The Pan de Azucar National Park is just too large to see in one day, even if you only concentrate on the Copiapoa highlights.
First stop of the day (S091) was at a fluvial sand bed, but there were no signs of recent water flowing through here. The Copiapoa cinerea ssp. columna-alba here were young plants, compared to the old giants that we had seen elsewhere. But how young is ‘young’, when seedlings, molly-cuddled in our European collections, can take a decade or more to reach 10 cm in height?
Our next stop (S092) was a short valley running inland to the east of the track. Here we found C. cinarescens, some C. marginata and finally C. serpentisulcata, growing at the end of the valley. Usually C. cinarescens and C. serpentisulcata are easily distinguished, although both tend to form nice symmetrical mounds. But here, at the end of the valley, there were a large number of what can only be described as intermediates between the two. There were large numbers of unusually nice Eulychnia saint-pienna and it was interesting to see how C. marginata tended to grow at the foot of these Eulychnia ‘trees’, perhaps for protection, but more likely to benefit from moisture that would drop down these ‘natural fog nets’. Judging by the lichen and algae that grew on the Eulychnia, fog was a regular occurrence here. Here, the C. marginata tended to grow as single, solitary plants, dotted around the valley, rather than forming the clumps or dense stands that we had seen at Morro Copiapó.
Walking back to the main track, this time along the (shadow) south facing wall of the valley, Attila and I were excited to find a single ‘different’ Copiapoa – was this something new? It was certainly ‘different’ enough to mark the spot with a separate stop number (S093). Our answer came the next day, south of Chañaral, when we found lots more of these plants growing right along Ruta 5 and there more easily recognised as Copiapoa calderana var. spinosior.
We left the park through the Chañaral gate. As the mouth of the (dry) Rio Salado opened up before us, we followed a track along the southern hill slopes of the Pan de Azucar National Park. Ritter had reported C. hypogaea from ‘the hills north of Chañaral Airport’, so, as we could see the airport in the valley, we made some brief stops exploring the foothills (all recorded as S096) but only found an Eriosyce (Neoporteria) sp. There were some suggestions that in Ritter’s days, the Airport had been located further inland, but more exploration work during our 2003 indicated that Ritter must have walked over the hills, rather than stay near the track.
Back at the Hosteria in Chañaral, we compared notes before going for dinner (sea food, what else!) at a wonderful restaurant near Barquito, just south of Chañaral, as this was to be our last evening together as a large party.