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Archive for May, 2001

Thursday 31 May 2001 – ‘Secret Valley’ to Chañaral

We started the morning by looking for some Eriosyce (Thelocephala) on the nearby hillside – Gustavo seemed to smell them from hundreds of meters away, while we had difficulty spotting them right in front of us.

Once the early morning dew had evaporated and our tents were dry enough to pack, we made for the Tigrillo Valley, the next valley north of Guanillos (S080). The Copiapoa here were still C. longistaminea, but different from the plants in the Guanillos Valley. This is the form that Karl Knize called C. trigrilensis.

Once again, many of the stems had a dark, corky base to the stem. We had seen this on other Copiapoa and were to see it again, particularly prominent on C. cinerea ssp. columna-alba. Raquel Pinto suggested that this was an organism called ‘Nostoc’, a cyanobacterium that grows on (and inside?) the spines and the epidermis of the plants.

We drove inland and found a valley with lots of small C. columna-alba (S081), growing alongside two different Eriosyce (Neoporteria) sp. and, on a flat, another small Copiapoa sp. growing pulled down into the gravel and dust Were these plants, with a narrow neck connecting the body to a large taproot, C. grandiflora?

Further inland still, in a wide, flat valley (S082) we found more plant that, from my notes, we IDed as C. grandiflora – single headed plants, pulled into the ground.

Marlon and I hitched a lift with Gustavo, back to Secret Valley and on, up a steep cliff track, to Las Lomitas (S083), a high cliff fog zone at the northern end of the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar that offers spectacular views over the Pacific Ocean and the Esmeralda Valley – if it had not been for the fog. So instead, we focussed our cameras on objects closer to the lens: at guanacos and small desert foxes in a landscape dominated by Eulychnia, Echinopsis (Trichocereus) and low shrubs, all covered in lichen. We did not stay long, as we would be back with the rest of the party.

On the way to Chañaral, we made one more stop (S084), inside the National Park, at Playa Blanco, to take some pictures of the Copiapoa cinarescens, growing along the track.

At the Hosteria in Chañaral, we met up with two more Chileans with whom I had enjoyed email correspondence prior to the trip: Ricardo Keim and Ingrid Schaub and discussed our plans for the next few days.


S079: C. longistaminea – like all of its hundreds of neighbours,
this plant would be guaranteed to win ‘Best Plant in Show’ at any cactus event –
if it could get there legally – but it’s best seen in nature, with its friends.

Wednesday 30 May 2001 – ‘Secret Valley’ and the Guanillos Valley

Our first stop of the day (S075) provided some marvellous Copiapoa grandiflora and C. longistaminea to point our cameras at. Some of the plants seemed to have a fungal or bacterial infection, causing black mucilage to seep out of the the stems.

Things got even better at the next stop (S076), when two more species of Copiapoa joined those seen at the previous stop. But the two ‘new boys’ were a lot more difficult to find. C laui was practically invisible, until I found one in flower. The small stems could easily be mistaken for old guanaco droppings. The second, tentatively identified as C. esmeraldana, was larger, but as 90% plus of the plant body was pulled into the ground and covered in dust and gravel, the yellow flowers popping out of the ground provided a good guide. There is some doubt about our ID of these plants, as seed from these plants and from C. grandiflora have germinated in the UK and are indistinguishable from each other. Did we get the ID wrong? Or did Ritter see two different generations of the same plant as different species?

Just to confuse matters a little more, Marlon was seen rushing about the place, chasing a single blow fly (or was it a small black bee) as it was flying from flower to flower, visiting all the four species in turn – so surely there should be some hybrids, or are some of the taxa we were looking at the hybrids? If so, which is which?

Too much excitement makes you hungry, so we went to the mouth of the Guanillos Valley for a spot of lunch on the beach (S077), among more clumps of C. longistaminea right opposite a guano covered island. 

Two more stops (S078 and S079) and more C. longistaminea and C. grandiflora, but these looked a bit different – could there be intermediates between the two?

And so, back for another night under canvas at ‘Secret Valley’.


