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Archive for November, 2013

Saturday, 23 November 2013 – around Guanaqueros

A quick look at the map suggested a day into the mountainous hinterland – heading to Andacollo. I believe Ritter named a Neoporteria after that place. The choice seemed to be to head up towards Coquimbo and then south east, or south to Ovalle and head north east. The area seems to be ‘two valleys along’ from Hurtado, famous for its ‘golden balls’ Eriosyce aurata.

I was pleasantly surprised when SatNav told me that the journey there would only take me 35 minutes! The map had shown me a dubious unpaved track that I had decided to avoid, but which turned out to be brand new asphalt with the paint still drying on the bright white lines! Time for a change of mind. The disadvantage of such new roads is that they offer few if any opportunities to pull over and usually have a barbed wire fence along both sides to show adjoining landowners where there properties stop, thus reducing the opportunity for farmers to put their diggers through cables etc. Anyway, this was one such road, mainly taking me through agricultural developed land with a Eulychnia confusing me – ‘built’ like E. acida but with the hypanthium like E. breviflora – the words intermediate / hybrids are all too easy to explain this away. No place to pull over for a shot, but might try again on a weekday with perhaps less traffic.

The small town (c 10,000 inhabitants) boasts a huge basilica, built in honour of the Black Virgin. It must have been her birthday, as the town was closed for traffic and everyone was walking in towards the Plaza where music suggested something was happening.

Having gotten here so quickly I tried to find the road out to Hurtado, but failed. So, it was back the way I came, with a short stop at the one lay-by I had identified on the way up – as you can see on the map, there is an impressive road full of switch backs that leads into the hills (S2960). Spotted one clump of cacti – Eriosyce or Copiapoa, too far away to tell, but being on my own was not the time for mountaineering heroics, so a zoom lens picture will have to do.

Back too early, I headed for Tongoy, another seaside resort, for some late lunch empanadas, but this town too was closed for traffic. Market day, it seems. A quick look at Playa Blanca, looking nice and quaint on the map but in reality a mass of new built time share homes on the beach, waiting for the next tsunami.

But I did come across the strange Eulychnia breviflora again, so I managed to take some pictures this time (S2962). E. castanea is also still around (northern end of its range). The top part of the hypanthium is ‘bald’, like E. acida, but the lower part is covered in long honey coloured wool, typically of E. breviflora. These were stands of tall, erect stems, taller than the usual stems of E. breviflora seen elsewhere. Flowering was near the top of the stems, but not apical, as is usual in E. breviflora. I believe that I have seen similar flowers before, from memory in 2007, at Totoralillo, one of many locations by that name, this one a tourist spot south of Coquimbo. These differences are not sufficient to consider these plants to be a different taxon, but interesting non the less. Perhaps a population name is justified and as I spotted them first near the village of Tambillo, I guess ‘tambilloensis‘ will do, although its distribution is wider than just this village. More information to check out.

S2962 Eulychnia breviflora fa

S2962 Eulychnia breviflora fa

Off to El Pequeño for dinner soon – beef for a change – if I have any more fish, I’ll grow gills!

Friday, 22 November 2013 – in Guanaqueros

I had a lazy day, realising that I had not had a ‘day off’ from the ‘up at 7, breakfast at 8, on the road by 9’ routine for the last 6 weeks or so, not counting the days stuck in Vallenar where the nervous energy involved in getting back on the road were enough to nullify these as rest days.

So I went back to sleep for a couple of hours after my inner auto-alarm got me up at 7 and worked on organising my 6,144 images (there are actually only half that number, but my camera takes high quality JPEGs AND NEF (Nikon’s RAW) images each time I press the shutter.

With my normal MS Access database not available for such matters (doesn’t run on a MAC) it was down to organising things in an OpenOffice spreadsheet.

By 13:00 hrs it was time for lunch, another luxury not afforded on the road, so a walk to El Pequenia in town and a ‘Sea Garden’ for lunch, fish, shrimps, clams and all sorts of other ‘fruits of the sea’.

When I had walked ‘home’ and continued with organising files, I promptly fell asleep and woke up around 16:00 hrs. Must have needed it!

In exactly one more week I’ll be at Santiago Airport for my flight home and by Tuesday 3 December I hope to be at the BCSS Southampton Branch’s AGM and American Supper to show off my sun tan before it all wears off – nothing lasts forever!

No cacti photographed and no stops recorded today.

