Rio Marañon – in development

Prior to attending a biogeography conference in Quito we arranged for some time to visit Peru and cactophile friends there.  We also arranged for a short trip to the Marañon River relatively remote region in northern Peru known for its cacti and other succulents.  This trip is described on this page.  We also describe a visit to a Zoo and Botanical Garden in Lima that we had never visited – despite having been in Lima many times. The visit was a real eye-opener for us, especially since it was guided by a Garden founder and succulent plant specialist.  That visit is described on the page Parque de las Leyendas.

Why visit the Marañon Canyon?

The lower elevations of the Rio Marañon are well-known to cactus aficionados as a region hosting many species.  We were familiar with parts of the region from previous trips in 1997 and 2006, but had never descended from Cajamarca to the bottom of the canyon at Balsas and wanted to see the transition of vegetation.  The canyon is well-marked as a minimum in daytime cloudiness from satellite imagery averages and it would be interesting to see how this corresponded in the vegetation.

How to get there?

Day 1

We flew to Cajamarca rather than drive, saving a very long (~870km, ~540 mi) day’s drive from Lima.  Our planned route would involve a 315 mile (503 km) drive from Cajamarca to Jaen.

Arriving after mid-day, we met a local couple, teachers in Cajamarca and also very interested in cactus of the region and with extensive experience exploring locally.  They guided us to locations southeast of Cajamarca to see two Matucana species that were flowering.

In general, much of the highlands of Peru have been inhabited for many centuries and agriculture and pastoralism have greatly affected the landscape.  However, in areas too rocky or steep for agriculture, “natural-ish” landscapes remain.  The areas we explored were surrounded by disturbed landscapes, yet native species were still present.

Though there were only a few hours available to us, we the two interesting localities that we explored had very different Matucana species that were flowering.  The first site was focused on seeing a red-flowered Matucana, though a host of lithophytic bromeliads were also present, as well as several other cactus and other succulents.


A relatively succulent Matucana aurantiaca

This is part of the flower stalk of an Agave that is common to dry parts of Ecuador and northern Peru.  It does not look like Agave americana flower stalks…

A flowering Matucana aurantiaca.

Maria Isabel and the Cajamarca teacher Nelson Cieza exploring the Tillandsia-festooned rock slope on the road to San Marcos.  Elevation is about 9800 ft (~3000m).

A closer view of the Tillandsia’s.


A stlll closer view of the Tillandsia species with flowers (barely visible).  Rock appears to be sandstone.

Our second stop, just outside the town of San Marcos, was similarly disturbed as the first stop.  However, like the first stop, a short walk led to a relatively natural hillside with cacti and other mostly native vegetation.  A different Matucana species was here, as was a Lasiocereus rupicola – that we never saw again during the following days.



Can you guess what this is a silhouette of?  A Dyckia or Puya species?



Matucana aureiflora with a yellowish flower.  Plants were buried in the grass.




Dyckia species, the same one as in the silhouette above.



Manolo inspecting a Lasiocereus rupicola just outside of San Marcos – about 8300 ft.


Lasiocereus rupicola near San Marcos (about 8300 ft elevation).



Day 2

Early the next morning we met our driver for the Marañon portion of the trip, together with his two sons and a cousin.  He drove us in his Toyota Hilux pickup for four days, arriving in Jaen – from where we flew back to Lima.  The route is shown in Fig. 1.

Our route the first day was long – from Cajamarca, past the smaller town of Celendin where we had breakfast, descending to the smaller town of Balsas – where we had lunch.  We arrived at the small town of Leimebamba after dark.  While the total distance does not seem onerous (246 km 153 mi), we descended from Cajamarca (8950 ft) to Balsas (2800 ft) then climbed to nearly 12000 ft before descending to 7200 ft at Leimebamba!

The town of Celendin (about 8300 ft elevation), the last town before reaching the much smaller town of Balsas on the Rio Marañon – at 2800 ft.  Note the typical Andean landscape of small agricultural plots conforming to the landscape.  Almost all trees evident here are introduced Eucalyptus.


Photo of a typical “side-of-the-road” stop just outside of Celendin, elevation about 10,000 ft (approx 3000m).  Nothing of obvious interest in this view…

Example of plants evident along side of the road outside Celendin.

Closer view of a Peperomia species.

Another view of the Peperomia species.

Some Peperomia specimens were required for identification later in Lima

Farther down the road, at another stop we found a few Echeveria plants, some with flowers.  Most were difficult to access high on the road cuts.















A large Espostoa mirabilis.

A closer view of the cephalia of an Espostoa mirabilis. Flowers arise from these.




Dyckia species on the top of a road-cut with old flower stalks.

























Reaching many of the photographic subjects was difficult – here on a steep road-cut.

Typical stop during descent into the Rio Marañon canyon. Her is the driver (right), his two sons and a relative.

Closer view of Browningia pilleifera

A large Browningia pilleifera with many branches.

A large Armatocereus showing periodically “pinches” along the stems.

