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Wednesday 7 January 2009 – Lonquen

Another rest day, with the only even worth reporting (?) is that we went to have our hair cut, so we look nice and tidy for Peru, tomorrow.

Tuesday 6 January 2009 – Lonquen

Today was very much a resting and planning day. Only things to report are:

  • We took our car back – despite the UJ problem it had performed extremely well and took us to many wonderful and out of the way places. I always feel a touch emotional when we say goodbye to a car, and this one had been longer with us than most; 15,000 km in fact. Add to that the 1,020 km that we did in the replacement car and we have 16,020 km clocked up so far, ignoring the distances travelled by airplane; providing another indication, if one were needed, of how mad we are – all this in the pursuit of cacti!
  • We then went to book our flights to Lima – everything for tomorrow was booked, so we’re now going on 8th January, giving us an extra rest day and saving us US$40 each. Will also help us to get car rental sorted.

Oh, and we took Flo shopping at the local supermarket; things don’t get much more exciting than that! No photo stops today!

Monday 5 January 2009 – Vallenar to Lonquen

The advantage of having an out and out driving day, on a by now very familiar Ruta 5 is that the Diary entry for today can be mercifully brief: Left Vallenar 9:20, arrived Lonquen just after 19:00, having stopped to pick up a take away from the Chinese where we at with Angie in November – is it really that long ago?

Distance driven 700 km plus.

We can now safely say that during the last 64 days we had not one puncture! Just a Universal Joint break down, but that showed that our provider was great in getting us out of a pickle, especially if I compare that with our experience in 2001, when our Nissan suffered a burnt out clutch and we were left to sort things out for ourselves.

Today there were no cactus stops and only 10 pictures taken and I have no idea why I took those – more a trigger happy finger reflex than anything meaningful.

If I am going to be brief, I’d better stop now.

Sunday 4 January 2009 – Around Vallenar

Many Copiapoathoners will be familiar with one of our regular stops at Maitencillo, just over the bridge, where, next to an electricity substation there is a plot of wasteland where since 2001 we have been finding Eriosyce (Thelocephala) napina ssp lembckei and Copiapoa alticostata.

Where we normally turn south, to Agua del Ojo, they have now built a school and some houses – started 26 November 2007, finished 25 May 2008. It already looks old and worn. As a result, the track to the Thelocephala lembckei and Copiapoa alticostata site has been moved, so that it now runs straight through the middle of that site, up to the electricity substation that has also grown. This time we made this S1153.

There were still plenty of plants, but as always here the Copiapoa looked stressed and you could not help but step on the Thelocephala.

In 2006, Angie & I drove on to see if these plants also grew there, and they did, but all of a sudden it seemed as though they were building a new town in 2006 with hundreds of porto-loos along the track. We carried on until the road went back to being a bumpy track and then turned back.

Yesterday we tried to get to Mina Algarrobo as a way to get from the Domeyko to Carrizalillo track to the Vallenar to Huasco road, but failed, so today I thought that we’d try it from the other side. from Maitencillo, and took this gravel road highway to where we made a stop in 2006, among rocks, about 10 – 15 km in. Today everything is now flat, with a signpost to Mirador Maitencillo (S1154). Now, a Mirador is a panoramic view point, so off we went to investigate, it was only some 10 m from the road. And what does it offer a view of? Of a huge chicken farm! Guess they have to feed all those miners somehow. But it was a weird Mirador.

They had also turned the viewpoint into a cactarium, claiming that they had replanted Copiapoa coquimbana and Eriosyce napina that were disturbed by the developments. So we made an inspection and found loads of Thelocephala that were in fruit, so we have lots of seed. But they grew just as abundantly outside the cactarium, I think there is a huge seed bank in the natural soil.

Anyway, nice of the government to have made the effort! Chile stands out as a champion of this kind of eco-consciousness – well done!

In 2006, the road development petered out and we turned back. Now the road went on! Still gravel, but good quality and fast. After a while, the track joined an even better gravel track, that should be the one signposted to Mina Algarrobo on R5, just before you get to Vallenar coming from Santiago. We were pleased to hit this junction as it seemed (for once) that reality matched with what we had seen on the map.

We joined the main track at km 16 and at km 25 made a stop (S1155) because we were seeing many Eriosyce aurata type plants among the masses of Miqueliopuntia, Eulychnia etc. We found some more E. aurata types with the ‘funny fruit’, so we have enough seed now to supply the world! Juan told us that an old name for this plant was Eriosyce algarrobensis. We’ve seen towns, villages and just name signs for Algarroba all over Chile and wondered which of these was the one that this plant was named after. So here it was! But it was not as convincingly bald as yesterday’s find. BTW Algarrobo is a type of tree found throughout the arid areas of South America.

