South American Diary
Christmas 1992, and your editor finds himself
in Ecuador, up in the top left-hand corner of South America, where
the palms have to be seen to be believed.
Martin Gibbons, The Palm Centre, 563 Upper Richmond Road West, London
SW14 7ED, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 10, published online 23-09-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Left: A fine specimen of Parajubaea cocoides.
Right, clockwise from top left: 1. On the trail - Ceroxylons a'plenty.
2. Rain Man - Brad in cape, in canoe and in downpour. 3. Brothers-in-Arms:
Gibbons meets Gibbons. 4. Brad has a souvenir of the Andes, so does
Saturday 19th December 1992...
Touched down at 8am at Quito, Ecuador, airport after
a good flight on Air France with one single stop at Caracas, Venezuela.
We (Jacques Deleuze and I) were met by a smiling Brad Carter, until
recently editor of The Palm Journal, magazine of the Southern California
Chapter of the International Palm Society. Quito is one of the highest
capital cities in the world, altitude 2850m above sea level. The
weather is bright and sunny but cool. Went off to pick up the jeep
Brad had organized for us, a Chevrolet Trooper, riot cheap to rent
but perfect for our requirements, with 4-wheel drive. Quito airport
has many Parajubaea cocoides, our first chance to see them in the
flesh. Tall and elegant, with slim trunks with feather leaves with
fine and glossy leaf segments, looking to me like giant Microcoeleum,
(now Lytocaryum) weddellianum. Fab!
Set off, with moi at the wheel, on the right (wrong)
side of the road to a nearby monument called Mitad del Mundo, Centre
of the World, abt.22km out of Quito. Rather presumptious title I
thought. It's a big slabby monument, sort of 1930's Masonic Temple
style, and it sits on the equator (from which Ecuador takes its
name of course), which is paved in a long path, lined with busts
of famous historical Ecuadorians. Posed for photos with one foot
in each hemisphere, then drove on down the same road, west of Quito,
looking for plants. Jacques and Brad, being interested in plants
generally, (as opposed to palms specifically, like me) wanted to
stop every two minutes to check out flowers, and creepers, and climbers
so it turned out to be a long short drive. I was certainly not disappointed
however as we came across Ceroxylon in large measure. They are wonderful
trees with white, ringed trunks and graceful leaves. The further
we went the more we saw, species uncertain unfortunately, often
in the company of other, less readily identifiable palms. The road
was good, and we made many stops to take photos, and examine the
trees through binoculars. J. thought they may be C. quindiuense.
About 1pm decided to head back to Quito, stopping
on the way at a sort of cantina, where tried the local beer, not
at all bad. Saw lots more Parajubaeas on the way, though all were
cultivated; they are not known in the wild. Many if not most have
huge bunches of fruit. Drove to the hotel that Brad arranged, the
Posada Real, and where he's been staying for 2 days. Dropped our
bags here then took a taxi back into town for a late but welcome
lunch. Had hamburger, chips & beer (I always like to sample
the local food). Looked round a famous bookshop, Libri Mundi, then
back to the hotel for a couple of hours' sleep. In the evening went
into town again to a good fish restaurant: mixed seafood all cooked
with garlic, with a nice bottle of local white wine. Excellent!
Back to the hotel in pouring rain, bed by 1 1-ish in quite a comfortable
Sunday 20th December...
Up at 8am for a light breakfast. Brad had met some
locals who said they would collect and clean as many Parajubaea
seeds for us as we wanted. The seeds are extremely difficult to
clean. The fruits are large; almost the size of a golf ball, and
the flesh is very hard and fibrous. It has to be cut off with a
knife. We thought their offer price of 10c US per seed was good.
We asked for a couple of thousand seeds. All this negotiation took
a long time but eventually we set off, driving east, direction of
Baeza. Once of out town there is much to see botanically speaking;
Brad and Jacques wanted to stop every minute again. We didn't see
much in the way of palms, but at least they were happy, and collected
dozens of specimens of leaves, flowers and seeds. Began to see lots
of tree ferns, species unknown, as we climbed higher and higher.
