The Atacama Desert, which spans 600 miles on South America’s Pacific coast, is one of the driest places on Earth. Fascinated by cacti and their ability to survive virtually without water, New York-based photographer Zack Repko traveled to Chile to live in the desert for two weeks alongside some of the world’s most tenacious plants.
My interest in cacti began with an outdoorsy predilection and Google searches. I made eBay purchases and stumbled into succulent communities in New York; I learned Latin taxonomies; I joined the Cactus and Succulent Society of America. Soon, I was teaching others about plant care, hoping to convey the complexities of cacti beyond their zeitgeist-y value as Millennial-approved décor. My desire to study these plants eventually led me to Chile to see their habitats firsthand, under the tutelage of seasoned horticulturalists Woody Minnich and Kelly Griffin.
The Atacama Desert perplexes, defies, and surprises; this austere place is one of the richest cacti ecosystems on Earth. The landscape is clay red and stark, dotted with sage-green, auburn-spined plants. Over two weeks, we trekked through Pan de Azúcar National Park and camped on the beach, watching the camanchaca—cloud banks—roll in. We slept on beds of moss and lichen. We drove through the canyons of the Guanillos Valley, where the dramatic contrast between thimble-sized Copiapoa laui and cathedral-like Eulychnia saint-pieana demonstrated the desert’s diversity. The breadth of succulent life there astounded me, each plant a physical manifestation of the struggle and perseverance required for survival. Some were hundreds of years old, existing on the precipice of life and death, in quiet defiance of extinction. Even in the desert, life prevails.
Copiapoa krainziana in Taltal: The dark body and gradated spines are atypical, probably due to harsh conditions. This one is blooming. The flower in the center of the spines will attract black flies—like house flies—that pollinate the species.
Copiapoa longistaminea in Guanillos: This is one of the most incredible plants I’ve ever seen in habitat. This longistaminea’s taproot is actually preserving the shelf structure of the dirt, and its stems show the effect of the 2015 floods. The darkened parts store water but don’t photosynthesize, which is a response to extreme conditions. The colored center on each stem is called the apical wool, a clustering of new spines and flowers.
Copiapoa tenebrosa in Cifuncho: Epitomes of survival and evolution are always spectacular. This cacti is living despite being rooted on a rock face made of inorganic minerals. All the members of the Copiapoa genus are on Chile’s endangered species list, making them extremely attractive to poachers. The rarest cacti can sell for exorbitant prices—collectors around the world are willing to pay thousands of dollars for a fully grown plant.
Eulychnia acida in Pan de Azúcar: This is a good example of stem sacrifice. Cacti do this to conserve moisture and resources. If this acida were to shed its skin you would see its vascular system, which looks like smooth tree bark. Woody Minnich is in the foreground—he not only co-led the trip, but helped us to really engage with the region.
Copiapoa haseltoniana in Taltal: Early morning light really plays up the textures here. This is a good setting for germination, as evidenced by the lush succulent life, and is probably located on or near a runoff created by angled rocks. The haseltoniana stem is uniformly photosynthetic—it has a heavy, even distribution of farina (the thin wax that creates that bluish-silver color).
Copiapoa haseltoniana (foreground, central) in Taltal: It’s possible for the desert to be heavily speciated—meaning the plant life is dense and diverse—because of the frequency and humidity of the fog. A thick bed of succulent growth provides a great place for haseltoniana to germinate.
Copiapoa haseltoniana in Taltal: One of the many fertile hillsides around Taltal. This haseltoniana stays clumped to regulate its temperature and prevent moisture loss.