travelog 109

Echeveria laui

For years a visit to Echeveria laui was on our "most wanted" list. In December 2011 the time had finally come. With our friends Lupita and Jean-Marc Chalet we had planned a trip to Oaxaca and since Echeveria laui grows in the same place as Mammillaria huitzilopochtli it was easy to convince Jean-Marc of a detour to Cuicatlán about 100 kms north of Oaxaca City.

Alfred Lau found Echeveria laui 1974 near the confluence of the Rio Salado and the Rio Quiotepec. In 1976 Reid Moran and Jorge Meyrán described it in his honor. The species grows at about 500 m (1650 ft) altitude in the lowest part of the Tomellin Canyon near Cuicatlán, surrounded by high mountains up to 3000 m (9800 ft). In 1974 Lau was on the way with a 16 year old Aztec Indian boy who suddenly gave out a cry pointing with his finger to something white high up in a red, shady cliff. If you have once seen these plants in habitat you will understand the amazement and enthusiasm of the two discoverers who had one of the most beautiful echeverias in front of themselves. Lau mentions in his report that the largest specimens grew to about 30 cm (12 inch) wide and had from 80-100 leaves.

From Tehuacan, Puebla, we drove southeast towards Teotitlan and Oaxaca on the old paved road. One soon noticed that the main traffic to Oaxaca used the toll road. For large stretches the road was riddled with potholes, or one could probably say that the road basically consisted of potholes. To take a rest from the potholes we stopped in San Juan de los Cues where we climbed one of the many hills. It looked easier from below than it was in reality. But finally we made it to the top by way of narrow goat trails which snaked through the almost vertical rock faces. Mammillaria dixanthocentron was flowering and there were beautiful clusters of Agave macroacantha, some of them with extremly compact plants, while others looked almost like Agave datylio from Baja California. We also enjoyed nice views down into the fertile valley. After we had decended and stretched our legs, we found a guard waiting for us at our car. He was not very enthusiastic about our climbing one of the hills. After we explained to him that we worked together with the UNAM he became friendlier. We were not used to the idea of going to the next village to find the head of "Bienes Comunales" (the guy who administers communal land) to ask for his permission to do something. Elsewhere in Mexico nobody ever cared if we were climbing hills or mountains. Around here, everybody wanted to know everything in detail.

After this experience, we wanted to do everything right with Echeveria laui. We drove on to Tecomavaca where we saw signs indicating that we were in the biosphere area. The village was not that far away from the laui locality and so we went to find the person who could give us permission to see the plants. First we were sent to the main square where the office of the local nature conservancy representative was located. It was Sunday and we we found only closed doors. Finally a woman in a small general store showed us the house of the person in charge. Unfortunately we found only his wife and daughter who had no idea at all where her husband or father was. The walkie-talkie battery was not charged and they could not call him either. After about two hours of searching and waiting we finally figured out that you "only" get the permission to see the green parrots (Ara militaris, Military Macaw, Guacamaya verde) in Tecomavaca and that even for that you had to announce your visit in advance. The people of Tecomavaca had not the faintest idea about Echeveria laui. So on we went towards Cuicatlán. We got to the bridge over the Rio Salado where we parked for a picnic in the shade of the bridge. Years ago you parked your car at the bridge and hiked a few kilometers downriver to reach the red cliffs of Echeveria laui. We had heard that now the community had made a nice little path down to the Echeveria laui site where even the not-so-fit and elderly people were able to walk the short distance from the car. In the late afternoon we reached Cuicatlán where we found a nice hotel in the center of town. At the main square the office of the local authorities was also closed but the friendly police officers told us where to find Antonio Hernandez who was recommended to us by our UNAM friends.

Cuicatlán lies in the Tehuacan-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve which was named a protected area in 1998. With 490'817 hectares, it encompasses a huge area with 20 communities in Puebla and 40 in Oaxaca. The area has an incredible diversity of flora. It is believed that one third of the flora is endemic. According to the law the inhabitants of the protected areas may continue to do what they always did for a living before the biosphere reserve came into effect as long as these activities have no negative effects on the area. Of course it is impossible to enforce this part of the requirements because in many villages people make a living of farming. Cattle trample most everything and goats eat whatever they can get a hold of. In many areas erosion is another big problem. Every little place has its own representative who decides if you are allowed to visit the area or not. In San Pedro Nodon, where a prehispanic cemetary sits on top of a hill, a young man appeared out of nowhere as soon as we approached the hill. He demanded that we obtain permission which sometimes is just an additional source of income. In Tepelmeme we had to wait a long time for the person in charge who the informed us that the assembly had decided that until further notice no one could visit the surrounding hills. He was not at all impressed by our official papers that we had from the UNAM. To take his fear away that we would steal all the plants on the hill we wanted to climb we suggested that he'd give us a guide. There was nothing to be done.

