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Saturday 26 May 2001 – Taltal to the Quebrada Botija

We left early as we had six stops scheduled today, taking us to the Botija Valley for a night out, camping. As a result, by the time we made our first stop (S061) at 7:37, the sun light was far from perfect for photography, as the sun was still struggling to get above the coastal mountains – after all, we were less than a month from the shortest day and the middle of the Chilean winter!. I see from my notes that we IDed these plants as C. cinerea ssp. haseltoniana, they certainly had the ‘haseltoniana factor’ of yellow / orange felt and spines at the apex, but an unusually (?) high rib count of around 32.

A bit later, but not much farther, near Playa Cachinales, we made our next stop (S062). Here we found C. haseltoniana again, this time accompanied by C. humilis as well as Eriosyce taltalensis and Eulychnia sp. There was plenty of evidence of the presence of mice – their faeces and the damage they had caused by gnawing at in particular the C. humilis stems.

Farther on again, near the Minas Santa Domingo (S063), we were fortunate to find a beautiful crested plant of C. haseltoniana and the plants here had much longer and denser spination than seen at the previous stop.

We reached the small fishing village of Paposo, another name well known to Copiapoa enthusiasts. From here, one track heads inland, to eventually meet up with Ruta 5, south of Antofagasta. Just out of Paposo, the track winds its way up the coastal hill. On one of the bends, there is a small shrine, dedicated to the Virgen de la Puntila and this was the goal of our next stop (S064). As we walked carefully along the narrow path behind the shrine, we found first one, then two then many small clumps of a tiny Copiapoa humilis form. There was some evidence of digging, more likely by humans than by guanacos. There were also a number of specimens of Eriosyce taltalensis ssp. paucicostata.

Somehow, we were the last car in the party of four to leave and we lost contact with the other cars. At a fork in the road we appeared to take the wrong turn, as we ended up on a dead end – the path finishing in an open, surprisingly green field, basking in sunshine, with only some Eulychnia in poor health on show. Keen to find the others, we turned back, drove up the other track for a few miles, but again, found no sign of the others. As they were due to come back down the hill to Paposo, the most sensible idea was for us to drive back to the village and park our car at the cross roads that they would have to pass. We asked some of the locals where we might be able to buy a cup of coffee. It seemed that there was no such facility in Paposo, as Leo and I were shown into the back room of one of the huts where the lady owner served us with a cup of coffee, watched by an army of young children – surely not all her own! Marlon and John had chosen to wait by the car, eager not to miss the others when they came by, which they did just as Leo and I finished our cuppa.

And so on, this time along the coast road, heading north, until Rudolf and Attila decided that we had reached a nice spot for lunch (S065). What a wonderful ‘lunchroom’ they had found us – surrounded by Copiapoa haseltoniana of all shapes and sizes, from young plants to large barrel shaped stems in a beautiful setting with a choice of backdrop consisting of either the coastal hills or the Pacific Ocean with a snow-white, guano covered island just off shore.

Refreshed, we carried on north until Attila’s lead car pulled off the road and headed for a gap in the coastal hills. At the foot of the hills we stopped (S066) and Rudolf announced we had arrived at the mouth of the Quebrada Botija. Our car party looked at each other in surprise – this was the exact spot where we had stopped earlier, on 21 May (S050). We finished off today’s ration of pictures, before setting up camp. For many of us, this was the first time that the tents, bought in England and Brazil, had been taken out of their wrapping, so instructions (why in Chinese?) were thrown out and ‘creative tent building’ ensued. We waived goodbye to Benjy’s car – with John Ede on board, as they had elected to drive back to Taltal for a comfortable night in the cabañas – before opening the absolutely essential (5 litre) bottles of ‘120’ (Chilean red wine, just a little bit more expensive then bottled drinking water, very drinkable) – the ideal way to relax before a night on the rocky desert ground. 

