We left Caldera for a drive of some 500 km to Antofagasta. We would pass many interesting cactus locations (Pan de Azucar, Esmeralda, Cifuncho, Taltal, Paposo) but forced ourselves to keep Leo’s foot on the accelerator pedal to ‘eat the miles’ on the Pan Americana – we would come back this way again on our way back to Santiago in a few weeks time, this time in the company of Attila Kapitany and Rudolf Schulz whose previous field work in the area would help us to drive up to the best locations without the hit and miss need for hour long searches.
North of Barquito, we stopped on a shale outcrop to look for Copiapoa barquitensis (S037) – our inexperience still showing: expecting to find the plant just because we were near the town after which it was named. It actually grows in the hills behind the village and not right alongside Ruta 5!
After Chañaral, Ruta 5 turns east before turning north again, some 30 km inland and now protected from sea fogs by the coastal hills that are the Pan de Azucar National Park. We are now in the true Atacama Desert and can only be amazed at the landscape – no plants to be seen anywhere as we speed though the landscape at 100 k.p.h. – and can only guess how dry the climate here must be. So the signs along the road, urging drivers to switch on their main headlights in case of fog, look strangely out of place. It seemed impossible that fog could penetrate this far inland and there was no visible flora to suggest that it ever had in living memory.
We took the Antofagasta exit off Ruta 5 and, as there were still a few hours of daylight left, decided to find the coast road (Ruta 1) north. We took the exit to Juan Lopez on the Peninsula de Mejillones to find the Morro Moreno, the type locality of Copiapoa atacamensis. Sometimes, luck is on your side and you simply wind down the car window to take pictures of the plants you are looking for, as for example on Morro Copiapó where we found Copiapoa marginata. Not so in this case. The Morro was much bigger than the map suggested and much less accessible than M. Copiapó. Day light was now failing fast so we made for the town of Mejillones, north of the peninsula and found a holiday bungalow camp, deserted for winter. We had our pick of the cabañas and enjoyed a good night’s rest.