During my 2001 visit, we spent a day each, travelling up the Elqui and Huasco river valleys. It was interesting to see where the influence of the coastal climate, that appears to be so important to Copiapoa, stops and similarly where other cacti are found. Since then, looking at maps, I have been curious to see ‘the next river valley south’, that of the Rio Los Molles / Rio Rapel / Rio Grande / Rio Limari river system that passes by Ovalle and eventually passes by the south side of the Fray Jorge National Park to empty into the Pacific Ocean.
The river waters warm during their journey from the Andes to the ocean, where they meet the cold Humboldt Current on its way north from the South Pole. As a result there is a lot of fog that supports an original temperate rainforest that stands out like an oasis in an otherwise barren area. This is the southern limit of the Copiapoa distribution area.
As we drove up the valley from Ovalle, Benjy and I once again observed how much greener the areas we had travelled through so far had been, compared to 2001. That time, we had travelled during May while this time we were travelling in June – the middle of winter on the Southern Hemisphere. Obviously there had been a lot (?) more moisture available to the vegetation (rain and / or fog?). The greenness was even more noticeable here as irrigation has enabled agriculture to become a major industry, with vines for the famous Pisco grapes as just one of the crops.
Probably because of lack of preparation on my part, probably due to lack of access to possible cactus habitats due to agricultural development, but when we reached ‘the end of the road’ – a (disused?) border control point in Central Los Molles, at an altitude of 1074 m in the foothills of the Andes, we had only made one ‘cactus stop’ (S0114) and a number of photo-stops to capture the beautiful scenery.
S0114 was at Puente Los Angeles de Rapel, a newly constructed bridge on a relatively new track that was not on our map. The local Trichocereus chiloensis form here was particularly nice with large big stems in full growth, producing spectacular spines of up to 15 cm (6″) in length.
It can be quite difficult to strike a balance between exploring for cacti and moving on to, perhaps,
more rewarding sites and the varying individual needs in a party of eight to take enough pictures to remember this once-in-a-lifetime stop. It is also easy to become absorbed in your search for plants and so to lose track of time and of the distance that has still to be covered before reaching the planned accommodation for the night. In order to keep some focus on the aims of the day, I had brought a soccer referee’s whistle that proved quite useful to draw people back to the car. This time, the whistle was blown in vain as Cliff failed to re-appear until eventually tracked down by Benjy. His explorations had taken him a bit further and out of reach of the whistle’s sound. His efforts were rewarded by having found an Eriosyce aurata and a Eriosyce (Neoporteria) sp. We’ll have to wait until we see his slides to see if we can provide a more educated guess for the precise name of these plants.
Somewhat disappointed – we had still not seen any Copiapoa in nature – we headed back and drove north to La Serena, where on Benjy’s recommendation we spent the night at Hotel Costa Real, an excellent, luxurious hotel that we would visit again on the way back.
Tomorrow we would see our first Copiapoa!