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Parque Nacional Isluga, Chile: Encountering History and Living Culture in the Chilean Altiplano

Altiplano Landscape, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile

Views of the Chilean Altiplano en route to Parque Nacional Isluga, Chile

There are times when an independent traveler wants to take local buses and explore ruins or beautiful landscapes at a relaxed pace. And then there are times when taking an organized tour is the more economical and convenient option, due to massive distances or the need for an off-road vehicle.  But then there are other times when your tour guide shows a passion for promoting and protecting the rich regional heritage that is often missed by tourists quickly passing through en route to somewhere more famous, when this knowledgable person serves as a gateway into the history and culture of a fascinating region. This was the case on my tour to Parque Nacional Isluga.

On my last full day in Iquique, I signed up for the Parque Nacional Isluga tour for two reasons: I was curious about the weavings from Isluga that were on display at the Museo Regional de Iquique, and I wanted to see the high altitude Andean landscape in this part of the country. I had already visited the gorgeous lagoons in Parque Nacional Lauca, near Arica, and the wonders of the Atacama Desert, near San Pedro, and I was curious how the scenery changed over here.

In the end, beyond the scenery and textiles, this tour ended up illuminating so many aspects of life in the northern desert over the past few centuries, and inspired me to keep on traveling and exploring Chile. Fair warning: this post is very long and picture-heavy, but I want to encourage other travelers to take the time to visit this area on their way through Chile!

El Gigante de Atacama

Gigante de Atacama, near Iquique, Tarapacá, Chile
El Gigante de Atacama, near Tarapacá, Chile

The tour left Iquique very early in the morning for one good reason: we wanted to make it to the Gigante de Atacama before the sun came up over the mountain. The Gigante de Atacama, or the Giant of the Atacama Desert, is a huge geoglyph carved into the side one of the hills found in the middle of the expanses of sand. These geoglyphs are found throughout northern Chile, and for the most part, archeologists are still studying and debating the meaning of the figures.

Gigante de Atacama, near Iquique, Tarapacá, Chile
Sun Coming Up Directly Over the Gigante de Atacama

The Gigante de Atacama is well-known because of its massive size and its very clearly humanoid shape.  As in many of the rock carvings I saw in Yerbas Buenas, near San Pedro de Atacama, the figure looks like a shaman. This shape could represent an important meeting or could be a signpost signaling a particular travel route (speculation found here). In any case, I was struck by the fact that the sun rises directly over the top of the head of the Gigante de Atacama; like many ancient Andean cultures, whoever carved this figure into the mountain was well aware of the path of the sun.

Gigante de Atacama, near Iquique, Tarapacá, Chile
Geoglyphs near El Gigante de Atacama

It is no accident that the sun rises directly over his head; the visual impact of illumination appearing slowly and strongly above this giant figure could represent spiritual or intellectual insight. According to our guide, other geoglyphs in this same “family” also appear to have been designed in connection with the sun, coordinated with the sunset and movements of this and other celestial bodies over the course of the year. Fascinating stuff. Near the Gigante de Atacama, there are other intriguing shapes and figures, as you see above.

Ruta 15, Atacama Desert to the Altiplano, Tarapacá, Chile
Isolated Bus Stop to Bolivia in the Desierto de Atacama, near Tarapacá, Chile

At this point in my tour, our guide was encouraged because a number of us showed serious interest in the ancient cultures of the Atacama and the speculations about the origins and reasons behind these figures. As a reward, he decided to take us somewhere not usually included on the tour.

Ruta 15, Atacama Desert to the Altiplano, Tarapacá, Chile
Ruta 15, Not the Inca Trail

As we returned to Ruta 15, we passed a road very clearly carved into the desert, just a faded outline, but very distinct. This was the Camino del Inca, the Inca Trail, passing through the desert. Less impressive than the stonework found in the Andes, it rarely catches the attention of people passing by, but there it remains, cut through by modern roads, passed over by off-road vehicles, but still there.

Ruta 15 continues up into the high Andes all the way to the Bolivian border. I was surprised to see this isolated bus stop in the middle of the desert, but with all the mining in the area and transit to and from Bolivia, this shelter provides some shade from the sun for whoever ends up waiting.

Asterisk in the Atacama Desert

Ancient Pottery, Atacama Desert, Tarapacá, Chile
Ancient Pottery in the Atacama Desert

We parked near the bus shelter (hence the photos) and got out to walk through the desert to our special destination. As we walked through the sand, we glanced down our feet and saw shards of pottery just about everywhere, preserved by the relentless sun. This simple pottery was not painted in any way, which our guide said suggested that it was used for ceremonial purposes, and these were likely pieces that fell off the loads being carried along the way.

Desert Asterick, Atacama Desert, Tarapacá, Chile
Asterisk in the Atacama Desert

After a short walk, we arrived at this incredibly curious geoglyph: a giant asterisk carved into the desert. Like the geoglyphs and the desert section of the Inca Trail, this asterisk was created by digging into the earth and turning up the lighter layers of sand, and using the darker rocks to create a contrast visible in the desert.

Desert Asterick, Atacama Desert, Tarapacá, Chile
Asterisk in the Atacama Desert

Similar to the Nasca Lines of Peru, this desert asterisk is more visible from above, and this is exactly how they found it. According to our guide, Google Earth led those curious about the mysteries of the Atacama to discover this intriguing shape. There is a section that was run over by an off-road motorcycle, whose rider probably had no idea he was passing through what seems to be a ceremonial site.

Desert Asterick, Atacama Desert, Tarapacá, Chile
Textures of the Rocks of the Desert Asterisk

In this photo, you can see the textures and colors of the rocks used to mark out the desert asterisk. This is inhospitable landscape, and at some point in the past, there was a reason to mark this location or record this shape.

Desert Asterick, Atacama Desert, Tarapacá, Chile
Asterisk in the Atacama Desert

That’s the fascinating thing about traveling through the Andes, and the reason I was so inspired by my trip. There are many things we know, but so many things we don’t know, and will probably never know. It’s just part of the mystery of the region, of our past as humans. Some people have reported seeing flying objects in the sky flashing lights in this configuration, so one theory among the curious is that this may have been a symbol indicating a landing pad. I’ll leave it up to them to debate. 🙂

Geoglyphs, Atacama Desert, near Tarapacá, Chile
Geoglyphs in the Atacama Desert

After sufficiently appreciating the asterisk, we headed back to the tour van and continued along Ruta 15.  Of course, we spotted many other geoglyphs along the way. These appeared to be a little more traditional, shapes relating to animals and other figures of daily life. As you can see from the photo, unregulated offroad vehicles have damaged the desert around the geoglyphs, turning up the rocks surrounding them. It’s hard to convince people that rocks and sand are part of Chile’s national heritage and need to be protected.

