Pretty Iquique is definitely one of the nicer towns in Chile, even though it has declined since the heydays of the saltpetre boom; a good base to explore surrounding attractions.
Because of the floodings in Calama we decide to skip going there, skip visiting the biggest open pit mine in the world, the Chuquicamata copper mine. Which has suspended operations anyhow. We also skip a trip inland, to San Pedro de Atacama, an opportunity to get back into the mountains, as many of the attractions here – geysers, salinas – are inaccessible. So we head for Iquique, instead.
The bus takes the coastal road, which generally is more attractive that the highway through the desert. We are entertained by views of the usual coves and beaches, rocks full of pelicans, and the occasional settlement, which has all the hallmarks of tourist accommodation. To be sure, there is also plenty of glamping Chilean-style along the road – which is quite something, it means that these people have to take everything, food, water, drinks, probably a small generator and a fridge, because the nearest place to do shopping is literally hours away. The only sizable place between Antofagasta and Iquique is Tocopilla, halfway, which stole our hearts because of the golf course the have. Coastal road or not, we are still in the desert remember? No grass, only sand, but softer sand for bunkers, and harder sand for the greens. There are even people playing!
Where Antofagasta was, to be honest, pretty ugly, despite its few ‘pearls’, arrival into Iquique is a whole different experience. We approach from the coastal route, and enter the city along the boulevard, a wide four-lane affair with patches with green grass in between, palm trees, and lined with modern apartment buildings; a well-developed pedestrian zone is alive with many stalls selling food, many people enjoying a walk. It is five in the afternoon on a weekday, yet the beach is quite full. The Peninsula, a stretch pointing seaward, is jam-packed with hotels, fancy apartment buildings, trendy restaurants and bars. Iquique has an altogether more modern look, cosmopolitan even.
Like anything else in this part of Chile, the town grew to significance thanks to the saltpetre industry, for which is served as a port and trading centre. In fact, it became the saltpetre capital of the country – first Peru, and after the War of the Pacific Chile. And the traces are still there, in the form of a wonderful line of old wooden houses, just one street, built by the mining magnates at the end of the 19th Century. Mansions they were, often two stories high, with elegant galleries and balconies,. Quite a few have been restored, and are being used as restaurant or hotel.
Once again we meet up with family, who live here and receive us very hospitably. They also bring us into contact with a man who knows everything about Iquique, to the point that he even publishes a quarterly magazine, National Geographic-style. We spent a considerable time talking to him, no, listening to him, telling us about the saltpetre history of the region, the intrigues during that era, politically as well as familial – often interwoven. And about the geoglyphs that exist all around in the desert, he seems to know them all. We know what to do, the next couple of days! Which is going to be too short, anyhow.
next: the oficinas (the nitrate ghost towns)