As arranged we reported at the main Ranger station at 10 a.m. to check if Domingo had obtained permission to guide us to the area where Cylindropuntia tunicata grows in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, at Las Lomitas. Sadly, it had been decided that it would take him too long away from his duties as his colleague, Alfonso (Poncho), was unwell. However, Domingo promised Pablo a detailed report on the area, doing a population count by plant size in months to come. He also reported that during his 30 years at the Parque and his many visits to C. tunicata, he had not once seen the plant in flower. This in contrast to the plants at Los Choros which had flowered and had fruits, although our friends there reported never to have seen seedlings. I wonder if they would have recognised them as such.
Domingo reported the population at Las Lomitas as ‘stable’ – just a few plants and no evidence of the plant spreading. Apart from Guanacos, there were no other vectors such as goats, donkeys and dogs that would be able to spread the plant.
Later, back at the Pan de Azucar Cactarium – a little garden with plants native to the parque struggling for survival, we saw two specimens of C. tunicata in separate beds and were able to show how in one of the beds, cladodes (stems) of the plant had become detached, had rooted and were growing well, showing off their quite different juvenile spination. We were now joined by Alfonso (Poncho) who I had met in 2013 and who asked me to pass on a special thank you to Florencia for sending him a copy of the Spiniflores fieldguide on the Cacti of Chile. They had mistaken these young plants of C. tunicata for Cumulopuntia sphaerica, almost as invasive as C. tunicata, but at least a native species. Does it really matter? A nuisance is a nuisance irrespective of its country of origin!
With the full day trip to Las Lomitas out of the question, Domingo offered us the key to Quebrada las Castillo at the south side of the Parque, tempting as it was as this would have taken to a population of C. hypogaea and C. serpentisulcata that we visited in 2003 and close to the ridge, overlooking the old Chañaral Airport, just as Ritter described the habitat of C. mollicula. As we looked over that way, a cloud was covering the hilltops at that end of the Parque; conditions far from ideal for exploring and photography.
Once again I made an appeal to be allowed to repeat our walk from yesterday, this time with sufficient water on board. How long would it take to get to Smiler? On foot, about 2.5 hours each way. I thought it would be less, after yesterday’s fact find. Domingo made a snap decision: Let’s go! as he walked to the spare seat in our car. We quickly climbed aboard before there was a change of mind and so we bounced on semi official tracks, marked by piles of stones more or less in the direction that we had taken yesterday. Then we had decided to drop down to the old road for the walk home. This time we used the old road until another side track appeared which lead us back up the hill. Some 30 minutes drive after leaving the main ranger station things began to look familiar to Angie and myself. We explained that there was no need to go to the location of the chain that used to mark the track to El Mirador. From there we would have to climb a low hill to reach the plain where Smiler grew. It looked as though we were on that plain already and suggested a short walk around to get our bearings. I had the GPS reading with me if need be, but wanted to see if Angie’s famed photographic memory would make the day again. And sure enough, some ten meters from the car, Angie’s scream for joy indicated that we had arrived. She hugged the plant and set her camera up for a selfie and I managed to record the event on my camera. Pablo and Domingo watched in amazement. Oh, it’s a crest – yes, but not just any old crest, this is Smiler. And as if to prove the point, Angie walked another ten or so meters and found the clump of Thelocephala malleolata that she had also found in 2003 – this time the plant was more exposed at the rains had washed away the sand.
It was quite a relief, after all the devastation in Chañaral and the to the tracks in the Parque, it was nice to see a sign that some things had remained stable! We celebrated with a beer and a couple of empanadas on the beach at Caleta Pan de Azucar.
Pablo requested a stop at the field of C. cinarescens on the way back to Chañaral. He (and Rudolf on previous trips) had a bee in their bonnets about a beetle or moth where the larvae could bore into and destroy large clumps of Copiapoa. To prove the point, Pablo had bought a machete and was now looking for an infected plant, just outside the boundary of the park. I watched and found some more T. malleolata in flower while Pablo soon pointed out the frass, waste material produced by the culprit and even, briefly saw the larvae before it hid again back into the clump. Just to address the balance I took pictures of some 150 clumps of C. cinarescens to be able to demonstrate the variability of this plant in habitat in terms of overall plant size, size of heads, body colour and spine length. A splitter could describe half a dozen taxa from this place! For me, one does the job.
Angie and I decided to celebrate the day with a meal at the Hosteria which at least was consistent in its unreliability. In the absence of guests, they had decided to close at 7 – 15 minutes before we arrived. Usually restaurants in Chile don’t open until 8! They had also switched off their router so that we failed to send this message from the car park. Ah well, back to the Chinese, next door to our Hotel – cheap and cheerful with a Pisco Sour that packed a punch. As a result, the release of today’s missive will need to wait until we reach Vallenar tomorrow.