South American Diary. Part 2

Second and final part of the Christmas 1992 diary of your editor, in search of the legendary red-crownshafted palm on the Inca Trail in Ecuador, South America.
Martin Gibbons, The Palm Centre, 563 Upper Richmond Road West, London SW14 7ED, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 11, published online 23-09-2002

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The two Red Cro wnshaft palms on the Inca Trailin Ecuador, South America, in an area where so many other plants also hada preponderance two wards red colouration. These are, as yet, undescribed and un-named species. The large one, at least, is thought to be a specics of Geonoma

Saturday 26th December 1992, Boxing Day

Leaving Jacques at the hotel to nurse his injured and swollen knee, Brad & I set off early from Santo Domingo de los Colorados, in the direction of Esmeraldos and Borbon, absolutely at the top left-hand corner of Ecuador in South America. Soon saw our very first Palandra aequatorialis, the Tagua Palm, from the seeds of which comes 'vegetable ivory'. Saw and collected other palms: Syagrus sancona, and Astrocaryum standleyanum, covered from top to bottom in vicious spines. We used the pruning pole to collect this one - watch out for those spines when the infructescence comes down! Stopped for lunch at Rio Verde where we had the local empañadas' (pancakes). The countryside is much drier here, almost arid in fact, as we drove along the Pacific coast. The road deteriorated and tar became dirt. We stopped and asked a man about the cycad Zamia lindenii which was rumoured to grow here and after he told us that he could take us to some, we tossed a coin to see who would stay with the jeep, and who would accompany him. I won and off we set up into the hills at a fast pace. We saw several specimens, some up to 10 feet tall, growing in the forest. Back in the jeep we drove on and on down the dirt road eventually arriving here at Borbon at 8pm when it was quite dark. Borbon itself is like a town from the Wild West, with a dirt main street, wooden pavements and wooden buildings. Our hotel is hewn from solid timber planks, God knows what would happen if there was a fire. The population here is entirely black and we saw not one white face. The average height of the people seems to be about 6 feet; they all look like Olympic athletes. We walked out to a 'restaurant' where we had (and enjoyed) spit-roasted chicken and beer, sitting under a veranda on the main street and listening to the torrential rain on the tin roof. When it stopped we made our way back here to the hotel, where we hardly slept a wink as there was a disco going on till the small hours. Mosquitos were also troublesome; they obviously had maps showing the holes in the nets, which hung over the beds.

Sunday 27th December

Up and washed and paid and out while it was still dark, heading back down the road by which we had entered, stopping after an hour or so at the hacienda of one Don Alfredo, one of Brad's contacts with whom we shared some coffee, while watching his children play with a dead parrot. He agreed to send one of his men out to take us to some Zamia lindenii. First though, he expertly cut the ends off several coconuts with a machete, so we could drink the water. Delicious!

After a 2 hour climb up into the hills, as yesterday, we came across several mature plants of the Zamia, and took lots of photographs, using flash as it was quite dim in the undergrowth where the plants were growing.

Back to the road then, when we drove on to Esmeraldas, a sleepy tropical town on the Pacific coast. There seemed to be some kind of election going on, the road was closed and no shops were open, even to get some food.

Thus we had no choice but to carry on and by fast, almost non-stop driving we made it back to Santo Domingo and the hotel by 7pm. Jacques' leg is now in plaster from ankle to hip but the pain has gone. Out for dinner at the 'best restaurant in town' (a poor copy of MacDonald's) for an indifferent meal, though plenty of it. Then back to the hotel for an early night to prepare for an early start. Tomorrow we head south.

