Ghost town. Are there many more evocative words in the English language? Maybe they conjure up images of dusty Wild West abandoned saloons, doors swinging in the breeze. Or places which once welcomed a gold or mineral rush, only to empty out twenty years later when all the mines were stripped clean of their treasures. Humberstone, high in the Atacama Desert about the coastal town of Iquique has a more colourful history than most. In the 1870s Chile was in the midst of a nitrate boom, shipping the mineral mostly used as fertiliser all over the world. A number of nitrate colonies were set up by industrialists to serve the mines, with housing, leisure facilities and healthcare all provided on site. Whilst this might seem progressive in some ways, really it was an effective way of making sure people rarely left the site.
Humberstone was established around 50km from the coastal city of Iquique, with workers coming from as far afield as Peru and Bolivia to make a living in the booming nitrate (saltpeter) industry. Basic education, stores, bars and even a theatre were all provided on site. Wander around the site (it’s best to take a guide who can explain the history) and you’ll even come across an empty swimming pool once enjoyed by local families.
Fifty years ago Humberstone had been left to decay in the high desert air, its buildings abandoned and eerie. But the declaration of the site as a National Monument in 1970 saw the saliterra of Humberstone reclaimed as a piece of cultural history and eventually recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
Conditions on the site varied greatly with the workers’ homes much more basic than those of the bosses; Humberstone was known for its unions which fought for workers’ rights, having an impact on laws across Chile.
In 1929 the nitrate market collapsed with the development of a synthetic, cheaper alternative. Humberstone struggled on for a while, before the last family finally left in 1960.
How to visit Humberstone from Iquique
The Humberstone saliterra is around a 45 minute drive inland from Iquique – tours run from Iquique most days. A visit will take around 2 hours, not including travel.