Mirador Alto Pachica & Quebrada de Tarapacá

Mirador Alto Pachica, en route to Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Mirador Alto Pachica, View of the Quebrada de Tarapacá

Our next stop on the climb up Ruta 15 into the high Andes was the Mirador Alto Pachica, a viewpoint that offers a broad view of the Quebrada de Tarapacá. Down below in the valley, there is more vegetation around the rivers, so farming villages still persist. (For Spanish readers, there is some interesting information about the various towns of the area here.)

Mirador Alto Pachica, en route to Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Mirador Alto Pachica, View of the Quebrada de Tarapacá

Personally, I was most fascinated by the views of Inca terracing.  Ever since my trip to Peru back in 2007, I have been intrigued by how the Incas (and their predecessors) carved out ways to grow crops in seemingly impossible locations. Our guide explained that engineers have studied the way water was moved from one place to another in this valley and still don’t fully understand how the ancient system worked.

Mirador Alto Pachica, en route to Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Posing above the Quebrada de Tarapacá

Of course, this kind of view requires posing for pictures. Our guide took lots of photos of us from the best vantage point, and promised to send them along. Unfortunately, this never happened, but I have this shot of me posing for the pictures taken by one of my fellow tourists.

Altiplano Landscape, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Views of the Desert Hills in the Atacama Desert in the Tarapacá Region

We continued our climb into the higher altitude of the Andes, watching the landscape change from brown and beige to the rich reds and oranges from the mineral-rich mountains. One glance at these colors makes it unsurprising that mining is big business in the area!

Reaching the Altiplano, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Ruta 15, Altitude 4351 Meters above sea level

Finally, we reached the highest point in our climb, 4351 meters above sea level. This is quite the climb in altitude in one day, and can be tough on your body, but at this point we were all feeling good and ready to continue the journey.

Entering the Chilean Altiplano

Altiplano Landscape, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile

Altiplano Landscape, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Llamas and Other Andean Animals in the Chilean Altiplano

At this point, we were high in the Chilean altiplano (highlands), and it was time to go off-roading. While Ruta 15 continues towards the Bolivian border, the interesting sites lie on the dirt roads running parallel. You start to see another type of traffic, animals like llamas, vicuña, and other cameloids making their way across the high altitude vegetation.

Altiplano Landscape, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Appreciating the Chilean Altiplano

And then there were the views. I loved seeing the volcanos and snow-covered mountains appearing and disappearing as we rounded corners and headed deeper into the altiplano. Without any lakes around, the landscape was colored in sun-toasted earth tones.

Geisers de Puchuldiza

Geisers de Puchuldiza, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Geisers de Puchuldiza

Our next stop after admiring the landscape and wildlife was the Geisers de Puchuldiza. These geysers are not naturally occurring; the holes in the earth were left open after some sort of mining activity and the water forces itself out due to the pressure beneath the earth’s surface.

Geisers de Puchuldiza, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile

Geisers de Puchuldiza, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile

Selfie at the Geisers de Puchuldiza

There are several spots where the boiling hot water rises to the surface, and the most interesting is where the water comes out with such force and heat, but freezes into this large ice formation in the winter cold of the high Andes. The ice surface glows bright white in the sun, and if you stand close to it you might think you are in Antartica.

Geisers de Puchuldiza, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile

Geisers de Puchuldiza, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Geisers de Puchuldiza

Watching the steaming water spring out of the ground is entertaining for a little while, appreciating nature’s force and reminding you that there is more going on beneath us than we usually consider.

Geisers de Puchuldiza, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Termas de Puchuldiza

From there, we walked over to the Termas de Puchuldiza, a very basic thermal bath built in the middle of nowhere in the Chilean altiplano. At this altitude, the air is cold, but even still I was convinced to change into a bathing suit and get into the healing waters.

Termas de Puchuldiza, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Termas de Puchuldiza

I have to say, after this trip, I am now a big fan of thermal baths, whereas before I didn’t quite understand their appeal. While I’m not sure if the stories about the healing properties of the mineral waters are true, it is relaxing to hang out in a hot pool in the middle of winter. I was especially appreciative to spend some time talking with the other people on my tour and learning their stories.

Beautiful Landscape of the Altiplano, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
More Views of the Chilean Altiplano

After leaving the thermal baths, we got back in our car, and before long, we hit a road bump – other trucks passing by signaled at our tires, and it turns out that we had a flat.

Beautiful Landscape of the Altiplano, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile

Appreciating the Active Volcano in the Chilean Altiplano

Good news is that our guides were prepared and were able to change the tire quickly. In the meantime, I wandered into the landscape a bit to take the pressure off them and snap some shots of the beautiful scenery from another angle.

Mauque

Village of Mauque, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Church of Mauque

Tire replaced, we continued our route to Mauque, one of the traditional Aymara towns located near Parque Nacional Isluga. Mauque is notable for its very old, traditional church and the old-fashioned construction of its houses.

Village of Mauque, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Church of Mauque

Unfortunately, for some reason, the local government decided that the old-fashioned plaza of Mauque needed to be modernized. Take a look at the tire marks on the ground. On the morning of our visit, the Chilean authorities bulldozed the plaza to make room for a new one.

Village of Mauque, near Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile

The town already has a steel monstrosity of a soccer field in the middle of town. Imagine that – a traditional Aymara town being forced into modern buildings and structures. When we arrived, two of the older townspeople were sitting in the plaza, shocked by the destruction of their plaza. As our guide said, a modern plaza would completely throw off the feeling of the town, and even reduces its appeal to tourists.

Unfortunately, this kind of “development” is fairly common throughout Chile.  Character and history give way to uniformity.

In any case, there are artisans in Mauque who offer their hand-knit and woven alpaca products to tourists, if you’re interested in purchasing directly from the makers. After Mauque, we also made a stop in Enquelga, where we saw one of the artisans at work, spinning alpaca yarn. She offered a number of beautiful shawls at low prices; you can see what I ended up purchasing in one of the photos below.

Ceremonial Village of Isluga

Ceremonial Village of Isluga, Paruqe Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Ceremonial Village of Isluga

Finally, in late afternoon, we arrived to Isluga.  Isluga is a ceremonial village, which means that its houses are only inhabited during religious events (more information in Spanish here). It’s a little strange to see so many streets filled without houses, but no people.

Ceremonial Village of Isluga, Paruqe Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Ceremonial Village of Isluga

Hanging from the crosses are pieces of fruit which appear to have dried in the sun and cold. These types of offerings are commonly seen throughout the Andes, although I am not exactly sure what they represent.