Thursday 21 November 2013 – Pichidangui to Guanaqueros

Tuesday’s visit to Bahia Teniente, the location for the southernmost Copiapoa habitat, left me curious, as we did not find the plants in question – just insufficient time budget I’m sure. But still. It’s not possible to access the entrance heading north on R5, but the first official exit after the hole in the fence is for El Cebada, so it was there that I made today’s first stop.

One Sunday morning in 2006, Angie and I made our first attempt to get there in a Toyota Hilux. There is a gravel track that runs back south, parallel to R5 and then dips down to the bottom of a, mainly dry, riverbed. That day, a gate had been locked about three-quarters up the hill. There was not enough space to turn the car around so there was nothing for it but to reverse back up. Should have been easy, except the handbrake did not hold and the wheels spun on the gravel. I had to hold the car on the footbrake while Angie locked the 4×4 in place on the front wheel hubs.

So I was a little apprehensive at the top of the hill, but could see that the gate was open (and now derelict, so  that it was impossible for me to get locked in) and so I got down safely. I had managed this also in 2007 with Leo and Juan, so knew to expect a track that took me through bits of shallow water to the beach. Was my luck still in or would I get stuck here in the mud that hid below the water. The Xtrail had a switch to select ‘2x’ or ‘Automatic’ and we had wondered in Nessy 1 if this referred to some sort of 4×4 drive. Worth selecting it anyway, just in case. I got through fine but then failed to notice that the sand on the beach was of the fine talcon powder variety so got immediately stuck in that! With the possible 4×4 ‘Automatic’ still on, I managed to crawl back to terra firma and to park the car on firm land next to the ‘river’.(S2956)

I could see some Eulychnia castanea on top of the low dunes, a mixture of black rock outcrops like we had seen at Bahia Teniente, just across the ‘river’, and ‘talcon powder sand dunes’. I decided to climb the rocks to a nice vantage point overlooking the beach, great for some scenic overview shots. As I adjusted my position, I nearly tripped over the first globular cactus – Eriosyce subgibbosa, the same species seen at Bahia Teniente yesterday. Switching the camera to ‘cactus mode’, I soon found a lot more, but there were some that looked ‘different’, with a more felted apex: Copiapoa coquimbana. Farther along there were more, some in flower, confirming the ID. They were very photogenic, growing on the dark rock with the off-white beach in the background and the Ocean waves rolling in. It seemed when I looked at the car that the water in the river had risen very slightly in the hour that I had been playing in the sand, so perhaps this was another tidal river, similar to the one that caught us out in 2001, at Carrizal Bajo. Best to move the car. I caused a minor landslide as I took the short way down a sand dune and got safely back on R5 a few minutes later.

S2956 Copiapoa coquimbana

S2956 Copiapoa coquimbana

S2956 Copiapoa coquimbana (L) and Eulychnia castanea (R)

S2956 Copiapoa coquimbana (L) and Eulychnia castanea (R)

After a quick lunch at the Copec at Socos, there was plenty of time for another look at the Fray Jorge track. It was bright and sunny, so ideal to take another look at the spot where in less favourable conditions Jonathan made his first Chilean cactus stop early in November to see Eriosyce aurata, with the promise of more to come that I failed to keep later in the trip, due to the car problems with Nessy 1. It’s always good to have some unfinished business as an excuse to come back another time.

I wanted some more images of the agricultural developments along the track for a ‘now and then’ comparison in a future talk and so I made two stops (S2957 & S2958)along the track, found some E. aurata – but only a dozen at most, some in flower, and captured the rolling fields of grain that have now replaced the desert. The grain is planted so far apart that it is easy to see the soil between the stalks. To my untrained eyes, it seemed good fertile soil – the limiting factor as always in this area is lack of moisture. My worry would be that with a drying wind blowing continuously, that once the endeavour has failed, the topsoil will blow away and the erosion will cause a barren desert. Plan B seems already in progress as the bases of more wind turbines are already delivered.

S2958 Eriosyce aurata

S2958 Eriosyce aurata

I’ll come back here again in the next few days to drive down the track to the Ocean at Caleta El Sauce.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013 – The Airport Run

Yes, for the second time this trip I’ve made a dash for Santiago Airport to drop one of my travel companions off. It’s a 200 km trip, all on Ruta 5, the PanAmerican Highway, except the last 8km where in the past I got lost, following SatNav’s insistence on using Exit 16 but this time held my nerve and stuck on Vespucci until Exit 18 which, reassuringly, is signposted to the Airport.

