Fully rested (well, Anne and I were – Alain again had difficulty with our snoring), we set off – in thick fog (again!) for Chañaral. In 2003, on the way south, we had left Copiapó in a thick fog that had stayed with us all the way to Vallenar.
This time the fog lifted just before 10:00 and we made two stops along Ruta 5 (S222 and S223), not prompted by cacti, but by a sight we had not seen on our previous trips – a sight that must have inspired Jimi Hendrix to write ‘Purple Haze’. Large patches of normally barren desert were covered by a blanket of flowers. The cause was a small rosette of rather succulent looking leaves, a short thin stem and a small purple flower on top – I believe Calandrinia longiscapa. It grew here in millions! Also in flowers were a lily (common name Añañuca amarilla – botanical name Rhodophiala bagnoldii) and a daisy-like flower, Encelia canescens – if the ‘Chilean Flora For Tourists’ type books that I bought at the airport on the way home, are to be believed. This last plant is very similar to Rudbeckia, a plant found in European gardens but that is endemic to North America. It was only the third day into our trip and already I had taken more pictures of non succulent plants than in total during the four week trip in 2003!
I took a GPS reading (S224) to mark the turning off Ruta 5 to Barranquillas, a track that we would explore further on the way back. The track looked to lead into the wide, flat valley of the Rio Copiapó. A green line of trees and shrubs indicated where the river provides some water, but otherwise the area looked rather bleak and barren. Two weeks later, when we travel down this track, we were to find a huge surprise!
Past Caldera, we repeated two more stops from previous visits (S225 and S226). At S225, I wanted to check out something that had bothered me since the 2003 trip – how uniform are the populations of Copiapoa calderana here? Not very, when considering spine and epidermis colour. We also found the local Eulychnia in bud – very woolly – and some of the ‘goat-dropping look-alike’ Eriosyce : E. odieri ssp krausi – well done Anne, for spotting these ‘invisible’ plants.
We booked into Hosteria Chañaral for the night (more to confirm that the service here remains sub-standard than for any other reason), sent messages home from the internet cafe in town and did some shopping at the local supermarket as the next night would be spent in tents near Esmeralda. As we walked home, it seemed that we were joined by a Chilean chap. As I stopped to take pictures, he stopped too. When we walked on, so did he. ‘Have you seen that?’ I asked Alain, ‘It is as though he is following us!’ ‘I hope so,’ Alain replied, ‘he’s carrying our shopping!’
Tomorrow we enter Pan de Azucar.