Most people whizz up the Panamericana between Iquique and Arica in about four hours without stopping, but some 80km north of the turn-off to Iquique, a poorly paved side road (no public transport) leads 52km west down to Pisagua – a crumbling, evocative nitrate port that makes an interesting option for a night’s stopover. The final stretch down to the port is very steep, giving dramatic views down to the little toy town cowering by the ocean, the only sign of life on this barren desert coast.
Pisagua is a funny sort of place, part scruffy, ramshackle fishing town, part fascinating relic of the past. It was one of the busiest and wealthiest ports of the nitrate era, and is still dotted with many grand nineteenth-century buildings, some of them restored and repainted, others decaying at the same slow pace as the rest of the town (which has only about 150 inhabitants today). Most striking of all is the handsome, white-and-blue timber clock tower, built in 1887 and still standing watch from the hillside.