We first took ‘Big Red’ the marvellous 3 litre 4×4 Toyota Hilux back to Europcar. It had served its purpose, to get JYC back to the Airport marvellously. We were allowed to keep our luggage in, until I had a replacement car from Alamo. Yes, I know, but I have paid for it, so was quite happy to take receipt of another Nissan XTrail, this time a white one. I have to say that for long journeys, they are more comfortable than a Hilux, which is a work horse, designed to get you almost anywhere.

After a call to head office, the car was provided with a minimum of fuss – just as well, as I was ready for an argument if that had been needed.

We quickly moved the luggage from Big Red to Nessy II, or should I give it a different name to avoid ‘Nessy’s Curse? Any suggestions welcome.

Brendan had mentioned that there had been massive traffic jams on R5 ‘South of Los Villos’, which covers a multitude of sins. It seems that our luck has not yet run out! After Lay Lay (Sounds like a Bob Dylan song!), around km 77, they are indeed blasting the hills to bits to widen R5 through here. When Brendan got back to the Airport, on Friday or Saturday, he got stuck in a 4 hour jam. Having thought that this was a false alarm, we came across the road work signs, but also saw a sign saying that the road would be closed from 12:00 to 14:00 for blasting. We passed through at 11:55!

When I came past there again on the way back, around 15:00, my side flowed freely, but there was a 3 km jam going the other way, now moving – presumably the left overs from the closure that we had narrowly avoided.

By 17:00 I was back at Pichidangui, in time to write this missive and have a rest before dinner. I’m in the same room as last night, a bit eery without my companion for the last 18 nights.

Tomorrow I’m off again to Guanaqueros, nice and cheap in the Cabañas and more excellent food, plus scope for more cactus related day trips than Pichidangui. I might take a more detailed look in Fray Jorge too.

No Stops made or cacti photographed today.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013 – Guanaqueros to Pichidangui

One of the disadvantages of staying in any set of cabañas is that there is no breakfast included. Never mind, something will be open at Guanaqueros to put food in our stomachs! Wrong!

Never mind, we’ll have coffee and bread rolls at the Pronto at the Ovalle turn off and then go to Fray Jorge for a more detailed look around. Wrong again – the Fray Jorge turning is north of, i.e. BEFORE the Pronto, so I missed breakfast – well, survived on a couple of chocolate drinks and biscuits, but managed lunch at the Copec! which, by the way, has been nicely refurbished, does a small range of hot snacks instead of just hot dogs, has a proper new seating area and a special Baños block. BTW, it looks as though there is a small new hotel next door as well that I might check out later.

We went back to Fray Jorge and this time went on to the entrance gate. (S2950). Same gate (but poorer condition) as always, since 2001, but completely different track. Looking back through my notes, the track changed to this one after our 2006 trip. But there are now many houses, some arranged into communities, along the track. As a result, the track has been re-drawn many times to include the optimum number of communities with new side tracks leading (sign-posted) to others.

Where once there were flat areas that were the home of Eriosyce aurata, perhaps threatened in their survival by goats trampling their seedlings, there were now fields of grain, a mixture of wheat, barley and oats (on the side), quite wide spread – a poor yield by European standards, and completely replacing any cacti. Perhaps the gate to the park had moved as well [PS, no, it hasn’t] – a wooden hut and a pile of stones are easily moved. In 2001, 2003 and 2004 I clearly remember many Puya and hills full of ceroids – now there were just a few of each. No signs of Eriosyce aurata here as there had been in the past. The track between R5 and the gate was wider and of a better quality, but longer. As in many other places, we felt more like tourists rather than explorers. Shame.

Other cars pulled up, the occupants spending an age smothering themselves with sunblock, before strapping on much-too-large rucksacks and boldly marching past the gate. We could see them hesitate as they reached the little empty hut, some 100 yards in, look at each other, drop their heads and come back out to disappear in a cloud of dust in their rental cars. Clearly first time European tourists.

No point creating a tourism image if you can’t live up to the billing when the tourists arrive.

On the way back we saw signs and a track for Caleta El Sauce and Caleta Tarcarucal, just north of the park and decided to follow the track. We had already passed tracks that warned us of ‘no entry’ with company names that we were to see again later as we passed the wind turbine parks along R5. Yes, they are also putting up wind turbines on the edge of Fray Jorge. Better than building another pollution belching fossil fuel power station anywhere or to drive by towns and villages deprived of electricity. The track went over the hills and eventually the Pacific Ocean opened up before us.