I worked out that around km 30 – 35, we should get to Mina Algarrobo and we did. As I feared, barriers were closed and guards were on duty. This is a massive mine!

In our best Spenglish and with ‘butter-would-not-melt-in-my-mouth’ faces (yes, I don’t know how we did that) we pointed at the map and asked ‘Donde es la camino a Domeyko?’ He poured over the map, then the flow of Spanish, then a wave to his supervisor who was asleep in his car. He explained that we wanted to get through and had a map that was up to date but did not show that the road would be blocked.

Fortunately the boss said that we could drive through and pointed to where a track disappeared over the hill. I think that if it had not been the Xmas / New Year weekend, with no one around, we would have been sent back. So we followed the track, Cliff driving, as it zig zagged in between a load of concrete huts that had huge mounds of earth around them – i.e. the explosives depots, and got out of the mine area, after passing another guard post where again we used the map and an  innocent request ‘Which way to Domeyko?’ to get out.

Now it got interesting, because there were a myriad of tracks and no sign posts, so we followed our noses, down a main Quebrada. Eventually, we’d have to cross the range of hills to the north of the Domeyko – El Sarco track and sure enough, we climbed from 200 to 1,115 m altitude.

We enjoyed lunch (a bread roll with queso y jamon, pinched from breakfast) literally sitting on top of the world with glorious views. We could make out the Llanos (plain) de Choros, so tried to head down tracks in that direction. Just as we thought that we should be getting to the Domeyko – El Sarco track, we saw cars – a main road. But it turned out to be R5, which we joined at km 615, which we reckon is about 5 km north of Domeyko. So we were much farther inland than we thought and this explains the lack of cacti.

By now it was mid afternoon and we decided to head back to the hotel, some 50 km away in Vallenar, for an early beer and shower.

Tomorrow, Cliff, Flo & I return to Santiago where on Tuesday we hand the car back. Then on Wednesday, we hope to have a ticket to fly to Lima Peru and rent a car there.

And that’s all for today folks!

Saturday 3 January 2009 – Guanaqueros to Vallenar

I’m getting more and more fond of the area south of the Rio Huasco, the Llanos de Choros, Carrizalilo, El Sarco, the track from Freirina to Labrar and all the unexplored roads to the numerous small mines. Today I wanted to find the road to Mina Algarobo that after the mine leads to  Maitencillo (where we found them building a 6 lane truck highway to the mine )

Now, naively, I expected to turn left at Domeyko and after 17 – 20 km find a road or track with a sign saying ‘Mina Algarobo, x km to go’

Around where we expected the turn to the right, we found a turn to the left instead, signposted to Cortadera, which of course is not on any map that I had with me. As we were on an exploring day and had no particular constraints, we decided to drive 30 minutes or 10 km (which ever came first) and then turn back to complete our intended plan. We reached km 9 after 25 minutes and then the km markers stopped, so when we hit a 3 way fork in the road, we decided to turn around. I took pictures of the km posts on the way back, to get their GPS coordinates, so I can map out on Google Earth where we went. I guess the 3 way fork was at km 11.

So we took a ridge each – mine a bit lower than Cliff’s, so that it was out of the wind: I found only dead plants and it was bloody hot, c 30C +. Cliff’s hill had a nice cool breeze, so we guess that it caught the fog more regularly, so had Miqueliopuntia, Cumulopuntia sphaerica, and Eriosyce aurata. And then we found an E. aurata with very unusual fruit, Not woolly but bald and ‘blown up’ like balloons and yellow in colour, protruding far beyond the spines in the apex and easy to remove. And Bingo! lots of seed! Juan tells us that Adrianna Hoffmann kept the name Eriosyce spinibarbis for these plants that are supposed to be transitions between E. aurata and E. rodentiophilla. To my thinking, they are ‘odd balls’. We only found one such plant (in fruit, that is) while the other specimens in fruit all had ‘normal’ aurata seedpods.

We also found a Cumulopuntia sp, like C. boliviana, but not in the Andes and here at only 500 – 600 m. Very nice with bright orange spination. This must be C. domeykoensis that the experts (have they ever seen it?) have lumped into C. sphaerica, which it is most definitely not – as I took pictures of both at the same location. I’d guess that conditions were once different and allowed a continuous population that split once things got much harsher.

When we got back to about km 1-4 on this new track we found many Copiapoa. You may remember from earlier trip reports that we regularly stop on the Domeyko to Carrizalillo – El Sarco track to see Ritter’s Copiapoa domeykoensis between km 17 and 19. There we found few plants, not very big. Well, this track to Cortadera is near by and the Copiapoa here (should be the same) form huge clumps and are very nice.

