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.
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(and for a much greater understanding of this conflict I highly recommend The Chile Reader, a book containing primary historical documents translated into English), this war was also known as the Guerra del Guano y el Salitre, two valuable materials used as fertilizer in this era and the financial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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.