S076: We called this C. esmeraldana in 2001, but have learned since that
Ritter used this name for small plants growing high up the coastal hills over looking Esmeralda.
Plants growing in the Guanillos Valley have since been named Copiapoa angustiflora. WHY?

Tuesday 29 May 2001 – Taltal to Esmeralda (‘Secret Valley’)

We got up early, ready for an ascend to the top of Cerro Perales. The track that we had explored earlier (25 May) had seemed to deteriorate beyond the point where we had turned around (S060), so we decided to all load up into the 3 4xWD cars, with surplus passengers hanging on for dear life in the back of the pick-up. Leo was determined to prove that his driving skills would make up for the extra power of the 4xWD and managed to push through in our Nissan, but with an empty car, as we preferred to observe his skills from the relative safety of the back of one of the other pick-ups. He proved his point!

And so we zig-zagged past huge stands of Copiapoa cinerea until their spination became weaker but denser, C. tenebrosa. Each time the road twisted round the south facing slopes, the sun loving Copiapoa disappeared with Eulychnia dominating the landscape, until another series of bends and we were once again climbing along the sunnier east, north or west facing slopes.

At around 800 m (measured on our GPS), we drove through the clouds, to emerge in bright sunshine, eventually reaching a dead end near the fog nets at the top of the mountain at 1,036 m (S072)

This is where Marlon found a vantage point, close to the radio mast at the very top of Cerro Perales, from where he took pictures that were posted on various cactus forums and are still talked about as some of the nicest cactus pictures people have seen: ‘Cacti above the clouds’. While Marlon was taking his pictures, I discovered that all my cameras had run out of film, memory and batteries at the same time. Bad planning, but no fear, I had plenty of supplies. However, in the time it took me to reload the cameras, the sun had evaporated much of the clouds, so that the best pictures were lost for me.

John and I drove one of the car’s back while the majority of the party followed Rudolf, who lead them down the western slope of the mountain, into the back of Quebrada San Ramon.

John and I did some more sight seeing in Taltal before meeting up with the others at the cabañas and a drive to Esmeralda. In the Guanillos Valley we stopped  (S073) to take pictures of Copiapoa longistaminea, C. grandiflora and Eriosyce (Thelocephala) krausei.

Time had come to think about accommodation for the night, so we were taken to a small canyon that Attila and Rudolf had christened ‘Secret Valley’ during their earlier trips to Chile (S074). It was not that ‘secret’, as the GPS data can be found in their book, ‘Copiapoa in their Environment’. So there, battling for space with C. columna-alba and C. longistaminea, we set up our tents and collected dead Eulychnia wood for a campfire.

Later that night, as we ran out of wood, Leo brought a 1m long stem of C. columna-alba that had long ago become uprooted and had started to ooze from the base. Rudolf used a oven thermometer as a probe to measure the temperature at the core of the plant: 21o C. By the time that all wine had been drunk and we extinguished the fire, ready for a night’s sleep, he took the smouldering stem’s temperature again: still 21o C., demonstrating the tremendous insulating properties of succulent stems – or perhaps that Rudolf needs to get a new thermometer.

Monday 28 May 2001 – Around Taltal

We’d recovered from the night under canvas the previous night and woke up refreshed in the comfort of the cabañas at Taltal. As though we had not seen enough, we travelled back north on the coast road, making our first stop of the day (S069) not far from Taltal on the way to Paposo at what we were told was the type locality of Copiapoa cinerea ssp. gigantea. Apart from the massive stems, these plants were not dramatically different from the plants we had seen in Quebrada San Ramon and for me sit comfortably as member’s of the Cinerea complex. Is their size just an environmental feature or is this a ‘race’ of giant cinerea? Again, many plants had been damaged by mice, judging by the plentiful supply of mouse droppings.

Our resident mountain goat, Leo, climbed up the coastal hills, in search of C. oliviana that was reported from this area, but returned disappointed.

Next we turned south, past Taltal, towards Ruta 5, turning off for Cifuncho and stopping (S070) some 5 km past an earlier stop (S048), but this time found no cacti. Marlon walked on over the crest of a low hill and reports finding C. desertorum and Eriosyce taltalensis.

