photo credit: www.descubrechile.cl
I have been staying in a hotel in Iquique for a while and my friend Claudio has returned to Arica, but not before introducing me to his aunt Anna-Maria and her large family. One of her daughters and I have travelled to the nearby Oasis of Pica for a very enjoyable weekend, it was my second visit, the first being on the journey from the Atacama Desert to the coastal city of Iquique in the Tarapacá Region of Chile. Pica is close enough to Iquique to have a local bus service, which we used and we enjoyed travelling with the local people, hearing their excited chatter and banter. Before we went to Pica I had been thinking about Arturo Prat and his brave men, fighting in the Bay of Iquique and I made a promise to myself that on my return to Iquique I would start at the port and take a trip around the harbour. On my return from the Oasis I find that I have forgotten just how noisy and chaotic the roads can be at times, the busy traffic includes some beaten up cars, which really doesn’t really surprise me, and some amazingly cheap black taxis. If my sums are correct, you can travel anywhere in the city for the equivalent of fifty pence. I make my way to the port, it is very busy and I spend some time taking in all the sights.
As I stand and stare I get talking to an elderly man who seems to be very knowledgeable on the subject of the Port. He proudly tells me that it is going to be the most important port in the South Pacific, allowing trade between Asia and South America. I hope that his proud prediction will come true. We have a couple of Pisco Sours at a nearby bar and I learn many things from this friendly gentleman. It is a very important port and was greatly improved in 1930 with an 864-metre long shelter levee and a 330-metre by 100-metre long mooring jetty. This followed the saltpetre crisis and was helpful in the recovery of the economy through the fishing industry. The Ports of Iquique and Antofagasta are centres for the fishing fleet. Some examples of their catch are anchovies, crab, conger eels, shrimps, swordfish and tuna. A very healthy diet can be enjoyed here. Also important for the economy was the creation of the Port’s Freezone with special customs and excise regulations that boost trade. Seventy per cent of cargo is shipped in containers. I watch the cranes moving them from where they are piled high on the jetty onto the container ships as he speaks. He has business to attend to and as he leaves me he recommends that I visit the Zona Franca shopping mall, which I will surely do. But before I do I stand for a while and take in the sight of the sea reflecting the blue of the sky, the cranes dwarfing the red lighthouse and behind the port the backdrop of the brown and arid mountains, reassuringly protective as ever. Briefly I watch a large cruise-ship, pristine and majestic in the sunshine, as it passes behind the fishing boats bobbing in the swell. It seems to have half a dozen decks and I wonder just how many people could be travelling in that floating city. I also wonder where they have come from and where they are going. Now I will go into The Zofri Zona Franca which is very large and colourful with a tent-like awning protecting the entrance from the wind, which seems quite strong.
The Zofri is a very large shopping mall, it is impressive and seems to be very popular, judging by the number of people that are here today. I get into conversation with a couple of ladies on a shopping spree. They excitedly tell me that they have travelled a long way to avail themselves of tax-free shopping. Also they mention that the Zofri has an area of 30,000 square metres and more than 400 shops and stores on two floors. I find it quite an exciting afternoon spent wandering in and out of the many small units and seeing such a variety of goods for sale. Feeling tired out, I am only too happy to make my way to my hotel by the sea. I will probably spend some time in the pool before I have my meal and an early night with a good book. On waking I remember that today is the day that I will be enjoying a boat trip around the harbour. Once on the boat I find the water is still and calm and the weather is fine, we pass a buoy painted in red, white and blue with a Chilean flag flying from it. It marks the place where the corvette Esmeralda sank on the 21st of May 1879.
My imagination runs riot and I can practically see the wooden warships with rigging on fire and hear the deafening sound of the cannons and the hubbub of men shouting. I can imagine the men’s fear as the fire takes hold. Choking on the smell of the cordite, with ears ringing to the sound of the cannons and agonisingly painful knees due to the cannons re-coil. Then certain death as the ship sunk after a four-hour naval battle and oblivion for over one hundred men and boys.
