Our first stop of the day was at Paipote, where we hoped to find Copiapoa megarhiza. The information we had was to look for ‘the granite hill in front of the mine’. No one told us there were some 18 mines in and around Paipote and that at least half the hills are granite in origin! We searched one such location (S033) before realising that this was ‘one of many’ and found nothing.
We tried again a bit further along (S034) but again do not find any Copiapoa, unless we misidentified the few Eriosyce (Neoporteria) sp. plants (balls of spines are hard to ID) and the omnipresent Cumulopuntia sphaerica. We had planned to explore the area in detail, but soon concluded that a day would not be enough with the information that we had and that the area just did not look promising for any cactus discoveries and so returned to Copiapó before midday to collect our luggage from the hotel and travel on. This showed up our inexperience in the field – later during this trip and again in 2003 we found cacti in the most unlikely places. Yes, it is certainly possible to recognise likely locations from a distance, but never write off an area that looks less likely to accommodate cacti unless time pushes you on.
We travelled on to Bahia Inglesa (S035), the home of Copiapoa marginata with plants growing on the cliffs right at the sea’s edge. This is an important location in ‘Copiapoalogy’ as it is the neotype locality of the type species of the genus. Despite its significance, we were still deflated by our failure to find C. megarhiza so were happy to just take a few pictures as soon as we found the first C. marginata, and of the pelicans fishing from some off shore rocks, before moving on again to Caldera.. Some 20 km north of Caldera, (S036), we stopped to watch and photograph the sunset over the Pacific Ocean. We all have the hope to take the ultimate ‘end-of-talk’ slide: a sunset over the Pacific with a Copiapoa, or at least a cactus, silhouetted against the sun.
Unfortunately, the clouds disappeared from the sky before the sun reached the horizon and the cacti failed to cooperate by staying just a little too far from the sea to allow us to compose the classic cactus shot.
We spent the night in Caldera, but, as I finally write up my notes two years later, my memory has let me down badly – I have no recollection of where we stayed and when we returned to the town in 2003 I had no recollection of having been here before. Had it not been for my brief notes taken on 15 May 2001, I would have said that I had never been here before. Why do I labour the point? Because some very important literature (Ritter’s Kakteen in Südamerika) was written many years after the author had made his original observations. I’m not trying to distract from Ritter’s excellent mammoth work, but merely point to the fact that human memory often benefits from being supported by quite detailed notes and pictures – I hope that Ritter had both.