Today was due to be another ‘driving day’, some 460 km along Ruta 5.
A few km north of Pichdangui, at Totoralillo, we made our second stop in 2001 S002), and again in 2003 (S109) and I wanted to check up on how this location had survived (S218 this time). Like most of the Pacific Ocean coast, huge stretches are lost to tourism with anything from beach huts to large complexes complete with golf courses popping up like mushrooms on a British autumn lawn.
It is easy to feel sad about the loss of cactus habitats through such developments, but I guess that at the same time we should feel happy for the Chileans as the standard of living appears to have dramatically improved for large numbers of people as a result of this and other (agriculture and mining) developments.
We should also recognise the tremendous improvements made to the roads, so that ‘cactus exploring / tourism’ becomes a much easier option, open to many more people, like ourselves, rather than to a few intrepid individuals not afraid to endure some discomfort and risk to see what we now take for granted.
We were struck by how many more flowers (wild flowers rather than cacti in flower) were on display than on earlier visits. It was great to see many ‘old friends’, cacti that I had photographed on previous occasions so that I could check their progress – just as I would do with plants in my collection back home.
Our second stop of the day was at the petrol station at Termas de Socos (S219), another stop from 2003. So was this just a nostalgic trip of previous cactus stops? Not at all. But in our rush to get to Copiapoa Country it is necessary to drive significant stretches along the Panamericana, while the need for comfort breaks and refuelling bodies and cars continues, and petrol stations are few and far between in this part of the world. And while we stretch our legs, we might as well point our cameras at any interesting plants.
Unfortunately the crested head on one of the Echinopsis (Trichocereus) chiloensis that we had seen last year had died and was hanging limply from the surviving base of the stem.
The remaining two stops before reaching Vallenar were again repeats of previous trips: S220 was at a lay-by on Ruta 5, just north of La Serena and S221 at Ruta 5, just south of Los Hornos, where I introduced Alain to his first Copiapoa (C. coquimbana).
Finding suitable accommodation in Vallenar can be a bit difficult, but we were happily surprised to see a new hotel, Hotel Takia, with the wonderful address of Prat 600. In fact, it was so new that we appeared to be the first guests – the wrappers were still on the beds. The owner spoke good English – another plus point, as my ‘Spenglish’ (a Brian Bates term) is basic in the extreme.