The Elqui Valley, along with the Huasco and Copiapó valleys, are important agricultural islands in an otherwise barren landscape. We were treated to an ever changing flora as we drove from the coast up into the foothills of the Andes where snow topped hills form part of the scenery.
Irrigation has created oases where vineyards make an important contribution to Chilean wine production.
From La Serena, we followed Route 41 along the south side of the Rio Elqui, persuading a restaurant at Las Rojas to open for breakfast before making our first cactus stop (S005) at a viewpoint car park past the Embalse Puclaro, a dam to control the flow of water in the river, creating an upstream lake. It was the view of the dam that prompted the stop, but any stop presents a photo opportunity for the resident cacti, and we’re not disappointed. We spotted our first Copiapoa! One of the many forms of C. coquimbana. This is a very complicated taxon to classify. On the one hand we saw many local forms that were quite different from each other and yet seemed to us to share a great number of common features. As a result, many species have been described only to be submerged into the earliest named taxon: C. coquimbana. The current thinking seems to support the classification of these green bodied Copiapoa from south of the Huasco river as belonging to one large complex, for now conveniently at species rank
A ‘No Entry’ sign on the entrance to an unpaved track leading to a mine seemed to present an invitation to take a closer look at the cactus flora (S006). A fortunate opportunity, as in 2003 we found this entrance fenced off, leaving us pessimistic about the well being of the plants that we were able to see this time round.
As the road climbed higher and higher, we drove through the village of Monte Grande, with a charming church and a monument for the poet Gabriela Mistral – the perfect location for a lunch time coffee stop before we drove on to Pisco Elqui, a small village which lends its name to the famous Chilean alcoholic cocktail. This was the highest place on today’s trip – having started at sea level in the morning we were now at 1,320 m. with mountains of 3,000 m. plus around us.
On the way back, we made another stop once the Trichocerei reappeared on the scene (S007) at 970 m. and were surprised to find a ‘cactus nursery’ in Vicuña, indicating that the cactus hobby is alive and well in Chile, with scope for a National Cactus & Succulent Society to discuss and provide guidance on the issue of conservation of the endemic cactus flora. Metal food tins and plastic coffee cups were used as containers for the local cacti offered for sale.
We made another stop near the Puclaro Dam (S008) before returning to our accommodation for the night at Guanaqueros. Travelling out of the main tourist season has the benefit that lodgings, such as those at Cabañas Bahia Club, are very reasonably priced and are open to some negotiation – full marks to Leo, our chief negotiator.