchez-vegae on this trip – maybe when we leave Cajamarca for points south. Can’t wait.

 


Posted on behalf of Sandy Knapp, Museum botanist on field work in Peru.

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Making order out of chaos

Posted by Tiina Apr 10, 2012

29th March – Good bye to Freddy our car

Today we had to say goodbye to Freddy, our lovely and most faithful car. We are finally back in Lima!

 

The day passed sorting things out, and clearing and cleaning Freddy. Presses went back to the Museum’s store room, specimens into our preparation area, and so on. Most importantly, Paul re-united with his family – his 2 year old daughter Fabiana was full of smiles! In the evening we all went for a nice cake and ice cream to celebrate our safe homecoming.

 

 

30th March – Digitalising field notes

I have been typing our field notes bit by bit into our database. I started the job whilst we were in Arequipa. Yesterday I used the long drive to type some more in the car. Today I have spent all day doing this, and now as the typing has finished I am focusing on preparing herbarium labels. Our database software has a great interface for designing your labels – but you need to do some technical stuff to get the labels look perfect. It is pretty much like programming language, that is how it feels. Quite nice, very nice balance after all the field work.

 

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Once the label design is correct, the labels need to be proof read. It is good to make sure they look perfect – they will remain with the specimens for years to come!! Sandy sent us acid free paper from UK, so that we can print the labels properly. For long term storage, it is important to use acid free paper. These specimens are going to be five star top quality!

 

 

2nd April – Applying for an export permit

Our labels are ready now! We printed them out, and then cut them neatly.

 

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I sorted the labels into numeric order and then off we went to the herbarium to put them with the specimens! It felt great, we were very excited seeing the specimens all ready to be mounted and processed into the museum.

 

We had a small party to celebrate us finishing. Lemon pie and passion fruit limonade, yum yum! Here is the crew of the San Marcos herbarium, you can see the beautiful garden just outside:

 

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Celebrations were also due as we handed in our export permit application this morning. We had prepared all the documents, and the museum’s secretary at the San Marcos herbarium had helped us to prepare another document necessary for the application. All that hard work paid off, and now we are just waiting to hear back from the Environmental Ministry.

 

 

3rd-4th April – Back in the herbarium with plants

Time to catch up with herbarium work. With all our experience now from our field trip, it is great to be back in the herbarium identifying specimens, and studying the material with more time in our hands.

 

Lima has two other herbaria in the Universidad Nacional Agraria Lamolina (MOL). We visited one of these herbaria today, the Weberbauer herbarium. The collection is rich in types, as many taxonomists used Weberbauer’s high quality specimens to describe new species. Unfortunately, the top duplicates used for describing these species were deposited in Berlin. These duplicates were destroyed during the Second World War, and now the remaining duplicates, many of which are in the Weberbauer herbarium in Lima, are extremely important. If they exist, they can be used to lectotypify the names for which types have been destroyed.

 

I needed to search through the material to find if some duplicates of Solanum sandianum or Solanum planifurcum might exist. I managed to find three specimens which are types of Solanum names, but none of them were the ones I was after. Good job done though, now these specimens can be scanned and put online for other taxonomists to use.

 

Here we are in the midst of annotating and databasing the material, with Professora Vilcapoma in the background.

 

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5th April – Beautiful Lima

It is officially Semana Santa! The museum is closed today, and we are taking some time off to explore the city.

 

Lima is going through a heat wave. Generally in late March Lima is foggy. The fog enters from the Pacific, and takes over the city. With fog, there is less sun and the atmosphere in the city is cold, humid and dim. This year, however, the fog has not arrived yet despite it being April already. Instead, it is +35 degrees celcius every day, full sun shine.

 

We took a walk on the beach to touch the Pacific. Emilio Perales, a junior lecturer from the forestry department of the Universidad Nacional Agraria Lamolina, joined us on our walk – and got into a water war with Andrew!

