I’d never thought about it while living on a small island wedged between the North Sea and North Atlantic, but the lure of seeing and tasting the ocean after seven months living in a landlocked country became a powerful force as we crossed the desolate high altitude border between Bolivia and Chile. The ocean and delicious seafood were only a few hundred kilometres away.
Bypassing San Pedro de Atacama and its hoards of tourists we headed straight for the coast at the Chilean city of Iquique and first sight the mighty Pacific Ocean. Guide books are a bit sniffy about Iquique, particularly its fishmeal processing plant, but it is a town that deserves a few days lazing on the beach between sampling seafood and sushi washed down with some delicious micro-brewery beers or chilled Chilean white wine.
Iquique is a fascinating town. It owes its existence to the nineteenth century boom in nitrates, used for agricultural fertiliser and for making munitions. It has the feel of an upmarket frontier town by the ocean. Architecturally, much of its historic centre wouldn’t be out of place in the Wild West towns familiar from movies, but it does seem out-of-place wedged between the Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean.
Nowhere in the world were there more nitrate deposits than in what is now northern Chile. Chilean nitrates were famous throughout the world and made many people very rich. At its peak, they say more champagne was consumed in Iquique per head of population than any other city in the world. The nitrate magnates built elaborate mansions in the city, which were abandoned in the 1920s and are now being lovingly restored.
Prior to the nitrate boom Iquique was a village of no more than 100 people and was part of Peru, but this resource rich region was to descend into the bloody War of the Pacific (1879 – 1883), pitting Chile against Bolivia and Peru for control of the region.
Chile received significant financial support from the British, who had large commercial interests at stake, and after Chile gained naval supremacy over Peru they went on to defeat both their neighbours, cutting-off Bolivia from the ocean (a hugely contentious issue in Bolivia to this day) and even occupying Peru’s capital, Lima.
With tensions in Europe rising and the First World War just around the corner, control of Atacama nitrates would become a major geopolitical and strategic priority. Chile’s victory in the War of the Pacific allowed Britain to control much of the global nitrate trade putting Germany at a disadvantage on the outbreak of war in 1914. This forced Germany to develop synthetic nitrates and, ironically, speeded the decline in importance and value of Chilean nitrates resulting in a massive economic crisis in Chile.
Chile’s global role in the nitrates boom of the nineteenth century and bust in the twentieth century is testimony to the turbulence of global trade over many centuries.
Today Iquique feels prosperous but with a real alternative vibe. It is a city that you could easily wake up one day in and discover you’d missed the last decade. On a Sunday the main beach in town is full of families and groups of students having fun, while the main plaza seems to be constantly buzzing with life. There are numerous good restaurants and funky cafes and bars, and with a large university population it is a youthful and vibrant city well worth a day or two of anyone’s time.