Day 14 |
Oct 26, 2010

Iquique, Chile

By Brigitte Fugger, ornithologist

Midday position: 20° 12’ S, 070° 09’ W
Weather: overcast in the morning, sunny for the rest of the day
Air Temperature: 18 °C
Sea Temperature: 15 °C
Wind: SW 5-7 knots
Much to the dismay of our Captain it took the pilot a while to get out of bed and on board – and so we sailed into the port of Iquique with just a little delay. This, however, did not upset our schedule. Inca terns were greeting us when we arrived at our berth, and one or another South American Sea Lions were spotted in the harbor. But I really missed the large and so very colorful Peruvian Pelicans that had been so abundant in the Peruvian ports.
Iquique is a port seldom featured on cruise itineraries, an urban oasis full of charm, surrounded by the arid and barren Atacama Desert. It is still a bit overcast and hazy, but we can easily make out massive sand dunes in the distance, the imposing mountain chain of the Sierra de la Costa and - the two modern double-decker tour buses waiting for us on the pier. As I did not accompany the coach tour this time, I’m now referring to the notes that Claire Allum, our onboard archeologist, has put together for me so kindly:
“Humberstone, an abandoned saltpetre mine and mining community was a 30-minute drive from the city centre of Iquique. Saltpetre - or caliche as the Spanish call it - was first mined here in 1862. The first saltpetre processing plant was built in 1872 and named Humberstone in 1934. Because of the settlement’s location in the middle of the desert, the company had to provide everything for its worker residents. Abandoned in 1960 - and recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site - all the community buildings still stand and there is an eerie feel to the town as if all the residents might return at any moment. The central square still has trees, a garden and a clock tower, although the clock has stopped. Dusty school desks await children in the school and the theatre’s heavy curtain is open awaiting a movie showing. Other highlights were old steam locomotives imported from England and the metal swimming pool made from emptied saltpetre train containers.

On the return to the city, we again passed the huge Dragon’s Tail Sand Dune that sits in the southern portion of the city. People were parasailing there and I wondered if some of them were expedition staff as Juan Restrepo had made arrangements for them to fly that morning. After a tour of the city’s beaches, we visited the restored Renaissance-style Municipal Theatre and the Centro Español of the resident Spanish community, which features Moorish architecture and a series of large oil paintings depicting scenes from Don Quixote. Here we were invited to try some empanadas plus one or two rather hefty pisco sours before returning to the ship for a late lunch.”

While most of our guests were touring Humberstone, I took the shuttle bus to have a brief look around town. I was dropped up at the Placa Prat, the main square, where colorful Victorian buildings and the famous clock tower stand proudly against the dry desert backdrop. But it was only 09.00 o’clock and thus a bit early for South America, and the city was not quite awake. The birds however were. Unfortunately, introduced House Sparrows and Pigeons have displaced the Rufus-collared Sparrows and other native birds in this town. 

Punctually at 01.30 we sailed away from Iquique and only half an hour later, our onboard botanist Hans-Peter Reinthaler started his talk entitled: “Dry, Drier, Driest – the Atacama Desert.” In this lecture Hans-Peter painted a vivid picture of the different habitats and of the flora of Chile in general – zooming in on its driest region – the Atacama, the driest desert in the world. And we all marveled at the plants that manage to survive under these extreme conditions.

Later in the afternoon it was Juan Restrepo’s turn with his lecture: “It’s Alive – Volcanology 101.” This time Juan talked about composite volcanoes, shield volcanoes and cinder cones and why they are what they are. We learned about the largest eruptions on our earth – and that the highest volcano of all stands on our neighboring planet Mars.
St 18.45 it was time again for our infamous Recap & Briefing – this time with contributions of Aiello, Hans-Peter, Claire and of course Robin – who right away started with pulling our leg: “Ladies and Gentlemen”, he said, “a guest lost his wallet in Iquique that fortunately has been located - and we are now turning back to pick it up….” After a moment of doubt we took it for what it was – an invitation to tonight’s Liars Club!
And indeed, at 22.00 hours, almost all guests had assembled in the Panorama Lounge – and the team consisting of Robin, Jarda, Juan and myself as liars, Daniil as scorekeeper and Aiello as talk master hosting the show. Most guests did not expect us to always tell the truth so well – which of course we did! Or did I lie about this?????