Ceremonial Village of Isluga, Paruqe Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Ceremonial Village of Isluga

It was quite peaceful to take in the picturesque location of the town, so close to the mountain which plays an important role in Andean philosophy (cosmovisión).

Ceremonial Village of Isluga, Paruqe Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Ceremonial Village of Isluga

Laguna Arabilla in Parque Nacional Isluga

Laguna Arabilla, Parque Nacional Isluga, near Iquique, Tarapacá, Chile
Laguna Arabilla, Parque Nacional Isluga

Our final scenic stop was the one that originally drew me in: the promise of high altitude lagoons. I was not disappointed. This is the sector protected by Parque Nacional Isluga. Because these lagoons are the habitats of flamingoes and other native species, the Chilean national park service has constructed an educational walk around the lagoon, restricting you to the path in order to protect the ecosystem.

Laguna Arabilla, Parque Nacional Isluga, near Iquique, Tarapacá, Chile
Laguna Arabilla, Parque Nacional Isluga

Due to the late hour, we didn’t have much time at Laguna Arabilla, but it was quite lovely. Coming from the desert mountains of the Valle de Elqui and a week spent on the coast, this landscape was a big change and I had more appreciation for its beauty than I may have if I had come directly from a tour of the Salar de Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama.

Laguna Arabilla, Parque Nacional Isluga, near Iquique, Tarapacá, Chile
Posing at Laguna Arabilla, Parque Nacional Isluga

In any case, I enjoyed the drastic change from the desert and expanding my knowledge and understanding of the geography of Chile. The Andes are amazing.

Colchane

Paso Frontizero Colchane, Tarapacá, Chile
Posing at the Paso Frontizero Colchane, at the Border with Bolivia

After covering so much territory in one day, it was time for an extremely late lunch at Colchane, the last Chilean town before the Bolivian border. Of course, we couldn’t resist taking pictures of the distances to the nearest Bolivian cities!

Sunset in Parque Nacional Isluga, Tarapacá, Chile
Sunset in Parque Nacional Isluga

After finally eating a real meal, we piled back into the van for the long trip back to Iquique. As night fell, our guide began to tell us about his experiences with the supernatural at oficinas salitreras like Humberstone. It was almost like being around a campfire, swapping stories, where everything seems a little more possible at night than you would believe by the light of day.

I arrived back in Iquique feeling inspired by my visit to the highlands, intrigued by all the history I know so little about, and motivated to keep on exploring and keep on sharing what I learn. I am very thankful to our tour guide for having so much passion for his home region and sharing it with us!

As you can see, I highly recommend heading out on this tour, not just for the beautiful landscapes, but for the opportunity to get a glance into ancient history encoded in the desert, the lives of Aymara villagers, and to just appreciate how different life is at this altitude.

Recommendations for Parque Nacional Isluga Tour, Tarapacá, Chile:

  • Take the tour! This tour is absolutely worth the money, especially if you are visiting from other parts of Chile where the landscape is really different. The tour uses an off-road readyh vehicle that allows you to visit the more out of the way sites, like the geysers. I booked my tour through the hostel I stayed at in Iquique, who work with Show Travel. I really appreciated the insight of my guide, but he was working on starting his own agency and may no longer work there. Fair warning: most tour guides do not speak much English in this region, and you will get the most out of the tour if you make an effort with your Spanish.  The tour cost $45000 CLP in July 2015.
  • Keep in mind that you go from sea level to over 4000 meters above sea level in a very short period of time, which can be hard on your body. To avoid altitude sickness, the tours serve only cookies and crackers on the tour until about 6PM, when you reach Colchane and have a real meal. You may want to bring some fruit if you want some healthy sugar rather than the processed cookies, but I was advised several times not to eat too much as altitude sickness in this particular region can be especially brutal.
  • Make sure to bring some extra cash to buy any of the woven goods sold in Mauque and Enquelga. I bought a hand spun and woven alpaca shawl for $25000 CLP, which is incredibly inexpensive for the quality of the weaving and the material. You can see the shawl in the border photo above. It is one of my favorite souvenirs ever and is incredibly warm due to the alpaca wool and the tiny, tight woven stitches.
  • If you are a vegetarian, the hotel/restaurant in Colchane can serve you a vegetarian option but make sure to tell your travel agency and guide that you need a special meal.
  • Be sure to bring your bathing suit for the Termas de Puchuldiza. Having just visited Mamiña, I chose not to and immediately regretted it. Luckily, one of my fellow tourists had an extra outfit that they lent me.
  • Be prepared to spend the entire day in the tour van – I was picked up at 6:45AM and returned to my hostel at 10:00PM.
  • This video, made using Google Earth, gives a really interesting view on the Gigante del Atacama.
[Parque Nacional Isluga, Chile: July 24, 2015]

Parque Nacional Isluga, Chile- Encountering History and Living Culture in the Chilean Altiplano

Tarapacá, Chile: Savoring the Desert Oasis of Pica and Its Treats

Catedral en Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Iglesia de San Andrés in Pica, Chile

In my year living in the Valle de Elqui, one of my favorite activities was heading out into the orchard to see what fruit was coming into season and to pick a few figs, avocados, grapes, whatever was ready.  One of the best things in the garden was the lime tree, filled with the kind known as limón de pica in Chile.  (These small, round, green key limes are just called limones in Peru because they are basically the only type of limes or lemons you can find. Chile’s limones are oval and usually mostly yellow – what Americans know as lemons.)  After the heavy rains last summer, I gathered up several kilos of limones de pica that had fallen off the tree and enjoyed them for the next couple of months.  Suffice it to say, I’m a fan.

In any case, in Chile, the limón de pica was given its name because it grows extensively in and around the town of Pica, located in the region of Tarapacá, in northern Chile.  Only a couple of hours away from the busy city of Iquique, easily accessible by public bus or car, it is a popular destination for Chilean tourists.

Catedral en Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Inside the Iglesia de San Andrés in Pica, Chile

The route from Iquique to Pica climbs up the cliffs to Alto Hospicio (where I snapped this picture), and continues along Ruta 16 towards the Panamerican Highway, about an hour inland.  On the way, the highway passes Humberstone before arriving to the crossroads town of Pozo Almonte, right on Ruta 5 (the Panamerican).  Every bus stops in this transit center, where you can transfer to another if necessary.  Leaving Humberstone, I flagged down a bus heading to Pica and was able to snag a seat once half the passengers descended in Pozo.

