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Thursday, 2 December, 2010 – around Uspallata

In 2008 we had found Maihueniopsis clavaroides north of the town, but missed the Pterocactus that is said to grow here as well. With an extra pair of eyes, we thought that we might see if we could find it this time.

As we approached the area, our hearts sank as there was now barbed wire along a much wider paved road with evidence that bulldozers had built the road by just scraping top gravel from the areas next to the road – exactly where our plants had grown. Fortunately the road went back to dirt about 1 km before ‘our’ 2008 spot, but I think that the future for this location is doomed. Let’s hope that their distribution is wider than we found in 2008.

At this spot, this time S2079, it took a little while to find Maihueniopsis clavarioides. It had been very dry here, while in 2008 we saw them in the middle of a thunderstorm, soaking wet. Some plants were in bud and looked as though they may open later. We also found Eriosyce (Pyrrhocactus) strausiana, in flower, but again very dehydrated. Rains should start by the end of the month, but are unreliable in timing and volume. We continued to find Maihueniopsis glomerata here, with some plants still in flower, but fruits indicating that we had missed the peak of flowering. The strategy seems to be to flower before the summer rains begin, so that ripe seed will be available to germinate and establish itself before the next dry spell.

We moved about 10 km farther north for S2080, mainly because of our curiosity in the dried ‘salt lake’ at the foot of some low hills. It turned out to be a dried up mud lake, used as a watering hole for cattle when water is available, judging by the cow pats and goat droppings. Maihueniopsis glomerata had somehow survived, but the rest of the area seemed thrashed. Just as we were about to give up and return to the car, Juan (who else?) found Pterocactus gonjanii, in bud. Just two flower stems sticking out above the soil. They must have shot up after the cattle moved on to better watering holes. Maihueniopsis clavarioides  was here too, but looking very shrivelled.

 S2081 must have been a floral continuation of yesterday’s S2078 to the west rather than the east of Uspallata with the same plants present. The hillside was full of Denmoza as well as some Echinopsis leucantha and more M. glomerata. We passed a plaque in the middle of nowhere to commemorate an 1835 visit by Charles Darwin and the 200th Anniversary of his birth in 1809.

We agreed on a bit more exploration east of Uspallata and soon had found a microwave tower perched high on the top of a hill. There was a good track to the top and excellent views, but once we arrive at the top the wind was so strong that we could hardly open the car doors. A miserable looking Maihueniopsis glomerata prevented S2082 being marked up as a No Cactus Stop.

We continued a bit farther along the Ruta Sanmartinianas, the historical route taken by General San Martin and a small contingent of Chileans that cleared the Conquistadors out of first Argentina, then Chile.

 S2083 was 4 km on, where we found Cumulopuntia boliviana and a red-flowered bulb to please John.

Then it was time to return to Uspallata, briefly stopping at S2084 for a hillside full of Opuntia (O. sulphurea?). We had arranged a meeting with Guillermo Rivera and his South American Expedition tour who were staying in the same hotel as we were. In addition to Guillermo, other friends and acquaintances included Leo van der Hoeven, Graham Hole (UK), Winnie Pfendbach from Germany, Dick and Phyllis from Houston, Texas, who had been on Guillermo’s 2005 NW Argentina tour that was my introduction to this beautiful country. It also provided an unexpected opportunity to meet Craig Howe, who with his wife Liz have been on several of Guillermo’s tours and published a Diary of their 2004 experiences on cacti_etc, thus inspiring us to make the 2005 trip. As you can imagine, the beer flowed freely and the evening passed by much too quickly, so we decided that we would meet up again tomorrow night, but would take things a bit slower than the bus party.

The good news was that we had all seen the same cacti, but as Guillermo’s party had passed through the area of our first two stops in the afternoon, the Maihueniopsis and Pterocactus buds that we had seen in the morning had now opened up, so that they have pictures of the plants in full flower.

Monday 4 June 2001 – Vallenar to Guanaqueros

We started the day with a stop in the town of Vallenar (S0102), on a field next to some building development work. If the form of Copiapoa coquimbana from this area is C. vallenarensis, then surely these plants, growing well within the town boundary, deserve this name. They may no longer be there as clearly, the field would be the next target for the developers.*

Km. 647 along Ruta 5 was our next stop (S0103), again with (taller) Copiapoa coquimbana, Cumulopuntia sphaerica, Miqueliopuntia miquelii and some Echinopsis (Trichocereus) chiloensis. 

