We started the day by filling up the fuel tank – petrol stations are a lot more difficult to find than we are used to in Europe and become less frequent as we drive into the less densely populated northern part of the country. Petrol prices increase as stations become less frequent as the distribution costs so far north are argued to be greater. Most modern Chilean roadmaps have petrol stations clearly marked on them and it is wise to fill the tank when the fuel gauge still reads half full.
First cactus stop of the day (S010) was along Ruta 5 near Los Hornos, where most of the Copiapoa, Echinopsis (Trichocereus) and Eulychnia had seen better days, with many of the plants dead.
The ‘different’ cactus that we spotted from the car and persuaded us to stop (S011) proved to be Miqueliopuntia miquelii, as we had our first experience of the camanchaca, the coastal fog phenomenon for which the Atacama Desert is renowned. It was a strange experience at 9:30 in the morning to see a wall of fog come quickly towards us, envelop us, before disappearing as quickly as it had come, leaving our clothes slightly damp to the touch and water droplets hang from the spines of the Eulychnia – a strange experience in a place where the scenery told you that moisture was a precious commodity.
After another stretch of Ruta 5, we turned east, south of El Trapiche, onto a track leading east (S012). Here we found a much more varied selection of cacti: Copiapoa coquimbana (Ritter’s var. domeykoensis?), Cumulopuntia sphaerica, Eulychnia sp. and Eriosyce (Neoporteria) sp. as well as Oxalis gigantea. Doing his usual mountain goat impersonation, Leo reported some crested plants growing on top of the hill. Beyond this stop, the road climbed until some 10 km further the ceroids disappeared from the scenery. The road climbed to 1,250 m altitude, providing spectacular views of the snow capped Andes in the distance.
Our next stop (S013), with the GPS indicating an altitude of 1,150 m was disappointing with just some Cumulopuntia sphaerica growing beneath shrubs. Back onto Ruta 5 and heading north we pulled into the village of Domeyko to top up our coffee and bananas supplies and on again until we turned west at the turning to Caleta Carrizal. The scenery at S014 again indicated how dry it was and had been for a very long time, with Eulychnia, Cumulopuntia and Miqueliopuntia as well as Copiapoa sp. looking better than the landscape might suggest.. Again, our mountain goat – this time with Marlon in his slip stream – reported some Eriosyce (Neoporteria) growing at the top of the hill. Given ourlocation, we concluded that we were still looking at forms of Copiapoa coquimbana but some of the flowers showed more than just a hint of red. Was this Copiapoa rubriflora? No, because this was reported by Ritter from just south of Taltal and is now regarded as belonging to Copiapoa rupestris. So, is the epithet rubriflora perhaps appropriate for more than one Copiapoa taxon?
From here the road descended to about 400 m altitude, where, at S015 we found more Copiapoa, presumably still C. coquimbana although looking back at the pictures now (2003, after my second trip to Copiapoa Country), I wonder if there is more than a hint of C. megarhiza in these plants. Two crested stems were dully photographed by all and we observed that the parasitic Tristerix aphyllus here was also ‘feasting’ on the Copiapoa and Miqueliopuntia.
I still find cacti growing with an ocean as back ground a fascinating sight – such a contradiction between the dry and the wet! So our next stop (S016) near Carrizalillo seemed to promise a real treat. But was it Copiapoa coquimbana, C. echinoides, C. megarhiza or C. carrizalensis that we were looking at? The geography would suggest C. coquimbana, but once again towards the edge of a taxon’s supposed distribution area, its features can blend into those of its neighbours. The plants were growing at the base of a low – some 30 m. high – ridge to the east (inland) from the road. The sun was getting low to the west, so it was almost impossible to take any cactus & ocean pictures, especially as the east facing sides of the clumps were also the most marked and least attractive. Never mind, there would be other opportunities and we had to move on to get to Vallenar for the night.