From there, it’s about an hour to Pica, an easy ride through the desert.  On the way, you pass through La Tirana, a small town known for its famous religious festival celebrating the Virgen de Carmen.  The festival is celebrated from July 12-18 and is attended by thousands of people every year.  This celebration is particularly famous in Chile because it is the most traditionally Andean of any in the entire country; the dances are extravagant, fascinating, and entertaining.  While I visited the area in July, I arrived just after the festival had ended, so had to settle for watching videos in the Museo Regional de Iquique.  That said, on my way through, the small town was still doing a brisk business selling religious trinkets and welcoming quite a number of tourists.

Catedral en Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Stained Glass in the Iglesia de San Andrés, Pica, Chile

After passing through La Tirana, we continued heading through the desert, but as we approached Pica I started noticing the various patches of bright green foliage.  Pica is famous because it is a pleasant oasis in the middle of the large northern desert, which makes it a great place to grow hot climate fruit like mango and citrus.  And that was basically the reason I went there – to eat delicious fruit.  What can I say, I’m a simple person.

Catedral en Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Stained Glass Reflections, Iglesia de San Andrés, Pica, Chile

The bus route ends at the central plaza of Pica, where the first thing to catch your eye is the gorgeous Iglesia de San Andrés, as you see in the photos above.  This church is prized in northern Chile for its traditional construction and attractive interior.  I was particularly fascinated by the rainbow reflections of the stained glass windows, as you can see from the photos.

Plaza de Armas, Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Main Plaza of Pica, Chile

After checking out the cathedral, I walked around Pica’s main plaza.  As mentioned, Pica is an oasis, which means it has a much more agreeable climate than the relentless sun of the open desert.  After spending the morning exploring Humberstone, I was more than ready to cool off in the plaza.  And to be honest, that is basically all there is to do in Pica: sit in the pleasant plaza to while away an afternoon.

Main Street of Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Pretty Streets of Pica, Chile

Pica has a number of old, traditional houses painted in bright colors, inviting you to admire them.  The main road hosts a library, several hotels, and a couple of stores offering Pica’s other specialty, alfajores de Pica.  The town is small, so it’s easy to wander around without getting lost.

If you continue along Calle Esmeralda, the main thoroughfare heads to Cocha Resbaldero, Pica’s other main tourist attraction besides the church and the fruit.  Cocha Resbaldero is a natural pool or thermal bath formed out of volcanic rock, popular with tourists interested in taking a nice relaxing dip.  As I was heading to Mamiña for its healing mineral waters the next day, I opted to skip the crowds (which you see here!).

Helado en Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Artesanal Fruit Ice Cream in Pica, Chile

After sufficiently ascertaining that there was not much to do in Pica (and finding that there was not fruit on every corner as I expected), I headed back towards the main plaza. After poking around some more, I found a pleasant restaurant offering fresh juices and fruit by the kilo. I bought some early-season mangos and toronjas (grapefruit) and then headed back to a little storefront offering homemade ice cream.  As I am on a mission to try artesanal ice cream in every small town where I find myself, I couldn’t resist and tried out mango and guayaba (guaba).

Alfajores de Pica from Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Alfajores de Pica, Chile

Before leaving Pica, I bought a couple of packages of alfajores de Pica, which differ from the usual alfajores due to the slightly different technique used to make them.  Alfajores de Pica have crispy cookie layers and are usually filled with mango jam rather than the traditional manjar.  They may also be rolled in coconut, completing the tropical flavor.

If you decide that it’s not worth trekking all the way out to Pica just to buy some alfajores, they are often sold by vendors at the transit hub of Pozo Almonte and can be found in supermarkets in Iquique.  Similarly, there are juices made with fruits from the region at the Mercado Centenario.  Either way, visiting Pica makes for a pleasant day trip when combined the nearby attractions of Humberstone and La Tirana; visiting the oasis provides a nice break from the surrounding desert.

Recommendations for Pica, Tarapacá, Chile:

  • Buses to Pica leave from the 700 block of Barros Araña near the Mercado Centenario in the center of Iquique.  Before arriving in Pica, they pass by Humberstone and through Pozo Almonte and La Tirana. You can get on and off the buses at any of those stops (or anywhere else on the route).  A bus to or from Iquique costs $3000 CLP.  From Humberstone, the bus costs $2000 CLP.  You can buy your return ticket at the bus stand next to the main plaza, where you see all the buses parked.
  • If you are interested in swimming in Cocha Resbaldero, make sure you arrive earlier in the day to give yourself enough time to walk over there and enjoy a relaxing dip.  The pool is really popular with Chilean tourists so it may be better to visit on a weekday.  The pool costs $2000 CLP.
  • There are a number of restaurants in Pica but as it is a small town, they only appear to be open during the lunch hour.  I found one restaurant serving juices in late afternoon but there were no other customers inside.
  • You can buy alfajores de Pica at the factory on the corner of the plaza, across from the church.  The older gentleman who sits outside the factory is a local celebrity and the walls are covered with articles describing the alfajores and other aspects of town life.  There is another factory selling alfajores a block or two from the plaza.
  • Although Pica was a pleasant place to visit for an hour or two, I would definitely suggest combining it with a stop in Humberstone and La Tirana to make the most out of your day.
[Pica, Tarapacá, Chile: July 22, 2015]

Tarapacá, Chile: Exploring Northern Chile's Mining Past at Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile, 1872-1960

Now that I’ve had a chance to end my time in the Valle de Elqui, travel around southern Chile, and decide to move back to Peru, it’s time to rewind to where it all began last year: my inspirational trip to the region of Tarapacá and the sites around the amazing city of Iquique.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Timeline of the History of Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

If you think about it, it’s quite fitting that my trip to Iquique was one of the first steps towards heading back to Peru.  The region used to be Peruvian territory until the Guerra de Pacífico (the War of the Pacific) between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, which resulted in a treaty that ceded Tarapacá to Chile in 1883.  While military history is not my strong suit (and for a much greater understanding of this conflict I highly recommend The Chile Reader, a book containing primary historical documents translated into English), this war was also known as the Guerra del Guano y el Salitre, two valuable materials used as fertilizer in this era and the financial impetus for the conflict.  (For the record, guano is bird manure and salitre is saltpeter.)

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Abandoned Buildings in Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

And that brings us to salitre, or saltpeter (potassium nitrate), a mineral that was once found in massive quantities in the deserts of northern Chile.  In its heyday, saltpeter was a highly valuable, in demand natural fertilizer exported all around the world.  As Chile is a country which owes a great deal of its wealth to mining, it follows that Chilean industry would seek to exploit this natural bounty.  And exploit it did: the regions of Tarapacá and Antofagasta were once home to hundreds of oficinas salitreras, or saltpeter mines. (Wikipedia has a full list.)

