There are several ways to get to (not so) ‘Secret Valley’ – a small Quebrada near Esmeralda, first used as a campsite by Attila Kapitany and Rudolf Schulz in 1994. It is marked with a GPS reference in their book ‘Copiapoa in their environment’. From Chañaral, the fastest route to this spot would be along the Pan Americana, until a turning onto a track due west. But this would have taken us past several earlier turnings, sign posted for Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar and leading to a range of interesting Copiapoa taxa – hardly fair to Alain on his first trip out here.
And so we approached the usual (main) southern entrance of the National Park and stopped (S227) where some nice clumps of Copiapoa cinerascens grew on dark rocks, with the blue Pacific Ocean in the back ground – an ideal photo opportunity. The roads – yes, the term ‘track’ is no longer appropriate for these tarmac roads, with signs warning of dangerous bends and safety rails that prevent speeding motorists from taking a dip into the ocean – had been improved beyond recognition since June 2003. Great, as we were in a hurry, but a shame as the sense of exploration and adventure from previous trips became a fading memory.
We stopped (S228) at a site where in 2001 we had found a very healthy population (many plants of various ages, including small seedlings) of Copiapoa columna-alba, and were happy to find the plants in good shape.
On both previous trips, we had followed signs to El Mirador, but, soon after the sign post, had found a chain across the track, with a small car park near by, so that we had never travelled beyond this point. This time the chain was gone and we followed the track to a magnificent view point (S229) over the Pacific Ocean shoreline, from the sugar-loaf shaped island that gives the park its name, in the south, to the heights of Las Lomitas to the north. Huge shrubs of Euphorbia lactiflua were covered in flowers, while tall stands of Eulychnia breviflora (was E. saint-pieana) were in (very woolly) bud. The clumps of Copiapoa grandiflora looked less happy, as it seemed that tourists enjoying the views were in the habit of standing on the clumps. We also photographed an interesting Oxalis with relatively large flowers, compared with the weed that plagues UK cactus collections.
As we drove on, Anne and I recalled a spot where in 2003, Cliff Thompson, driving the lead car, had screeched to a halt as he had spotted a sizeable Eriosyce rodentiophila (E. megacarpa) in an otherwise lifeless landscape. We had recorded a GPS reading for the spot so I switched on the machine and we spotted the plant as the reading on the apparatus clicked to the reading taken 16 months earlier. Despite a more thorough look around this time, it remained the only cactus found here (S230).
The foxes at Las Lomitas (S231), a main attraction during previous visits, were out (gone shopping for more cream crackers?). The cloud (camanchaca) that is responsible for creating this fog-oasis in the desert, was just over our heads, offering us a rare view some 1,000 m. down to the beach below. It did not last long, and as the cloud base lowered on us, a curious guanaco came to take a brief look, having its picture taken before disappearing into the clouds.
We followed the track north along the cliff’s edge, careful as the track approached the crests of hills, where we were unable to observe its progress beyond the crest – in case it lead straight over the edge to the beach below (one kilometre!), until we reached the point (S232) where in 2003 I had dropped of a group of fellow Copiapoathoners for their walk down the hill to Esmeralda. A cold wind blew along the cliff’s edge and we did not stay long.
As we descended down a track (the tarmac roads from the south side of the park were long gone!) and stopped (S233) to take pictures of the very heavy spined Copiapoa columna-alba (is this what Ritter called C. melanohistrix?) with stems measured by Alain up to 105 cm tall. As we reached the level ground of the Quebrada de la Cachina, we made another stop (S234) at a densely populated plateau of C. columna-alba, before driving through the Quebrada Guanillos to pay our respects to Alan Craig (S235). On the way back, we stopped (S236) at the place where in 2001 and 2003 we had found the minute Copiapoa laui in large numbers, but in the failing light, failed to find any. We’d take a better look tomorrow.
Then it was off to Secret Valley (S237) to put up our tents, build a camp fire from dead Eulychnia saint-pieana wood and consume suitable quantities of Chilean wine to brave a night on the hard desert floor.
We’d have a big surprise on waking up the following morning……