Last days in Chile: Iquique & Humberstone

Iquique is a coastal city in the north of Chile, although it was originally a Peruvian city (until 1883 when the War of the Pacific finished). The city developed a lot in the 19th century due to the saltpeter mining industry. Nowadays, copper mining is an important industry in Iquique. Iquique is also well-known for being one of the largest duty-free commercial port centers of South America.

Iquique - city center

The city is stuck between huge golden dunes and the Pacific Ocean and it is counted among Chile's premier beach resorts with a great beachfront boardwalk, a casino, several restaurants and shops. It is also very famous for surfing in Chile.

Humberstone - Main entrance

We just spent one night in the city and because it was almost winter the city was a little bit windy and cold for the beach. Actually our main goal in Iquique was to visit Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works, two former saltpeter refineries recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site (2005).

Humberstone - Industrial equipment

Humberstone - Administration House

Santa Laura was founded in 1872 when this region was still part of Peru. Humberstone (the "Peru Nitrate Company") was founded in the same year and both works grew quickly. Despite of that, Humberstone became one of the largest saltpeter extractions of the whole region, while Santa Laura did not do well being bought by another company 1902. During the late 19th century and early 20th century (until the Great Depression in 1929), almost all the saltpeter in the world came from this region. It was used a lot as a fertilizer to help grow the agriculture industry specially in Europe. During this period, 60% to 80% of Chilean exports were saltpeter and it accounted for about 60% of Chile's fiscal revenue!

Chilean Saltpeter advertising

When WWI broke out (1914-1918), the British blocked the exports of saltpeter to Germany having no idea that will be the end of the industry. The Germans looked for alternatives and invented synthetic substitutes that could be used to make fertilizer also. And suddenly no one needed Chilean nitrate anymore and the industry collapsed. Both works were abandoned in 1960 and in 1970 and these days Humberstone is a ghost town. No one has lived or worked here for half a century, but due to the dry desert air everything is well-preserved and one can still see how people lived and worked here.

Humberstone - Industrial area

It is possible to see the industrial installations that were used for saltpeter processing and other remaining buildings like the administration house and the main square. We also saw part of the railway line that linked Santa Laura to Humberstone and several old trains.

Old trains in Humberstone

According to UNESCO: "The remaining buildings are testimony to the social order and technical processes that drove the industry."

Humberstone is an authentic museum where we could also observe how people lived, their houses, market, school, church, stores, an hospital, a theater/cinema, an hotel and a huge swimming pool! This place still has several pieces of furniture, cooking and working utensils, paintings, toys, old letters.

Children's room in one of the many familiar houses in Humberstone

We spent around 3 hours in this open-air museum surrounded by old industrial buildings, offices and houses. Most of the time we were alone in this place and we could had imagine how was life here 100 years ago (in its heyday the town was home to around 3,500 people - can you believe?).

We found a bit of everything here and we learned very interesting things about the industry and the way it works. It is not only a very important part of Chilean History but also World History. Actually Humberstone is one of our favorite museums in South America so far!

Humberstone - Single workers' houses

Next stop: Crossing the border to Peru!

Practical information

  • Iquique is a good place for shopping since it is duty free zone.
  • Humberstone is located 45 km from Iquique and it can easily be reached by public bus from the city plus a 10 minute walk. The bus should go in direction to Pica (Chacón and Santa Angela buses). If you have a car like us you can park just in front of the main entrance at no cost (45 minutes driving).
  • The museum is open all days of the year (except the 1st of January) from 9am to 7pm and it costs 3,000$CH/adult and 1,000$CH/child.
  • It is recommended to use closed shoes (for your own safety) and bring sunscreen and a hat since Humberstone is in the middle of a desert.
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