Editor’s note: In November, Altman Plants succulent plant development mgr. Kelly Griffin and his wife, Denise, traveled to Chile for a week of marveling at Copiapoa cacti. They also took in non-plant sights, admired the wildlife and, of course, indulged in the food, if not exclusively Chilean cuisine. They also toured the San José mine, where 33 miners in 2010 endured more than two months of being trapped 2,300 feet underground. This is the second of a two-part series. Read the first installment (days one through four) here.
Day Five: They Say It’s Your Birthday!
After breakfast in the hotel, we drove south around the bay to get to the promontory that is the huge monolith of Morro Copiapó. We stopped to find a really small succulent, Cistanthe (Calandrinia) species, with bright pink flowers. We followed a dirt track to get up on the mountain to look for Eriosyce odieri and Copiapoa marginata. It was shrouded in fog and the road up was barely passable with 4×4. The copiapoas were common and of significant size (with clumps 2 to 3 feet in diameter). They had green bodies with coal-colored spines that were made even blacker with the moisture from the heavy fog.
The eriosyce was a different story. It grows flat to the ground and a large one maybe 2 inches across. On a previous trip, specimens were very difficult to find but this time they had fully formed yellow flower buds that made them stand out like they were waving flags. In the heavy fog the flowers were doing their best to open, but it wasn’t happening. Hopefully we would return before the end of the trip.
We drove to the mining town of Copiapó, which lies inland and is far removed from the coast and, I should add, most of the plants. We had selected a “decent hotel” there and decided to go check it out and drop off our luggage. Many of the streets there are one-way but the navigation system didn’t know this, and it’s not the case where every other one goes the opposite direction. The phrase “you can’t get there from here” most definitely applies in Copiapó. As if it were not difficult enough, the road to the hotel was closed for repair. Besides being basically impossible to get to and being located pretty much in the center of town, it was quaint and very charming.
After lunch and a birthday pisco (grape brandy), we walked back to the hotel and took a rest. Able to tell that I was a bit bummed we were in a crowded town and watching the daylight hours trickle away, Denise said, ebulliently, “Lets go look for plants.” Well, we still had about three hours of light left and there was the Copiapoa megariza found near to the San José mine, which was located about a half hour north of the city. Off we went. Now the San José mine is the same one that was made famous in 2010 when 33 miners got trapped in a collapse but survived, most remarkably, despite being nearly half a mile deep in the mine for two months.
We managed to get to the turnoff for the mine but were disappointed to see a sign that read it was only open Thursdays through Sundays; as it would happen, this was Tuesday. We thought we would maybe just shoot some photos from a distance and then continue on our way, as it was getting close to dusk. Well, not so fast. In spite of what the sign said, for us it would be a private tour. A pleasant man invited us through the gate and told us they were closed but that he would still give us a tour. Got to love the dedication! It was a pretty incredible story and the place was very interesting to see.
The sun was ducking behind the mountains as we headed back down the mountain back toward Copiapó. We saw some curious-looking moss clumps that looked more like small tumbleweeds clinging to the sandy dune hills. Pulling up a side road, we investigated to find that these were masses of Tillandsia lambeckii.
Day Six: A Copiapoa species that’s kind of a big deal
The plan called for making the long drive to Punta de Choros even longer by cutting through Totoral to the coast at Carrizal Bajo and then driving into Llanos de Challe National Park and eventually on to the seaside port town of Huasco. As we traveled south from Copiapó, we inspected the rocky mountain desert landscape. The hills from a distance were devoid of any evident plant life, as you might expect given that we were still in the very dry Atacama desert. The flat valleys were filled with bright pink and sometimes yellow bands of color, with the spring flowers evidence of some recent moisture. An hour down the road, we turned off the paved highway onto a good dirt road. We stopped at some low, north-facing hills that had some very large (4-meter-tall) Eulychnia species, tall upright columns of cactus. Here we found some really nice clumps of Copiapoa echinata looking like the hedgehogs for which the plant is named. It is not a spectacular species but neither is it unattractive. The eulychnias here were bigger and better than most, but I still have a hard time admiring this genus, as it always looks like it needs watering and some help.
We continued toward the ocean through the very small town of Totoral and stopped briefly just west of there at some promising, north-facing rock outcrops to see Copiapoa echinoides, quite a different-looking species that has short thick spines and a brownish body; the plants eventually form really flat tops. The small plants look a lot like sea urchins and the bigger ones form clusters of three to six heads (as many as 10 to 15 in very old plants). This is a species that some really love and others are likely to not care for, but you likely will have an opinion. I am on the really-like side, as the color, shape, and spination are so distinctly different.
We made another stop when my driving eye caught sight of really pretty Alstroemeria plants growing on the slopes near the road. Turned out to be one of the prettiest flowers we found on this trip. We drove along a table that is in between the mountains and sea in a southwesterly direction and stopped to photograph Eulychnia breviflora that were in bloom. They have a lovely white flower nestled in a spiral nest of golden hair. We walked over to the barren rocky knoll that was near and found two Copiapoa species. One was clearly C. echinoides, again, but the other was a small, densely spiny, clustering plant. They both had fruit to examine and I could clearly tell they were not the same species; the size of the fruit and seed was vastly smaller on the little one. I am not entirely certain what the other one was but every trip needs some mystery.
