Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Forest in the Desert

Norte Chico, Chile (January 12, 2006)

There is a rainforest in the desert. At the southernmost tip of the Atacama desert, the mountains and the ocean join in a daily ritual. The moist currents from the sea meet the cold air from the desert night: it is from their union that the camanchaca is born. The camanchaca is a rainless cloud, that sticks to the bottom of the valleys and moves inland like a dense bank of fog. It is a harbinger of life, as it brings moisture to one of the most arid deserts in the world.

Parque de Fray Jorge
A hundred kilometers south from La Serena, the camanchaca sustains the northernmost Valdivian temperate rain forest of Chile. Within the Parque Nacional Bosques de Fray Jorge, the forest is a remnant of the last glacial period, when densely wooded areas were common along the whole andean chain. With the retreat of the glaciers the trees have largely disappeared, replaced by the dry terrain of the Atacama desert. This north, only a few holdouts of the primeval forest are left, nourished by the clouds arising from the ocean. The forest at Fray Jorge is one of them (photo at the left, shot late in the day when the fog had already morphed into clouds, dissipating in the afternoon sun). To get to the park you drive south from La Serena along the Panamericana Highway, and then turn 90 degrees along a dirt road towards the coast (photo below). It is a surreal experience, driving towards a forest surrounded by a barren landscape of cacti framed by bare mountains of naked rocks. I though I was lost more than once: my trip was before universally available GPS, and my only guide was a  low resolution printout of an early version of google maps. I finally reached the gate of the park, where a custodian collected the small entrance fee, checked that I knew the closing hour of the gate and that I had a watch with me. I said: "no hay problema, tengo la hora acqui en mi celular", showing him my battered Treo (no iPhones and touch-screen smart phones at the time). He was quite impressed by my phone, opened wide his eyes and smiling said "pero eso no es un celular, es un avion!", before lifting the gate and letting me in.

Friendly goats
The park is quite large (100 square km), and only a small fraction is actually forested. The rest looks like the usual dry landscape of this part of Chile, more like the large photo on top. An accessible trail allows a short walk on the rim of the mountains facing the ocean. The trees are dense and beautiful, a stark contrast with the arid scrubland around. I spent some time on the lookout, and then walked back to the car, just in time before the entrance gate would be locked. On my way to the highway I lingered in the desert, paying visit to the imposing cacti flowering in yellow and red seasonal bloom. Near a creek I found company: a small friendly herd of goats. They were roaming around in the barren plains at the base of the coastal mountains, until they found a large saguaro-like cactus and sat there in its shade. They are shown on the left, minding their business while occasionally checking on the weird guy with the camera walking around, possibly worried that I was, yet again, lost.

I went back to the car and drove away, in the direction of the blue mountains rising over the horizon.

Norte Chico, Chile (January 12, 2006)

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