Got up to 3500m altitude, then began to descend. Passed through
lots of small towns none of which had much to offer, though at midday
we stopped for a local meal, a sort of mixed platter of fried eggs,
chips, grilled beef, rice, fried banana, avocado, chopped carrots
and peas with mayonnaise. A bit of everything really, but everyone
in the place was eating the same, so I guess it was a specialité
de la maison. We sped on again, stopping every so often to look
at plants. Eventually we came to Papallacta where there are hot
springs. The stream by the side of the road was steaming and actually
quite hot! Stayed here for a while, there were swimming pools and
showers, all heated free. Then off again, and the scenery started
to get quite spectacular, with deep, deep gorges, sheer rock faces
and rushing waterfalls. Every so often on these mountain roads there
is a cross or several crosses with names indicating where someone
had driven over the edge, sometimes perhaps an entire family. Saw
a few more palms but many more tree ferns. Arrived at Baeza at around
6pm. It's a tiny town, more a collection of houses really, but we
managed to find a 'hotel' if it could be called such. Rather primitive,
with no hot water, but comfortable enough. Feels very 'South American'
- even has a tame parrot on the veranda. Found a small 'restaurant'
but no beer so washed down fish & chips with rum 'n' coke. Home
from home! Retired quite early and slept well in spite of the torrential
rain on the corrugated tin roof. No mosquitoes.
Monday 21st December...
Woke at daybreak, had coffee in the room, and left
at about 8am after paying the bill of 7,500 sucres (3000=£1),
so very cheap. Our first stop was after only five minutes, for some
tree ferns. They are just so beautiful. Realized we had forgotten
to get petrol, so left J & B prospecting and drove back past
Baeza where a full tank cost just 19000 suc. (£6). Rest of
day was spent driving and stopping and driving and stopping. This
place really is a botanist's paradise. Saw many wonderful palms,
the most conspicuous was Bactris. Stopped once at a pasture full
of hundreds and hundreds of Euterpe species unknown, perhaps E.
precatoria. They are quite beautiful, with very fine and delicate
leaflets, hanging vertically from the petiole. No fruit or even
flowers. At the bottom of this same pasture (which was very wet)
we found a Chamaedorea-like plant, maybe Synechanthus? Also, one
palm we were quite sure of: Prestoea globosa, with bright pink flowers.
On we drove, stopping for lunch of fried river trout
and rice. At this diner, we met a U. S. peace volunteer who is over
here building a generator in one of the numerous tiny villages.
Somewhere along the way we got a puncture so had to stop and change
the tyre. Twp spectacular palms deserve a mention here: Dictyocaryum
lamarckianum and Mauritia flexuosa. Don't know which is the most
unbelievably beautiful, the first with huge and incredibly neatly
cut plumose leaves, or the second with massive fan leaves like exploding
fireworks! Made many, many stops along the way, J & B getting
very excited by this or that flower, me content to wait for the
palms. Came to a small village where we had the chance to use Brad's
collecting pole for the first time, with permission, on a huge Mauritia,
absolutely laden with thousands of ripe fruit, red/brown, scaly,
and the size of a hen's egg. The pole is in 6ft sections, 3 of which
we joined together, with a scythe-shaped saw blade at the end. It's
not easy to manipulate the thing, as the top, 20 ft. up, tends to
flap about a bit, but once it's against the stem of the infructescence,
its easy and the sharp blade cuts through it like butter. There
are many hundreds of these big seeds on a single stem, and when
it comes down - watch out! This tree was in a small walled garden,
with chickens and ducks. It's probably been producing thousands
of seeds every year for years, with them all being eaten by the
hens as soon as they germinate. Finally we arrived at Tena, where
we checked into the International Moll Hotel, very nice and clean,
with clean rooms and hot showers. Cleaned ourselves up, then had
a great meal in the hotel restaurant, of fried chicken and chips
with lots of beer. Great stuff! Retired, tired, at 11pm.
