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ATACAMA DESERT UNESCO SITE - HUMBERSTONE GHOST TOWN TOUR

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Major cities in northern Chile, such as Iquique and Antofagasta, owe their existence to minerals, especially nitrates and copper. More than 200 nitrate towns once flourished in the Atacama Desert. Today, the few that remain are ghost towns.

Sign for Humberstone, Chile
Sign for Humberstone, Chile
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

In 2005, UNESCO added Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works to their World Heritage List. Both sites are located north of Pozo Almonte in the Tarapaca region of Chile.

How to get to Humberstone

Humberstone is located 28 miles (45 kilometers) east of Iquique. Driving directions: Follow Route 16 to Highway 5. The UNESCO World Heritage Monument is just west of Hwy 5.

Iquique is a two-hour flight north of Santiago, the capital of Chile. We booked a Humberstone tour from our Iquique hotel.

The Pacific port of Iquique grew wealthy shipping nitrate, first to Peru for gunpowder, then to Europe and North America for fertilizer.

Chilean mining towns

Sodium nitrate, or Chile saltpeter, was discovered in the Atacama Desert in 1830. Between 1880 and 1917, over three million tons were exported annually, supplying 65 per cent of the world demand for nitrogenous fertilizers.

Abandoned buildings and courtyard
Abandoned buildings and courtyard
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Company towns, called oficinas, sprouted up in the Chilean desert, strung together with railroads that brought water, food and fuel in, and hauled natural nitrate out to shipping ports. The owners of the towns provided their workers with housing, health care, schools, stores, entertainment facilities and food. Instead of money, employees used tokens to make purchases.

Humberstone tour

We strolled around Oficina Humberstone (originally called La Palma when it opened in 1862) with our tour guide, Emilio. Humberstone's vacant market flanked the town square. Butcher hooks hung from the ceilings. A parched fountain baked in the arid heat.

A boardwalk-fronted wooden building housed a stage and 400 theater seats in two levels. The change rooms were empty. So was the projector room, except for a solitary light socket dangling bulbless from an electrical cord.

Visitors walk by marketplace, wooden theater and abandoned buildings.
Visitors walk by marketplace, wooden theater and abandoned buildings.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We entered a now-deconsecrated church on the other side of the plaza. Our footsteps echoed on the plank floor. Empty candle holders sat on the altar.

Abandoned pool made with cast iron from shipwreck
Abandoned pool made with cast iron from shipwreck
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Wooden pews filled the space between pine pillars. Canadian pine. The wood came to Chile as ballast in the holds of ships, which returned to Canada with their bellies full of saltpeter.

A door creaked on broken hinges and a metal shutter banged against a yawning window, punctuating a row of crumbling white homes. At the end of the street, the UNESCO site preserves a vast, empty swimming pool, riveted together with panels of cast iron recycled from a shipwreck.

Humberstone history

As the buying frenzy increased, the population of Humberstone grew from 123 inhabitants, in 1877, to 3,700 in 1940. The bubble of prosperity burst in 1929, however, when Germany produced synthetic nitrates to meet its demand for gunpowder. By the 1950s, Chile's share of the world market plummeted to a mere three per cent.

One by one, the nitrate boom towns closed. Their occupants packed up their belongings and moved to Iquique, Santiago and other Chilean cities, in search of work.

Broken wooden window shutters
Broken wooden window shutters
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Ghost towns

Most of the oficinas, today, are dismantled or merely ghosts of their former selves. Company towns like Santa Laura and Peña Chica, located 2.5 miles (four kilometers) north of Salitrera Humberstone, retain only relics of the past—windmills, water cooling towers, and rusty ruins of boilers used for nitrate extraction.

Ironically, mining in northern Chile is once again booming, this time for the world's largest copper deposits. Company-sponsored housing is sprouting up again in the Atacama Desert.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Chile Tourist Office: www.chile.travel/en

More things to see and do in Chile:

Giant of the Atacama and Pintados in Northern Chile

El Tatio Geysers Chile

Torres del Paine - Hiking from Explora Patagonia

Cruises of Chile's Inside Passage

Chilean Food