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Archive for June, 2003

Friday, 13 June 2003 – Quebrada Botija and back to Taltal

Rather like my notes for our explorations of Quebrada San Ramon, my stop numbers for Botija Valley (S0139 – S0142) are nothing more than points at the mouth, centre and end of the Valley, where concentrations of particular taxa are found.

S0139 was our campsite (at day time) and it was a delight to put your head out of the tent to be greeted by clumps of Copiapoa right in your face. In The Schulz & Kapitany book, these plants were called Copiapoa variispinata and although this name would be more than apt for a plant with a great variability in spine length and colour, it was suggested from various quarters (and agreed by the authors) that this name applied to a small member of the Humilis complex that grows at the mouth of the next valley south, the Izcugna Valley. This left the rather unusual and unsatisfactory position that there were now two undescribed possible species from the Botija Valley, as Rudolf and Attila also show pictures of a ‘Copiapoa sp. Botija’ in their book. The mystery remain how Ritter, otherwise apparently so thorough and keen to report new species, had ‘missed’ these two. Had he never been to Botija? He certainly had been to near by El Cobre and Blanco Encalada.

Nigel Taylor and Graham Charles resolved the problem by publishing descriptions for both as new species (Cactaceae Systematics Initiatives 13: 15, 2002) where the plants found at the mouth of the Valley were named Copiapoa ahremephiana. Further into the Quebrada some, mainly solitary, plants of Copiapoa atacamensis were found while about half way to the end of the valley (S0140), the other newly described species, Copiapoa decorticans was found. Note that these are newly described not newly found, as plant have been in circulation in Europe for a while, either under the name ‘sp. Botija’ or perhaps, for C. ahremephiana, labelled simply RMF 53 or Copiapoa rarrissima.

S0141 was at the end of the Valley, also known as ‘the T Junction’ as from here, one valley heads north while another runs south. The view approaching the T Junction is impressive as a fairly steep, hillside consisting of a dark coloured rock blocked our progress eastward. This hillside is literally covered by large clumps of Copiapoa solaris. In 2001 we were struck by how healthy these plants looked, particularly as we had only seen other stands where the majority of plants were dead and had probably been so for quite some years. This is another strange feature of the area, decay through rot, as we are used to see in GB just does not happen. Rudolf showed us some pictures taken in 1994 that

included some mounds of dead plants. Nine years later, the scenery, including the dead mounds, looks identical. With so much death in evidence, it’s easy to worry about the ability of the living plants to survive.

Having said that, it seemed to Benjy and I that the C. ahremephiana plants at the mouth of the valley did not look in such good shape as they had done in 2001. I cut one small stem (sure that it did not help the health of the plant!) and found that the tissue inside was orangey – yellow, under UK cultivation conditions a sure sign of a fungus with death eminent.

The C. decorticans plants by contrast looked a little happier than in 2001, or perhaps I just took more time as once again Angie & I decided to go at our own pace, rather than to follow the main party for a march up the Valley, just as in 2001.

I remember at the time, when suggestions for a name were bounded around that one person (was it Paul Hoxey?) suggested C. moribunda (excuse incorrect latinisation) as it seemed from the plants that we saw then, that its chances for survival in the wild were slim with no evidence of regeneration (seedlings, fruit or even flowers or flower remains) found. Later, an article in the excellent Cactus & Co indicated that high up the
hill the situation was more promising, with pictures of the plant in flower.

I looked at the steep, crumbly hill side, looked at Angie and walking on to the end of the valley to look for C. solaris seed proved the more convenient option.

Like C. ahremephiana earlier, the C. solaris at the other end of the valley too did not look as healthy as in 2001, with many (more?) clumps of dead plants. As mentioned earlier, these dead plants do not appear to rot, but rather seem to oxidise, turning first into a black wax like material before turning to grey ash, as though they had been burned..

