Editor’s note: In November, Altman Plants succulent plant development mgr. Kelly Griffin and his wife, Denise, traveled to Chile to, more or less, see as many Copiapoa cacti as possible in a week’s time. They also took in non-cactus sights, admired the wildlife and, of course, indulged in the food, if not always Chilean cuisine. They were also fortunate to get a surprise private tour of the San José mine, where 33 miners in 2010 endured more than two months of being trapped 2,300 feet underground. This is the first of a two-part series.

The inception of this trip to Chile was rooted in an email from Altman Plants co-founder Ken Altman inquiring if I had any knowledge or suggestions for an adventure he and his wife, Deena, were undertaking. I, of course, had more than a few things to suggest and began to round up my notes, my books, and old maps from a previous decade when I had made the trek to this wondrous country in search of succulent plants. I had over the past few years discussed with Denise just how much I enjoyed the country, its people and most definitely the plants of the Atacama desert region. At one point we had planned a trip but life’s other preoccupations won out.

Now trips of the nature of most of my plant trips are just packed with plants, plants, and did I mention plants? This trip was going to be different for several reasons. One it was going to have be shorter than I would like, it was going to have to include something other than plants, and the plants I would get to see would have to be found quickly and efficiently. To get half way around the world takes some time. We would leave on Nov. 1 and arrive on the second, leaving California in the fall and arriving in Chile during its spring. Our trip would be two nights on planes with eight days and seven nights in Chile.

It’s Go Time

We flew from San Diego and connected in Los Angeles for the overnight ten-hour flight to Santiago. After clearing customs, we had a tight connection for the 90-minute flight to the northern desert town of Copiapó. We arrived there shortly after 9 a.m., as did our luggage along with some jet lag! Copiapó is located at approximately the center of distribution for an iconic genus of cacti. It is from this town that the genus Copiapoa gets its name.

Copiapoa calderana

As we traveled north along the coastal highway 5, we pulled off toward the sea along a windy dirt road and Denise spotted our first find of the trip: Copiapoa calderana. We also found in full flower a small Neoporteria (Eriosyce) species, along with Eulychnia acida and an attractive shrub, Euphorbia lactflua, in bloom as well. It had clearly rained some, and for a dry place where it never rains, this was a great start!

Eriosyce (Neoporteria) calderana

We continued our trek north, stopping occasionally to admire the ocean and rugged shoreline of this desert-meets-the-sea landscape. We arrived in the small town of Chañaral and located our hotel (first of two). After a short rest we set off for Pan de Azúcar National Park, as it was only about 4 p.m. and because we had flopped hemispheres and seasons, the days here were long and the sun would not set until close to 8.

Our first stop north of Chañaral, along the dirt coastal road that cuts off the main highway and follows the coastline, was to see Copiapoa cinerascens. These were large clumps of cacti with upward of 30 to 50 heads on plants that, as the species name implies, are ash gray/white-colored. Growing here too was the occasional clump of C. serpentisucata — demonstrably distinct with its golden-brown spines. We continued north with the intention of turning back after we saw the tilt-headed-wonder cactus C. cinerea columna-alba.

Copiapoa cinerascens

The geology along this section of road has to be seen to be believed. It could be best described as otherworldly. Add some of the most unusual and attractive cacti and you have a combination that is difficult to pull away from. We came to a bend in the road that leads away from the ocean and turns inland after a short distance. I could see at first a few of the cacti and then, as we got to the alluvial fans that flow from the higher hills, a sea of cacti all nodding to the north in homage to the sun (it’s the Southern Hemisphere, after all). We found a way to get across the ravine a short distance up the road and hiked back toward the alluvial fan covered in Copiapoa cacti. Back to Chañaral.

Day Two: A Copiapoa Sugar Rush

Copiapoa laui

Copiapoa grandiflora

We drove back into the Pan de Azúcar (“sugar bread” in name but a nature area of incredible scenery bordered by the ocean on one side and desert mountains on the other). We continued to the east, then north, and finally west again into the valley of Guanillos by midday. It is reached via a dirt track that goes west from highway 5 and eventually ends at the beach. Here we found several different copiapoas, including the very smallest one, Copiapoa laui.

Copiapoa longisteminea

Growing with it we saw C. esmeraldana and, nearby, C. grandiflora. We followed the dirt drainage road to the ocean and traveled north of a small fishing village where we found some attractive Copiapoa longisteminea growing very near to the sea. C. longisteminea is a stunner! We went out this valley the way we came in, stopping at an exceptionally dense stand of C. cinerea columna-alba located opposite a sign that had been completely flattened by a raging storm at some point.

Copiapoa cinerea columna-alba

Our next destination was the small coastal town of Taltal, where we would be staying the next two nights. It was an hour or so drive north, yet we managed to stop along the road as the sun was fleeting and get some great late-day photos (our first) of Copiapoa cinerea, an ashen-gray plant with dark black spines. For accommodations, we got our second choice, the Paposo Inn. It had a decent upstairs room with private bath (most here are communal). We checked in, cleaned up, and set about finding a proper dinner. I should mention that the schedule in Chile is uniquely Chilean. Most restaurants open around 8:30 or 9 p.m. and close at midnight or later. The town had grown quite significantly since my last visit. We asked for recommendations and were told the El Mesón del Greko (Greek) was the best. … And it certainly was!

