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Today was the first day of our explorations of the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar. We took the easy way in, sign posted from Ruta 5 in Chañaral and even before reaching the official gate, were keen to take a closer look at the clumps of Copiapoa that could be seen from the road. (S0164). They were C. cinerascens, heads with white felted apex, giving the impression of being somewhat flattened, leading to Backeberg’s name C. applanata, now a synonym, and C. serpentisulcata with darker heads where the spines formed a peak at the apex. There were many plants that looked just like the text books indicate they should, but there were also plants that were more difficult to decide on, likely intermediates – and why not – the plants grow (and in 2001 – flower) side by side.

At the next stop (S0165), just inside the park, having paid our admission fee, the white spines of C. cinarescens stood out nicely against the dark rocks on which they grew.

When we stopped again (S0166) we could now see C. grandiflora, seen earlier during our trips from Secret Valley, and possible intermediates with one or both of the two taxa seen earlier today. If only we could jump into the future, to the day that a probe can determine what name to attach to a plant by a combination of chromosome counts, DNA and iso-enzyme analysis. Would we believe the result? And where would be the fun of not being able to speculate and argue about the possible identity of these plants in the bar at the end of the day? I blame the discoverers of these taxa for not clearly labelling each plant in the Park correctly.

At a split in the road (i.e. track), we followed the sign for ‘El Mirador’ where in 2001 we had found a huge wonderful stand of Copiapoa columna-alba. These were at least consistent in appearance, just like the uniformed foot soldiers in the army they resembled.

On arrival (S0167), we found a chain across the track to the car park, so had to climb up a 3 m. (9 ft) high slope to reach the plateau on which the plants grew – wonderful plants of all ages, from small seedlings (well, no sign of flowering in any event and only a centimetre or two in diameter – but probably already more than 10 years of age!) to ancient monsters with stems over 1 meter (3 ft) tall, all slanting at about 60 degrees in the same direction – north, to the sun at mid day. These old guys had folds in their stems like some sumo wrestler. And looked at closely, they were not so uniform, with some stems off-setting and others definitely clumping. Spine counts per areole could also vary from plant to plant and from head to head on the same plant. Of course cameras clicked when ever a cristate head was found. At the edge of the stand C. serpentisulcata had also joined the party.

On our way to the next stop, the Park buildings at Las Lomitas, we paused to take pictures of a small herd of guanaco crossing the road. Once severely threatened with extinction, due to over hunting, their numbers have increased dramatically since the protection of the National Park has eliminated legal hunting there. Ironically, their favourite snack is Copiapoa laui and where ever we found this plant in nature, the guanaco’s hoof marks, having recently scraped away in search for these plants, was there in greater number than plants found. Another example of how man-kind’s interference with nature can upset a delicate balance.

Las Lomitas (S0168) was shrouded in cloud, with drops of water dripping down the lichen covered Eulychnia – a shame, as I had hoped to take some pictures to the north from here, where, at c. 800 m. above sea level, on a clear day you can see Esmeralda and the Cachina Valley, and follow the coast line to see the mouth of the Guanillos and Tigrilo Valleys. Also the views south, towards Chañaral, had been spectacular in 2001.

Instead, we fed the three Chilean Desert Foxes, that seemed to have survived being hand fed cream-crackers in 2001, when we left them anxiously looking for a drink to wash them down.

From here, we followed a track south, along the edge of the steep drop to the ocean that was only visible for brief spells as the cloud temporarily lifted. In 2001 we had found Copiapoa laui along this track, mainly because one plant had been in flower. Instead we found some slightly larger heads of a Copiapoa in the humilis / hypogaea complex – ‘squishy’, as Rudolf would say. (S0169 and S0170). Was this C. hypogaea? C. montana? C. esmeraldana lost at high altitude?

We made two more stops on the way back to Chañaral: S0171 was more like an emergency stop, as Cliff slammed on the anchors as he had seen a golden spined football – Eriosyce rodentiophila as we came around a bend in the track. S0172 was more controlled as we were itching to take come more pictures of C. columna-alba on the march.

Again, we found the marvellous fish restaurant, at Barquito, just south of Chañaral on Ruta 5, where we were able to watch the pelicans and sea lions compete with the local fisherman, fishing from the pier. Well, not quite ‘end’, as some of us got involved in a game of pool at the hotel, where the beers and Pisco Sours seemed to make it more difficult to pot the balls. Square pockets did not help either.

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