On the way back in the car, Benjy and I chatted about how many possible ‘intermediates’ between the two new species and possibly C. atacamensis we had found. While we waited for the others to return, I went to take a look at the plants closer to the Ocean (S0142) before heading back towards Taltal.

We made one more stop (S0143) when the first (unusually small) Copiapoa haseltoniana appeared and ‘took tea’ (well Nescafe instant coffee actually) at the small shop and restaurant at Paposo, before arriving tired but happy back at
Caleta Hueso for the night.

Thursday, 12 June 2003 – Taltal to Caleta Botija

Although not yet half way through our trip, today we would reach our northern most point, north of El Cobre. This involved quite a drive and for me satisfied another curiosity – what, if anything, can be found on the road that runs north and inland from Paposo, past the Cerro Paranal Observatory, before eventually rejoining Ruta 1 – the coast road.

Our first stop (S0135) had been christened ‘The Paposo Shrine Stop’ in 2001 and we found the same plants (Copiapoa humilis and an Eriosyce (Neoporteria) taltalensis. The Copiapoas here are the subject of frequent damage – collectors? animals? In any event, the damage is usually limited to the heads being removed, leaving the tap root to produce numerous offsets.

Next stop (S0136) was an opportunity to take a more detailed look at a ‘nearly’ stop in 2001. Then, our car had lost contact with Rudolf’s car driving lead and we had taken a wrong turn. The track ended at on open space where the ceroids were covered with lichen, indicating that although the sun was beating down from above, this place gets a lot of fog (or rather, the cloud that drifts in from the ocean hits the hills at this altitude of just under 700 m.) That time we were anxious to meet up with the rest of the party. This time we could have a look around.

We had been right about the cloud / fog! As we parked the cars, lichen covered Eulychnia and Trichocerei seemed to step into view, only to disappear again as the fog closed in around them. We walked up to the rim of the hill and found large plants of Copiapoa humilis. A few of them had been damaged some while back, perhaps knocked over by an animal. Again, the taproot had produced offsets and these looked identical to the plants we had seen earlier at The Shrine. It seems that the plants there, for some reason, never get the chance to put on any size, giving the impression that it is a population of minuscule plants. The only objects to liven up this dreary, gloomy landscape were bushes of Nolana (rupicola?) in full bloom.

The scenery was not inviting for a longer stay. Back on the main road and about 100 m higher, we had escaped the clouds and were passing large clumps of Copiapoa eremophila, another high altitude form of C. cinerea and similar to C. tenebrosa, the high altitude form found east of Taltal. We had been given directions by Rudolf to turn right after passing ‘two dead busses’. ‘Dead busses’ are a relatively common feature in the landscape and we passed several, some on their own, some in groups of 3 or more, but not in a duo. As a result we missed the turn and the opportunity to see these Copiapoa, as by now we were well inland, with the coastal hills preventing any rain or fog from penetrating from the west.

This was the Atacama Desert – a moon scape, without plants. It was a fairly good road, thanks to its use as access to the Paranal Observatory. Still, any car was visible miles away, as its motion threw up huge clouds of dust. The game was to make sure that all windows were shut by the time the car passed us. I’m not sure if the crowd in the Nissan played this game too. They usually followed us, which meant that our dust trail would have been around them most of the time.

Eventually, we reached the turning to El Cobre, a confusing junction with seemingly three tracks to choose from. As in 2001, we picked the wrong one first, ending up at a dead end some 2 km further, but got it right second time round, as my memory told me to look out for a dead bus. Let’s hope that nobody ever tows these away, in an effort to clean up the Atacama – I, and possibly many others, would be quite lost without such landmarks. Was this ‘The long and winding road’ of which Paul McCartney sings? As it snaked down the hill, we could see (mainly dead) clumps of Copiapoa solaris but delayed our stop (S0137) until we were about to disappear into the clouds. Once at the coast, we passed the deserted workings at El Cobre, and pushed on in the fading day light, briefly stopping the car at Blanco Encalada, where C. solaris (still mainly dead plants) was growing along the coast road.