With one more day to go, our mood had changed. Mentally, I’m sure we were all preparing for our home coming and a return to regular daily routines. We were running very low on film, so the urge to stay long at stops to take more pictures had gone. This ‘end of trip’ depression is also reflected in my notes, which are limited to only a stop number and GPS coordinates recorded for:

S0104 off Ruta 5 (The Pan Americana)

S0105 Quebrada Choros Altos

S0106 Quebrada Choros Altos, Chugungoe in 2006

* We returned here in 2006 and found that the local council had made an attempt to rescue these plants and had replanted them in a gentle sloping hillside. Some had survived, some had not. The building development had become established as a school. Let’s hope that looking after their local nature will be part of the school curriculum.

Sunday 3 June 2001 – Chañaral to Vallenar

As we drove south along Ruta 5, the km. posts, showing the distance to Santiago showed less than 1,000 km to go – so a ‘homeward bound’ feeling crept over our party.

We stopped, at Ricardo’s suggestion, at a prominent shrine at km 950 along the Pan Americana (S097). We had stopped here on the way north, but purely to stretch our legs – the scenery of large boulders did not suggest a cactus habitat. Ricardo and Ingrid guided us between the boulders and pointed out the Copiapoa calderana var. spinosior that was growing here, as well a small Eriosyce (Neoporteria) pulchella.

A bit further along Ruta 5, (S098) we stopped again to look at ‘proper’ C. calderana and for our final goodbyes to Rudolf, Attila, Michelle, Ricardo and Ingrid – it had been great fun travelling in their company.

Things went quiet in our car, as the realisation that we’d be leaving in two days time hit home. We all agreed that we wanted to go back via Totoral and Carrizal Bajo to take another look and more photographs of the Copiapoa dealbata that impressed us so much on our way north at the start of our trip.

And so, we turned west off Ruta 5 and headed for Totoral, stopping a few km past the small village (S099) where we found two forms of C. echinoides :- the dark skinned C. dura and lighter coloured C. cuprea. Unfortunately, I had run out of charged batteries for my digital camera, so was only able to take slides of the plants here and at the next stop (S100), where C. echinoides was now growing right alongside C. dealbata / C. carrizalensis with both species in flower, without any obvious barriers to cross pollination between them.

This was a truly magnificent stop and I praised my digital camera, now recharged from the car’s cigarette lighter socket, as we were all running short of slide film. I had brought a laptop computer to down load the digital images from the Flashcards, but even this had its limitations and the 5GB hard drive (considered exceptionally large at the time!) was rapidly running out of space and would need some selective deleting of less than perfect images to allow me to down load today’s crop of pictures. Just as we’d decided that we had taken enough pictures, one of us would find another exceptionally nice plant or another spectacular cristate.

Time was pressing on, and as the track was one of the worst that we’d been on, it was difficult to guess when we would reach Carrizal Bajo and the better quality road to Ruta 5 and Vallenar.

We allowed ourselves one more stop (S101), to take pictures of C. echinata and it was near dusk before we could see the outline of Carrizal Bajo. What we had not counted on was that the sandbank that we had driven across on 14 May was a tidal feature and now – with the tide in – invisible. What to do? Leo shouted across the water to some local couples, out for a Sunday evening stroll to see the sunset. Their reply was not good – the tide would cover the track until early morning, there were no crossings further inland and the only way back seemed to be along the ‘bone-shaker’ track to Totoral. With heavy hearts we started the journey back. After a few km, Leo uttered some Dutch curses, turned the car round and we sat in silence as we drove towards the water’s edge, with the lights of Carrizal Bajo beckoning across the other side.

Our silence turned into screams of excitement, encouragement and fear as Leo selected the most appropriate gear, revved the engine hard and built up some speed before we hit the water. Yes, it was sheer madness, but none of us had really wanted to go through the ordeal of the overland journey via Totoral again. Our camera equipment and my laptop were on our laps, just in case the water should rise above the car’s sill or worse, in case we would have to evacuate the car. The locals on the beach joined in with our shouts and screams and cheered and applauded when we reached dry land. Never again!.*

*PS We were here again in November 2008 when good progress had been made to build a viaduct for a brand new motorway a little inland.