We went on to San Antonio Abad where we searched in vain for the local representative for one hour until we gave up and wanted to go without permission when we met the guy accidentally along the road. With a group of men he was busy improving the dirt road. The group discussed back and forth, looked at our photos, read the Mexican federal permit right, left and centre, until they finally decided that we could drive on. It turned out that botanists had already come to their village to study the populations of Mammillaria hernandezii and determined that the species was threatened. The botanists then fenced the area off, angering the village people because they now had less grazing land for their goats. Understandably they now feared that after our visit something similar were to happen again. On to San Pedro Nopala where we found the guy in charge very quickly with the help of a villager and everything was settled within minutes. We had to pay a contribution of 250 pesos and were on our way. These are only a few examples of how differently the situation is handled. Many times the bureaucracy is unbelievable and the organization, if there is any at all, chaotic. As one can gather from the above, it is not easy to find the local authority in the first place. To be exact, a mayor is not the same as the representative of "Bienes Comunales" who can decide who goes and if one needs a guide. In the case of Echeveria laui there are no really informative signs along the main road indicating where and why one has to get a permission and how to get a guide. It almost seems as if tourists are not really wanted here.

But back to our Echeveria laui visit. Early in the morning we drove together with our new friend Antonio to Santiago Quiotepec. Antonio grew up in Cuicatlán and was always fascinated by nature. He worked in various groups exploring the surroundings of Cuicatlán and making population studies. Right now he was busy getting the local kids interested in the flora and fauna that surrounds them which will be their future. But he's also involved in the reforestation project of Echeveria laui. The bridge over the Rio Quiotepec was destroyed in a storm in 2010 and served only to take great pictures. The old railroad bridge was now used since there's no train coming through anymore for decades. Antonio knew his way around Santiago Quiotepec and we soon found the person in charge. Since we came from the UNAM we did not have to pay the admission charge. Our assigned guide was a young man named Nacho. He was stocky and the smell of alcohol still clung to him on this Monday morning. He was interested in plants and even knew many of them by their Latin name. We passed the cabañas (280 pesos for 2 persons; 500 pesos for 4 persons) and drove on to an inconspicuous parking area. There was the nice and comfortable path along a small arroyo which later even had water. Tall organ pipe cacti were predominant. We also saw many Agave titanota, A. seemanniana and many smaller cacti. First we passed Mammillaria huitzilopochtli with buds, the flowers opening in the course of the morning and with the first rays of the sun. At a small waterfall with shady cliffs we saw the first Echeveria laui. Some of them were planted as part of a community reforestation program. Later we had magnificient views over the bend in the Rio Quiotepec with organ pipes, flowering agaves, deep blue sky and brilliant red cliffs. Then we reached our destination: large clusters of Echeveria laui in red, shady cliffs. There were primitive benches to sit and we were even allowed to climb around the bushes to take close-ups of the plants.

Back in Cuicatlán we enjoyed a frugal meal in a small restaurant above the main square. The small town seems to be glued to the red cliffs that rise into the sky behind it. Most of the narrow streets are extremely steep and going up is an arduous undertaking. But there's a brilliant invention, the made-in-India Lajaj are converted into "mototaxis". These are motorized tricycles that offer room for three people on the back seat. The ride costs five pesos and the taxis rattle through town day and night. In the early morning hours we woke up because of another interesting and, in the beginning, unidentifiable sound. It sounded like somebody tried in vain to get the diesel engine of his truck going. The chattering came and went. When we went up to the our car at seven in the morning we saw a brightly lit room in front of the hotel with two old people dozing off in their chairs. A woman with a basket on her head came walking down the street and the place livened up again. An ancient piece of machinery got going and the loud clattering started again. The woman's basket was filled with nixtamal that was now ground so that she could make tortillas at home. To make nixtamal, dry corn grains are soaked in an alkaline solution like lime water, then cooked and finally rinsed. The resulting nixtamal is used for example in typical Mexican meals like menudo and pozole, but it is also ground to get the mixture for making tortillas. The answer to our mystery was very easy and next time we also knew in which rooms of the hotel the noise is almost inaudible. Antonio also took us to La Iberia a few kilometers outside of Cuicatlán, where he oversees a huge greenhouse where thousands of Echeveria laui plants are cultivated. Seeing all these small pots with the white rosettes in all sizes is simply overwhelming. Unfortunately the 2010 storm and floods damaged various greenhouses, buried cacti under mud, but the echeverias were high enough on tables to survive the flood. With previous notice La Iberia can be visited but it is not a common nursery where you buy plants.

As soon as we had crossed off something from our wishlist we put something new on it. Having finally seen Echeveria laui in habitat we now wanted to see Pachyphytum cuicatecanum (first described as Echeveria cuicatecana) in the same general area. Unfortunately this was not possible in December because the water level of the river we would have had to cross was too high. It was our first visit to Cuicatlán but certainly not the last!

February 2012

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen