Saltpeter. Do you know what it is? I didn’t, but the word sure did conjure up some awkward images. For most of us born after the Great Depression, we know saltpeter as potassium nitrate. Up until about the 1930s, saltpeter works were a booming industry in Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. The three countries were supplying most of the world with potassium nitrate to be used in fertilizers, rocket propellants, fireworks, and gunpowder.
In a Nutshell
Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works were two of about a dozen mining businesses in the deserts of South America. Humberstone was the more successful and bigger of the two. The majority of mines were located in the Atacama Desert where conditions were hot, dry and challenging. For a time, saltpeter accounted for well over half of Chile’s exports and about half of their fiscal revenue. Saltpeters were especially important to Chile, Peru and Bolivia and eventually the land holding the salt was the cause of the War of the Pacific.
The height of the saltpeter industry ran from the late 1800’s to about the mid-1900’s. The industry was substantially essential during this time because of the wars and conflicts and the need for fertilizer throughout the world. By the time WWI came around Chile’s export lines had started to dry up starting with the line being completed severed with Germany. Synthetic options became the alternative, and the industry took a nose dive because it was easier and cheaper to make substitutes.
After a few additional years of yo-yo sales, the mines never fully recovered and were eventually closed and abandoned. Humberstone and Santa Laura happened to be two locations next to each other, which seemed to weather the desert elements better than others. In 1970 the Chilean government declared both locations National Monuments and in 2005 UNESCO declared both World Heritage Sites.
Why it’s Worth the Visit
The lifestyle of the saltpeter works families is what makes the locations and the history of this industry relevant. Towns were built specifically to provide a more comfortable life for the mine workers. Houses, schools, entertainment buildings and social spaces were designed to supply a way of life similar or better than those in developed towns/cities. The towns were so small and new that it was easy for the individuals to come together and nurture a unique culture to fit their needs given their circumstances.
As a new community, they were able to create a working system together to give themselves most of the things they could ever need. They were able to integrate the remoteness and harshness of their location to their benefit.
Both sites have been restored and are interesting to visit. Humberstone is the bigger of the two, but I recommend making time for both because they are entirely different. I particularly liked discovering the décor in some of the houses and businesses. From door moldings to floor tiles to paint color the details made it easier to imagine what rooms may have looked like during their prime.
There are a few museum buildings near the entrance filled with titled items, antiques, letters, and photos. I preferred the random buildings full of deserted tools, equipment or furniture. Also, don’t neglect the Industrial Section because the train tracks and a couple of rusted train cars are available for viewing. This area also includes the chimney, which you can stand in at the bottom. Office buildings and lots of intriguing equipment and supplies are scattered through this section.
I recommend reading up on more of the history before you arrive. It helps to bring the place more to life during your visit. Take your time as you wander throughout the structures and town streets. Not all the buildings are available for entry, but a good number are open, so it shouldn’t be too disappointing. Do give yourself at least 3 hours (if you don’t want to rush think more 5 hours) roam around. We completely misjudged our time and ended up with only 2 hours to see both sites. We were so disappointed in our math failure because we missed a lot of details and were not able to soak up as much of the total experience as we wanted.
Tips and What to Bring:
- Go early! Shade is available all over the property, but it gets hot. The earlier you go, the fewer people and cooler temps.
- Use the Map. Tour the facility in sections and take your time.
- Plan for minimum 3 hours. If you are particularly fond of UNESCO sites, abandoned places or photography set aside an additional couple of hours.
- Take Breaks. Take Your Time. Notice the Little Things.
- Photography wise both locations are located on flat ground. Lighting and shadow play are pretty much the same but opposite before or after lunch.
- Light snacks, some food, and drink are available in the plaza area at Humberstone.
- Light snacks and beverages are usually available in the parking lot at Santa Laura.
- Credit Cards are accepted at the entrance, but in case the connections are down, have cash with you. An ATM is not available.
- Hat or Umbrella for sun protection
- Water and Snacks
- Extra Battery
Website: Museo Del Salitre
Price: $4,000CH/adult; $2,000/seniors,; $1,000CH/child
Hours: 9:00am to 7:00pm summer; 9:00 -6:00pm winter, spring, fall; Closed 1 January
How to get there: 45 km’s East of Iquique on the coast of Chile. Look in town for public buses headed to Pica (Chacón and Santa Angela). Not all buses stop at Humberstone. Make sure to ask the driver if he will stop. From the bus stop, it is about a 10-minute walk.
Designated vans from Iquique are also available to take visitors directly to Humberstone. Check with your hotel or a tour agent in town to register.
We rented a car and drove ourselves. Free parking is available at both Humberstone and Santa Laura.
4 to 5 Travelationship High Fives. For the traveler who likes – adventure, abandoned, historical, bucket lister, UNESCO, culture, heritage
If you liked it, Pin it!