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Alemania by Mats Winberg
Alemania by the river!
Alemania, January 8, 1987

The girl behind the small desk looked at me strangely. Apparently she thought I was mad.
”No señor ... we do not have any buses going to Germany!”
I shook my head and smiled.
”No no! You don’t understand! I would like to have a bus ticket to Alemania, the small village along the road to Salta! Comprendes?”
”Aah, Alemania!”
Place names are not always easy. Alemania is not only what the Germans call their country, it is also the name the Argentinians give to a small village north of Cafayate. This can lead to complications and it is understandable that the girl at the bus office thought it strange of me to ask for a ticket to the other side of the Atlantic ...


Parodia dichroacantha MN 8 Cafayate is a clean and beautiful little town, and after spending some time wandering round its centre I boarded the bus to Alemania. We drove through a fantastic landscape, surrounded by colourful rocks and cliffs, reminding me of photos taken on the moon. All round, the red sandstone formations made the scenery even more bizarre and unreal in stark contrast to the vineyards of Cafayate. The mountains in these parts are surely a dream for those interested in cacti and I was to find many nice plants. One of these was Parodia dicroacantha which grow in hundreds on the steep, rocky slopes. Many were in full flower in the intense January sunshine. Even though I have been told P. dichroacantha has a variable flower colour, I only found the red form in this location. Some years later, on the opposite side of Cafayate, I was able to find a similar plant with small yellow flowers, known as Parodia rigida.

Looking out through the dusty window, I caught a glimpse of the famous sandstone formations Los Castillos, El Obelisco, El Fraile, El Sapo and finally the spectacular Anfiteatro. Along this ”Quebrada” it is possible to find many interesting cacti, for example the long spined Lobivia aurea v. fallax, the variable and widespread Gymnocalycium spegazzinii, the white flowering Echinopsis leucantha and the tiny and slender Pterocactus tuberosus with its enormous roots. Also the newly described, creeping and spiny Trichocereus angelesii is found here.

We passed Santa Barbara, Morales and Las Curtiembres, small places consisting of only a few houses, surrounded by goats, hens and pigs. What would Alemania be like? Looking at my map (from 1960’s) it seemed to be a moderate town with maybe a hundred inhabitants. The name Alemania comes from the original settlers who, evidently, were German. From this place I thought I could take the train to the north, the map clearly showed a railway station. The main reason for my stay in Alemania was that I wanted to look for Lobivia saltensis which, according to the literature, should grow in the neighbourhood.

Suddenly the bus stopped along the road just beside a shed. This was apparently the place; no houses, a couple of people and, appropriately, an old white Volkswagen was all I could see. Could this really be Alemania? A few moments later I stood there with my rucksack, watching the bus continue north in a cloud of dust towards Salta. I looked around me and saw red cliffs and the dense vegetation of bushes and low trees. Where were all the houses? I walked towards the two women and a red-haired little girl.
”Is this Alemania?” I asked and made a questioning gesture with my arms.
”Si.” I knew I should have that answer ...
”But where is the town?” I went on.
They looked at each other and smiled.
”It is there”, they said and pointed. Some hundred metres away a few white buildings could just be seen through the trees.
”Is there any place for me to sleep? Is there an hosteria (small hotel) in Alemania?”
”No no .. there are only ten houses here”, they answered. ”But if you want to you can sleep at our place”.
I nodded gratefully, and jumped into their car. We drove over a small bridge hearing the wild stream of Río de la Conchas beneath us. Just after the bridge, on the right hand side, there was a large barn and on the other side a row of small white houses with peeling paintwork. Driving a little further we stopped at the old railway station which had been converted into a house. So this, with a few other buildings, was the town; I did not have to worry about spending too much money here!

It took only a short time to get to know these people. There were two families from Salta holidaying in the old house. All together they were seven people, including three children. But there was also Manuel, a swarthy, muscular man with a dark beard. He was a helpful but temperamental fellow who lived in a barn with fifty gigantic rabbits.

When the men and the oldest boy went fishing in the river, Manuel, the two women and I sat down at the table and took a cup of tea. Manuel gave us two kinds of home made bread; one baked with sugar and another with salt. There were flies everywhere, many of them fluttering over the sweet bread. Now and then big moths flew over the hot gas lamp. We talked for many hours.

Alemania, January 9, 1987

I rose at 7.30 a.m. We drank a refreshing kind of tea called mate and ate the last pieces of Manuel’s bread round the fireplace. Half an hour later I was ready for some cactus hunting. Today Manuel had promised to show me a good place. As we walked across the bridge and along the railway track he told me that the last train left for Salta in 1950, so I was a little too late! Never trust old maps!