A Peperomia with a very condensed rosette.

A view looking up at a Browningia pilleifera – a typical photographic problem when access up the slope is difficult.

An hillside with mature Armatocereus. Note the dry forest trees that are leafless at this time of year (dry season).

Inflorescence from a Peperomia.

A Melocactus bellavistensis on a dry rocky slope. This melocactus has a relatively short cephalium; most of this species can get very long.

A sparsely-branched Browningia pilleifera

There are native species of Bougainvillea in Peru. This is one of them.

This shows both the Armatocereus and Browningia pilleifera together. The Armatocereus are the ones with “pinched” stems.


Day 3

The route from Leimebamba to Chachapoyas was not particularly long, but we spent considerable time at the Museum and the small restaurant across the street that had hummingbird feeders and was a site well-known to birders.  This was our first real introduction to Andean hummingbirds at feeders and we were amazed at the variety and different characteristics of some of the birds.

Before arriving at Chachapoyas we detoured to visit the pre-Inca fortress of Kuelap.  Unfortunately, two factors conspired against us.  First we arrived late in the day and the fortress was to close shortly after we arrived.  Then it was a national holiday and the crowds were much, much larger than on weekdays or non-holidays!

Though some in our group did manage to walk the fortress circuit we only arrived to the walls, and decided to spend more time looking at the plants en-route.  The advertised closing time was, it turns out, not strictly enforced and we ended up waiting a half hour in line for the gondola ride down.

In summary, if at all possible, plan your visit to Kuelap for a weekday and early in the day.  However, from a botanical perspective, the trip to Kuelap was not really worthwhile.  Of course most tourists, and nearly all of the Peruvian tourists, would have a very different opinion!

Day 4

The road from Chachapoyas to Jaen was not particularly interesting until we reached a dry area.  Suddenly I recognized a small butte that I had taken pictures of many years ago (2006) when we had visited Jaen and the Bagua Chica area from Piura.  I would not have recognized the small butte had it not been one of the photos I’d selected for a screen saver collection on one of our computers!   I thought it would be good to explore this area and take photos for comparison with the earlier photos – to see any changes in the cacti that were evident.


Landscape “butte” I remembered from 2006. Most obvious cactus species is Browningia altissima and a large Espostoa lanata in the center.

Browningia altissima

Browningia altissima – note smooth trunk lower down.

Browningia altissima

Later, after a snack at the small road junction of Corral Quemado (at the bridge over the Rio Marañon) we headed upstream to see landscapes at the lower reaches of the Rio Marañon.   We eventually went to just beyond a small hamlet of Carrizales (on the road to Loyna Grande) before turning around.   Although cacti were evident on the hills along our route, the immediate vicinity of the road was disturbed by agriculture or habitations, and there were no convenient stops along this 50 km stretch.  Most of the road was not paved and the sides were very dusty.  After meeting with some of Manolo’s friends he had stayed with years earlier during his work in this area, we eventually turned around near sunset and returned in darkness to Jaen.  Maria did obtain some good video from the drone flights over this area near sunset – fortunately the large numbers of Black Vultures soaring overhead did not attack the drone!

Day 5

Manolo and Maria left early by bus for a workshop in Piura so we had the morning alone with the driver and his sons and cousin.  Because our return flight was later in the day we decided to explore some of the cactus country around Jaen that we were aware of but could not see the previous day.  This turned out to be the most productive from the perspective of photography, in large part because the cacti were close to Jaen and accessible to the paved road we were on for the most part.  This was in contrast to much of the previous day’s travel where the terrain was steep and road-cuts high, making access difficult in many places.

View of the Rio Marañon and canyon slopes near Jaen. Road in foreground.

Hillside covered with Espostoa near Jaen. Such terrain is difficult to walk through due to the numerous spiny/thorny plants.


Browningia altissima with Rio Marañon river valley in background

Espostoa blossfeldiorum near Jaen. This cactus doesn’t branch, but does form clusters of stems at the ground level. The cephalia extend quite far down the stems.

Espostoa blossfeldiorum stems

Closer view of Espostoa blossfeldiorum and its cephalium

Browningia altissima near Jaen.

Hillside dominated by Browningia altissima and smaller Espostoa.

An Opuntia macbridei patch near Jaen.

An Opuntia macbridei pad showing its normal bright red flower with small petals.  This is very unlike most Opuntia species that have showy yellow flowers with large petals.  This cactus was widespread in the dry forest near Jaen.

Melocactus bellavistensis with relatively short cephalia – near Jaen.

Bridge over the Rio Marañon near Jaen. This was where we saw the Melocactus with the largest cephalia.

Melocactus bellavistensis with long cephalium. The plant itself is rather beat-up.

A bromeliad that we saw only here near the bridge over the Rio Marañon

Hat added for scale on the Melocactus bellavistensis

A native Bougainvillea near Jaen.

Our return flight had cloud-free conditions and we were able to obtain excellent views of the Cordillera Blanca east of Huaraz, before descending into the darkness and cloud cover of Lima.