We carried on towards  Cifuncho and as the track reached the bay, (S071) we turned right (north), away from the village, until the track ran out, near an electricity substation on the shore. Here we found C. rupestris. On the way back towards the main track, we made several more (unnumbered) stops and found many more of the same plants.

It had been a relatively quiet and relaxing day, with time for some souvenir hunting and shopping for provisions at the market in Taltal, followed by an early night, so that we would be well rested for an early start the next day, to see the sun rise over Cerro Perales.


S071: C. rupestris growing north of Cifuncho

Sunday 27 May 2001 – Quebrada Botija to Taltal

Bleary eyed, we got out of our tents and before too long were on our way, on foot, walking into the Quebrada. Rudolf and Attila had been here before and were keen to explore further. The cacti that were growing at the mouth of the valley had been tentatively identified as Copiapoa varispinata but later, on our return to England and after a visit by Rudolf and myself to the Herbarium at Utrecht (Netherlands) where Ritter’s original type material for this taxon had been deposited, we realised that this was not the correct name. So, for the time being it became Copiapoa sp. Botija #1 (mound forming).

As we progressed up the valley, another Copiapoa, C. atacamensis was found, and further still (S067), Rudolf and Attila pointed out another Copiapoa – long stems, hanging from the rock face. This was at this time referred to as Copiapoa sp. Botija #2 and has since been described by Graham Charles and Nigel Taylor as Copiapoa decorticans (in Cactaceae Systematics Initiatives 13:15, 2002). Although this plant has been known at least since 1990, it had never been formally described.

We walked on, until the Valley, that had run east so far, seemed to form a T junction with a high dark hill, covered in large, healthy looking clumps of Copiapoa (Subgenus Pilocopiapoa) solaris (S068). It was remarkable that where as C. solaris grew on the dark soil, C. atacamensis was only found on the lighter coloured rocks. I’m not sure if this observation is significant, but it was certainly striking. Copiapoa are not generally known to have particular soil requirements in cultivation and we failed to collect specimens of each type of soil to take back for further analysis.

This is where the party split up. Michelle and Attila stayed to collect some seed, before exploring the turning north while Rudolf lead a party south. His objective was to follow this narrowing canyon that, according to our maps, would lead to a saddle in the hills and, once crossed, would lead them into the next valley south, the Quebrada Izcuña. Marlon and I had agreed to walk back to the cars and drive one of the cars to the mouth of the Izcuña Valley, where we would pick up the walkers.

On our walk back, we again found evidence the presence of mice, including a couple of dead ones in varying states of decay. This probably explained the presence of a couple of very shy foxes that we had spotted playing a game of hide and seek with us.

There was just one small flaw in the otherwise wonderfully thought out plan for the day – it had not allowed for my inexperience of driving a 4 wheel drive car through talcum powder like dust, so that the car became stuck in this, a few hundred yards away from the mouth of Izcuña. There was little that the two of us could do. We made some futile attempts at digging the wheels out with our hands and tried to use the plastic cover for the back of the pick-up to try and give us some grip, but to no avail – until the walkers appeared out of the valley and Attila and Michelle turned up with their car to pull us out, so that we could return to Taltal.


S067: small C. atacamensis, growing in the eastern half of Quebrada Botija.

Saturday 26 May 2001 – Taltal to the Quebrada Botija

We left early as we had six stops scheduled today, taking us to the Botija Valley for a night out, camping. As a result, by the time we made our first stop (S061) at 7:37, the sun light was far from perfect for photography, as the sun was still struggling to get above the coastal mountains – after all, we were less than a month from the shortest day and the middle of the Chilean winter!. I see from my notes that we IDed these plants as C. cinerea ssp. haseltoniana, they certainly had the ‘haseltoniana factor’ of yellow / orange felt and spines at the apex, but an unusually (?) high rib count of around 32.

