Iquique stole my heart and is probably my favourite place in Chile. It’s about 1,800km north of Santiago. The city is skirted by Pacific coastline – pristine, soft, white, walkable beach – on one side and the looming mountains of the Atacama Desert on the other. Not even the skyscraping hotels and tourism complexes can ruin the beauty and tranquility of the beaches, and for good reason surfers and bodyboarders from all over the world flock here year-round, but especially in winter, to spend their waking moments surfing. Leanne was so much on my mind here.
The bus pulled into town at about 20:00 on Tuesday, 21 August, and I immediately noticed what an active city this is. People were running along the well-lit beach and on the costanera, or rollerblading (I saw one woman rollerblading while pushing a pram – what a brilliant idea), or skateboarding, or using the public exercise machines. Not since Corrientes had I seen so many people being so active … And that’s not counting the surfers and bodyboarders who had already retired for the night.
It was an easy taxi ride to get to Backpacker’s Hostel Iquique, but what I wasn’t prepared for the next morning was this.
Snap-happy and shoeless, Iquique and its beaches had my undivided attention for an entire day.
The following day was overcast so I checked out the rest of the city, and was especially intrigued by the regional museum; unfortunately no photography allowed. Mummies with long yellow teeth older than a thousand years BC, cranial deformations (so creepy), ancient weaving that I recognised from the horribly unflattering but super-comfortable pants I bought in Punta Arenas, pre-historical contraptions used for snorting hallucinogenics (tale as old as time), and the Sol del Mar (sun of the sea, Heliaster helianthus) which put its stellar sisters, the sea stars, to shame. There was a skeleton of a local buzzard, a flock of which I totally recognised during my last walk on the beach a couple of days later – pitch black save for a blood red beak, head and neck.
The museum also had a great display on the discovery of saltpeter, which was a massive part of Chile’s economy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But with the development of synthetic ammonia, the saltpeter mining industry all but collapsed. I visited the result of that collapse – the abandoned mining ghost town of Humberstone – on my last full day in Iquique.
In the interest of catching up to where I currently am – Bolivia, baby! – here is Humberstone in pictures. Advice to travellers is to skip the pricey tour and for a tenth of the price just hop on a bus around the Mercado Central in Iquique, easy to find. The museum is very well signposted (in Spanish and English) so you really don’t need a guide. Remember sunblock and water, and charge your camera batteries. Because obvio I didn’t. There is a lot to see and learn, and hear (the squeaking of tin roofs and doors in the otherwise silent Atacama) and you’ll spend almost a whole day here if you take it easy. Don’t miss it.
And don’t miss Iquique!