As we were enjoying ourselves around the camp fire of dead Eulychnia wood, the head lights of a car approached from the south. We watched in amazement as it turned off the road and made its way to our ‘camp site’. The occupants, a man and a woman, greeted Rudolf and introduced themselves as Raquel Pinto and Arturo Kirberg, from Iquique. Rudolf had exchanged e-mails with them and told them that we planned to be here that night, and so they had driven some 500 km to meet us!

Friday 25 May 2001 – Around Taltal

After yesterday’s hard walk, today promised to be a sort of rest day with four stops scheduled along the road, easily reached by car.  Of course, those that were keen could always explore the hills sides and between us, the group covered a huge area between the car and where ever it was that Leo managed to get to. The first stop (S057), was north of Taltal and had a population of mainly C. cinerea fa. albispina growing some 26 m above sea-level along the coast.  Again a wide degree of variation could be observed.

On the way back to the cars, close to the road, we came across some 50 clumps of up-rooted Copiapoa that appear to be awaiting a visit by a commercial collector.  Disgusted by the sight, Rudolf threatened to stand guard to save the plants, but was eventually coaxed back to the cabanas (food, wine, a shower). Later we met a lady, armed with clip-board who seemed to be studying plants too.  It transpired that she was marking plants to be dug up so that they could escape the bulldozers that were busy improving the still unpaved sections of the coast road.  Once the work was completed, these clumps will be replanted.

Our next stop (S058) was south of Taltal, at a population of typical C. cinerea, with predominantly single spined plants, and again a bit further along (S059) where there was a selection of cristate plants to tempt our shutter finger. After all, how many pictures of straight forward C. cinerea do you need?☺

We finished the day by taking a look at the state of the track up the Cerro Perales, inland from Taltal (S060) as we planned to drive to the top on 29 May.


S057: Introducing …..
Rudolf Schulz behind the camera,
C. albispina n.n. in front of the camera.

Thursday 24 May 2001 – Quebrada San Ramon part II

The complete walk today has been given one stop number – S056 – I was too preoccupied with taking pictures and not falling down hillsides to take more frequent GPS readings.

We walked about half way up the Quebrada, across the (dry) waterfall and past the first side canyon coming in from the left (north). Just before the second side canyon left (north)  Rudolf directed us up the steep and crumbly canyon wall. The density and variation in the clumps of Copiapoa cinerea were amazing!

Climbing to a height of some 750 m. it was not surprising to find that the group of ten had become stretched out over the hillside.

Marlon and I stayed with John – the tail-ender – in the certain knowledge that plants that had been growing at the top for a hundred years or more would still be there when we would eventually arrive.

At the top of the hill, we could see the rest of the party, with Leo in his bright yellow T shirt in front, following a donkey trail that disappeared around the hillside.  We followed the trail and, as it wound around the hillside, we arrived at a south facing slope.  Here the Copiapoa were absent, preferring sunny north facing sides, and the landscape was dominated by, mainly dead, Eulychnia

As the trail twisted further, we were once again on the north-facing slope and the Copiapoa return, but here they were densely white-spined Copiapoa krainziana. Spines range from stiff and rigid to soft and woolly (c. 10% of plants) and from snow-white to dirty brown and black. In all cases, the spines were rather brittle, breaking off easily. Most stems had lost their spines at the lower part.

The site was covered in mouse droppings and the others report seeing mice sitting on top of stems, digging for fruits and seed.  There were clear signs that these rodents caused serious damage caused to the plants.

Having reached our goal, we decide not to follow the others, but to take the ‘easy’ route back, by returning to the valley floor and following this back to the main Quebrada.  A mistake, as we find out later ….. John’s trousers say it all – a high, steep waterfall just before the side valley joined the Quebrada forced us to climb high up the hillside from where the descent was mainly achieved by sliding.  I guess the image below will be seen at a few BCSS branch meetings as ‘the end of the talk’, slide, replacing the traditional sunset picture.


S056: The final chapter in The Story of John’s trousers.
It’s a hard life being a cactus explorer!

Wednesday 23 May 2001 – Around Taltal: Quebrada San Ramon pt 1.

