One disadvantage of staying in ‘a posh hotel’ is that there seems to be less flexibility concerning the earliest breakfast available, so a bit later than hoped for, we were back on Ruta 5, heading north. After 30 km we saw low mounds of what could only be Copiapoa, right alongside the road! At the first available pull off we stopped (S0115) to feast on clumps of Copiapoa coquimbana, a highly variable taxon that needs a good deal more study.
Shrubs of Oxalis gigantea were in leaf, indicating that there must have been some recent moisture available. The Copiapoa were in excellent shape with a range from seedlings to mature clumps in evidence. Some plants were in flower but most heads had their apex hidden by flower remains, hinting at the presence of fruits. We were not disappointed and Benjy showed us how to go about harvesting.
The recent moisture had also woken up some of the shrubs and Senna cumingii was showing off its yellow flowers.
On we went and after the climbing ‘the bends’ north of La Higuera, we made another stop (S0116). Again, we found Copiapoa coquimbana alongside the now familiar ceroids and opuntiods, but the new kid on the block was Miqueliopuntia miquelii, both in bud and in fruit, but sadly not in flower.
We decided on a change of plan and instead of aiming for Vallenar to spend the night we made for Huasco and made a stop (S0117) west of Freirina on the way. Here we found Copiapoa fiedleriana and Eriosyce napina subsp. lembckei var. lembckei (syn. Neochilenia lembckei). Throughout our trip we kept referring to these cryptic plants, often invisible below the soil, as Thelocephala, as we all knew what we meant by that name. One plant was duly dug up, so that we could see for ourselves the massive tap root that gives the plant its name ‘napina’.
On to Huasco where, close to our 2001 stop S0024, we were once again amazed to find cacti covered under a thick layer of coal / ore dust from the nearby docks (S0118). I have never encountered the advice to ‘cover your plants under coal dust until they take on a permanently black appearance’ in any text book concerned with cactus cultivation – may be I should remedy this omission, as the plants certainly did not seem to mind. We found Copiapoa fiedleriana, Eriosyce crispa (in flower), E. napina subsp. lembckei var. duripulpa and the usual ‘sp.’ of Eulychnia and Echinopsis (Trichocereus) – even more difficult to identify under their black coating and with spines worn off by wind and dust.
Satisfied with today’s finds, we looked for accommodation, which we found at the Hosteria Huasco, where the owner, rather nervously asked if we were Americans and seemed to be relieved that we were Europeans. Next, where to eat? Everything seemed closed, except for a bar across the road, but our landlord warned us not to go there and instead arranged for another restaurant opposite to be opened especially for us. We all had Lomo a lo Pobre (beef with fried eggs and papas fritas), washed down in the usual way. They had even brought in a singer / guitarist who played what sounded like Chilean pop / folk songs.