The Atacama Desert is an amazing place - renowned as the driest place on earth it conjures up images of a desolate barren wilderness. Which, of course much of it is, but it is also a land of great natural beauty and fascinating human history. One such period of its colourful history was the nitrates boom, which resulted in the British ghost towns, that still stand, arrogantly Victorian in uninhabited parts of the desert where it never rains.
Nitrates first began to be commercially exploited in the 1860 when the Atacama Desert belonged to Peru and Bolivia. However, in 1878 a dispute between Chile and Bolivia over export licences resulted in Chile sending troops to the region to protect her interests. War broke out with Peru joining in on the side of Bolivia. The result of the ensuing five year war was that Chile remained in possession of the Atacama and its nitrates.
Nitrates were in much demand in Europe and North America as the raw material for fertilisers and the production of explosives. After the war British companies poured capital in to the Chilean nitrates industry and took control of nearly all nitrate production. During this boom period towns sprang up around the nitrate plants.
The best preserved of these towns is Humberstone, built in 1862 and named after a later owner, James Humberstone. It is located inland from the city of Iquique in an area known as the Pampa – a plateau between the costal mountains and the Andes. Humberstone, like the other nitrate towns, is a ghost town.
The invention of a synthetic method for producing ammonium nitrate killed the booming business off as quickly as it had sprung up. Walking through the deserted streets of Humberstone you get the sense that its inhabitants fled a great natural disaster. Everything is as it was then, just aged by the harsh sun and cold nights. There is a church, a theatre, the humble dwellings of the workers, the grand houses of the managers and the processing plant. The only sound is the dry desert wind blowing through the long since empty streets relentlessly returning this Victorian relic to desert.
Andrew Chaundler worked and travelled in South America for many years before setting up Optimundo, a travel company that specialises in holidays in Chile and holidays in Argentina that have been designed with expert knowledge of the region. See our website to find out about our tailor-made travel services.