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All good things come to an end, and so the time had come to rearrange our packing for the flight home.

The weather was not great when we got up, a reminder that we were in the middle of the Chilean winter and had come a good deal further south, away from the equator. We woke up cold and damp and thoughts of tomorrow’s flight home further dampened our mood. We would have to leave here at about 5:30 a.m. and in the dark find our way to the airport. We all agreed that once today was over, we’d drive straight to the airport so as to have plenty of time to get there, empty out the cars – our home for the last four weeks – and to get our souvenirs.

Alvaralto and a meeting of the Chilean Cactus Society

Alvaralto is the name of Ricardo and Ingrid’s home, high in the hills above Olmué. It is not the easiest of places to find and so Ricardo had arranged to meet us on the main road. We followed him up the windy track, higher and higher, until we had broken through the cloud base and once again enjoyed brilliant sunshine. This cheered us up considerably. As we parked our cars there was another indicator of what time of year plants thought it was – narcissi were in bloom, just as they would be on a sunny Spring day in March in the UK, or earlier further south in Europe.

Rudolf and Brendan Burke had told us of Ricardo and Ingrid’s wonderful garden, but had not really prepared us for the marvellous sights that unfolded, each time we turned another bend along paths that snaked through the garden. Ricardo had built wooden structures, covered with polycarbonate sheets and filled them with benches similar to those found at commercial nurseries in the UK. The benches were full of cacti, but not just Chilean ones – most genera were represented and with most plants having been grown from seed, the number of individuals of the same species and the same age paid tribute to Ricardo’s ability to obtain excellent germination. The same was true for Chilean cacti grown from habitat seed. The order and tidiness of the collection made me feel guilty about the state of my own collection, particularly as I still had to complete building their winter home on my return, after my house move earlier in the year. But there was something else that set this collection apart from the many I have seen in Europe: the great attention to detail and artistic flair for which Ricardo credited Ingrid.

And then another turn in the path and another wooden frame / polycarbonate covered structure, but much larger. Inside we were delighted by a cactus garden, landscaped to make use of the natural hillside location with massive rocks that must surely have been left in place, with the remainder of the garden built around it. Again, cactus and succulent plants from around the globe were on display, but now large, mature specimens and again Ingrid’s artistic flair was in evidence. All plants were clearly labelled, with location information included where available. Film shortage problems experienced yesterday hit a high, but everyone’s needs were met, even if rationing was the order of the day.

Throughout the day refreshments were offered – and I have to mention here that our visit had coincided with a meeting of a branch of the Chilean Cactus Society that afternoon with an ‘open-house’ at the Alvaralto collection in the morning. It was great to meet and exchange experiences with Chilean hobbyists – they all put our language skills to shame as they were fluent in English – unlike our very limited knowledge of Spanish – during the trip we struggled after ordering the beers.

Soon after midday, we returned down the mountain.  In the village we were lead through what seemed a small grocery shop, to what turned out to be a large open air restaurant with large barbeques at full blast roasting a variety of meats. In one area, tables had been set out to accommodate the twenty or so cactophiles for a delicious meal, as always accompanied by excellent Chilean wine.

After the meal, we all went back to the cabanas where we had spent the night and in the large function room the furniture was quickly rearranged in the usual branch meeting set up – rows of chairs facing a projection screen. Some of us had brought slides along so that we could show our Chilean friends how we indulge in the hobby in the UK. Cliff took us through his Thelocactus collection (a talk I had tried but failed to book him for in England for at least two years), Ian showed us slides of his visits to European collections and nurseries and I finished off the conventional slides with pictures taken around my own collection and at the Holly Gate Cactus Garden in Ashington, West Sussex. I feel that I’d rather let the side down, as by this time it was completely dark outside and, pushed for time and tired, I struggled to get my slides the right way up in the cartridge – several appeared sideways or upside down – sorry! I had planned to take one of my regular talks, but during my recent house move, this had been put ‘in a safe place’, which I have yet to discover. As a result, some 50 slides had been selected in too great a rush on the morning of our departure for Chile.

Ricardo made me very envious with his closing presentation – a digital projector display of images of Thelocephala in habitat – very informative and somewhat embarrassing when I learned that we should have found some of these minute plants, hidden mostly deep in the gravel, at some of the places where we had been – too busy pointing our cameras at the impressive Copiapoa.

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