After taking far too many pictures (again) we returned to the Domeyko – Carrizalillo road (now nicely salted and almost like a hard top) and found various tracks sign posted to various named mines, but not the one to Mina Algarobo. We guess that they must want trucks etc to use another track, from near Vallenar, where ours should come out.

We found some helpful locals shyly crawling from their shacks, asked them if this was the road to Mina Algarobo / Maitencillo / Freirina, only to be met with a flood of words that we did not understand but with shaking of the head indicating ‘No Way Jose’. Again, we’d follow each of these tracks for 5 – 10 km take pictures to get GPS records so that we can map them out on Google Earth, but we found nothing new or different.

Just as the main road turns south, 30 km north of Carrizalillo, there was a track off to the north signposted for El Morado that I was sure would join up with the Labrar road and take us to Freirina. We met a truck coming the other way and asked in our best Spenglish if it lead to where we thought and were met again by the familiar shaking of heads. We then met 3 cars with Chilean students who spoke excellent English, who explained that they had been told by the truck driver that there was no pass that could be used to get to Freirina. There had been an old road, but not maintained for years. So we thanked them and all turned round. It was 5 p.m.by now and too late for adventures.

As we got back to the main track, I was mulling over what we were told and feel that the truck driver meant ‘not passable in these cars’ i.e. the students’ VW Polo, Renault Clio etc, BUT NOT A HILUX, as he had not seen us at that point.

We may have another go tomorrow.

Friday 2 January 2009 – Guanaqueros; a day out to Totoralillo

For the benefit of those who have been on previous Copiapoathons, in Guanaqueros we tried to get into the Cabañas where we stayed in 2007 – but they were full for the next week or more. We moved a few hundred meters along to where we stayed in 2001, 2004 and 2006. Same story, although I was pleased that the rotund ex-German owner recognised me and asked how my German wife was. So a few hundred meters along again, and we are in Cabanas Andalue, which are the best of the bunch yet!

For the British audience, Guanaqueros in early January is like Newquay on an August Bank Holiday weekend. The car park opposite Restaurant Pequena is charging GBP 2 to park and it is FULL!

A late start, just one stop (S1148), an early return ‘home’ – so was this a bad day? Certainly not. But cactus-exploring is not a hard-nosed, target driven thing and today we took it easy with a late start, arriving at (yet another) Totoralillo, just about 16 km north from Guanaqueros around noon. The Chilean tourists were even more laid back and the car parks and beach were still empty. It’s a small peninsula with sandy beaches either side of a track that leads to some posh cabanas and a restaurant at the end. We had a late lunch there and were served (?) by a man who reminded me of a 70 year old Manuel from the UK TV comedy program Fawlty Towers, but with his pacemaker removed or in reverse!

On the patio, Juan & Flo spotted a TV personality with her boy friend. She is the judge on Chile’s equivalent to the American ‘Judge Judy’ (or July?) show, where she settles small claim court cases for people who want to hang out their dirty washing in public.

We left the beaches and restaurants behind us for now and went into the low rocky hills where we found Copiapoa coquimbana – the dense spined form that we also found at Los Hornos and on Isla Chañaral. In the cracks of the rocks grew small seedling Eriosyce subgibbosa with some much larger plants growing between rocks. Juan & Flo also found a number of plants of Eriosyce heinrichiana var setosiflora. The ceroids here were Echinopsis (Trichocereus) coquimbana – which is the same one that grows at our regular Los Hornos stop but that I have probably misidentified since 2001, and Eulychnia sp. For a moment I thought all my work on describing a new species of Eulychnia (E. chorosensis n.n.) had gone down the drain as I was confronted with some Eulychnia that looked like VERY hairy E. acida, but had an upright rather than decumbent growth habit. What was going on?

Then I remembered how I was surprised at the size and colour of the fruits of E. acida yesterday and it dawned on me that I had never seen really ripe Eulychnia fruit before as our timing on previous trips has either seen them in bud or in flower with unripe fruit. When the fruit is ripe,the fruit spontaneously falls to the ground, like apples from an apple tree. I had been surprised by the fairly regular thud as these fruits were coming down in Fray Jorge yesterday. Here, and farther along, I came across another Eulychnia that was clearly E. breviflora. It was in bud, for a second flush of flowers and a neighbour was actually in flower. Nice woolly hypanthium, as you would expect. But they both also had large ripe fruits and these looked more like hairy E. acida fruit, or like the scalp of a balding man. And as I gently stroked the fruit, more of the wool readily came off. Not something that I have seen reported in literature before. I’ll ask Juan to check this out on E. iquiquensis and E. taltalensis as he is continuing farther north as a guide for a Californian couple, Steve & Phyllis Frieze from L.A. while Cliff & I return to Santiago on 5 January. So, another useful bit of info and pictures added to the Eulychnia files.

We also photographed an assortment of butterflies, caterpillars etc. so all in all, another great day! 

