Essay about a collecting expedition in Peru, January 1998, by Thomas Mione
The information on this page may be cited as a communication with professor
Thomas Mione, Central Connecticut State University,
Biology Department, Copernicus Hall, 1615 Stanley Street, New Britain, CT 06050-4010
Link to Jaltomata home page

This expedition was funded by the National Geographic Society

It is our first day of travel together and our spirits are high. I rented a new (just off the boat) 4-door, 4-wheel drive Nissan pickup truck. There are seat belts and head rests that work in the front and back seats--I have never seen this before in Latin America. It is the Peruvian summer now; their summer is January, February and March. Their "winter" lasts from April through August. Jumping to something else important, the most commonly recommended ice cream flavor is lucuma, a fruit of the jungle.

Professor Leiva does not understand English as well as I speak Spanish, so we converse in Spanish. I enjoy keeping my ears peeled and concentrating to understand, but am frustrated by being very far from fluent. I am at the level where he and I can say what we need to say to each other, but I could not even attempt to discuss politics or the theoretical aspects of our field. My compañeros teach me more Spanish each day, and I am now even trying to make the simplest of jokes in Spanish.

Our only concern is the possibility of huaycos (pronounced "why-coe", singular). These are torrents of water that wash over roads when it rains. At this point in the trip I do not fully understand the threat, and let my Peruvian colleagues tell me about them as if they are the big bad wolf. I am thinking, how can water come out of nowhere and knock you off the road? Now I know that it can and does. Mountain roads go across the face of a steep slope. If the water coming down the mountain takes the road as the easiest path, the road can become a raging river. The problem is that many of the mountain roads are narrow and have so much traffic that when water flows over the road people cannot turn around and drive away. Or, if the torrent of water is crossing the road, destroying it and carrying it away, some people are foolhardy enough to try to drive through the huayco, and some of these people make it and others get carried down the very steep mountain (this I did not see, but I was told happens). If you go high enough on the mountain huaycos are not a problem because the catch basin is smaller when you are higher, so there is less water.

We are slowly ascending towards Canta on our first day in the field. Canta is a small city in the mountains of the department of Lima with only one road to/from it. We got a late start because the rental company (Thrifty) did not have the truck ready even though I made the reservation weeks in advance (this is normal for Peru, I am told). Things are going great but rains are falling so huaycos are a threat. Then, up ahead, a very small stream of water comes towards us on the road and a woman near her truck tells us, "huayco ahead, you cannot pass". Here the situation is not dangerous because the huayco is crossing the road, not flowing on it, so we get out to take pictures. Now we cannot go up towards Canta because a tremendous amount of water is crossing the road. We decide to turn around but after we proceed for a moment we cannot go any further back toward Lima because of another huayco crossing the road. We just passed through here a few moments ago on our way up the mountain, but now we cannot go back the way we came. Now Leon told me that this is part of life in Peru, and when he was a kid his father would always have blankets in the car for the children to sleep when huaycos immobilized them. We three plant hunters said to each other something such as, "good thing we had lunch, because we are probably spending the night here on this little stretch of road between two huaycos." I now began to understand huaycos.

All of a sudden, just above the lower of our two huaycos water started coming down onto the road, and everyone in the vehicles trapped on this stretch of road had to tell each other in excited yells of Spanish to quickly move vehicles to higher ground. We quickly did so and got out to look up, asking each other, "are there any large rocks that could fall from above, down the steep mountain onto the road"? Keep in mind that the road runs across the mountain face, so falling debris falls right onto the road. Huge boulders the size of cars were on the face of the mountain way above the road, so we parked our vehicle in a place where if these were to fall they would not roll down onto the pickup. Cows were now above us on the slope, and we wondered if they too knew the best place to be during a huayco. The huge boulders looked like they would fall soon, because the smaller particles around them had been washed away by precipitation. The erosion is especially bad here because there is little vegetation on the mountain face, because it is normally too dry to support much plant life.

Good thing our huaycos are running perpendicular to the road. We are able to stand near the edge of a huayco to observe its mayhem. The huayco is loud. Large rocks along its edge are pulled in, a shrub is torn down and appears sucked in, and the ground constantly shakes under your feet from the force of the water. Feeling the ground shaking under my feet I yelled to Leon, "you can't experience this on the internet".