Tuesday 22nd December...
Woke at 7.30 and went downstairs for a good breakfast.
Today is river trip and jungle walk day! Bernardo from the hotel
acted as our guide and we set off at about 9.30 by taxi to Misahualli
on the Rio Napo (I think). The taxi was an open van but we were
happy to sit in the back enjoying the view, as well as all the plants
and flowers that we passed. Saw lots more Mauritia flexuosa on the
way. When we got to Misahualli, we were lent rubber boots and had
to hand in our passports. It's a sleepy river town where I don't
suppose anything ever happened before the arrival of tourism. Very
Gabriel Garciá Marquez. Sweeeet little monkeys scrambling
in amongst the trees could be pursuaded to come down for a piece
of fruit. The boat was a dug-out canoe (i.e. dug out from a single
tree trunk) about 20ft long and powered by an outboard motor. We
sat on wooden seats set athwart, and set off upstream at a good
rate of knots. The Rio Napo is about a hundred yards wide at this
point. What a wonderful was to explore and observe the flora of
the riverbank! With binoculars everything can be examined. Lots
of palms, some we already know, but some new ones, including one
called 'Pambil' and used by the Indians for blow gun darts, and
many others besides. We sped along for an hour when suddenly sun
turned to clouds and it began to rain quite heavily. Out came the
waterproofs but even so it wasn't too pleasant. We pulled into the
bank to shelter and set off again when it has eased. Finally, the
boatman cut the engine and eased the boat into the riverbank again,
to where a path led up into the jungle. Up we climbed into the forest,
everything, including us, soaking wet. It was not strenuous and
there was much to see so we stopped frequently to examine plants
and to take photos, some with flash, as it was quite dark under
the trees. Bernardo certainly knows his palms, unfortunately only
local names, but he indicated by mime and a few words of English
the use of this one or that. It is extremely difficult to identify
palms in the wild with no experience of the flora of a particular
area, but we did our best. Occasionally we had wonderful views out
over the jungle. We saw toucans and heard other birds, probably
parrots. We stayed up in the jungle for a few hours then slowly
made our way back down on a different track to where the boat was
waiting, and we set off down river. We had a couple of stops on
the way back to Misahualli, one at a 'lodge' where monkeys came
crashing down out of the treetops on production of a banana. One
climbed all over me! There were also some sad animals in cages,
including some huge boa-constrictors with bruised and bloody faces
where they continually struck out at waving fingers and met only
chicken wire. The other stop was for a (very touristy) demonstration
of blow darts where we were invited to have a go at target practice
ourselves. The old man got very alarmed when I pointed the blowpipe
at his dog! The heavens opened again when we were on the river for
the final leg, and we returned to Misahualli very wet, very tired,
and very hungry, but having had a splendid day. Bus through the
dark back to the hotel, where they had washed our jeep while we
were away. Dinner of fish with manihot and rice. Delicious! Washed
down with rum punch, and entertained by huge bats flying in and
out through the open sides of the restaurant. Bed at 11pm. What
a wonderful day!
Wednesday 23rd December. My birthday.
Had breakfast, paid the bill, and sorted ourselves
out, and finally left at around 10 with many goodbyes. It was a
nice hotel with very friendly people. We left town and drove in
the direction of Puya, palm and plant spotting on the way. We saw
some spectacular scenery and some wonderful palms especially more
Dictyocaryum. We drove along a valley the far wall of which was
200m high and as flat and sheer as though it was man-made, with
waterfalls pouring off the top at regular intervals. We saw many
more waterfalls, and passed through a crude tunnel. The views were
marvellous. It got dark a long time before we headed back north
to Quito, and it was an awful drive then, back on the main road,
pitch dark, lots of traffic, including huge and selfish trucks and
buses, no street lighting. Terrible. Eventually got back to the
hotel at 9:30 and went straight out for some food. Pizzas &
beer. Bed very tired at about midnight. A very nice birthday.
