Iquique and the Nitrate Ghost Towns

Iquique Travel Blog

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View over Iquique from the highway
Iquique is one of those cities that is so dramatically set that you will never forget the first time that you see it. It is located about 4 hours south of Arica but the road runs right through the Atacama desert, a bone dry arid expanse of nothingness, before branching off at Humberstone, an old nitrate mining ghost town, to descend towards Iquique. The road winds downward through parched valleys and eventually reaches a small plateau between two taller mountains which extend in either direction high above the city. From here the ocean comes into view and you can see the entire city of Iquique layed narrowly along the coastline with a giant sand dune towering behind it.
Historic street in Iquique with views of the old mansions
 
The city itself is actually surprisingly interesting. With nitrate mining back in the early 1900s the city became very prosperous and there are still many old colorful mansions in various states of preservation or disrepair that were inhabited by the mining barons. The mansions have wooden clapboard siding and corrugated metal roofs that in many cases have been left intact and are corroded from the salt spray of the Pacific. While nitrate mining disappeared around 1960 with the discovery of a means to produce them synthetically, Iquique still serves as an important port city and has a gigantic duty free shopping center with every kind of electronics good, alcohol, perfume, or clothes that you could want at fairly good prices. That is the interesting part of Iquique, the rest of the city is basically a modern and expensive beach resort with high rise condos and hotels, essentially it could be anywhere in California if not for the unique and spectacular setting.
The hulking skeleton of the Santa Laura mine
With the mountains surrounding the city, there are numerous signs for tsunami evacuation routes because if there ever were a tsunami it would entirely destroy the city because it would wash inland, bounce off the mountains, flood the city and drag it out to sea. 
 
At the road turn-off to Iquique there are the remnants of industries of the past with Humberstone and Santa Laura. I took a collectivo up from Iquique and had him drop me off at the entrance to Santa Laura. There was a small rundown musuem with some interesting artifacts that were found at the site. In the mid-day heat I walked around the ruins that contained much of the machinery, rusted over but still in the original position, that was used in the mining operations. The area immediately around the big skeleton of the main building is fenced off because it is fairly unstable and with earthquakes that occur in the area (there was a 5.
Old train engines in Humberstone
6 earthquake a few weeks back) it could collapse. Walking around the site there were pieces of rusted metal and broken glass everywhere, there certainly hadn´t been any effort to clean up the site. There were even the remnants of an old dusty soccer field with rusted metal goals struggling to stay up. From Santa Laura I walked about a mile through the desert in roasting sun to Humberstone. Humberstone was suprisingly large and almost all of it, save for a few buildings that had been restored, were in the original state. In the main plaza there is a building with all of the interesting bottles, cans, books, and other everyday items that had been found, some preserved amazingly well. Other than those, all the buildings are completely empty, long since stripped clean of anything. The town was rather prosperous with a large theater for movies and plays and a swimming pool made from the metal segments of ship hulls bolted together, even complete with a diving platform.
The swimming pool made from ship hulls
Behind the town, further off the main road, are the mining buildings with all the old mining equipment. I was the only person of the few people visiting Humberstone to actually venture back there and it was somewhat eery to walk through such a large deserted complex alone. After wandering through the site I walked back to the road and waited for a bus or collectivo to come by to take me back to Iquique. Luckily I didn´t have to wait long and I flagged down the first bus that passed and it just happened to be the exact same bus that I had arrived from Arica on the previous day so the driver and attendant both recognized me, quite the coincidence. I headed to the bus station to get a ticket south to go to Tocopilla and I was disappointed to hear the an earthquake back in October had caused a tunnel on the route to collapse and it still hadn´t been repaired so the route along the coast was closed and I would have to take the much less scenic desert route, but at least it was only a five hour ride.
Inside one of the buildings
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View over Iquique from the highway
View over Iquique from the highway
Historic street in Iquique with vi…
Historic street in Iquique with v…
The hulking skeleton of the Santa …
The hulking skeleton of the Santa…
Old train engines in Humberstone
Old train engines in Humberstone
The swimming pool made from ship h…
The swimming pool made from ship …
Inside one of the buildings
Inside one of the buildings
The Santa Laura ruins amidst the d…
The Santa Laura ruins amidst the …
The machinery at Santa Laura
The machinery at Santa Laura
Overview of part of Humberstone
Overview of part of Humberstone
Pathway to the mining operations i…
Pathway to the mining operations …
The old mining equipment
The old mining equipment
Old house at Humberstone
Old house at Humberstone
The main part of the mining buildi…
The main part of the mining build…
An old crane and rusting buildings
An old crane and rusting buildings
The theater on the main plaza in H…
The theater on the main plaza in …
The main plaza in Iquique
The main plaza in Iquique
On the beach
On the beach
The beachfront area at Playa Cavan…
The beachfront area at Playa Cava…
Iquique
photo by: kini74