Here we are, between two huaycos, with the El Niño rains pattering lightly on the truck roof. Now we sit in the muggy vehicle with no dinner, talking about the big dinner that we imagine would have been served to us in Canta. It is getting dark so the light plays red off of the extremely steep rocky cliff face on the opposite side of the valley. Birds sing their songs of dusk, and the water of the river makes a pleasant gurgle in the distance.

It is dark out, the rains subside, and later a huge earth moving machine comes from the Canta direction, and at our upper huayco begins to make the road passable. Water is still moving perpendicular to the road, over what was the road. The machine simply digs away at the up-slope side of the road and pushes the soil toward the down-slope side of the road in an area where only an hour ago one could have gone white-water rafting. Everyone gets out of the vehicles to watch this, even though we can see very little in the dark. You cannot actually see the huge machine in the complete blackness of night while it works, but it is loud and projects light in front of it, so for a moment I let my imagination get carried away and by its shape, lights and roar it is a huge dragon. When you were home just yesterday, and now you are on the side of a Peruvian mountain in the jet-black night rain, your sense of what is normal is a little off.

The raging water has completely washed away the road, but the huge machine keeps on digging until once again a vehicle can pass. All the vehicles that were trying to get toward Lima (down the mountain) pass us, and we are finally able to drive toward Canta. We wouldn't have tried to drive over the remnants of a huayco (now a stream passing over the new dirt road) but a couple we have met, our new friends, assured us that they would do it first in their pickup, which had only two wheel drive. We followed them, nervous that the now little huayco would push us down the mountain.

Our new friends, Abraham Febres H. and his wife Liliana C. de Febres, make the trip to Canta to Lima regularly, so they know the road well. They suggest that we follow them, and this is a nice offer because there are absolutely no street lights and it is black and rainy night. We form a convoy, and it gives the people in the several vehicles involved a feeling of community. After all, we were all stuck between two huaycos. One of the four vehicles of the convoy, the mayor's jeep, dies for no good reason. Light rain starts again. We all stand around outside while a few of the men attempt to fix the jeep. The ignition wires are wet, and after 40 or so minutes of futile attempts we give up and push the jeep to the side and pile the people that were in that vehicle into the other vehicles. We have no room in our car by North American standards, but we take on a woman with her 1.5 year old baby. She has never heard of the name Nathaniel (I pronounce it "Na-tan-yell" to fit it into Spanish). She has never seen us before but this is not a problem the way it would be for accepting a ride in the U.S. She and my wonderful Peruvian colleague are smashed in the back seat with all the luggage and equipment.

We press onward, and now one of the vehicles of the convoy leaves the pack and goes off ahead, and we are down to two vehicles moving through empty darkness. I could not believe it when our new friend Abraham's vehicle died next. We had to tow him a while until he picked up some speed and then he was able to pop start his vehicle. He pulled out ahead of us and drove through the darkness toward Canta; we followed. Out of nowhere, the moon came out full above. Now we could see vast, open, steep, steep, steep uninhabited spaces around us--I have never seen anything quite like it in the moon light.

We dropped the woman off at her home in the city of Canta, and headed for a hotel. The city was lifeless, as it was late. Our new friends Abraham and Liliana just happened to own a hotel, but normally did not rent out rooms, I think they said. No restaurants were open so we did without dinner, and because of flooding the tap water was off in the town. So my first night in the field was without dinner, without a shower, and without brushing my teeth. Canta is a quiet little city up in the mountains with an incredible view of still higher mountains around it. The mountains near Lima are brown because it is so dry. But here the mountains are beautiful green, a green from low vegetation, not trees. There is not enough soil and it is too exposed to wind for trees to grow on the mountain slopes. We spend our first and second nights in Canta in the same room, and I think we were the only ones in the hotel other than the owners. It cost $US 6.13 per persons per night. Our friends, the owners, are in the business of growing flowers and harvesting them for export. It is a hard life, with lots of driving from near Canta where the flowers are grown, to the coast where they are shipped. Some of there flowers are sold within the United States.

