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Destination Details

Iquique, Chile

 

Humberstone: enigmatic ghost town and UNESCO heritage gem
Wander the streets of the once-grand saltpeter plant and you’ll come face to face with a unique desert culture – and a fascinating period in South American history.
In 1872, with the nitrate boom gathering speed, the Peruvian Nitrate Company founded Humberstone Saltpeter Works in the dry desert altiplano near Iquique, northern Chile. It was destined to become one of the largest factory towns of its time.
 
In the time when saltpeter was known as “white gold", Humberstone grew fast and became a busy community with lovely English-style buildings, plus its own movie theater and swimming pool.
 
This all changed in the Great Depression of 1929, when the economic fortunes of saltpeter fell and the region’s plants spiraled towards bankruptcy. In 1960, Humberstone was finally abandoned and became the ghost town it is today.
 
Humberstone has been a Chilean National Monument since 1970, and in 2005 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
 
UNESCO highlights Humberstone’s cultural richness, springing from the thousands of workers who lived on the arid desert highlands.
 
“They forged a distinctive communal pampinos [plains] culture,” says UNESCO’s website, “manifest in their rich language, creativity, solidarity, and, above all, in their pioneering struggle for social justice, which had a profound impact on social history.”
Top sights include the town square and beautiful Municipal Theater, where Mexican movies were premiered and traditional Spanish zarzuelas, or operettas, were held. There is a cafeteria where you can buy souvenirs, but the best way to experience this unique place is to grab your camera and take in the history while wandering the deserted streets.
 

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