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

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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 the jeep.

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 room.

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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