We left Canta in the morning, and headed to Lima, where we were to change money and drop off Abraham and Liliana, whose car needed some parts. On the way down to Lima they told us the prices of luxury items, such as a cellular phone, cable TV and internet access, and to my surprise the prices are higher than in the U.S. Liliana made a case in point, she needs to wear SPF 30 protection from the sun because of a skin problem she has, and can find it only in one store in Lima and it costs something like US $14.00 a bottle. We finally dropped them off in Lima after Abraham exchanged money for us (2.72 Soles per dollar) on the street. Later Leon told me that Abraham must have trusted us immensely at that point, because he got out of our vehicle to change money for us and left his wife in the car with three men he had met only two days before. Leon is such a charismatic conversationalist that at this point these people felt very comfortable with us. When Abraham got back in to the car after having exchanged US $300 for me I did not even need to count the Soles.

To get anywhere in Peru one seems to have to go through Lima, a giant vehicle-infested, crime-ridden megalopolis. Where we wanted to go was not very far away as the condor flies, but there were no direct, passable roads. We stayed in Matucana for a couple of nights, which is along the Lima to La Oroya road. The train that goes from Lima to La Oroya is a remarkable feat of engineering. It climbs higher and higher by changing direction. On its way up or down the mountain it pulls into a dead end, the track is switched, and then the last car becomes the first as it begins to ascend or descend again. This you have to see to believe, the train that climbs from sea level right up the mountains to over 4000 meters of elevation. As you are driving up this road train bridges cross overhead. Again, you have to see this to believe it. We had a very productive few days of collecting specimens in this area, with a fantastic surprise. We collected a species with large purple flowers that is unknown to science!

To Sleep In The Church

We were driving from Patavilca on the coast (department of Lima) to Recuay up in the mountains (department of Ancash) on a paved road and up and up we went. Mountains spectacular--crane your neck to see the top, they rise so steep, must be a magazine picture but its not. Evening is approaching and we have no place to sleep. It is raining and foggy. Should we drive on two more hours in these hazardous conditions? No, we decide, it would be too dangerous. Towns are 20 to 40 minutes drive apart now. We stop in the next town, Cajacay, and ask for a little hotel. There aren't any, we are told. We ask again if anyone rents a room every so often. Sorry, we are told. Finally a man told us that if you wait you may be able to sleep in the medical building (I think he called it a hospital, but that is a bit of a stretch). We wait in front of the medical building and many of the town's people look at us, wondering who are these outsiders? The streets are unpaved and there is no electricity--to give you an idea of what this mountain town is like. We are quite out of the ordinary to them. It is really getting dark, colder and rainy now and I feel happy to be way up on a mountain.

Two women are one their way past where we are parked, and stop to talk to the people in funny clothing. At first they do not believe we are three professors and so they ask to see identification. By flashlight we show them. Leon is such a charmer that before you know it these women are trying to find a place for us to stay. Leon is not a slippery charmer, he is genuinely charismatic. The women seem to finally decide that we are not with the Sendero Luminoso or Tupac Amaru, and walk off to ask at the church. It is raining and dark. Oh no, I am thinking, it looks like another night without dinner! Well, the women come back and tell us that we can sleep in the church! They climb in the car, even though they met us ten minutes ago, and we drive a moment to the church.

They tell us to bring our gear into the church, and, believe it or not, the women start making beds for us in the back room! We are so enthralled by the sight of dry beds that we ask if there is a restaurant at which we can buy them dinner. They hop in the pickup and show us the way. It is a drive down the road in the pouring rain, but we arrive at the restaurant and they have a generator for electricity. Lights! Smells of food! Leon and I are the only Caucasians. One of the women has brought her son with her, and Leon tells him that if he keeps drinking soda he will start his own huayco. Leon entertains them, keeping them laughing, and they seem to be pleased to have met this odd group of three. We slept very well in what must have been the quarters for visiting clergy members. They seem to not use sheets, just coarse blankets, but that's all you need.

