Have you ever found yourself dreaming of a life where your main occupation is travel the world to a range of habitats seeking out rare succulents and cacti? One individual had that dream and after years of hard work, he now wakes up to the reality of it every day. Meet Guillermo Rivera, the career habitat guide behind Plant Expeditions.
How did your career as a habitat guide begin and how long have you been doing it for? What do you find the most rewarding about it?
My career as a habitat guide started just by chance. At the time it started 2001, I was still working as a researcher for the University of Cordoba and because of rumors of budget cuts, I took a part-time position at the Cordoba Botanical Gardens in Cordoba, Argentina. At the time I was taking part in a project to develop a “desert garden”, something totally unheard of in Argentina but I had seen it done in Arizona and New Mexico. I got permits to extract local flora (plenty of cacti in habitat where I used to live) and I also wrote to several cactus and succulent clubs in California asking for seed donations of Mexican or any other exotic cacti.
A few weeks later, I received a letter from the San Francisco Cactus and Succulent Society, asking if I would be willing to organize and guide a tour to Northwestern Argentina and Chile. After scouting for plants, itinerary, hotels, etc., I agreed to do Northwestern Argentina in 2001 and from there the rest is history. Plant Expeditions now organizes tours to 10 countries with a focus on plants but mainly succulents and bromeliads.
The most rewarding aspect of my trips is visiting places and seeing plants in habitat of course. I would have never dreamt I would go to so many different countries to track down and show off rare plants to people. It’s also very rewarding to learn so much from many different plant experts such as how they keep and grow some of the plants in their collections which I have shown them in habitat.
What regions or areas do you cover and which ones do you consider to be the most rewarding in terms of biodiversity and natural beauty?
Before the company became Plant Expeditions, it was known as “Cactus Expeditions” because the main habitats I focused on were deserts. But soon I discovered my customers had a great fondness for Bromeliads so I began leading tours in Brazil where cactus and bromeliads coexist in many habitats as well as Ecuador. I also realized my clients love ANY type of succulents in habitat and so I started organizing trips to South Africa, then Madagascar and Namibia soon after. In terms of biodiversity, it is hard to beat Ecuador but places like Madagascar and Western Africa are quite rewarding because of their high level of endemism in their unique floras.
Which are some of the more rare succulents and cacti you’ve come across in your travels over the years. Are there any on your wish list you one day hope to seeing growing wild?
There are many cactus and other succulents that are considered rare in cultivation but once you visit the habitat, they are usually very common. I would have to say that some little cactus jewels got me excited the first time I saw them include Yavia cryptocarpa, Discocactus horstii, Cinthia knizei, and Blossfeldia liliputuana, all localized specimens which are small and difficult to spot. As for rare, Aloe pillansii was a good example of a plant I wanted to see in habitat (I was lucky enough to have visited places where it grows four times). Always love the magnificence of the Baobabs, not only in Madagascar but also in Namibia.
As for plants that I am hoping to see? Well, all the succulents from Socotra Island are on my bucket list. Unfortunately, for political reasons, visiting the island now isn’t possible. A tour is planned, organized, and on standby for when flying to the island is permitted again. I’m also looking forward to seeing many Aloes in Mozambique along with many other succulents in 2019.
Describe a moment when you came across a truly special specimen in the field; what was it and what was going through your head?
The most exciting moment upon finding a succulent was probably when I first saw Yavia cryptorcarpa. It was on a scouting trip before I became a guide and at the time it was a recent discovery. I remember having GPS coordinates from the scientific publication where it was described but unfortunately that brought collectors from all over the world, and the original population I found out later was completely wiped out. But, by looking at the habitat of the extinct population, it became clear to me from its characteristics there had to be other populations out there so looking for the plant in similar habitats would eventually turn up other populations. The search (at 14,000 ft!) paid off, and although difficult to spot, we found other plants growing within 10 miles of the original population.
What is the craziest place you’ve ever seen a cactus growing such as in the middle of a snow field or wedged into a sheer cliff face.
Many cacti grow literally out of a rock crack on a cliff (such as Blossfeldia, many Gymnocalycium, Cleistocactus, some Echinopsis, etc). You often wonder how a specimen can live up there but it turns out cracks are usually a very good depository of nutrients when rains come. I have to say however I was surprised to see Discocactus horstii and Uebelmannia gummifera growing on pure quartz fields, with a thick “top dressing” of pure quartz crystals! What a sight.
Have your ever come across anything else remarkable or extraordinary on your treks asides from native plant life? Ancient ruins high in the mountains? Mysterious aircraft wreckage in the jungle?
There are many places in the Andes in South America and Mexico were inhabited for a long time by local ethnics from Mayas, Aztecs, Incas, etc., so it’s not uncommon to find pieces of broken pottery, arrows, carved stones used as mortars, and other small artifacts. It’s still exciting to sometimes stop in the middle of nowhere and realize the place was possibly once a settlement or look out area in the past. Usually there’s also plenty of local cultural sights, museums, etc. to enrich our guests botanical tour experience.
Having seen so many incredible plants in the field, do you have a collection of your own at home or do you just soak up the experience of what you see when leading a trek?
When I was living in Argentina, I used to have small collection of cacti, many of the genus Gymnocalycium. As a scientist I found the genus fascinating because of all the names and confusion around it. It was for this reason that I started to collect plants from habitat, with the intention of a future project of doing DNA analysis to try to solve some of the issues with all the fictitious names proposed to Gymanicalycium. Later I found out that knowledge of habitat distributions and learning about their natural variation among populations was far more important to challenge many incorrect names recorded in the literature.
After moving to Florida, my “collection” slowly began to shift towards Bromeliads, of which I have a few, but mainly for landscaping and not so much at all for collecting. I do enjoy going back to different habitats and look at the plants I have observed before in the same places; I consider those “my plants” or “my collection”. Of course I hate when I find that a specific plant has been dug out by some collector; there was a six-headed Yavia cryptocarpa I found many years ago, that I revisited for about six to seven years in a row until it finally disappeared, leaving just a hole on the ground.
If someone is signing up for a trek with you, what should they expect once they’re away from civilization and what can they do to prepare ahead of time to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip?
Some tours have more trekking and hiking than others. In most cases, most plants are easily accessible from the road and most participants can therefore enjoy seeing them. In some cases, a longer hike (often 3-4 miles) is needed to see some plants. I advise some people when a hike is going to be pretty strenuous that they may want to stay behind and not to risk a twist ankle or a broken leg, but in most cases people still want to try to see how far they can go. Being in good shape is essential to experience the whole tour, but like I mentioned, most plants can be enjoyed just by getting out of the vehicle.
Plant Expeditions is always developing new tours and destinations; mainly botanical expeditions, but also nature and birding tours as well. We have tours to 11 different countries (soon 12) with over 15 different itineraries. Journeys are carefully planned to maximize a great botanical experience for all participants, offering the best accommodations, comfortable transportation, and of course good company!