A Bolivian town until 1879, when it was annexed by Chile in the War of the Pacific, Antofagasta is Chile’s fifth largest and most rapidly growing city. Many tourists bypass this decidedly lacklustre desert city altogether, and with good reason. Overpriced and unattractive, the regional capital holds little of cultural or aesthetic interest, but is a major transport hub and one of Chile’s most prosperous cities, serving as an export centre for the region’s great mines, most notably Chuquicamata. Sitting on a flat shelf between the ocean and the hills, Antofagasta has a compact downtown core, made up of dingy, traffic-choked streets that sport a few handsome but run-down old public buildings, and a modern stretch along the coastal avenue. The area around Latorre and Condell, between Bolivar and Riquelme streets, is best avoided after 9.30pm – Antofagasta has a prostitution problem.
A couple of blocks northeast of the central square, along Bolívar, you’ll find the magnificently restored nineteenth-century offices and railway terminus of the former Antofagasta and Bolivia Railway Company, complete with polished wooden verandas and dark-green stucco walls (albeit with no public access). Further north still, and an easy stop-off if you’re heading out to the airport, is La Portada, an iconic natural arch of rock looming out of the sea.
South of the city centre the busy coastal avenue runs past a couple of tiny, coarse-sand beaches, first at the Balneario Municipal, then, much further south, at the Playa Huascar, the latter only suitable for sunbathing – take micro #103 from Washington, near the square. In this direction lies one of the city’s most curious sights, the Ruinas de Huanchaca, vestiges of a disused silver refinery.