Iquique lies within easy reach of many inland sights. Just half an hour away, Humberstone and Santa Laura are perhaps the most haunting of all the nitrate ghost towns. South of here, close to the Panamericana, Cerro Pintados features a dense collection of geoglyphs, among the most impressive in Chile. East of Pintados sits the pretty oasis village of Pica, with a lovely thermal pool, while Mamiña, further north, is the Norte Grande’s hot-springs town par excellence. You can also visit La Tirana, an important pilgrimage centre, famous for its colourful festival in July. Public transport around this area is sporadic but manageable.
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The best-preserved ghost town in Chile, HUMBERSTONE is a nitrate oficina that was abandoned in 1960 and today appeals especially to lovers of industrial architecture. It sits some 45km inland from Iquique, by Ruta 16 just before it meets the Panamericana. The town began life in 1862 as Oficina La Palma, but was renamed in 1925 in honour of its British manager, James “Santiago” Humberstone, an important nitrate entrepreneur famous for introducing the “Shanks” ore-refining system to the industry. In its time it was one of the busiest oficinas on the pampas; today it is an eerie, empty ghost town, slowly crumbling beneath the desert sun.
What sets Humberstone apart from the other ghost towns is that just about all of it is still standing – from the white, terraced workers’ houses (now in total disrepair) and the plaza with its bandstand, to the theatre, church and company store. The theatre, in particular, is highly evocative, with its rows of dusty seats staring at the stage. You should also seek out the hotel, and walk through to the back where you’ll find a huge, empty swimming pool with a diving board – curiously the pool is made from the sections of a ship’s iron hull. Located a short distance from the town are the sheds and workshops, with old tools and bits of machinery lying around, and invoices and order forms littering the floors.
At SANTA LAURA, about 2km down the road and clearly visible from Humberstone, you’ll see only a couple of remaining houses, but the processing plant is amazing, seeming to loom into the air like a rusty old dinosaur. As you walk around the site, listening to the endless clanging of machinery banging in the wind, the sense of abandonment is nigh-on overwhelming.
Cerro Pintados geoglyphs
Cerro Pintados geoglyphs
About 20km south of the junction between Ruta 16 and the Panamericana, the latter passes through the Reserva Nacional Pampa del Tamarugal, an extensive plantation of wispy, bush-like tamarugo trees. These are native to the region and are especially adapted to saline soils, with roots that are long enough to tap underground water supplies. While the tamarugos aren’t really interesting enough to merit a special trip, you can take a look at them on your way to the far more impressive Cerro Pintados, with the largest collection of geoglyphs in South America, situated within the reserve’s boundaries.
Extending 4km along a hillside, the Cerro Pintados site features approximately four hundred images (not all of them visible from the ground) of animals, birds, humans and geometric patterns, etched on the surface or formed by a mosaic of little stones around the year 1000 AD. The felines, birds, snakes and flocks of llamas and vicuñas scratched into the rock are thought to have been indicators for livestock farmers. The circles, squares, dotted lines and human figures are more enigmatic, however, and may have had something to do with rituals, perhaps even sacrifices.
As you cross the vast, desert pampa, the neighbouring oases of Pica and Matilla first appear as an improbable green smudge on the hazy horizon. As you get nearer, it becomes apparent that this is not a mirage and you are, indeed, approaching cultivated fields and trees. It’s a remarkable sight, and anyone who has not seen a desert oasis should make a special effort to visit. By far the larger of the two oases, PICA is a sleepy little town overflowing with lemon and lime trees, bougainvilleas and jasmine.
It’s the largest supplier of fruits to Iquique – limas de Pica are famous throughout the country – and one of the treats of visiting is drinking the delicious jugos naturales – orange, mango, pear, guava and grapefruit juices – freshly squeezed in front of you in the little streetside kiosks. The tidy plaza, by the entrance to town, is overlooked by a beautiful, pale-coloured church dedicated to St Andrew. It has a grand Neoclassical facade and was built in 1880.