Day Three: Spines in Black, White & Orange

Copiapoa cinerea albispina crest

We set out on a drive from Taltal to the Botija Valley to see some of the most iconic of the copiapoas. The first one, Copiapoa cinerea albispina, was just a few kilometers out of town, with its translucent white spines. We discovered many beautiful plants. In fact they grew all the way down to just above the high-tide line. There was even a splendid 2-foot-tall crest growing in the mix.

A little further north, we came upon the large C. gigantea. These plants have one distinct characteristic that sets them apart — they are huge. The seedlings are decidedly different too from other copiapoas. The spines are black, the stems gray, and the wool is yellowish.

Copiapoa haseltoniana

Near the town of Paposo, we came to perhaps the best-known copiapoa, C. haseltoniana. We stopped a number of times and each population seemed to be different from the next. These plants are attractive and it is not surprising that this species is a favorite in cultivation. The spines are yellow, as is the wool on the center growing point. The plant bodies are green or gray-green but definitely greenish compared to C. cinerea. One population had plants that had a bright orangey cast to the wool and spines, a super form.

We drove north through the small village of Paposo with our sights on the very dry Botija Valley. Travel farther north along the coast toward Antofagasta and the landscape becomes drier and drier and the plants fewer and farther between. When we came to the turnoff for the side road that leads east to the quebrada (dry river bed), I recognized the road instantly. It now continues much farther than it did a decade or so ago and goes right up the dry river. At some point it started to become very sandy and I decided that, instead of testing our vehicle’s capabilities, it would be wiser for us to hike. We parked and hiked a short distance to see a plant that was once considered Copiapoa varispinata but has been renamed C. arhemphiana. It is a small, clustering, many-headed plant with varying degrees of brown spines — some very spiny and some with hardly a spine. The environment here is really dry but the plants looked better now than what I had seen before. There were more plants to see but not today; the sun was making its way down and we still had a decent drive back to Taltal.

Day Four: A Snowball’s Chance in Chile

Copiapoa krainziana

We wanted to take the road to the San Bartolo mine to get us close to Copiapoa krainziana (or, as I call them, “cactus snowballs”). The plants grow at 1,400 feet and grow in several places in the mountains, but unlike many other nice copiapoas, these particular plants are not just “roadkill” (easily accessible finds) and they require some knowledge and effort to get to them. The walk up San Ramón Quebrada to see them starts near sea level. I remember doing it when I was younger and it was not a terrible hike but it did seem long, perhaps five miles up and of course the same back. This can seem even longer if you don’t find them! A number of acquaintances have made this hike and many have come up empty because they either did not go far enough or took the wrong fork up the dry riverbed.

This time I was going to try to climb up over the mountain from the mine and thus not only get higher but also see what other plants could be viewed going a different route. We drove up the old mine road, and when we got to the first sketchy place, we stopped to look at the track and have a look at the very pretty Copiapoa cinerea growing on the black-burgundy volcanic substrate. The road leveled off and was not the best but certainly no worse than any other old dirt mountain track. We drove to the mine and then backtracked to the hairpin closest to where I thought we could get to the cacti. We were at close to 1,000 feet elevation, which, if we could hike as the crow flies, meant we only had to gain another 400, but that assumed we knew where the plants were and that there were no large mountains or deep valleys between our location and that of the plants.

Copiapoa krainziana

Of course no such luck, there were both, but as we came to the second saddle, we could see a trail, perhaps man or animal but walkable, and we followed it. We had a great view from this vantage point. Denise said, “I hope they aren’t down there,” and as we looked down, I could see what looked like white blobs in the ravine below. I said, “Pretty sure that’s them.” I got out the binoculars and confirmed it was large clumps of C. krainziana. We decided to scramble down the scree slope, as it seemed the easiest way. Perhaps it was but it was not at all easy. As we neared the bottom, with the struggle behind us and no bones broken, we came upon certainly one of the most beautiful plants I have ever seen: CACTUS SNOWBALLS! There were many plants and they were quite variable. Some had many spines and some had fewer. The spines were very glassine, which had the effect of making the plants sparkle in the midafternoon sun. I noticed several different-looking plants that seemed to have characteristics of the other nearby species, C. cinerea and C. tenabrosa.

We absorbed the beauty as best we could. Going back up, we took the ridge. It was more work but much less slippery and for that we were grateful. I think finding the plants you are looking for buoys you up as well. I know that we were photographing plants at 1 p.m. and got to the truck by 2:30, so it was not a terrible hike back and I had stopped to photograph many plants.

We got back to our hostel and got our luggage at around 3 p.m. We took our last lunch with our Greek friends, then went for a short walk to the Taltal pier to watch the sea birds at play.

Due to time constraints, we left off the table the planned drive to Mt. Perales to see Copiapoa tenabrosa and Cifuncho for C. goldi. We did not get far enough north to see Copiapoa solaris and atacamensis. Our trip needed a couple of more days for these, but I guess if you need reasons to come back, these would suffice.

We drove south on highway 5 and managed to get all the way to Bahia Inglesa (white woman bay) before sunset. We checked into the Bahía Rocas Hotel, one of the best hotels in this somewhat touristy beach town. We took dinner at close to 9:30, loving the long days, late sunsets, and the restaurants that stay open until at least 11. I took advantage of our seaport venue and ordered fresh seafood. Denise opted for vegetarian pasta but somehow managed to get it with scallops anyway.

The adventures continue with day five in next week’s installment.