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Housing Sector in Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

For anyone truly interested in understanding the history of northern Chile and the role that mining has played in generations of families, you have to educate yourself on what the life of a Chilean miner has been and currently is like.  In the Valle de Elqui, almost every family I knew was touched by mining, where a father or son or partner or cousin heads north to Antofogasta or Tarapacá on a regular basis.  Miners generally work in cycles where they will spend 10, 12, or 14 days working in the mines and an equal number on descanso (rest) back at home.  While Los 33 is a dramatized Hollywood version of a particularly challenging episode in Chilean mining history, it can serve as an easily accesible visual introduction to life underground.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Athletic Courts in Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

In the heights of the saltpeter industry, entire complexes grew up around the mines, located in the most inhospitable parts of the north, baking under the desert sun.  Some of the salitreras were small and consisted of little more than the industrial operations and basic housing, but others, like Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, evolved to have extensive living complexes, a hotel and bar, swimming pools and basketball courts, schools, and even a theatre.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Crumbling Buildings in Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

According to what locals told me, Humberstone was actually quite unusual, serving as the “model” saltpeter mine, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.  It just makes you realize that if you think these conditions are harsh, they were much worse in most of the other oficinas.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
One of the Few Shaded Places in Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

I didn’t know what to expect when arriving at Humberstone, known as an abandoned yet amazingly preserved national monument recognized by UNESCO.  I took one of the frequent buses from the Mercado Centenario in the center of Iquique and was deposited at the bus stop on the recently relocated highway.  While the highway used to pass right next to Humberstone, now you have to walk about 10 minutes to get to the entrance.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Humberstone’s Theatre, the Center of Social Life in the Mining Complex

After paying the entrance fee, I received my map of the massive site and started wandering around.  There is a lot to see.  If you are fascinated, as I was, by all the history contained within the site, you could easily spend the entire day there, wandering through the buildings on the main square, poking around the main “streets” containing the living barracks, checking out the various on-site museums displaying wooden doors and windows, household goods, tools used by the miners, or games created by the children.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Kitchenwares Once Used by Residents of Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

It’s definitely worth contemplating what life was like for so many men, women, and children for decades, living in this hostile climate and having to find a way to adapt to this lifestyle in order to eke out a living.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Posing in the Old School at Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

As a teacher myself, I appreciated walking through the old school and picturing the children trying to imagine their futures beyond the pampa (desert mine region), living in a bleak environment.  One of the classrooms displays enlarged pages containing an excerpt from a book written by a man who grew up in the saltpeter mines, illustrating the harshness of life for women and children.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Old Administrative Offices at Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Old Mini Railroad to Transport Saltpeter at Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

After walking through the streets of the residential sector, I explored the homes of the higher ranking managers and the relative comforts of their quarters and administrative offices. Many of the museum exhibits are housed in these sturdy, well-preserved buildings.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Climbing the “Torta” or Mountain of Industrial Residues from Saltpeter Extraction at Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

From there, I climbed to the top of the “torta” or the mountain created by the residues from the mining process. This provides an amazing vantage point over the entire area, giving a clear view of the vastness of the mine.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile

Views of Oficina Salitrera Humberstone from Above

Looking from the uniform residential buildings (still echoed in the suburban Chilean landscape today), to the towers of nearby Oficina Santa Laura, to the sprawling industrial sector littered with abandoned machinery, I was able to construct a visual of what the area must have looked like a century ago and how lonely it must have felt to live and work here. The expanses of the desert are impressively vast. You can barely make out the highway from the highest vantage point. The sense of isolation is complete.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Industrial Sector at Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

After sufficiently appreciating the view and being thankful for the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of life here, I headed over to the industrial sector, observing the heavy machinery and getting a sense of how saltpeter was processed.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Industrial Sector at Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

To be fair, I was much more interested in the residential area because it baffled my mind to imagine people living here for as long as they did. Not just here, but in any of the many abandoned oficinas you can see from the highway as you travel around the region.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Industrial Machinery at Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

The really ambitious independent traveler can continue exploring Oficina Santa Laura, another nearby saltpeter mine about 20 minutes away on foot.  I wanted to continue on to Pica before it got too late in the day (and needed a break from the sun), so I skipped it this time around.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Old Posters Promoting Chilean Nitrate/Saltpeter in the Museum of Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

For what it’s worth, people say that you can feel the spirits of ghosts while wandering through the abandoned mining complex.  Some tour agencies even offer nighttime full moon tours for just this reason.  I spoke to a local tour guide who told me that there are definitely spirits still inhabiting other mining complexes, especially those where conditions were more brutal and more lives were lost.  I found it particularly moving to hear the stories of these spirit encounters and imagine these poor souls still wanting to tell their stories.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Bringing Life Back to Oficina Salitrera Humberstone

Whatever your beliefs, I think it’s important to honor these workers of the past and how their sacrifice and dedication contributed to the development of Chile.  My visit to Humberstone gave me a greater appreciation for the realities of mining and brought me to a deeper understanding of Chile and its culture.  I highly suggest a visit.  I went independently, which gave me much more time at the mining complex and enabled me to read the plentiful, informative signage (often in Spanish but sometimes in English) and spend more time appreciating the entire site.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Posing Above Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Thankful for the Opportunity to Learn

Recommendations for Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile:

  • Humberstone is easily reached via public transportation.  Buses leave every few minutes from the 700 block of Barros Araña, near the Mercado Centenario in Iquique.  A bus to Humberstone from Iquique cost $2000CLP in July 2015.
  • Make sure to tell the driver that you will get off in Humberstone, as the buses continue on to more distant destinations, and only tourists stop in Humberstone.  The highway exit is incredibly well labeled and visible, but you can always follow the route on Google Maps if you want to make sure you don’t miss it!
  • Upon arrival, cross the highway via the overpass and keep walking to the visible parking lot.  The entrance is well labeled and easily to find.  Entry to the site costs $3000CLP and includes a map of the complex.
  • The map gives a good sense of the layout of the site.  I started with the main plaza, headed through the residential sector, climbed the “torta,” and then saw the administrative offices, before heading to the industrial sector.  On my way back, I wandered through the exhibits lining the main road.  Due to the exhausting nature of being in the sun for so long, I also suggest heading to the farther sector first and working your way back, ending with the indoor museums.
  • Do not forget sunblock, and if you don’t have a hat, you can buy one at the artisan stands located on site.  The sun is brutal.  Just imagine living here!
  • You can walk to Oficina Santa Laura from Humberstone if you are interested in seeing another site. Oficina Santa Laura gives a clearer sense of the industrial aspect of the oficinas.
  • From Humberstone, I headed onward to Pica by waiting at the same bus stop I got off at.  You can also visit La Tirana on the way to Pica.  If you want to squeeze all three locations into one day’s trip on public transportation, leave Iquique by 8 or 9AM to give yourself enough time to explore.
  • For more information on the saltpeter mines, give yourself time to explore the many on-site museums and displays. This BBC article gives a little more context on the mining complex. This interesting article explains how important saltpeter used to be.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Out of pride of being pampino (Saltpeter Miners), let’s take care of our heritage as future generations will judge us for it

[Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile: July 22, 2015]

Tarapacá, Chile: Experiencing the Healing Mineral Waters of Mamiña

Church in Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile
Church in Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile

When I decided to travel to Iquique, I knew one of my stops would be Mamiña, a small town in the desert known for its healing mineral waters. According to the legend, an Incan princess named Mamiña recovered her sight after washing her eyes with the water that flows through the town. Today, Mamiña is a popular stop for miners seeking to relax their tired muscles and people treating a number of health complaints. It is also a common day trip for your average tourist like me, looking for a relaxing soak in thermal baths.

Church in Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile
Church in Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile

Throughout my travels through South America, I have taken many a thermal bath and elected to skip several others. In Cachueta, near Mendoza, Argentina, the thermal waters give a sense of luxury among the picturesque Andes. In Baños del Inca, near Cajamarca, Peru, a rather sterile complex has grown up around one of the Inca’s favorite places to relax, where the thermal water is piped into a tiny cell-like bathing room. I wasn’t sure what to expect in Mamiña.

Plaza in Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile
Plaza in Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile

Although tours can take you to Mamiña, they cost between $25000-$35000CLP per person, which is quite pricey for someone on a nonprofit salary. Beyond that, I wasn’t that into sharing a relaxing bath with other tourists. After a little bit of research, I discovered that public buses to Mamiña leave daily from just outside the Mercado Centenario in the center of Iquique (see details, below).

Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile
Road in Upper Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile

The route passes through Pozo Almonte en route to Mamiña, giving you a chance to buy breakfast in the dusty transit town. From there, it is a mostly paved road to Mamiña and a steady climb in altitude. The bus first stops at the plaza of Mamiña, which hosts an attractive old church. Don’t make my mistake and attempt to get off there; the town is separated into a lower and upper section and the bus will take you all the way to the thermal baths above town.

Barros Chinos (Mud Baths) in Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile
Barros Chinos, Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile

By the time we arrived, it was about 11AM, which is a good time to get there as the sun was just starting to get strong. The bus dropped us off at Barros Chinos, where I got ready to take my first ever mud bath.

Barros Chinos (Mud Baths) in Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile
Barros Chinos, Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile

After paying a $3000 entrance fee, the gentle, friendly staffperson points out the changing rooms and the mud bathing rooms, one for women, men, and mixed, for families. I headed into the women’s bathing room, where the attendant brought me a bucket of mud and kindly offered to apply it to my back as I was on my own.

Barros Chinos (Mud Baths) in Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile
Coating Myself in Mud at Barros Chinos, Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile

The instructions are simple: coat yourself all over with mud and sit in the sun for 30 minutes to let it dry. When I started slathering the mud on, I started laughing so hard tears ran down. I never thought I would voluntarily coat myself in mud! Other ladies came in and told me that the mud was supposed to be good for your hair and skin. I wasn’t quite ready to put it in my hair but I tried it on my face, which the nice man captured for posterity.

Barros Chinos (Mud Baths) in Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile
Thermal Bath at Barros Chinos, Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile

After 30 minutes, I was antsy and ready to get into the thermal bath itself. Despite the strong sulphur smell, the bath itself is a pleasant temperature, with pockets of water which almost burn your feet. The pool you rinse off in is actually just carved out of the ground and you definitely touch the mud bottom. Not for the squeamish.

Barros Chinos (Mud Baths) in Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile
Barros Chinos, Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile

After stepping out of the thermal bath, I attempted a quick rinse under the frigid showers and changed back into my clothes. I had a couple of hours to kill by wandering through the residential part of town and eating my lunch. There are few places that offer lunch, so as a vegetarian, I opted to bring my own food.

Baños Ipla, Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile

Baños Ipla, Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile
Baños Ipla, Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile

After the traditional siesta, Baños Ipla opens back up for business. I was one of the first ones through the door and headed into my own private room, which is basically another thermal bath carved into the floor. Because the baths are sourced right out of the ground below, the water which comes in is full of what looks like dirt and minerals. And the water is hot. Seriously hot. Signs around the small complex recommend a bath of only 5 minutes, and up to 10 minutes for later visits, once your body has built up tolerance.

Baños Ipla, Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile
Private Thermal Bath in Baños Ipla, Mamiña, Chile

Take this advice seriously – submerging in water this hot is no joke. After your five minute dip, you should rest for about 10 minutes on the wooden recliner. After so many months feeling cold, it was an amazing feeling to be so warm, right through to my bones. I needed the recovery time to stretch out my muscles and let my blood pressure return to normal. Afterwards, you head out into the waiting area to let the relaxation set in a little more.

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

Around this time, a local came by to the little stand outside the bath complex, offering delicious fresh juices. I opted for guayaba, since it’s not a fruit I see too often.

Healing Waters, Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile
Source of the Healing Waters of Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile

After enjoying my juice, I walked behind Banos Ipla to see the small monument to the site where Mamiña had her vision restored, which would have been a relaxing place to read if it weren’t for the construction going on at the hotel a stone throw’s away.

Views from Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile
Green Hills around Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile

The rest of the afternoon was laid back, with those of us who had come in on the bus waiting around Baños Ipla until it was time to catch the bus back to Iquique. It was a pleasant afternoon, definitely at the Chilean pace, where there is nothing in particular to do, so you get the chance to embrace downtime.