We were keen to get to Caleta Botija, where, at the mouth of the Quebrada Botija, we still had to set up our tents and meet up with Rudolf & Leo. Although I had been here twice before in 2001 and the pictures of those visits were firmly imprinted on my memory, things looked very different at dusk, especially with low cloud hiding the silhouette of the hills that should have enabled me to recognise the canyon. Using our GPS, we felt that we were close – in fact, had overshot the point where we should have left the track. As we were looking for a turning point, the very poor road finally took its toll, as we could smell burning rubber. A massive gash in the front offside tyre explained why.

So, all hands to the pump to unload the luggage to get to the spare wheel (another minus point for the Kia) to replace the damaged wheel. As we’re on popular expressions – too many cooks spoil the broth, so I decided to walk back down the track with my GPS, just in time to see a set of car headlights come down the road from the north and vanishing about one km. from where we were. This had to be Rudolf & Leo, and so, with renewed confidence I returned to the car, once again ready to go, and after about 1 km found the point where fresh tyre marks lead off the track towards the hills.

Rudolf and Leo were cosily arranged around a campfire, (S0138) not visible from the road due to a stonewall that had been built. They had brought plastic chairs from their hotel (only two of course) and had their potatoes and tins on the fire, while laughing and offering suggestions to us setting up camp – for many of us this was the first time that the tents especially bought for this and two other possible ‘camping in nature’ events, were taken out of their bags. By torch light, we struggled to read the instructions stitched on the inside of the bag in a variety of languages, unfortunately not one we could understand. Using common sense we all managed to put up our tents and enjoyed a good laugh at Rudolf’s expense, as he (or rather his tent) seemed to suffer ‘erection problems’ of its own, and collapsed spontaneously as we opened our welcome bottles of wine.

Reasonable quantities of Pisco Sour or wine are essential for our camping stops, as it numbs the back when eventually you lie down for some shut eye on the stony ground. Beer works too, but it is not highly recommended as the volume required to achieve the same affect is such that frequent calls of nature have to be made during the night.

Several trampled on cacti around the camping area were evidence that some of us had to answer such calls. Despite the discomfort endured, these nights of camping out are a must for any cactus trip.

Tomorrow we’ll explore the Botija Valley.

Wednesday 11 June 2003 – Taltal: Quebrada San Ramon

Today we only had a five minute drive up the road to park our cars at the entrance of the Quebrada San Ramon. The aim was to walk as far up the valley as we could and to admire all the various forms of Copiapoa cinerea on the way. These include C. haseltoniana (with yellow / orangey spination and felt at the apex), C. tenabrosa (a high altitude form) and C. albispina (white spined, as the name implies) – as well as C. krainziana and C. rupestris.

Angie found it heavy going through the loose sand and stretches with boulders that must have been attractive rapids in the days when water flowed through this canyon. So, remembering that after all, this was a holiday – and because I had already seen C. krainziana and C. rupestris in 2001 – the two of us decided to take the opportunity of a photo shoot of the wonderful variability of the plants found about half way into the Quebrada.

Although I recorded 4 stop numbers (S0131, S0132, S0133 and S0134) these were merely landmarks for notes taken at the mouth of the Quebrada, at the points where two side canyons join the main one and at the point where Angie & I decided that we’d gone far enough.

As the day progressed and many a flash card, film and battery had to be replaced by a fresh one, we slowly made our way back to the entrance, expecting the others to catch us up. However, we did not recognise the first figure we spotted in the distance, although he too seemed to be photographing the cacti and collecting seed. A bit later, now carrying a huge rucksack, he caught up with us and surprised me by his greeting: ‘Hi Paul Klaassen, I’m Finn Larsen’. Finn had heard about our Copiapoathon from Rudolf and had emailed me a few weeks before our departure from Europe. He too was travelling around Chile in June and I sent him a copy of our itinerary. As a result, he knew that we would probably be in Quebrada San Ramon that day. He had already met some of the others in our party at the end of the canyon, where he had camped for the night. He had to get back to the mouth of the Quebrada by 4 p.m. as he had booked a taxi to pick him up.

