The following morning, the four of us hiked along the nearby Rio Leon valley’s steep cliffs searching for the cactus Vinicio had found flowering earlier in the week. We were extremely disappointed to find the flowering was perhaps finished or close to it. Merlin and National Geographic almost decided to postpone the trip for another time. But locals advised us to visit the shaman, so we paid a visit to his 300-yr.-old home.
The Shaman’s son, Juan Valdi, and his wife Sabine offered to help us find the rare cactus we sought. As a shaman himself, Juan had considerable knowledge of local plants. Driving into the Valdi family’s 1000-hectare ranch in the Rio Leon Valley, the Ecuadorian equivalent to the Grand Canyon was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Looking over the edge of the narrowly-eroded dirt road, cut into a nearly vertical canyon wall, I asked Merlin if he must drive so close to the edge. Looking down a thousand feet or more made me a little nervous, especially when we had to drive over washed-out areas. These we had to drive across on five-inch diameter by ten-foot long logs laid side-by-side to form bridges that seemed incapable of supporting a car.
We hiked for miles through sometimes nearly impenetrable stands of thorny acacia, agave, and a variety of cacti, all ready to impale the unwary. At times we descended as much as 1,500 feet down into chasms on narrow, often slippery trails, only to end up climbing back out exhausted and empty-handed.
Finally, after three days of failure and lots of discouragement, Juan decided to take us to a site near the small town of La Cria where we found our first flowering specimen of the cactus we’d come to photograph. It had just a single bud, but we were thrilled. We cut a 14” section of the bud-bearing stalk, carefully with heavy gloves impaled it on a pointed bat net pole, and began the two-hour drive back to our base. We could only hope that the bud would still open.
With Juan driving, Merlin carefully held the cactus stalk only a foot or so from Juan’s arm, hoping not to impale either Juan or himself as we lurched along the heavily rutted road, maneuvering past boulders and landslides caused by heavy rains. Finally, on a hairpin curve, our rental car sank to its axels in mud, and it looked like we would have to spend the night, not a great idea, since we had been warned that this was a major drug-running route after dark. Nery finally dug us out with a machete and a netting pole. The next day, our colleague Ralph Simon arrived with a 4-wheel-drive vehicle!