Monday 28th December

We almost left by 7am, our intended departure time, anyway 10 past wasn't too bad, after all it was still dark. And Jaques had to be manoeuvred into the back, not easy with your leg in plaster. After asking the way a few times (road signs leave much to be desired in Ecuador - several times we would come across a fork in the road with no indication of the way to go. This sometimes cost us dearly in terms of time) we found the right road and set off at a good speed. It must be said that the countryside wasn't very interesting though. The road was good and there was little traffic. We saw some wonderful trees, including one covered in brilliant yellow foliage. We had a few photo-stops but mainly just drove. We passed through Quevedo, then Daule, then bypassed Guyaquil. The countryside was very flat, much of it given over to rice. Rather boring though there were some nice greens. From Guyaquil we sped east to El Triunfo, then to Azogues where we saw some Parajubaeas, then Cuenca, after which the road began to climb up into the mountains, and we slowed right down. As we climbed, so the temperature fell, from 89 to 75F, and it felt much fresher. Up and up we drove, reaching 3,400m and quite cool, misty and foggy with it, after which we began to descend again. No palms to be seen though there were many Pujas, with their huge and spectacular flower stalks and silvery leaves. The views were spectacular - we were often looking down onto the clouds much like from a plane. The road was still good for a long way on the way down, but then it began to deteriorate which slowed us down still further. We made Loja by 9.30pm, found a great hotel, and went downstairs for a good meal in the restaurant. Had a good night's sleep, too, but noisy. It's called the Grand Hotel, Loja.

Tuesday 29th December

Woke at 5.30 am, still dark. Packed and went downstairs for breakfast: papaya juice, fried eggs, toast, coffee, etc. Left in good time but had to queue half an hour for petrol. Eventually set off out of town, direction Yanama. The scenery was good but rather dry and arid - lots of yuccas, opuntias, agaves etc. No palms though. After Yanama the road began to climb, to a height of about 2,400m. After a good number of miles on the road to Valledolid there is a monument like a concrete wigwam by the side of the road, and this marks where the Inca Trail, carved out in the solid rock by countless thousands of feet over the years, crosses the road. At this point it runs along a ridge top, but the trail itself is in the form of a groove or gully, in places 10 feet deep, and a yard wide, and lined with ferns. After walking down this groove for a few hundred yards, it opens up and we were on flatter ground though still on the ridge top. Amazingly within the next hundred yards we saw no less than nine species of palm in good quantities, most of which we were unable to name. It was like a mad palm collector's garden, so many palms growing together, and incredible to think that they should all exist naturally here so close together. The star of the show was undoubtedly the palm we had come all this way to see: the Red Crownshaft, an unnamed species of Geonoma. It certainly was a beautiful Palm, with a white ringed trunk, and Burgundy red crown shaft, though the leaves were rather untidy. But there was also another red crownshafted palm there, much smaller and daintier, also in good numbers. Getting to any of these palms was not easy since we were on the ridge top and level with the tops of many of them, while their bases were perhaps 10 or 20 feet below us. We spent some hours here, looking at the palms and trying to take the very best photographs of them. Curiously many of the other plants we saw there also had a tendency towards red colouration: shrubs and bushes had red leaves, some had red fruit, others had red stems, and there were red grasses. Since we later came upon this same palm but with either a yellow or a brown crownshaft, perhaps the red colouration is due to the soil type or some special nutrient rather than to the plant? Eventually and with some regret we left this enchanted area and drove slowly back down to Villacabamba where we are staying at a super small hotel complex with individual cabins and a swimming pool. Such luxury! This evening we went for a splendid meal at the hotel restaurant and even though we had everything we could, we only managed to spend £7 each! Bed at 10.30 after watching a magical firefly display in the darkness.

Wednesday 30th December

Up early and to breakfast, as good as last night's dinner. The whole place was great, the only bad thing being that they had two small monkeys chained up to trees, with leather belts around their waists. They were so small and pathetic. We left at 8.30 and hit the road again. Not much to report as it was mainly driving, driving, driving. Through Cuenca, through Loja, but unfortunately we took a wrong turn somewhere because instead of arriving back in Quito today we find ourselves in a mediocre hotel in the mediocre town of La Troncal. Bed early for an early start.

Thursday 31st December, New Year's Eve

Up by 6, out by 7, still dark. Driving, driving, driving, with very little to see. What a dull road! A long, slow climb up and over the mountain range. Lovely at the top: cool, clear, misty and fresh. Glorious! On and on through Ambato, finally arriving at Quito at 3pm, having made good time. Checked in at the original hotel, the Posada Real. In the evening we went out to join in the celebrations. The locals bum effigies on New Year's Eve and there are bonfires on every street corner. Away with the old and on with the new!

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