We stopped (S2951) and saw some ‘funny ceroids’ amongst the Trichoes and Eulychnia acida, so time for a closer look. Here, barely able to see the Ocean, was Eulychnia castanea, the farthest inland plants I have recorded. There were many ceroid crests on stems without evidence of flowering, so that we were unable to tell if they were Echinopsis / Trichocereus or Eulychnia. There were also Eriosyce, but not E. aurata. Where is Juan when you need him?

S2951 Eulychnia castanea - I can just see the Ocean - the plant can't!

S2951 Eulychnia castanea – I can just see the Ocean – the plant can’t!

S2951 Eriosyce sp.

S2951 Eriosyce sp.

Then the road zigzagged down hill, twisting around the hillside along the way. Shortly before reaching the coast, there they were: Copiapoa coquimbana – a very nice stand of plants, many in flower S2952. I snapped away many shots while JYC was doing his analysis to discover where in his key to the genus these plants would come out. ‘Nice consistent plants, compared to Sunday’s bunch at Freirina?’ I asked. ‘No’ was the answer, much to my surprise, there are ribbed and tuberculate plants here and according to the description in the NCL, coquimbana is only supposed to have tuberculate stems – the key suggests that the ribbed plants are C. echinoides, which clearly they are not. To me the population looked to consist of one species, and JYC agreed, but I had not taken the more detailed look. What the plants actually showed and had in common were tuberculate ribs, with the degree of tubercles perhaps determined by age and/or turgidity, rather than genetic factors, but that is just an assumption. At least it explains why I wanted to make a Coquimbanathon because I believed that I saw more than one species amongst the plants south of the Rio Huasco (accepting fiedleriana and alticostata as odd-balls along the edges. Very interesting.

S2952 - Copiapoa coquimbana

S2952 – Copiapoa coquimbana

S2952 - Copiapoa coquimbana

S2952 – Copiapoa coquimbana

The E. castanea also looked a bit strange, with ripe fruits looking very scaly, more like E. acida, but then I had observed on earlier visits that ripe Eulychnia fruits shed their hairs when ripe enough to fall to the ground where they ‘explode’ on impact and scatter their seeds. so why not E. castanea? But there was more to come.

After finding the C. coquimbana stand we really had to turn round – I needed food. This track was ideal for a return visit in days to come, provided I get a suitable replacement vehicle tomorrow.

After hotdogs, oatmeal cookies and a double expresso at the Copec Punto, we headed south. As we passed Caleta La Cebada I told JYC that the next exit, at Bahia Teniente, was where the southernmost Copiapoa, C. coquimbana syn. C. pendulina grows. The problem was that access to these plants was difficult with the exit from R5 to Bahia Teniente now blocked – or was it? As we came down the hill I checked my rear view mirror for lorries thundering down the hill behind me – there were none. I slowed down and saw a small gap in the fence with a cattle grid to prevent goats etc escaping on to the PanAm. and so we found ourselves in, on a dirt track, bouncing towards the coast. I recognised the track and some rocks where I believed Leo, Juan and I had stopped on a previous visit, with appropriate GPS data, and had found the Copiapoa. This time, without GPS data and with the usual time constraints, we allowed ourselves a 30 minute look around (S2954) and found Eriosyce subgibbosa and Eulychnia castanea.

S2954 Eriosyce subgibbosa

S2954 Eriosyce subgibbosa

But on one spot, there was a typical sprawling Eulychnia castanea next to a very tall robust upright plant that I would assume was E. acida. Much to my surprise its hypanthium was covered in large scales (acida feature) and spines! (castanea feature) but the plants growth habit was wrong for E. castanea! Back to the drawing board. New species? No. Hybrid / intermediate? Who knows! Interesting? You bet!

S2954 Eulychnia castanea (left) and E. acida (right) judging on growth habit

S2954 Eulychnia castanea (left) and E. acida (right) judging on growth habit

S2954 But based on the spiny hypanthium, it's Eulychnia castanea!

S2954 But based on the spiny hypanthium, it’s Eulychnia castanea!

We arrived in Pichidangui just before 18:00 hrs and found a room in Hotel Rosa Nautica, as before, and enjoyed our last dinner & wine together at Restaurant Nautiluz [sic]. The end of Jonathan’s trip, bar the Airport run and the flight home. Thanks for your company – we’ll have to do it again sometime.

S2955 Eriosyce chilensis

S2955 Eriosyce chilensis

Monday, 18 November 2013 – Vallenar to Guanaqueros

Yes, that’s right, we have a car! And not just any car, a bright red Toyota Hilux with boy racer whip – and only 871 km on the clock. The windows still had the delivery stickers on!

