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Our first pass along the Vicuña to Hurtado road in 2007 was a revelation. We had seen pictures of the large golden spined Eriosyce aurata in talks by Roger Ferryman in the UK but he had warned that the road to this location was rather poor. So rather than travel here with the large 2007 Copiapoathon crowd, we had waited until most of the Copiapoathoners had gone home and just Juan, Leo van der Hoeven and l made an exploratory trip, in a Renault Clio of all things. The car was so light, that in an emergency we could have picked it up and turned it round. As if to prove a point, that time we met a German (judging by his T-shirt in the colours of the German flag) cycling in the opposite direction, towing a small trailer. e was in a high gear, paddling like mad but making little progress, in robotics mode, not responding to our greetings, just focussed on getting to the top of this hill, with many more to follow. Always reassuring to know that there are folk that are more crazy than we are.

The total distance along the track is only 104 km, but it’s a very twisty track, fairly well maintained most of the way, that zigzags up and down hills reaching altitudes in excess of 1,800 m. One minute you are in a green valley surrounded by vineyards, next you are at a pass crossing from one valley into another looking at the Inter-American Astronomical Observatory on Cerro Tololol at the same altitude on a facing hill, before diving back down to the next valley. About half way along the road is the Mirador (view point) of Tres Cruces, which since our 2007 visit has been known to us as ‘The Golden Balls Stop’, inspired by Victoria Beckham’s nickname for David, for quite different reasons.

Today was my fourth visit to this place (S2068), still magical, but I think that by now I have taken pictures of just about every plant from every direction. I think that on a future trip we’ll have to explore a bit along alternative tracks to find some new locations for similar plants. Is this population the most ‘aurata’ (golden) spined of them all? Answers on a post card …..

Did Pfeiffer base his original description (for Echinocactus aurata) on plants from this population? Did Pfeifer ever see these plants in nature or was his description based on material sent to Europe? I think the latter, which makes me realise how fortunate I am to have seen them in their natural setting.  

The other traditional stop is at a forest of Echinopsis (Trichocereus) chiloensis, between the villages of Morrillos and Seron. (S2069). The plants here are not particularly more densely growing than on most of the other hillsides, but they really ‘hit’ you as the road comes round a corner and the hillside is immediately in front of you. Closer inspection than reveals that there are also a range of Eriosyce growing here. Interestingly (or ‘worryingly’?) it seems that at each visit I have identified these plants as different species. More reading required, me thinks. I have now added a ‘Location’ field to my database, so that Stops at the same Location can be more easily tracked down.

My impression of Ovalle continues to improve with each visit. In 2003 we arrived late, in the dark, tired after a day’s travelling and having earlier witnessed a spectacular sunset in the Fray Jorge National Park. We did not know the town and settled for the first hotel that we came across. Later it seemed that it was more usual for rooms to be booked by the hour than for a full night!

This time we made straight for the Hotel Plaza where the staff recognised us from the October visit and greeted us with smiles and handshakes. Nice! 

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