A bit later, but not much farther, near Playa Cachinales, we made our next stop (S062). Here we found C. haseltoniana again, this time accompanied by C. humilis as well as Eriosyce taltalensis and Eulychnia sp. There was plenty of evidence of the presence of mice – their faeces and the damage they had caused by gnawing at in particular the C. humilis stems.

Farther on again, near the Minas Santa Domingo (S063), we were fortunate to find a beautiful crested plant of C. haseltoniana and the plants here had much longer and denser spination than seen at the previous stop.

We reached the small fishing village of Paposo, another name well known to Copiapoa enthusiasts. From here, one track heads inland, to eventually meet up with Ruta 5, south of Antofagasta. Just out of Paposo, the track winds its way up the coastal hill. On one of the bends, there is a small shrine, dedicated to the Virgen de la Puntila and this was the goal of our next stop (S064). As we walked carefully along the narrow path behind the shrine, we found first one, then two then many small clumps of a tiny Copiapoa humilis form. There was some evidence of digging, more likely by humans than by guanacos. There were also a number of specimens of Eriosyce taltalensis ssp. paucicostata.

Somehow, we were the last car in the party of four to leave and we lost contact with the other cars. At a fork in the road we appeared to take the wrong turn, as we ended up on a dead end – the path finishing in an open, surprisingly green field, basking in sunshine, with only some Eulychnia in poor health on show. Keen to find the others, we turned back, drove up the other track for a few miles, but again, found no sign of the others. As they were due to come back down the hill to Paposo, the most sensible idea was for us to drive back to the village and park our car at the cross roads that they would have to pass. We asked some of the locals where we might be able to buy a cup of coffee. It seemed that there was no such facility in Paposo, as Leo and I were shown into the back room of one of the huts where the lady owner served us with a cup of coffee, watched by an army of young children – surely not all her own! Marlon and John had chosen to wait by the car, eager not to miss the others when they came by, which they did just as Leo and I finished our cuppa.

And so on, this time along the coast road, heading north, until Rudolf and Attila decided that we had reached a nice spot for lunch (S065). What a wonderful ‘lunchroom’ they had found us – surrounded by Copiapoa haseltoniana of all shapes and sizes, from young plants to large barrel shaped stems in a beautiful setting with a choice of backdrop consisting of either the coastal hills or the Pacific Ocean with a snow-white, guano covered island just off shore.

Refreshed, we carried on north until Attila’s lead car pulled off the road and headed for a gap in the coastal hills. At the foot of the hills we stopped (S066) and Rudolf announced we had arrived at the mouth of the Quebrada Botija. Our car party looked at each other in surprise – this was the exact spot where we had stopped earlier, on 21 May (S050). We finished off today’s ration of pictures, before setting up camp. For many of us, this was the first time that the tents, bought in England and Brazil, had been taken out of their wrapping, so instructions (why in Chinese?) were thrown out and ‘creative tent building’ ensued. We waived goodbye to Benjy’s car – with John Ede on board, as they had elected to drive back to Taltal for a comfortable night in the cabañas – before opening the absolutely essential (5 litre) bottles of ‘120’ (Chilean red wine, just a little bit more expensive then bottled drinking water, very drinkable) – the ideal way to relax before a night on the rocky desert ground. 

As we were enjoying ourselves around the camp fire of dead Eulychnia wood, the head lights of a car approached from the south. We watched in amazement as it turned off the road and made its way to our ‘camp site’. The occupants, a man and a woman, greeted Rudolf and introduced themselves as Raquel Pinto and Arturo Kirberg, from Iquique. Rudolf had exchanged e-mails with them and told them that we planned to be here that night, and so they had driven some 500 km to meet us!

Friday 25 May 2001 – Around Taltal

After yesterday’s hard walk, today promised to be a sort of rest day with four stops scheduled along the road, easily reached by car.  Of course, those that were keen could always explore the hills sides and between us, the group covered a huge area between the car and where ever it was that Leo managed to get to. The first stop (S057), was north of Taltal and had a population of mainly C. cinerea fa. albispina growing some 26 m above sea-level along the coast.  Again a wide degree of variation could be observed.

