Ghost towns of the Atacama: Santa Laura and Humberstone

Its almost impossible to imagine today, but hidden under the scorched, post-apocalyptic landscape of the Atacama Desert were deposits of nitrates so valuable for agricultural fertiliser and munitions that whole towns with factories, processing plants, hospitals, hotels, theatres and schools were be built in one of the planet’s most inhospitable environments.

From the mid-nineteenth century onwards the Atacama Desert was industrialised with Chilean manpower and European finance. Where there had been nothing but harsh desert, population centres sprung up and a huge network of railways linked the far flung nitrate oficinas with port cities on the coast from where Chilean nitrates were shipped around the world.

Desolate landscape of the Atacama Desert near to Humberstone nitrate complex, Chile

Desolate landscape of the Atacama Desert at the Humberstone nitrate complex, Chile

Working conditions were harsh and dangerous for the labourers. Try to imagine the most hellish working conditions imaginable and you may come close to visualising the conditions for many labouring in places like the Santa Laura and Humberstone nitrate processing factories, located in the middle of northern Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Of course, factory managers and nitrate magnets made fortunes from the industry, building grand mansions in the coastal cities and dining on imported delicacies. For a brief time the region became world famous and the nearby coastal city of Iquique grew rich from nitrates, it was famed for having the highest consumption of champagne per head of any city in the world. Such was the value of nitrates in the second half of the nineteenth-century that the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) was fought to control them.

Leaching plant at Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Leaching plant at Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Machinery made in Glasgow, Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Machinery made in Glasgow, Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Giant compressor, Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Giant compressor, Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Today Santa Laura and Humberstone are two haunting and atmospheric relics of the nitrate boom of the nineteenth-century. Ghost towns that are preserved in the arid climate of the Atacama Desert as if frozen in time. Both are now World Heritage sites. Walking around these man-made monstrosities in the desert is a fascinating and humbling experience, particularly at Humberstone where the artefacts of daily life are still on display in homes or scattered around the site.

Street of workers' cottages at Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Street of workers’ cottages at Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Bedroom in cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Bedroom in cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Kitchen in workers' cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Kitchen in workers’ cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Photo on the wall of a cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Photo on the wall of a cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Tin of lard from New York, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Tin of lard from New York, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Fairly upmarket bathroom, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Fairly upmarket bathroom, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Tennis court, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Tennis court, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Santa Laura was founded in 1858 while Humberstone was founded in 1872. Humberstone is a massive site that at its peak housed 3700 inhabitants. It changed hands several times during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), but finally ended in the control of the London Nitrate Company between 1888 – 1921. British capital and engineers were central to the development of the industry and the evidence of their involvement is seen everywhere in northern Chile – including the name Humberstone, for the British chemical engineer who adapted the Shanks extraction process in 1870.

Main nitrate processing area, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Main nitrate processing area, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Proceso de Yodo, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Proceso de Yodo, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Big pipes used as part of a process with iodine, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Big pipes used as part of a process with iodine, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Furnace, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Furnace, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Abandoned spring, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Abandoned spring, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

The end of the First World War, the development of synthetic nitrates and the Great Depression doomed the nitrate industry in Chile, tens-of-thousands of labourers were made redundant and Chile suffered a terrible economic crisis. Humberstone and Santa Laura continued to operate with vastly reduced profits until 1959 when they finally closed for good before becoming industrial heritage sites.

Abandoned train, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Abandoned train, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Crane, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Crane, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

The Atacama Desert still hides huge deposits of valuable minerals and metals and dotted throughout this landscape are mines, big and small, where humans continue to work in one of the most difficult environments imaginable. Today ‘natural’ nitrates are still extracted in small amounts, but gold, silver, iron and, especially, copper are the mainstay of the Atacama’s mining industry these days.

Iquique, where the Wild West meets the wide ocean

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.

The seafront in Iquique, Chile

The seafront in Iquique, Chile

The Pacific Ocean at Iquique, Chile

The Pacific Ocean at Iquique, Chile

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.

Houses in the historic centre of Iquique, Chile

Houses in the historic centre of Iquique, Chile

Houses in the historic centre of Iquique, Chile

Houses in the historic centre of Iquique, Chile

Houses in the historic centre of Iquique, Chile

Houses in the historic centre of Iquique, Chile

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.

Houses in the historic centre of Iquique, Chile

Houses in the historic centre of Iquique, Chile

Shadow and window in historic Iquique, Chile

Shadow and window in historic Iquique, Chile

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.

Playa Brava on Sunday, Iquique, Chile

Playa Brava on Sunday, Iquique, Chile

Sea lions follow a boat with fish, Iquique, Chile

Sea lions follow a boat with fish, Iquique, Chile

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.

Musicians entertain the crowds in the Plaza de Armas, Iquique, Chile

Musicians entertain the crowds in the Plaza de Armas, Iquique, Chile

Toy animals ridden by children in the Plaza de Armas, Iquique, Chile

Toy animals ridden by children in the Plaza de Armas, Iquique, Chile