As today was Sunday, breakfast was even later than the previous day, but after the daily packing ritual, we set off for Carrizal Bajo.
As usual, we got lost in the little back streets of Huasco Bajo to find the bridge across the Rio Huasco, but with the help of Benjy’s GPS data for the bridge and the assistance of a bemused local citizen, we found the bridge and were pleasantly surprised to find the road in better condition than in 2001. This was something that in general had improved over the last two years. As usual, there is a balance to be struck – natural habitats are destroyed, both by the road being laid and by the quarrying for aggregate to be brought in by truck from elsewhere. Quite often this destruction affects cactus habitats, particularly as the rocky outcrops preferred by cactus roots are an ideal source for road building material. On the plus side, access to known and yet to be explored areas is much easier.
We made our first stop of the day (S0119) as soon as clumps of Copiapoa appeared alongside the road. These were still C. fiedleriana (very similar to C. coquimbana, but with a characteristic chin on the rib between the areoles). We must have ‘gotten our eye in’ for the small stuff as without any problems we found a number of Eriosyce sp that I take to be E. odieri.
Thanks to the improved road, we made up for our late start and arrived in Carrizal Bajo in good time. The tide was out, too good an opportunity to miss to cross the small quebrada.
In 2001 we had arrived here from the opposite direction, with the sun setting and the tide in. Going back north to Totoral would have meant a long drive over the worst tracks encountered that year, in the dark. Fortunately, our suicidal driver that time – Leo – did not like the idea much and instead drove straight into the water following as best he could remember the sand bank that we had seen there some four weeks earlier. Amazed onlookers, out for a sunset stroll, screamed in fear and amazement at our (successful) attempt. This time, things were a lot easier as we hardly got the tyres wet during the crossing and began to climb the steep track heading north along the coast.
Now that we had passed Carrizal Bajo, we found a mixture of Copiapoa at our next stop (S0120). The last remnants of C. fiedleriana seemed to merge with some small, often single bodied clumps of spines – C. echinata; some large bodied plants with often flattened bodies – C. echinoides; darker bodied forms – C. dura and enough intermediate variability to explain the host of taxa described from this area. The Euphorbia lactiflua and Oxalis gigantea were not in flower or leaf, and the Miqueliopuntia and ceroids had all seen better days, so the rains that appeared to have occurred further south had not been here.
Our next stop (S0121) sums up my idea of cactus heaven – standing up to your knees in huge clumps of Copiapoa, not knowing which way to point the camera first. This is the area where Graham Charles and Ted Anderson were pictured on the covers of their books. Huge clumps of Copiapoa dealbata, mixed in with C. echinoides. Anderson used the name C. malletiana, an older, but poorly described and therefore dubious name, but more recently the name C. dealbata has come back in favour, so that all of us who relabelled our plants when the Cactus Family was published, can reach for our label writers again.
It took several blows on the whistle to get everybody back in the car. We made one more stop (S0122), a bit further north and were glad that we would pass by Carrizal Bajo again on the way back south, at the end of our trip. In addition to the magnificent clumps of C. dealbata we found some dichotomously splitting stems and a good number of crests. When surrounded by such large plants it is easy to ignore ‘the small stuff’, so not until we started looking for seedlings, to confirm the health of this stand, did we spot ‘Thelocephala‘, probably Eriosyce odieri (subsp. fulva?) and a small, flowering, Eriosyce crispa.
As we drove east from Totoral, we promised ourselves to take a look at the cacti that we raced by in a few weeks time, on the way home. There was no time or interest for stops along Ruta 5 as we pushed on for Caldera and from there to a fantastic modern hotel, Rocas de Bahia, overlooking Bahia Inglesa with Morro Copiapó across the water. Tempting as it was to use the luxurious dining facilities, we had to eat in Caldera, because we had an appointment with Rudolf Schulz and Leo van der Hoeven, who had been touring Copiapoa country since late May, with Ricardo and Ingrid, Peque and Frankie and a number of Chileans whose full names, in the excitement of meeting old friends, I forgot to note – sorry, Karen, Jose, Vincent and others. We had a great evening with the (NOT!) shy and retiring Leo and I catching up on old times in Dutch, while the others did very well communicating in Spenglish, – it has to be said that the language skills of our Chilean friends was far superior to our poor attempts at Spanish.
Plans were made for some explorations north of Caldera the next day and once again it was time to fall into bed (or was it the hotel bar and the free hospitality Pisco Sours?).