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We decided to have a day off from driving madly across the Peruvian countryside and to explore the amazing ruins of Ollantaytambo. This is a small town with a huge ruin attached that is on the banks of the Río Urubamba.

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It was here that the Inca Manco Capac defeated the Spanish army, only to have them come back in more force later and over-run the fortress – he then retreated to Machu Pichu and beyond….  Today trains run from Cusco to Ollantaytambo to Machu Pichu several times daily (last time I was here it was once a day, starting at the crack of dawn! – how times change).

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Part of the site of Ollantaytambo is a temple to the sun (or so the guidebooks say) hewn of gigantic stones that were transported from across the river and high in the mountains. This temple was never finished, and one can see gigantic stones left along the trail from the quarry across the Urubamba. Like all Inca stonework, you can’t put a piece of paper between these stones – what is amazing about Ollantaytambo is the sheer size of these blocks (see Paul for scale in the picture). How did they do it?

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We climbed high on trails around the entire site, and managed to see some really amazing scenery, take some silly pictures of all of us, and see some interesting plants.

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To collect, we went across the river on an old Inca bridge (recontructed of course) and walked amongst terraced fields of maize and other crops.

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We of course found some solanums – the msot exciting of which was what we called Solanum “pseudoexcisirhombeum” – like our friend from the high puna, but a bit different.  For a start it has smaller flowers….

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Hot off the presses (several days later) – on downloading the original description from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), we find that it matches this Urubamba plant better than the puna plants from Ayacucho – so we will need to figure out what those are now! Being able to look at the literature in the field is truly amazing…

 

Landslides are a fact of life in Peru (as you will have seen from earlier posts!) and the Ollantaytambo area is no exception – this river of mud came down the mountain last October or so (we were told be a resident) at night with a huge whoosh. It hadn’t even been raining apparently, a piece of mountain just fell off. Wow.

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Ollantaytambo of course is more than just ruins, it is also a lovely village, and prides itself on retaining its Inca heritage. It also has some lovely Spanish touches as well, like these bulls on the rooftop for good luck, along with a bottle of champagne for celebration!

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Having a day off from driving was good for all of us – we have recharged our batteries and are ready to go again…  what will tomorrow bring? More solanums we are sure!

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We left the humming town of Abancay – having first sorted out how to get the plant presses we had managed to forget in Andahuaylas the day before (it always happens at some point!) sent on to Cusco.  Peruvians have a great system for this, called “encomienda” – we sent money by bus company to the hotel keeper in Andahuaylas, then he kindly packed up the presses and sent them by bus to Cusco – all very efficient and easy.

 

As usual in the Andes the day began with a steep climb over a mountain pass – this time in dense fog – but we still managed to see some great plants. We stopped to look back at Abancay in the distance and Paul found a lovely Jaltomata (another genus in the Solanaceae) with densely furry filaments that were deep purple, a beautiful contrast to the pearly white flowers. We are not sure what species it is – but colleagues will let us know once we can send them the specimens!

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As has been the case for a few days on this not-so-well-travelled part of the Andean range, we ran into a bit of road trouble – another huaico had covered the road in at least three metres of mud – but the machines were out there sorting it out. We only had to wait about 20 minutes or so – nothing really in the grand scheme of things!

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Descending into the valley of the Río Apurimac we began to find new and interesting solanums – among them the wonderful species Solanum iltisii – named for the American botanist Hugh Iltis by one of his graduate students. It is a rather large tree with pretty white flowers, but its most peculiar feature is its warty fruits – the “warts” are the bases of hairs that fall off as the fruit matures. I have seen this species in the harbarium – it was great to see it in the flesh!

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As we descended twoards the town of Curahuasi, where we intended to spend the night, we began to look for Solanum anomalostemon, a species I had described with my colleague from the New York Botanical Garden Michael Nee in 2009 from herbarium specimens – I was really keen to see it alive! We called in anomalostemon for its very peculiar (for a solanum) heart-shaped anthers; found nowhere else in the genus. Well, we looked and looked, found lots of other things, so were about to give up – but- decided to have a look along the roadside in the landslips to see if we could find it there.  And – amazingly – there it was! Inconspicously sitting at the base of a landslide…  when he saw it Paul yelled out loud; we thought he had fallen and hurt himself….