We have arrived at Taltal a few days too early, so decide to enter the holy-of-holies to copiapoa fans: The Quebrada San Ramon, on our own. (S054) Travelling north from Taltal on the coast road – Ruta 1 – we first passed a mining operation, immediately followed by a barrier  to the entrance of what appeared to be a quarry.

This was the entrance to the Quebrada, or rather the mouth of the canyon, as of course it was water that formed this and other canyons, as it forced its way from the high mountains of the Cordillera de la Costa down to the Pacific Ocean. Looking at the dry landscape today, it is difficult to imagine the torrents that must have forced their way through the sometimes quite narrow gorge.

The feature that impressed me most about the first Copiapoa I encountered here is that it was badly infested by what seemed to be scale.  The plant was a C. cinerea form with horn-coloured mainly single spines on each areole.

Before long the more familiar black spined, ‘typical’ C. cinerea form appears, although completely spineless forms were also found.  All the plants photographed grow on ledges some 2 m (6 ft) above the valley floor.  It seems that fairly recent (??? years) floods have cleared the floor of the valley where only shrubs and annuals survive. At times there are still damp patches with marsh grass growing around it, but thick crusts of salt, left as water evaporated must create a micro environment where few plants can survive.

Later, the white spined form: C. albispina joins in – clumps of these different spined forms grow happily side by side.

Not only do we find specimens with the typical single spine per areole, but also with more numerous spines.  It seems only a small step from C. albispina to the finer spined C. krainziana.

Some of the C. cinerea have distinct yellow-orange apical felt and spination – in my mind, ‘the Haseltoniana factor’ in what appears to be a hybrid swarm, trapped in the canyon, of the more distinct forms of members of the Cinerea complex that can be found outside the Quebrada. In this great big melting pot, plants with a combination of various of these features can be found, including plants of C. krainziana with the yellow-spined Haseltonia factor at the apex.

Another group of plants were probably ‘young’ plants of C. tenebrosa – but what age is ‘young’ when plants photographed seven years ago show no sign of growth, even though this seven-year period includes an El Ninjo rain-event.  How old are these 15 cm (6 inch) diameter heads?  And what age the 1.5 m (5 ft) long stems?

We returned to the cabañas, tired, but happy to find that the first of the other parties had arrived: Benjy Oliver, his sister Natasha and her boyfriend Mark.  Benjy was their Copiapoamad representative, but as he does not have a driving licence, he had persuaded the others to be his chauffeur. To avoid boredom, they had soon picked up the art of seed collecting and, during the next few days, impressed us all with their newly acquired skills.

Later that afternoon Rudolf Schulz, Gustavo Valdes, Attila Kapitany and his wife Michelle arrived, so we returned to Club Taltal for a meal and to discuss plans for the following day: a trip to the Quebrada San Ramon !!!

Tuesday 22 May 2001 – Around Taltal

We forced ourselves away from the air-conditioned cabañas and went looking for Copiapoa on the way to Cifuncho.  Miguel Finger, the owner of the cabañas, gave us directions to a location (S052) where a track off the main road leads towards some hills.  

To the left (north west) of the road, the soil is light coloured while to the right (south east), the colour is much darker. Two species of Copiapoa grew here: solitary C. cinerea ssp. columna-alba on the sandy soil, while on the darker soil clumps of C. rupestris ssp. desertorum were found.

A few C. desertorum found a home ‘on the wrong side of the track’ but none of the C. columna-alba seemed to have strayed.  We found no plants that could be regarded as hybrids between the two. I found this phenomenon all the more remarkable as there are no reports of different species of Copiapoa preferring specific soil types in cultivation. (But see the 2003 report, where, on 10 June and 16 June, we learned not to draw conclusions too quickly!)

A similar soil preference exists in the Quebrada Botija, where the species concerned are C. solaris and C. atacamensis. Or was this observation also premature?

