Thursday, 1 May 2014

Iquique and the Ghost Towns

From Arica I headed south to the coastal city of Iquique, another place famous for its surf. It's also where the large earthquake hit a few weeks ago. I was a bit unsure about whether to go, because I wasn't sure what state the city would be in, but I'm glad I did because apart from some pretty hefty cracks in the roads (which could have been there before) there was no sign of any disaster. I'm also planning to go to Valparaíso next week, where there was a fire shortly after the earthquake. What's going on, Chile!? It´s basically the Big Olive from Hercules. 

I had two nights in Iquique, and the first day I just spent some time exploring. There are some lovely Georgian buildings in the centre, and a very nice central square. But the beaches are also nice. It wasn't warm enough to sunbathe, but I did have a good wander up and down the front. 

It's interesting actually. Iquique sits on the coast, but you have to climb a steep road to drive out to the desert above, and a semi-permanent haze seemed to hang heavily over the city, but the desert above was clear with deep blue skies. It was the same on the way there from Arica. At one point we descended into a sandy valley which was full of mist, but the land above was bathed in sun. I guess the humidity gets trapped in the valleys. 

My second day was the reason I even stopped in Iquique. I did a tour to an oasis town called Pica, but what I wanted to see were the old deserted mining towns on the way. We stopped at Santa Laura and Humberstone, which are both worth seeing. 

These were once self-contained towns where thousands of people lived and worked mining the nitrate-rich desert. This export is what Chile's economy was based on for decades, until Germany developed artificial nitrate, and the mines, and towns too, were abandoned in 1960. The desert sands took over and now the buildings are empty shells of rusted corrugated iron and fraying wood. 

Wandering round them was fascinating. It's not often that I'm that grabbed by historical sites, but I loved these towns, especially the larger Humberstone. The living quarters were particularly atmospheric. Maybe I've seen too many psychological horrors but when I came across a playground near the old school with an empty swimming pool, still with diving boards hanging over nothing, and a swing-set with one swing remaining, I could almost hear the screams of playing children. Very creepy indeed. 

You can take a tour from Iquique that includes the ghost towns, or you can take a bus or colectivo to Humberstone and then catch any bus to Iquique from the bus stop outside, but buses can be few and far between to get back. They're absolutely worth it though. They're like nothing I've ever seen before. 

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