Pica’s real selling point is the Cocha Resbaladero, a gorgeous hot-springs pool carved into a rocky hollow with two caves at one end. It’s quite a walk from the main part of town, but there are several places to stay up here if you want to be close to the waters. To enjoy the waters in peace, arrive early before the buses of day-trippers start arriving at midday.
A paved road branches east from the Panamericana at Pozo Almonte and climbs gently through the desert to MAMIÑA, 125km – a two-and-a-half-hour drive – northeast of Iquique. First impressions are not encouraging; huddled on a hillside overlooking a valley, its narrow streets and crumbling stone houses seem to belong to a forgotten town, left to the mercy of the heat and dust. Continue down the valley, however, and its charms become more apparent as you come upon the fertile terraces emerald with alfalfa, and the little stream running through the gorge (quebrada).
The real lure of Mamiña, though, is the hot springs for which the town is famous throughout Chile; the delicious bottled mineral water from here is on sale in the region only, as production is small. Unlike Pica, Mamiña doesn’t have just one hot spring, but many, and their waters are piped to every house in the village.
Furthermore, these waters are not merely hot, but are reputed to cure all manner of afflictions, from eczema and psoriasis to respiratory problems and anxiety. Indeed, the town is named in honour of an Incan princess whose blindness was reputedly cured here. Whatever their medicinal value, there’s no doubt that the waters are supremely relaxing to bathe in. This you can do in any of the village’s hotels or residenciales, usually in your own private tina, or bathtub.
The nitrate boom
The nitrate boom
Looking around the desert pampa, it’s hard to believe that this scorched, lifeless wasteland was once so highly prized that a war was fought over it – and still more difficult to imagine it alive with smoking chimneys, grinding machinery, offices, houses and a massive workforce. But less than a century ago, the Far North of Chile was the scene of a thriving industry built on its vast nitrate deposits, heavily in demand in Europe and North America as a fertilizer. Nitrates were first exploited in the Atacama Desert in the 1860s, when the region belonged to Bolivia (around Antofagasta) and Peru (around Iquique and Arica). From the early stages, however, the Chilean presence was very strong, both in terms of capital and labour.
The War of the Pacific
When in 1878 the Bolivian government violated an official agreement by raising export taxes on nitrate (hitting Chilean shareholders, including several prominent politicians), Chile protested by sending troops into Antofagasta. Two weeks later, Chile and Bolivia were at war, with Peru joining in (on the Bolivian side) within a couple of months. The War of the Pacific went on for five years, and resulted in Chile taking over all of the nitrate grounds.
The boom years
With the return of political stability after the war, the nitrate industry began to boom in earnest, bringing in enormous export revenues for Chile, and a trail of processing plants, known as oficinas, sprang up all over the pampa. Each oficina sat in the centre of its prescribed land, from where the raw nitrate ore was blasted using gunpowder. The chunks of ore, known as caliche, were then boiled in large copper vats, releasing a nitrate solution which was crystallized in the sun before being sent down to the ports to be shipped abroad. The plants themselves were grimy, noisy places. It was a hard life for the labourers, who worked long hours in dangerous conditions, and were housed in squalid shacks, often without running water and sewerage. The (mostly British) managers, meanwhile, lived in grand residences, dined on imported delicacies and enjoyed a whirl of elegant social activities. Nitrate provided more than half of the Chilean government’s revenues until 1920, by which time the boom was over and the industry in decline.
The beginning of the end
It was World War I that dealt the first serious blow to the nitrate companies, when the suspension of sales to Germany – Chile’s major European buyer – forced almost half the oficinas to close down. The final death knell was sounded when Germany, forced to seek alternative fertilizers, developed cheap synthetic nitrates which quickly displaced Chile’s natural nitrates from their dominant role in the world market. Most of what was left of the industry was killed off by the World Depression in the 1930s, and today just one oficina – María Elena – remains in operation.