We returned to the main track and drove on until we reached the Pacific Ocean at the bay of Cifuncho. The small settlement nestled at the foot of a hill, to the left (south) looked absolutely charming, but as we had come to look at cacti, we stopped (S053) to explore the foot of the low hills along the track to the village. There were some charming little succulents (Echeveria sp.?) that looked a bit lost in the middle of nowhere, a tiny yellow flowered plant with fleshy leaves and a Nolana sp. in flower, as well as Copiapoa rupestris and Eriosyce rodentiophila.

That evening we eat in ‘Club Taltal’, where the waiter tells us that on the whole, the climate has not changed here during the last 100 years or so, but that during the last five years (1996-2001, taking in the 1997 El Niño event), it had become colder and wetter. If we were in the middle of a ‘wet spell’, should we not be expecting to see more seedlings of plants in the Cinerea complex?

During our stay in Taltal (21 – 29 May 2001) the weather was rather overcast compared to the much brighter conditions that we found on our trips north and south of the town.

Monday 21 May 2001 – Antofagasta to Taltal

For reasons that are not clear to me now (2003) I took no digital images at S045 and S046 that were made past Antofagasta, on the way to El Cobre. I can only assume that there were just no cacti to be found.

Things seemed to look up as we spotted large clumps of cacti growing high up against the hill sides (S047). In the heat, we eagerly walked across the gently sloping base of the hill (with sand as fine as talcum powder) to start our climb to where the plants had been spotted through Leo’s binoculars. These had to be Copiapoa solaris. They were, but dead ones! But we did not discover this until we had climbed up the crumbling hillside. The rows of Eulychnia had not faired much better – all dead. It would be interesting to hear from other travellers through this area how the climate and flora has changed in recent years.

As the road descended from 1,000 m to 750 m. we made another stop (S048) and now found clumps of Copiapoa solaris with some 50% of the heads still alive – but barely. There was another, bluish stemmed, Copiapoa – C. atacamensis but again, it did not look happy.

The disused equipment yard of what used to be the mine at El Cobre (literally ‘the Copper’ – guess what they mined here!) was our next stop (S049). I had read so much about this location that it was great to actually see it, even though there was little to see, other than a collection of discarded trucks and, near by, some Copiapoa solaris.

Pleased that we were able a couple more ticks behind our list of Copiapoa species seen in habitat, we agreed that we should make for Taltal, still a fair distance away on a road (or track) of uncertain quality. But the need to stretch legs is such that a call from Marlon: ‘Stop! Cacti!’ was enough for us to do just that (S050). Because we knew we would return to this stretch with Attila and Rudolf later during our trip, we had not done our usual homework, checking what we were likely to pass and see. So we just took a GPS reading and pictures. My brief scribbled notes about the cacti says: ‘Copiapoa sp. – two different forms, clumping, different spination, tending to C. cinerea. Later (26 May and 27 May 2001) we would return to this exact GPS reading, knowing that we had come to the entrance to the Quebrada Botija and that the plants that we had photographed were those called Copiapoa varispinata by Attila and Rudolf in their 1996 book ‘Copiapoa in their Environment’. Later, we questioned the accuracy of this ID and Rudolf and I were able to see the type herbarium specimen at the Utrecht Herbarium and agreed with others that the name Copiapoa varispinata belonged to plants growing at the mouth of the Quebrada Izcuña, the ‘next valley south’. The plants we found here were later described by Graham Charles and Nigel Taylor as Copiapoa ahremephiana a name derived from the field reference of material that had been already been in circulation from seed collected by Roger Ferryman (RMF 53). But at the time of this, our first visit, we were unaware of the taxonomic significance of the plants we were busy taking pictures of. The plants seemed similarly unaffected. But, take a close look at the plants: why did I write down that there were two distinct forms?

The plants at our next stop (S051) was easier: one Copiapoa species only – small bodied C. haseltoniana plus Eriosyce taltalensis ssp paucicostata.

Rather late (after sunset, which happens around 18:30), we arrived at Taltal and found our lodgings for the next few days: the cabañas at Caleta Hueso Paraiso Atacama, just north of Taltal.