While in a reflective mood, I glance across the bay and imagine scores of large sailing ships carrying the saltpetre for exporting around the world. Bringing my thoughts from the nineteenth century to the present day I can see the container ships carrying their heavy burdens and the fishing boats doing a grand job keeping the fishing industry going, thereby feeding the nation and helping the economy. Reflecting on my time in the harbour of Iquique, my overall view is just how busy it is and also it must be quite deep to accommodate the cruise ships. It gives work to many people and feeds people at home and abroad while still allowing the pelicans and seals to feed off the fish spared from the nets. Pelicans have large webbed feet and are very swift swimmers. Their wingspan is two to three meters and as I watch their graceful flight I am aware of just how strong they must be to look so graceful given their size. As the boat passes close to the shore I can see a colony of these birds, their nests built of earth, gravel and sand with twigs on top. A fellow traveller informs me that the enormous elastic pouch attached to the Pelican bills can hold up to eleven litres of water and is used as a scoop to catch small fish which they swallow. The young are well fed by putting their heads into their mother’s pouch and feeding on partly digested food which travels from the mother’s stomach back to her pouch. What a lovely sight! I am impressed to see the seals swimming like torpedos with their sleek, wet coats caught in the sunlight. They feed on marine animals, they grasp and tear most prey with their sharp, pointed teeth, but they swallow the small fish whole. I wonder if they have any taste buds? Later, as I sit in the hotel lounge contemplating my visit to the Humberstone and Santa Laura ghost towns in the Atacama Desert planned for the following day, I get into conversation with a couple who seem to know quite a lot of interesting facts on the subject. In fact so interesting that I invite them to accompany me in my hired jeep the following day. Some of these things I had discussed with Claudio while driving through the desert earlier on.
When these mines were opened in the 19th century there were some 170 nitrate-mining towns in the Atacama Desert producing 3,000,000 tons of saltpetre annually. At this time the working conditions were fairly primitive and sound very dangerous. A hole was dug through the hard crust of the earth into the nitrate strata, possibly to a depth of ten feet, and then a worker climbed down the hole and stuffed a sack of explosives under the strata. Another worker lit the fuse; the explosion broke the strata into blocks covering the workers in dust. The blocks or chalice were loaded into carts and pulled to the factory by mules, where they were ground into a salt. The salt was emptied into boiling tanks to be liquefied, then purified, dried and sacked. Tamarugal Forests were cut down to supply the mines with fuel for the ovens and tanks, thus allowing the desert to spread. A few Tamarugo trees remain standing at Humberstone, I will have to watch out for them tomorrow. During the sixty years that the mines were working thousands of Pampinos (men of the desert) lived together in this hostile environment, producing nitrates. These Pampinos brought an economic wealth to Chile, the fertilizer that they mined enriched the soil of many foreign lands. The following morning my two new friends and I are in a jeep, heading eastwards to the arid pampas, a journey of about 48 kilometres, which will probably be a two-hour journey. We are planning to visit Humberstone and Santa Laura, the two mining towns that have been preserved to show us the conditions that the miners lived and worked in. These UNESCO World Heritage Sites are only one mile apart, making our trip easier. It is not possible to visit another nearby mine at Chacabuco because it was used as a concentration camp in the past and is surrounded by lost land mines. I am keen to see for myself the conditions that these workers and their families lived in. There were thousands of Pampinos from Chile, Peru, and Bolivia working for companies in the Atacama Desert.
On arriving at these remote ghost towns in the arid desert in the heat of the day, under the harsh sun I feel immediately sorry for the men who laboured in these exhausting conditions. As we walk through the dusty town, built on a grid system, we can see the single storey buildings, some of which are still standing. A quick look inside the individual worker’s quarters reveals a cell-like room resembling a prison cell. As I look up at the Santa Laura plant I can see in my mind the emissions pouring from the tall chimney and almost feel the heat and stinging in my eyes. We all find the museum very informative and agree that it gives us an insight into the life here. Although the theatre looks grim from the outside, as we enter and see how well it has been restored it is easy to see that some people had escaped briefly from the harshness of their daily lives, to be lost momentarily in a world of entertainment and pleasure. Other facilities that provided leisure-time activities were tennis and basketball courts and a swimming pool. We are all pleased to see these things and intrigued to hear that the pool was constructed from the cast-iron wreck of a ship found in the port of Iquique. Before we leave this emotive site we enter the restored church and offer up prayers for the souls of the departed, who worked so hard under such difficult conditions and fought so hard for better pay and conditions for those that followed on. In 1907 a meeting outside Santa Maria school resulted in many deaths and a large number of wounded. The strikers left the mines to protest outside the school, production was affected which in turn affected the port. The government sent the military in to order the strikers back to work, the strikers refused to leave town when ordered to do so and the military opened fire on them. More recently Louis Advis and his folk music group Quilapayún to perform an oratorio based on the tragedy. It is time now to lighten the mood and cool down so we collect a picnic from the hotel and drive to Playa Buque Parado. It is low tide and there are pools large enough to bathe in which we do and immediately feel refreshed and start to feel hungry at the thought of our picnic. Later on we will head for one of the many bars in the city and make plans for the next few days in Iquique and also my onward journey.
Soon I will be searching for silver and other metals as I leave the Norte Grande and head for Norte Chico. I will be finding beautiful and different scenery as I travel into a region that is new to me and I wonder whether there will be a gradual change in the weather as I make my way slowly in a southerly direction. I will soon find out.