Sunset Over the Desert in Tarapacá, Chile
Sunset Over the Desert in Tarapacá, Chile

Recommendations for Mamiña, Tarapacá, Chile:

  • Tours to Mamina are available from various tour operators in Iquique and cost between $25000-$35000CLP per person.  However, I suggest visiting Mamiña independently.
  • Public buses run daily to Mamina from the 900 block of Barros Araña, next to the Mercado Centenario in Iquique. You can buy tickets in advance from the store at Barros Arana 965. You may also be able to arrange other pickup locations with the driver, and the bus also stops in Pozo Almonte. Each way costs $4000CLP per person, or roundtrip for $8000CLP. Buses leave at 8AM and leave upper Mamina at 5:30PM and the plaza of Mamina at 6PM. (There is also an afternoon bus at 4PM from Iquique which returns from Mamina at 8AM.)
  • There are a few pricey hotel complexes in Mamina, popular among miners, families, or people using the water for treatment. There are a few restaurants with cabins (cabanas) scattered around, but it is best to try to make reservations or check if they are serving food on less busy days.
  • Bring snacks and water as there are not many places to buy refreshments.
  • Make sure you take advantage at the stop at the plaza to check out the church.
[Mamiña, Chile: July 23, 2015]

Iquique, Chile: Falling for This Port City Nestled Between the Ocean and the Desert

Views from the Malecón, Iquique, Tarapacá, Chile
Coastline of Iquique, Chile

I might as well get it out there: I loved, loved, loved Iquique. Iquique is a uniquely situated city; it rests steps away from the ocean, yet is also only a short climb down the sand dunes from the inland desert, home to the saltpeter mines which boosted Chile’s economy for a century. Once the site of many a territorial dispute and their ensuing battles, Iquique is currently only a few hours away from both the Peruvian and Bolivian borders, meaning it has many immigrants and much cultural influence from its neighbors. On top of that, it is an active port city which has become famous in recent years for its surfing and paragliding, increasing its popularity among tourists who come for its great weather and traditional architecture reflecting the British influence from the mining heyday.

Coastline, Iquique, Tarapacá, Chile
Iquique Coastline

Iquique has been on my radar since 2013, when I spent a few days appreciating Arica. Instead of exploring along the Chilean coast, I headed inland to the Atacama desert to realize one of my travel dreams of finally seeing the landscapes around San Pedro de Atacama. I figured I could head to Iquique on my way back through Chile later in my trip, but I ended up skipping it.

Views from Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, Tarapacá, Chile
Views from a Bus Climbing the Dunes Above Iquique, Chile

However, after suffering through the chilly desert nights in the Valle de Elqui, I was more than ready for some warm beach temperatures during my winter vacation in July. After saying goodbye to Sara, my partner-in-crime for adventures in Santiago, Viña del Mar, and Isla Negra, I headed north to Caldera, where I spent a weekend before moving on to my final destination, Iquique.

After an arduous bus ride through the inland desert, I finally arrived in Iquique. Since it was late afternoon, I headed directly to my hostel, Hostel El Bajo, located just a block from the ocean. A family-run hostel popular with surfers, I felt like I was part of the group immediately upon arrival and decided to stay for the rest of my vacation, giving me time to fully explore the city as well as the sights of Tarapacá: Oficina Salitrera Humberstone, the oasis of Pica, the healing thermal baths of Mamiña, and Parque Nacional Isluga.

I spent most of my time in Iquique wandering the streets and along the coast, taking in the city’s ambiance and thinking about moving here after I finish my year in the Valle de Elqui. Here are some of the places I think are worth checking out in Iquique.

Baquedano and the Plaza de Armas

Baquedano, Iquique, Tarapacá, Chile
Sunny Day on Baquedano, Iquique, Chile

Baquedano is the main pedestrian thoroughfare in downtown Iquique precisely because it is exclusively for foot and bicycle traffic.  Restaurants, hostales, and tourist agencies dot the cobblestone roads and wooden sidewalks, many of them brightly painted in colors that show off their attractive wooden balconies.  Sadly other buildings are falling apart from neglect or leftover damage from the 2014 earthquake.

Plaza de Armas, Iquique, Chile
Torre de Reloj, Plaza de Armas, Iquique, Chile

Since I was staying by the beach, I chose to walk along Baquedano to the commercial center of town, the Plaza de Armas. In the middle of the Plaza de Armas stands the Torre de Reloj, or clock tower, one of the distinctive features of the main square.

Iquique, Tarapacá,Chile
Teatro Municipal, Iquique, Chile

Just next to the Plaza de Armas is the Teatro Municipal, a bright white building reflecting the grandeur of Iquique’s lucrative past.

Plaza de Armas, Iquique, Chile

Plaza de Armas, Iquique, Chile

Due to its popularity among tourists, there are many cafés and restauarants all around this part of Baquedano and the surrounding side streets, providing a nice place to relax and people watch.

Iquique has a large number of Croatian immigrants, who even have a cultural club right on the main plaza.

This part of Iquique is particularly busy with business, as there are banks lining the nearby streets, as well as the municipal buildings and other tourist services.  Chances are, if you need it, you can find it near here!

Baquedano, Iquique, Chile
Baquedano, Iquique, Chile

The colorful buildings are especially pleasant to look at on a sunny day, but unfortunately there was not that much sun during my visit.  Even still, I admired the well-preserved wooden balconies and construction throughout the downtown area.

Museo Regional de Iquique, Chile
View of Baquedano from the Museo Regional, Iquique, Chile

Traditional Old Neighborhood, Iqique, Tarapacá, Chile
Traditional Wooden Buildings Near the Downtown Area of Iquique, Chile

Just a couple of blocks from Baquedano is this traditional neighborhood, boasting wooden construction which still looks pretty awesome after all these years.

Museo Corbeta Esmeralda and the Industrial Port

Esmeralda, Iquique, Chile
Museo Corbeta Esmeralda, Iquique, Chile

Near the busy bus terminal lies one of Iquique’s most popular museums, a reconstruction of the famous ship called Esmeralda. This ship was sunk by the Peruvian navy during the Battle of Iquique and as such serves as a national symbol of Chile’s military pride.

The museum was packed with visitors as it was during winter vacation, and it is generally best to reserve a time slot in order to tour the ship.  Although I was curious, I was more interested in exploring the rest of the city so I decided not to wait in the long line.

Coastal Views, Iquique, Chile
Port Views from Iquique, Chile

Behind the Museo Esmeralda and the bus terminal, you can check out the commercial port, albeit from a distance. It gives you a sense of the massive amount of commerce that passes through Iquique and has made it such an important city in the Chilean economy.

Museo Regional Iquique

Museo Regional de Iquique, Chile
Museo Regional de Iquique and Photos of the La Tirana Festival

After wandering around downtown a bit, my curiosity in the history of Iquique was definitely piqued, so I headed to the Museo Regional de Iquique, located on Baquedano.  The museum is completely free and has permanent exhibits on the indigenous populations that resided or still live around Tarapacá and on the saltpeter mining industry which dominated the nearby desert for over a century.

At the time of my visit, the museum also had an interesting photography exhibit and video presentation representing the Fiesta de La Tirana, a major cultural and religious event that had taken place in nearby La Tirana in mid-July. It is known especially for its traditional dances and costumes representing the Diablada, or the Devil’s dance.