Later that night he joined us for dinner at Restaurant Las Brisas, right on the small fishing harbour, where that night we managed to drink the place dry of Cristal beer. It was decided that Finn + rucksack could be squeezed into the Nissan and so he became a welcome addition to our party until the penultimate day of our trip.

Tuesday 10 June 2003 – Bahia Inglesa to Taltal

Today’s plan was to make just a few stops along Ruta 5 and to find the turn off to Cifuncho and after some stops there, in particularly to see ‘Copiapoa sp. ‘Cifuncho’ as mentioned and pictured in ‘Copiapoa in their Environment’ by Schulz & Kapitany (pages 104-105).

Our first stop (S0126) was at km 910 on Ruta 5, where, once again with the Pacific Ocean in the back ground, we saw and photographed Copiapoa calderana. Our check list of Copiapoa taxa seen was now looking quite respectable with another one, Copiapoa calderana var. spinosior, added to it at our next stop (S0127) at, what we had christened ‘the Monument stop’ (S0097) in 2001. Here there was also a wispy white spined Eriosyce, E. taltalensis var. pygmaea – a taxon with a list of synonyms as long as your arm, from which the name Neoporteria pulchella is more comfortable to me. Another one for some more reading when we return home.

Tracks to out-of-the-way hamlets and villages are seldom sign-posted on Ruta 5, and if they are, the sign is often make-shift and appears just about on the turning, without advance warning. It came therefore as no surprise that we missed our turn and had to approach Cifuncho on the more established (and much improved since 2001) track off the Las Breas – Taltal road.

We could not resist a stop (S0128 = S0052 from 2001) as the first Copiapoa columna-alba appeared on the scene, although we were to see much more impressive stands later on in the trip. I was able to delay our stop until we had reached the spot where in 2001 we had found C. columna-alba growing alongside C. desertorum, very similar in appearance to C. rupestris but here forming huge mounds of up to 140 cm in diameter and up to 80 cm high. Here, C. columna-alba favours the lighter coloured soil on the north side of the track, while C. desertorum favours the darker coloured soil on the opposite side of the track. I found this quite striking in 2001, but this year found later on in the trip when we approached this location from another direction, that this apparent preference is just coincidental at this spot, as further up the track it is not the case.

Benjy’s excitement grew as we approached Cifuncho as he was keen to show us ‘his’ best plant of Copiapoa sp. Cifuncho’. (S0129). We clambered about on the rocks and found some nice single stemmed plants, but it took Benjy a while to find his plant, a nice 6 headed monster, poised on the top of a rock. The general opinion was that this ‘sp.’ is perhaps the most northern form of C. longistaminea. We also found a nice Eriosyce rodentiophila with its golden spines glowing in the late afternoon sun.

And so it was time to head for Taltal, but not before making one more stop (S0130) to see if we could find any ‘Thelocephala‘ as we had done in 2001. We split into two groups of 4 to search two distinct low plateaux. The group I was in found only a single Eriosyce rodentiophila, but the other group had more luck, finding some, which I guess, without having seen them or the pictures taken by the others as yet, should be Eriosyce krausii.

We finally got to the Cabañas Caleta Hueso, which would be our base for the next 6 days. It provided the ideal opportunity to catch up on some much needed washing – Benjy even gave up time at the bar so he could wash his socks! – plus the chance to sample the best sea food ever at Restaurant Las Brisas.

