Going past old haunts is all very well, but a good balanced program also includes something new. And so we headed north on R5 until the second turning west to Carrizal Bajo. But we went in fact about 100 m farther and took the turning east to El Donkey, a name that had always intrigued me during the many times that we drove past here. This time we had a cactus excuse: Ingrid and Ricardo had published a new cactus species from here in 2009: Copiapoa coquimbana ssp andina. We drove the 26 km on good dirt to El Donkey, which turned out to be a one ‘horse’ town. A rather dilapidated house and a cloth covered structure with a sign to announce that it was the commune’s meeting house and a dog that seemed rather over anxious to welcome us.
We made a stop (S1993) for some Eriosyce eriosysoides growing in the rocks. Also found were the omni present (for the last few days) Cumulopuntia sphaerica, and some rather poorly Eulychnia acida. Yet they were still flowering or in bud and bald hypanthium leaves no doubt about their ID. On latitudes where it co-exists with other species, E. acida tends to be the one that grows inland, while the other takes over the coastal niche.
We carried on for a few more miles, until passed the abandoned mine at Mercedita. After this five shack settlement the track deteriorated fast and it seemed wise, at the next turning round point, to do just that. We had already earmarked some stops for the way back.
The first of these S1994 gave us C. coquimbana ssp andina, C. sphaerica and Eulychnia acida.
Not satisfied with this at S1995, at km 21.2, we had spotted some Copiapoa against the rocks on the way up. Our more detailed visit gave us more pictures, including two plants in flower. Mark was the first to find one of these and commented that the flower was reddish in colour. I found my plant much lower down the rock face and found it to be more orange in colour. I must check out the colour given in the description of the plant. As a Dutchman, it is tempting to describe am orange flowered form as fa. naranjaflora. Other plants as reported for S1994.
S1996 was for a location previously visited for Eriosyce (Thelocephala) aerocarpa. The plants were not too difficult to find and Juan was especially pleased as it was the first time that he had found seed at this location.
As we seemed to be in Thelocephala mood, S1997 took us back to see E. (Thelocephala) challensis, onlt a fortnight or so after our last visit. It seemed that uanacos had feasted on the plants since then, as it had become more difficult to spot plants and there was plenty of evidence that their scraping had been rewarded with plant heads.
A bit farther along the track to Carrizal Bajo S1998 became again the ideal group photo stop as large clumps of C. dealbata are hard to beat for impact. Having spotted one E. acida among all the E. breviflora last time, I had a closer look but here, some 12 km inland, the mix was roughly 95% E. breviflora, confirming its status as the coastal plant.
As time pushed us on, the last stop of the day, S1999, was a quick one for E. (Thelocephala) monteamargensis. We had driven through the same area that two weeks ago had been awash with purple flowers but that today looked as desolate as any part of the Atacama usually does. Amazing, what a transformation. There were just one or two patches along the track, perhaps benefiting from a little more humidity along the road?, that had a square meter of purple left, but the impact was lost.
We’re spending two nights at Hotel Puerto do Sol in Caldera, with wifi in each of the Cabana type tipi huts.