It is the next morning, and right near town (Cajacay) Segundo shows me a population of Jaltomata plants he located once while collecting in this area. I cannot believe my eyes. It is a new-to-science species!!!!!!! We want photographs first, and the sun is not quite high enough for that, so we take a piece of a plant and ask people about it. Oh yes, they say, we call that "musho" in the Quechua language, and everyone eats the fruits uncooked. It is a very prolific plant that no one deliberately plants, it just grows in our chacras (mountain farm plots of one species). Now I am thinking, this is too much! A common species here on the mountain side, that everyone eats the fruits of, that is unknown to science!!! An Indian woman comes walking along, and she is about 4 and a half feet tall and dressed in traditional Indian attire. She seems not afraid, and I imagine her saying to herself, "any men walking around holding pieces of plants in front us locals, asking about the plants, cannot be Sendero Luminoso or Tupac Amaru." She takes quite a few moments to talk with us before moving on. Her 10 year old son, who looks about 6 or 7 to me because of the size difference between these Indians and us, sees that we are fascinated with one particular species. He then goes up the road and rips out of the ground a big shrub of the same species and brings it to us. The beautiful shrub he brought us will be the type specimen. I gave him 2 Soles (about 75 cents) and he was ecstatic. Hours later we are hunting for the Jaltomata with the biggest antlers, I mean flowers, of all, having bell flowers over 6 cm in diameter. We find it by climbing up a steep wet slope. The flowers are large beautiful maroon bells and my soaking socks are a combination of wet and cold. I wonder if this species would make a good garden ornamental, because anyone would find it attractive. I was elated to have DNA samples from nine or ten species by the end of the trip.

The Green Zone

My research trip to Peru has so far been incredibly successful, and I thank the National Geographic Society for the grant that made this all possible. Today (20 January 1998) is my last day for field work in Peru and I would very much like this day to be as great as the others.

In 1938 botanists named H. E. Stork, O. B. Horton, and C. Vargas C. made pressed specimens, museum specimens, of a plant on the side of a small mountain named Cerro Las Lomas, or Señal Mongon (hereafter Mongon Mountain), which is located in Peru near the ocean in the department of Ancash, province of Casma. Their pressed specimens were deposited at museums, for example in Geneva, Switzerland, with the collectors' names and specimen number (9183), altitude, and description of the habitat. I was going through The Geneva Specimens (loaned to me) identifying each one, when I noticed one specimen from an interesting habitat, a specimen that appeared to represent a different species from all the others I had worked with. I thought to myself, this specimen could have erroneous locality data on it, from where the botanists were collecting another day, because this single specimen looks like no other species that grows in that habitat. I also knew that it is very rare for a botanical museum specimen to have incorrect label data--collectors are passionate about their work.

The special habitat is called the Lomas. The west coast of South America from Ecuador through Peru and into Chile is desert, but periodically there is a mountain high enough to be bathed in fog (garúa, in Peru). Thus there are widely separated oases of green (on the mountains that stick up into the fog) surrounded by extremely arid desert. The fog comes off the ocean, and is caused by the cool, north-bound Humboldt current. These oases of green are Lomas formations. I did not fully grasp the idea of Lomas formations until I saw one: the mountains are located in the sandy, barren nearly vegetation-free desert, but the higher elevations of them are bathed in fog coming off the ocean and so are green. The plants intercept the fog and water drips down sufficiently to water the plants. At a conference a few years ago I saw a presentation about the Lomas habitat, given by one of my colorful colleagues. He is trying to identify every single species of the Lomas habitat throughout South America, and he studies the biogeography of the species of this habitat. So I had a special interest in going to the Lomas habitat on Mongon Mountain to see if a species of the genus I study really grows there, and if so, which one?

We wanted to, but could not, drive across the desert to get to the base of Mongon Mountain. One option was to drive around the mountain on the few available roads, but the map showed a town named La Ponderosa on the other side of the mountain, and as such I suspected that the Lomas vegetation on the other side of the mountain might be destroyed by livestock. We were on the opposite side of the mountain from this town; we were on the Pan-American highway. Picture this: dry, open sandy desert everywhere all around, and from this vast, flatish, open sand rises Mongon mountain, flaunting its lush green Lomas vegetation. What an inviting, pretty green color of the top two thirds of the mountain, the only green in an otherwise brown landscape. The mountain looked like it was only 4 km away on the map so, in imperfect Spanish I said to my fine Peruvian colleague professor Segundo Leiva G., "lets go by foot from here and then climb". Segundo's enthusiasm and optimism know no bounds. He smiled and filled small bottles with alcohol for samples and put them in his pocket, and to me this meant "I am absolutely sure that we will not only reach the Lomas vegetation way up there, but we will also find your plant". We filled up large water bottles at lunch at an isolated highway rest stop, and then my friend Leon Yacher, a professor of Geography at Southern Connecticut State University, dropped us off along an uninhabited stretch of the Pan-American highway, at km 350.

