Today we would travel from one town in an important river system – Vallenar along the Rio Huasco – to another – Vicuña along the Rio Elqui. Although the flora all round indicated relatively recent rainfall, river and reservoir levels were very low, perhaps suggesting that the amount of Andean melt water was down or that the demand for water down stream had increased.
First stop of the day (S1965) was along the Domeyko – Carrizalillo road for Eriosyce (Thelocephala) napina ssp. tenebrica and an opportunity of some more flower sections of E. chorosensis. We were now getting the full ‘benefit’ of the Camanchaca – far from ideal photo conditions. The second stop (S1966) gave us the same cacti, but closer to Carrizalillo, plus Eriosyce heinrichiana (?). By now we were using the windscreen wipers of the car in a light drizzle.
The rain had eased up by the time that we stopped again (S1966). Copiapoa coquimbana was here as well as several plants of Eriosyce subgibbosa wagenknechtii. I had not noticed that there was a light wind that had resulted in plants being half wet, on the ‘windy’ side and bone dry on the other side of the stem – it all looked most peucliar. Under these conditions it looked as though the large felted areoles of E. chorosensis had swollen in response to the humidity.
S1967 was a historical moment as we stood at JA001 – Juan and Florencia’s first recorded cactus stop in habitat from 2004! Cliff was again looking for seed and made the startling discovery that the seed pods here were proud off the plant instead of hidden in apical wool. We smiled, as Juan had earlier told us that alongside Copiapoa coquimbana grew Eriosyce simulans – Ritter used the species name because the plants were so similar to C. coquimbana. I managed to take some good shots of plants in fruit, growing side by side. Only the fruits look different. Miqueliopuntia miquelii was also in flower, reminding me of the variability in flower colour and petal shapes noted on earlier trips. I must take a closer look when we pass through here again on the November trip.
The really positive point from today’s travels was that we were able to follow a reasonable hard road from Carrizallilo, east to Ruta 5 via Choros Alto, rather than having to go back the long way round, the way we had come, via Domeyko. This new track saved us at least 150 km. There was a lot more mining traffic (large trucks) that suggests increased activity in the hills: better access but also some habitat destruction.