Monday, 9 June 2003 – Bahia Inglesa: Explorations north of Caldera

Ricardo suggested that we’d join him and members of the Chilean Cactus Club for the day and so we met up at the Copec fuel station on Ruta 5 at around 8 a.m.. Our first goal was a drive and walk up the Quebrada El Leon (S0123), where we found Copiapoa humilis, C. marginata and what we tentatively noted as C. hypogaea (which would make it the most southern occurrence by quite a distance and therefore unlikely). The ‘other cacti’ included Eriosyce (Neoporteria) taltalensis and Echinopsis (Trichocereus) deserticola.

Next we were to meet the owner of the hotel where Ingrid & Ricardo had been staying, who would guide us to another location which, as far as we are aware, had not been explored for cacti before (S0124) at La Hormiga. Angie christened this stop ‘Horror Hill’ as the track was probably the most demanding on car, driver and passengers of anything we had met to date. Many a ‘Ouch’ and ‘whoops-a-daisy’ was heard as the convoy of 5 cars lunged up the hillside track. There had been the usual low cloud cover as we woke, but this tended to lift during the day. Not today – it even started to spit with drizzle as we were taking our pictures. The Copiapoa and Eriosyce sp. we found (small plants) were dully photographed. As the Copiapoa met the ‘squishy’ criteria, coined by Rudolf in 2001 for soft bodied plants in the Humilis complex, this was the name noted. Discussions later on left me a little confused with C. humilis, C. echinata and C. totoralensis as possible candidates for the identity parade.

The Eriosyce (Neoporteria) sp. was also ‘different’ to anything we’d seen before with probably more than one taxon represented. The name E. occulta was suggested and that name deserves a bit more study of the available literature in weeks to come.

Plant ID can be quite a tricky business. When it comes to cacti, we’re so used to buying labelled plants and often blindly trust the accuracy of the name on the label. Or we have built up an image of what a particular species should look like from a limited number of pictures in a book. This ill prepares us for the variability that can occur in nature. Some taxa are quite uniform in appearance, while others can confuse the most experienced copiapoaphile. The next aid to identification is to check through literature for suggestions of what has been reported from a particular location before, but this relies on the expertise of the author, who may have copied errors that have crept into earlier works and of the person who has entered that name on their field list and so it too has to be used with caution. Next, we used the process of elimination and ultimately some long discussions over several alcoholic beverages help to put the world to rights.

It was at this point that our car, a Kia Sportage, decided to play dead. It had on some occasions been a bit tricky to start, but this time it was as dead as a dodo. We had been the last car to reach the ‘car park’ – the end of the trail at the top of a hill where we just managed to squeeze the car in between Eulychnia and Trichocereus. The last 20 meters had been steep with large holes and boulders making the end of the road a welcome sight. We believed that we would be able to bump-start the car, but none of us dared to do this in reverse down this horrible track. So with the unified strength of the assembled cactophiles, the car was pushed from (and over) Eulychnia to Trichocereus for what seemed like a 12 point turn on a handkerchief.

Eventually it was pointing down hill and Cliff volunteered to be the chauffeur for the bump start. With a sigh of relief from the spectators the car fired up and we could start the descend. From than on it was important to look for a place to park the car with a good downward slope to get it going again.

We intended to ring the car rental people or to seek advice at a local garage, but when you spend most of the day in the field, away from garages, this proved not the easiest of things to accomplish. We agreed to seek help in Taltal where we’d be spending six nights. By then, Cliff’s careful observations had found the car battery bone dry due to two grommets, fitted to avoid spillage of battery acid in transit between the factory and the supplier, still being in place, despite the instructions (in English) on the battery to remove them after installation of the battery. As a result, the battery had been unable to breath, causing it to boil. The problem was remedied easily with the aid of a few litres of distilled water supplied by the owner of the cabañas in Taltal and the removal of the grommets.

