The Salitre Route: Visiting the Ghosts of the Atacama Desert
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, close to 200 settlements operated in northern Chile alongside the saltpeter deposits, the mining of which brought much prosperity to Chile. Known as "oficinas salitreras," these mini cities brought life to the inhospitable Atacama Desert.
Several agencies offer tours through seven different circuits that include over 200 saltpeter offices and their railway museums, cemeteries and industrial works. Some include local archeological sites as well as desert oases. Each place has its own history and legends that you can relive as you wander their unpaved streets.
Close to Iquique
, the most notable saltpeter offices are Humberstone
and Santa Laura, both of which have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites
. The former will surprise you with its theater, social club, hospital and school, while the latter impresses with its saltpeter plant tower.
If you depart from Antofagasta, you can visit the offices of Chacabuco
, Pedro de Valdivia
and María Elena
. The first is now a cultural center where concerts and other events are held. In María Elena there is a museum that displays the history of the saltpeter era.
If you visit these old saltpeter offices, you'll get to know the history of Chile's northern regions, and you may even wind up talking to the ghosts that live in their streets, halls, schools and hospitals. This is a journey to a past of splendor and suffering that is characteristic of the mining activity of northern Chile.