Today we planned to see how far inland we could find Copiapoa in the Huasco Valley, to see what other cacti we would find and to enjoy the scenery as once again we would drive to the foothills of the Andes.
We made our first stop of the day (S017) near the Embalse Santa Juana, another dam in the river that had created a large artificial lake inland from which the valley could be irrigated and developed for agriculture, a scenario that we had previously seen in the Rio Elqui Valley. No doubt many cacti that had grown here were now at the bottom of the lake. On the steep hillsides alongside the river we found Copiapoa coquimbana (C. vallenarensis?), Cumulopuntia sphaerica, Eulychnia sp. Echinopsis (Trichocereus) sp. and at least two taxa of Eriosyce (Neoporteria) – or was it just one highly variable species?
Further along (S018), now at an altitude (measured by GPS) of 667 m, we could not find any Copiapoa but instead found Eriosyce aurata, unmistakably as it showed of its woolly fruits, plus all the other cacti reported from the previous stop. The hillsides were especially crumbly and dangerous to climb, probably due to the recent road building work.
And so, on to El Maiten (S019), where Leo, (un)suitably dressed in shorts and T shirt once again became the mountaineer, risking life and limb to take a picture of another Copiapoa coquimbana growing high on the cliff face. We didn’t really mind, except that he had the car keys in his pocket! We busied ourselves in the mean time with taking some pictures of the few Copiapoa coquimbana and Eriosyce (Neoporteria) sp. plants that grew right along the side of the road, with rocks tumbling down the hillside, dislodged by Leo’s climbing efforts, posing the only real danger. These were perhaps the highest altitude (880 m) and furthest inland occurring Copiapoa in this valley.
We christened the next stop (S020) the ‘Cow Stop’ as a small herd of eight Friesians came up the track, lead by a gaucho on horseback, with the tail enders being round up by another horse-mounted shepherd: a young girl who could not have been more than 7 years of age.
The road continued to climb until at 1,146 m (S021) Leo spotted an Eriosyce aurata growing fairly high on the cliff face above the road. This too was a bit worrying, because we had hoped that, as the driver, his eyes would be more focussed on the road – never mind. We all had a go at scrambling up the loose shale, often it was a case of ‘two steps forward, three steps back’ so again we had to be content of taking pictures of Leo taking pictures of the Eriosyce.
We made two more stops (S022 and S023), eventually reaching 1,620 m above sea level, but there were no cacti to be found within view of where we parked the car. The scenery offered plenty of picture material, before we turned the car round and headed back to Vallenar.