Saturday 2 June 2001 – Pan de Azucar pt.2

The Pan de Azucar National Park is just too large to see in one day, even if you only concentrate on the Copiapoa highlights.

First stop of the day (S091) was at a fluvial sand bed, but there were no signs of recent water flowing through here. The Copiapoa cinerea ssp. columna-alba here were young plants, compared to the old giants that we had seen elsewhere. But how young is ‘young’, when seedlings, molly-cuddled in our European collections, can take a decade or more to reach 10 cm in height?

Our next stop (S092) was a short valley running inland to the east of the track. Here we found C. cinarescens, some C. marginata and finally C. serpentisulcata, growing at the end of the valley. Usually C. cinarescens and C. serpentisulcata are easily distinguished, although both tend to form nice symmetrical mounds. But here, at the end of the valley, there were a large number of what can only be described as intermediates between the two. There were large numbers of unusually nice Eulychnia saint-pienna and it was interesting to see how C. marginata tended to grow at the foot of these Eulychnia ‘trees’, perhaps for protection, but more likely to benefit from moisture that would drop down these ‘natural fog nets’. Judging by the lichen and algae that grew on the Eulychnia, fog was a regular occurrence here. Here, the C. marginata tended to grow as single, solitary plants, dotted around the valley, rather than forming the clumps or dense stands that we had seen at Morro Copiapó.

Walking back to the main track, this time along the (shadow) south facing wall of the valley, Attila and I were excited to find a single ‘different’ Copiapoa – was this something new? It was certainly ‘different’ enough to mark the spot with a separate stop number (S093). Our answer came the next day, south of Chañaral, when we found lots more of these plants growing right along Ruta 5 and there more easily recognised as Copiapoa calderana var. spinosior.  

The next stop (S094), west of the track at the sign for Loberos, we found more C. cinarescens and C. serpentisulcata. The latter was also found at the next stop (S095), at sea level, along the beach.

We left the park through the Chañaral gate. As the mouth of the (dry) Rio Salado opened up before us, we followed a track along the southern hill slopes of the Pan de Azucar National Park. Ritter had reported C. hypogaea from ‘the hills north of Chañaral Airport’, so, as we could see the airport in the valley, we made some brief stops exploring the foothills (all recorded as S096) but only found an Eriosyce (Neoporteria) sp. There were some suggestions that in Ritter’s days, the Airport had been located further inland, but more exploration work during our 2003 indicated that Ritter must have walked over the hills, rather than stay near the track.

Back at the Hosteria in Chañaral, we compared notes before going for dinner (sea food, what else!) at a wonderful restaurant near Barquito, just south of Chañaral, as this was to be our last evening together as a large party.

Friday 1 June 2001 – Pan de Azucar pt.1

We returned to the Pan de Azucar National Park and drove to the furthest point north – Las Lomitas (S085). This time the fog was out and we could enjoy the marvellous views. There are some cabins and fog nets and in summer, this must be a popular place to visit, evidenced by the three foxes that were tame enough to snatch some cream crackers from Leo and Attila. They scoffed them greedily only to discover their mistake when it came to needing a drink to wash them down – not in a desert!

Our next stop (S086) was home to a heavy spined form of Copiapoa cinerea ssp. columna-alba, plants that Ritter described as C. melanohystrix.

At our next stop (S087), we were surprised to find Opuntia tunicata, a North American Cylindropuntia that has escaped into the wild and is regarded to be a separate subspecies: chilensis.

We followed a track that ran along the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, stopping (S088) when we saw some typical Copiapoa flowers, emerging from the gravel. We took pictures of the plant after we had brushed away the dust and gravel – was this C. hypogaea? We thought so at the time, but having seen more readily recognisable plants in 2003, I’m not so sure.

We were looking for C. laui – not easy to find plants the size of matchstick heads! As there were 5 cars, we decided the stop 1 km apart from each other and cover the distance to the next car, along one side of the track and then repeat the search on the walk back, along the other side of the track. Not an easy task but as Michelle, Attila and I were about half way to the next car – there was a yellow flower, growing out of the gravel! C. laui. (S089).

The last stop of the day was at the Park’s Ranger Station, where a small garden (The Cactarium) was home to some of the Cactaceae reported from the Park.(S090).


S088: Growing at the edge of the coastal hills over looking the Pacific Ocean,
south of Las Lomitas – is this Ritter’s C. esmeraldana?
or C hypogaea, as we thought at the time? or Doweld’s C. grandiflora ssp ritteri?

