Iquique, Northern Atacama Desert, Chile
Iquique Brief History
Iquique developed into an established settlement when it was first under Peruvian administration, later under Bolivian control and ultimately part of Chile. The reason this location was of such importance, at that time, was due to the demand for the mineral deposits in the area. This discovery made Iquique a valuable piece of real estate for any country able to claim it and Peru, Bolivia and Chile all had an interest to have Iquique, and this part of the Atacama, within their national boundaries. The location of the city was also sought after because it had a natural harbour enabling ships to transport mined cargo to markets around the world.
Iquique, along with the northern sector of the Atacama became part of Chile after Chile won the War of the Pacific, between Chile and Bolivia on the 21 May 1879, thus enabling it to get control of the entire northern sector of the Atacama Desert, which included the main coastal cities such as Iquique. However, textbooks state that the War of the Pacific ran from 1879 to 1883 and this is because after the success of Bolivia, Peru tried to wrestle the territory from Chile, but Chile then defeated Peru a few years later.
The economic consequence of Chile winning this war, and gaining a massive swathe of the Atacama, meant that it now inherited a land bestowed in sought after minerals. However, rather than run the mining operations as a national industry the Chilean government encouraged private companies to come in and extract and process the minerals, whilst the Chilean government applied a tax on exports from whence it derived its main, national income.
The British were heavily involved in the mining business even before the War of the Pacific, since the 1820’s for example, specifically processing nitrate, which was plentiful in the area and was in huge demand as a fertiliser (and gun powder) in Europe and the USA. Therefore, naturally, the established British companies continued with their mining operations after the War of the Pacific. However, the Brits were also involved in the construction and establishment of the railway and electrical networks required for transport and urbanisation.
Many of the buildings in Iquique that were constructed for the purposes of operational administration, such as storage warehouses and a custom’s clearing building, were built by the British.
At the end of World War 1, Germany invented a synthetic nitrate fertilizer, which was significantly cheaper than mining the mineral, making it uneconomical to continue mining nitrate in northern Chile. This reality was then compounded by the 1930 Great Depression, which resulted in major decline of the main nitrate mining industry in Chile.
Places of Interest
In reality there are only these reasons to visit Iquique, from a foreigner’s point of view. One, if you fancy a summer break on the beach (although it can become quite busy), or by the pool of your hotel. The point being that in the summer the days are usually sunny and hot, and it has, to a degree, that “beach-type vibe”. The city is located only 400km (248 miles) south of the Tropic of Capricorn), therefore, in the summer there is a slight tropical feeling to the place.
The other reason is to see the period houses from the mining days as well as visit the mining ghost town of Humberstone (more about this below).
And, possibly, one other reason, if you happen to be here, is to shop in the tax-free shopping area called a zofre. However, even though it is tax free, many of the goods have high prices, so it is not as bargain rich as one might imagine.
Iquique today is a busy city. It offers sandy beaches with palm trees, whereupon the Pacific Ocean water is at a more agreeable temperature than it is further south. Therefore, it can be said that a beach break here is one attraction.
Like many other Chilean cities and towns, there is also a gambling casino, for those who enjoy that kind of thing, along with some modern, well-equipped hotels that serve as holiday accommodation and / or for the conference market.
However, to our mind, the best aspect of Iquique is the left-over English “footprint” of historical houses. These can be clearly seen around the central western plaza area of the city offering a clear idea of how life must have been during the early nitrate-mining boom times when the then “rich” mining executives and families lived in these houses.
In line with the historical angle, one amazing place to visit is the mining “ghost town” called Humberstone, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is located about 45km east from Iquique city, in the Atacama Desert.
It is a small settlement that was completely and intelligently planned out. Like a Hollywood cowboy film set on an outdoor stage, there is a main street that still has the administration office, the doctor’s surgery, the hardware store and many buildings still with furniture from the period. Then there is a swimming pool (now empty), a theatre for live shows, a baker’s shop, a grocery store and other key elements required to providing an infrastructure for a functioning settlement. Between 1933 and 1940 the population grew to 3,700 inhabitants.
What is also interesting to observe is that the workers houses were, as is the case today, smaller than, and closer to one another, compared to the houses where the management lived.
At the abandoned “village” is also the machine shed and mine processing building.
Such a place may not be for everyone’s liking, but if you appreciate history and want to see how people who came from the other side of the world managed to create a viable, living and working mining town then a visit here is well worth it. You need to allow a few hours to casually walk around.
In 1872 two nitrate works were established close to one another. One was called Santa Laura, by the Guillermo Wendell Nitrate Extraction Company, and the other was called James Thomas Humberstone founded his company the Peru Nitrate Company when Peru still administered this region. Both places grew quickly, and the settlements were built in the English style.
The area saw other nitrate mines open, and ownership change, in line with the change in the economic viability of mining nitrate according to the rise and fall of demand. But, it was when a synthetic fertiliser was invented in Germany at the end of World War 1, together with the World Wide Economic Depression that really curtailed the nitrate mining boom. Consequently, The Peru Nitrate Company changed hands to a group called La Palma and Santa Laura did not fare so well.
In 1934 both Santa Laura and La Palma were then taken over by the Compañia Salitrera de Tarapaca y Antofagasta (COSATAN) who decided to rename La Palma to “Oficina Santiago Humberstone” in honour to the founder James Thomas Humberstone. And, with modernization and new processing methods that made extraction economically viable, in 1940 Humberstone became a very successful operation once again. However, this renaissance lasted only until around 1958 and then once again it was not profitable. This led to the settlement being deserted in 1960, whereupon it became a ghost town. Ten years later, in 1970 it was declared a Chilean national monument and in 2005 awarded the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Other Things of Interest
In addition to the historical and beach aspects to Iquique there are geoglyphs, petroglyphs and rock paintings at various locations outside the city, as well as the Volcan Isluga National Park in the Andes – but this is far away and at altitude.
There are natural hot springs at Mamiña and the village of La Tirana, about 72km from Iquique holds a colourful religious festival during July of each year, attended by thousands of people.
We would suggest that a trip to only Iquique, if restricted on time with your itinerary, is NOT a good idea, however, if you have the time and can combine a visit here with San Pedro de Atacama then yes, a couple or three nights at Iquique would be worthwhile. Alternatively, if you want a few days at the beach, and by the hotel pool to relax under the hot summer sun, then that too would be a good reason to come here maybe at the end of your trip.