Visit to the Canyon of the Rio Marañon (July 28th – August 1st 2019)
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 northern Marañon River canyon – a 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 canyon of the Rio Marañon?
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 to the observed vegetation.
Below are Google Earth depictions of the relief, cloudiness and land surface. They show the same areas and the Rio Marañon canyon is depicted by the dashed curve. It is often easier to make “toggeling” comparisons from a Powerpoint, which can be downloaded here.
01 Basic geography of the travel area to the lower Rio Marañon canyon. Click on individual images for explanations.
A oblique angle depiction of the Rio Marañon canyon and some of the key towns and places along the route are shown below. The figure captions explain the individual images.
02 Oblique view of the travel area. Click on the images for explanations.
Manolo Fernández, the head of SUMPA, an environmental consulting company in Lima (but also the current Vice-President of the Peruvian Cactus and Succulent Society) organized our request for a short trip to the Rio Marañon region. He was accompanied by Maria Isabel Rodriguez, a certified drone-operator working for SUMPA. We flew to Cajamarca on July 28 (2019) 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 Jaén.
Arriving after mid-day, we met a local couple, Nelson Cieza and his wife, who were 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.
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.
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 route from Leimebamba to Chachapoyas was not particularly long, but we spent considerable time at the Museo de Leimebamba (Mummy 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 Rosario and I only arrived to the outer walls, and we then decided to spend more time looking at the plants on the trail. 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. The gondola was newly constructed and spanned a large dry canyon with lots of Puya clusters of some sort. The Kuelap fortress can also be reached by driving a long dirt road, but the new gondola saves the drive.
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 of the overall experience! The gondola ride up and down was nice and relatively long, and certainly novel to the Peruvians with us.
After leaving Chachapoyas, where we had spent the night, the road paralleled the Utcubamba River (utcu=cotton, bamba = flooded grassy plain). This canyon was scenic and had much potential for botanizing – but it was very difficult to access, since stopping spots were few in the most interesting areas. Spotting large bromeliads on the canyon walls, we found a good pull-off to investigate. Despite the usual constraints of steep road-cuts, our pull-off gave us access to the river itself and to many plants. We spent some time admiring the beautiful river-polished rocks and in searching the rock walls for plants. This canyon was the only place where we saw a native palm and where the epiphytic cactus Rhipsalis baccifera was evident.
The remaining 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 might be evident.
An easier comparison of the growth of certain cacti between 2006 and 2019 can be seen in the two following images. These have boxes and an ellipse that show the same cacti in the different years. Most have clearly grown, but one has died. Repeat photography is potentially a very valuable tool to estimate growth rates of many plants, but it requires a very long-term commitment and precise techniques.
77 Comparison of 2006 image (left) and 2019 image on right. Click for larger images.
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!
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.
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.
Acknowledgments: We would like to thank Guillermo Pino for his identification of the Peperomia and various other plants depicted on this webpage, and also Manolo Fernández for not only his arranging the many details of the travel but help in identification of many plants along the way. Manolo and Reynaldo Linares (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Lima) identified the main dry forest tree (Eriotheca) in the lower parts of the Rio Marañon shown in various images. Guillermo Rivera of Plant Expeditions identified the bromeliads Tillandsia macbrideana var. longifolia, Tillandsia hildae, and Deuterocohnia longipetala shown here. Denis Cathcart suggested the ID for Tillandsia carnosa. Of course, the driver Marco Huaccha and his sons and cousin all were very helpful throughout the trip. Everyone else is also thanked for their participation including Maria Isabel Rodriguez and also the Cajamarca teachers – Nelson Cieza and his wife.
All photos shown here were taken by either Mike or Rosario Douglas. They have usually been reduced to 1680 pixels across for faster loading times.