The road here follows a path west down toward the ocean, and as we got our first sight of the sea, we stopped for our first glimpse of Cistanthe (Calandrinia) species with pure white flowers. While not at all showy flower-wise, these plants are very succulent and upright, looking a lot like succulent bonsai. The track we were on meets the north/south coastal road and we saw at the junction that we had arrived at the place called Carrizal Bajo. We took the coastal road south and, after a short 4 kilometers, stopped for a real jaw-dropping sight of our first encounter with Copiapoa dealbata. They were all of a sudden carpeting the landscape with massive clumps of gray and black. So thick in places you couldn’t walk. I marvel at how they grow so happily here but are not elsewhere. Location, location, location! It’s of interest to note that the plants have considerable variation in a number of factors: overall size, size of the individual heads, the size, length and number of the spines, and the colors of the plants, which here varied from olive green to ashen-gray. Also, there were a number of crested plants: We noted four here and another down the road a few kilometers.
Once again I could only admire. The desert-meets-the-sea landscape is an incredible sight to behold. It is clear why this is a national park. It is as uninhabited as it is beautiful. We stopped for a leg stretch and found Copiapoa fendleriana growing in the rocky rubble. It was subdued and most interesting, for it was different from the ones we had seen thus far.
We continued south until we got to Huasco, but we quickly bypassed it and headed directly east toward the town of Vallenar, where we stopped briefly for fuel, and then continued south on highway 5. Our last stretch of road was going to be all off road out to our destination of Punta de Choros, a very remote town out on a craggy point that is close to a group of islands that are roosting areas for many different birds, most importantly penguins. Denise wanted to see penguins, so just like the plants, you go where they are. I had told Denise it was near this place, while cutting through the valley, that I had seen guanacos and that if you look across the plains to the mountains, you might see them. They look a lot like llamas, if that helps. Well. she spotted one about five minutes later and we had another sight checked off our list of things to see!
Day Seven: This trip is also for the birds
The plan called for taking a boat out to the islands for birds and, if we were lucky, some cacti and other plants. The boat we had reserved left at close to noon. We had a small breakfast and decided to explore the area on foot. We walked to the beach and north; Denise was enamored with the seabirds and I was focused on the plants. We found both. I took some great photos of what I think was Eriosyce subgibbosa. Although I am still not completely certain of the species, I do know it was an attractive plant.
We had to get permits in order to visit the islands and it became a case of hurry-up-and-wait. There were some people on the boat coming from La Serena (two hours away) and the boat wasn’t going without them. Maybe without us but not them. We got underway and cruised out to the closest island and toured the leeward side from close proximity, doing our best to photograph the cormorants, boobies, pelicans and, not the least, penguins!
We crossed the channel toward the other island (Isla Damas) and the boat captain sighted a whale, so off we went chasing a whale pod. Apparently dolphin sightings are common but whale sightings no so much. There were numerous whales spouting and we followed long enough that I thought our trip had turned into a whale-watching tour. Finally, though, we docked at the island.
I set about photographing some of the best blooming copiapoas I had seen on the trip. Some bigger plants with 15 heads had two or three flowers per head, with every one of them blooming in unison. Copiapoa coquimbana growing on this island has prospered in the sea mist. Many plants had a fuzzy coat of lichen on the older lower spines, which is no doubt due to the good atmospheric moisture present in this foggy marine habitat. We hiked to the other side of the island and saw many wildflowers, including a yellow-flowered amaryllis along with dense stands of the thorny Eulychnia breviflora. Shortly before our time was up we came upon several huge clumps of Eriosyce species that were nestled on top of boulders. They are not typically big plants but these were incredible and big. The stems were purplish and the spines gray except for the newest ones, which were straw yellow.
The return ride was fast and perhaps a little rougher for the wind. We were happy to be back on dry land. We moved our stuff from the bungalow to the truck, and before heading back to Copiapó town, we were happy to find that the better-looking restaurant in Choros was indeed open. Great cheese empanadas!
We took the “off-road” coast road north and this time followed the better track out of town. We even saw a fox just before the town where we had lost the road the day before. It was a push of a drive, as we had spent much of the day on the beach and on the boat and on the island. Now we had to get back to Copiapó and hopefully before dark. This was going to be our last night in Chile, so it was fitting that we stayed at Wara, one of the nicest hotels in Copiapó. As it happens, we would be at the same hotel as Ken and Deena Altman; apparently they have good taste in hotels! The fact that our trips overlapped just enough for us to be in the same place in a country the length (size) of Chile was pretty cool.
We had to clean off the day’s sea spray and dust and no sooner had that been achieved that Ken called the room and we made plans for dinner. They had just flown in and gone directly up to the Pan de Azúcar to see plants in the field, spending a full day doing so.
A nice dinner and great company, not to mention the pisco sour…oops, mentioned it.
Day Eight: Back to California & the fall
Our very last day in Chile. At breakfast, we made plans for some time in the field all together. After some discussion we agreed that sticking with Ken and Deena’s itinerary was the best one. That called for a drive to the Llanos de Challe. We would see some plants with them and then split at Carrizal Bajo, making a loop back up the coast to get to our first of three planes and the long, dreaded red-eye.