On the way back to the cars, close to the road, we came across some 50 clumps of up-rooted Copiapoa that appear to be awaiting a visit by a commercial collector.  Disgusted by the sight, Rudolf threatened to stand guard to save the plants, but was eventually coaxed back to the cabanas (food, wine, a shower). Later we met a lady, armed with clip-board who seemed to be studying plants too.  It transpired that she was marking plants to be dug up so that they could escape the bulldozers that were busy improving the still unpaved sections of the coast road.  Once the work was completed, these clumps will be replanted.

Our next stop (S058) was south of Taltal, at a population of typical C. cinerea, with predominantly single spined plants, and again a bit further along (S059) where there was a selection of cristate plants to tempt our shutter finger. After all, how many pictures of straight forward C. cinerea do you need?☺

We finished the day by taking a look at the state of the track up the Cerro Perales, inland from Taltal (S060) as we planned to drive to the top on 29 May.


S057: Introducing …..
Rudolf Schulz behind the camera,
C. albispina n.n. in front of the camera.

Thursday 24 May 2001 – Quebrada San Ramon part II

The complete walk today has been given one stop number – S056 – I was too preoccupied with taking pictures and not falling down hillsides to take more frequent GPS readings.

We walked about half way up the Quebrada, across the (dry) waterfall and past the first side canyon coming in from the left (north). Just before the second side canyon left (north)  Rudolf directed us up the steep and crumbly canyon wall. The density and variation in the clumps of Copiapoa cinerea were amazing!

Climbing to a height of some 750 m. it was not surprising to find that the group of ten had become stretched out over the hillside.

Marlon and I stayed with John – the tail-ender – in the certain knowledge that plants that had been growing at the top for a hundred years or more would still be there when we would eventually arrive.

At the top of the hill, we could see the rest of the party, with Leo in his bright yellow T shirt in front, following a donkey trail that disappeared around the hillside.  We followed the trail and, as it wound around the hillside, we arrived at a south facing slope.  Here the Copiapoa were absent, preferring sunny north facing sides, and the landscape was dominated by, mainly dead, Eulychnia

As the trail twisted further, we were once again on the north-facing slope and the Copiapoa return, but here they were densely white-spined Copiapoa krainziana. Spines range from stiff and rigid to soft and woolly (c. 10% of plants) and from snow-white to dirty brown and black. In all cases, the spines were rather brittle, breaking off easily. Most stems had lost their spines at the lower part.

The site was covered in mouse droppings and the others report seeing mice sitting on top of stems, digging for fruits and seed.  There were clear signs that these rodents caused serious damage caused to the plants.

Having reached our goal, we decide not to follow the others, but to take the ‘easy’ route back, by returning to the valley floor and following this back to the main Quebrada.  A mistake, as we find out later ….. John’s trousers say it all – a high, steep waterfall just before the side valley joined the Quebrada forced us to climb high up the hillside from where the descent was mainly achieved by sliding.  I guess the image below will be seen at a few BCSS branch meetings as ‘the end of the talk’, slide, replacing the traditional sunset picture.


S056: The final chapter in The Story of John’s trousers.
It’s a hard life being a cactus explorer!

Wednesday 23 May 2001 – Around Taltal: Quebrada San Ramon pt 1.

We have arrived at Taltal a few days too early, so decide to enter the holy-of-holies to copiapoa fans: The Quebrada San Ramon, on our own. (S054) Travelling north from Taltal on the coast road – Ruta 1 – we first passed a mining operation, immediately followed by a barrier  to the entrance of what appeared to be a quarry.

This was the entrance to the Quebrada, or rather the mouth of the canyon, as of course it was water that formed this and other canyons, as it forced its way from the high mountains of the Cordillera de la Costa down to the Pacific Ocean. Looking at the dry landscape today, it is difficult to imagine the torrents that must have forced their way through the sometimes quite narrow gorge.

The feature that impressed me most about the first Copiapoa I encountered here is that it was badly infested by what seemed to be scale.  The plant was a C. cinerea form with horn-coloured mainly single spines on each areole.