Thursday 31 May 2001 – ‘Secret Valley’ to Chañaral

We started the morning by looking for some Eriosyce (Thelocephala) on the nearby hillside – Gustavo seemed to smell them from hundreds of meters away, while we had difficulty spotting them right in front of us.

Once the early morning dew had evaporated and our tents were dry enough to pack, we made for the Tigrillo Valley, the next valley north of Guanillos (S080). The Copiapoa here were still C. longistaminea, but different from the plants in the Guanillos Valley. This is the form that Karl Knize called C. trigrilensis.

Once again, many of the stems had a dark, corky base to the stem. We had seen this on other Copiapoa and were to see it again, particularly prominent on C. cinerea ssp. columna-alba. Raquel Pinto suggested that this was an organism called ‘Nostoc’, a cyanobacterium that grows on (and inside?) the spines and the epidermis of the plants.

We drove inland and found a valley with lots of small C. columna-alba (S081), growing alongside two different Eriosyce (Neoporteria) sp. and, on a flat, another small Copiapoa sp. growing pulled down into the gravel and dust Were these plants, with a narrow neck connecting the body to a large taproot, C. grandiflora?

Further inland still, in a wide, flat valley (S082) we found more plant that, from my notes, we IDed as C. grandiflora – single headed plants, pulled into the ground.

Marlon and I hitched a lift with Gustavo, back to Secret Valley and on, up a steep cliff track, to Las Lomitas (S083), a high cliff fog zone at the northern end of the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar that offers spectacular views over the Pacific Ocean and the Esmeralda Valley – if it had not been for the fog. So instead, we focussed our cameras on objects closer to the lens: at guanacos and small desert foxes in a landscape dominated by Eulychnia, Echinopsis (Trichocereus) and low shrubs, all covered in lichen. We did not stay long, as we would be back with the rest of the party.

On the way to Chañaral, we made one more stop (S084), inside the National Park, at Playa Blanco, to take some pictures of the Copiapoa cinarescens, growing along the track.

At the Hosteria in Chañaral, we met up with two more Chileans with whom I had enjoyed email correspondence prior to the trip: Ricardo Keim and Ingrid Schaub and discussed our plans for the next few days.


S079: C. longistaminea – like all of its hundreds of neighbours,
this plant would be guaranteed to win ‘Best Plant in Show’ at any cactus event –
if it could get there legally – but it’s best seen in nature, with its friends.

Wednesday 30 May 2001 – ‘Secret Valley’ and the Guanillos Valley

Our first stop of the day (S075) provided some marvellous Copiapoa grandiflora and C. longistaminea to point our cameras at. Some of the plants seemed to have a fungal or bacterial infection, causing black mucilage to seep out of the the stems.

Things got even better at the next stop (S076), when two more species of Copiapoa joined those seen at the previous stop. But the two ‘new boys’ were a lot more difficult to find. C laui was practically invisible, until I found one in flower. The small stems could easily be mistaken for old guanaco droppings. The second, tentatively identified as C. esmeraldana, was larger, but as 90% plus of the plant body was pulled into the ground and covered in dust and gravel, the yellow flowers popping out of the ground provided a good guide. There is some doubt about our ID of these plants, as seed from these plants and from C. grandiflora have germinated in the UK and are indistinguishable from each other. Did we get the ID wrong? Or did Ritter see two different generations of the same plant as different species?

Just to confuse matters a little more, Marlon was seen rushing about the place, chasing a single blow fly (or was it a small black bee) as it was flying from flower to flower, visiting all the four species in turn – so surely there should be some hybrids, or are some of the taxa we were looking at the hybrids? If so, which is which?

Too much excitement makes you hungry, so we went to the mouth of the Guanillos Valley for a spot of lunch on the beach (S077), among more clumps of C. longistaminea right opposite a guano covered island. 

Two more stops (S078 and S079) and more C. longistaminea and C. grandiflora, but these looked a bit different – could there be intermediates between the two?

And so, back for another night under canvas at ‘Secret Valley’.


S076: We called this C. esmeraldana in 2001, but have learned since that
Ritter used this name for small plants growing high up the coastal hills over looking Esmeralda.
Plants growing in the Guanillos Valley have since been named Copiapoa angustiflora. WHY?