Anyway, with the car still ill, our two car parties decided to spend the afternoon on the Morro Copiapó, opposite the hotel at Bahia Inglesa (S0125). This is an important location for Copiapoaphiles, as it is the location of the neotype of Copiapoa marginata, the plant that was chosen as the type species of the genus when it was created by Britton & Rose. For some 60 years, the true identity of C. marginata had been the source of some argument and discussion until Ritter designated the plants from Morro Copiapó as the neotype.

It is also the neotype locality for Eriosyce odieri according to Kattermann. The two taxa were dully found and photographed as the sun was disappearing behind the Morro, casting a harsh shadow over the plants.

And so it was once again time to get back to the hotel bar and for Angie to down-load the day’s images from her, Cliff’s and my digital cameras to her laptop, which by the end of the trip had about 6,000 images stored.

Sunday 8 June 2003 – Huasco to Bahia Inglesa

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?).

Saturday 7 June 2003 – La Serena to Huasco

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.


Friday 6 June 2003 – Ovalle to La Serena

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!

Thursday, 5 June 2003 – Pichidangui to Ovalle

Eventually, we were all showered and ready to go. First stop was a vulcanizion where for the equivalent of £ 1.50 (c. US$ 2) the tyre was fixed, the valve changed and the spare wheel swapped back for the original, so that we had matching sets of tyres.

Along this part of the Chilean coast, access to the rocky shore line is rather limited as land has been fenced off in preparation for sale and building of some very nice weekend retreats for the better off Santiago workers. While this urbanisation does have an impact on nature – we were able to see this already in Pichidangui – the pressures of people in search of better housing, even only as a break for daily city life is irresistible. It would be wrong for us to criticize this situation, as we had been quite happy to make use of the facilities at Hotel Kon-Tiki, which previously would have been nice cactus habitation.

The next opportunity to see what could be found at the coast came at Punta Totoralillo (S0002 from 2001, S0109 this time), some 15 km up the coast. During my previous visit, signs of tourism,
encouraging housing development, were already to be found, but now more sections of the coast were fenced off and a few summer houses had been built. The same mix of cacti and succulents that we had seen at Pichidangui were to be found, but with easier access from the bottom of the rocks rather than from the top.

S0110 was an unscheduled stop at a petrol station off Ruta 5. While the cars were being fuelled, toilet breaks were taken and legs stretched. This last exercise took us to a barbed wire fence, no doubt put up to stop passers by from falling into a dry gully. Here we found some very fit Eulychnia acida and Trichocereus and all of us were persuaded to get our cameras from the car to photograph a nice crested plant. Hence this was entered into my Stop list. Sequential Stop numbers were allocated to each place where we stopped to take pictures of cacti.

Next we pushed on until we reached the turn off to Parque Nacional Bosque de Fray Jorge. In 2001 we had learned that during the winter season, these parks were only open during the weekend, so on this Thursday, we made three stops (S0111, S0112 and S0113) along the road up to the park entrance gate, which in 2001 had been chained off. However, this time it was open and we made our way to the Ranger Station to make some enquiries. We were assured that the park would still be open on 26 June when we were due to pass by on the way home. We decided against camping this time as we had not bought provisions (read beer, wine and bread rolls) for a night out. At the Ranger Station I was able to take a picture of Copiapoa pendulina, a form of C. coquimbana that is regarded as the most southern Copiapoa. This plant had been moved to a small garden so that the people could recognise it later on their walks through the extensive Park.

The stops on the road in and out of Fray Jorge proved a treat in their own right, as we found the only Eulychnia plant (Eulychnia acida) on the whole trip, that was in flower. Various attempts were made at catching the flower, some 2.50 m (8-9 foot) off the ground, on film. Time will tell if the slides I attempted to take, hanging off the side of the car, are any good. In addition to the ceroids (Eulychnia acida and Echinopsis (Trichocereus) skottsbergii). other cacti included Cumulopuntia sphaerica although we still tended to call it by Ritter’s name Tephrocactus berteri and Eriosyce aurata, the form previously going under Ritter’s name Eriosyce ihotzkyanae or Backeberg’s E. ceratistes var. jorgensis. These plants were giant barrels, to 88 cm tall and 50 cm in diameter. Some still had the characteristic woolly fruits in abundance, while others were bear of fruit, but with the plant’s depressed apex full of seed, ready to be scooped up by ants, mice and keen cactophiles.

