Savannah Grace

The Atacama

Packpacking with Ammon and Sasha continues:

From Jujuy it was another overnight bus to San Pedro de Atacama, the most touristic and popular town in the north of Chile. We were woken up at the pass over the mountains where they have the border control at ~14000 feet. That gave us the opportunity to observe the salt flats, flamingos and beautiful desert scenery during our descent to San Pedro where we settled for the next 3 nights.

High altitude salt lagoons near the border

I’d have to say that overall I was disappointed with San Pedro and preferred the area around Tilcara much more. I thought they would be similar but the reality was quite shocking. Both lie around the same altitude but being on opposite sides of the Andes means San Pedro is much more dry and lifeless. Outside of town even cacti were scarce. Tilcara had a more laid-back and easy-going village vibe and was focused more on restaurants and hostels. San Pedro was all about tour agencies and business. Not that the people in San Pedro were pushy or rude, but San Pedro is considered a must-see in Chile and the go-to for the north of Chile, while the Humahuaca valley is more spread out and more doable on your own. Consequently, San Pedro is known as one of the more expensive spots in Chile (though the whole country is way more expensive in general anyway) while Tilcara was the opposite.
I have no doubt that the landscape and area around San Pedro is beautiful in that remote desert kind of way.  I love that stuff. But when a tour agency starts out by asking you where else you are traveling to and tells you that if you are planning to go to Bolivia or elsewhere in the area extensively then there is no real point in going on a tour in San Pedro, the phrase “tourist trap” starts to creep into your mind. It is now very much the high season for tourism here too so the town was packed with people. There is enough accommodation and space in town but when most of the tours go to the same “remote” location at the same time it will be disappointing. We were walking to the store in town just before the 4pm tour departure rush and the streets were so crowded we had to stop and wait for everyone to leave before we could continue. I think in that moment we all looked at each other and knew we weren’t going anywhere. Renting a car and doing it on your own would probably be a great option though. Another very popular activity is biking with many rental options and a couple sites within riding distance if you are fit and prepared.
As mentioned above, we were lucky enough to see some of the incredible scenery on our ride in over the Andes so instead of heading back up that way we spent an afternoon walking to the nearby ruins of the pukara. It is pre-Incan and similar to the one Tilcara, also climbing the side of a little hill for defense. Continuing up a larger hill behind the ruins afforded us some excellent views over the valley, the volcanic mountains and nearby rock formations.

The Pukara ruins.

Overlooking the valley of death


The descent into Iquique. The dune is as big as it looks
Baquedano street
Plaza Arturo Prat
Busy but cold beach.

Our one full day in the area was spent on a day trip to the nearby ghost town of Humberstone, a former saltpeter mining town that was abandoned in 1960. Saltpeter is mineral nitrates, which after mining and processing were historically used in both fertilizer and gunpowder. In the late 1800’s commercial saltpeter mining in the Atacama desert started to take off and by the early 1900’s there were dozens of mines scattered about the desert and Chile was supplying up to 80% of the world’s nitrates. So valuable were the deposits that in 1879 Chile, Peru and Bolivia fought a 4-year war over the area, with Chile the victor, gaining vast amounts of territory from the other two. The glory days were short lived however as German chemists eventually developed a synthetic way of producing nitrates and with the recession of the 1920’s, production steadily declined until most of the mines were shut down.
Today the former town of Humberstone is disintegrating away in the desert and easy to visit as an open museum site. It is really interesting because while a couple of former buildings have been restored and set up with museum objects from the era, most of the buildings by far are still abandoned and falling apart and open to wander through. One section of the town was the residential area, complete with a public square with fountains and gardens, a theatre, hotel, hospital, school, market and huge swimming pool. All this in the middle of a dry, lifeless desert clearly illustrating how profitable and important the industry was at the time. Housing was generally tiny and differed by rank and whether or not you had a family there with you. There were several streets to wander but the total population at its peak couldn’t have been much more than a couple thousand.

What’s left of residential Humberstone
The restored entrance part
 Most sections look more like this
Huge outdoor pool, with area for viewers
What’s left of the main plaza
The fancier part of town

On the other side of town was the industrial processing area. Here the workers processed the saltpeter that was mined nearby before sending it off to the coast for export. Nothing in that area was restored but you could still wander through and see workshops and processing buildings, old furnaces and trains. We were there longer than most visitors and covered everything pretty thoroughly in about 4 hours. A couple km away is the sister sight of Santa Laura but we started too late in the day and ran out of time to visit it as well 🙁

View of the industrial part of Humberstone
Distant Santa Laura that we didn’t have time for.


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