The previous day we had missed the Huasco Valley west of Vallenar, so the town of Huasco was the first goal today. We stopped at Punta Huasco (S024), where the railway, which is used to transport coal and ore from the mines, stops and their cargo is transferred onto ships. The whole area, including the hill immediate inland from the loading dock, is pitch black, covered by a thick layer of coal dust. Still we were there, so we might as well search for cacti in this unlikely place.
We were very pleasantly surprised to find Copiapoa fiedleriana, Eriosyce (Horridocactus) crispa and napina looking very healthy and Eulychnia iquiquensis looking as though life was perhaps more of a struggle, despite their black appearance. Their colour was purely due to the coal dust, as a wash revealed a greener epidermis. We would still refer to the small button-like Eriosyce by their ‘old name’ of Thelocephala. Within our small party, we all knew what we meant and we also realised that they were now members of the much larger and variable in size genus Eriosyce but for us the old name served as a useful handle. I can always refer to a brief summary of the current concept of the genus when I’m writing. They were incredibly difficult to find, if you were looking for them (none were in flower), but were easier if you accidentally stumbled across one, while taking a picture of another plant low down, or when I dropped my lighter and found
A little further inland, between Bellavista and Huasco Bajo (S025) we found similar plants, but this time without their black covering. The Thelocephala also looked ‘different’ – something to check out later, when we had seen more plants. I now believe these to be either Eriosyce (Horridocactus) odieri or E. napina var duripulpa.
At Huasco Bajo we spent some time looking for the bridge over the Rio Huasco to the coastal track that leads to Carrizal Bajo. Yes, we got lost, most cactus tourists do as the local population seemed quite used to explaining how to get back on to ‘the cactus route’. We were keen to see more plants, but were disappointed at our next stop (S026) where we found nothing of any (cactoid) interest. I only took two digital images to record some of the scenery.
And so we drove on to the area marked on our 1:100,000 map as Llano los Hornicos, still south of Agua de Luna for S027. Here we had more luck, finding Eulychnia iquiquensis, Eriosyce sp. and, according to my notes, Copiapoa fiedleriana. I say ‘according to my notes’ because as, two years later, I peruse my slides, there are none of Copiapoa for this stop. In the field in 2001, we were often so excited and busy taking pictures, quickly scribbling notes as the car pulled off, that matching slides to pictures back in the UK, only a month (but many more cactus stops) later was quite a challenge. I resolved at the time not to make the same mistake again and now rely on a digital camera to ensure that the first digital image at a stop is of a small card showing the stop number or of the GPS receiver, showing the latitude and longitude which is written in my note book before other pictures are taken. When my SLR camera comes out to take some shots on slide film, the same shot is also taken on my digital camera, so that sorting the slides should be a simple matter of comparing slides against digital images that are electronically sorted in time/date order. It also saves the time consuming task of scanning in all the slides later, as I find searching through scanned slides on my monitor more convenient than holding individual slides up against the light or on a light box when preparing talks.
We passed the sign for Agua de Luna (which is not actually shown on our maps) and stopped (S028) to find Copiapoa echinoides, C. fiedleriana, Eriosyce (Horridocactus) odieri. Names on maps (that were printed in 1967 using aerial photographs taken in 1954!) do not always tie in to names on road signs found today. Also, roads may have ‘moved’ from the original track to a better asphalt road that takes a more direct line between villages.
Our next stop (S029) was near Caleta Angusta (according to the sign posts) or inland from Punta Agua de Patillo (according to the map – the road has moved closer to the coast since the map was drawn). What beautiful plants (Copiapoa dealbata our first ‘white’ Copiapoas) but what an awful location: the local rubbish tip, where the plants grew between disposable nappies, empty bottles and other non-degradable waste. Still, we took some great pictures, carefully angling the shots to capture the plants and not too much background, although some shots to illustrate the setting were also essential.
A little further (S030) was much better – a small gully providing the perfect setting for large clumps of C. dealbata ideal for a group picture (and again in 2003 – S200 and 2004 – S307) with many crested plants as well as much smaller, often single headed densely spined Copiapoa (echinata?) and C. echinoides. It was difficult to know which way to point the camera first and how many rolls of film / flash cards to fill.
We forced ourselves to drive on and arrived at the small village of Carrizal Bajo. From here we had a choice – drive north, as the coastal track passed through a (then) dried up river bed (but see 3 June 2001) or turn east (according to our more up to date Turistel high level map, a better road), and head for Ruta 5 for a reasonably quick return to Vallenar. We chose the latter, following the Quebrada Carrizal stopping (S031) to take some more shots of C. dealbata to the right of the road and again (S032) as a ‘different’ Copiapoa had joined C. dealbata, but what name should we give it? It had features of C. echinoides but more elongated stems than the plants that we had identified as such earlier. There was some resemblance with C. marginata as well. Perhaps there was some sense behind my statement that Copiapoa are just one highly variable species. (This statement was made to prompt some reaction from those more experienced than I, but does not seem to go away.).