Dramatically situated at the foot of the 800m coastal cordillera, with an enormous sand dune looming precariously above one of its barrios, IQUIQUE, 390km north of Calama, is a sprawling, busy and surprisingly cosmopolitan city. The town is also fast gaining a reputation as one of the world’s finest spots for paragliding (see The Zofri). Predictably cloudless skies and winds that come in off the Pacific and rise up the dunes create near-perfect conditions; you’ll see many enthusiasts swooping down to the beaches, silhouetted by dawn or dusky sunsets. Iquique rivals Arica as the best place to base yourself for a tour of the extreme northern tip of the country. From here, you can easily arrange excursions into the interior, whose attractions include the famous nitrate ghost towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura (both UNESCO World Heritage sites), the beautiful hot-spring oases of Pica and Matilla, and the stunning altiplano scenery of Parque Nacional Volcán Isluga.
Iquique falls into two quite distinct areas: downtown, lined with shops, services and old historic buildings, and the modern stretch along the oceanfront, given over almost entirely to tourism.
Iquique’s central square and main avenue conserve some splendid buildings from the nitrate era, which, along with the city’s beaches, are for many people a good enough reason to visit. Seizing upon this, the authorities have invested in an ambitious restoration scheme aimed at enhancing the beauty of this historic part of the city. Still more people, mainly Chileans, head here for the duty-free shopping at Iquique’s Zona Franca, or “Zofri”.
Iquique started out as a small settlement of indigenous fishing communities, and during the colonial period became a base for extracting guano deposits from the coast. It continued to grow with the opening of a nearby silver mine in 1730, but it wasn’t until the great nineteenth-century nitrate boom that it really took off as a city.
Following its transferral to Chilean hands during the War of the Pacific (1878–83), Iquique became the nitrate capital of Chile – where the largest quantities of ore were shipped from, and where the wealthy nitrate barons based themselves, building opulent mansions all over the rapidly expanding city. By the end of the nineteenth century, Iquique was the wealthiest and most hedonistic city in Chile – it was said that more champagne was consumed here, per head, than in any other city in the world.
With the abrupt end of the nitrate era after World War I, Iquique’s boom was over, and the grand mansions were left to fade and crumble as the industrialists headed back to Santiago. Fishing stepped in to fill the economic gap and over the years Iquique transformed itself into the world’s leading exporter of fishmeal, though copper subsequently took over as the city’s main industry.