Segundo and I were in incredibly high spirits, having a stretch of desert to cross and then a small mountain to climb to track down our quarry. I wore my sweatshirt with the hood up to protect myself from the blow torch sun. We hiked across open desert for a few km, relaxing and getting into the groove of hiking. The little red pickup truck got smaller and smaller in the distance behind us. We were surrounded by beautiful crescent dunes in every direction as far as we could see, except for our mountain ahead flaunting its lush green face. I shot a compass bearing to the pickup so we could return no matter what, and double checked the bearing and that we had sufficient water. Inferno sun to a New Englander; here to take a drink of water a gringo is very careful, for to drop the open bottle would mean "turn around now". This hike was nothing to my Peruvian compañero, but I was in a dream. Down a dune, over a dune, up a dune, and the pickup truck disappeared. As I perspired away all of the water I was drinking I thought to myself, why does a crescent dune have a steep inner slope and a much less steep outer slope?

Slowly, Mongon mountain grew larger and larger as we got closer and closer, and we could now feel the air changing, with the smell of the Pacific ocean. Senses so alive, charbroiling sun, feet in dunes' sand. In this desert there are areas of stable ground on which walking is easy, and areas of loose sand that drain you. A relative of the pineapple (Tilandsia) is the only plant around in the desert; it grows in fairyland clumps a few meters apart, but only on the stable sand, never on the loose sand of a dune. I never noticed how beautiful sand dunes could be, huge curving masses reflecting so much light. We are now at the base of the mountain and must pick a pass. The mountain seems to average a 45 degree slope on the parts we see, and rises up to 1144 meters of elevation at its summit. We had just been at over 4000 meters the other day so it is not the elevation that is amazing, it is that this green-faced mass near the sea sticks up out of an otherwise desolate expanse of desert.

Segundo picked a steep area that allowed us to go right up instead of wasting time skirting the mountain looking for a better pass. Now we are in the beginning of the Lomas vegetation and cacti are red flowering. Here if one were a klutz it would be all over, as the mountain is steep. To one side of the ridge we are ascending there is an abyss with a sand bottom; looking down into it, and looking out all around me, left me with an incredible sense of space. Vast space; I will have to remember this when I am in my window-less office. To my amazement I couldn't see a person, a domestic animal, a car, a house or even a trail as far as I could see in any direction. I looked and looked but saw no sign of civilization, but I now could see the Pacific ocean.

When we got to the green zone, the Lomas vegetation, it turned out to be a primeval garden. There were no livestock, and so the vegetation was pristine. Not even were there human trails. Everywhere I had been in Peru there were foot trails for people to go switch backing up and down mountains. Here there were none, perhaps because the mountain is surrounded by desert or there is not enough fresh water around even for goats? On the other side our map shows a hamlet named La Ponderosa, near the beach, and we wonder if this is from where the 1938 botanists came. The green zone might best be described as an alpine garden to someone who is not a botanist because there were flowers everywhere among the rocks. Tens of thousands of blue and yellow flowers. I have never seen so many blossoms in natural conditions. I fear that it will not be long before someone with a herd of goats finds this slope, because this is a common sight elsewhere in the country.

Segundo made it up the mountain in front of me, and found our quarry growing in the protection of a few rocks, growing with Puya ferruginea, Crassula connata and Nolana. The label data on the specimen collected in 1938 was not wrong! I found another shrub of the same species, and these are the only plants we found, even though we searched for about an hour. Perhaps there are more plants of this species on another side of the mountain. When I first saw the Jaltomata shrub I sat down and laughed a hearty laugh of joy. It indeed was and is a new-to-science species, unlike any other. Now Segundo, Leon and I have collected four unnamed species of Jaltomata in 10 days! We collected material for making museum (herbarium) specimens and extracting DNA, took photos and we placed flowers in alcohol for morphological studies. We walked back across the desert, with shoes full of sand no matter how often we emptied them. When we looked back the green zone was enshrouded in fog. At last, as the sun dipped low in the sky, we made it back to our trustworthy companion Leon at the truck. This was a day I will never forget.