Thousands of overseas travelers see the geysers, salt flats, oases and volcanoes of north west Chile’s Atacama Desert, but few make it into two of the area’s man-made attractions: the starkly lovely ghost cities of Humberstone and Santa Laura. Shafik Meghji takes us to those abandoned settlements.
Yellow tsunami”danger zone” signals, planted like sunflowers on street corners, direct our automobile along Iquique’s seafront. Inland, climbing the 800-metre-high cordillera which offers a background to the city, the vehicle slows to a crawl to facilitate beyond a section of street which dropped during the 8.2 magnitude earthquake at April 2014.
Past Iquique the dawn mist disappears, the warmth warms up along with the parched Atacama goes away into the space. This portion of northern Chile is among the driest and most inhospitable places on Earth; it’s so otherworldly that NASA uses it to check its Mars exploration vehicles.
“There is not a Individual in sight”
Our opinion forward is fuzzy as billowing clouds of dust fill the skies, the end result of Chilean military tank exercises, my own manual, Jaime, clarifies. Subsequently, some 45km inland from Iquique, a peculiar sight looks ahead: at the center of the desert plain sticks the giant winged skeleton of what seems like a marooned ship. Gradually other constructions materialise: a pair of rail tracks, clusters of huts and warehouses, and ultimately neat rows of homes and dusty roads. There’s not a individual in sight.
This ghost city, Santa Laura, is among those remnants of a largely-forgotten business that once made the Atacama Desert one of the most precious places on the planet. From the nineteenth century, the huge saltpetre (potassium nitrate) residue in the area — then a part of Peru and Bolivia — were profoundly in demand for use as fertiliser and gunpowder in Europe and North America. A booming business grown, together with rapacious nitrate barons — most of these British — with the hefty proceeds to construct opulent mansions in towns such as Iquique. In 1878 the War of the Pacific broke from Chile, and Peru and Bolivia: five decades after, Chile emerged victorious, with captured each the nitrate lands.
Of the 200 or so oficinas salitreras (saltpetre functions ) that functioned during the business’s heyday, just one — María Elena — nevertheless functions. The rest have vanished, stripped clean of whatever precious and finally consumed by the desert following World War One signalled the start of the end of the saltwater boom. However, for some quirk of destiny Santa Laura and Arabian Humberstone could have endured the same.
“Following the mines were left in the 1960s they had been inhabited by displaced men and women. There was garbage everywhere, graffiti, the bodies of dead dogs,” says Jaime. “Santa Laura and Humberstone were subsequently purchased by a businessman who intended to sell the stays for scrap. But he went bankrupt , which really maintained it. They had been taken over by a nonprofit organisation, cleaned and created UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2005.”
“A feeling that You’re in Some Type of steampunk hospital”
Now, Santa Laura, that opened in 1872, is an adventure park for everyone interested in industrial archaeology. Jaime and I arrive early in the afternoon and have the spooky site . At its height the oficina was home to over 870 inhabitants: employees lived with their loved ones and also for a lot of the plant’s foundation were treated appallingly. They worked long hoursin harsh circumstances, compensated at”tokens” redeemable only from the oficina’s stores, and dissent fulfilled by repression as well as massacre.
Wandering around Santa Laura, kicking up clumps of crumbly white caliche (unrefined saltpetre), we find a treasure trove of Victorian-era technologies: the remains of a railway station and train carriages; a mill with metal-cutting machines, coolers and compressors; along with a power station using a gas engine manufactured in Halifax and steel beams out of Lanarkshire in the united kingdom. Preserved from the dry desert atmosphere, the majority of the machines seem as though they’re still in working order.
Even the”marooned ship” proves really to be a leaching plant, its mast that a smokestack. The rusted corrugated iron partitions — among these pierced by many bullet holes creak and groan from the end. There’s still a distinct odor of iodine (a by-product of this saltpetre procedure ) providing the feeling that you’re in some type of steampunk hospital.
“The texture of west shore, small-town Americana”
A few kilometres away is the bigger and more broadly restored Humberstone. It had been taken over by the government, who in 1932 named it after British socialist entrepreneur James”Santiago” Humberstone. During its height, the city had a population of some 3500 individuals:”Although it had the potential for double that amount. The business was falling from the 1930s and the authorities just needed to give people tasks,” says Jaime.
A lot of the structure is Art Deco, providing Humberstone the vague sense of west shore, small-town Americana, and lots of the employees’ houses are turned to mini-museums. Among the most evocative is full of letters which shed light on daily life: one shows a”attack” by housewives who had been not able to cook for their husbands till they obtained a greater quality charcoal for those ovens; yet another complained about the expense of constructing a brand new tennis court.
At the town center, the living facilities demonstrate that from the 1920s and 30s, states had gradually improved. There’s a large, empty swimming pool, complete with diving board; a college full of wooden desks and (occasionally risqué) graffiti; along with a city clock stuck indefinitely at 4pm. Overlooking the city square is the old hotel, with guest rooms, a restaurant, bar, billiards area, along with another entrance at the back for employees, who have been prohibited from using the entrance door. Requirements may have improved, however a rigorous hierarchy lasted in the oficinas.
These gradually crumbling buildings offer a feeling the hostile Atacama was tamed — however a five-minute walk off into the industrial region reminds one of the harshness of their environment. It’s blisteringly hot, color tree, and the wind whips ago, covering us in a sheen of dust and dirt. Past the factories and factories, a lone train engine reaches out to the desert.
Humberstone’s highlight, however, is its own magnificent (and supposedly haunted) theater. Indoors, perched on a wooden chair, it’s strangely silent, as though a functionality had only just stopped.