Today was a bank holiday – Navy Day – and a fancy dress party, with all guests dressed as pirates, was in progress.  While Leo and John went straight to bed, Marlon and I joined in with the celebrations and it only took a few glasses of Pisco Sour before I had been dressed up by the guests so that I too could call myself a pirate. Marlon had picked up the Nikon Coolpix to take more pictures of me making a fool of myself.  Alright Marlon, the cheque is in the post!

The arrival of a police car, lights flashing, had a very sobering influence, particularly as the two formidable looking officers, after some talking with the Chilean guests, came over to me and put on some handcuffs. What had I done? Then loud laughter – one of my drinking buddies turned out to be the Chief of Police for Taltal and, in respect of the strict no drinking & driving laws, had asked his officers to give him a lift home.

Sunday 20 May 2001 – San Pedro de Atacama to Antofagasta

With the car fixed, we could contemplate returning back to Antofagasta and continue our search for Copiapoa, but not before taking an early morning look for cacti on the way to El Tatio, where we found

  • (S042) Echinopsis formosa (syn. Soehrensia uebelmanniana)

  • (S043) Echinopsis (Trichocereus) atacamensis and

  • (S044) Oreocereus leucotrichus.

It was all a bit rushed, we had allowed ourselves until 11:00 am to take a look at these high altitude habitats before returning to Antofagasta at sea level, where we arrived in good time and found accommodation opposite, but not at one of the best hotels in town. In fact our accommodation could best be described as rather basic.


S044: Oreocereus leucotrichus along the track to El Tatio

Saturday 19 May 2001 – San Pedro de Atacama

Once again, full credit to Leo for his persistence and ability to motivate various Chileans to go far beyond the call of duty.  The clutch was fixed (again a long story) while John, Marlon and I did ‘the tourist thing’ and went shopping for souvenirs.

It was interesting to see how many cactus souvenirs were on offer – that’s to say, souvenirs made out of cactus wood. I can appreciate that people use local natural materials to build their houses etc, but felt uneasy about buying these souvenirs when the conservation of cacti & succulents is such a hot discussion topic in the hobby.

The cactus supplying the material is Echinopsis (Trichocereus) atacamensis, or perhaps Echinopsis pasacana, as the wood is usually imported from Bolivia these days as local supplies are running low.

The main event of the day was John Ede being embraced by a hairy hippy smelling of alcohol, right in the middle of a crowded street. John was wearing the red strip of his favourite football (soccer) team: Liverpool FC as today was FA (Football Association) Cup day and Liverpool were playing in the final. His new friend turned out to be a scouser (native of Liverpool) who had settled (or had got stuck in?) San Pedro and had been following the game on the radio. Liverpool had just won the cup, which at least explained why John joined in with the strange dance in the middle of the road and then treated Marlon and I to a drink.

So, no cactus habitat stops today, but what a lot to look forward too!

Friday 18 May 2001 – Tocopilla to San Pedro de Atacama

We all felt a bit down after the lack of cacti on the previous two days and a night in a no-star hotel.

Progress  had been faster than anticipated, as we had not needed the ‘reserve’ days that we had built into our plans.  We could travel further north (through even drier areas) and look for Eriosyce laui, but instead decided on a ‘tourist’ excursion to San Pedro de Atacama, high up in the Andes and close to the Argentinean and Bolivian borders

We had a beautiful day travelling through some breath taking scenery with a small number of scenery stops, but only one cactus stop (S040) for large cushions of Cumulopuntia sp. S040a  at Valle de la Luna, just before San Pedro de Atacama presented a fascinating scenery of salt sculptures with snow-capped volcanoes as a back drop, but no cacti.

It did not take long to find and book into accommodation on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama and with plenty of daylight hours left, headed in the direction of the Bolivian / Argentinean border, climbing higher and higher. Marlon spotted some llama crossing the road ahead of us and Leo found a place to pull up to see if we could capture on film. As we crossed the low ridge over which they had disappeared, we were confronted by a completely unexpected view – a field of blue lupines with the 5,916m high Volcán Licancábur dominating the landscape against a clear blue sky. The llamas had disappeared, but who cares with a photographic subject like that? (S041)

We were still out breath (even walking across the road is a very tiring experience at 4,113 m altitude) as we drove off to find a suitable place to turn around and head back for San Pedro. As Leo completed the turn at 4,152 m altitude there was a bang from underneath the car and Marlon and I recognized the familiar smell of a burnt out clutch (the same thing had occurred during our 1999 trip through Brazil).