Before long the more familiar black spined, ‘typical’ C. cinerea form appears, although completely spineless forms were also found.  All the plants photographed grow on ledges some 2 m (6 ft) above the valley floor.  It seems that fairly recent (??? years) floods have cleared the floor of the valley where only shrubs and annuals survive. At times there are still damp patches with marsh grass growing around it, but thick crusts of salt, left as water evaporated must create a micro environment where few plants can survive.

Later, the white spined form: C. albispina joins in – clumps of these different spined forms grow happily side by side.

Not only do we find specimens with the typical single spine per areole, but also with more numerous spines.  It seems only a small step from C. albispina to the finer spined C. krainziana.

Some of the C. cinerea have distinct yellow-orange apical felt and spination – in my mind, ‘the Haseltoniana factor’ in what appears to be a hybrid swarm, trapped in the canyon, of the more distinct forms of members of the Cinerea complex that can be found outside the Quebrada. In this great big melting pot, plants with a combination of various of these features can be found, including plants of C. krainziana with the yellow-spined Haseltonia factor at the apex.

Another group of plants were probably ‘young’ plants of C. tenebrosa – but what age is ‘young’ when plants photographed seven years ago show no sign of growth, even though this seven-year period includes an El Ninjo rain-event.  How old are these 15 cm (6 inch) diameter heads?  And what age the 1.5 m (5 ft) long stems?

We returned to the cabañas, tired, but happy to find that the first of the other parties had arrived: Benjy Oliver, his sister Natasha and her boyfriend Mark.  Benjy was their Copiapoamad representative, but as he does not have a driving licence, he had persuaded the others to be his chauffeur. To avoid boredom, they had soon picked up the art of seed collecting and, during the next few days, impressed us all with their newly acquired skills.

Later that afternoon Rudolf Schulz, Gustavo Valdes, Attila Kapitany and his wife Michelle arrived, so we returned to Club Taltal for a meal and to discuss plans for the following day: a trip to the Quebrada San Ramon !!!

Tuesday 22 May 2001 – Around Taltal

We forced ourselves away from the air-conditioned cabañas and went looking for Copiapoa on the way to Cifuncho.  Miguel Finger, the owner of the cabañas, gave us directions to a location (S052) where a track off the main road leads towards some hills.  

To the left (north west) of the road, the soil is light coloured while to the right (south east), the colour is much darker. Two species of Copiapoa grew here: solitary C. cinerea ssp. columna-alba on the sandy soil, while on the darker soil clumps of C. rupestris ssp. desertorum were found.

A few C. desertorum found a home ‘on the wrong side of the track’ but none of the C. columna-alba seemed to have strayed.  We found no plants that could be regarded as hybrids between the two. I found this phenomenon all the more remarkable as there are no reports of different species of Copiapoa preferring specific soil types in cultivation. (But see the 2003 report, where, on 10 June and 16 June, we learned not to draw conclusions too quickly!)

A similar soil preference exists in the Quebrada Botija, where the species concerned are C. solaris and C. atacamensis. Or was this observation also premature?

We returned to the main track and drove on until we reached the Pacific Ocean at the bay of Cifuncho. The small settlement nestled at the foot of a hill, to the left (south) looked absolutely charming, but as we had come to look at cacti, we stopped (S053) to explore the foot of the low hills along the track to the village. There were some charming little succulents (Echeveria sp.?) that looked a bit lost in the middle of nowhere, a tiny yellow flowered plant with fleshy leaves and a Nolana sp. in flower, as well as Copiapoa rupestris and Eriosyce rodentiophila.

That evening we eat in ‘Club Taltal’, where the waiter tells us that on the whole, the climate has not changed here during the last 100 years or so, but that during the last five years (1996-2001, taking in the 1997 El Niño event), it had become colder and wetter. If we were in the middle of a ‘wet spell’, should we not be expecting to see more seedlings of plants in the Cinerea complex?

During our stay in Taltal (21 – 29 May 2001) the weather was rather overcast compared to the much brighter conditions that we found on our trips north and south of the town.