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Today’s plan was to take it easy with a gentle 200 km drive on Ruta 5 – The Pan-American Highway to Guanaqueros. Although the main focus of the trip remained Copiapoa, I have also taken a great interest in the Genus Eulychnia. At yesterday’s stops we had seen E. castanea in flower, with its characteristic spiny pericarpel. How far north does this occur?

My southern-most Copiapoa to date was one planted at the Ranger station at the Fray Jorge National Park. The Rio Lamari to the south of the Park is often understood to be its natural boundary.

And so spotting locations for these two taxa became the aim for today.

Friends had reported seeing Copiapoa growing as far south as Huentelaquon, Bahia Teniente and La Cebada, small coastal hamlets and exits off Ruta 5, suggesting that the Rio Choapa rather than the Rio Lamari might be the southern boundary. We found the exits easily enough – as they flashed by at 120 km.p.hr. Unlike motorways in the UK, there is rarely signage to count the motorist down from 300 m to 200 m to 100 m to a junction with long slip roads. If slip roads exist in Chile, they are extremely short. So, unless you know exactly where the turning (often a dirt road) is, you fly past and need to resist the temptation to reverse back on the hard shoulder and wait until the next exit, often tens of km. further on, to turn back. Alternatively, you crawl along at 30 km.p.hr. to hit the turning, with the risk of being run over by a mega-truck thundering along at some 100 km.p.hr.

So, we missed the turning at Huentelaquon, and somehow ended up on a track leading inland to the village of Mincha Sur, separated from Mincha Norte by the Rio Choapa. S0514 gave a nice panoramic view of the Pan-Am crossing the Rio Choapa, with the Ocean in the background, confirming that we were on the wrong side of both the road and the river. The stop was prompted by finding Echinopsis (Trichocereus) chiloensis and a Puya sp. in flower. After a few more km. the track was bordered by solid hedges of Trichocereus and Eulychnia, as effective as any hedge or fence at keeping animals (including people) in or out. According to signage, the aim was motivated by both agriculture and conservation – to combat desertification.

Back on Ruta 5, we flew past the exit for Caleta Teniente and concluded that there seemed little promise of Copiapoa from what we could see at the high speed pass by. So on to the last opportunity: La Cebada, recommended by our Chilean friends Ricardo Keim & Ingrid Schaub.

This exit was better indicated and had a reasonable slip road, but the tarmac turned into a dirt track within metres. No problem for a Toyota Hilux 4×4. Soon the track narrowed and made a steep 10 m descend. a bend at the bottom and next a gate. The hand break only just held on the steep hill.

Angie jumped out but reported the gate as locked. No space for a 3 point turn, so into reverse. Much spinning of wheels, covering Angie in dust and sand, but gravity kept pulling me closer to the gate. Engage 4x4WD. Great, but on these models that involves turning the front wheel nuts into a lock position and then switching between 1st & reverse until the extra drive engages. The gate drew closer and closer until finally the gears kicked in and I inched backwards up the hill and away from the gate (S0515). Unsure of how far beyond the gate we needed to go to see our cacti, we consulted some maps and decided to take some overview pictures and study these for a solution on the way back.

The map indicated a track running west off Ruta 5 towards the coast to Mina Talca. We found the turn off and soon found ourselves at the impressive gates of Hacienda Talinay. The gates were open and there were no signs discouraging visitors, so we drove on. Another disappointment, as it seemed that we had reached another area earmarked for tourist development. We drove for kilometres along a grid of tracks through a flat sandy area covered in desert scrub, heading for low rolling hills (S0516). The area had been marked out into small parcels that together would have formed a fair sized town if all are developed. But how would this dry area sustain such a large number of people?  Back in England, a search on Google provided a further insight to what we saw: http://www.talinay.com/) and confirmed our fears.

We returned to the Pan Am and continued north, stopping for ‘motion lotion’ at the services at Termas de Socos, a regular fuel stop on previous stops. Why? Because there are no more filling stations for many miles to come. Back on Ruta 5, we passed the turning to the Fray Jorge National Park. Time moves on, whether you find interesting plants or are just become mildly frustrated by the lack of success. And so weapproached the turn off to Tongoy and Guanaqueros to find a bed for the night. No trouble, as we were still outside of Chile’s tourist season and were the only visitors to the cabañas at Bahia Club (http://www.bahiaclub.cl/) , selected in 2001 from the many other facilities in the village because our fellow traveller on that occasion, Marlon Machado, comes from the Brazilian State of the same name.

First though, we took the track to  El Pangue, hoping to find a track to the coast at Puerto Aldea. A lot more signage at the track to Puerto Aldea seemed to suggest that this was a ‘no access’ track to private property. Either we had taken a wrong turn or had misunderstood the signs ‘Revinto Privado’ and ‘Prohibido Pasar’ that would have been like red rags to a bull to our usual companion, Leo van der Hoeven. But Leo was on a cactus trip in northern Brazil, so we both made mental notes to make more effort to improve our Spanish language skills once back in England. With the prospect of a nice shower and a typical sea food dinner, washed down with some Chilean vino in Guanaqueros, we decided to turn back and stop at some Eulychnia in flower that we had passed earlier.

S0517 was a typical cactus hedge consisting mostly of Eulychnia. These were tall, branching plants, rather than the sprawling E. castanea that we had seen further south.

The botanical key for the genus Eulychnia focuses on the pericarpel and fruit that are either spiny (E. castanea), naked scales (E. acida) or woolly (E. breviflora and E. iquiquensis). So what would we find here? I entered ‘aff. E. acida‘ in my notes. Not ‘pure’ acida, as there were just a few hairs in addition to the scales.  I’m working on a Eulychnia (http://www.eulychnia.info) website and will expand on this further once these Diaries have been completed for 2006.

A bit further along (S0518) the sprawling cactus turned out to be an Echinopsis (Trichocereus) sp. but for now I’ll resist the temptation to add another genus to my list of ‘to be studied in more detail’ cacti, bearing in mind the range of classification systems and ‘valid’ taxa for this genus. Nearly as bad as Eriosyce, but that is a different story.

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