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And it is as odd and I expected –what a strange plant. Tiny and flat, but with large (for a solanum) flowers with these most strange-shaped anthers. We fell to speculating as to what pollinated it….

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What a wonderful way to end the day – and just as we got into the car to head into Curahuasi, the snowy peak of Salkantay decided to reveal itself. All was right in the world.

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In Curahuasi the townspeople were celebrating Carnaval still (during Lent it seems to be a continual celebration rather than a time of abstinence – a good idea I think!) with the ceremony of cutting a tree decorated with presents.. same sort of thing we saw in Andahuaylas a few days back.  We agreed – a celebration was in order – for the wierdest solanum ever!!

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Yesterday’s road probems were tiny compared to today….. sometimes Peruvian roads must be seen to be believed.  Andahuaylas awoke to pouring rain, not a great result for the festival, but loads of people were outside getting organised. Off we set into the cloud, again climbing to more than 4000 m elevation to cross over a pass to get into the valley of Abancay, our next port of call. As I jumped out to take a picture of potatoes being grown at 4200 m, I realised it was actually snowing! Even the llamas looked wet and miserable, but stoic all the same, just like botanists, but we smile more!

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The entire area between Andahuaylas and Abancay, both in the department of Apurimac, is highly populated, and heavily cultivated – every square inch had a field or animals grazing.

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As we came down in elevation the vegetation became drier ( repeat of our experience a few days ago), and we began to find solanums and other exciting Solanaceae. My top plant of the day was Nicotiana tomentosa – a wild tobacco that is a small tree up to 10 cm in diameter! I have seen what has been called this species in Bolivia before, but these plants were very different – I am going to need to re-think the species limits here.

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The torrential rains of the last few days have made collecting difficult, but have made travel even more so….  The road to Abancay had been reported as having several landslides (or huaicos); the heavy rains loosen the soil and the steep slopes the roads are carved into just slip and slide down, sometimes with quite alarming results. Some people who had come from Cuzco to Andahuaylas for the festival had warned us that there were many vehicles stuck. Well, eventually, after passing many places where rocks and mud had fallen across the road we came across a lorry that had got well and truly stuck in deep mud right on a corner. As we got out to check it out, we heard and saw large rocks falling from the cliffs above; they were so big that it took Tiina and I both to move them out of the way – Andy drove by next to the lorry with aplomb (secretly hoping the mud didn’t slide out from under him!).

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The road was partically blocked by many landslides further on down the mountain, but traffic (and there was a lot of it, mostly buses and lorries) passed through, often at quite a clip.

 

The unusually heavy and prolonged rains have also caused the rivers to swell. We came across one “small stream” that had turned into a torrent, for once, the adjective raging fit perfectly – we could see the boulders being taken down the streambed as we watched.it doesn't look like much in the picture, but trust me, it ws amazing!

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Abancay sits up above a low valley with a river we had to cross, and in the dry forest vegetation in the valley we found two more exciting Solanum species. Solanum neorickii is a wild tomato relative with tiny little flowers, it has green fruits that look just like minature green tomatoes – the plants we collected were in full fruit.

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Further down the splendid dry valley we came to the bridge over the Rio Casinchihua – where Tiina found her plant of the day, Solanum physalifolium. This species has a wonderful speckled fruit that is translucent when it is ripe – you can see the brown seeds through the fruit wall. In England we have a species we call Solanum physalifolium, but it is nothing like this little plant. As with the tobacco, we will need to rethink the species boundaries here!

 

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On our way into Abancay we were delayed by various road crews clearing away huge rocks that had fallen onto the (now paved) road…  but as we began to climb up the hill we were surprised by a long queue of vehicles, all stopped for some reason…  Paul jumped out to see what the story was and came back with the news that there was another huaico and that vehicles were only being let through in small batches, and then only some could make it. The road had turned into a rocky river bed… the tractor was fixing it constantly as sets of three or four vehicles went through.

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We had to cross the river twice – the second time was easier and we made a big splash!

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Tomorrow we head up again in order to descend again into the canyon of the Rio Apurimac, said to be even deeper than the Grand Canyon. Here we are seeking the rare and exciting species Solanum anomalostemon, known only from this canyon – with my colleague Michael Nee of the New York Botanical Garden I described this a few years ago, but I have never seen it alive and in its habitat – can’t wait! We can see that it is still raining in the mountains, so we wonder what we will find on the road?