 

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Emilio explained to us how the local public transport system works. Lima’s famous micros are mindboggling to most tourists. Busses do not have numbers or routes, but instead, they are colour coded. The bus system is not that official even – it seems bus lines are just born out of necessity, rather than planned by the council. Anybody can become a bus driver as well, there is no licence involved.

 

Here are examples of the bus lines: the blue white line:

 

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These busses go from Avenida Arequipa through the Ovalo in Miraflores to Chorrillos via Barranco. It’s a great bus as it takes the more scenic route through Larcomar along the coast.

 

Another one is the red white bus that comes to Chorillos too, but it takes a different route throught Avenida Tacna.

 

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Then there are the more complex bus lines, like the green bus with black roof, two green stripes, one white stripe, and red at the bottom. Who knows where it goes …

 

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The yellow white bus comes to Chorrillos through Abancay

 

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I wish there would be a guide to these busses, but there isn’t. You just have to learn them as you go. It is quite an anarchistic public transport system. The bus drivers are not licensed either. I suppose you wake up one morning, decide to become a bus driver, hackle for a bus, buy it cheap, and paint it (this is the important part!). The next most important thing you need to become a successful bus line is a fierce assistant. We call these assistants bus pimps. The assistant’s job is to shout the route aloud from the moving bus, by hanging from the open bus door and by making as much noice and hand waving as you possibly can. If you accidentally make an eye contact with the bus pimps, you will quickly find yourself inside a bus on a route to somewhere – they are very keen on getting more customers!

 

Once you’ve got your head around the general system, you are off. The busses drive extremely arrogantly, which means you get to your destination fast.

 

People don’t believe me about the colour code when I try to explain it to them, so I hope the blog will help to de-mystify the system to any confused tourists in Lima.

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Touching the sky.....

Posted by Sandy Knapp Feb 22, 2012

Well, we did make it to the puna – and all there is to say is – wow. We first climbed from 1200 m above sea level in the town of San Salvador de Jujuy up the Quebrada de Humahuaca to 4500 m at the Abra de Lipán – up an incredible road. Unlike most of the roads we have been on this trip though, this one was paved – it is the road to Chile over the puna.

 

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Once over the pass we felt like we could touch the sky – it was amazingly clear and you could see for miles. Distances are hard to measure at these elevations – everything looks quite close. The snowy peaks we could see in the distance were in Chile! It looked as though they were right there…..

 

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As we looked for solanums at high elevations a storm gathered…. We found our friend from Catamarca – Solanum chamaesarachidium – but this time in miniature, who could believe a plant so tiny could reproduce. That is, however, what plants and animals do; this plant has a flower and a developing fruit - amazing.

 

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It started to rain, so on we went, heading to the tiny village of El Moreno, where Gloria had once before seen Solanum sinuatirecurvum, another high elevation speciality.

 

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We found the plant, got very excited, climbed the fence to photograph it – but then the storms gathering all round caught us up and thunder and lightening began, accompanied by hail. Now a bit of bad weather never really deters plant collectors, but being the tallest thing for miles in a lightening storm is not a great idea – so we got in the car to wait it out.

 

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After the storm we talked to some of the residents of El Moreno – imagine a place where water takes ages to boil, and the only fuel is wood – but there are no trees. Interestingly, the man we spoke to had a solar stove for boiling water – he said it took 25 minutes to boil 5 litres of water – using only sunlight – something there is plenty of high up in the puna.

 

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We then began the drive back through the puna to return to the town of Purmamarca for the night, seeing more vicuñas on the way, plus several other exciting plants. The main road to Chile goes over huge salt flats (the high Andes is full of these salt pans or salares) so we took a quick detour to see them. Optical illusions abound in places like this – the far-away mountains looked as though they were floating on air.

 

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It was a day of wonderful plants, amazing views and great fun. We spent the night in Purmamarca where we ate at a place with live music – Tiina learned to dance the chacarena – a local Jujuy dance, and the music was great. What stays with us still though, is the pure beauty of the weather in the high Andes – we were surrounded by storms all day, but never really got wet; what we saw was an ever-changing sky so close it felt like you could touch it.

 

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