Museo Regional de Iquique, Chile
Relics of the Saltpeter Mining Industry in the Museo Regional de Iquique 

Museo Regional de Iquique, Chile
Photos and Facts From the Many Oficinas Salitreras (Saltpeter Mines) in Northern Chile

Museo Regional, Nitrate/Saltpeter Mines Exhibit, Iquique, Tarapacá, Chile
Special Currency Used by the Saltpeter Mines, Museo Regional de Iquique

I was particularly interested in the exhibits on the salitreras, or saltpeter mines, as I was also planning on heading to Oficina Humberstone, one of the best preserved and biggest former mines.  Mining is such a major industry in Chile, and the exhibit gave me insight into how the saltpeter and nitrate industry has impacted generations of families in the north.

I was also excited to see the exhibit on textiles from Isluga, where the Aymara still live and weave in the traditional styles used for centuries.  This was a nice preview for my visit to the altiplano, or highlands, later that week.

Walking Along Iquique’s Malecón, or Boardwalk

Views from the Coastline of Iquique, Chile

Bike Path and Boardwalk in Iquique, Chile

Naturally, as I was staying just a block from the beach, I had to spend some time wandering along the malecón, enjoying the sound of the waves and the views of the coastline. Iquique’s wooden boardwalk is a pleasant place to walk, and a nice bike path runs parallel along the whole length of the coast.

Views from the Coastline of Iquique, Chile
Monument to Croatian Immigrants, Iquique, Chile

Views from the Coastline of Iquique, ChileViews of the Ocean in Iquique, Chile

Views from the Malecón, Iquique, Chile

Wooden Boardwalk along the Malecón, Iquique, Chile

Further from Baquedano, towards the casino, the boardwalk turns more touristy, near the most popular beach, Playa Cavancha.  Since I went in the off season, most everything was closed up, with the exception of some souvenir stands.

Views from the Malecón, Iquique, Chile
Casino, Iquique, Chile

Views from the Malecón, Iquique, Chile
Looking Back at Iquique’s Coastline

All in all, I enjoyed my lengthy walk along the coastline, even though it was cloudy, windy, and chilly on this particular afternoon.  I would love to return in summer and really soak in the beachy vibes.

Mercado Centenario

Mercado Centenario, Iquique, Tarapacá, Chile
Mercado Centenario, Iquique, Chile

The center of all commercial activity stems from the Mercado Centenario, located in the middle of downtown Iquique. The market sells fruit, vegetables, dried goods, fish, and lots of other food options, and has a number of restaurants both in and outside the market.

Fresh Juice at the Mercado Centenario, Iquique, Chile
Fresh Juice at the Mercado Centenario, Iquique, Chile

I couldn’t resist a fresh juice at the market, made from the varieties of fruit that grow in the area, like oranges, mangoes, and guavas.  Sitting down at an outdoor café with juice in front of me reminded me a lot of the many similar markets I’ve been to in Peru!

Near the market, there are several commercial streets selling just about everything you can imagine, and regional buses leave from a couple of offices just a block away.

Chumbeques

Fábrica de Chumbeques, Iquique, Chile
Fábrica de Chumbeques, Iquique, Chile

In my research about Iquique, I came across recommendations to buy chumbeques, super sweet bar cookies produced in Iquique with regional fruit.  I headed straight to the factory at Ramírez 795 and tried the crumbly cookie sandwich stuffed with mango.

Chumbeques from Iquique, Chile
Chumbeque Souvenirs from Iquique, Chile

I ended up returning to buy a pack of mango chumbeques as well as the traditional one filled with the local limón de pica.   These are great snacks for a hike or long trip as they store well and provide a burst of energy.

As you can see, I was charmed by Iquique, because of its beautiful coastline, interesting architecture, multi-faceted heritage, and ambiance that reminds me of my beloved Peru. My adventures around the Tarapacá region continue to inspire me to learn more about Chile’s fascinating history.

Recommendations for Iquique, Chile:

  • I really enjoyed my stay at Hostel El Bajo, located at Obispo Labbé 1659, just one block from the ocean.  It is a family run hostel with a Marley Coffee café inside, and they are avid surfers.  The beds are comfortable with high quality mattresses even if the rooms are a bit cramped, and each room has lockers to store your stuff.  The kitchen is also well-stocked, which is a great way to save money.  In July 2015, a bed in the dorm cost $10000, including a simple but nice breakfast.
  • The Museo Regional de Iquique, located at Baquedano 951, has a number of exhibits which help you get a sense of the particular aspects which characterize the Tarapacá region, in particularly the saltpeter mines, the La Tirana festival, and the customs of the Aymara living in the high Andes.  Entry is free.
  • The other popular museum in Iquique is the Museo Corbeta Esmeralda, a reconstruction of the famous ship named Esmeralda.  You can reserve your visit online, except on Sundays, which is first-come, first serve.  The cost of admission for foreigners is $3000CLP.
  • It is absolutely essential to walk along Baquedano to the Plaza de Armas to get a sense of the old Iquique and its unique architecture.  Near the Plaza de Armas, there are a few side streets and markets selling souvenirs and artesanía.  It is also possible to take the tourist trolley up and down Baquedano, if it’s running.
  • No visit to Iquique is complete without a walk along the beach. Iquique has a wooden boardwalk as well as a nice bike path that runs parallel.  Playa Cavancha is the most popular beach among tourists, and closer to the casino there are other tourist attractions, although none were operational on my visit.
  • Iquique is famous for its Zofri, or tax free zone, where people buy all kinds of electronics and perfumes at low prices.  I wasn’t that interested in shopping, but if you are, make sure you take a taxi or a bus there as it passes through some undesirable neighborhoods.
  • The Mercado Centenario at Barros Araña 850 is a great place to have fresh juice or inexpensive sandwiches, empanadas, or fixed price lunches.  There are also stands selling fruit, vegetables, and dried goods, and you can also find a lot of products from Peru, like ají amarillo and my favorite Sublime chocolate.
  • If you’re interested in trying the chumbeque, the locally popular treat that sticks to your ribs, you can buy them at the factory at Ramírez 795, or in many other spots around town. I suggest the mango flavor.
  • Buses to Humberstone, La Tirana, Pica, Mamiña, and other local destinations leave from the 700 block of Barros Araña, just a block from the Mercado Centenario.  Buses to national destinations leave from the bus terminal, near the Esmeralda and the Plaza de Armas.

Graffiti, Iquique, Tarapacá, ChileGraffiti in Iquique, Chile:  “You were a sad and beautiful dream”

[Iquique, Chile: July 20-25, 2015]