How we got off the hill (with snow forecast that night) and had the car fixed would take too long to tell.  Catch me at the bar at a cactus convention and I’ll tell you the story!

All’s well that ends well, although I can’t help but think what might have happened if the clutch had burned out a day earlier, on the way down from the Mantos de la Luna.


S041 Not cacti, but a field of wild Lupines in flower, close to heaven (well, 4,500 m)

Thursday 17 May 2001 – Mejillones to Tocopilla

We left the cabanas at  Mejillones and headed north for Tocopilla along Ruta 1, the coast road.  Dead plants continued to dominate the scenery (S038).  Of course, in this climate, it may be several years before dead plant material is recycled by nature so that the large number of dead plants may have occurred over many years, no doubt caused by droughts which have not permitted the population’s regeneration, as seedlings are unable to build up sufficient biomass following germination during the rare rain events, to survive the next drought.

At Michilla, we stopped at a refreshment stand  – a bright red metal structure with the words ‘Coca Cola’ emblazoned on it – along Route 1 for a cup of coffee.  ‘When did it last rain?’ we enquired from the lady running the stall. ‘That’s easy’ she explained, ‘it rained for 1 hour on 1 June 2000, my 45th birthday.’ Brilliant! Nearly a year without rain – that’s dry! ‘When was the last time before that?’ asked Leo. The lady looked puzzled and said: ‘That was the only rainfall that I have seen in my life.’  No wonder that there is no visible flora to speak of!

A tip from others suggested that we might find cacti (Copiapoa tocopillana) growing at a mine, high on the coastal hills, south of Tocopilla, the Mantos de la Luna.  We followed a massive truck up the single track unpaved road from sea level to the many small mines at the top of the hill (S039), but dead Eulychnia were the only sign of vegetation we found. The track was just wide enough for the huge lorries that snaked their way up the mountain. Occasionally, it seemed a lorry had lost its way, or that the road had just slipped away from the mountain side, indicated by a straight line down, with a lorry wreck at the bottom.

The sensible thing seemed to be to follow one of these truck monsters up the hill – after all, if it met another coming down, the experienced drivers would know a solution that we could equally apply with our much smaller pick-up. We need not have worried. It seems that there was an informal variable one way system with trucks travelling up hill in the morning, only to make the down hill journey in the afternoon. If we had known, we need not have driven for an hour in the dust of our ‘guide’. We drove through the cloud layer that hung at between 600 and 800 m and finally arrived at the top – an altitude of 1,142 m. The gaps between the clouds revealed some spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean coast line.

So, where was Copiapoa tocopillana? This is the most northern Copiapoa, as well as one of the least attractive and most difficult to find. We stared over the huge flat area inland – it seemed that the hill had been much higher once and was being systematically grinded down and presumably used for road building. What chance would a small cactus have here? And where should we start our search for the needle in the haystack? Time approached 2 p.m. – the time that the lorries would start their downward convoy. ‘Do you want to go first?’ came the question? ‘Yes please!’ was our reply – we had seen enough dead plants and lifeless scenery.

Our mood did not improve greatly when we arrived at Tocopilla, a poor and dirty town. We made for Hotel Casablanca that was recommended in the previous year’s Lonely Planet guide. What a difference a year makes! There was a pile of lorry tyres in what used to be the restaurant area. The locks on the doors of our rooms did not work and we felt that we did not want to risk our camera equipment being stolen, so lugged it with us as we found a Chinese restaurant for our evening meal. As we returned to the hotel at sunset, hundreds of vultures had taken up residence in the radio masts behind the hotel. Did they know something that we didn’t?