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During the early planning stages of my first three weeks with Angie, combining Chile and Argentina, one plan had been to do Patagonia first and then head north in Argentina crossing from San Juan Province via Paso de Agua Negra into the Elqui Valley, with a convenient first night in Vicuña. Several things went wrong with the plan, first of all, Alamo’s inability to provide papers to take the car into Argentina on the day that we arrived, necessitating a second journey to Santiago Airport and secondly, the fact that the pass is closed until 1 November, due to inclement weather (snow & Ice). A trip up the Elqui Valley had then been on the programme for Jonathan and I, but this was thwarted by the problems with car #2, so, now towards the end of my stay it seemed to be a good idea to take a look at El Indio, about as far as you can go before leaving Chile.

A drive through the valley, especially the bit past Vicuña is always enjoyable with some wonderful sight of a mountainous desert that yet finds a means to produce mile after mile of grapes. During previous visits we saw the last end of the road being built, watching diggers move the result of blowing yet another piece of mountain up and bouncing over the same rocks in what was supposed to be a track. Then in 2010 we found a wonderful asphalt road providing a smooth and fast route to the border. At the border a track veers off to the left and leads to a mine, El Indio, although the actual track is blocked by a chain, some 30 km from the border post.

This was the first time that I had tackled this road on my own and I guess that it was not surprising that I failed to spot anything more than half a dozen golden yellow spines Eriosyce eriosyzoides. (S2969)

S2969 golden spined form of Eriosyce eriosyzoides

S2969 golden spined form of Eriosyce eriosyzoides

It certainly helps to have extra pairs of eyes scouting along the hillside while the driver concentrates on the road. And that was certainly necessary, as there was fresh rubble on the road, not unlike when we had driven into Tocopilla, the day of the earthquake there. As I seemed to be the only user of the road, I could understand the lack of urgency in cleaning up such spills, or were they in fact fresh today?

Usually we have made this trip after an overnight stay in Vicuña, returning there for another night, but doing this from Guanaqueros added another dimension of urgency to the journey. SatNav reassured me that I was OK time wise, as long as I did not doodle.

At the border post, there now was a large No Entry sign at the start of the track to El Indio – manned by two security guards. I decided to take a look at the border post itself. ‘Anyone speak English? Is the border open?’ ‘No’ was the all encompassing reply. Clearly the officers on duty had not kept awake during their English classes. Help came from a French couple who had cycled up. I told them that I had suspected that they were Europeans, we’re the only folk mad enough to get to these wild and lonely places.

They explained that the border was still closed as the glacier that runs across it had not yet molten enough this year. The temperature at the border office was 26 C but higher up it was still around freezing. They had been allowed through on their bikes as far as they could go – there was no chance of them completing the crossing. At the glacier they met a scientist who was studying the glacier who took them all the way to the top for some incredible views – but I was due back on the coast tonight – no time for that adventure!

The sun was a bit kinder on the way back, picking out the ‘golden tennis balls’ in inaccessible places high on the hills. The spots that I remembered from previous trips had gone – the areas along the side of the road continue to be widened, to reduce the debris of stones (some half the size of a small car!) rolling down the hill, so the wider the landing zone alongside the asphalt, the better, at the expense of the cacti that grew there. I still managed a few nice shots, so it was not a cactus less day by any means.

The other surprise came as I passed the Embalsa Puclaro, the huge reservoir that has always been a good indicator of moisture – it was practically empty! There was some water going back a double of 100 m. from the base of the dam. I’ve had a quick look but apart from studies predicting lack of water reaching crisis points, there is no current update. You may remember that Angie & I had seen a similar story in the Qualimari Valley, near Pichidangui, where the reservoir was bone dry!

Had the dams leaked? Damaged by earthquakes? Too much water used for irrigating the endless vineyards or just not enough meltwater becoming available to satisfy demand? Perhaps the cacti will get their revenge, but it might be an idea to stock up on Chilean wine! Just in case! It seems that a larger reservoir was created higher up in the mountains, away from roads to enable irrigation for vineyards to succeed above the original reserves’ altitude – more detective work needed.

So an interesting day, even if I did not add a massive amount to my cactus images. There will be another day tomorrow.

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