Thursday 24th December, Christmas Eve
Up a little later today. Drove home with the man
who is cleaning the Parajubaea seeds and returned with 2000, beautifully
clean. As we are leaving for some days now, we had much packing
and sorting out to do and didn't finally leave the hotel till 12:30.
It took 2 hours to get out of the city; there was so much traffic
for the holiday. The pollution is terrible, all those stationary
lorries and ancient buses, all chucking out clouds of smoke. What
a relief to get out of the city and what a change in just an hour!
Clear roads, beautiful scenery, clean air. And Ceroxylons by the
dozen (hundred?). Perhaps C. ventricosum. Then - an accident. We
were driving along a road with a steep cliff face on our left when
suddenly - BANG!! - a rock the size of your head crashed down onto
the bonnet of the jeep, badly denting it and actually piercing it,
and denting though not otherwise damaging the radiator inside, and
smashing an indicator light. What a mess and what bad luck! But
a half second later it would have been through the windscreen, and
there would have been three more crosses on the mountain road. We
patched up the light as best we could. Unfortunately there is an
excess on the insurance for hired vehicles in Ecuador, which you
can't buy a waiver against. That bang cost us £50 each. We
drove on, to a small town called Tandapi, then took the mountain
track we had been recommended. Four-wheel drive on! We offered a
lift to a young man who was walking up the track, and he guided
us up this very long, very narrow and very muddy trail, to a small
farm of about 20 hectares where we dropped him off having saved
him a 3-hour walk. We met the farmer who took us out to see some
palms, and we collected several thousand seeds of Prestoea and Ceroxylon.
The 'farmhouse' is in a sea of mud. It is entirely built by hand
and made of slabs of wood and hand-sawn planks. There is no mains
electricity but he does have a generator and asks us for petrol
from the jeep to power it. We are to stay in this shack (it is nothing
more) with him and his family. However he is very hospitable and
makes us very welcome. Dinner is served in the room next door, and
to reach it one has to walk along a narrow wooden walkway over the
mud. By this time it is quite dark and Jacques, who is leading,
misses his footing and crashes down, badly banging his knee. Dinner
is chicken soup, not too bad, with rice, and some wine, eaten off
homemade furniture. Bed at around midnight. Slept very well, but
Jacques is in some pain.
Friday 25th December, Christmas Day
Woke at daybreak to the sound of the cocks crowing.
Jacques' knee is still painful, and now swollen. We said we would
give the farmer a lift to Santo Domingo, and he has to have a shower,
walking back from the shower-shed in the yard, barefoot through
the mud. Eventually we were ready to leave and set off down the
steep and muddy track to the main road we left yesterday, in the
direction of Sto. Domingo. We began to see a palm which we identified
as Pallandra aequatorealis - the Tagua Palm, from which comes 'vegetable
ivory'. Also many Attaleas, growing tall and high on both sides
of the road. We stopped many times to take photographs and to record
different plants and eventually arrived at our destination, a busy
and bustling, quite large town. We dropped off our host of the previous
night and found a restaurant for lunch of fish (soup and fried)
and we checked into a hotel almost opposite, from where we summoned
a doctor (even though it's Christmas Day) to examine Jacques' knee.
He said that it should be rested for a couple of days so we decided
that J. should stay and rest up at the hotel, and that Brad &
I should do the next part of the programme on our own. We celebrated
Christmas Day with paté that Jacques had brought all the
way from France, and 'champagne that I bought from the shop down
the road. It popped realistically, but that was the only similarity,
and after a sip each it went straight down the toilet. Champagne
it ain't. Yuk!
Next time: Heading down south to the Inca Trail
and 'Red Crownshaft Palm 'country.
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