Parodia microsperma MN 9 We crossed the muddy river and followed the road for some hundred metres till we came to a goat farm run by an old woman. Here there were shadows under the low trees, but higher up there seemed to be more sun and a better chance of finding cacti. While the angry dogs barked, I climbed higher and soon I found my first cactus. It was a rather small and beautiful Parodia with hooked reddish-brown central spines and white radial spines. Here, at an altitude of about 1200 metres, it grew in masses and often in the shade of spiny, low bushes. Most plants were full of fruits and I was able to collect some ripe ones. This is a very free flowering species with flowers reaching about 40 mm in diameter. It is known variously as Parodia microsperma 'v. cafayatensis', Parodia tuberculosi-costata or Parodia setifera. According to Mr. Jörg Piltz of Germany, the plants I found here (MN9) are identical to his P 56 from the same locality. Also Mr. Herzog, of Cafayate, Argentina, found the same population and give the field number DH 143. In 1984, Mr. Weskamp described a new Parodia species, Parodia mercedesiana, coming from north-east of Las Curtiembres which is 5 kms from the habitat of my MN 9 at Alemania. It was found by Dieter Herzog and has flowers with orange-red or yellow petals depending on the altitude; yellow from lower parts (1400m -) and orange-red from higher parts (- 2500 m). Reading the description of P. mercedesiana, it does fit the plants from Alemania well, and I think it would not be too hasty to say they are only a form of a more widely distributed species. The only question is which species: the older name P. setifera sounds best to me.

While climbing higher, following the narrow path, I fought with the spiny bushes which seemed to be everywhere. They scratched my skin and the spines sank deep into my clothes. Among some Parodia grew a fresh green plant with greyish-white, straight spines. Examining it more closely, I saw that it was an Echinopsis tubiflora. It is a beautiful plant having long, white, nocturnal flowers.

I gazed out over the bushy hills in the hope of finding some bare rocks where a Lobivia saltensis or maybe a Rebutia could grow. But no, just more and more bushes. Many kilometres to the south rose a big mountain which looked very tempting, but it could take several days by foot to get there. Further more, getting up to the top seemed impossible if you did not have an helicopter. And I didn’t ...

Gymnocalycium schickendantzii MN 12 I heaved a deep sigh and continued to climb on over the loose sand. Here were more plants! Huge Gymnocalycium schickendantzii grew in the shade and were full of reddish buds. This is an extremely widely spread species and therefore also very variable. I have found it as far south as Cruz del Eje in Córdoba, about 500 km south of Alemania. It is possible to find hundreds of different forms of this species, with variations in spine colour and length, ribs, tubercles and flowers. The flower is long and rather slender, with white to pinkish petals.

Cleistocactus smaragdiflorus MN 10 Nearby, creeping among the stones, were some beautiful specimens of the common Cleistocactus smaragdiflorus. And it was in flower too! Long, reddish tubes and fantastic, emerald green petals made it an unforgettable sight. I took a photo and was also able to collect some seed. This was certainly a good place for cacti. A few steps away grew a strange Opuntia with yellowish-orange petals, which could be O. kiska-loro. It had just a few spines on its somewhat flattened, cylindrical segments.

And there were even more cacti here - another creeping cactus was found resting on the ground. I knew exactly was it was, Trichocereus thelegonus, a little known species and quite seldom seen in collections. Due to its sprawling habit, it is no favourite among growers. The dark green, mostly prostrate stem is up to 7.5 cm in diameter and 100 cm long. The ribs are divided into tubercles and the greyish spines can reach 5 cm. The flower is white, about 20 cm long and 15 cm in diameter.

More ”creeping things” were to be found. Some minutes later I encountered a couple of big plants of Eriocereus bonplandii. They have a very long, green stem with sharp grey spines but would probably never win an award as ”Best in show”. However, the very large white flowers are magnificent and if pollinated they leave a bright red fruit with a sweet tasty pulp. This species was also found in Cruz del Eje in Córdoba which proves they can creep 500 kms!

I was very tired now. In my search for cacti, stumbling around in the loose sand and fighting with the strong, spiny bushes, I suddenly realised that I was lost. It was not very far from the houses in Alemania but proved a sticky and tricky journey. It took me an hour to get back to the main road and I finally reached Alemania with a pounding heart and red face.

Back at the house, Manuel had prepared some delicious fish over the open fire. There was bread, lemon and white wine and also hundreds of mad flies. And we were all hungry, especially the flies.

Austrocylindropuntia salmiana MN 13 Later on in the afternoon I followed my friends to Río Alemania, a small stream just some hundred metres from the house and the habitat for Austrocylindropuntia salmiana. The water here was very clear and warm. We found a perfect spot under the old bridge where you could sit in the warm water and get tanned in the beautiful sunshine. The men chewed coca leaves and drank wine from the floating bottle while the children dived in the water for stones. Twenty metres downstream, Río de la Conchas whirled with its cold and muddy, reddish-brown water. It was a strange feeling to roll over to the cold side, then back to the warm again. I looked up towards to mountains in the south. Was this the right place for the coveted Lobivia saltensis? Outcrops with cracks, filled with humus ...
”Mats, más vino?”

For a moment I forgot the spiny plants.

© SuccSeed/Mats Winberg, 1997-2008. All rights reserved.

Copyright Mats Winberg