Our third car of the trip - Toyota Hilux 3.00 cc Diesel - but only for 3 days!

Our third car of the trip – Toyota Hilux 3.00 cc Diesel – but only for 3 days!

But first, we made a call to Alamo in Santiago – who were surprised that we were still in Vallenar! Not sure why they were surprised, but hey. Next they managed to contact the mechanic in Vallenar – always reactive.
Bad news! Our Nessy had been declared a write off!!! WHAT!?!?

It turned out that the clutch bearing had gone, and as the car was still under guarantee, it had to be taken back to the Nissan dealer in Santiago, in due course. They had no solution of how we might get back – you are on you’re own. Thanks!

Finding it difficult to believe that Europcar Vallenar had no cars at all, we asked the receptionist to call them and make some enquiries. Yes, just received, our Hilux! Could they bring it to the hotel so that we could complete the paper work? No, but she could come and pick us up and take us to the yard to complete formalities. Excellent!

Hosteria Vallenar has our vote for the nicest staff yet, as they allowed us to stay beyond the 12:00 check out time.

There was still a minor niggle that all I had as evidence of the $55,000 Chileno that I had paid out for getting us and the car back to Vallenar was the amount written on a piece of (clean) toilet paper. Again our super woman receptionist came to the rescue, called the man and demanded that he brought a receipt to us. I had given up all hope of seeing that happen, when he turned up with his wife, who did all the book keeping.
Our luck had finally changed.

It was an unbelievable relief to be back on the PanAm, with the sun in our faces, speeding once again through cactus land. Any thoughts of leaving early, as soon as I got to Santiago, were gone. It was like being King of the Road!

We made it to the Cabañas in Guanaqueros, where Walter, the German owner was a little surprised to see me turn up in the third car of the trip. ‘Are these rented or do you buy a new one each time that the ashtrays fill up?’

We’ve just enjoyed another great meal at the usual restaurant where this time we were the only guests. Back in the cabañas we’re enjoying a nice bottle of Missiones de Rengo Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, yum yum.

Life is good!

Sunday, 17 November 2013 – Still in Vallenar

No, miracles do NOT happen on a Sunday, at least not on this Sunday.

We were woken up my voices outside in the street and saw a steady stream of people walking past the hotel towards the school. Today was election day and the school was a polling station.

There was no point in ringing anyone as they were all at home enjoying themselves, so I rang Angie and asked her to try and obtain some quotes for Europcar from England. No joy there either.

The hotel receptionist, who recognised me from previous visits, took pitty on us and when we asked her if she could get us a taxi who could take us to see cacti, she first thought this a bit strange but after a while came up with the goods! Praise goes to Jonathan for his persistence at a time when I was ready to curl up and sleep my way out of the crisis. I had given him little chance to pull off this cactus tour by taxi, but by 15:00 there we were, on our way to Freirina and the mixed population of Copiapoa coquimbana, C. echinoides and C. alticostata. Always nice when someone is already tending to confusion by seeing too many Copiapoa in habitat, to show them this lot. Work that one out!

Our first stop, S2948, was signposted to Freirina Airport! Honestly! The cacti here, as in other nearby C. alticostata on previous trips, were growing very densely together.

S2948 Copiapoa alticostata, C.coquimbana and C.  echinoides are all said to grow here, but which is which?

S2948 Copiapoa alticostata, C.coquimbana and C. echinoides are all said to grow here, but which is which?

But the timing was just right, having seen all but one of the more straight forward taxa, Jonathan was ready to be confused by this challenge.No conclusions yet, but lots of questions. Things were no easier at nearby S2949, with the same mix of taxa:

S2949 Copiapoa alticostata, C.coquimbana and C.  echinoides are all said to grow here, but which is which?

S2949 Copiapoa alticostata, C.coquimbana and C. echinoides are all said to grow here, but which is which?

S2949 Copiapoa alticostata, C.coquimbana and C.  echinoides are all said to grow here, but which is which?

S2949 Copiapoa alticostata, C.coquimbana and C. echinoides are all said to grow here, but which is which?

S2949 Copiapoa alticostata, C.coquimbana and C.  echinoides are all said to grow here, but which is which?

S2949 Copiapoa alticostata, C.coquimbana and C. echinoides are all said to grow here, but which is which?

At least we had seen cacti and exercised our shutter fingers! Great!!

At the pizzeria we discovered another feature of General Election day, no alcohol for sale! Alain take note – stock up before election day or be prepared to be dry!