The journey went without any hitches so that by early Saturday afternoon, the dream that got me through the flight had turned into reality. Angie is reviewing her digital images as I am writing these notes and has just shown me one from this stop that she has entitled ‘Cacti, weeds and sea’. The ‘weeds’ include flowering Alstroemeria, Carpobrotus chilensis, Oxalis bulbocastanum and a whole range of other local flowering annuals.
Earlier we had stopped off at Pichicuy and La Ballena (S0511), small fishing hamlets, to check out the impact of tourism that is threatening both the plants and the raw charm of Pichidangui, where roads are now being paved and sidewalks prepared. Angie, whose son Adrian has cerebral palsy and is the Michael Schumacher of the motorised wheelchair community, was impressed to see how much progress had been made with wheel chair accessibility in mind, compared to her previous visit in 2003 – very encouraging! Despite these ‘oases’ in the concrete wheel chair user’s desert, there were still huge areas that would have been an insurmountable challenge, even to Adrian.
At Pichicuy (S0510), the fishing boats fight for space on the sandy beach with homes and shops immediately along the beach – not much room for plants here. At La Ballena, away from the fisherman’s beach, we found a similar flora to ‘our’ shore side spot, our next stop in Pichidangui: Alstroemeria spaculata (?), Carpobrotus chilensis, Eriosyce chilensis or E. subgibbosa – impossible to tell when they are not in flower, Eulychnia castanea, Nolana sp., Oxalis bulbocastanum, Puya venusta, Trichocereus chiloensis and T. litoralis.
The Pichidangui stop (S0512) is quite special. Quite by accident we stopped here in 2001 on our way to the Airport – the last stop on our first trip. Only 200 km from the airport, it is the ideal first and last stop, providing great continuity between trips. It has been described as a ‘Neoporteria paradise’, with three species growing together. In May 2001 and June 2003, Eriosyce subgibbosa were in flower; in October 2004, E. chilensis var albidiflora was in full bloom. These plants grow side by side on the rocks in the spray of the Pacific Ocean and when not in flower are almost indistinguishable. Their different flowering seasons mean that they are genetically separated: there is little opportunity for hybridisation – even though a rare ‘out of season’ plant can be found with the odd flower during the other species peak flowering period. On the flat area above the rocks, an area right in front of recent tourist home developments, a third species, Eriosyce curvispina (= N. mutabilis) can still be found, although it is under threat of competition of introduced garden plants such as Agaves and the invasive Carpobrotus chilensis. On the uncultivated parts, small multi-headed plants can be found, often damaged as people walk or cycle across them. Ironically, in the recently cultivated area, large specimens can be found competing with the recently planted Carpobrotus. Sadly, my money is on the Carpobrotus to win the battle.
A small area, north of the church of St Teresa, has been set aside as a protected ecosystem zone, is walled off and is only open to the public between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m., but the 1.50 m (5 ft) wall has not prevented the introduced plants from providing unfair competition. Time will tell if this small area can preserve the cactus diversity that so impressed us on our first visit. We’ll be back on our way to Santiago at the end of the trip.