Aware that we still had some way to go before a hotel bed awaited us, we drove east to Ovalle, making short stops to capture the best sunset of the entire trip on film and digital camera. Ovalle turned out to be a typical Chilean town, with some 53,000 inhabitants and a grid system roads where getting to the planned hotel usually means driving twice around the Plaza before you have found the one-way street that gets you closest. Hotel Roxy was no exception, with it’s neighbouring porn video shop probably helping to keep the price for accommodation down. As often, behind the plain and unassuming entrance was a nice courtyard leading to simple but clean rooms – a welcome bed for the night.

Wednesday 4 June 2003 – Santiago to Pichidangui

We arrived safely and reasonably fresh at Santiago Airport, or, to give it its full name: Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benitez at Pudahuel, where we were met by the manager and two representatives of LYS Rent a Car.  The cars were checked over and any superficial damage to the bodywork was noted (and photographed by Angie with her digital camera). Everything was in order, except that the tyres seemed a little on the soft side. These were inflated, but as we wanted to check the pressure in the spare tyre for the Nissan 21D, it appeared that the back bumper had some damage that prevented access to the spare wheel. ‘Not to worry’, said Andres, the manager, ‘Just follow us to our offices in down town Santiago and we’ll fix it’.

This was my cue to get worried. During Copiapoathon 2001, we made the mistake of spending our last night in Santiago and while I was most impressed with the volume of buses and taxis, I did not want to drive there myself. But needs must, so I followed Andres’ car as though I was glued to its back bumper, while Ian, driving the Nissan, was equally glued to mine. Things got interesting at traffic lights that changed colour mid-convoy, but as I am colour blind, I just drove on. Apparently Ian is also colour blind as he followed closely.

All’s well that ends well, and before too long we were on the Pan-American Highway (aka Ruta 5), heading north.

As we had anticipated being rather jet-lagged and possible delays of flights, we made swiftly for Pichidangui, some 35 km after the Panamerican (Ruta 5) hits the Pacific Coast.  As daylight was fading (at about 17:30), I stood again on the rocky coast at the west end of the town.  This was the last Stop (S107) of our 2001 trip, so nicely provided some continuity.  There is a small church (church of Santa Teresa) that has been built on a rock into the ocean. 

This time we clambered over the rocks north of the church (S108) and found Eriosyce subgibbosa and E. chilensis var. albidiflora (Ritter’s Pyrrhocactus chilensis var. albidiflora), Eulychnia castanea and two species of Echinopsis (Trichocereus): E. litoralis and E. chiloensis, all competing for space with a very lush vegetation of grasses, a succulent Oxalis, O. bulbocastanum as well as a range of imported succulents (including Mesembryanthemacea, Agave, Aloe arborescens etc).

I wanted to get to the south side of the church, as, on the flats right along side the road, we had found another Eriosyce, E. curvispina var. mutabilis (syn. Pyrrhocactus / Neochilenia odoriflora, Neoporteria horrida var. odoriflora), in 2001.  As I went to get the car, I noticed that the front tyre needed some air.  By the time that Angie & I got back after a quick look at the south side, the tyre had visibly gone down more.  It was now dusk, so instead of driving back through town to our planned accommodation at Cabañas Del Bosque, we booked in at the Cabañas of Hotel Kon-Tiki, right alongside the coast road.

After the first of many excellent meals (choice of beef, pork or fish, chips or rice and a range of salads to chose from), washed down with some equally excellent red Chilean wine, we retired for the night, all eight of us into a single cabaña.  The following morning we learned not to repeat the experience, with lengthy waits for toilet & shower.