Thursday 1 January 2009 – Pichidangui to Guanaqueros

New Year’s Eve in Pichidangui is an event I won’t forget in a hurry! The otherwise empty restaurant was chock a block and we had a great meal – steak, chips, salad, too many Piscos and beer. But many of the guests were Argentinean, they must have been in the queue at the border with us!

At 12:00 there was a good firework display over the bay, the road was closed off and full of partying people, some in fancy dress, all drinking. Of course the weather is ideal for such an event – it really was more like an August Bank Holiday. I was thinking of Angie standing in the cold with her neighbour Margaret drinking a glass of champagne in the close, three hours earlier, when Big Ben had rung in the New Year in the UK.
Despite all the drinking at the restaurant, we opened up a bottle of Malbec from Mendoza to drink in the Cabañas – so slept well, to 9 a.m. this time!

One of Cliff’s favourite bands is Pink Floyd, so as we drove along R5, I asked him what he’d rather do on New Year’s Day: listen to Pink Floyd or go Eriosyce spotting at Fray Jorge. ‘Why don’t we do both?’ he replied with a smile, as a track of Pink Floyd’s LP The Division Bell played on my portable Juke Box through the car’s audio system. And that’s what we did.

Today’s visit was prompted by Juan Carlos Johow asking me what I thought that the Trichocereus was that grew in his garden. I hesitated to suggest E. chiloensis ssp litoralis. He thought that, like the other fog oasis area at Fray Jorge, it might be E. skottsbergii, but I had to admit that I was not very well up on Trichoes and that, try as I might, I could not see more than one Trichocereus there, unless they are cryptic species, i.e. they look the same but are genetically separated by different flowering seasons (not unlike Eriosyce chilensis and E. subgibbosa at Pichidangui). Juan Carlos had a special reason for asking the question, as his grandfather was the person who had described Trichocereus litoralis many years ago.

So today was started by taking some pictures of Trichoes around Pichidangui, just plants growing along the road on the north side of town that leads to R5, recorded as S1145. We then made two stops (S1146 and S1147) along the old track (yes the track we followed in 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2006, NOT the new track that we were directed to in 2007) to Fray Jorge. 

So what did we think?

  • The Tricho at Pichidangui is different from the one growing at Fray Jorge. The Fray Jorge plant is much taller and robust than the one growing at Pichidangui.

  • We could only see one Trichocereus sp. growing at Fray Jorge, not two, where one is said to be E. chiloensis (ssp. litoralis?) and the other E. skottsbergii

  • There are two ceroids at Fray Jorge, an Echinopsis (Trichocereus) sp. that looks to me to be one of the many different local forms of E. chiloensis and Eulychnia acida. The Eulychnia was heavily in fruit, there were still some flowers open and some plants had fresh young buds.

  • There are man made fences along the track that are made up of the two species mentioned above. When stems are not in bud/ flower / fruit, it is very difficult to differentiate between them.

  • We could only find one Trichocereus sp. along the track. At times we thought that there might be two, one with more ribs and fine, soft spination, the other with fewer ribs and strong spination, but on closer inspection, both types of growth would occur on the same plant.

Other cacti spotted were Cumulopuntia sphaerica, Eriosyce aurata and Eriosyce subgibbosa ssp nigrihorrida. E. nigrihorrida was the only taxon that was not abundant. We’d find individual plants here and there, often hillsides apart, or small isolated clusters growing in a more rocky spot.

The other remarkable thing was that we were finding some (not many) younger specimens of E. aurata. Mature specimens are huge – in 2003 we found some that measured up to 90 cm (3 ft) in height, but no young plants. This is not unusual when the observer is so completely overwhelmed by the giants, that cameras click and only back in the car the point is raised that there were no young(er) plants. Due to their imposing size, plants are often dug up and sold in the larger towns where they are displayed  with pride in as architectural plants, similarly to cultivated Echinocactus grusonii in California and Arizona in the USA. But on closer inspection, these plants, taken from nature, rarely if ever survive the ordeal of transplantation – they take a long time, many years – to croak it. This time, we were less rushed and already had a huge number of images of the large plants from previous visits, so were we noticing and photographing some of the younger plants, ranging in size from 5 to 15 cm in diameter. Where as the huge plants would take special equipment to be dug up and transported, these small plants were of an ideal size to be taken home and grown on in pots on Chilean and Argentinean window sills and patios. Rodents and goats in habitat posed other threats, while the fields immediately beyond the hills that we were walking, showed that agriculture was increasingly encroaching on nature, although there were also a number of failed projects among these, as the conditions are still very arid.

We took away 150 images of the plants looking happy and healthy in nature. It was the first time that I had seen aurata in flower here, but then it was the first time that I had been here in January. A very memorable New Year’s Day!